ZANUTA, West Bank — A retired Catholic schoolteacher looked back over her shoulder toward the ridge where, moments earlier, three Israeli settlers had stood.
They were no longer there, and the two Palestinian shepherds she and four others were accompanying moved their goat herd farther down along the still-green field in the valley outside this tiny South Hebron Hills village.
“I would like to think that us being here had something to do with the settlers not coming down,” said Sue, from North Wales, who was among the first internationals to return, post-pandemic, as an ecumenical accompanier with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.
Like some other accompaniers, she asked that her full name not be used nor her face be photographed. Media reports have noted that Israeli security forces have been photographing internationals accompanying Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills.
More than likely their presence did restrain the settlers from facing off with the Palestinians, said an activist leader from the grassroots Israeli Ta’ayush volunteer organization, which accompanies Palestinian farmers in the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley.
Yasmin Eran-Vardi, 21, and Itai Feitelson, 26, two Israeli activists, accompanied the shepherds throughout the pandemic. One day, when no international accompaniers were present, settlers attacked the two Israelis.
Amin Milhem, 35, one of the two shepherds, said the settler outpost above his fields had been built in the past year in the absence of almost any human rights activists. The settlers also took over a water well Palestinians used to water their herds, he said, and now the shepherds cannot reach the water.
“For one year we haven’t been able to go there,” he said.
For almost three years during the pandemic, internationals were unable to participate in the accompaniers program. When the call went out for volunteers to be part of the accompanier team starting up the program again, Sue, who had been a part of the program several years earlier, knew she had to join.
“There was no question that this is where I had to be and what I had to be doing,” she said. It is the nonviolent presence to support the most vulnerable aspect of the program that helps her to live her faith and the tenets she had been teaching about peace, justice and human rights, she said.
“We are a nonviolent witness. It is not about Israeli-Palestinian, it is about international law and human rights. I wouldn’t automatically support somebody because they are Palestinian, but in most situations I witness here there is one group who is being oppressed.”
The World Council of Churches created the accompaniers program in 2002 following an appeal from local church leaders to create an international presence in the country. Accompaniers aim to offer a protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitoring and reporting human rights abuses. They work in conjunction with Palestinian and Israeli partners, including accompanying farmers and schoolchildren who face their daily activities sometimes under duress.
Sue said her role is to be a witness and report about incidents of confrontation or violence.
“We can highlight these things, witness and write this information and make sure it is reported. We take pictures from a safe distance and send our incident reports to the British government, the U.N. and the Red Cross,” Sue said.
In the absence of an international presence, Israeli human rights groups tried to maintain a presence in the South Hebron Hills, which has become one of the main confrontation points between Palestinian shepherds and Israeli settlers, who, activists say, are often tacitly supported by Israeli soldiers. Over the past years settlers have increased a new strategy, and now instead of constructing illegal hilltop outposts or waiting for government-approved settlements to be built, they have begun to establish their own goat ranches, allowing their herds to roam along large swatches of land, grazing on Palestinian fields meant to sustain the Palestinian herds over the dry summer months, more easily taking possession of land.
This is especially problematic now, as the Russian war in Ukraine has increased the price of imported grains and wheat, making it impossible for the shepherds to buy more food for their animals, which are their main source of livelihood.
Violent confrontations between settlers and Palestinians earlier this year resulted in the death of an elderly Palestinian farmer who was run over by a bulldozer, and numerous injuries among dozens of Israeli volunteer accompaniers, including rabbis and senior citizens.
“This is like the edge of the world where nobody looks at what is happening,” said Theodore, 71 an accompanier from Germany, who noted the presence of the volunteers. However, he added, “There is no place which God does not see.”