The Invisible Fence

The tiny enclave of Upper Yanoun is carved into the hillside 15 km south west of Nablus in the northern part of the West Bank.  It is set at the end of a valley in rolling hills with breathtakingly beautiful views. A road leads from it two kilometres down through fertile fields, olive groves and almond trees to Lower Yanoun.  Seventy three people live in the two Yanouns of whom 40 are children. It is a small farming community eking out a reasonable living from its agriculture and flocks of sheep and goats.

Just behind Yanoun, the Israeli settlement of Itamar is rapidly expanding and now has five ‘outposts’ surrounding Upper Yanoun on three sides. All settlements are illegal under international law but settlement outposts are illegal even under Israeli law. Nevertheless according to the website of the Israeli organisation, Peace Now, these outposts have been there since 1998/9.

Upper Yanoun with Itamar outpost on the hill to the left

The people of Yanoun have endured years of serious attacks and harassment from Itamar and its outposts. In 2002 they were given an ultimatum.  Yanoun’s Mayor Rashed Murrar recalls what happened: “They came with dogs and guns, every Saturday at night. They beat men in front of their children. One Saturday they said that they didn’t want to see anyone here next Saturday and that we should move to (the nearby village of) Aqraba. The whole village left that week.”

This exodus created widespread international media interest and the Israeli peace organisation, Ta’ayush became involved. This admirable organisation has been working for more than a decade to help Palestinians retain their homes and agricultural lands in areas where they face settler violence or harassment. Ta’ayush helped the villagers to return and stayed with them until an international protective presence was set up.

This protective presence is now provided by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Yanoun is the only one of the EAPPI placements that is covered 365 days of the year. During our time as Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) we are encouraged to visit other placements to see the particular issues in different parts of the West Bank. I travelled from my placement in Jayyous to Yanoun to learn about the situation there and to cover some of the Yanoun EAs’ days off.  EAs in Yanoun cover a range of tasks including visiting vulnerable communities in the Jordan Valley, but in Yanoun itself the most important part is to be very visibly present.  As part of this they walk from Upper Yanoun to Lower Yanoun twice daily. Another enjoyable task was English conversation/entertaining the children on Friday evening. My carefully prepared plan got rather overtaken by enthusiastic drawing and a viewing of the all-time favourite video ‘Shaun the Sheep’.

Yanoun EAs Genesis & Eva walking back to Upper Yanoun

The mayor, Rashed Murrar recently reported to UNICEF that the EAPPI presence was better than guns. As a Quaker, this is music to my ears. However, he also said it doesn’t stop the violence simply makes it less frequent and less severe. The EAPPI presence has created some breathing space for the villagers of Yanoun and the level of settler of violence has reduced in recent years. Despite this, 18 families have never returned to their homes, finding the prospect of living with threats hanging over them too difficult.

Itamar settlers say that this land was given to them by God and the villagers should leave.  One of the villagers, Najeh Abu Ahmed, told me his family had lived in Yanoun probably for four hundred years. He saw my sceptical expression, smiled and said he knew for certain that five generations of his family had farmed this land. Either way it takes you back to before the foundation of the state of Israel or the Occupation of the West Bank.

Najeh used to have a flock of 100 sheep; now he has 13. He talked about the days before the settlement when they could graze their flocks for miles over the hillsides. The safe grazing area for Yanoun shepherds is now only a small area close to the village. Najda pointed out to me the limits of this ‘invisible fence’. Shepherds who have ventured further have been threatened or attacked. Large flocks are now unsustainable as they have lost the use of approximately 70% of their land.

Not all settlers are violent. It is reckoned that about 70% of them are economic settlers who simply want a place to live. Financial incentives to live in settlements make it worth their while to live there. The rest may be ideological settlers who feel that it is part of their faith to ‘reclaim the land of Israel’. Only a very small minority of these ideological settlers are violent. However, even a very small minority can cause considerable damage to life and property.

It has been commonplace to pass off violent settlers as a fringe group. Unlike most fringe groups, they have the full support of their government and protection from its security forces. Villagers reported that building the road to the settlement outpost known as Hill 777, just opposite where EAs stay, was aided by an Israeli army bulldozer. The Itamar outposts are provided with electricity and water from the main settlement, all of which is subsidised by Israel. Yesh Din, another excellent Israeli peace group which painstakingly documents settler attacks, reported in 2011 that 95% of cases of attacks on Palestinian people or property close without anyone being indicted. This culture of impunity gives the settlers carte blanche to do what they like.

The threats to Yanoun are very real. In July, five men from Yanoun were beaten up by Itamar settlers and two of them were hospitalised; the week before I visited, a group of Itamar settlers attacked some farmers from nearby Aqraba with sticks, injuring three, when they visited their land in Yanoun to check if their olive trees were ready for the harvest. I met one of them with his arm in plaster. His arm was broken in two places and he will have to have a metal plate inserted to assist the healing.

There is great anxiety about the approaching olive harvest when settler attacks often increase. During my two days in Yanoun there was a meeting held in the village attended by Combatants for Peace to offer their protective presence. The Combatants for Peace (CfP) movement was started jointly by Palestinians and Israelis, who have taken an active part in the cycle of violence; Israelis as soldiers in the Israeli army and Palestinians as part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom. They have decided to put down their guns, and to work together for peace

These organisations are some of the small lights shining in this very dark world. They are admirable people. It is not easy to go against the prevailing tide in a situation where they are considered traitors to their community. One of the Israeli members of CfP told me that most of the people he met in Israel had no idea what was happening in the West Bank. They strive to put the record straight and help where they can.

Villagers in Yanoun continue life as best they can. Only a political solution, which ensures their civil and human rights, can return their lives to normality.  As it is, their lives are curtailed and their existence as a community relies on foreigners.  An entire generation of children is growing up knowing that that they cannot stray far from their homes and, above all, that they must not cross that invisible fence.

Upper Yanoun from Lower Yanoun

I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for I-oPt for permission. Thank you.

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