When we met the residents the village of Sebastiya, they were angry. According to Mohammed, a representative of the local resistance movement, the nearby settlement of Shavrei Shomron has recently begun dumping raw sewage into agricultural land owned by the village. As the settlement is also home to an aluminium factory, there is no way of knowing whether this contains harmful chemicals and as a result, villagers are unable to eat or sell the produce grown there.
‘Our message is: get the shit out of here. We just want to farm our land in peace,’ says Mohammed, as we sit drinking tea in the centre of the village, preparing for a demonstration. It’s a Friday, and the plan is to march to the area of farmland where the sewage is being dumped for the villagers to make their Friday prayers.
Palestinians often have a relationship to the land that’s very different to most of us in the West. Palestinians (at least the ones that live in rural areas) not only depend on agricultural land for their livelihoods, but are working lands that have been in the family for many generations. Unlike the West, where it’s normal to move house and even cities several times, Palestinians have an emotional connection to the land that they know and care for and that was passed down to them by their parents and grandparents before them. ‘They say they love the land,’ says Mohammed, of the settlers, ‘but they do not love the land. They put shit on the land.’
We arrive at the main road, from where we can see the way to the farmland is blocked by an army jeep in anticipation of the march. The weather today is very strange, gloomy and oppressive. Later we learn that a sandstorm has come from the Sahara, interfering with Obama’s plans to fly to Bethlehem by helicopter, but for now we are more concerned about these crazy winds blowing tear gas in all directions.
Suddenly the jeep moves and disappears up the road. It looks as if this is a trap; the army is planning to wait for the demonstrators to march across the farmland then return and block the exit so that that we will be trapped. Soldiers are visible on the hilltops and there are probably more hiding among the trees. The village leaders make the decision not to proceed onto the farmland, but to stay on the main road to pray, where the army are unlikely to fire tear gas.
The demonstrators pray and hold speeches in the middle of the road, and the elders begin to head back, the demo officially over. A smaller group of youth, however, are disappointed with this apparent retreat and continue to march onto the farmland, accompanied by the Red Crescent first aiders with their gas masks and stretchers. They disappear into the distance, and a short time later we hear shouting and the sound of tear gas being fired. A few minutes the sting of tear gas reaches us on the breeze. The youth return, red eyed but otherwise unharmed.
Later we head to Isbet Tabib where villagers have set up a protest tent to oppose the demolition orders on village property, which includes the local community centre which also serves as the school and clinic. There are Palestinian and Israeli activists here from Combatants for Peace, an organisation of ex-Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian fighters who have come together to oppose the occupation on strictly non-violent, bi-national principles.
I have a conversation with one of the Israeli activists, who says the decision to work with the organisation was a very emotional one; he has just learnt, for example, that one of the group’s members served time in jail for killing four Israelis. He was released as part of the Oslo accords. Despite this, I sensed a genuine respect and friendship between the members of the group. It may not be that well known, but there are many Israelis engaging with Palestinians and working to influence Israeli public opinion to end the occupation. In fact, although the situation is often presented as an ancient antagonism between Arabs and Jews, Israeli and international Jews seem to be overrepresented in the anti-occupation movement.