The village of al-Tuwani in Masafir Yatta, or the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, is the poorest and most desolate place I have seen. In June 2007, I accompanied Rebecca Vilkomerson on her visit to Hafiz Hurayni, a representative of al-Tuwani’s popular committee. Rebecca is working with the popular committee and the South Hebron Committee to raise funds to build a playground for al-Tuwani’s children. She is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has also supported the playground project. Al-Tuwani needs a new well. When the existing one runs dry in the spring and summer, al-Tuwani is forced to buy water at inflated prices. Meanwhile, surrounding Jewish settlements have a nearly unlimited water supply. The village would also like to replace its dirty, expensive and unreliable diesel electricity generators with solar generators. But the popular committee has chosen to give priority to their children.
Al-Tuwani’s 180 inhabitants, comprising five extended families, subsist by herding sheep and goats, harvesting olive and fig trees, and growing lentils, chickpeas and grains, when rains permit. Most of them live in covered caves, some dating to the Roman era. They have no running water, electricity grid, land telephone lines or regular source of news. The road to the nearest town of any size, Yatta (pop. 50,000), is blocked by a mini-barrier (two and a half feet high) along the settler bypass road, Route 317, that Israel constructed in the spring of 2006. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in December that the barrier must be dismantled, but the army has not implemented the ruling.
The people of al-Tuwani were too poor to merit the attention of political authorities from the time their ancestors settled the area 300 to 500 years ago until the religio-nationalist settlement of Ma‘on was established in 1981-1982. Even the Palestinian Authority neglected al-Tuwani. In defiance of the Israeli army, the villagers built a medical clinic with international assistance. It was inaugurated by the PA Minister of Health in May 2005, but no equipment or medical personnel have yet been provided.
The settlers of Ma‘on and its outpost, Havat Ma‘on, which was briefly “dismantled” in 1999 but was thriving when we visited, have maliciously embittered the lives of the people of al-Tuwani and the neighboring villages with the connivance of the Israeli occupation army. The settlers have assaulted people, expropriated lands, stolen or burned crops, poisoned sheep and attacked children from neighboring villages on their way to and from the six-room primary school which the people of al-Tuwani built on their own initiative in 1998.
Israeli authorities consider the school “illegal.” The building is under a demolition order, which has been suspended for 10 years. The army has already destroyed an “illegally” constructed mosque and several homes in al-Tuwani.
In response to the attacks, the Christian Peacemaker Team based in Hebron and the Italian Project Dove dispatched delegates in September 2004 to escort children to and from school. Their mobile phone connection to the Internet (the village has a website at http://tuwani.org) provides an information lifeline to the village.
Despite the relentless pressure from the surrounding settlements and the army, the residents of al-Tuwani are committed to remaining in place. Their popular committee has set an ambitious agenda for the village’s development. Since 2001, the South Hebron Committee, a project of Ta‘ayyush, a grassroots anti-racist movement of Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel established in 2000, has worked with the villagers of al-Tuwani and the surrounding area in support of their desire to remain on their lands.
Kifah Hurayni leads a women’s co-op. The women of al-Tuwani traditionally do not mix with unrelated men. But Kifah greeted us and led us into a dimly lit room with cement walls where cheese, embroidery, pillows, dresses and jewelry are on sale, providing a source of income and preserving the local culture.
Astonishingly, despite the grinding poverty, physical isolation and constant attacks by settlers and the army, al-Tuwani’s popular committee is committed to non-violence and collaboration with supportive Israelis and internationals. In addition to ongoing collaboration with pacifists like the Christian Peacemaker Team, Hafiz told us that the village is organizing a non-violence training workshop. For five years Ta‘ayyush organized a summer camp for South Hebron Hills children. In 2007, the people of al-Tuwani took primary responsibility for hosting and organizing the two-week camp. They invited Israeli Jewish children to attend during the last three days. Ten families from Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand School sent their children to participate in event that was billed, not as a feel-good coexistence event, but as “an integral part of the struggle, in which a broad and realistic view of Israelis as a whole is very important.” The far-sighted thinking of al-Tuwani’s popular committee expresses the extraordinary tenacity of ordinary people who have nothing more to lose and offers a hopeful strategy for grassroots resistance to the occupation.