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Cactus Watering Protest at At-Tuwani

A young villager watering a cactus pad
On Saturday, November 7, the Fall MPT Team went to At-Tuwani to participate in a symbolic protest of watering cactus. The cactus is an appropriate plant for a protest, as the Palestinian word for “cactus” derives from the same root as “patience”: sabra. Thus the cactus has come to represent the steadfastness and inner strength of the Palestinians, as resistance to the Israeli Occupation takes time and patience. Cacti are found all over Palestine, along highways, demarcating property boundaries, and marking the location of long-ago destroyed or abandoned villages.
Early homes of At-Tuwani
At-Tuwani is a 1,000-year-old village near Hebron in the south of Palestine. Its population of approximately 250 people consists mainly of four families. Its oldest homes are between 300-500 years old, and some of the caves are believed to date from Roman times. At-Tuwani has witnessed a “building boom” in the past year which has transformed the landscape of the village. Modern cement homes are replacing the old stone structures and caves.
New homes replacing the ancient
At-Tuwani is surrounded by the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma'on, established in 1982, and the illegal Israeli outposts of Havat Ma'on and Avi Gai. The settlement of Ma’on continues to expand, having flattened a nearby hillside, putting up 6 caravans (term for a pre-fab type trailer; this first step toward the establishment or expansion of a settlement is called an "outpost") and building new homes. Since its establishment, Ma’on has confiscated close to 400 acres of land from At-Tuwani villagers.
Caravans expanding the illegal settlement of Ma'on
In 2004, after 20 years of enduring violence and harassment from the settlers, At-Tuwani invited Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and the Italian peace group Operation Dove to serve as a permanent international presence in the village The internationals spend their days monitoring Palestinian children walking near the settlements to and from school, accompanying the village farmers and shepherds in their fields where they are subject to assault by extremist settlers, and being a presence as the villagers improve the infrastructure of their community.
Land to right of fence confiscated by settlement last year
(fence is to the left of the poles)
Last summer the settlers destroyed the village’s wheat crop (crops and farm machinery are regularly destroyed by the settlers) and erected a fence, confiscating one-fifth of the area. Instead of replanting wheat, the villagers planted cactus along the fence to occupy the land. Each week, as a form of protest, internationals join the women and children of the village in watering the cacti “pads,” using soda bottles filled with water carted down to the field in a wheelbarrow. Other internationals stand watch with cameras to document any military or settler interference. It’s a small action, designed for visibility, but bears testimony to the steadfastness of the Palestinians.

Carting the water in soda bottles to the field

The men do not join in the protest for fear of arrest. At a recent village protest against a demolition order for one of the village homes, soldiers randomly arrested one of the men who was fined 20,000 shekels, or $5,000, an astronomical amount for the impoverished villager. The man’s family pooled their resources, villagers contributed, and one neighbor even sold his sheep and some furniture to help his friend. In addition to the fine, the man was imprisoned until his court date, which kept being postponed for several months. Because of this villager’s experience, the men are cautious about being upfront in the protests.
A young lad resets the stones around a cactus pad
At-Tuwani has one diesel generator that provides electricity for the village for four hours every night. Earlier this year former British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised the villagers they would have electricity and the villagers started building pylons to string the wires, only to receive demolition orders from the Israeli Army which confiscated materials and tools, including a truck, mechanized lift, and large spool of electrical cable.

Homes in At-Tuwani do not have running water. There is one spring-fed well that provides water for drinking and cooking, but does not provide enough water for washing. Rainwater is collected in cisterns for washing and for the animals. Because of years of drought and settler actions against their water sources (in the recent past, settlers poisoned the well with dead chickens), villagers have to buy much of their water, at prohibitive cost, from tankers that come to the village.

There is a well on a small hill not far from the cactus planting. However, even though it is on Palestinian land, the water is only for use by the illegal settlement and outposts. When villagers ask if they can have some of the water, officials tell them there’s “too little water,” not enough water for the villagers although the settlement has planted large numbers of cherry trees and rose bushes, two water-intensive crops.
Fields of cherry trees consume precious water
In its October 2009 report, Troubled Waters: Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water (www.amnestyusa.org/pdf/mde150272009en.pdf) Amnesty International accuses Israel of denying Palestinians the right to access adequate water by maintaining total control over the shared water resources and pursuing discriminatory policies. The report states that on average Palestinian daily water consumption (for drinking, bathing, cleaning, farming and for animals) reaches 18 1/2 gallons a day, compared with 79 ¼ gallons for the Israelis, and that some Palestinians barely get 5 ¼ gallons a day - the minimum recommended even in humanitarian emergencies. Numbering about 450,000, the residents of illegal settlements use as much or more water than the Palestinian population of some 2.3 million.

Amnesty International’s report also states that Israel denies Palestinians the right to dig wells, and has even destroyed cisterns and confiscated water tankers. In contrast, Israeli settlers who live in the West Bank in violation of international law have intensive-irrigation farms, swimming pools, and lush gardens and lawns. Amnesty International also charges that Israel uses more than 80% of the water from the Mountain Aquifer - the main source of underground water in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Each precious drop of water carries life ...
for the cactus and the Palestinian.
Thus the cactus planting and watering represent a fitting metaphor for the patience and forbearance required to live under Occupation.

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