A Quaker woman with firsthand experience of the conflict between Israel and Palestine will visit the Bega Valley to give presentations on the issue.
About eighteen months ago Aletia Dundas returned to Australia from deployment as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, where she provided a level of protection to civilians going about their daily life.
She was based in the South Hebron Hills, the most southern part of the West Bank, where most Palestinians are farmers or shepherds and their livelihoods are connected to the land.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain such livelihoods, because illegal Israeli settlements have little by little encroached on Palestinian land,” Ms Dundas said.
“Settler highways now disrupt the path that shepherds have traditionally taken their sheep for generations.
“All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and the newer Israeli outposts are also illegal under Israeli law, but they continue to receive government services that their Palestinian neighbouring communities are deprived of.”
She said while Israeli settlements continue to expand, Palestinians are increasingly forced to provide written proof of ownership of the land they have lived on for generations and if they fail to produce the correct documents, a demolition order is placed on their home, then at an unspecified time a bulldozer will arrive and flatten their house.
“Children are particularly affected, because the way that the occupied land has been split up they may well find themselves living on land that is under Israeli military control, while their school is in an area under Palestinian civilian control,” Ms Dundas said.
“So they need to move through military checkpoints and face body searches and harassment at these checkpoints on a daily basis just to make their way to and from school.”
The most heartbreaking story she witnessed during her deployment was of Jibrin, a shepherd who lost one of his brothers to the Israeli military in the 1960s.
She said Jibrin continued to face daily harassment and violence as he took his sheep to his field, yet he struck her as a humble and peaceful man.
“Despite his frustrations with the occupation, he was committed to nonviolent resistance and talked repeatedly about a time in the future when all the religions would get along again,” Ms Dundas said.
“During my last week in the field, Jibrin was arrested. His crime was simply to allow his sheep to graze on what had been his family’s agricultural land for generations, but was now surrounded on all sides by settlements and recently declared a closed military zone.
“It was particularly difficult to see him so distressed and hopeless following this incident. He told me tearfully that he would continue to stay on his land until they kill him.”
Recently, 63 Palestinian protesters were shot and killed by Israeli forces along the Gaza border – including an eight-month-old child – while a few kilometres away Israel and the US held an inauguration ceremony for the new American Embassy in Jerusalem.
Ms Dundas said Israel's disproportionate use of force against Palestinians in this situation was unsurprising.
“Palestinians would have known the risks of protesting, but to not protest is to give up,” she said.
The shooting occurred just before Nakba Day on May 15, an annual event commemorating when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homelands in 1948, and protests for their right to return.
As an ecumenical accompanier (EA) about their daily life, whether it was walking with them to school, accompanying them as they graze their sheep, or assisting in the olive harvest.
EAs also document human rights abuses and incidents of military and settler violence, as well as attempting to prevent such incidents from occurring in the first place.
They only work with people who resist the settler occupation by non-violent means, and Ms Dundas said she saw plenty of examples of non-violent resistance.
“‘Resistance shepherding’, as I called it, was a common form of non-violent protest,” she said.
“People would continue to go about their lives: ploughing their fields, allowing their sheep to graze, travelling to school, and lining up endlessly at checkpoints on the way to work, despite the daily threats of harassment and violence for doing so.
“Every Saturday morning a group of Palestinian families would gather for a peaceful protest that they called ‘land action’.
“They would play a game of soccer on their family land now occupied by settlers and Israeli activists from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, together with other internationals like ourselves, would stand nearby watching in peaceful solidarity.”
Ms Dundas said the Bega Valley Quakers were incredibly supportive of her work overseas, as they manage the Quaker Peace and Social Justice fund which gave her a grant for the three-month deployment.
She will give a public presentation on her experiences at St John’s Anglican Church, 12 Church St, Bega on May 26 from 7pm and Merimbula Uniting Church, Henwood St, Merimbula on May 27 from 2pm.