In the Footsteps of Jesus: An Eyewitness Account

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By Chelli Stanley

My first visit to the south Hebron hills seems to have come at exactly the right time. The cold rains have started to decrease and the hills are covered in shades of green. Here, a 10 mile walk up and down the hills is not exercise, it is only pleasure. The first time I walked on these hills, I was almost certain I dreamed of this place before I saw it.

Because this is Palestine, the hills are also marked by the violence of this place. Tire, tractor and tank tracks weave throughout Palestinian farmers' fields. Stray M-16 bullets can be found along the dirt paths. Demolished houses, recently abandoned villages, and poisoned wells will inevitably been seen. Pointing to the hills, one Palestinian shepherd described the beauty of this land and ended by saying "If there were no settlers this would be paradise."

Settler outposts dot the hilltops for miles and the violence they have inflicted is stupefying. Two weeks ago, settlers came to village of Imfakkra, where they beat some sheep and stole others, before putting a belt around the neck of a 16-year-old, threatening to kill him.

The residents of Jinba, few that remain, live in caves. Their problems are multifaceted. Though 20 years ago the village held 2000 residents, two stores, and a mosque, all that remains today are about 150 people living in caves. Is that newsworthy? About two weeks ago the residents received a warning from the Israeli Reclamation Committee informing them that their fields would be sprayed and destroyed. The Israeli army also uses this land for training purposes, so these residents bear the brunt of noise emanating from tanks, shooting, and warplanes. Nearby settlers also continue to harass the villagers.

The children of Tuba must be escorted to school by the Israeli army every day. Their walk to At-Tuwani passes by the settler outpost of Havot Maon and, amazing enough, some of the settlers enjoyed harassing and assaulting these children as they passed by. Only after three volunteers from Operation Dove and the Christian Peacemaker Teams were seriously attacked by groups of masked settlers as they escorted the children to school, did the Israeli army finally get involved.

Yesterday, I met some of these settlers. Two other Operation Dove volunteers and I were escorting three shepherds from Jawaia to a pasture which is close to the main settler road. Across this street is the settlement of Maon. There are no rules for this area, no laws to guide. No boundaries to inform. Rather, whenever the shepherds enter an area the settlers find disagreeable, they are threatened and chased away.

The people of Jawaia live in a tiny village consisting of only four houses and a few tents. Nearly everything in their village has a demolition order, including their tents and well. And their village is exactly in the proposed path of Israel's Security Wall. Thus, you can imagine their apprehension as they neared the main street.

Shortly after we arrived, four settlers appeared within minutes of each other to chase the shepherds, screaming and throwing stones. They were unmasked young men. Three of the settlers had automatic rifles and one carried rocks. The shepherds had no weapons.

The shepherds fled immediately but the settlers kept up the pursuit, chasing them almost back to Jawai, far from the main road. One shepherd fell as he was running and sprained his ankle.

One settler was particularly aggressive and at one point he turned around and, with rock in hand, acted like he was going to hit me in the face. He stopped inches away from my face. Later, he threatened me and the other female volunteer, saying "In five minutes I come back with a gun and kill and you and you. Boom! Boom!" He gestured with his hand and pointed at each of us. Because of history in the area, this was important for us to hear. Luckily I had caught it on tape.

When the Israeli army and police finally arrived, they only became seriously concerned after we told them about the threat. When told about what happened to the shepherds, they replied that it was important to hear whose land it was. Throughout the day we were told that the settlers didn't actually threaten the shepherds. They might have guns, but doesn't mean anything. They always have guns. They threw stones, but they didn't actually hit anyone.

In fact, without the videotape I'm not sure the police would have believed us at all. At one point a police officer said that the other volunteer shouldn't file a report because it's not absolutely verifiable that the settler was speaking to her when he threatened us. She could not be seen on the tape at that exact moment and thus, there was uncertainty.

Perhaps there will be a serious investigation into this event. But while the reaction of the police and army may make me feel somewhat safe, it gives me absolutely no reassurance about the safety of Palestinians in the area. Before I came here, I was adamant that I would not play a part in perpetuating the now-assumed truth that "when it happens to an international, it's newsworthy, when it happens to a Palestinian, who cares." Palestinians have no protection here and it's incredibly difficult for me to think of ways to transfer my "power" to them. It's hard to find holes in this set-up. If no one values your life, how could you be safe? And how can you force people to value your life?

Twenty-three-year-old American Chelli Stanley, currently reporting from Palestine, is a freelance correspondent for The March For Justice.