TUESDAY, 28 MARCH 2017
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:14): Between November 2016 and February 2017, Australian Aletia Dundas was based in the southern Hebron Hills of Palestine, serving as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, a project of the World Council of Churches. She and her team monitored human rights abuses and provided protective accompaniment to Palestinian schoolchildren, workers and activists who faced the threat of violence or harassment as a result of Israel's military occupation.
The following are Aletia's reflections on her time in occupied Palestine:
Each Saturday morning we would accompany and observe local nonviolent land actions. These actions were usually organised by Palestinian activists who were joined by sympathetic Israeli activists, and a small group of internationals. Operation Dove, Ta'ayush and Christian Peacemaker Teams are some of the organisations that we work with. Operation Dove is an Italian peace organisation also offering protective presence to people affected by the military occupation. Ta'ayush is an Israeli-Palestinian human rights organisation that works for an end to the occupation through nonviolent direct action. Christian Peacemaker Teams is also committed to nonviolence and provides protective presence in Hebron and the surrounding areas.
As the sun beat down on the hillsides south of Hebron, a cheerful and determined band of residents headed off to plant a tree on their agricultural land a short distance from the Palestinian village of At Tuwani. Followed closely behind by a group of internationals and Israeli activists, they marched along the side of the hill holding olive seedlings, gardening equipment and flags. At the chosen spot some began to dig a suitable hole while a couple of women fixed a banner which said 'Women for freedom of movement' to a fence nearby.
I asked one of the Israeli activists from Ta'ayush what sort of difficulties they face when they participate in such actions. He told me that their car will often be stopped on the road as they travel from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and the Israeli soldiers will look for any possible reason to detain them. They have been arrested and questioned multiple times during land actions. Palestinians pay an even higher price for engagement in activism, and are subject to military courts rather than civilian. The role of Israelis who condemn the occupation and abuses of human rights is also important. The cost of nonviolent activism for all is high in a context like this.
Glancing behind this group, a short way up the hill I notice a few settlers beginning to gather by a small shed. These settlers live in an outpost near to the Jewish settlement called Ma'on. Both the Ma'on settlement and the nearby outpost encroach upon the land that belongs to the residents of At Tuwani. Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law. The outposts are too. Outposts were illegal under Israeli law until very recently. And yet, these settlers were clearly unsettled by the presence of a cheerful and harmless group of predominantly women and children standing up for their rights. So they called in the Israeli army for backup.
Within minutes six army jeeps, a police car and the civil administration vehicle arrived at the scene and surrounded our group, which was about 30 strong at the most. When the army first arrived, it wasn't clear what they would do. Eventually, they did the only thing they could legally do, which was to declare the area a closed military zone. Some of the soldiers were young men and women, aged still in their teens, who seemed hesitant and afraid. They briefly detained one Israeli man from Ta'ayush and ushered the rest of us back to At Tuwani.
But the action wasn't over. Reports came through that a group of about 30 settlers had entered the Palestinian village of At Tuwani. They were singing loudly and trespassing in various Palestinian homes. In a very relaxed way, and only because so many internationals were there as witnesses, the army encouraged the settlers to leave. None of them were detained or arrested as far as we know, and the tension was eventually dissolved.
This situation led me to reflect on the conditions needed to achieve justice through nonviolent means. Olive tree planting is such a beautiful metaphor. While olive branches have come to be understood as an international symbol of peace and conciliation, they also represent the homelands and livelihoods that are under threat while settlements continue to expand onto Palestinian land and while the military occupation continues. Planting more olive trees, and doing so on land that has been stolen, is an act of strength, resistance and summud (steadfast perseverance). While the Palestinians were the ones planting the trees, this tiny act of resistance would not have been possible without the witness and solidarity offered by Israeli and international friends.
I congratulate Aletia Dundas for her work monitoring human rights violations by Israeli settlers and the military, and for providing protective accompaniment to Palestinians harassed because of the Israeli military occupation.