On Our Land: Caabu hosts a briefing with researchers protecting cultural heritage in South Hebron Hills

By Alexandra Boothroyd

On 21 November, Caabu hosted a briefing with representatives from the research team behind On Our Land; a project documenting the cultural heritage of the South Hebron Hills. The project seeks to preserve this heritage from the impact of Israeli occupation, through a series of interviews between youth researchers and older generations.

Sameeha Huraini and Khalil Makhamra, both youth researchers, opened with introductions to the villages and communities they grew up in, Al Twani and Jinba, describing the geography, culinary traditions and the experience of occupation. They screened a short film about their work (available below) which combined clips from their interviews with sweeping footage of the region. At one point the cameras followed an elderly man as he visited the house he grew up in. When asked by one researcher what his biggest dream was he said; ‘to go back home and gave the land returned to our people… I was born here and I wanted to die here.”

Sameeha and Khalil then spoke at length about their research methods. All 20 youth researchers received training in oral history techniques, design and management from Mahasen Rabus, a former member of Birzeit University. Sameeha, like many of the researchers, began by interviewing her 90-year-old grandmother, and she described her face lighting up with emotion as she spoke. The project then grew to encompass a broader cross-section of the community.

Sameeha stressed the distinction between the oral history interviews they conducted and journalistic ones; theirs sought to preserve knowledge, rather than question it. They felt that making this clear was essential to gaining the trust of their older relatives. ‘They ask ‘if I give you this information, what will you do with it?’” Khalil explained. Conveying that they were gathering information as fellow Palestinians, with a view to putting their region on the map, was important.

The notion of reclaiming place was central to On Our Land. Recording and preserving cultural heritage in the face of occupation is a form of resistance. The project seeks, in part, to re-establish the identity of the South Hebron Hills as Palestinian, not Israeli. Khalil described it as ‘not letting occupation reach its goal.’ Both researchers said that speaking to older generations renewed their sense of purpose, and that it reminded them that “this [was their land], and [this was their] life.”

The morning concluded with recognition of the courage displayed by all those involved in the project. Checkpoints made moving between communities incredibly difficult, and filming, in particular, was not always easy. The youth behind the cameras were routinely stopped and questioned, and their use of drones was particularly risky. Yet they did it nonetheless, feeling that the aerial footage was worth the risk. By documenting the richness of the region, On Our Land illustrates what people are ‘for’, rather than what they against. This proves a refreshing and powerful form of advocacy and resistance.

On Our Land is a collaboration between the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, and a Palestinian community organisation, the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.

The project is funded by the British Council Cultural Protection fund(the British Council's £30m Cultural Protection Fund, in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is set up to protect cultural heritage at risk due to conflict in the Middle East and North Africa). The project was initially awarded funding from August 2017-December 2018 (Phase 1) and then awarded an extension for January 2019-December 2019 (Phase 2).