Our visit with CPT to Umm al Kher was a truly enriching experience. A small village in South Hebron Hills, it takes about 30 minutes to arrive at Umm al Kher from downtown al Khalil/Hebron. Upon entering the village, Tariq greeted us very warmly, and he soon sat us down in the main living room tent. The second you enter, though, you immediately notice a fence just a couple of meters away and the drastic difference on the other side of the fence.
After the introductions, Tariq got into what we came here to learn about, the situation and the personal history of the Palestinian refugees from 1948. A major character we learned about personally from Tariq was his uncle Sulaiman, a very famous and loved man not only by Palestinians but by Israeli and international activists as well. Sitting down in this cozy but ragged Bedouin tent we listened to the personality and the actions of his uncle.
Sulaiman was a lifelong activist who stood boldly for his village of Umm al Kher and the other villages of Masafer Yatta as part of the larger struggle for a free Palestine. Admiring his tenacity, we were unprepared for the brutal ending of this great man’s life. Watching Tariq as he explained the horrifying treatment of his uncle was something that was hard to forget.
The roads in South Hebron Hills are very narrow and there isn’t room for more than one car to drive at a time, so you can understand that there might be room for accidents to ensue. Many events occurred leading up to his death, but I will signify the cause of it all. As a military vehicle entered the village, Sulaiman stood in the middle of the road in protest. In most cases, if a driver were to see another person on the road, it would be common sense to slow down and stop the truck. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with Sulaiman. This Israeli driver sped up with the explicit intention of brutally murdering this elderly man. Are Palestinians simply bugs meant to be squashed, without a single thought or prayer for them? This seems to be the notion that is being enacted by the occupation.
Back in the tent, we sat with our cups of tea, I kept looking at the other side of the fence as it was hard not to be disturbed by the sight. The drastic contrast in living conditions was most shocking; the illegal Israeli settlement is much more modern and chic and looks almost surreal to be placed in the South Hebron Hills. The vehicles, the roads, and even the backyards are reminiscent of high-class suburbs which are reserved for Israeli settlers, while the Palestinian refugees on this side of the fence have very few amenities. Why the disparity? If Umm Al-Kher was to gather some amenities for themselves and attempt to build, the project would soon be demolished because of a rule that the Israeli government created. A master plan is given to certain Palestinian communities to build as they please without worrying about demolition from the Israeli army, but unfortunely for communities like Umm al Kher, there is no point in investing in proper structures as they’ll eventually be demolished. Every action seems to be a trap for these communities as there is always a risk of having your home demolished for absolutely no reason on a simple whim of the Israeli Civil Administration.
The residents of Umm al Kher seem to never give in to despair; one could say it’s because of their strong faith in Islam. Throughout the day, the community would all pray together—from the little kids to the elders—during prayer times. Even while walking with some of the adults, they told us of their strong belief that they have no control over the actions of the Israeli occupation, but they leave it to God to judge. Having a strong faith and religion really helps push people towards hope even when there doesn’t seem to be any. Especially for the community of Um al Kher after having suffered the loss of Sulaiman, the ongoing demolition orders, and the inability to shepherd their flocks without the fear of being attacked.
Coming from an Islamic background, it was easy for me to resonate with the community of Umm al Kher. Back home, if you experience a difficult situation you’re somehow able to cope because you believe that it is in God’s hands now. But can you imagine waking up every day and just a few meters away from you are the people who have taken and stepped all over your rights? Free to use the land as they please while you cannot? And still, holding onto a strong faith in Islam. It was inspiring and makes you appreciate that however bad it can get, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.