The sun is high over the West Bank, and I'm sitting by the roadside, waiting for a lift. It’s midday, and I'm on my way to visit one of Palestine’s smallest yet most contested pieces of land.
The village of Yanoun is a tiny hamlet that lies 12km south of the city of Nablus, tucked into a valley with imposing hills on three sides. On the hilltops sit three illegal settlements, Itamar, Yizhar and Bracha, and they're all populated by Israelis. Since 1996, the Israelis have been coming down from the hills to intimidate and terrorise the Palestinian villagers of Yanoun, making it a very precarious place to call home.
A people carrier pulls up and I'm greeted by Steve Hynd, an Englishman who works for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. The EAPPI is an impartial organisation that aims to protect vulnerable communities in the disputed territories.
“The idea is to enable people to have the space to live their ordinary lives,” Steve tells me, as we snake through the parched landscape. “One of the guiding philosophies of EAPPI is principled impartiality, which means that we don’t take sides in the conflict, but we are not neutral when it comes to the violation of human rights or international law.”
Steve is one of five international observers who live and work in Yanoun, fulfilling a passive, yet vital, role.
“Without the EAPPI, I think it would be a matter of time before Yanoun would cease to exist,” he affirms. “The settlements are expanding all over. At the moment, I can’t see any way that we could ever leave. There’s a massive focus on Yanoun from the settlers in terms of its strategic importance and wanting this land.”
Emmet (left) and Steve (right) outside International House, home of the EAPPI.
Since the state of Israel was established in 1948, Jews from around the world have been immigrating to the country in their droves. While most establish themselves in the cities and towns across the Jewish state, a minority cross the border into Palestine and live in settlements. These red-roofed buildings are protected by the Israeli army, and those who live within them are often armed themselves. The settlements are illegal under international humanitarian law and condemned by every major nation in the world.
Currently, over half a million Israelis live in Palestine – around 7 percent of the Israeli population. Many of those who inhabit these neighbourhoods have immigrated from the United States and Russia. The reasons they move to Palestine are complex and varied. Some believe the land belongs to them as Jews, and that they are carrying out God’s work in reclaiming the land for Zion. Others, perhaps not as religious or fundamentalist, join the settlements for practical reasons – life in Israel is expensive; land and houses are cheaper on the Arab side of the border.
EAPPI arrived in Yanoun in 2002, following a major event in the village’s history. After years of escalating attacks and intimidation, the villagers were forced to flee en masse to the nearby town of Aqraba. The mass exodus occurred after a Palestinian gunman, who had no connection to Yanoun, shot five Itamar settlers dead. The settlers retaliated by coming down from the hills and entering the village. They killed a farmer in his field, beat men with their rifle butts and gouged out a villager’s eye. They cut down around a thousand of Yanoun’s precious, ancient olive trees, and slaughtered livestock.
The mayor of Yanoun, Rashed Murrar, remembers the time well, saying: “They came with dogs and guns, every Saturday night. They beat men in front of their children. One Saturday they said they didn’t want to see anyone here next Saturday and that we should move to Aqraba. The whole village left that week.” It was the first time since 1967 and the Six Day War that the entire population of a Palestinian village was forced to leave.
At the behest of the Christian Churches in Jerusalem and thanks to the efforts of Israeli human rights organisations, the villagers did return to Yanoun, and were promised international presence to provide support and reassurance.
Emmet Sheerin, another EAPPI worker explains, “The International observers are here to witness the occupation; to stand in solidarity with those who are living here and to support the Palestinian and Israeli activists who campaign for a peaceful end to the occupation based on international law and human rights.”
Despite this promise of support, many villagers never returned to their homes. Today, only 81 Palestinians remain in Yanoun, less than half of the village’s population in 2002. Up on the horizon, you can see Israeli Defence Force (IDF) watchtowers and a military outpost. Vigilantly, soldiers monitor the goings-on down in the village, reacting to any abnormality. Steve had warned them that he was expecting international visitors in case my arrival provoked any hostility.
The IDF soldiers, who man the demilitarised green zone around the settlements, are charged with keeping the peace, but sometimes fail to intervene. Emmet has recent photographs of the settlers coming down from the hills and polluting the water well.
I reach “International House”, the modest, functional home of the EAPPI workers, and drink tea before setting out on a walk from Upper Yanoun to Lower Yanoun, a task that the boys undertake twice daily to show their presence.
We talk as we trek down the sandy road to lower Yanoun, passing fields of olive trees and bushes of purple thistles. At the top of a steep, rocky hill, we come across three shepherds tending to their goats. They sit casually but are curious about our visit. Other than the EAPPI, foreigners seldom visit Yanoun.
Steve uses this high vantage point to show us more settlement buildings, including one that has sprung up within the last few weeks. “I often wonder who would want to live in a mobile home,” he says of the Israeli settlers, “and what it must be like to be seen as a radical fringe of your society. It’s really important to get your head around the depth and intensity of the feeling that drives people to become these extreme settlers, as they make life very difficult for themselves.”
“Outpost dwellers often live without mains electricity and water on the frontiers for months,” Emmet adds, “all to extend the settlement and land-grab. You find a lot of Americans in the settlements who tend to be very religious, pushing for a greater Israel.”
Life for the villagers is evidently also a challenge. Most rely on their small flocks of sheep for income, as they did when farmers first arrived in Yanoun in the 18th century. There’s money to be made from the olive trees, but only when the harvest is good. There is little access to education, no nearby health services, few job prospects and constant power and water supply problems.
“One question I keep asking the villagers is why they stay,” Steve continues. “Everyone talks about connections to land – they’ll pick soil and rub it in their fingers. I always wonder, is this important to you because you’re entitled to this land? Because your father farmed here? Because you inherited it? Or is this important to you because of the concept of Palestine? Because you’re on the frontline of what you feel is your part in fighting for your nation? Because if you leave here, it will further diminish Palestinian land?”
“I think the mistake I often make is trying to understand things as individuals,” he continues, “when in actual fact people here look at life in terms of the collective, the community; what’s good for them collectively as a people. Our narrative in the West and their narrative don’t always overlap.”
Back in the International House, talk turns to the future of this contracting village.
“My most conservative ask would be to freeze the settlement expansion,” says Steve. “The areas considered a closed military zone and the areas that the villagers are free to enter are constantly changing, which is particularly hard if you’re a farmer or shepherd. The villagers need to have some consistency.”
The international community has long called for the Israeli government to halt expansion of the settlements. The reality on the ground is that the settlements have infiltrated the entire West Bank.
“They’re stretching, like fingers, across the West Bank, dividing it up into three areas. If they wipe out Yanoun, the Israelis will move straight into the valley of Jericho. Then, they have a free way into the Jordan valley. You have to ask at what point does it become feasible to have a Palestinian state at all?”
Emmet shares the same view. “Having been here, I begin to realise how difficult it will be to create a Palestinian state. Such settlements are a real obstacle to peace, and make the prospect of a Palestinian state less and less viable.
“It’s despairing but at the same time I do have a lot of hope for the situation. Things have to change because things can’t continue the way they are,” he says.
I drive back down towards Nablus with a local taxi driver named Hassan, who has lived in the neighbouring town of Aqraba his whole life. In 2002, when the villagers were forced to flee, Hassan shuttled the Yanoun families and their belongings to and from the stricken village. Hassan has long awaited peace between Israelis and Palestinians: “The Israelis have a good chance of making peace now. There are still people here who want peace, despite everything they have gone through.”
Hassan drops me back to the main road. I remember Steve and Emmet’s parting instructions not to stand too close to the bus shelter. This public space is unofficially reserved for settlers and is apparently not safe for Palestinians or foreigners. So, I stand a little further down the road, stealing glances at the figures waiting for their bus on the other side of the glass. As we eye each other nervously, I wonder if, right here, by the side of the road, these people present any real threat, or if my instruction not to stand alongside them is an example of the intense paranoia felt on both sides. Yanoun may be an extreme example of the turmoil between Israel and Palestine, but tension is never far from the surface of Palestinian life.
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