Can you offer an overview of what you witnessed in everyday life among the people you accompanied in Tuba and other villages?
Ní Mheibhric: For many years, ecumenical accompaniers have been providing a protective presence in many of the villages in Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills, including eight villages which are inside what Israel calls Firing Zone 918.
In May 2022, the Israeli courts confirmed that the more than 1,000 residents of these eight villages could be forcibly removed from their homes and land where they have lived for generations. This is the area where I served since early September 2023.
I originally served with the WCC Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel in 2019, based then in Hebron. In 2019, I also spent some time in Masafer Yatta. When I returned to Masafer Yatta in early September, I saw a shocking deterioration in the conditions of Palestinians in the area, due to the increase in the number of Israeli settlers—and also Israeli military supporting them—living in the illegal settlements and outposts which occupy many of the hilltops overlooking their villages and land.
In the five weeks that I was present there, I saw yet another new outpost which appeared on a hill near Tuba village inside the firing zone.
So while Palestinians are being forced from their homes and land, the number of Israeli settlers moving into the area continues to increase.
Support from the ecumenical accompaniers was requested by the villagers because of the increasing levels of harassment and violence from Israeli settlers and Israeli military.
The violence from Israeli settlers, supported by Israel Defense Forces, takes many forms. We witnessed harassment of shepherds as they graze their flocks, forcing them off their land. We saw the aftermath of attacks on the homes and animal shelters of some villagers.
We had reports of stealing of olives as the olive harvest was about to start, plus destruction of olive trees in the village of At Tuwani on 12 October.
We witnessed harassment of school children as they tried to make their way to school on paths close to illegal Israeli settlements.
As more and more Palestinian land is being taken by force by the Israeli settlers, supported by the Israeli military, the grazing space available to Palestinians is constantly shrinking, forcing them to reduce the size of their herds and spend increasing amounts of money on buying hay and grain to feed their animals. This has a detrimental effect on their livelihoods.
The opinion of the villagers (given on 4 October) was: “They are tightening the noose around us. They are making our lives impossible so that we have no choice but to leave. Then they will then say that we left voluntarily. The cage is closing.”
What are you hearing from your contacts back in Masafer Yatta now?
Ní Mheibhric: From 7 October onwards, all of the roads into and out of their villages were blocked by the Israeli military, so not only are people afraid to leave their homes, it is not possible to leave their villages to get food or medical supplies. It is not safe for children to go to school. In addition, teachers who live outside of the area are unable to travel to their schools. Even before the current escalation, teachers were often delayed by the military and on many occasions had their cars confiscated, sometimes leaving them and children in remote areas, with no choice but to walk long distances in the heat to get to a village where they can get help. All of the schools inside Firing Zone 918 have demolition orders, so teachers and children never knew from one day to the next, if they would arrive to find their school being demolished by the Israeli military.
Since the events early on the morning of 7 October, we had to leave the area. I have been receiving messages from some of the villagers that we knew. All of them describe that at different times, there are armed groups of settlers in their villages, forcing them to stay in their homes and threatening that they will kill anyone who doesn’t obey them.
Here are direct quotes of messages that I have received.
From Susiya village (9 October): “With Israeli military help, settlers bulldozed an agricultural field and dumped tons of dirt and water. This policy is very effective in a time of war. There is no law here. Since the beginning of the war, two families have been forcibly moved from the area due to settler’s violence. It’s hell here in the South Hebron Hills. Settler militants have taken the law in their own hands.”
From Susiya village (9 October): “They have damaged our water system and closed the road and damaged our farm in Susiya. They have damaged everything, my friend.”
From Um al Khear village (15 October): “An armed settler has warned all the residents that if they leave their house, he will kill them.”
Message from Tuba village: “My family and I are still here, but the situation is very scary and getting very bad. The settlers are always present with weapons. They entered our village three days ago (12 October) with weapons, and today (16 October), at 6 am, they came again with weapons. At the present time (16 October), the settlers are the army and are making very provocative tours here and the whole village is in danger. Yesterday (15 October), “We cannot do anything. Now there is a buggy with three armed settlers in the village They have launched a drone and are now filming the entire village. We can no longer film anything because, when they see anyone, they point a weapon at them.”
What is in your heart for the people you are accompanying?
I am desperately worried about what will happen to these villagers, especially in the coming weeks. While I am able to leave the West Bank and Israel with my Irish passport, those villagers have no place to go for safety. In any case, they don’t want to have to leave their homes. They simply want to be able to live their lives without constant fear of harassment, and be able to take care of their children and older relatives, and of course their animals, as they have done for generations.
The terrible events in Israel and in Gaza are getting coverage in the media, but what’s happening in the West Bank is being largely ignored by the world media.
I appeal to the WCC to use their influence worldwide to pressure governments, especially in the EU, the UK, US, to work with Palestinians and Israelis to bring about a just peace. Unless there is justice for all between the Jordan River and the sea, the cycle of violence will continue.