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Convoy Breaks Through To South Hebron Mountains

Two organizers were arrested seconds after march began, but members of Ta'ayush -- Arab Jewish Partnership -- kept breaking the police line. Some 250 activists marched in rows, arms hooked together. Settler interference, harsh blows from the police, kicking and shoving did not impede the group that had come to deliver blankets and demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian residents of the South Hebron area

Neve Gordon

11 Jan. 2002

It all started several hours earlier. Ta’ayush activists alongside members from Rabbis for Human Rights and the Committee Against House Demolitions drove from Tel Aviv, Kafr Qasim, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ein Nakuba and other cities and towns across Israel to a junction near Beer-Sheva. After a short briefing, the convoy of 57 cars and a small truck carrying blankets and plastic coverings for large tents, set out

towards Mufakra, a hamlet located in the South Hebron hills.

The group wanted to support the Palestinians who have been struggling against the premeditated and coordinated plan of the Israeli government, military, civil administration, and Jewish settlers to make the South Hebron area “Arab Free.” This plan includes repeated expulsions of local residents from their land, destruction of houses, tents, and caves, sealing water wells, uprooting orchards, and preventing the residents from farming their land and tending their livestock. The government pursues this plan while expropriating the Palestinian land and issuing injunctions that confine the residents’ right to remain in the region. These actions are carried out in order to exhaust the local Palestinian population and to run them off their land.

A few miles before the convoy reached its destination, the Israeli military and police stopped it, showing the activists a decree stating that the region was a closed military zone. After negotiations, in which the group organizers pointed out that they did not intend to go to the area that had been closed, but rather to bring blankets to the local population living in Mufakra, the security authorities allowed the convoy to continue.

Half a mile before the settlement Susya, and three miles before Mufakra, the police stopped the convoy again, this time because of Jewish settlers. The fundamentalists had heard from the military and police that the authorities had decided to let the convoy through, and decided to block the road with their cars. They adamantly oppose any kind of solidarity between Jews and Arabs and were determined to stop the meeting from taking place.

The police, in their turn, asked the activists to wait while they dispersed the settlers. They said they wanted to avoid confrontation and promised to let the convoy through once they moved the settlers and their cars from the road. It was about noon by then, and Ta’ayush members decided to wait half an hour to allow the police to do their work. It seemed, though, that the joint Jewish Muslim prayer that had been planned would have to be canceled.

It took the police and military over an hour to move the settlers and their cars from the road. But then they suddenly decided not to let the convoy pass, breaking the agreement they had previously made with the Ta’ayush organizers.

It seemed that the security forces had reached an agreement with the settlers: the settlers would disperse and the military would not allow Ta’ayush members to complete the solidarity convoy. The security forces pulled out a new “closed military zone order,” which was fabricated on the spot and signed by an unauthorized officer. The settlers in cooperation with the military and police had succeeded in obstructing the solidarity convoy -- at least temporarily.

Ta’ayush members were determined, however, to accomplish their objective, to meet with the Palestinians with whom they had been planning the solidarity visit and to bring them blankets. Each member took a blanket from the truck, and the group -- which included people ranging in age from 20 to 70, Jews, Arabs and Christians, Israelis and foreigners -- slowly began to march forward.

The police wasted no time, immediately arresting two of the organizers -- Gadi Algazi and Shmulik Sheintoch. While these two organizers were held down by the police, they yelled towards the others to continue marching.

The group did not hesitate. Other activists took the lead, and the group marched forward with their arms hooked together as scores of policemen and women violently shoved and kicked them.

People were kneed in the groin, grabbed out of line and put in a neck lock, hit over the head, and choked. It also became clear that the police were singling out the Arabs among the group and hitting them more brutally. But despite the police’s efforts, the group stuck together, defended each other and continued to march forward, breaking the police line again and again while yelling ferociously, “Down with the occupation! Down with the occupation!”

Ta’ayush members were rapidly closing the distance between themselves and the Jewish settlers who were waiting on the road ahead. Each time the police reassembled the group broke their line. Meanwhile, settlers, who were on their way to their settlement and were in a hurry to reach home before the Sabbath could not drive through since the Ta’ayush activists had blocked the road. The settlers honked and yelled and one of them mistakenly hit a policeman with his car as he was trying to run over activists. But to no avail, since the activists were determined to keep the road closed as they marched on.

The police understood that they could not stop the Ta’ayush members, and asked to renegotiate with other organizers who had taken the place of the two who had been arrested. They agreed to release the two detainees and to allow the convoy to continue on foot. They only asked that Ta’ayush members not block the road and walk on the hills on its side until they passed the Susya settlement, this way avoiding a confrontation between the zealots and the peace activists.

After the detainees were released, Ta’ayush activists began the three-mile trek up the mountain, trudging through the deep mud to the hamlet of Mufakra. About 30 minutes later, after passing the settlement Susya, the activists began heading back towards the road to continue the march on easier terrain.

A few Jewish settlers, mostly teenagers, wanted to stop the solidarity meeting and started walking towards the Ta’ayush activists. They yelled at the group that they were “all Arabs” and “traitors.”

The military and police were holding them back. But suddenly, as the solidarity group approached the road, one of the policemen jumped at Yasser Akawi, an Arab Ta’ayush activist who was wearing a kafiah around his neck. He began to brutally beat him as he was yelling to the other policemen that Yasser had assaulted him. Other policemen joined in, while Ta’ayush activists were trying to pull Yasser away. The police pulled the hair, choked, and kicked the activists, while beating Yasser as they shoved him into their jeep. Salomka Dunievsky, a Jewish activist, ran to the jeep where Yasser was still being hit and forcibly pushed her way through into the automobile in order to defend him.

In the meantime, the majority of the group kept on marching towards Mufakra, while 25 activists surrounded the jeep and blocked the road so no cars could pass and to ensure that the jeep wouldn’t be able to drive Yasser off. Meanwhile, they passed the word on to the larger group who kept marching to sit on the road ahead and block it there too. It was about an hour and half before the Sabbath and settlers who wished to pass through to reach their homes were honking and screaming. Again the Ta’ayush members negotiated with the police, who finally agreed to release Yasser.

The group who had stayed behind marched fast and joined the rest of the Ta’ayush members as they were turning from the main road in order to climb a large hill, on top of which the hamlet is located. It was extremely cold. At this point, the local residents, who are not allowed to travel on the main roads in the West Bank, met them. Since the beginning of the second Intifada only Jews have been permitted to use these roads.

The Palestinian residents came in small old tractors. They loaded the supplies and took some of the tired activists in their carts and drove slowly up the muddy path; the rest continued by foot. All the while soldiers were walking on all sides “guarding” the group. Ta’ayush’s request that they remain at the bottom of the hill was ignored.

By the time Ta’ayush members reached the hamlet it was dusk. Among the four tents and the few caves where the local residents reside, were about 40 Palestinians waiting our arrival, men, women and children. Many more people had been there earlier during the day, but after waiting for hours had to return to their homes before dark. Our hosts welcomed the activists with hot tea and told the group how meaningful this act of solidarity was for them. “We appreciate the hardship you encountered,” one of them said, adding “these are the kind of harassment the residents encounter on a daily basis.” They expressed the hope that Ta’ayush would continue working together with them in order to stop the expulsions and to end the occupation. They were also very grateful for the blankets and the plastic tent covers, which they can use to keep warm during the harsh desert winter, and which are very difficult for them to obtain due to their economic situation and the severe movement restrictions.

A few activist, who remained to guard the cars joined the group at this point and took the drivers back to the vehicles so that they could drive back to the hamlet to take the activists home. The group returned to Israel as a convoy, bruised and tired, but with a feeling of accomplishment. The Israeli government and settler’s attempt to hinder all acts of solidarity had failed this time, due to the unity of the group, their persistence, and willingness to commit themselves to non-violent civil disobedience.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that this action is minor in comparison with the events on the ground. The day before the march, 54 houses were demolished in Rafah, leaving approximately 700 people homeless.

 
 

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. His book From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights (buy from an independent book shop, buy from Amazon) is forthcoming from Lexington Books. Gordon contributed to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press, 2002, buy from an independent book shop, buy from Amazon).