.The Middle East and North Africa region boasts a rich tapestry of languages and cultures. However, despite this richness and diversity, the region has not received adequate attention when it comes to language rights. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a lack of research on the various language communities in the region, leaving these communities at risk of being left behind in the global discourse on language rights.
Recognizing the importance of filling the gap in research and advocacy for non-Arabic language communities in the region, with the support of the IFEX network, Rising Voices has launched a new project dedicated to shedding light on six such communities.
These communities include:
The project aims to support their rights to free expression and access to information in online and offline civic spaces. It seeks to identify the opportunities, challenges, and threats they face in the digital realm, in order to better understand their unique needs and set priorities for advocacy strategies to address them.
Linguistic rights refer to the right of people and communities to use, maintain, and develop their native languages without discrimination. This right allows people to use their own language in public, receive education, and access information in their own language. It also includes the right to use their own language in legal proceedings.
On the other hand, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
This right is protected under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Linguistic rights are significant for human dignity because they allow individuals and communities to exercise other human rights, such as political and social participation, cultural and religious expression, access to information, education, and the justice system. When these rights are denied or restricted, it can lead to discrimination, marginalization, and oppression.
Upholding linguistic rights and freedom of expression, on the other hand, enables individuals and communities to fully participate in society, express their unique identities and perspectives, and contribute to the cultural diversity and richness of our wondrous world.
Today English is undoubtedly the language of communication and international exchange. The following might, for most, be taken for granted. It is about the Language of Communication and International Exchange of a maximum of people around the world today.
The above-featured image is for illustration and is of the English Channel / credit Journals of India.
It is an undeniable reality. The phenomenon is due to three essential factors: first, the relative simplicity of its grammar and spelling; second, the extent of its application corresponding to the immensity of the former British Empire and third, the US economic and military supremacy.
The English lingua took off after the Second World War with the American technological boom and its impact on aeronautics, automobiles, machinery, etc.
The American way of life was well exported and brought in a lot, and almost everyone wanted to adopt it. Add to all this the soft power, i.e. Hollywood cinema, the music of Elvis Presley and other amenities made in the USA, and you will understand the cause of the vertiginous expansion of William Chikh Zoubir’s alias Shakespeare language.
Each civilization at its peak had radiated on the world and transmitted its values to it. In Caesarean Numidia, the Berber princes sent their sons to Italy to immerse themselves in Roman culture. That said, French is still the most learned language in the world after English.
First, Locke, Newton and then Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, these actors of the Age of Enlightenment, were translated and read worldwide as avant-garde philosophers conveying the ideas of freedom and equality of peoples. These values made it possible to define new natural rights in England, France and the US.
In the eighteenth century, speaking the language of Molière in the royal or princely courts of Europe gave these monarchical circles a vernissage of distinction like Versailles of the Sun King. French also remains the reference in classical literature, poetry and belles lettres. English is a popular and straightforward language; French is academic and complicated. In the end, borrowing from the French half of its vocabulary, English now gives him a middle finger as a thank you and snubs him from the top of his globalized linguistic pedestal.
The quality of a language would be its ability to convey thoughts, ideas, and data, by voice or writing, as clearly and faithfully as possible. In short, it is the art of communicating with one’s neighbour. In light of these opinions, French has therefore sinned by its propensity to complicate grammar and spelling rules, making them almost inaccessible to the layman.
On the other hand, by its simplicity and widespread nature, English has found itself within everyone’s reach with the mini of means and time. Moreover, there are two types of language in this world, the beautiful and the good. (The bad ones are more a matter of psychology).
The beautiful ones are spoken around the big blue on the Mediterranean north shore with Spanish, French, Italian, and Greek. As for the good ones, the rest of the world speaks them, following the example of Chinese, Indo-European (except Greco-Latin) and African idioms. Nevertheless, we must mention the two major and mythical languages that have modified the history of humanity to close this paragraph. I am thinking of Hebrew and Arabic.
Yale School of Management published this insight on Creating a Culture of Sustainability in Homebuilding that could be said to be not beyond their acclaimed mission of educating leaders for business & society. It is as wise as useful in these days of uncertainty. Here it is.
Creating a Culture of Sustainability in Homebuilding
Sustainably built homes cost more up front, but that investment can easily pay off over the decades with savings on heating and cooling—not to mention resiliency and improved indoor air quality. Aaron Smith ’16 is helping builders and buyers understand the benefits of building homes that can generate as much energy as they use.
CEO, Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA); CEO, GreenSmith Builders
Interview conducted and edited by Ted O’Callahan
We’re trying to transform an industry that has been doing things pretty much the same way for more than 100 years. We want to make healthier, electric, resilient, decarbonized, and net-zero homes the norm.
Q: What is the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance?
The Energy and Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) is a community of 72,000 builders, architects, and other stakeholders across North America coming together to learn, share, and collaborate on how to build homes in a more sustainable manner.
Ultimately, we’re trying to transform an industry that has been doing things pretty much the same way for more than 100 years. We want to make healthier, electric, resilient, decarbonized, and net-zero homes the norm.
Q: Why is that important?
Forty percent of our energy use comes from buildings. That’s a significant contributor to climate change. Overall, the construction industry is very slow to adopt advances; even for great products and effective new approaches, it can take 20 years. But the technology’s there to do better, so if you want to innovate and disrupt, housing is a really interesting space right now.
The move to sustainable methods is a patchwork, but it’s ready to spread. We’re seeing the start of hockey stick growth. EEBA tracks single family homes and multi-family units built at or above a Zero Energy Ready standard across North America. Over the past two years there was a 440% increase.
Q: What do you mean by Zero Energy Ready and above?
The Zero Energy Ready Home is a standard set by the Department of Energy. To qualify a building must be energy efficient enough that a renewable energy system could offset the home’s annual energy use, so it’s extremely well insulated and extremely airtight, and may have an energy recovery ventilator. Above that is net zero, where a solar, wind, or renewable other system is producing all the energy the house needs. And the step beyond that is net positive, which is a building that actually exports energy into the grid.
There are a lot of standards and certification programs out there—LEED, National Green Building Standard, Passive House, Healthy Building, the Living Building Challenge. We tend to educate builders about all of them and allow them to choose the one that’s best for them and their clients.
Something that doesn’t have a certification program but we’re always focused on is building resiliency. How does it protect the occupants and continue to operate during a stressful period? With extreme weather events and potentially extended power outages that’s increasingly important.
The efficacy of solar panels has gone up so much that even a small amount of solar allows an efficient house to be net zero. Pairing that with new inverter technology, which lets your house feed excess solar power into the grid most of the time but switch to running the house directly off solar when the there’s a grid outage, adds resilience.
We’re seeing more and more battery deployment for backup within homes. Those can be dedicated systems or with something like the F-150 Lightning, Ford’s electric pickup, your EV can serve as backup power for the home during an outage.
Q: Is the interest in more sustainable building coming from builders, consumers, or somewhere else?
There are many drivers. In a few places, building codes are requiring new construction to be all electric. For those places, understanding how to build this way is really a license to operate. But for the most part, our members are professionals who want to be the best in their field. They have a sustainability mindset and a calling to build high-performance homes.
I learned about craftsmanship from my grandfather. He was proud of building homes that would last for 100 years. To me, sustainability is an extension of craftsmanship. It just makes sense. I hope my generation decides the building it’s putting up for the next 100 years will be sustainable. Building in the most sustainable way goes to a larger mission of being stewards of this planet for our kids and grandkids. I get excited by that.
And as millennials start to become the generation driving housing, their predisposition toward more sustainable and healthier is pushing awareness of building more sustainably into the industry.
When people consider buying a house, they look at the listing price. It’s not easy to look at the operating costs or the health costs, which can be dramatically different from one house to another.
In some cases, sustainability isn’t at the forefront. A builder in Texas who does net zero homes told me 15% of his customers do it for environmental reasons. Another 25% want the self-sufficiency of being able to go off the grid with their own water supply, solar power, and backup batteries. The remaining 60% do it for economic reasons. Between the rebates and incentives that are available and the certainty of owning their power supply so there won’t be escalating costs, they are ready to make the investment.
Q: Is it more expensive to build in a sustainable way?
It typically does cost from 1% to 11% more to build a very sustainable home. But it’s a lot like electric vehicles. The upfront cost is higher, but it you look at the total cost over time, it more than pays off the investment.
The problem is, when people consider buying a house, they look at the listing price. They don’t think to—and it’s not easy to—look at the operating costs or the health costs, which can be dramatically different from one house to another.
I didn’t ask about heating costs when I rented a wonderful 1740s farmhouse in Connecticut while I attended Yale SOM. It cost $1,000 a month to heat during the winter. Operating costs make a real difference.
In addition to running EEBA, I also co-founded GreenSmith Builders with Marc Wigder a classmate from Yale SOM. We build what we call attainable sustainable housing—energy-efficient single- and multi-family homes. I just got the monthly heating bill for a 27,000 square foot apartment building. It was $720 for the whole building in Minnesota in the winter.
Sustainable building makes housing more affordable when you look at total cost of ownership. When you think about living in a house for years, even decades, would you spend 1%, 5%, 11% more up front if you know you’ll get it back with savings on lower operating costs? Sustainable builders are starting to energy model each home so they can quantify the value long term.
And that’s only considering the energy costs. Health costs are harder to quantify, but in many homes, indoor air quality is worse than outdoor air quality. There are a lot of great systems that ensure a really healthful environment in the home.
Q: Why isn’t this approach the norm?
Market sector change is very difficult. It takes bringing stakeholders together. It takes sharing of ideas and best practices. It takes radical collaboration across organizations. We get up every day at EEBA and try to transform the industry. It’s extremely challenging and frustrating and exciting and rewarding, all at the same time.
Change is hard in any industry. For residential construction, there are a lot of incumbency issues. There’s huge demand for housing. You can sell every house that you build. Why would you change anything? That’s especially true in places where building codes haven’t been updated in years. It’s common to think that a house built to code means it’s all good. Another way to look at a house built to code is that it’s the worst house that’s not illegal. Depending on where you are, simply building to code isn’t desirable.
Switching costs are real, especially in an industry where it’s common to learn through apprenticeship on a job site—“This is how we do it.” At EEBA we try to make that mentoring culture a strength. Because builders work locally, for the most part they’re not in the same market as other EEBA members; they’re not competing against each other, so they can share and learn from each other and continually raise the level of knowledge of what it means to be a sustainable home builder. That’s a powerful part of EEBA.
What we’re trying to do is really speed the adoption of great technology, great building practices, and sustainable thinking across the industry. We’re making continuous learning easier. We provide online and in-person education. We do a yearly summit where we bring builders together.
Given the trends, if builders don’t have a plan to be building Zero Energy Ready houses, they may not be able to operate in the marketplace within a few years. I think it’s going to shift that quickly.
Q: Are there enough people going into the building trades to supply the required labor?
There are not enough people going into the trades. That’s starting to force change in interesting ways. Because builders can’t hire all the labor they’d like, offsite construction techniques are getting attention.
There are a variety of different approaches, but essentially components of the house are built in a factory. Then the floor cassettes or structured insulated panels that make up the walls are trucked to the building site and craned into place. It’s incredible how fast the modules go together.
There are a lot of investments in offsite construction. Builders are looking at it. Lumber yards and other suppliers are interested. We’re seeing a huge shift right now. It really helps with the labor issues. And it can be done to the highest sustainability standards.
Q: What led you to Yale SOM?
When I was an undergraduate there weren’t courses in sustainability, let alone a major. I learned about sustainability on the job as best I could. I went to Yale SOM to strengthen my understanding of sustainability and to learn how to have impact at scale.
When I came across EEBA, an incredible mission-driven organization that’s really changing the face of construction across North America, it just brought together everything that I had learned across my career. Now the goal is to grow the organization significantly and grow our impact significantly so we can speed up that change in the marketplace.
Earthquake and Wind Programs Branch Civil Engineer Pataya Scott, PhD shares more about the work FEMA does to improve building codes and standards. The Role We (FEMA) Play in Earthquake Preparedness is inspiringly here for all those in the MENA region concerned by a possible repeat of the same recent disastrous events.
The Role We Play in Earthquake Preparedness
After the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last month, you may have wondered: in a similar event, what would have happened to buildings in the United States?
For more than 40 years, FEMA has worked with our partners to improve building codes and standards, as well as advance their adoption and enforcement across the nation. While these improvements are significant, there are still older buildings in our country that are at risk of collapse during an earthquake.
More work is needed to avoid the kind of regional disaster Turkey and Syria are experiencing after the magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes. Many existing buildings in the United States are likely to perform poorly in earthquakes because they are built to outdated standards or, in some cases, no standards at all. These buildings remain vulnerable to collapse in seismic regions like Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, California, Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, the New Madrid region, South Carolina, the Eastern United States, Puerto Rico and Oklahoma.
To explore how these areas would be affected during a major earthquake event, you can use FEMA’s Hazus Loss Library. This tool demonstrates the cost of life and severity of damage that would happen in earthquake events similar to those in Turkey and Syria. While the numbers presented in these scenarios might be less than what those regions endured, they still represent a significant risk and enforce the need for the nation to improve its built environment.
Modern codes and standards are only effective if they are properly enforced. Turkey is known for having a current building code, similar to many parts of the United States, but implementation has historically been an issue. Regional differences in code adoption and enforcement mean that some communities may not benefit from the protection offered by stronger codes. Ongoing advocacy for both code adoption and enforcement is still needed.
FEMA is always focused on improvements. We look at the latest lessons-learned information, new science and technology. We also collaborate with many government sectors to address and mitigate a community’s risk with existing buildings. This work includes improved methods for risk assessment, prioritization and retrofit, as well as support for developing and adopting effective mitigation policies and practices, which could include replacing with new buildings.
New attention on post-disaster response and recovery has suggested that emphasis on building collapse prevention may not be enough. Disaster-resilient communities need buildings that can be occupied following a hazard event and provide functions and services necessary for meeting essential community needs and maintaining economic vitality. This means buildings that not only stand strong after an earthquake but still allow residents to safely use things like running water and electricity.
There are many actions you can take on a personal level to improve your own community’s earthquake resilience.
Practice Safety Drills. Since earthquakes can happen without notice or warning, be prepared by practicing Drop, Cover, and Hold On with family and coworkers.
Make an Emergency Plan.Create a family emergency communications plan that has an out-of-state contact. Plan where to meet if you get separated. Make a supply kit that includes enough non-perishable food, water and medications for several days, a flashlight, a fire extinguisher and a whistle. Prepare for pets and service animals, too.
Protect Your Home. Secure heavy items in your home like bookcases, refrigerators, water heaters, televisions and objects that hang on walls. Also consider obtaining an earthquake insurance policy since a standard homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover earthquake damage.
The people of Masafer Yatta are determined to hold on to their cave-dwelling lifestyle. “I was born in this cave and gave birth to all 12 of my children here,” says Hajja Halima Abu Younis, an 82-year-old woman from Jinba, one of 33 villages in this semi-desert region at the southern tip of the occupied West Bank.
Masafer Yatta is the only Palestinian territory where many caves are used as homes – some 200 of the 800 caves in this area are still inhabited. Abu Younis says she would never accept another home even if the Israeli government offered her a house with two floors. She can trace her family’s history in this cave back almost two centuries:
Mahmoud Ahmad, the grandfather of my husband, was born in this cave back in 1840. My husband’s father was born here in 1906, then my husband and now my sons. We were two families sleeping here: my husband and me on this side, my brother-in-law on the other. All our children were sleeping in the middle.
In 1980, Israel ruled that a large section of Masafer Yatta including 12 villages was, in fact, uninhabited. It designated the land Firing Zone 918 – an area for its military to practise with live ammunition. The residents of these villages remained until 1999, when the military attempted to evict more than 700 Palestinians on the grounds that they were “illegally living in a firing zone”. These families have been fighting a legal battle for their communities’ right to remain ever since, which was finally rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court in May 2022.
Since that ruling, the Israeli military has carried out regular live ammunition practices in and around eight villages within the zone. It has also escalated the forced evictions of local residents including those living in caves. Virtually all structures within Firing Zone 918 are now without legal protection against demolition.
Abu Younis says the most significant threat to the locals comes on the three days each week, Monday to Wednesday, when military training takes place:
In these days we are jailed in our caves, we cannot move. We are afraid the Israeli army will kill someone while they are conducting military training. The army trains tanks around our village. The sound of the bombs and shots scare the children and the flocks of animals. My son Issa cannot graze his 150 sheep during the military training. How can a shepherd be a shepherd if he cannot graze his sheep?
‘We feared nothing but the wolves’
The different styles of cave in Masafer Yatta reflect changing lifestyles from one generation to the next. Some possess water wells and tunnels so that residents could keep, feed and wash their farm animals inside the caves. Others have moats around them for external feeding.
Mohammed Abu Sabha, an 84-year-old farmer and shepherd originally from Al Quarytein village, is taking a younger generation of Palestinians aged 19 to 29 to see the cave in which he was born. Down narrow, crumbling stone steps, the group enters a large underground area with a low, domed ceiling. Abu Sabha is overcome with the emotion of his childhood memories as he steps into the cave:
Oh my god, it has changed. Why is it destroyed like this? I need to come back and renovate it. This cave means everything to me – I was born in it and I want to die in it too.
Abu Sabha’s family was evicted from the cave in 1951 when he was 13 years old. He has not been back in many years (he now lives in Yatta city, the urban centre north of Masafer Yatta). When he was a child, it was home to four families who all slept in the same room. Cows and camels lived inside the cave too to keep them safe; the cows were used to plough the surrounding land that provided the families with their main source of income. As one of the young visitors puts it: “Camels and sheep back then were like the Mercedes cars of today.”
Since 2017, researchers at Coventry University have been working with a younger generation of Palestinians from Masafer Yatta to gather stories from their elders. The On Our Land project was established to build oral histories of what everyday life was, and remains, like for the semi-nomadic people who call this part of the occupied West Bank home. We have been given access to historical documents, testimonials, historical maps and photographs to support these oral histories.
Abu Ashraf Hamamda, a 60-year-old farmer who still lives in a cave in Al Mufaqara, one of the villages inside Firing Zone 918, explains how people used to move around Masafer Yatta following annual cycles of harvest, livestock grazing and rest:
We used to live from October to July in the lower parts of Masafer Yatta. In summer, we would move to the hills to harvest our rain-fed produce of grapes and figs … The whole family participated in harvesting, everyone who could carry a sickle – old and young, men and women. We took food with us, grapes and milk from the sheep. We worked all day, morning to evening … We stayed in the fields for two weeks without coming back to the village.
At this point, he starts singing the song they would all sing while cutting the wheat: “Oh my sickle with the sharp teeth. Oh my sickle that is made in Gaza.”
According to Ali Na’ameen, a 73-year-old shepherd from Al Majaz village, the sheep’s milk they produce is unique because of the area’s particular geography:
In Masafer Yatta, we do not have as much rain as in the north [of the West Bank]. But the grass here is the best because it is salty; it strengthens the sheep’s immune systems. This gives their milk a creamier texture and makes it more nutritious.
Na’ameen is usually a happy soul, but as he talks he grows nostalgic for a more carefree time:
My favourite moments in summer were when shepherds gathered in the middle of the day around the water well. From late morning until early afternoon, the sheep had naps because of the hot weather. We took this time as an opportunity to chat. Sometimes, we played games such as the “seven stones and fence” game, which is a bit like chess. We were happy and had peace of mind. We feared nothing but the wolves coming for our sheep.
‘A piece of paradise’
Masafer Yatta sits at the southern tip of the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills. Its craggy mountains and hills resemble walnut shells in summer, connected by more fertile pastures in the valleys below. About 3,000 people live here, mostly working as shepherds and farmers growing wheat, barley, beans and olives.
The locals tell us different stories about the name of the area. Some say Masafer comes from the Arabic word for “zero”, referring to the belief that life could not thrive in this hot and harsh landscape. However Nidal Younis, the current mayor of Masafer Yatta, tells us it refers to the last period of the Ottoman Empire, when locals were freed from paying taxes for agricultural products in order to win their loyalty to the weak Ottoman rulers.
Yet another version suggests Masafer means “travelling”, referring to the journeys people have long been making through this area – including traders and pilgrims travelling between Africa, Asia and Europe. Abu Younis describes how the villagers used to give these travellers food and fresh water from a pond, filled by an ancient clay pipe running down from a spring in the hills.
People have lived on this land for many generations, grazing sheep and goats and selling dairy and livestock products. According to the mayor, however, many feel they cannot sustain themselves and their families solely through subsistence farming and shepherding any more. “In the past,” Younis says, “we were cultivating huge areas so you did not need to think of alternative [sources of income], despite the hardship of this life.”
In recent decades, many younger Palestinians have gravitated away from the rural lifestyle to Yatta city and beyond. Ibrahim Nawaja, who is from the village of Susya and splits his time between Susya and Yatta city, says rural Masafer Yatta is “like a piece of paradise for me, with its fresh air, calm atmosphere and rich nature – green in spring, yellow in summer. I come here to get away from the traffic and noise of the city.”
But the land designation changes applied by Israel since 1980 have disrupted the traditional lives of farmers and shepherds here. Nawaja suggests that while this semi-nomadic lifestyle was never easy, the additional barriers imposed have made it much harder – and residents’ testimonies have repeatedly alleged that Israeli settlers have exacerbated tensions by interfering with water supplies and through other attacks.
People’s lives have become difficult and complicated because of the occupation’s restrictions. There are many injustices, including when our water wells and pastures have been contaminated.
A ‘misunderstanding’ that changed everything
Many residents tell us the declaration of Firing Zone 918 rests on a misunderstanding. They say the Israeli government did not recognise that the people of Masafer Yatta live a semi-nomadic lifestyle when it first deemed the area uninhabited in 1980. More than four decades later, this position was endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court in its May 2022 final ruling, which found that Masafer Yatta residents had no right to the land because they were not permanent residents at the time of its declaration as a firing zone.
In August, the Supreme Court rejected a further appeal from residents against the demolition of two schools and other Palestinian buildings within the firing zone. Yesterday (October 2), the court rejected a request for a further hearing on its May 4 verdict, and Israel’s government confirmed it would not grant any more court hearings.
When the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 1990s as a step towards fulfilling the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, Masafer Yatta was categorised as “Area C”, meaning it still fell under full Israeli administrative and military control. Prior to 2022, the biggest displacement of residents took place in 1999. Abu Ashraf Hamamda recalls how he reacted to that eviction:
After they collected our belongings and threw them to the other side of the road, I snuck through the mountains back to my village. I contacted Israeli activists and lawyers. I went to the Israeli parliament, and gave a speech about the right of my people to stay in our villages and that we had been living there for a long time. After four months, we had a court decision that allowed us to return and to stay temporarily. And we repaired our communities.
More than two decades on from the eviction, they are still living there – and, says his wife Um Ashraf Hamamda, their determination to remain is stronger than ever:
We are eight big families in this village. Our grandparents and our parents lived here … The occupation expelled us to Al-Tuwani village. They threw away our belongings, they dispersed us [but] we persevered. We sued them and kept striving until we reached the Supreme Court … Then when we returned to our village, the occupation continued oppressing us because they failed to expel us the first time. They poisoned our cattle so we would lose hope and leave the village. But we stayed – we did not leave! We were born here and we have to stay here.
Most of the 700-odd residents evicted in 1999 returned to their caves and other buildings after the court’s decision in March 2000. The ruling allowed the residents to return temporarily – and they have been fighting a legal battle with Israel ever since.
In recent months, however, the Israeli military has stepped up the demolition of buildings within the firing zone on the grounds that Palestinians have no permits for them. Such permits are extremely hard to obtain from Israel’s government.
Residents say they are prevented from having electricity with any solar panels they erect soon being destroyed. They have also described the authorities cutting water pipes, demolishing wells and confiscating water tanks in order to deprive them and their animals of water.
The threat of settler attacks
The threat to the livelihoods – and existence – of Palestinians in Masafer Yatta also comes from the building of Israeli settlements on land at the edge of Firing Zone 918. This land was previously used by Palestinian farmers and shepherds, who now find themselves “boxed in” between military training and the new settlements.
The settlers are all Israeli citizens of Jewish descent who have moved into gated communities in this occupied Palestinian territory. Housing in such settlements is often subsidised by Israel’s government, and different laws apply to these settlers than their Palestinian neighbours.
Since Israel started building the settlements, we now live less than one mile from them. Settlers chop our trees, burn our crops and poison our water wells … In the past when we were herding our sheep, we moved freely in our land and slept wherever we wanted. But today we do everything very quickly because we want to avoid settler attacks.
Experiences of settler-instigated violence come up regularly in the oral histories we have recorded. Hajja Nuzha Al-Najjar describes how, in 2005, she was in a field with her daughters-in-law when she was shot in the back of her leg by some Israeli settlers. Her leg is stretched out in front of her as she recalls that “my son was on the other side of the valley. When he tried to join me, he also became a target so had to crouch down and hide.”
Al-Najjar limped back to her cave and only then realised the blood was streaming down her leg. An ambulance was called but the settlers would not let it pass, she recalls, so she had to be bundled into a car and driven some way before she could be transferred to the ambulance.
The level of livestock in Masafer Yatta is now just a third of what it was in 1980 when the firing zone was first declared. Abu Ashraf Hamamda explains the reasons for this decline:
On the one hand, we cannot reach the places we used to herd in. On the other, since Oslo [the signing of the Oslo Accords], the price of animal food has increased. In less than six months, barley and wheat prices increased by 80% – I could not afford that for my sheep … We were forced to sell part of our livestock because we were unable to feed them.
While our interviewees acknowledge the support they receive from many international and national humanitarian aid organisations – including being supplied with animal food – they say this is not a desirable solution. As Ali Na’meen explains:
Today we are receiving barley from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a UN agency, instead of producing our own crops as in the past. We graze our sheep in groups, accompanied by international volunteers to protect us … This is not the kind of life we used to have when we moved freely and produced our own food. Despite that hard life, we were still in a much better situation than we are now.
‘I need to see my future’
The traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle of this area is also threatened by societal and cultural changes from one generation to the next. Most of the elders here say that young Palestinians want to live in houses, have smartphones and secure jobs rather than following the tough path of farming and shepherding. As a result, many have moved to Yatta city in the north-west of Masafer Yatta. Others have moved to cities such as Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah to study or work. Somia Al-Omour, one of the project’s young researchers, explains:
I need to see my future and live a normal life. I decided to continue my education in Ramallah as a nurse and to work there. I would not have the same opportunity if I stayed in Masafer Yatta.
In contrast, the elders of Masafer Yatta are more determined than ever to remain living in their caves and maintain their lifestyles as farmers and shepherds. But Abu Ashraf Hamamda accepts it is difficult to convince young people to carry on with this lifestyle:
Some of them are fed up living in the caves. They want to sleep in bedrooms, and they want a shower. They dream of having a closet for their clothes, not just a bag to put them in.
The unique traditions associated with life in the caves of Masafer Yatta may have lost some of their significance for the younger generation. Yet through our oral histories, we have seen bonds strengthen between the different generations. Khalil Makhamrah from Jinba village describes the profound impact of interviewing his grandmother:
That interview changed my perspective about the elderly people here, about the importance of their stories and lives. Ploughing the land was difficult for them but [I learnt] how much they enjoyed it. This is really important. When we can bring a tangible item from our past forward, it proves we own this land and it brings us closer to it. We need to protect this land that has been inherited to us, because this is the life of our parents and grandparents.
Such discussions may demonstrate to the next generation of Palestinians the value of “sumud” – steadfastness – in an area that is increasingly at risk. Ironically, the current threat of military practice within Firing Zone 918 is making young people return to the caves with their parents in greater numbers, as Taha Al-Omour, another of our young researchers, explains:
I am coming every day to stay with my father here in Al Majaz village, especially after the army started practising military training here. I cannot leave my parents in such conditions and stay in my home in Yatta city, even though I am looking for a more comfortable life that is unlike my parents’ hard life.
More than 200 young people now live permanently in the 12 Masafer Yatta villages within Firing Zone 918 – a significant increase from the recent past. Spaces have been created in each village to gather and sleep each night, in order to protect villagers from the threat of forced evictions and other harassment.
For generations, caves were the only homes for the people of Masafer Yatta, which is why there is such a strong connection to them. But these days, the caves play a further role as “safe spaces” – places to pass the traditions of the past to a new generation and to challenge the Israeli policy of expulsion. More than 200 caves in Masafer Yatta are still inhabited today, including by Abu Younis and her family:
Through the years, caves have enabled us to maintain life in Masafer Yatta’s villages and protected us from the occupation. Now, again, as our buildings and communities are being demolished, it is the last safe space for us. Not only do they protect us from the hot and cold weather, they protect us from harassment – so we will keep preserving them.
This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.
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