Israel Defense Forces soldiers raided a protest encampment in the South Hebron Hills late Saturday night, sparring with a group of largely American Jewish activists who had erected it a day earlier.
According to the activists, some 25 soldiers arrived at the “Sumud Freedom Camp,” which they had set up with the goal of reestablishing the Palestinian village of Sarura, near the Israeli outpost Havat Ma’on. Israeli officials said they had erected “illegal structures” in the area without a permit.
Some 10 Palestinian families had lived in caves in Sarura, but were forced to evacuate when the IDF declared the area a closed military zone in 1999. That evacuation sparked a legal battle that continues to this day.
While 300 activists arrived on the first day of the action, only 90 were still present when the army arrived Saturday night. Among them were roughly 60 American, Canadian, European and Australian Jews, along with 20 Palestinians and 10 Israelis, according to the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which was among the demonstration’s organizers,
The activists said that a group of soldiers shoved, punched, and kicked them, in addition to issuing verbal threats, removing the camp’s generator and tearing down three tents.
Despite numerous requests, the demonstrators said, the soldiers did not produce an evacuation order.
Footage showed the soldiers demanding that the activists leave and threatening them with pepper spray, and protesters hunkering down and locking arms.
“Are you going to arrest members of the American Jewish community? We stand against what you are doing here,” one activist could be heard telling soldiers.
After approximately 45 minutes, the soldiers left the area without making any arrests. Activists remained at the camp for the night, according to CJNV.
On Sunday morning, the demonstrators began rebuilding the camp, and said that additional members were expected to rejoin the group later on.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israel Defense Ministry unit that administers civilian issues in the territories, said the army had “seized a number of illegal structures near the Ma’on Farm [because] they were erected without obtaining the necessary permits…The outpost was established within a firing zone (918) where there is significant risk, and it is therefore forbidden to enter.”
Responding to the allegations of assault at the hands of the soldiers, a COGAT spokesperson said “the demonstrators tried to physically disrupt the forces in order to thwart the implementation [of the army order]. The soldiers acted in accordance with procedures.”
Palestinian activist Antwan Saca said that even had the IDF produced an evacuation order, the group would likely not have complied. “We did not build a new village,” he said. “This was an evacuated one. We came to protest, but only nonviolently and peacefully.”
“This is not the army acting inside of Israel, but in the territories. It is not legitimate governance,” he added.
Explaining the name of the camp, Saca, a resident of Bethlehem, said that “sumud means steadfastness in Arabic. We are steadfast in our nonviolent approach to ending the conflict, though it is not easy.”
He also linked the struggle to that of Native Americans at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the US. They made headlines last year protesting the construction of an oil pipeline that would run near their reservation on the border of North Dakota and South Dakota.
“Similar to what happened in Standing Rock, we are protesting for our right to remain on this land,” he said.
The activists are part of a coalition that included members of CJNV the Popular Resistance Committees of the South Hebron Hills, Youth Against Settlements, Holy Land Trust, Combatants for Peace and All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective.
The Sumud camp culminated a week of other actions in solidarity with Palestinians. Activists also volunteered in Umm al-Kheir, Sussiya, Hebron, and the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya, with cleaning and gardening.
Upon their arrival in the South Hebron Hills on Friday, the activists, some of them decked out in purple shirts with the phrase “Occupation is not my Judaism,” cleared and marked roads, cleaned cave dwellings, began repairing water wells, and erected two large shaded tents.
On Friday evening, members took turns keeping watch to give both Muslim and Jewish activists an opportunity to pray.
A drone flew overhead, but there was no direct interference from settlers or Israeli authorities until Saturday night, the CJNV said.
Responding to the weekend’s events, Har Hebron Regional Council Chairman Yochai Damari called the activists “war-mongers.”
“They acted contrary to the laws of the State of Israel when they built a building without permits in a closed military area,” he said.
“The Arabs on Mount Hebron have a good standard of living and good security. Not far from here, hundreds of thousands are being slaughtered in Syria and other Arab countries, but the voices of these ‘peace’ organizations are not heard,” Damari said.
He went on to laud the “excellent” ties between the settlers and the Palestinians resident of the South Hebron Hills. “Unfortunately, the extreme leftist organizations and the anarchists who do not live here are trying with all their might to destroy the good cooperation we have with our neighbors.”