In Washington DC, the pundits are frantically debating the implications of Obama’s recent speeches on the Middle East. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the of village At-Tuwani, the tiny flowers of spring are pushing up through the dry ground. Palestinian farmers are grazing their sheep on land that has been owned by their families for generations. Children are walking to school. And just a hillside away, Israeli settlers are expanding Ma’on settlement. While politicians quibble, the people of At-Tuwani are enduring some of the Israeli occupation’s most brutal violence and severe repression. 150,000 Palestinians living in the rural villages of the West Bank are also struggling to survive in the face of similar injustices. If peace is to come to Israel and Palestine, the rights of these villages must be honored. So what are the implications of Obama’s statements for rural villages like At-Tuwani?
“The people of At-Tuwani and surrounding villages are very simple farmers and shepherds. They depend on their land and flocks, a life that, until recently, has been self-sufficient,” says Keifah Al-Addara, the director of the At-Tuwani Women’s Cooperative. At-Tuwani is one of a dozen small villages located at the Southern tip of the West Bank. This is “area C,” West Bank land that under the Oslo accords is completely under Israeli control. In area C, the Israeli government places severe restrictions on all construction, preventing Palestinians from building homes or basic infrastructure. Area C is also where Israeli settlers, including violent zealots, build settlements and outposts. In many areas, including At-Tuwani, these settlers attack Palestinians with impunity. As Al-Addara explains, these settlements “led to a series of aggression against powerless people; the stealing of our lands; the blocking of our roads; and the attacks on our people. The result was the spread of poverty, fear and insecurity.”
If Obama is to offer any hope to villages like At-Tuwani, he will need to demand that Israel stops its settlement expansion, takes legal action against settlers who attack Palestinians, and recognizes the equal rights of Palestinians as individuals and as a nation. Unfortunately, in his recent speeches Obama did just the opposite.
In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements… It is time for the settlements to stop.” This time, Obama took a much more lenient position, describing settlements as a hindrance to peace negotiations. Netanyahu likely understood these statements as a capitulation in the face of his government’s refusal to abide by any settlement freeze. Extremist settlers can take this as a sign that Obama will not put pressure on Israel to curb their violence towards Palestinians.
Settler violence against Palestinians is on the rise. Over the last 6 months, settlers in the South Hebron Hills have attacked Palestinians more frequently and with greater violence. Most recently, on May 15th, Israeli settlers invaded the village of Tuba, killed and stole several sheep belonging to the Ali Awad family and vandalized their home. Previously, on March 19th, a settler stabbed 32-year-old Mahmoud Ibrahim Ali Awad on the edge of At-Tuwani village.
Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinian farmers, cut down olive trees, and even attacked Palestinian children on their way to school. Israeli authorities have refused to prosecute settlers for these crimes. At-Tuwani residents report that settlers and soldiers are now communicating and coordinating more than ever. Obama’s statements about settlements amount to waving the white flag of surrender to these settlers. At-Tuwani has no reason to believe that the United States will do anything to pressure Israel to keep its own citizens in line.
In his Thursday May 19 speech, Obama said that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” After this statement was met with Chicken Little protests from conservative politicians, Obama clarified his position in his Sunday speech to AIPAC. Obama said that Israel and Palestine must “negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.” This border would “account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.” And what needs will need to be accommodated? The approximately 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Instead of telling Israel to stop settlement expansion, Obama told the settlers that if they expand their settlements fast enough, the land on which they stand will become a part of Israel.
For At-Tuwani, talk of land swaps is an unwelcome reminder of home demolitions and ethnic cleansing. Settlers in the South Hebron Hills have made it clear they want their settlements to become a part of Israel. The Israeli government has shown itself all too willing to help the settlers achieve these goals by destroying inconvenient Palestinian villages. In 1998 the Israeli army served orders to over one hundred families in the At-Tuwani area, instructing them to leave their villages. When the families refused, soldiers confiscated their belongings, rounded up the villagers, and dumped them on the side of the highway. After the villages won their case in the Israeli high court, they were able to return to their homes but the Israeli government is still attempted to dispel Palestinians from the At-Tuwani area. This year, on May 7th, the Israeli army demolished the village of Al-Aymir, expelling its residents. This was the third time that the Israeli army demolished Al-Aymir and the Israeli government has made it clear the village will be demolished again when Palestinians return.
Obama’s speech offers little hope of change to communities like At-Tuwani. His statements indicate that he will not stand up to Israel’s continued settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing. At the same time, Obama praised the uprisings in Arab countries for their use of nonviolence. Nonviolent resistance is something about which At-Tuwani village could teach Obama plenty. Like many villages, At-Tuwani has a long history of using demonstrations and other creative actions to stand up to Israeli settlers and soldiers. When I asked a friend what he and the rest of At-Tuwani will do if their villages are “swapped” to Israel, he didn’t hesitate before he answered. “Whatever happens,” he said, “We will stay here. We will not leave our land.”
This determination, not the empty words of politicians, is what offers hope for the people of At-Tuwani.
Joy Ellison is a writer and activist living in Chicago. From 2007 to 2010, she lived in At-Tuwani, where she worked to support Palestinians nonviolent resistance. Joy is now writing a graphic novel about At-Tuwani and advocating for the village through Humanity Together. For news and information on At-Tuwani, follow Humanity Together on Facebook. For information on Joy, visit her website