It’s four and a half years since I last worked in the south Hebron hills village of Tuwani and so I was glad to go there yesterday for an overnight stay. There have been a lot of changes since my last stint there with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Of course, babies have been born, children have grown up, young people have married, and adults have aged.
There have been some positive changes for the village. The village received a master plan some years ago from the Israeli authorities and so villagers are able to build and extend homes within the boundaries it specifies.
This is crucial, because without such a master plan, and without planning permission (which the Israeli authorities virtually never give), any new house or house extension would be at risk of demolition, since Tuwani is in Area C, where the Israeli authorities have full military and civilian control. The villagers have built new houses and extended and upgraded existing houses. The population of the village has almost doubled in the last ten years or so.
The school now has an additional floor and is safe from demolition (with which the Israeli authorities threatened it as soon as it was first built.) So now the village school is able to take pupils from the beginning of primary school right through to the end of secondary school. The village’s clinic is also safe from demolition.
When I lived in the village there was no mains electricity. Indeed, on the last day I served there I watched as the Israeli military pulled down a newly-erected pylon. Now there is mains electricity, which the villagers attribute partly to Tony Blair’s visit to Tuwani in 2009, during which he described electricity as a human right.
Similarly, previously there was no mains water. The situation was extremely difficult. The villagers, often the older children, had to haul water bucket by bucket from the well, and the water level became very low when there was little rainfall. Families also have rainwater harvesting cisterns, but these too ran low, especially when there was no rainfall and there were animals to water. Sometimes villagers had to buy water by the container load, and that was extremely expensive. The community had been campaigning for years, and this was supported by a letter writing campaign by ACRI (Association for Civil Rights in Israel.) A few years ago this campaigning bore fruit and the Israeli authorities gave permission for the village to connect to the mains water system, on condition that the villagers allowed Israeli archaeologists to excavate along the main street of the village. They agreed to this, with some misgivings, for fear that the archaeologists would claim that remains they found were evidence of an earlier Jewish habitation or place of worship. There is still some concern about this, as on a couple of occasions settlers have come to worship at the site. But, up to now, the village seems safe, and the water flows freely.
As one young man said to me, ‘Tuwani is a city now, Miriam: electricity, water . . .’
But Tuwani is not the only place that is growing. So is Ma’on, the illegal Israeli settlement up the hill, established in 1981 on the Palestinian villagers’ land. Early in 2004 the settlers took more village land to establish an orchard in the wadi between the settlement and Tuwani. Some years ago they installed polytunnels on more village land below the outpost of Havat Ma’on (illegal under Israeli law too) and houses and caravans gradually crept down the hillside, taking more and more land.
But this morning, as we went to meet the children from Tuba and Mighaer al Abiid making their way to school in Tuwani, I was shocked to see the further encroachment.
Below Ma’on the settlers have built a new road and fence, taking more land. There is a marked difference between the road surface of the new road for settlers and the old track that the schoolchildren have to walk along, sometimes stumbling, on their way to and from school.
But that is not all. In the last few years the settlers have doubled the area of the polytunnels.
Below the polytunnels they have planted another large orchard, which extends up the hill beside the polytunnels towards Havat Ma’on. Nine years ago I accompanied a Palestinian shepherd grazing her sheep on her land on that very spot; that land is now lost to that family.
Sometimes we see in our media reports of settlement expansion, with x number of new units planned or built. But we don’t hear about the kind of thing that is happening by Tuwani: the building of a new road, the installation of a new fence, the installation of polytunnels, the planting of trees. And yet, in Tuwani, these changes are gradually leading to the loss of the village’s land, resources, employment opportunities and income. It is because of the villagers’ sumud (steadfastness) that they are not leading to the departure of the villagers and the loss of the village altogether.
The people of Tuwani are committed to non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and its effect on their village. This commitment has been maintained in the face of tremendous provocation and has led to them being subject to arrests and assaults. The leader of popular resistance in the village told me once, ‘Non-violence is like a tree. It needs to be watered.’ The people of Tuwani need that kind of water even more than the water that now flows from their taps.