Who are we?
We started as a group of Israeli individuals who, since 2002, have maintained daily contact with residents of two villages in the Nablus area: Salem and Deir El Hatab. We have provided support to help them sustain and develop their communities under extremely difficult physical and emotional conditions. To date, we are not a formal organization but rather as an alliance of individuals who feel that the situation calls us to action. We do not operate under any banner or ideology, nor do we wage organized advocacy campaigns. Rather than confront settlers or soldiers (where we are less effective), we choose instead to work where we can be most effective: in the human sphere.
As a result of on-going visits to the villages over the last four years, our contacts have evolved into partnerships with mutual responsibility and dedication. We now consider ourselves one group with both Palestinians and Israelis partners.
What are our basic assumptions?
Our country’s reality is that of two national groups – the Palestinian and the Jewish-Israeli – who share the same geographic space and are engaged in a long-term conflict. In such a reality, the possibility of progress towards normal human and political relations between Palestinians and Israelis as individuals and groups depends – to our understanding – upon two complementary processes.
One process is (supposed to be) carried out by the political leaderships of the two groups. Some day, they will hopefully set up an agenda aimed at achieving stable agreements that would eventually lead towards normal relations between the two nations’ political entities. The second process is composed of daily interactions, which keep occurring all the time between us, individuals of the two warring groups. Since we live next to each other in the same country, such an interaction is inevitable, whether via economic activity, via the use of the same shared resources and services, or simply via basic mutual human relationships. The reality of ongoing conflict between our two national communities, presents to each and every one of us the daily dilemma: how far do we let the national hostility disrupt our joint material and human interest in maintaining work, trade, cultural and friendship relationships between us. For such relationships to be normal, of course, they must be based upon fairness and mutual respect.
These two processes, the top-down political process and the bottom-up grassroots process, affect each other for better or worse. Any political improvement would doubtlessly greatly enhance the possibility of normal daily relations between individuals. Conversely, a significant and consistent improvement in relations between individuals and grassroots groups in human, cultural and economic relations can send a strong signal and incentive to the political leaderships, encouraging them to proceed towards a comprehensive settlement.
While the responsibility for the top-down political process clearly rests with the formal leaderships, the responsibility for the little-noticed bottom-up process is placed upon the shoulders of each and every one of us, Palestinian and Israeli, at any given moment. This activity, whether or not it is perceived as political, gives clear priority to individual lives and local issues.
Therefore, our Villages Group aims its activity to improve awareness and familiarity between Palestinians and Israelis, and to deepen the human relationships between them. Our working assumption is that patiently creating and maintaining an infrastructure for such relationships on the local and personal level, is essential for the possibility of peace between the two nations, especially in the present, when peace seems so far away.
How Does This Play Out in the Present Reality?
From the above-mentioned perspective, the history of Palestinian-Israeli relationship over the past 40 years – since the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – can be divided into two main phases:
- The Open-Passage Phase – from the start of Occupation in 1967 until the first intifada (Palestinian uprising) in the late 1980’s, the Israeli authorities pursued what was known as “the open-passage policy”. Palestinian work inside Israel was enabled and encouraged, and therefore passage of Occupied Palestinians from their Territories to Israel and back was almost completely unhindered.
- The Separation Phase – Since the first intifada we are witnessing a gradual but consistent process, a process that has been accelerated during the second intifada (since late 2000), with no end in sight. Israel’s government has reversed its previous policy, and has been aiming at a complete separation between Palestinians and Israelis. This policy is implemented using checkpoints, roadblocks, closures, curfews, barriers, etc., preventing Palestinian movement from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel, and also from West Bank towns and villages to areas within the West Bank deemed ‘essential’ for Israeli settlements, outposts or ‘security needs’.
Each of the two phases has shaped the consciousness of a generation of Occupied Palestinians and Occupying Israelis:
- Many Palestinians (mostly men) who came of age during the open-passage phase have become acquainted not only with the military and fanatic (settler) aspects of Israeli society, but also with its civil and human aspects. Many of these Palestinians have become fluent in Hebrew, have traveled across the country and met a wide variety of Israelis. Moreover, the strong economic interdependence between Israelis and Palestinians during that phase, and the fact that Palestinians stayed for extended periods in Israeli towns and villages while working there, and were frequent visitors (albeit as laborers) inside Israeli homes, mandated a web of familiarity relationships between Palestinian laborers and many Israelis.
- On the other hand, Palestinians coming of age during the current separation phase have not been afforded the opportunities their fathers had to get to know the more human and less violent and militaristic aspects of Israeli society. The two types of Israelis young Palestinians meet nowadays are soldiers and settlers. This contact is laden with subordination and violence, and devoid of any of the former human familiarity and cooperation. Conversely, most Israelis (except for settlers and the minority who has to spend time in the Occupied Territories as Occupation soldiers) have no direct contact with Palestinians anymore.
- The present generation of Palestinians and Israelis can be described as a lost generation. Most crucially, it does not have the ability to base its opinions and world-view upon direct and diverse personal interaction with people on the other side. As a result, the complex and multidimensional Palestinian-Israeli experience has been replaced by a one-dimensional experience of severance and alienation. This in turn facilitates the emergence of a stereotypical consciousness that categorizes all Jews as inhuman Occupiers and all Palestinians as terrorists and potential suicide bombers.
In this state of affairs we, peace-loving Palestinians and Israelis, face a dilemma. The first choice, which is much easier for many (but not for us) is to go with the current, adapt and adopt the old-new stereotypes and generalizations that strip The Others of their humanity and uniqueness. The other option, infinitely harder and more demanding, is to recognize that due to the almost hermetic blocking of Israeli-Palestinian interaction inside Israel, we must transfer the scene to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, wherever the option for such interaction has not been blocked by the Occupation authorities yet – that is, mostly in rural areas of the West Bank.
During the past five years, against the violent, difficult backdrop of bloodshed and alienation, we have established and deepened our direct familiarity relations, by way of long-term mutual commitment. This is fed by regular visits of the Israelis among a growing circle of Palestinian friends, in various West Bank villages.
We would like to emphasize again: these partnerships are being established in a reality of stark asymmetry. Israelis are free to move wherever they wish to. Palestinians are denied the right of mobility. Israelis provide humanitarian aid, while Palestinians need it. Israelis – whether they like it or not – are part of the Occupying nation, while Palestinians are occupied. Israelis have an easy, direct contact with the outside world, while for Palestinians this is all but impossible. In such an asymmetry, which has been continuously becoming worse over the years, it is difficult for Israelis (and for overseas donors) to maintain the essence of partnership and mutual relations.
There are two dangers here. One is of becoming professional philanthropists; the other is of embracing the illusion that we can be saviors. From our work, we continuously learn how to walk the fine line of mutuality even when the external reality is so asymmetric. Naturally, had the tables been turned, our Palestinian partners would have to face the same dilemma.
Our mode of operation
For more than four years, a little over a dozen Israelis calling ourselves “the Village Group” – some of us with significant prior experience in humanitarian work – have been visiting the Palestinian villages of Salem and Deir El Hattab. These two villages are located just east of Nablus – wedged between that city’s refugee camps, and the Israeli settlement of Elon More. Visit frequency depends upon the political and military situation, and ranges between several times per week to once a month. Our small number gives us flexibility. This is essential in view of the Occupation situation, since we are not a welcome element in Army and settler eyes. During the first two and a half years, we sneaked into the villages without the military’s knowledge, for lack of choice. During the past year and a half, we have been entering via a checkpoint. We do this due to the pragmatic relationship we have established with the Army, and due to the consistency of our presence.
Our contact with these specific villages started in 2002, following the IDF’s re-Occupation offensive to territories evacuated a few years earlier under the Oslo process (the offensive was known in the media as “Defensive Shield”). These villages, like many others, were in dire straits because of hermetic curfews and closures. We were answering calls from people in need of life-saving humanitarian help (medicine for an epileptic child, an urgent heart surgery for another, etc.). Afterwards, we began supplying medicine to the villages’ clinics, and established a contact between seriously ill residents and Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in order to arrange for treatment inside Israel. Thus, a foundation of mutual trust was laid, in circles wider than the people who were in direct daily contact with us.
With time, the total closure has been eased, and a permanent direct travel route to Nablus was re-established. Nablus provides the villages with employment, health services, higher education, sanitation, and so forth. We have continued visiting the villages, and expanding the circle of relationships by our work of “mending” – consoling victims of Army or settler violence and their families.
This mode of operation has enabled us to achieve the dual goal we have set for ourselves: to renew the direct interaction between Palestinians and Israelis belonging to the ‘Open-Passage’ generation, and to allow Palestinian youngsters coming of age during the ‘Separation Phase’ to become acquainted with Israelis, in an open, human and mutually respectful contact.
Our support inevitably includes help that requires financial expenses. Here are a few examples:
- In August 2004, taxi driver Sa’el Jebara of Salem was murdered by a settler from nearby Elon More. Mr. Jebara was married and father to six children, two of them blind. In our first consolation visit, we met the two blind children: 18-year-old Yasmeen and her 14-year-old brother Mohammed. Since then we have maintained ongoing contact with the family. We brought the blind siblings for expert diagnosis in Israel (with PHR’s help). The eye expert determined that there is no way to return their eyesight. This type of appointment, besides the intense coordination needed with the Army, involves travel expenses and loss of workdays. So far, we have been funding these ‘background’ expenses out of our own pockets.
The following year, Yasmeen graduated from high school, and is now a college student at A-Najjah university in Nablus. We arranged for her a special PC with software for the blind, using donations by private individuals who answered our specific plea.
- Throughout our contact with the villages, we have been helping them during the olive harvest. Because of the deterioration of Palestinian economy due to the severe limitations, olives have become a main source of income for residents. Our aid is needed, because settlers have targeted this harvest, vandalizing trees and attacking farmers with exceptional brutality. Initially, our help focused on the harvest season only. Since October 2005, we have embarked on an ongoing, year-round campaign of olive orchard rehabilitation. This demands more intensive presence and larger funds. We received a one-time grant from the New Israel Fund, to help rehabilitate over 1,000 trees belonging to Salem farmers, which were destroyed by settlers. Needless to say, this work requires close cooperation not only with our personal friends in the villages, but with entire village councils. In Deir El Hattab we plan to start a similar campaign, but lack adequate funding at present.
- In September 2006, Jalaal Odeh of Deir El Hattab was killed by a soldier near Hawwara checkpoint. He was the only provider for his family. His two brothers, college students, were supported by his work. Moreover, upon his death his entire family has automatically received “Shin Bet Prevented” status (meaning, they are now at risk of performing revenge attacks and therefore should be denied mobility), and the two students will not be able to continue their studies beyond the current term.
We met the family during a consolation visit, and joined the fundraising effort to enable the brothers to finish their schooling. An at-large plea was sent to peace activist mailing lists in Israel and abroad. So far, only the current term is guaranteed. We also intend to file a High Court petition against their classification as “Shin Bet prevented”, probably in a class-action suit jointly with other cases. Needless to say, such a petition requires funds.
- As mentioned in a footnote above, some of us also work with the cave dwellers of South Hebron hills. These people are the poorest of the poor, have been disenfranchised again and again by the Occupation authorities, and are under a perennial threat of expulsion. The villages are very small and are scattered over a large region. We are currently helping the residents of Sussia village, by funding school transportation for their children. The school is in Tuwani village, and transit is the only option for the children to receive schooling without being cut off from their parents. If we obtain more funds, we may be able to extend this solution to other villages in that region.
These examples do not represent the full range of our activities. Our activities encompass healthcare, welfare, support of personal and community self-empowerment (in this activity, we have collaborated with a local welfare association at Salem), legal support, agricultural support and more.
Last but not least, we function as a conduit to deliver stories about grave events occurring in the villages and tragedies that village residents suffer, to the Israeli and international press. In bringing out the stories of the villages, we help the unheard, oppressed and occupied village residents receive a voice.
The essence of our project is partnership, and the strengthening of partnership with time. Out of this core, more and more channels of activity open up, a select few of which were described here. Unfortunately, the reality we live in keeps producing opportunities for joint action. As the situation worsens, our partnership deepens, and with the Palestinians’ need for financial assistance increases. This financial assistance is crucially important, yet it is a result of the relationship, not its cause. As Abed of Salem once said: “Even if you bring nothing, we will be so happy to see you. You don’t understand what it means for us when you arrive…”
The partnership we have created so far, which continues to deepen, could be (and is) seen as a model. Many Palestinians in other villages, and many Israelis we know, are ready to experience a similar future of joint action, with help and coaching from us and from other experienced activists.
Perhaps we cannot bring about a general peace, but we can perform deeds of peace.
 A key milestone – little noticed at the time outside of Palestine, except by human rights workers – was the first complete closure of the West Bank and Gaza, announced during the first Gulf War in January 1991.
 Later on, some members of the group have begun a similar engagement with the cave dwellers of the South Hebron hills, in the West Bank’s southern edge.
 From mid-2002 until sometime in 2004, the villages (and a third village called Azmout) were practically an open-air prison. This happened not because they themselves were of interest to the Army, but because they became trapped between two perimeter rings set up to isolate and control Nablus.
 We have also managed to pull important mainstream Israeli groups into the action, including the operations department of the Kibbutz movement.
 For example, settler vandalism against the Salem olive farmers was a top news item in Israel for several weeks in 2005, and received the attention of several leading columnists.