I was privileged to visit the village of Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. It is a place one never forgets. However, Tuwani is not unique. You will find many such villages described in my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides.
Tuwani is a village in the southern hills of Hebron in the West Bank. It has a population of some 175 people, most of whom are either shepherds or farmers, who live in cave-like structures. Their village is important because it not only has the only school for the region, serving some 100 children, but it also has the only medical clinic and grocery store. The village had a mosque but it was bulldozed by the Israeli Army. The home of the mayor was also bulldozed and the school has a demolition order hanging over its head. The village has no water, electric power or telephone lines. An oil generator provides electricity for the houses four hours a night and their only water supply comes from two wells outside the village.
Surrounding Tuwani on either side are two illegal Israeli settlements whose extremist residents belong to the national-religious movement. One of the most dramatic consequences of the settlement expansion in this region, particularly from an outpost of settlers located some 500 meters from Tuwani, is the risk children must take to get to and from school, a risk caused by settler violence.
Alex was part of the Christian Peace Maker Team whose members stand with Palestinians and Israeli peace groups engaged in nonviolent opposition to Israeli military occupation. Since 2004 Christian Peace Maker Teams have escorted Palestinian school children to and from school in Tuwani. Alex’s mission each day was to accompany grade school children from the neighboring villages some two to three kilometers away to Tuwani and to safeguard them from settler attacks. Despite the ever-present threat of harassment, of being pelted with stones and chains, the children were eager to learn and happy to attend school. On the side of their small school-house they painted a mural depicting happy images and smiling faces.
“When I see these children so intent on learning, so willing to risk their lives each day, my sense of despair eases slightly,” said Alex, who had been attacked and severely beaten a number of times.
The city of Hebron is a half hour north of Tuwani. Tariq was our host during our two-day stay there. His father had died eight years ago but because he was buried in a part of town now off-limits to Palestinians Tariq was denied permission to visit his father’s grave. When he told us this, we collectively said, “We will escort you past the Israeli soldiers so that you can visit your father’s grave.” As internationals we knew the soldiers would not dare stop us. We marched up a deserted street of boarded up Palestinian stores, all 13 of us, past heavily armed Israeli troops and slipped under the barbed wire surrounding the cemetery. Tariq, accompanied by three of the men in our group, knelt beside his father’s grave and paid his respects. After he had prayed, we retreated en mass down the deserted street back to our bus.
I came away from my two-week stay in Israel/Palestine with more questions than answers. In the case of the Palestinians how does a popular upswing of democratic thinking ever take hold against a backdrop of such a brutal Israeli occupation? In America how does the majority regain its voice and convert a “clash of civilizations” mindset into an urgently needed “dialogue of civilizations” so as to resolve this festering crisis?
I also came away humbled in the realization that I have much to learn about patience, fortitude, forgiveness and hope if I ever aspire to walk in the footsteps of the Palestinians, most of whom practice nonviolent resistance, who have learned from the likes of the great civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis, that hatred is too heavy a burden to carry.
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