I've been involved in Jewish-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations all my life. Most of my work has been individual and process-oriented, less collective or revolutionary. In 2002 there was a large-scale closure and it was impossible to contact Palestinians. It was also a difficult year for the olive harvest. A few of us got together very spontaneously: Ehud Krinis from my kibbutz, Yaacov Manor and I met, and we went to work on the olive harvest. At the time the army wasn't involved, even though its role has changed since then, partly due to our work. We operated in villages in the Nablus area: Deir al-Hatab, Salem, Akraba, Hawara and Yanoun.
In Deir al-Hatab we met a man who was very excited to meet us. His story began a few months earlier, when his daughter Tbarek, who had epilepsy, ran out of medication. He was desperate because he couldn't get the medication anywhere and he sent out an email through a Palestinian relief agency requesting people help him. An Israeli named Assaf Oron encountered his email and sent the medicine to Nablus for him through Aramex. In order to reach Nablus the man had to pass the checkpoints separating the three villages Deir al-Hatab, Azmout and Salem from Nablus. He stood in front of the checkpoint with his daughter for several days and the army refused to let him through. In the end, when he finally managed to pass, his daughter died at the hospital entrance. Assaf was about to leave for Seattle for his Ph.D. He knew Ehud and asked him to reach the man he had never met, and continue the relationship. Since the issue with the medication, Assaf had spoken to him on the phone every day.
A few months later, we visited [Deir al-Hatab] and met the man. We came for the olive harvest - to check how things were. We didn't know where to enter from or how to pass, vis-à-vis the army. We also met with Abed al-Hakim in Salem, who also helped us get involved in the harvest, and that's how our relationship with both villages began.
Ehud and I devoted ourselves to these villages, which we chose because they were completely closed off and isolated, impossible to enter or leave, more than other villages. We realized we needed to take a different approach - coming with only few people and not as part of an "operation" the media would cover. Because there was no way for us to enter, we sneaked in. It's difficult to describe these experiences. We never saw ourselves as a group, never named ourselves. People joined us by word of mouth. We would call each other and ask who could come that day. We went there every few weeks, four to six people - that was a good number. At first we were able to enter by car and drive in through a path, but later the army blocked that way and we had to hide the car by the checkpoint.
After we had been meeting for two or three years, on one occasion we happened to be a group of thirteen. That was the largest number of people that ever came together. Usually we took at least two cars but that time Yaacov suggested we leave our cars at the meeting place in Kafr Kassem and hire a minibus to take us to one of the villages. When we got close to the drop-off point, a military jeep passed us. A minute later it turned around and stopped us. Ehud said we were on a trip of the area. The officer listened and it seemed to sound fine to him and they drove off. We started walking towards the village and from the corner of my eye I saw soldiers coming down the hill from the road. It was important that we reach the village because we had letters to deliver, especially the letters from Physicians for Human Rights. This was a very difficult period and [for the villagers] meeting us sometimes meant substantial help, and it was really important we reach them. We decided that three of us would sit and wait for the soldiers and the rest would walk really quickly to the village. We reached the village before the soldiers managed to reach the point our three members were waiting.
We reached the village council building where people were waiting and said, "Listen, we think we won't be allowed to stay here today, let's get organized quickly". The saga began: our friends who stayed behind - Ehud, Yaacov and someone else I can't remember who - called us and said that the soldiers were saying if we didn't leave immediately they'd enter the villagers' houses. That was their method - the soldiers would harass people. We told them we were leaving and were just finishing up what we came to do. People from the village accompanied us to the girls' school, which was then under construction, and we parted ways there because they weren't allowed to continue.
We stood on the hill, saying our goodbyes very warmly. We knew each other for two or three years by then and we had a very strong relationship. I remember I said, "We're going and we don't want bad things to be done to you. But remember you can't steal everything from people. You can rob land, property, lots of things - maybe even health - but you can't rob people of their freedom. You can't! No one will take away our will to continue our relationship, you can't take that away." I had a strong urge to say this, and I saw everybody was crying, myself included. It was moving and I didn't plan to say it, it was just the way I felt. We said our goodbyes and we Israelis glided down the hill to where twenty armed soldiers were waiting.
Walking by me was a Russian soldier who had immigrated to Israel a year before and barely spoke Hebrew, and by the time we reached the road we were good friends. I told him about what we were doing, and how it was humanitarian work, not political work. I introduced it very simply, so he could relate to what I was saying. The soldier said he understood us. When I started walking with him he clenched his gun by his side. I said, "You're walking with me, do me a favor and let go of the gun. It's making it difficult for me [to talk], this toy is bothering me. Let it go, just put it down. Don't walk with it." "But I was ordered to", he said. "You were ordered to but you're walking with me. If you don't want to let go of it move away from me." That's how that round ended. On the way back I thought to myself, what is it about belonging? Who exactly do I belong to? What is identity? I could deal with the question at that moment, as we left our friends. Who is friend, who is foe? Why the confusion?
Our work has changed according to the circumstances. In 2005 the villagers were able to cross into Nablus, without being stopped at a checkpoint. Things changed and that affected the type of work we did, but we always based our work on core interpersonal relationships in response to the direct damages the occupation created, and this happened very often. Gradually the group of [Israelis] we met through working at villages grew. Our work got practical, such as Uri Pinkerfeld from Kibbbutz Revadim, who works to restore olive trees. We are unique in that we are a group of people and yet we aren't afflicted by organizational diseases. Each of us works according to our knowledge, strengths and capacities. Something about the trust and the lack of ego enables us to do combined and unorganized work. This had and still has many advantages. At a certain point we widened the scope of our work to the Southern Hebron Hills, Ehud knew people there through Ta'ayush. Being geographically close to our kibbutz helped, it's like our backyard because a 40-45 minute drive in the Negev is nothing. That's how we started working there as well.
Our relationships with people led us, and still lead us to deal with the trouble and needs people face, inspiring us to help as much as possible. There are different ways of aiding people, some involve money. We invited people to join our activities and money started coming in - small sums - for example, to cover the cost of the driver who takes the schoolchildren in the Southern Hebron Hills from Sussiya to A-Tuwani, or to fund a rare drug that costs a lot. We understood that in order to receive funding we would have to register [as an NGO] and so we had to define what we were, there was no choice.
The Villages Group isn't a regular group of people who share similar motives. Trust and mutual responsibility developed. Over the past years many people have taken a different path, some tired of the work and decided to get some fresh air, and some decided to take a different course of action, some people went to places with other problems such as Bilin and Yanoun. People chose different paths and we are fewer than thirteen now. Shatil tried to help us define our group in order to grow, which we'd really like to do. We failed because it's a little difficult for us to define ourselves. There may be drawbacks to this, but it's also powerful and flexible.