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Allahu Akbar - Finding God in Umm El Kheir

The Arabic phrase Allahu Akbar might be literally translated as “God is the greatest.” It is an expression we often hear in the American media devoid of any theological significance and as a trope to justify discrimination against Muslims and Islamic believers in God (Allah). And yet - for many religious Muslims - it is simply a reminder that God is in control and worthy to be praised. 

I am a believer in Jesus Christ, the son of God who was crucified on the cross and died for the forgiveness of our sins. During my time living in the Middle East, and now when I have the great privilege of visiting several times a year, I use the Muslim call to prayer and the words “Allahu Akbar” to remind me of the goodness and greatness of God. We are told in Pslam 145:3 “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.” It is a gift to be reminded of such several times throughout the day in the Arab world. 

Over the past decade, every time I traveled to the Palestinian bedouin village of Umm El Kheir in the South Hebron hills, I was greeted by the village Sheik, Hajj Suleiman Hathaleen - with his fist raised in the air, his white keffiyeh blowing in the wind, shouting at the top of his lungs in affable greetings, “Allahu Akbar.” Sheik Suleiman welcomed us, telling stories of the village’s struggles with a dose of abundant hospitality and tea. 

Since 1999, the community of Umm el Kheir has faced harassment from local settlers, midnight raids, destruction of property, killings of residents, and evictions.

Over the years, I learned about the history of the village of Umm El Kheir and the way the Jahaleen tribe acquired the land from residents of the nearby town of Yata with 100 camels (accumulated over time between 1959-1969). Residents of the village have lived there for over 60 years. In 1983, the Israeli military established an outpost and army camp near Umm El Kheir, which is now the settlement of Carmel with a population of over 400 people. The settlement is a gated community that tightly encroaches on the village and has access to many resources provided by the Israeli government, including the national bus system that services transportation to and from the settlements into Israel. Umm El Kheir is located in Area C (from the Oslo Accord, which divided the land into three areas) and is under Israeli civil and security control, but receives no direct services. The roads in Umm El Kheir are dug by hand and the villagers suffer from the continual threat of demolition of homes and property. You can read more about the story of Umm El Kheir in a Prayers for Peace blog on Churches for Middle East Peace’s website (CMEP). 

The Israeli authorities and extremist settler groups have placed such pressure on the residents of Umm el Kheir and surrounding villages as to constitute forcible transfer which is a violation of International Humanitarian Law. Since 1999, the community of Umm el Kheir has faced harassment from local settlers, midnight raids, destruction of property, killings of residents, and evictions.

The village of Umm El Kheir and the Hathaleen family holds a special place in my heart. The small community of families is just around 200 people. In the many years I’ve been visiting, I’ve witnessed the Carmel settlement slowly encroaching on more and more of the surrounding hillside. During my March 2023 visit, the village goats had to be kept in pens because there was no longer enough land for them to be able to graze without impediment by the neighboring settlements. The community can barely afford food for themselves, let alone for their livestock. The herd has diminished significantly in size because the community cannot maintain keeping them alive. 

Yet, despite the most horrific of tragedies, his family continues to follow in his footsteps and persist in nonviolent activism

In January 2022, the Israeli military conducted a round-up of “illegal cars” in the area. Palestinians often buy Israeli cars to use their parts or for transportation. But the military claimed these cars were being used in resistance efforts against the occupation. When the military arrived they came with two trucks and police. Peacefully resisting, Sheik Suleiman stood in the middle of the road to protest the taking of the vehicles. According to first-hand reports, one of the trucks was being driven by a settler from the neighboring settlement of Kiryat Arba. The truck already had some of the cars loaded in its bed. When Sheik Suleiman refused to move, the driver struck and dragged him several meters. Several witnesses were present. They tell about how the police and the settlers would not call an ambulance and how Sheik Suleiman had to be taken to the medical center in Yata in a private car. Hajj Suleiman died 12 days later. According to Al Jazeera, 15 thousand people attended his funeral. 

The killing of Sheik Suleiman Hathaleen was condemned by local and international bodies, including the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees.

I do not have words to describe the devastation of Suleiman’s death on his family and his village community. Yet, despite the most horrific of tragedies, his family continues to follow in his footsteps and persist in nonviolent activism and resistance. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know his nephew Tareq Hathaleen. When I first met Tareq he was a young teenager who spoke very little English. Now he’s not only fluent, but he also teaches English as a part of his profession. Tareq is a leader and part of a network of activists in Massafr Yatta and the South Hebron hills continuing to engage in nonviolent resistance. Tareq’s activism and persistence keep his uncle’s legacy alive. Tareq has not given up hope - hope that one day justice will prevail and the people of Umm El Kheir will live in freedom with human rights, dignity, and opportunity for a prosperous future. I and Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) are committed to standing in solidarity with them on their journey. 

How might I find God in such a horrific tragedy? Because the memory and legacy of Sheik Suleiman lives on. When I visit the village of Umm El Kheir, I still hear his loud and resounding voice reminding us “Allahu Akbar” … God is the greatest. 

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