We scramble over rocks on the dusty earth, carrying sleeping bags and essentials for the night ahead. Three of us from my team are arriving for a weekly 'sleepover', one form of protective presence that we provide to families in the South Hebron Hills. As Mohammed's tent emerges into view our pace quickens. Some of Mohammed's seven children are playing by a small cave. A dog barks, and we can hear chickens squawking nearby. Shardi, who is about 8 years old, races towards my team-mate, Leo, and offers him a warm hug. The other children smil and wave at us as we approach.
Mohammed's tent, with the settlement behind.
Our first task of the late afternoon is to take a walk along the ridge-tops, in full view of nearby Israeli settlements. We make sure our presence is noted. Since we are wearing our jackets, it is clear to any settlers watching with binoculars that we are here, and that we are witness to their behaviour. One of the biggest concerns facing Mohammed and his wife Ensaf is harassment from settlers and soldiers at night. One of the first incidents that our team responded to was a call from Mohammed to inform us that 8 settlers had approached his tent in the middle of the night, shouting angrily and accusing him of causing trouble. He feels safer when we are there.
Ensaf has spoken in detail with us about the fear she battles on a daily basis. When half a dozen jeeps of soldiers encircled their tent the other night she was too afraid to come out to investigate. Her husband, Mohammed, faced the music. Mohammed’s father, who lives in the next valley, had called to alert them to the intrusion. After three hours of tossing bedding around in search of “evidence” of an intruder to the nearby settlement, and angry accusations hurled at her husband, they ran out of reasons to stay. After advising her father in law not to pay evening visits to his neighbours without a large spot-light, the soldiers went back to their jeeps and made their departure in the early hours of the morning.
|The evening walk|
It’s difficult for Mohammed not to assume that the regular visits are part of a larger plan to force him to give up his vigil on the land his family has inhabited for generations. Many have given up the struggle and abandoned their homes in favour of a more settled life in town, freer from harassment. For those who remain, the struggle is harder each year. The last of Mohammed’s neighbours departed about 3 months ago when the husband was sent to prison and his wife and children retreated to town. Yet, those who remain have more at stake if they leave. It’s almost certain that an abandoned farm like Mohammed’s would be quickly snatched up by settlers looking to expand their estate. The Palestinian quality of ‘sumud’ (steadfast perseverance) is increasingly important now.
We settle ourselves into the lounge room end of the family tent and are immediately served tea. After being introduced to some of Mohammed’s brothers who are visiting for the evening, a discussion ensues in a mixture of broken English and very broken Arabic about how old everyone is and how many children we all have. To us, some of Mohammed’s brothers appear older than their years, and we no doubt seem horribly young, single and childless for our advanced age. Before the visitors leave, dinner is served. We enjoy freshly baked bread, hummus, and a delicious tomato and eggplant dish before settling into an evening of watching horror movies on Mohammed’s television, assisting children with their homework, and sharing photos of our families on our phones. Eventually, everyone drifts off to sleep. The light on the other side of the tent remains on, a reminder that like a dog that sleeps with one ear slightly open, it’s not possible to fully relax when living under occupation.
Fog in the morning in Sh'b Il Butum
At first light the animals and children begin to stir. The children set off for school in the brisk morning while we are being served tea and breakfast, still under the warmth of our blankets. It occurs to me that, under very different circumstances, I would consider it a privilege and joy to awake to the sound of a rooster crowing and sheep bleating on an idyllic hillside in the desert. But as we pack our sleeping bags and prepare to do a final lap of the ridge-tops, we remember that for Mohammed and Ensaf, reality is far from ideal. They have no idea what difficulties they will face today.