“They came with dogs and guns, every Saturday at night. They beat men in front of their children. One Saturday they said they didn’t want to see anyone here next Saturday, and that we should move to Aqraba. The whole village left that week.” – Rashid Murrar, Mayor of Yanoun
Before 1996, the little Palestinian farming village of Yanoun lived in relative peace. Sixteen years later and it has become a symbol of all that is rotten in the West Bank. A visit here illustrates the harsh realities of living with settlers.
Yanoun lies about 15 kilometres south east of Nablus. It also lies 12 kilometres away from one of the biggest Israeli settlements in this area.
The Itamar settlement was formed in 1985 by a group of extremist Jews. Being so far away from Itamar, this wasn’t an immediate issue for the inhabitants of Yanoun but, during the mid-nineties, the settlers started building ‘outposts’ – small groups of villages outside the main settlement. Slowly but surely, as more outposts were created, they started to get closer and closer to Yanoun.
Today, in hills that surround the village, there are eight outposts. Their watchtowers are a constant blot on the horizon, their floodlights at night a persistent reminder of their presence. The closest outpost is now just 400 metres away.
Yanoun to the right, a settlement to the left in the hills
Yanoun is a perfect example of how Israelis use settlements and outposts to slowly exert control.
After 1996, as the outposts increased in number, villagers started to experience attacks by settlers. Electricity generators were destroyed, men were beaten up in front of their children, water springs were ruined and sheep were poisoned.
By October 2002, as the attacks from settlers increased, the villagers unsurprisingly got to the stage where they had had enough.
On 18th October, they collected their things and left the village.
As international awareness of the situation grew, an group of international and Israeli NGOs decided to set up an ‘international house’ in the village. The helped the villagers return to Yanoun, safe in the knowledge there would be a constant international presence to help protect them.
To this day, the NGO EAPPI arranges for six volunteers to live in the house for three months at a time to watch over the village.
The international house in Yanoun
The international presence helps keeps settlers and IDF soldiers at bay. The volunteers walk through the village morning and night and keep a record of any settler activity that occurs.
Occasionally, the EAPPI volunteers need to leave the village for a few days and so, at this time, Project Hope (the organisation I am working with in Nablus) supplies its volunteers to stand in for them at the house. So today I am here in Yanoun with three other volunteers for one night.
Children playing in the street
Walking round the idyllic village as the sun sets, chatting to the residents, it is hard to fully comprehend why there is such turmoil here. It’s a sleepy farming village with about 70 residents.
As we walk we see herds of sheep and other livestock, we are offered fresh goats’ cheese being made by some of the women of the village and, after playing football with some of the children, are invited into one of their houses to drink mint tea with their parents.
Unfortunately, the international presence alone doesn’t stop regular attacks from settlers. Farming has always been the main source of income for this area and there are plenty of stories of olive trees being ruined by settlers or sheep being stolen, poisoned or killed.
Sitting here on the balcony of the international house at night, with the stars in the sky, look around the hills that surround the village and you see the lights of the settlements and the military jeeps making their patrols.
The view from the international house in Yanoun
The constant squeezing of this village by the Israelis is far subtler that the headline-grabbing physical attacks by extremist settlers. As this is classified as ‘Area C’, the villagers aren’t allowed to build new houses – this means that when children grow up and get married, they often leave the village to live elsewhere. This affects population growth.
The farmers too are heavily restricted – they are only permitted access to their olive groves that sit in the hills surrounding the village for three days a year. This doesn’t give them enough time to care for the trees, let alone complete the harvest, bringing significant economic impact.
Ten years ago, you could reach Yanoun in about 20 minutes from Nablus via a main road. That road still exists, but is under Israeli control. Now the journey takes over 50 minutes.
It’s yet another example of what the villagers call ‘transfers by stealth’. A combination of economic, physical and psychological attacks on the village over a sustained period, that would normally be enough to cause the villagers to flee, were it not for the international support from organisations like EAPPI and the UN.
Yanoun is a perfect microcosm of this entire area. Walking through the town, speaking to villagers, this could be any small farming community in the world. But a glance up to the hills and the feeling that you are being watched and occupied is impossible to ignore.
Rashid and his family with their sheep
Israel’s determination to grow and enlarge its settlements over the last ten years – something that Yanoun is testament to and something that Netanyahu has been far more vocal about recently – screams one thing very clearly to me: this is about more than just occupation.
Rather than looking at ways to create a two state solution, Israel is entrenching itself in the West Bank. The longer this continues and the more widespread it becomes, the harder it will ever be to reach a peaceful resolution.
And that’s all the villagers in Yanoun want.
You can see more pictures from Yanoun here
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