The Light of Thyme

The Bedouin village of Um al Kher lies in the southern portion of the West Bank, nestled in the desert hills of the northern Negev desert.  Community members moved there as refugees in the early 1950’s after having been pushed off their land in the Beersheva area of Israel, a few miles south of where they now live. In the 1980’s Israeli settlers arrived and began taking land adjacent to the community to form the Karmel settlement.

The land on which the village is located is designated as Area C and is therefore subject to full Israeli control, which has included regular military presence, forced evictions and home demolitions, loss of agricultural lands and harassment by settlers.  Due in part to its location, Um al Kher is considered by international organizations to be one of the most vulnerable in the southern West Bank.

Traditionally a herding community relying on their sheep and goats for income, events of recent years have jeopardized this basic way of life.  Poverty and unemployment rates are high. Access to water is limited (and expensive).  Villagers are not allowed to hook up to the power grid and rely on small solar panels to provide subsistence electricity.  Shepherds endure frequent harassment from the nearby settlers as they graze their sheep, and settlement land confiscation has further limited their access to grazing lands.  Dry seasons with lower than average rainfall have produced insufficient plant growth to sustain the sheep. Unable to obtain building permits, the village has endured 4 separate rounds of home demolitions, the last occurring in Oct of 2014 when 6 homes, several outhouses, and the village bread baking oven were demolished.  (see postings from Oct, 2014)  In spite of these ongoing challenges, the villagers are firm in their resolve to remain on their land.  To do so, a better income source is required.

In 2013, a generous grant from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) provided funds for a trial thyme growing project.  Thyme is the main ingredient in a herb mixture called “za’atar,” a staple in the Palestinian diet.  The project proved successful.  In the first year of production alone, the cultivation and sale of thyme provided much needed additional income for the community, helping individual farmers and contributing to community projects.

The Um al Kher kindergarten, one of the community projects partially  supported by profits from the thyme project.

The Um al Kher kindergarten, one of the community projects partially supported by profits from the thyme project.

HIRN (Hebron International Resources Network) has become involved in supplying thyme seedlings to the community to extend the project beyond the trial phase. The project is ongoing, with additional plantings happening as HIRN funds allow.

On Thursday, we delivered plants to the village and coordinated a planting.  We were joined there by volunteers from EAPPI,  visiting British and Swiss volunteers, local Israeli’s from the Villager’s Group, Palestinian villagers, and international members of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.  Together, we planted the thyme seedlings.

Local and international, Christian, Jewish and Muslim volunteers working together to plant the thyme.

Local and international, Christian, Jewish and Muslim volunteers working together to plant the thyme.

In a time when there is so much violence in the West Bank, it was a bright beacon of light to bring locals and internationals, Muslims, Christians and Jews to work together on a project that offers such hope to a struggling community.

One of the thyme seedlings and the water drip irrigation pipe.

One of the thyme seedlings and the water drip irrigation pipe that is also part of the project.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom,

Jan

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Tense days

I have returned to Palestine and am once again working in Hebron with the Hebron International Resources Network (HIRN).

Things are tense these days in all of Palestine.  The 48 year Israeli occupation (illegal according to International Humanitarian Law) of Palestine, with even greater repression of human rights over the last several months, has led some young Palestinians to respond violently.  Frustrated and desperate, and prohibited from carrying guns, they have resorted to the use of knives as a tool to stab Israeli soldiers and citizens.  Israel has responded with what they call “increased security measures,” meaning a further clamp down on Palestinian human rights, a dramatic increase in checkpoints, and what appears to be a “shoot to kill” policy, all of which have served to heighten tensions further.  As well, there have been witnessed reports of unarmed Palestinians shot by Israeli soldiers, with a knife later being placed beside the body and the official Israeli report indicating that the individual had attempted to stab an Israeli soldier.

The UN OCHA Protection of Civilians Weekly Report for the week of October 13-15, 2015  indicates there were 16 Palestinian and 3 Israeli fatalities, and 1970 Palestinian and 19 Israeli injuries during that time period. In addition, they report that on the following 2 days (Oct 20, 21),  there were 9 Palestinian deaths,and 2 Israeli deaths in a total of 10 separate incidents.  The escalating violence is a concern for all.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory on Oct 20 and 21, and issued the following statement:  “My visit reflects the sense of global alarm at the dangerous escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. I am here to encourage and support all efforts to lower tensions and prevent the situation from spinning out of control.” He added that “no society should have to live in fear. No society can afford to see its youth suffer in hopelessness”.

Here in Hebron, things are particularly tense.  Hebron is divided into 2 distinct areas.  H1 (18 sq km) is home to the majority of the population and is under full Palestinian control.  H2 (4.3 sq km) includes the Old City of Hebron and is home to 35,000 Palestinians  and 800 Israeli settlers (illegal according to International Humanitarian Law)  who live in 4 settlements. Israel has full control of the H2 area.  (see Oct 17, 2014 posting “Transforming with Colour, Brightness and Joy,” for more information on Hebron)  Many of the Israeli settlers have a history of violence towards their Palestinian neighbours, and many are heavily armed.  In recent weeks, they have become more heavily armed.   Even though International Humanitarian Law requires the occupying party to provide protection for the occupied people, the reality is that there are several hundred Israeli soldiers in H2 whose sole role is to protect the Israeli settlers.  It is the H2 area where most of the oppression, poverty and tensions are present, and it is the H2 area and the area immediately outside of it that is where the violence is occurring.

Here are two stories that were reported to us this past week: On Tuesday,  2 teenage boys aged 15 and 17 passed through one of the many Israeli checkpoints in H2.  They passed through a metal detector and were body searched for knives.  Finding none, the soldiers allowed them to pass through.  Shortly after leaving the checkpoint, the boys encountered a group of settlers coming towards them.  Fearful of the settlers, they turned back towards the checkpoint they had just passed through and were shot by the soldiers. Both boys died.

Later in the week, a highly respected Palestinian peace activist Dr Hashem al Azzeh died after being overcome by tear gas.  Dr Azzeh and his family lived in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood of H2.  Despite enduring years of harassment by settlers, he has been a model of non violent peaceful resistance.  He leaves behind his wife and young family, the oldest of whom is 13. We attended his funeral yesterday.

Part of the assembled crowd at Palestinian non violent peace activist Dr Hashem al Azzeh's funeral.

Part of the assembled crowd at Palestinian non violent peace activist Dr Hashem al Azzeh’s funeral.

Here at HIRN, we are doing what we can to help.  A number of Palestinian families in the H2 area are subject to settler violence, including the use of molotov cocktails thrown at their homes.  They are also subject to bullets from both the army and the armed settlers, and tear gas that the army uses in most clashes as it drifts into their neighbourhoods. Yesterday, we provided 10 fire extinguishers to the Hebron  Rehabilitation Committee to be distributed to homes in the H2 area that are at risk.

The fire extinguishers that were delivered by HIRN to the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee.

The fire extinguishers that were delivered by HIRN to the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee.

We also are working to connect the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee with an NGO funder who have agreed to help fund the costs of further fire extinguishers, gas masks and bulletproof glass for the homes of those at greatest risk.

Regardless of your perspective, it is a well known truth that violence begets violence.  In a troubled land where violence and the power of the gun has ruled for far too long, Peace is long awaited and prayed for.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom,

Jan