For the full transcript of this podcast click the transcript tab next to the show notes tab or go to the website: https://storiesfrompalestine.info/2022/04/08/south-hebron-hills/
Sami Huraini is a young Palestinian activist from the village of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. His village, just as many other Palestinian villages in that region, is in area C, which is under full Israeli military control. Settlers and Israeli military are making life very hard for the villagers, in order to persuade them to move away into towns and cities under Palestinian Authority. But Sami is very clear: we are not leaving. This is our village, this is our land. We will defend and protect ourselves in a non violent way.
Many of the villages in the South Hebron Hills are not connected to water or electricity. The people suffer from continuous attacks by settlers who set fire to their properties, steal their tools and even their life stock, violently attack shepherds, villagers and even children.
The Israeli military is often present but does nothing to prevent the settlers from attacking Palestinians.
In At-Tuwani the youth organized themselves in an initiative called Youth of Sumud. Sami is one of the community leaders and he was arrested in the beginning of this year. Originally without any charges, later soldiers made up some claims against him. He was given an award for human rights defenders who are at high risk. This has helped in getting more media attention and more diplomats to visit At-Tuwani.
Recently they opened a guesthouse where visitors can stay. They are welcome to join for a tour around the South Hebron Hills, to spend some time in solidarity with the villagers, to be protective presence and accompany farmers, shepherds and children.
If you want to know more you can check out their facebook group Youth of Sumud
You can e-mail them : firstname.lastname@example.org
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South Hebron Hills
I'm sitting on the roof of singer cafe with Sami and Sami is from a village near Hebron. It's called At-Tuwani, right? And I've heard a lot about that place because usually it's about hardships and about attacks by settlers and by the army. But, I think it's also one of the most beautiful areas on the mountain ridge, because it is full of olive trees and of grape vines and it's very green. It's very lush. So I think that is probably why the settlers are so interested in that area. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about yourself, Sami ,and about your life in At-Tuwani. And then we continue from there on how the situation is there.
Sure. My name is Sami, I'm 24 years old. I am from the village of At-Tuwani, South Hebron Hills. I'm a student finishing my law degree at Hebron university. I am activist in the area of the South Hebron Hills. I am coordinator of a small youth group. It's called Youth of Sumud, a small youth initiative, that believes in nonviolent resistance to end the Israeli occupation, to resist the Israeli occupation. Besides that I am the winner of Frontline Defenders Award 2021.
Wow. What does that mean? What was that award all about?
It's about human rights defenders who are in high risk. I am right now passing through fake charges by Israeli soldiers in the Israeli military courts because of my activism and for my non violent work. This arrest and these charges that I am facing is, because of a crime was committed in 2021, in January.
The Israeli soldiers raided the village of Ar-Rakeez, which is next to my village in the South Hebron Hills. They shot a Palestinian guy in his neck, simply because he was defending his generator from being confiscated. So simply the army just shot him. After this crime we all, as an activist and me personally, we all lmoved because of this crime. We started to organize demonstrations, we started to organize some activities against this, demanding justice for Haron, this is the name of this guy, and demanding ending Israeli occupation. But since then I was targeted by the Israeli military, cause I was in the first line, I was heading the protests.
So then the Israeli army came after midnight to my house, arrested me and then I was in jail. And since then, until now I was free with very hard conditions. Until now I am facing and going on with these charges, just based on soldiers words, what the soldiers say, the Israeli military do.
And especially in this occasion, I would like to add something about this military system and this military occupation law against Palestinians only, because this is how it goes. This is the law that represents the Apartheid regime and the Apartheid system of Israel against the Palestinian. In the Westbank Israel is applying two laws. One is the civil law on the Israeli citizens, and the military law on the Palestinians who are living in the Westbank. And as well, the same person who is declaring these laws is the same person, is the soldier. And I'm going in the court, where the judge is a soldier and the translator is a soldier and the prosecutor is a soldier.
So this is where I am as a Palestinian, just the soldier, whatever they say, I am inside this small cell and very hard to achieve any kind of justice there. But anyway, for all of this it's a long story explaining how the Award. Yeah, then I and my sister, we applied, for the Frontline Defenders Award and we won the prize from North Africa and the Middle East.
And after you won that price, did that give you more chances to tell your story to the world?
Yeah, absolutely. Because the Frontline is giving different kinds of support for the human rights defenders. Especially and very important, the diplomats connection is very important and they help a lot by inviting diplomats to my hearing courts, especially about the media, it was a very good conference we did, and we spoke about our experience. And additionally to this, there is some kind of, protection side, which is very important besides also some financial award, which is also very helpful for the situation of human rights defenders and the projects they are doing.
Can you describe us what your village looks like? Well, we always hear about the South Hebron Hills and for people who have never been here or who don't have any idea, can you describe a little bit the geographic situation and also the geopolitical situation?
Yeah. My area generally the south Hebron Hills is very close to the Negev, close to the desert, to Beersheva.
I want to tell you about the area there. It's mountains area, small hills, especially very beautiful time right now in this season when it's full of green and because it will disappear very fast because it will be like desert very soon.
My people in the area in the south, generally they are simple people who are farmers based on sheep grazing and on land plowing and taking care of the land. This is the typical life and it is still going on today for any family there.
But what is the main challenge for my people there? What is their main problem that they are not able to live their simple life in peace? because of the occupation harassment against my place by the Israeli military and by the Israeli settlers.
A huge area in the South Hebron Hills was declared as a firing zone area named 918, to train the Israeli military, to take an excuse to evict us from our land with the firing zone area. And this is how they declared where Palestinian are living. All of those villages were declared as a firing zone simply to evict the people from there.
People are living in caves and in tents and a simple life. And that's also because of the occupation, brutal system, that's not making the people able to build or do anything. In the end of the 1990s there was a huge eviction in the South Hebron Hills. More than 12 villages were evicted and destroyed, for six months.
But since then, there was a lot of struggle and a lot of fights even in the Israeli law and then the media and even on the ground, until people after six months succeeded to go back to their villages by again a decision from the Israeli courts. Since then, they re-continued to train the military, inside the places and between the villages and in the villages to create this environment of trauma that will oblige the people just to go, to leave their place.
It's still going on until now. And in March, middle of March, we have the court hearing, the final court hearing again, the Israeli army are still pushing to evict our area. And the excuse of the military in the court, that the areas are similar to the south Lebanon or to Lebanon and they want to evict them to train the army there.
It's completely destroying all of these families and all of these people's lives, for, you know, for occupation goal, because my area is under a big plan of annexation.
The other side of the area, this is like the down part, there is the other side, which started by settlements, which is kind of a settlements line behind a highway called 317.
This is similar, also trying to build this kind of settlement barrier that will cut all the south from all other parts from Westbank and the cities of Hebron and the Dahriyya.
Moving on, until today, about daily violence we are facing by the settlers, targeting the people and chasing the people away from their lands, which is near the settlement, in order to take over the land. So there is a high level of violence and even to jump inside the villages and to carry out attacks, which can include and which reach out to burning houses, burning caves, broken the heads and the skulls of the kids and the adults and stabbing the sheep. A lot of criminal attacks happened by the Israeli settlers towards the Palestinian small villages in the south, because of the ethnic cleansing policy that the occupation are doing. They want to apply it and just to make our people live in a trauma and in a big fear, in order for the people to leave the land and to go away.
Especially also right now, the Israeli, besides of what the settlers are doing, some soldiers are taking orders from settlers to chase us from our land. Settlers are attacking Palestinians in front of the army without any consequences. Without doing anything. And just yesterda, we were in a big mess with a settler which they came out and started to attack the activists and the Palestinian shepherd.
And later on the Israeli army arrived and one settler was throwing stones towards a Palestinian man and the soldiers did nothing about that, but when it's about Palestinian, just toiling a stone, it's a big crime. He's the criminal and he's a terrorist and nothing happened about that.
And later on the settlers tried to steal a sheep from the shepherd and the army did nothing about that. If I want to put myself in that situation as a Palestinian, I will be always, you know, for holding a stone, for example, as the settler did, and before throwing it, I would be at least arrested and spend some months in jail for that.
This is the Apartheid system and the racism of the occupation that we are living and that we are every day struggling against, hoping and believing it will end one day and one moment. And especially now, like my village it's kind of targeted again by the army midnight raids, which has no reason which considered just coming after midnight, twelve, one, two ('o clock) raiding, searching the houses to refine the people, shooting sound bombs, and then leave the village after making a huge mess. This, as I told you before, all this aims to put us in a position of just leaving this place and to go to area A and area B and just forget this place and this land will be taken.
So we believe our existence and our 'sumud' (steadfastness) in our land is a big resistance in front of this unjust system that's going. And we will continue to struggle in our land and defend our land. And no way, who should leave is the occupation and occupier because really they are the thief and they are the criminal.
And this is the big shame, which is occupying us and claiming we are the criminals and we are the terrorist and so on.
Can you explain, because I think not everybody is aware of that: the Westbank, which is military occupied by Israel, was divided into areas A, B and C. So what does that mean? Where is your village and how does the area, where it is, affects the logistics and everything that goes around in your village?
Yeah. So after Oslo accords in the nineties, the area in the Westbank was divided to area A and B and C, which area A is under Palestinian control. Palestinian Authority control, civil and safety, I don't know how to say it.
Area B it's kind of mixed control between the Israeli and Palestinian authority and area C under full Israeli military control, which represents more than 60% of the west bank. I'm talking about area C.
My village and my area is considered area C, which is under full Israeli military control. But still, that's the thing that the occupation goal is mainly in all Palestinians who are living in area C pushing them and squeezing them inside area A and B. So pushing all the Palestinians and surrounding them in small 'cantons' (like a container).
This way Israel will make control over more land possible without Palestinians on the land. What is going on it's completely ethnic cleansing system and policy which is really aiming to kick us out of our land and replacing it with Israeli settlers and destroying all the identity of this land and all of this place, which we 100, 1000% we totally reject and we will continue to reject and to struggle against these policies and this system.
That means for you, if you are ready to struggle and to stand up for your rights, that you have big risks, you already been arrested and you already went through that experience. Do you want to share something with us about that? Because I don't think a lot of people know what it's like to be arrested in general and especially to be arrested by Israeli army. What happens when they take you?
Yeah, because as a Palestinian, it's back to the main point, we are arrested because any Israeli soldier can simply arrest us. And it can arrest me for 48 hours and no one of my family or my lawyer can know anything about me or where I am. Especially when you are arrested all the time when we are with the military all the time, even 48 hours or whatever, all the time, our hands and our eyes are covered, not able to remove them at all.
Like for my arrest also, when I was kidnapped, you know, they could send an invitation, for interrogation or whatever, but my arrest happened not based on any complaint yet. So there was no charges, no file, no case, no one complained yet. So the Israeli soldiers just simply came and kidnapped me from my house. And the first complaint started against me, it was after my arrest with five hours, six hours. Then they started that.
Additionally interrogating me at 4:00 AM in the morning. Which is something not normal, not at all. But this is the answer of one of the Israeli police officers that “he's a Palestinian and I can do whatever I want.” I mean, this is his answer in my court, this interrogator who interrogated me.
I was all the time with the army, most of the time from the midnight until the next day I was most of the time with the army moving me from military base to military base with all the time eyes closed and hands cuffed. Even when I tried to sleep, there was no place to sleep. It was in January, my arrest, it was also freezing all the time and even when I was asleep, he didn't accept to remove the thing in my eyes, okay.
But then I was transferred to Gush Etzion detention, I stayed there for one week with other Palestinian prisoners. As I said before, it was a big problem with the cold. Someone who doesn't have a glass just to have this metal thing. And the only warming thing we had is the blankets. And sometimes that's not enough for that much, because there was so many people there. The food was even very bad. Very few. Well, it was a big suffering.
And in the end of the day, how much you are without rights and how much you are just really as a Palestinians, they always mean to make you feel bad and depressed. And so you will go to a circle of, I don't know, maybe to fight them with, I dunno, power or gun or whatever, then you are shot or in jail forever.
And they will keep telling this story about you as a Palestinian, you are a criminal. So it's all, it's all just something depressing from all the sides and especially the Palestinians, based on this, there is this kind of detention it's called administrative detention, which can jail you forever without charge, which is something that makes you freak out from everything. A lot of Palestinians are facing administrative detention.
We are facing jail because we are activists, because we're active. We are organizing something even non-violently, but you will be always charged to the violence because this is the culture of the occupation, famous with violence and love to continue with these propaganda against us of criminals and whatever.
But even so, despite all of this, we are still here and we are still fighting.
I'm also here today to talk with you about maybe bringing some people who are coming to visit Palestine and who want to see not only the beautiful landscape, the history and the heritage of Palestine, which I do promote on my podcast to put Palestine back on the tourism map, but also to see something of that daily life.
So what is it that you can organize in your village for people who are coming for a visit and who want to understand better how you live, how is the life in area C? You said something about people still living in caves. Is that something that you can take people to see?
Yeah, absolutely. We care a lot about advocacy and about bringing attention more to our people, to our cause. And especially we always invite people to come and to see with their own eyes, the reality of the situation and take out the real message, not all the stuff I was telling you before of listening to the Israeli propaganda against us.
Absolutely. We have this guest house in the village of At-Tuwani, which is recently built, which is also ruled by our youth group. Through this guesthouse who can organize some tours in our area, explaining about the political situation and visiting some communities and some people who are living in the caves and doing maybe some accompanying sometimes when there is time for the activities we do.
And we are doing with other activists, we consider as well documenting the human rights violation is one of the most important things to do and this we do every day.
So when we ask people to come and to be with us in the area, to see, to understand, to live, live the life of the people and stay in touch and give support and solidarity for the people and for the area.
I also heard there are some of these accompaniment programs where people stay for a while and they also help farmers when they do a harvest or when they're planting trees or even children who are going to school. How is that in your area? Are people really facing daily threats and violence?
Yes, for sure. That's the thing of living in fear. It means every day the shepherds go to graze the sheep, they are under risk of attacks by the settlers, arrested by the army.
There is the kids who come to school and we accompany as well, who are facing also the violence of the settlers. There is the everyday expecting home demolitions, or at least every week. This is the daily life. Every time when I'm at home, I'm sitting and waiting for my phone to ring and someone call me and tell me, come there is settlers attacking this, there's soldiers arresting.
I always respond to those emergencies, me and the guys who are active with me there and internationals. As well, for sure, there is also always this program of settlers attacks of destroying trees. And so on. So immediately, the only option we have is to start again, to replant. And even if the army is, to rebuild. This is how we will continue.
Otherwise we will, you know, we will lose everything, but I mean, we try to maintain everything and just keep things how it was. So we appreciate everyone who wants to come and join those activities and to help and to work.
Any act of solidarity is appreciated.
You know what, I was just wondering when you're talking about these settlers, like, have you ever been able to face and talk to these settlers. Can you understand what is their ideology, where they're coming from? What age are they? Are they grown up in Israel or they may be even coming from abroad. Are they criminals? What kind of people are they?
For me personally, the language of the settler with me is the stone and the stick. The settlers are coming here simply believing this land of God. And especially some of them who are now the new settler generation who was born in this kind of outposts and settlements. They were raised up and grown up in this environment, which is full of hate against Arabs, Palestinians, against us. Which is making them all the time interested to violence. And even when they are kids, we saw them training their kids to use a sling shot and sticks. And sometimes even the kids are coming out of the settlements with masked faces and so on.
So the main idea, what the settler believes, it is the land of God and they have the right to have this land. They have to kick everyone here. We existed before the occupation and before all of this ideology existed, but they keep following to chase us from our place and our land.
And in the end of the day, the conversation should be: settlers present are illegal in our land, and this is according to all the laws, you know, all the international laws. And in the end of the day, I don't care of having a conversation with a settler, because his presence itself is illegal. So it's more than illegal conversation to have it.
I'm just kind of curious how to understand how these settlers managed to dehumanize you guys so much that they don't find it difficult to just come out and attack and use so much violence. But maybe that's really hard to understand if you don't have this mentality.
So what is it that in your village that you see for the coming future, in the coming months, what do you think is going to evolve?
You know, Israel is using all the excuse to threaten us. My village is one of the villages of 'Masafer Yatta' (area) that luckily got a master plan, which is something great, which is master plan which is approved by the Israeli side, which is the village is allowed to have access to water, to electricity, to roads, to network.
But this is something not all the villages are possible and allowed to have it in area C. And so our area just managed to get this around 2010, but when it arrived, this master plan, we thought our houses and our homes inside the master plan are safe. But in the last few months now Israeli soldiers are coming and even threatening the houses inside the master plan with demolishing under the pretext and excuse of 'an archaeological site.'
Weren't you aware from that archaeological site when you approved that master plan 10 years ago, 12 years ago? This is something which is really very terrifying and I hope my village will not face any demolishing operation in the coming months. And especially if they are doing this because my village is a really strong village.And the non violent struggle started from there and all the time we are in the face of the army and of the settlers. So this is a way also how to try to put us down from our work and our activism.
What is the thing you find most beautiful about where you live?
The peace, you know, I love, I love, okay, my area is rural area. It's really quiet, without occupation I mean, when there is no violence. I like the, landscape of my place, especially the caves and all of this life, because we live me and the group Youth of Sumud, we lived almost four years 90% commitment of sleeping, being there for five years.
But since one year when the settler violence started to raise up, and they set fire in one of our caves, we were worried to risk one of the life of the guys, so we decided to make presence just few hours per day and continue the work in the caves and to protect them, because they are an evicted village by the settlers and the soldiers. So our presence there, to be there and protect this land from being confiscated.
Well, listeners to my podcast know that I am very obsessed by the history of caves in this country. And so I would love for us to go there one day and to see how people maybe still live there, use that cave, even though, I mean, we're living in a modern world, but I think sometimes going back to your cave is actually an act of spirituality.
But if you're being all the time attacked, then the peace that you want for your village is not really the peace that you have at the moment.
Sami, I want to thank you for this interview. And if people in the future are coming to visit Palestine, I will leave a link in the show notes for where they can contact you. And they can also contact me to help organize that and to help organize all the logistics around that. And I wish you all the best for... I think you have to save your village!!
Yeah. It's our duty to be on our land and our place and to defend it and continue to defend it. Thank you for this interview and for sharing my story.