Safety in Numbers: Volunteers Help Protect Palestinian Herders and Farmers

ZANUTA, West Bank – A retired Catholic teacher looked over her shoulder at the ridge where, moments earlier, three Israeli settlers had stood.

They were gone, and the two Palestinian shepherds she and four others were accompanying moved their herd of goats further along the still green field of the valley outside this small village in the southern hills of Israel. Hebron.

“I would like to think that our presence here has something to do with the fact that the settlers have not come down,” said Sue, from North Wales, who was among the first internationals to return, after the pandemic. , as the ecumenical accompanist of the World Council. of the ecumenical accompaniment program for the churches in Palestine and Israel.

Like some other attendants, she asked that her full name not be used or that her face be photographed. The media noted that Israeli security forces photographed internationals accompanying Palestinians in the hills of southern Hebron.

More than likely, their presence prevented the settlers from confronting the Palestinians, said an activist leader of the grassroots Israeli voluntary organization Ta’ayush, which accompanies Palestinian farmers in the southern Hebron Hills and the Valley of the Jordan.

Yasmin Eran-Vardi, 21, and Itai Feitelson, 26, two Israeli activists, have accompanied the shepherds throughout the pandemic. One day, when no international escort was present, settlers attacked the two Israelis.

Amin Milhem, 35, one of the two shepherds, said the settler outpost above his fields was built last year in the absence of almost all human rights activists. Settlers also took over a water well that Palestinians used to water their flocks, he said, and now herders cannot reach the water.

“For a year we haven’t been able to go,” he said.

For almost three years during the pandemic, internationals were unable to participate in the chaperone program. When the call went out for volunteers to be part of the support team re-launching the program, Sue, who had been part of the program several years earlier, knew she had to join.

“There was no doubt that this was where I needed to be and what I needed to do,” she said. It is the nonviolent presence to support the most vulnerable aspect of the program that helps her live her faith and the principles she taught about peace, justice and human rights, he said. she declared.

“We are a non-violent witness. It’s not about Israeli-Palestinian, it’s about international law and human rights. I wouldn’t automatically support someone because they are Palestinian, but in most of the situations I witness here, there is a group that is oppressed.

The World Council of Churches established the Companions program in 2002 following a call from local church leaders to create an international presence in the country. Monitors aim to provide a protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitoring and reporting human rights abuses. They work in collaboration with Palestinian and Israeli partners, in particular by accompanying farmers and schoolchildren who face their daily activities sometimes under duress.

Sue said her role was to witness and report incidents of confrontation or violence.

“We can highlight these things, testify and write this information and make sure it is reported. We take photos from a safe distance and send our incident reports to the UK government, the UN and the Red Cross,” Sue said.

In the absence of an international presence, Israeli human rights groups have tried to maintain a presence in the southern Hebron hills, which have become one of the main points of confrontation between the Palestinian shepherds and Israeli settlers, who activists say are often tacitly supported by soldiers. Over the past few years, the settlers have developed a new strategy, and now, instead of building illegal hilltop outposts or waiting for government-approved settlements to be built, they have begun to establish their own goat ranches, allowing their herds to roam along vast stretches of land. , grazing on Palestinian fields meant to support Palestinian herds during the dry summer months, making it easier to take possession of the land.

This is particularly problematic today, as the Russian war in Ukraine has raised the price of imported grain and wheat, preventing herdsmen from buying more food for their animals, which are their main source of income.

Violent clashes between settlers and Palestinians earlier this year led to the death of an elderly Palestinian farmer who was run over by a bulldozer, and many injured among dozens of Israeli volunteer attendants, including rabbis and elderly people .

“It’s like the edge of the world where no one is watching what’s going on,” said Théodore, 71, a German guide, who noted the presence of the volunteers. However, he added, “There is no place that God does not see.”

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