HEBRON, Palestine — A former St. Marys resident is trying to save a thousand residents from losing their homes, schools and livelihoods in rural Palestine.
In the four months since Jonathan Brenneman arrived in rural West Bank region, south of Hebron with Christian Peacemaker Teams, spring has turned a barren fall desert into fields full of produce, where sheep graze, and animal pens and donkeys dot the eight small villages he works in. The families in the villages have farmed the area for generations, and lived there all their lives.
In the right picture, the villages would look like any other farming area, but that’s because in a picture a person wouldn’t hear the gunfire, explosions or military helicopters that mark day-to-day life in a military training site under Israeli occupation and the constant threat of demolition.
The Israeli government claims it needs the land, home to a thousand people, for military training.
However, Brenneman said the claim is part of a strategy to acquire more land. While the case is in court, the land will be used more often, but when the court case is over, the soldiers will move on to another acquisition.
Until then, residents are living side-by-side with the military, under constant threat of their homes, wells and schools being demolished.
The mayor invited Christian Peacemaker Teams to the region to bring attention to the problem. The area was selected, Brenneman said, because the people have little connection to the outside world, living with only a few hours of electricity per day.
Brenneman’s job is to act as a witness while the lawyers representing the residents fight in court to return the land to the people who live there — a battle expected to last until the end of the year.
A few days a week, Brenneman rides around in the area in a school bus. Drivers, he said, are afraid of getting arrested or harassed. However those problems are less frequent when international citizens are on board.
Brenneman also sleeps in a family’s home a few nights a week to cover the home from demolition during the vulnerable early morning hours when soldiers tend to strike.
“Staying with the same family, I get to know them really well — especially the kids,” Brenneman said. “I’m really scared for them, for what could happen.”
The people in the village have learned from the struggles of neighboring regions that having international witnesses is one way to prevent destruction. American internationals hold special sway, he said, because approximately 20 percent of the Israeli army is funded by the United States.
In 1999, the Israeli government tried to move a group of 700 people out of their villages, and off their from land.
Those villagers also fought their battle in court, but when it came to demolishing a school, international attention was what stopped the destruction. Residents of the region eventually won the right to stay. But the area was still under Israeli control, meaning the government decided whether to issue building permits. With previous structures demolished, and no permits to build new, living was difficult.
“People need basic structures. Water, toilets, homes, schools—structures,” Brenneman said.
Also, when the military moves in, Brenneman said soldiers are not good at cleaning up after themselves. Military debris, he said, is everywhere.
Recently a group of three boys who Brenneman considers friends took him to see an undetonated ordnance at a former military storage site.
In the village Brenneman is staying in, the government has already ordered that any new building is illegal, and people with destroyed homes often live in caves.
“It sounds weird to say they live in caves, but the caves are quite nice,” Brenneman said. “They have cement floors, and they fix them up pretty well.”
Moving isn’t an option, Brenneman said, because this is what the people know. They understand farming, and even if they have family in another region, they wouldn’t be able to do in another place what they do in the desert.
“These are people who are living here — well it’s hard enough as it is,” he said. “I mean they’re farming in the desert. What they’re able to do with land amazing.”
Though the land is disputed, he said, the people see the issue as political. The people do not personally hate the soldiers, and the soldiers don’t hate them. In fact, Brenneman said, one family was friends with two soldiers and hosted them in their home — the same home in danger of demolition.
“They still herd their sheep, plant their crops, raise their kids,” Brenneman said. “I mean these are farmers fighting against big government. That’s something St. Maryians can appreciate.”