SUSIYA, West Bank

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), which maintains a physical presence to help Palestinians in the West Bank, in July welcomed new team members and opened a new base in the South Hebron hills.

“The south Hebron hills area sees more violence by [Israeli] settlers than any other part of the West Bank, and the local communities there have often requested our presence,” said Pauline Nunu, EAPPI’s local director. Stone-throwing and scuffles often break out when militant Israeli settlers, claiming a biblical right to the land, harass both Palestinian residents and Israeli defense forces patrolling the area.  

The U.N. is expected to vote in September on the question of an independent State of Palestine, which Israel opposes, and Nunu said the group is apprehensive. “We fear that there may be a rise in both settler attacks and house demolitions following September’s U.N. vote, heightening the need for an international presence,” she said.

Founded in 2003 and coordinated by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, EAPPI receives volunteers from 15 countries and a wide range of denominations. The new EAPPI team, based in the city of Yatta, will cover some of the areas of the West Bank most affected by settler violence. Accompaniers, who are unarmed, also monitor checkpoints and accompany children to school in areas where they may come into contact with hostile settlers.

One of the new team members was injured in a scuffle at the beginning of the month when they came to the tent village of Susiya. The Palestinians called on the accompaniers to be with them because they were being harassed by settlers who had brought their sheep to graze near the vegetable garden the Palestinians had planted between Susiya and the Israeli settlement of the same name.

Among those injured in the stone throwing and shoving was an elderly woman, Hajja Sara Nawaja, her daughter and four-year-old grandson. Hajja Sara held up her weathered hand and showed where she was injured by a stone. Israeli soldiers were on the scene, but at first did little, she said.

“I felt a deep sadness at how quickly the violence broke out,” accompanier Jane Backhust, 43, a Catholic humanitarian aid worker from London, said on July 19 to a group of journalists touring the area. Backhust was among those injured.

A resident activist and representative of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, Nasr Nawajah, said that although they were unable to prevent the violence, EAPPI’s presence carried weight. “We have seen that the behavior of the soldiers when the internationals are among us is a bit less harsh then if we are just Palestinians in the middle of nowhere,” Nawajah noted.

Eventually soldiers moved the settlers away, the injured were taken to hospital for treatment and police reports were filed. Arrests have yet to be made though the EAPPI team has photographs and videos of the perpetrators.

Scattered in tiny enclaves with settlements built upon and abutting their land, Palestinian shepherds in villages in the South Hebron Hills are under both Israeli civil and military control and rely on Israel for everything from police protection to building permits.

Although Israeli settlements dot the landscape with red tiled roofs and neat gardens, Palestinians have not been able to build legally in the area since Israel took over the West Bank in 1967, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.