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Photo Essay: Caves bring depopulated villages in the south Hebron Hills back to life

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For weeks under the cloak of night Palestinians secretly renovated four caves and built a tin-roofed house in the West Bank hamlet of Ar-Rakeez where only a handful of residents live. Last week they opened the homes in a “bringing life back” ceremony.

The event was not announced in advance as to avoid any potential disruption by the Israeli army, locals said.

The caves were refurbished by Palestinians from the southern West Bank villages of Susiya, Masafer Yatta and At-Tuwani who are part of the Protection and Sumud Committee, a local group that seeks to prevent home demolitions, and with support from the Palestinian Authority. 

Because of rigid Israeli planning restrictions and frequent settler harassment, most of Ar-Rakeez’s villagers moved to the nearby city of Yatta over the last 20 years. Four families said they will move into the fixed up caves, joining the three families who already live there. 

Palestinian youth take shifts maintaining a presence in a cave they renovated. “We want to create life and encourage people to come back,” explains Sami, 21, one of the activists of the “Youth of Sumud” group, Sarura. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Screening of a short documentary about activism in the South Hebron Hills from inside a caves that was inaugurated last week, Ar-Rakeez. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Ayman Abu Arram, 40, said he will be one of the Palestinians coming back to Ar-Rakeez, “We left in 2004 because of settlers but we never completely left as we were coming from time to time to work on the land. We want to come back.”

“There is no land in Yatta and it is overcrowded. Life is better here, with clean air. I am not afraid of the army or settlers. I decided to come back with my family, and we will stay in the cave for now. We own it,” he said. 

Mohammed Abu Arram, 51, who is originally from Ar-Rakeez said he wants to move back. He explained, up until the late 90s there were around nine families in the village. He also said many left due to ongoing “Israeli settler harassment.”

The South Hebron Hills has one of the highest rates of settler harassment in the West Bank. In 2017 the United Nations found 33 Palestinians were killed in violence attributed to settlers.

Extended family of Mohammed Abu Arram, 51, and his wife Hanan, 49. The cave has a simple kitchen and mats. There is no bathroom, which Hanan said is “very difficult,” and indicated they use the facilities at their neighbor’s house. (Photo: Activestills.org)

“Life here is more beautiful. We are in our land, we can work on it. My brothers and I have 80 dunums, and we have olive trees and almond trees, but some were destroyed by settlers. I am hoping to have a greenhouse soon, and also to have animals,” Mohammed Abu Arram, 51, said in his newly renovated cave. He left Ar-Rakeez with his family in 2004 following attacks by settlers. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Ahmad Mohammed, 72, in front of his newly built home in Ar-Rakeez. He left in 1974 to live in Yatta. “Today, we want to come back, bring back life and make it paradise. Since 10 days, I have started to sleep here everyday. It’s a collective movement, so I feel comfortable to come back. And if they [Israeli forces] demolish, I will build again. For the new generations, I don’t know. Maybe they get use to live in a city like Yatta. But for me, I am from the old generation. I am used to this life. I love the clean air, and it’s quiet. I was born in this area.” The Israeli civil administration recently issued a demolition order for the home. It was constructed three months ago without a permit. (Photo: Activestills.org)

The hamlet of Ar-Rakeez is located near the West Bank villages of al-Tuwani and Susiya, and the Israeli settlements of Abigail and Ma’on. The village was almost completely depopulated 20 years ago following harassment from settlers and the Israeli army. After activists renovated dwelling caves, last week four families declared their intention to come back permanently to the village. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Ar-Rakeez is located in Area C of the West Bank, an Oslo-era delineation where the Israeli military maintains full security and civil control. For scale, around 60 percent of the West Bank is in Area C. Palestinians living in this region cannot build any permanent structures without an Israeli permit, which are rarely issued as figures indicate. Between 2010 and 2014 only 1.5 percent of Palestinian construction permits were approved in Area C. Last year, a mere five permits were issued. 

As a result, many Palestinian houses in Area C are not connected to electrical or water lines, or sanitation services. Israeli forces have also declared some areas in the South Hebron Hills a “firing zone,” or a training ground for the military. With errant bullets from practice sessions and frequent mock raids, Palestinians read such designations as an attempt to expel them. Villagers from Ar-Rakeez said it was a quiet process of “a slow ethnic cleansing.”

Yet in recent years locals have developed a strategy to repopulate abandoned villages by renovating caves, a legal loophole that circumvents Israeli policies of demolishing homes constructed or upgraded without a permit. 

A member of the Israeli border police monitors the opening of the caves event in Ar-Rakeez. (Photo: Activestills.org)

The “Freedom Sumud camp,” located a few kilometers from Ar-Rakeez, was established two years ago by the residents of Sarura who were forced to leave the area 20 years ago. (Photo: Activestills.org)

During Wednesday’s event, Walid Assaf, head of the Commission for Resisting the Wall and Settlements said the efforts to repopulate Ar-Rakeez is part of a larger context of the Palestinian struggle, “It is the same battle in Al Mughayer, Al Khan Al Ahmar, Susiya and here,” adding, “it is about existence.”

In 2017, a local group of young organizers called the Youth of Sumud (sumud is the Arabic word for steadfastness) held the Sumud Freedom camp with the help of international Jewish activists on the site of Sarura, a Palestinian village in the West Bank whose villagers were evicted by Israeli forces in the 1980s and 1990s when the hamlet was converted into a military firing zone. When the protest camp was raided by Israeli forces, all of the temporary structures built by the activists were destroyed. Still, the group has maintained a presence in two caves in Sarura. One of them has a small kitchen, a stove, an outdoor toilet and running water. The group works during the night. This project has allowed some of the families to visit two to three times a week to work in their lands. It also creates hurtles for nearby settlements planning to expand. 

Ali Awwad, 20, one of the young activists told Mondoweiss, “The people in Ar-Rakeez follow the model we started in Sarura, and for sure we will support them.” 

“Israeli settlements keep expanding. We know that Israelis want to connect the outposts of Abigail and the Ma’on settlement, and we are here to stop the plan,” he said.

Since the Sarura protest camp was established two years ago, Awwad has lived there in a cave with other activists. Once a month he leaves to visit his family in the town of Tubas in the north of the West Bank. “Settlers and soldiers come every week to harass us. Just yesterday they destroyed 22 olive trees we just planted two weeks ago. I have already been arrested three or four times,” he said.

Sami, 21, another activist in the group, helped with the construction “secretly at nighttime so Israeli forces would not confiscate our tools and equipment as they did in the past in Sarura.”

Sami said he was attacked by settlers while at the freedom camp and his leg was fractured in two places. “We did shifts in the night in Sarura. The Israelis gave us a demolition order for the toilet, but they cannot say anything about the cave,” he said.

About Ahmad Al-Bazz

Ahmad Al-Bazz, born in 1993, is a multi-award winning journalist, photographer and documentary filmmaker based in the West Bank city of Nablus. Ahmad holds an MA degree in Television Studies from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, and a BA degree in Media and Mass Communication from An-Najah National University in Palestine. Since 2012, Ahmad has been a member of the Activestills documentary photography collective that operates in Palestine/Israel region.

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About Anne Paq

Anne Paq is a French photographer, member of the photo collective Activestills. She is currently back in Palestine and working on a long-term project on Gaza called 'Obliterated Families'.

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3 Responses

  1. amigo
    amigo
    February 11, 2019, 9:03 pm

    One has to admire the tenacity of these folks in refusing to be made homeless by the rogue entity.

    Full respect to them and those caves look extremely comfortable and inviting.

  2. Vera Gottlieb
    Vera Gottlieb
    February 12, 2019, 9:57 am

    Well, secret no more. Good going…

  3. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block
    February 12, 2019, 6:31 pm

    Three years ago I visited the Tent of Nations. The owner’s family bought the property almost a century ago, and – unusually – has the paperwork to prove it. There are five settlements on the nearby hills, and they want it, but he won’t sell it. It’s his nahala, to use a Biblical word – his inheritance, which he feels is not his to sell, even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t. When I was there, settlers had just come in the night and cut down his orchard of fruit and olive trees, which were just ready for harvest.

    There’s a cave on the property, where his grandfather lived when he came to work on the land. The Israelis cannot demolish it, because it’s not a structure. No doubt that is why these people are refurbishing caves and living in them.

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