Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Back in Yanoun

I have just returned to Yanoun. I was here once before, and I would have liked it to be different this time, but it’s not. Settler trailers still tower above the village in all directions, forming an almost unbroken chain that continues to choke the dwindling community of Palestinian farmers and shepherds. The nearest settlement, Itamar, is a full 4 miles away, but several of its illegal outposts are within a stone’s throw of tiny Yanoun. Settlers in the area are known for their support for Kach, a Jewish extremist group sharing its origins with Kahane Chai. Illegal and underground since 1994 when member Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron, Kach advocates creating “conditions of a negative magnet that will bring the Arab population to prefer to emigrate.” Translation: They’ll do what they can to get the Palestinians out.

Sponsored by Israeli and US tax dollars, settlers have been coming down the hills into Yanoun for several years, terrorizing the local population in unimaginable ways.[1] Since a series of particularly violent attacks on farmers and their land forced inhabitants to flee in late 2002, there has been a constant international and/or Israeli activist presence in Yanoun. While the presence may be psychologically comforting to the families who have returned to their homes, it has not been fully effective at preventing settler raids and attacks, which continue to this day.

At night the bright lights of the outposts shine down on the quiet village. I am watching them glare down now, so harsh in the rural setting. I have just returned from dinner with old friends whom I remembered from last year: a young girl and her niece, both 11 years old. I recognized one immediately and they welcomed me into the house. Their mother, Um Hani, immediately invited me to stay for dinner and scolded me for buying vegetables in Aqraba that day when I should have known her home and food were mine as well. We took a walk around the house towards the fields, and the girls competed to see who could pick me the largest and juiciest cactus stem, a delicacy I had never tried before. They labored over the prickly skin and left me with the fruit.

Um Hani offered me a cup of tea. I asked that she make it without sugar, to which she replied, “Are you sick, too?” Um Hani, like many Palestinians, is diabetic. But she continues to cater to the sweet tooths of her husband and children. She eventually returned to cooking while I hung out with the girls outside. Suddenly an army jeep drove by with its lights on. My heart skipped a beat, but the girls remained unfazed. I guess children around here either live in constant fear, or become fearless.

Back at the International House, I have been reading letters and literature written by the settlers of Itamar and its outposts. It seems the settlers around here are nothing short of fanatics carrying out a violent campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of Palestinians. They believe that this land belongs to the Jews and always has, and that future generations of Israelis will look back on the settlers’ sacrifices and struggles to “save their promised land” with pride and honor.

The villagers of Yanoun are also thinking about future generations. Many families have come back because they fear that if they leave now, neither they nor their children will ever be able to return. They do not want to repeat the mistake of their elders in 1948, many of whom evacuated for fear of being attacked, expecting to return home shortly. They were never allowed back, however, and now their homes lie buried under the state of Israel.

The settlers around Yanoun are something else. They are currently aiming to raise more than US$3.5 million for settlement “needs,” such as bullet-proof cars, trained guard dogs, and a petting zoo. They have sent out appeals on the web; all donations to the settlement are tax-deductible for US tax-payers, another testimony to the marriage between right-wing settlers and the Israeli and American governments. The illegal outposts around Yanoun have already gone from nothing to being equipped with a water tower, a fish farm, concrete buildings, and electricity. Avri Ran, the infamous settler terrorist who beat up my Israeli friend David, has built an extensive free-range chicken farm and organic farm on the land he stole from villagers of Yanoun. He sells the chickens’ eggs throughout Israeli with the “free-range” label. What a predicament for conscientious Israeli consumers: Should they support free-range chickens or free-range Palestinians?

I was supposed to come to Yanoun with a colleague, but a last-minute emergency kept her in Haris. So I am the only foreigner in the village. Normally this would not bother me; on the contrary, I enjoy being the only foreigner. But here, it means that I will be much less effective should anything happen, and I am also more vulnerable. If they would rip a fellow Israeli’s nose apart, what would they do to me?

I am afraid. I am afraid that the settlers will come down to the village tonight and I will not be able to prevent or deter them. I am afraid they will beat me if I try to stop them, and I am afraid I will not be able to keep myself from confronting them. I am afraid, and yet I’m glad that I am here, and not safe at home watching television. I know I am where I am supposed to be, and something about the fear makes me feel present and alive.

Still, I am taking a gamble: I could get hurt, but I could also mean the difference between a situation escalating and calming down. Is this a gamble worth taking? Or am I as crazy as some people say I am? My friend Luna helped me answer these questions by setting me straight:

Don’t overestimate your importance in this struggle. Your presence is not helping end the Occupation in any significant way. But, here’s my perspective: I gave up on world peace a long time ago. Humanity is doomed, one way or another. The question is, where do I want to be on the sinking ship? I can’t live a normal life knowing that this injustice is going on and I could have been here as a witness and a worker, small as my role may be. So that’s my answer: I hate this, but I’m so grateful to be here.

I have a bit more optimism left in me than Luna, but otherwise her words echo my sentiments. I’m here because I could not stand to be anywhere else.

[1] See 2003 entry entitled “Outposts, Settler Violence, & the Village of Yanoun” for more information on the village’s situation and history.***

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