Before delving into the account of our day spent in Masafer Yatta, also known as the South Hebron Hills, it’s essential to grasp the current political context in which Palestine finds itself. Following the Oslo Agreement of 1993, the Palestinian territory was divided into three distinct areas: A, B, and C. Area A is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), barring Israeli entry. Area B is jointly administered by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities. In contrast, Area C falls under the jurisdiction of Israeli occupation forces, prohibiting Palestinian access. Particularly noteworthy is the situation in al Khalil/Hebron, where, following the tragic Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, the city—technically part of Area A—was partitioned into two zones: H1, under Palestinian jurisdiction, and H2, overseen by Israeli occupation forces.
With this understanding, we can now discuss CPT-Palestine’s day in the villages of the southern Hebron hills. These territories make up an area called Masafer Yatta, situated within Area C, an area presumably designated solely for Israeli residents. However, the reality is that numerous Palestinian families have resided there for generations, long before the establishment of the Oslo Accords. Their rightful claim to the land is steadfast, and they have no intention of relinquishing it. Over the past 40 years, Israeli authorities are forcing them to change their habits and directly or indirectly displacing them. Settlers who occupy the lands in the surroundings provoke and attack these communities regularly. Once, settlers poisoned the seed used by Palestinians to feed their animals, causing several sheep to die. They also had to stop using the milk from the rest of the sheep, which they both consumed and sold for supplementary income. Settlers also started to encroach on Palestinian land with their flocks of sheep, claiming, “Wherever my sheep go, I can go.” This led to more restrictions from the Israeli military as they provided security for settlers. Yet, armed only with unwavering determination, these Palestinian families have endured, refusing to surrender their lands to the invaders.
Our journey commenced in at-Tuwani village, where we made a short visit to Operation Dove. This group monitors the daily Israeli military escort that accompanies Palestinian children from the villages to schools. They also support farmers and shepherds tending their lands adjacent to settlements and outposts. Their efforts include documenting and condemning the ceaseless array of checkpoints, arrests, military exercises, and demolitions that plague the area.
Our second stop brought us to al-Mufagara village. We met with a family who shared their village’s history and recounted their personal experiences of living in caves. Mohammed told us that in the South Hebron Hills area, people mostly renovate caves to live in, keeping the other land to grow crops so their sheep can consume more of the grass and wheat. However, as the community grew, they needed to build new structures like a school and a shelter for their sheep from the rain. Caves take about four months to build so the community was also looking for an easier and more efficient option to build structures.
But the Israeli army, with the help of other settler organizations like Regavim, ensures that little to no development happens in the area by issuing demolishing orders. “By making sure the people here cannot create the necessary facilities to live and support them, like water wheels, a generator, and hospitals, it forces people to leave,” said Mohammad.
Lema Nazeeh, a Palestinian activist who has been visiting Masafer Yatta for 15 years also took part in the conversation. “Once, as I witnessed the Israeli army demolishing a house of a family, I noticed that the couple who had lived there were dancing,” she remembered. “I was shocked. When I asked why they were dancing, they said that their home has been demolished before, and the Israeli military might do it again, so all that they can do is to rebuild it and remain here.” The eagerness of this family to share their story with the world speaks volumes about their resilience and determination; people are connected to their lands, they were born and raised here, they have every right to live their lives in peace and they have documents proving their ownership of the land.
The third and final stop was at Khallet al Dabe’ village, not far from Mufagara. Here, 12 families are constructing caves in response to demolitions imposed by invaders. We were honoured to assist them in their rock-digging endeavour. The community informed us that constructing a cave typically takes three to four months, and the absence of vehicles and adequate tools only compounds the difficulties they face.
The conditions under which Palestinians must persist on their own land are truly astounding. Their struggle against the relentless expansion of settlements within their vicinity is waged with limited resources, yet their courage and dignity remain unwavering. The unyielding pride they exhibit in safeguarding their heritage is profoundly inspiring.