Some 20 to 30 engineering corps soldiers, accompanied by a Border Police force, entered the village of al-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills in the dead of night, visiting an archaeological dig within a residential neighborhood as part of a “selichot tour.”
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The soldiers arrived at the village between Wednesday and Thursday last week at around 1:00 A.M., stayed for about 90 minutes and heard a lecture from a civilian archaeologist, accompanied by a man and woman in civilian clothing. Selichot are Jewish prayers for forgiveness traditionally recited during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah.
Recently the army has often raided the village at night, and so many of the residents were awake when the soldiers arrived, as they do not wish to be surprised when the soldiers break into their homes, as one resident put it. Tensions were especially high in the houses surrounding the dig site. A Border Policeman kept Israeli and American activists, occupation resisters who stay at al-Tuwani permanently, from approaching the lecture site.
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The participants were staff officers and NCOs of the regular engineering battalion stationed in the South Hebron Hills, which as reported on Monday in Haaretz, were required to take part in the selichot prayer tour during a battalion exercise of several days. To this end, they left their unarmed troops, who remained deployed in the open in the southern West Bank, accompanied by a single armed junior officer. While the soldiers were sleeping, personal effects and protective gear were stolen from them.
In a dig conducted at al-Tuwani some 11 years ago, during the zoning approval process for the village, the remains of a public structure were uncovered. Despite the absence of any inscriptions or the menorah symbol, one hypothesis holds that this is a synagogue from the first or second century CE. Other archeological remains in the village indicate a settlement from the Byzantine and early Muslim periods, according to archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi.
Last month, on Tisha B’Av, dozens of Israelis prayed in the middle of the dig site, which lies in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood. The army blocked entrances to the village from 3:30 in the morning, and soldiers mounted the rooftops and guarded the Jewish worshippers, who arrived some two hours later. Settlers have been trying for several years to brand the location as sacred to Jews, and the villagers fear that this is being done as part of a plan to evict them and take over the village’s lands.
The Israel Defense Forces said in response that “This was a planned tour conducted under the guidance of an archaeologist at an ancient synagogue located in Area C, within the village of al-Tuwani in regional brigade Yehuda. The tour was conducted for learning purposes and ended without friction with the villagers.”
Two days before the nocturnal lecture, villager Hafez al-Hureini, a man in his 50s, was arrested, after defending himself and others from five Israelis, some of them masked, who arrived on his land from the nearby Havat Maon outpost, armed with clubs and a rifle, attacked him and others, and fired in the air. One of the assailants sustained a severe head wound, and both of al-Hureini’s arms were broken in the incident. The incident was captured in full on video, but al-Hureini’s detention was extended several times since, whereas the Israelis involved in the assault have so far not been arrested or summoned for questioning.
On the night al-Hureini was arrested, the army raided the village twice. The first raid included massive firing of stun grenades and tear gas at homes. In the second raid 10 of the village men were arrested and interrogated for several hours at the outskirts of the village. According to the +972 Magazine website, a Shin Bet security agency officer threatened to “strike the village with an iron fist,” and warned them not to invite left-wing activists or the B’tselem researcher to the village, as “they are the source of trouble.” (The Shin Bet has not responded to +972 Magazine’s requests for comment on the matter.)
The village of al-Tuwani has been suffering for over 20 years from harassment, violent attacks, and attempted takeover of their lands by Israelis residing in or visiting the Havat Maon outpost. This constant abuse is the reason that, on order of the Knesset’s Child Welfare Committee, the IDF has been obligated for the past 18 years to accompany the children of the villages of Tuba and Mughayer al Abeed to the al-Tuwani school. Last week, following the violent incident, the IDF canceled the military escort, and the children were forced to stay home and miss school for two days.