“Ahh Yanoun …….”
Written by Pat Ochodnicky, former Ecumenical Accompanier in Yanoun
As we rounded a curve in the road and I caught the first glimpse of the tiny Palestinian village that captured my heart in 2009, I drew in a deep breath and unconsciously sighed “Ahh Yanoun”.
My driver simply smiled. The Canaanites, the earliest known people in Palestine, called this village “Yanouh” which means “quiet and calm”. And in spite of the uncertainty of the survival of this buccolic community in the occupied Palestinian Territories today, tranquility is still the overwhelming first impression.
Early in 2009, I served a 3-month term as an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel, an initiative of the World Council of Churches. The key principles of accompaniment are providing a protective presence, monitoring human right violations, standing with local peace and human rights groups, advocacy, principled impartiality, and nonviolence. I was both privileged and challenged to be assigned, along with three other internationals, to Yanoun.
While most of the roughly 4000 acres of village and agricultural land in Yanoun is leased, the lease agreements date back to the late 19th century and have been passed down within families from generation to generation. During the 20th century, the population ranged from 150 to 200 or more. The economy was based on olives and olive oil, grapes, almonds and figs as well as sheep, cows and goats. An elderly villager smiles as he tells me his memories of riding his grandfather’s horse through the valley as a child.
Though not immediately apparent at the time, life would change dramatically for the Yanounis when in 1985 fundamentalist Jews established a settlement named Itamar in the hills only 10 kilometers west of the village. Over the next 10 years they expanded their territory, and by 1996 newly constructed buildings were visible on the hilltops surrounding the village on 3 sides. And for six more years , the village was under constant threat from the settlers whose activities ranged from beating men, threatening women and children, and mutilating animals to damaging and destroying utilities, contaminating the water, uprooting or burning trees, and confiscating village agricultural and grazing land. While the Geneva Convention states that an occupying power is responsible for the security and rights of the people on the occupied land, the Israeli Defense Forces and police either responded after an attack or destructive incident was over, or not at all, when called by the villagers.
This situation continued until October 18 of 2002 when a particularly violent attack caused all of the families, with the exception of two elderly men, to evacuate the village. This was the first time that an entire Palestinian community in the West Bank had been emptied by Jewish aggression, and the international press likened it to the Nakba of 1948. Led by the Israeli peace activist group, Ta’ayush, the international community responded immediately, promising to provide a continuous protective presence. Slowly, over a period of two years, the villagers began to return. However, the population never again exceeded 100 men, women and children. A protective international presence was shared among a number of peace organizations until June of 2003, at which time the EAPPI assumed full time responsibility.
The Yanoun of January 2009, when EAPPI Team 30 arrived, was composed of just over 100 people, roughly 60 in Upper Yanoun and another 40 in Lower Yanoun. Each family had shelters for sheep, goats and chickens, and a ‘taboun’ … an outdoor oven for baking bread.
There was a primary school with 15 students in grades 1-5; from grade 6 on they were bussed to Agraba, a couple of miles to the south. Water was at a premium, collected in tanks on top of the houses or in troughs that funneled it into a cistern under the house, since the village well had been destroyed by the settlers. An electric station built by the UN had been vandalized several times but there were a few lines coming into the village from Aqraba. Internet service was patchy at best.
Although harassment from the settlers in the outposts around and above us was still occurring, violent attacks had virtually ceased since the permanent addition of the international observers (with cameras) to the community. One member of the team was required to be in the village at all times and two members of the team on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath and the day when the most ‘mischief’ occurred. In addition to our primary responsibility of covering Yanoun, we also monitored the Huwarrah Checkpoint and visited other nearby towns and villages to take reports of demolitions, land confiscation, road blockages and similar activities.
The Yanounis were, and continue to be, a gentle and family oriented people who opened their hearts and their homes to us unreservedly. The rhythm of their daily life was based on the tasks dictated by the season. This is a conservative Muslim community and we quickly learned that we women must keep our arms and legs covered … not a problem in the cold and wet winter, but a real challenge in the hot summer … and that it was not appropriate to hang underclothes or socks to dry on the outdoor clotheslines.
During our term of service, we recorded and reported many incidents of armed settlers walking into the village. The moment someone called out “mustawteneen” (settlers), the children disappeared into thin air. Occasionally the settlers replied to our simple greeting “Shalom”. At other times they simply walked around, peering into windows and then left without a word. On one occasion when the women were alone, they actually entered a few homes and, without even acknowledging the occupant, opened drawers and cupboards and closets and then left.
But there were also pleasant hours of playing with the children, and conversation and laughter over endless cups of sweet tea or tiny cups of coffee with cardamom with the adults. We women helped to shell almonds, pick the tiny stones out of the rice that came in huge bags from US AID, and learned how to bake taboun bread and make cheese. Peter, the only male on the EAPPI team, often smoked and talked with the men in the evenings about the other villages we had visited during the day, events at the checkpoint, etc.
I’ve now (August 2016) returned to Yanoun to help provide “summer cover” for the village. Of the seven EAPPI placement sites, Yanoun is the only one that requires a continuous international presence. I’m delighted to be here, but am saddened by the changes I see.
As we traveled the short distance between Lower and Upper Yanoun, the most obvious change was the expansion of the illegal outposts on the hills surrounding the village. Where there were two buildings along the top of Hill 777 across to the east of us, there are now twenty structures and several roads. And we later see that there are many homes and roads on the back of that hill, which were not there previously. The same is true of the hill above and behind us, and there is now a large water tower on the hill alongside us. Despite the fact that outposts are illegal even under Israeli law, they have been provided with roads, water, electricity and a small military base. As the outposts have expanded, more and more of the village grazing and agricultural land has been confiscated. As a result, herd size has decreased and sometimes a sheep has to be sold to provide the money to buy food for the others.
The village population has decreased also. There are now only 32 men, women and children … mostly children … in Upper Yanoun, occupying six houses. They are all related. There are roughly 40 in Lower Yanoun (again mostly children) occupying two large family compounds and one single home. There are 8 students in the school and many empty houses.
There have been repairs to the roofs of several houses, and there are now ten greenhouses which were provided by the government of Abu Dhabi. Water was also piped into the village two years ago and there are some additional electric lines. Everyone has a cell phone and there is a TV in every home (with limited programming) However, the greenhouses, the new electrical lines and the portion of road leading into Yanoun which was paved since 2009, all have demolition orders.
There have been no incidents with settlers recently but the military does come into the village occasionally. Since we have been here they have come twice, once pounding on the doors of all the occupied homes at 3 a.m. and then leaving, and a second time driving through the village in their jeeps blowing the horns late at night. A week or so before we arrived, they made a late night visit and tossed sound bombs into the empty houses. These actions are so pointless that I’m just left speechless.
What is to become of Yanoun? Education is important to Palestinians and more and more of the children in the village are going on to university. Fees are paid in part by the sale of more sheep and in part by funds from family and friends in other countries. But with degrees in Electrical Engineering, Accounting, Management, and Internet Technology (currently in progress!), it isn’t likely they will return to farm in the old ways or even find jobs nearby. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with one of the young women who just completed a degree in Applied Chemistry and is sending out resumes. She plans to take some accounting classes also, just to add to her credentials. Her mother, her aunts and her grandmothers were all born in the village and have lived here all of their lives. When I asked her if her father had received any marriage requests for her (still a common practice), she replied that she wanted to work before marrying and having children.
The village is ‘aging out’ and there are no new families moving in. When we asked about the possibility of renting or selling the empty houses, we were told that they had to be handed
down from generation to generation within the family. We also suggested that they might think of making one or two of them into guest houses which would bring additional money into the village. There is actually one belonging to a son who lives in Saudi Arabia that is occasionally used as a guest house, but isn’t widely advertised. And while the Yanounis certainly want an end to the settlements and a return of their lands (entirely reasonable), it also appears that they simply want the freedom to continue unmolested in their old ways. A young settler I spoke with in 2009 when he was walking through the village said “a beautiful village, and one day this will all be ours”. Whether it is gradually squeezed out by settlers or eventually disappears by simple attrition, he is probably right. Ahh Yanoun.
I am serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as an Ecumenical Accompanier. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the WCC. Please do not forward or use any part of this communication without permission. Thank you.