The elderly woman sat cross-legged atop a worn tribal carpet on the dirt, her eyes downcast and swollen from tears. Above us, a plastic tarp hanging precariously on sticks flapped loudly in the wind as she began to speak. "You need to know what happened here today," she said in Arabic. "Today we lost everything."
Earlier, we had set out by truck to visit some of the projects Grassroots International supports through our partner the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC). Their work includes supporting Palestinian farmers through the provision of seedlings. Community-based agriculture in the occupied Palestinian territories is more than just providing food to families or a source of income for farmers -- it's a bold act of resistance to continual land confiscation. After spending time in UAWC's office in the West Bank city of Hebron, we were bumping down dirt roads in the sparsely populated South Hebron Hills.
"Take a right at the fork," Do'a Zayed, Coordinator of UAWC's National Seed Bank, said to the driver. Turning to us with a smile, she explained that up the road was one of the villages they have worked with for years. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in front of a heap of rocks that Israeli soldiers had put there as a roadblock. The driver cursed under his breath, put the truck in four-wheel drive, and went around it off-road. When we couldn't drive any further, we walked to the village.
But there wasn't really anything there. "This doesn't look good," said Do'a. "I think there has been an incursion." We passed people huddled along the side of a footpath. One family had gathered rocks from the arid terrain and built a small fire, offering us some tea.
Then the elderly woman motioned for us to come sit with her on the tattered rug. She paused before resuming her story, drawing circles on the carpet with a henna-stained fingertip and motioning for her grandson to join her side. The words started slowly, then quickened. "The soldiers came, they crushed our homes, they took our trees," she told us. Then she said "haram" -- the Arabic word for "forbidden." She repeated: "haram, haram, haram." She shared the painful details.
Just after dawn that day, close to 100 Israeli military personnel had arrived in the village without warning and uprooted roughly 1,000 trees -- bringing with them around 40 specialists to ensure that the plants were ripped from the root, according to the villagers. UAWC had provided the seedlings and worked hand-in-hand with the community for the five to eight years it took for them to start bearing fruit. Besides the olive, almond, and citrus trees characteristic of the area, the community was harvesting mint, onions, and medicinal herbs. Those small gardens had also been ripped up.
We learned that the trees had been uprooted in such a meticulous manner so that they could be replanted in Israeli settlements. One was precariously close, a nearby patch of suburbia dotted in green amidst the rolling desert -- locked gates manned by armed soldiers. Someone from the community recalled a time when Israeli soldiers told them their land was needed so that the settlement next door could use it as a recreation area.
Expanding settlements dominate the lives of Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills. There are now more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. Some come for the economic incentives the Israeli government awards them for living there, like housing supplements and cheaper access to public services. Others come to lay claim to the land with a religious fervor that can turn violent. The more extreme settlers have thrown rocks at Palestinian children on their way to school and set fire to mosques, with little or no reprimand from the Israeli State.
In fact, the Israeli government depends on incursions like the one that had taken place that morning for their territorial expansion in the West Bank. During the brief yet terrifying attack, the military also destroyed and carried away the communities' homes and tents -- leaving them with only their few scattered belongings.
Underneath her anger and pain, the elderly woman expressed steadfastness on behalf of her village. "We are determined to stay on our land," she said. People gathered whatever seedlings, perhaps dropped as the military was leaving, for replanting. Families worked to piece together temporary shelters for the night. Our colleagues from UAWC hurriedly took notes, to help document what had happened; and promised to return to the village and help them bear fruit once more.