Youth of Sumud: Masafer Yatta on the frontline of Israeli apartheid and erasure

Youth of Sumud: Masafer Yatta on the frontline of apartheid
7 min read
22 August, 2023

A panicked Mohammad Hureini finally found his terrified four-year-old brother, Saber, crying as he hid from the chorus of stun grenades that peppered the West Bank village of at-Tuwani.

While Israeli army jeeps prowled and IDF soldiers interrogated aggrieved residents, Mohammad escorted his brother to safety.

Tear gas suffocated the streets and explosions drowned out anxious screams. Until, in the early hours of the morning, the army detained 15 people, and left the village in peace.

For the residents of Masafer Yatta, 12th September 2022 was just another day under occupation.

"The settlers have all the power... The army is protecting them, so the settlers do not have to stop. There are just ongoing violations against the Palestinians"

Hours before the raid, Mohammad and his father, Hafez, were grazing their sheep when approached by a group of settlers from the Havat Ma’on outpost, masked and armed.

In an unprovoked attack, the five-strong group broke both of Hafez’s arms. Hafez struck one attacker, Itamar Cohen, in the face.

After slashing the tires of the ambulance summoned for Hafez, the settlers returned home, posted a picture of Cohen’s injury on social media, and accused Hafez of attempted murder as part of a 30-strong Palestinian lynch mob.

And so arrived the army, to arrest Hafez and jail him without charges for 10 days — until a video showing the truth secured his release. There was no lynch mob and no attempted murder, only a father protecting his land.

“I’ll tell you the story from the beginning,” Mohammad says on a video call. He is about to delve into the recent history of his home, Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills, a collection of villages subject to the largest mass eviction of Palestinians since the 1970s. And of his activism group, Youth of Sumud, and their plight to keep Palestinian land in Palestinian hands.

'Youth of Sumud' highlights Israel's impunity in Masafer Yatta
'Youth of Sumud' highlights Israel's illegal impunity in Masafer Yatta [photo credit: Mohammad Hureini]

Confident, handsome, and only 19, Mohammad looks well beyond his age, with a strong beard and weathered skin — perhaps a product of eight arrests before the age of 18. A youthful grin and dark, thick hair complete a look which suits the animated vocal tone of a lifelong activist.

On his off days from resisting occupation, he reads English Literature at Ramallah's Birzeit University (but modestly bats away my compliments of his English).

Mohammad exhaustively details the situation in Masafer Yatta. In the 1980s, he explains, the region was declared 'Firing Zone 918' by the Israeli government, meaning residents have since faced eviction and home demolitions. In 1999, an eviction order for eight villages and 700 residents was countered by a peaceful resistance movement led by Hafez — leading the High Court of Justice (HCJ) to issue an interim injunction, allowing the villagers to return.

He describes years of legal battling against demolition orders intended to displace Palestinians. In 2020, a transcript from 1981 revealed that the Israeli Minister for Agriculture had ordered the creation of 'training zones' — specifically to displace Palestinian residents.

But on 4th May 2022 came the hammer blow: the HCJ ruled there were no legal barriers preventing the expulsion of Palestinian residents from 'military zones'. Demolition orders intensified, including for the four schools and four health clinics in Masafer Yatta. A surprise to none, this has provoked more attacks from increasingly emboldened settler extremists.

"The settlers have all the power," Mohammad explains. "The army is protecting them, so the settlers do not have to stop. There are just ongoing violations against the Palestinians.”

These injustices set the backdrop for the launch of Youth of Sumud by Hafez and his children on 19 May 2017. Fearing the arrest of her kids, their mother was anxious.

Her concerns were immediately vindicated: Mohammad, only 13, was detained that year for the first time. “It was a horrible arrest without any charges, because of a settler who complains against us,” he recalls. “They lie and give us charges that we never did. All of these policies are just to push us back to our homes, to say don’t move around and don’t defend our rights.”

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If that was the goal of Israeli forces, it failed. To this day, the Youth of Sumud accompany young children to school and shepherds to their fields to protect them from harassment. They help farmers harvest their olives and plant new trees before they are uprooted or poisoned by settlers.

Perhaps most symbolically, they restore caves in once-evicted areas, encouraging Palestinians to re-habitate former lands. 'Sumud Freedom Camp' in Sarura — a village demolished in 1998 — was the first.

“We were committed to the idea, but we paid a price, we left our homes. I had school, so I just slept there and in the morning came back to my village. It was a hard thing to do," Mohammad recounts.

It was about sumud, translating as ‘steadfastness’. Sumud signifies both physical steadfastness on Palestinian land and mental steadfastness of the Palestinian identity. It is living on Palestinian terms. By walking children to school, protecting shepherds and their flocks, and returning people to their homes, Youth of Sumud helps people to live in a Palestinian-defined reality, rather than a life defined by occupation.

Residents of Masafer Yatta resist constant threats of expulsion [photo credit: Mohammad
For decades, residents of Masafer Yatta have resisted constant threats of expulsion [photo credit: Mohammad Hureini]

“It is to suffer under the conditions and the pressure," Mohammad adds. "You stand and resist. And with sumud, the hope is that [people] smile and that people are relaxing. We are helping them and we are helping ourselves. When the... ” Enter brother, Sami.

Seven years Mohammad’s senior, he seems cheerful, warm, and fairer-haired than his brother in our brief encounter. Two years ago, Sami was run over by settler extremists who reversed back over his leg; it’s still not fully recovered, but Sami's will to resist hasn’t diminished.

'To be a Palestinian child is not like other children in the world. You didn’t have any kind of protection. When I was about six years old, I didn’t know what occupation means, or what settler means"

This persistent threat of attack or arrest has plagued Mohammad’s teenage hood. Two days after we spoke he was arrested for refusing to leave a 'military zone' — in fact the Hureinis’ land under international law. A video shows an Israeli soldier allowing a settler to remain, saying: "He is allowed to stay because I say he is allowed to stay".

Mohammad later posted on Instagram: "I will not give up no matter what they do. I will continue the fight I started to defend our right and land, which I started when I was only 13."

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Most 13-year-olds’ primary concern is battling puberty, not a belligerent occupation. Does Mohammad think he had a childhood?

He sighs, pauses, and speaks in a slower, deflated manner: “To be honest… to be a Palestinian child is not like other children in the world. You didn’t have any kind of protection. When I was about six years old, I didn’t know what occupation means, or what settler means.

“I thought all the attacks on us — or when the army limited us [from going] somewhere else — was normal. I would say ‘Okay, I’m not allowed to be here’.”

Mohammad rediscovers his energetic tone: “But when you reach 10 years, 15 years, your childhood ends. You will not feel like you are a child. Because now you have rights and freedoms to reach,” he says. “For liberation, you need [an aim]. This is hoping that the next generation of children will not face the same that I faced in my childhood.”

Saber, now five, pokes his head into the frame and studies me distrustingly. Masafer Yatta may only become more dangerous as Saber grows up. But it is for him, and a generation of Palestinian children, that Mohammad and the Youth of Sumud are fighting to save their home.

Alex Croft is a freelance journalist based in London. His work has appeared in the Daily Mirror, the Hackney Gazette, Ham and High, and more

Follow him on Twitter: @alxcroft