You won't find the South Hebron Hills highlighted in any travel guide or advertised by the Tourism Ministry. This area is not even technically part of Israel, though Israelis are free to travel there and a few thousand have settled there. If you are interested in going beyond the headlines and getting a taste of the reality on the ground that virtually no tourists and few Israelis ever see, you can visit the Palestinian communities of the South Hebron Hills.
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Located just an hour and a half south of Jerusalem, at the bottom tip of the West Bank, the South Hebron Hills are designated as Area C – part of the roughly 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli sovereignty.
A drive down Route 60 from the Gilo checkpoint will take you on a winding road where the incongruent desert landscape becomes immediately evident. Settlements like Carmel, Ma'on and Otniel speckle the hills amid rural communities like Susya, Jinba and Umm el Heir, where Palestinian shepherds and farmers live in tents and tin shacks.
Some Israelis may have heard of the area, where the settlement of Susya arose in 1983, because of the national archaeological site in Jewish Susya established in 1986 after ruins of a synagogue were discovered. (A number of Palestinian families were expelled then to make way for the site and there are eight villages in the area currently under threat of demolition.)
While the area is beautiful and expansive, few visitors go there because it is a flashpoint in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet it is one of the most informative and important areas for those seeking to gain an understanding of Israeli occupation and the acrimonious dynamic between settlers, soldiers and Palestinians.
If you would like a guided tour, one option is to go there with Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran IDF combatants who talk about their experiences serving in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. Tours are offered in English around once a month and dates are listed on their website. They usually depart from International Convention Center (Binyanei Hauma), across from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station.
If you are looking to go beyond information and engage in direct action, join the weekly trips that leave from Jerusalem with a political group called Ta’ayush, active in the South Hebron Hills for over a decade. Bear in mind that such a trip may also include tense confrontations between Palestinians, settlers and soldiers.
Every Saturday for over a decade, a small group of Israelis meets with Palestinian residents and accompanies them to their lands in support of their daily humanitarian needs like grazing and farming. Through their presence and documentation, they try to prevent skirmishes by settlers and soldiers. For example, thanks in part to Ta’ayush activists’ documentation and legal work, the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that soldiers cannot issue closed military zone orders and evacuate Palestinians from an area because settlers have provoked a confrontation – rather they must do everything possible to enable the agricultural work to continue unabated.
Palestinians welcome Israeli and international activists who wish to learn about their situation. Hot tea with fresh local sage and lots of sugar is always offered to visitors, a soothing respite from the rough terrain and scorching sun that characterize the South Hebron Hills.