Aletia Dundas, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Seated on a bag of flour placed on top of an upturned bucket in an isolated tent on the rocky fields of the West Bank I listen as Jibrin, a kind-faced Palestinian man, talks of his religious convictions and his troubles. I’m in the West Bank as part of a World Council of Churches program, to provide protective presence and monitor human rights.
Jibrin’s tent is all he has in the way of shelter. His grazing fields, crucial to his livelihood, stand less than a kilometre from the Israeli settlement of Susya. Frustrated by settlers who set fire to barley and wheat fields and attack his sheep, soldiers who turn a blind eye, and unjust arrests for crimes he didn’t commit, this shepherd is determined to remain on his land, no matter the cost.
And the costs have been significant. I wept as he spoke of his brother’s death at the hands of Israelis in the late 1960s. Ever since, his life has been marred by violence, injustice and fear. One nearby settler, who goes by the name Son of Mudahai, had come by just two days earlier with a gun and a big knife. A while back a neighbour was arrested and given a 20,000 shekel fine and 7 months jail time. Yet, Jibrin, a Muslim man, waxes lyrical about the similarities between the three main religions, and how, despite everything he has experienced in life, he still believes in the inherent goodness in others. His faith seems to give him courage and hope.
Jibrin’s home is in the Palestinian village of Qwawis where less than half a dozen families remain. In order for his sheep to have a healthy diet, he must regularly take them out to his fields for the day. What was once a relatively straight-forward journey is now fraught with danger. Multi-lane highways connecting settlements with cities now cut through Jibrin’s usual shepherding route, and I hold my breath as the sheep veer perilously onto the road. Settlements have appeared atop the hills where his sheep are accustomed to graze. As he speaks the odd and abrupt directives to his beloved sheep, Jibrin always has one eye on the settlement nearby.
My role as a human rights monitor and accompanier was to provide protective presence to people like Jibrin. During those three months I accompanied a number of shepherds, and activists, and children, all of whom were seeking to have their basic rights observed. And in many ways, they accompanied me on my own journey of understanding and insight. As I wandered alongside a flock of sheep, or carried trees to be planted by activists, or walked with children to and from school, I reflected on what it must be like to continually live under occupation and with human rights denied.
In my final week in Palestine, the worst happened. Jibrin was arrested on my watch. The ordeal began with the arrival of a settler who with a mobile phone in one hand and a pistol in his back pocket began hurling abuse at Jibrin. Jibrin remained firm. Our visitor retreated, only to make some calls, and not long afterwards the army showed up. Three army jeeps, plus the Israeli police and the civil administration appeared to respond to an unarmed shepherd whose only crime was to defiantly and persistently watch his flock on his family land that the administration seem to have now declared a closed military zone.
Suddenly I was receiving calls from our field officer and a local activist, both of whom were advising me to leave the scene, and advising Jibrin to leave too. We were both hesitant to follow those orders, but in the end I left and Jibrin remained. As his sheep meandered back onto the road, and had to be rounded up by his wife, I looked on helplessly as Jibrin was taken into the police vehicle and detained for the rest of the day. It felt as if I had failed him.
Jibrin is someone that I think of as a resistance shepherd, because the simple act of taking his sheep out to graze is his way of nonviolently resisting the occupation and all its impacts on the existing inhabitants. Each time he goes out, he doesn’t know what troubles he will face, but he sees it as a small but important role that he plays in nonviolently resisting an unjust system. Up until his recent arrest he was determined to continue shepherding on his land until they killed him. Now his sumud (steadfast persistence) is somewhat deflated. The last time I saw him, he told me he’d rather be killed quickly in Syria than slowly in this way. Then he burst into tears.
As we bid goodbye under these traumatic circumstances, I promised to share Jibrin’s story with others. I was struck by the differences between our two life journeys, and yet how we are forever connected through this shared traumatic experience. As Jibrin’s journey will inevitably take him and his sheep along that well-trodden path between his tent and the grazing land where he never knows what kinds of challenges he will face, my journey has taken me back to the familiarity and comfort of a home not under threat. But I will never forget Jibrin, or the way that he saw the world.
Aletia Dundas recently returned from 3 months in Palestine and Israel with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment programme. She was observing and reporting on human rights abuses, and providing protective presence to those nonviolently resisting the occupation.