Four happy months in India, and today I’m back in south Hebron. Before leaving I asked my friends to finish off the Occupation before I returned, but somehow they haven’t managed this. Yesterday I meet my neighbor Rama in the street, and she asks how it is to be home. It’s good, I say, at first I was even high, but little by little despair seeps in. “That’s right,” she says, “here everything is really fine except for the despair.”
It torments me all the way down to south Hebron, a dark and acrid journey. Why why why? I remember this: when you’ve been away and you come back, at first you find the reality of Palestine unreal. Unthinkable. A kind of lunacy. The colonial project, the horrific crime at the heart of it—it all looks mad, and beyond fixing. Nothing we do can change it. Nothing we say matters.
Then, after an hour on the hills with the shepherds, the craziness begins to feel natural, normal, and I know what I have to do.
I’m lucky to be with Guy today. He turns out to be a hardened optimist: Maybe the elections this week will bring the beginning of the change. But even if they don’t, we’re coming closer to the point of decision: either full-blown apartheid or a peace agreement, whose details are anyway well known. If Israel opts for apartheid, the Netanyahu way, then the world will force a change. The pressure is building up. The boycott will do it. One day we will come down here to visit our Palestinian friends, we will remember these bad days, we will have coffee and laugh, we will say: “Do you remember that hot day in March when the soldiers came and arrested Hatim and Guy and Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim, when they cooked up this idiotic rule that you can’t graze the sheep in the wadi or on the slopes to the east, and they held them for hours in the jeeps and then finally let them go?” Those good days will certainly come, Guy says, it could, it should, be paradise here. In the meantime, we have to do what we do to keep things from getting worse.
There are lots of sheep—four or five herds from Zanuta, we count about 300 heads; and another four or five herds from Rahwah, to the south where the wadi takes this grand ravishing curve. Rashad is responsible for one of the herds. He has a story to tell, which goes like this, in his fierce and fluent Hebrew:
“It was years ago, this crazy settler, Avi, came with his brother and another man and they picked a fight with my brother, who was out with the sheep. They beat him badly, and another shepherd too, and they threatened to kill them. My brother called me and I came fast, walking over the hill with my shepherd’s staff. “We’re going to kill you,” they said. They made us sit down on the ground and wait. They had heavy guns. I was afraid of them, they’re bad and they’re crazy, you can tell a bad man when you meet one. There’s room for everyone here, we don’t care if they’re here, but they want only to hurt us and take the land. [Guy interjects: “We’ll kick them out of here, don’t worry.”] So we’re sitting there and waiting, and the settlers have their guns pointed at us, and luckily an army jeep came by on the road, in those days the roads weren’t so good, I ran to the jeep and stuck my arm through the window and said to the officer that he has to come with me. He didn’t have much choice. When he got to where my brother and the other shepherd were sitting, the settlers started beating them again, and they said to the soldiers, ‘Look, this one has a stick,’ meaning my staff, so the officer drew his pistol and cocked it and made sure the bullet was in the barrel and then he pressed the pistol against my forehead and said, ‘Get rid of that stick or your brains are going to be blown to heaven.’ I said I don’t need the staff and I threw it away. Still, they hit us some more, and they told us they’d come back to kill us some day, for sure, and they went away. In those days we didn’t have friends like you to help us.”
Rashad has a permit, which means he can work inside Israel; so he’s in Beersheva most days of the week and out on the hills with the sheep only on Saturday. He’s rough, good-natured, utterly and oddly innocent, as innocent as a human being can be. He thinks people have the option of being good. He laughs a lot. I like the idea that we’ll come back some day to laugh again with him.
Pastoral interlude. We lie in the sun, resting against the rocks, waiting. A delicious silence soaks the green slope—green as Ireland, after the rains. Everywhere the anemones are straggling into the sunlight, and there are daisies and dandelions and tiny nameless purple blossoms and thick green reeds as well. A partridge flutters over the stream. Happiness. Guy says it’s the silence before the storm.
Of course he’s right. Above us, across the wadi, there’s the settlement of Har Hamor, where a single settler family lives. They’ve cordoned off huge chunks of the ancient grazing grounds, and, as always, they’ve got the soldiers to guard them and do their bidding, which means driving Palestinian shepherds off Palestinian land. It’s no surprise when two drab khaki-grey jeeps turn up on the path near the tiny stream, heavy with the sewage of Kiryat Arba, at the base of the hill. Then they are upon us.
There’s a vanguard. “Get these sheep away from here,” they order us, but of course we demand to see the signed order, and all too soon the Big Officer comes with those foolish fancy stars on his uniform and his big heavy gun and with the piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander and the map on its inverse. It decrees—illegally, of course—that the wadi and the hill where the settlement sits and about a third of the hill where we’re standing are all now a Closed Military Zone. In itself, this wouldn’t be so bad, though it’s a crime, and cruel, and, more simply, wrong. What makes it worse today is the Oral Law, the torah sheba’al peh, that accompanies the order and that declares the whole rolling expanse of the slopes, all the way uphill to the highway a mile or two away, to be forbidden to Palestinians, since these lands, says Big Officer, are “Jewish grazing grounds.”
He’s made it up. There’s no legal basis to this draconian restriction. We tell him so, but it makes no difference. He’s given us 10 minutes to get the shepherds uphill before he arrests them. We Israelis, he says, can remain on the “Jewish grazing grounds” if we agree to move a few hundred meters up the slope. The 10-minute deadline applies to us too, and the clock is running.
Here’s a little mini-apartheid moment, as we firmly inform him. “You can’t make one law for Palestinians and another for Jews,” we say. It’s infuriating. I can feel the rage welling up in me, and the morning’s despair is also kicking in, along with the sick feeling of helplessness. We call Amiel, who confirms our reading of the law. Now it’s up to the shepherds to decide; we will follow their lead. I rush over to explain to them in Arabic what the soldiers are demanding; I tell them that the law is with them if they move the herd just a little ways up the slope, but that there’s a danger that the soldiers will arrest them anyway. Several shepherds immediately start moving the sheep. It’s not so easy. Sheep are notoriously slow about such things. They’ve been feeding ravenously on the rich diet of thorns and greens in the wadi and they don’t seem to feel any particular respect for Big Officer who, looking around for a potential victim, settles on us. We’ve started walking backwards, very slowly and deliberately, as he barks at us and counts the seconds left.
Is Big Officer a bad man? Let’s leave this question in abeyance. I’m not sure what it means. He seems unhappy that his order and his deadline have not been honored with alacrity. I wonder if he’s put out at having to waste a beautiful spring Shabbat morning chasing hundreds of stubborn sheep over the rocks. I also wonder if he has any inkling of how much harm he is doing to himself, to his manhood, to the subtle, hidden places of his mind, by inflicting cruelty on innocents, by humiliating them and treating them like children and by exiling them from what is theirs. These thoughts flit rapidly through my mind and vanish into the sunlight because Big Officer has lost patience and arrested Hatim Suleiman Shafiq, though he was actually trying to obey the order and get the sheep going, and Guy rushes down to try to protect him so they arrest him too.
The soldiers march their hostages to the jeeps. By now the police have also turned up, and Hatim and Guy are locked into their blue-white wagon. In the wadi, considerable chaos reigns. Oblivious, joyful, untold numbers of sheep are doing what sheep do, dotting the wadi with a furry beige. Two or three of the shepherds have managed to pry some part of their herds away from the thick foliage near the stream and to prod them some ways up the slope. They’re still far from the highway. Surprisingly, the soldiers, perhaps content with the initial arrests, seem to have forgotten all about their own arbitrary Oral Law. One contingent of them is poking with sticks through the tall grass as if they’d lost something of value there—as indeed they have.
The Rahwah shepherds are still deep in the wadi to the south, and they seem to have found a creative solution to the soldiers’ threats: they’ve sent young kids, maybe eight or nine years old, to follow the sheep there, on the tenuous assumption that the army won’t arrest children. (It does it all the time.) I join Amir and Peg on the southern ridge. Time slows down, as if high noon had brought it to a leisurely boil. We wait. We call the lawyer who will take care of Guy and Hatim when they reach the police station. We chat with Murad and the other shepherds, who want to know why the soldiers took Hatim. “Who can say?” I answer, a non-answer, since there is no answer
Just when I come to the conclusion that the men with guns have resigned themselves to recalcitrant ovine reality and the danger has passed, they suddenly arrest two more shepherds: Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim. The arrests are swift and brutal, with much shoving and poking. We’re too far away to be of help, but I can’t bear watching this: despair again. Is it the good despair I’ve written about, the kind that makes you act and take risks and not think about results? I doubt it. It’s a black viscous feeling that goes well with the liquid gold washing over the hill.
It may make you feel better to know that eventually all those arrested were released; that the police refused even to accept Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim at the station and sent them back to the soldiers, who had to let them go; that the other hostages who had been captured at Shweike and Umm al-Ara’is were also freed. It was a messy, foolish day, maybe because the settlers are full of hate and fear as the elections come near, and they know that this time they may lose, so they pick on their usual victims and command the soldiers to do the same. Or maybe there’s no logic to it all except for the random but systemic logic of the Occupation itself, perhaps stirring itself awake in the first real week of spring. You might also feel better if I tell you that I figure that if we keep coming back week after week, the Palestinians may eventually get their wadi back and the herds will flow past the ravishing curve and happily blanket the hungry hills. What is required of us is no heroics but a dull steadiness and perseverance. I think it will work. Speaking of happiness, Peg told me when we said goodbye that she’d felt it today, and then I knew that I, too, had tasted that unthinking, unreasonable joy, the South Hebron happiness, unlike any other I have known, the kind that comes from looking straight at wickedness and not looking away.
text © David Shulman 2015 photographs © Margaret Olin 2015