Below are several reports from the visit of several villagers, villages group representatives and Rebuilding Alliance team the DC and NYC. All reports courtesy of Fiona Wright.
Six residents of the South Hebron Hills will travel together with two members of the Villages Group landed today in the U.S for a tour in Washington D.C. and New York City. Their ten-day trip is organised by our friends in the US ‘Rebuilding Alliance’. Fatma Nawajeh and her son Hamoudi and nephew Aysar from Susiya, and Ni’meh and Eid Hatheleen and their daughter Sadeen from Umm al-Kheir, will spend a week meeting with Congress men and women and Senators in Capitol Hill to tell their stories and represent the residents of South Hebron Hills and their struggle against demolition orders and the actions of the occupation authorities. Aysar and Sadeen will present the ‘Pinwheels for Peace’ project in these meetings, in which children from Susiya and Umm al-Kheir took part in June 2015.
The visit corresponds with International Peace Day, September 21st, and so we will take the chance to get the attention of policymakers and media in the United States about the struggles in the South Hebron Hills region. Apart from meeting with politicians there will be chances to talk with supporters and community members in Washington and in New York City, as well as a little time for sightseeing and having fun together in the two cities. The group will be accompanied by David Massey and Fiona Wright from the Villages Group who will help to present the work of the group in the region and to report on the tour.
On Monday we woke up early to get ready for the briefing in Capitol Hill at 12.00. The briefing was an open meeting in one of the house offices to which staff members of representatives of congress were invited, as well as members of the public. We had an hour to present and about 50 people attended – a mix of congress staffers, campaigners and friends in DC. Each member of the delegation, including the kids Aysar and Sadeen, talked during the briefing, each explaining a different part of the story of South Hebron Hills and the demolitions and expulsions. Naima told the crowd about what happened when her mother’s house was demolished in Umm al-Kheir and how her daughter Leen suffered for months after that day and what she witnessed there. Her talk was incredibly moving and later she explained that she feels a responsibility to represent the women and families of her village and region and to explain to the people she is meeting in the US about what these experiences do to people in her community. Fatma spoke about Susiya and how her childhood was marked by her family being expelled from the archeological site area in Susiya in 1986. She explained how her family and community have been affected by the demolitions happening over and over again. Eid spoke about the wider situation in South Hebron Hills and how so many Palestinian residents in the area live with the constant fear of demolition and the feeling of insecurity and anxiety that brings. He said how the reason they came to America was because they understood that the intervention of the State Department was crucial in postponing the demolitions in Susiya this year. He wanted to ask that Americans continue to ask their representatives to put pressure on Israel to stop the demolitions. David then spoke as a member of the Villages Group and explained how he was inspired by his friends in the South Hebron Hills and that where he finds hope is with them, and that he had come to ask that people from countries like the US and Israel use their privilege to demand that their representatives put pressure on Israel to stop the demolitions and not destroy the lives of communities in the South Hebron Hills. Aysar and Sadeen stole the show with their talks when they explained how they just want to live without the fear of settlers, demolitions, and seeing their families suffering. Sadeen said at the end of her talk that what she wants is ‘hurriya’, freedom. Kelly from Rebuilding Alliance explained for the briefing the current situation in Susiya and the negotiations with the Civil Administration, how the events of the last few months have played out, and what they are now asking happen in congress in terms of pressure on Israel.
After the briefing finished, although we were all very tired and happy with how the briefing had gone, we went to visit the offices of the 11 representatives who signed a letter in support of Susiya that was sent by Representative Anna Eshoo to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Kerry in July of this year, and that played a role in the State Department’s urging of Israeli authorities not to go ahead with the demolitions. We spoke to staff members in each of the offices and explained that we had now come to Washington to ask that US representatives continue to intervene and to support Susiya and other threatened villages in the South Hebron Hills. The visits to the offices were important to keep up relationships with these representatives that have spoken in support of Susiya and were also very interesting for us to see a little bit of how congress works.
We finished all these meetings at around four o’clock by which time we were all very tired and for the rest of the day we just relaxed and had some dinner – a very tasty falafel restaurant run by an Iraqi in Washington!
Another highlight of the day was when Aysar met an American cowboy on the way back to the guest house. See attached photo
After our time in Washington D.C. we arrived in Manhattan late on Thursday for some more relaxed days, although still of course very exciting and busy for the group. We had a couple of meetings with journalists who will hopefully write about the time of the delegation in the US and the situation of the South Hebron Hills villages (watch this space). On Saturday evening we were invited to a potluck dinner house meeting with members of Jewish Voice for Peace. This was a nice opportunity to connect with friends of the group and to meet some new faces and talk about what groups like JVP can be doing to support the villages. Apart from these meetings we saw some of the amazing sights of the city (thanks also to Chaim, Erella’s cousin, who lent us his tour-guiding skills) – walking across the Manhattan Bridge and looking back at the city at night, a trip across the water to the Statue of Liberty on Saturday afternoon, a visit to the site of Ground Zero and the memorials there, and of course some pilgrimages to the city’s temples of consumerism. The best moment came when, on Sunday evening as we happened to be walking on Fifth Avenue, suddenly there were a lot of police and all the cars were blocked from the street to make way for the entourage of President Obama, who was in town for the UN General Assembly – the group were delighted to have seen him drive by. We had hoped to have a face-to-face meeting to tell him about Susiya and Umm al-Kheir but this encounter came a close second.