There are about 40,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley—the Israeli-occupied segment of the long deep crack in the surface of the earth known as the Syrian-African Rift. Half of them live in the tropical resort town of Jericho, once thought to be the world’s oldest city. The other half are mostly Bedouins, descendents of pastoralist nomadic tribes that have by now settled down in small, fixed clusters of tents and shacks, though they continue to live primarily from their flocks of goats and sheep. A few veteran sites, such as Kardala, Bardala, and ‘Ein al-Baida in the northern Valley, also have solid stone houses. Some Palestinian families from the hill country around Ramallah still maintain a pattern of seasonal migration to the Valley with their flocks. Bedouin settlement here goes back centuries, and the way of life of these settled pastoralists has its own special flavor and integrity. It’s a hard life. It would be hard even if these people were not crushed by the harsh hand of the Israeli Occupation.
Typically, what you find is someone like Burhan in Harat-al-Makhul, whom we meet, surrounded by his sheep, at 7 AM, when the air is still cool with a trace of sweet mist. He lives here alone, for the most part, except for a few close friends and helpers; his wife and children are in the town of Tubas in the hills to the west, with its schools and shops. I count close to a hundred sheep, including fifteen or twenty newborn lambs. One ewe, he tells us, is about to give birth within half an hour or so. He advises us to wait and see the birth, which, clearly, has lost nothing of its miraculous character in his eyes.
He brings us coffee in tiny cups—the first round of perhaps 9 or 10 today. He’s rough-hewn and gentle, his long grey shirt stained a darker grey by handling these dozens of sheep hour by hour. A continuous cacophony of roosters greets the dawn and then goes on greeting the intensifying sunlight. Soon it will be very hot. Inside Burhan’s tent there is a makeshift gas stove, a few white plastic chairs, an assortment of tools and rags and boxes, a shelf for coffee and sugar and the granular heavy pita that the shepherds make. The floor is hard-packed dirt and sand. I think Burhan is a happy man.
But he lives on the edge. There’s no cash to spare, and there are many sheep-mouths to feed, more every day. Like all the shepherds in the Valley, he lives with the constant threat of seeing his home, his sheep-pens, his store-rooms, and his foot-paths demolished by the Israeli army. It could happen literally at any time, just as it did, last week and this week, at al-Hammeh and Ras al-Ahmar. Water is a big problem. He has to bring it by tanker from far away and at huge cost for a small sheep-holder. He used to get it from al-Tuf, which has freshwater springs and is relatively close by, but the road has been blocked by the army. So now he has to import it from ‘Ein al-Baida, at around 20 to 30 shekels per cubic meter, which comes to around 260 Israeli shekels or more for a small tanker—about $65, a princely sum. It’s autumn now, one tanker might last him a week; but in the summer, when the sun is merciless, he goes through a tanker in 3 or 4 days. Burhan knows we’re on our way to ‘Ein al-Hammeh, where some of the worst demolitions have taken place, but he asks us to come back to help him fix the roof over his sheep-pens. If he tries to do it alone, the soldiers may turn up to harass him. The army bases on either side of Harat al-Makhula have big cameras fixed on high metal towers that record his every move.
There’s not much left at ‘Ein al-Hammeh. Here the destruction was very thorough, also carried out in a sadistic rush: the families were given ten minutes to take whatever belongings they could out of their homes, but this permission did not extend to any electrical appliances, cellphones, televisions, in short, anything of real value. The animals, too, were left roofless under the fierce sun and exposed at night to the no less fierce desert cold. Many of the young lambs and goats have died over the last few days. To make things worse, the army or the Civil Administration (perhaps driven on by the brutal new Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman) chose to carry out the destruction at the height of the birthing season, when the young kids emerge into the light. It’s perhaps hard for us to realize the full extent of this disaster; to understand, you would have to be a shepherd living with, and living from, the herds. A whole summer of careful nurture, waiting and feeding and preparing for the autumn births, has been wasted in the space of an hour or two.
The ruins of the homes and pens are lying in place on the sandy ground. Ta’ayush volunteers have been working here, cleaning up the chaos of destruction as best they could; so now you can see wooden boards and plastic bars and black cloth in more or less orderly piles spread over the entire area of the settlement, including the lower approaches of the wadi leading to their grazing grounds. It’s around 8 when we arrive; the shepherds are driving the flocks up through the wadi and onto the yellow-brown slopes of thorn and rock. Mahdi comes to greet us, soon joined by ‘Arif. I grasp their hands, not knowing what to say to someone who has just watched his home smashed by bulldozers while soldiers barked commands. Even by the perverse standards of the Occupation, this demolition of an entire village was entirely illegal (you can see I cling to that word, as if it were still possible to believe in some semblance of “the law.”) For the last three years, there has been a court-ordered freeze on demolitions in a large area of the Valley, including al-Hammeh. I guess the Civil Administration is pursuing a higher goal, beyond the paltry rulings of the court, and we know what it is. They, and the government that gives them their orders, want the Jordan Valley cleansed of its Palestinian residents.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the homes and cattle-pens of al-Hammeh were built without permits. If you’re a Palestinian shepherd or farmer down here, there is no way you will ever get a permit. Not long ago I heard one of the Supreme Court justices blithely announce in court (this with reference to the village of Susya in South Hebron): “The fate of any building built without a permit is destruction.” Houses have fates, books (they say) have fates, and people have fates, too. Then there are people who invent cruel fates and impose them on other people.
There’s worse to come. Three days ago settlers from the “illegal outpost” of Givat Salit—now in the final stages of metamorphosing into a fully legalized settlement, with everything that comes with that enviable status—started building a wooden structure far up the hill, in the midst of the grazing grounds of al-Hammeh. The site was well chosen, for it precisely cuts off the only route the shepherds can take if they are to skirt the vast military firing zone that begins there, on that slope. We drive up over the rocks to see the new foundation and photograph it. Here you have the primeval moment, the not-so-tentative beginning of a process that, in Israel-Palestine, has only one possible end-point. What begins with a few wooden beams with settlers hovering over them, obeying the commandments of their god, will swiftly become another full-fledged settlement sitting on stolen land; it will soon be connected to the Israeli water system and the electric grid and it will have soldiers patrolling around it and it will no doubt entice new residents by offering houses—tile-roofed villas–with government subsidies and dirt-cheap mortgages. All this happens very fast. Guy calls the police and, fighting his way through the receptionist and the lower clerks eventually succeeds in getting through to a policeman, who agrees to come down to the Valley to see this development with his own eyes. This policeman is affable, gregarious, and cooperative. He takes pictures of the new foundations with his I-Pad. The Civil Administration sends a soldier, too. They say they will check into this matter, whatever that means.
Meanwhile, a young settler, maybe 18 years old, maybe 20, is grazing his flock right there, under our noses. Amitai greets him gently and then, even more gently, says to him, “I am sorry to tell you that you can’t be here. This is privately owned Palestinian land, and you have invaded it.” The shepherd looks at him in what seems like genuine surprise. He has no intention of going anywhere, of course. He’s from a settlement farther up the Valley. Finally he says, “How could that be? This is Israel, and the Jews are sovereign here.”
Strange how that sentence keeps coming back at us today. Mid-morning: suddenly there’s a call from al-Hadidiya, some fifteen minutes away over the desert roads. An army bulldozer has turned up and is already at work. Soldiers have come with it. Al-Hadidiye is where I spent much of the day when I was last in the area, a guest of the indomitable Abu Saqer. It’s also in the zone of the hypothetical freeze on demolitions. But at first we imagine the worst. They’re coming to destroy al-Hadidiye as they destroyed ‘Ein al-Hammeh and Ras al-Ahmar. With Arif, we race to al-Hadidiye. It’s one of those Ta’ayush moments, at once horrible and thrilling. ‘Arif, who knows something of the Jews, says, “Yesterday was Yom Kippur. I thought you were supposed to atone for your sins, not start off on new ones.”
Sure enough, we can see the bulldozer from afar. To our relief, it’s still some ways from the village, and it’s busy heaping up mounds of dirt, rock, and swirling dust to block the main access road into it.
You can’t help but wonder why they’re doing that. Al-Hadidiye is only one of a large number of small encampments that depend entirely on this one road, their only truly viable access and egress, especially for heavy traffic such as water-tankers. But we’re in the middle of a rocky desert, extending for many miles. Even if they block the road, the Palestinians will drive over the stones on either side and make their way around the roadblock. So what we’re seeing this morning is the normative, vicious fusion of sheer wickedness and idiocy. The army is there to harass, to maximize discomfort, to drive these people crazy. Over time, the Palestinians will be worn down and go away. It’s good to have a purpose in life. “What did you do in the army?” “I piled up sand in the desert and blocked a Palestinian road.”
Amitai can’t stand it. He jumps onto the mound of earth that the bulldozer is heaping up. There’s one soporific soldier guarding this daring military mission, and there’s the soldier who is driving the bulldozer, which grunts and growls like a beast of prey. The driver yells at Amitai to get out of his way. Amitai asks him why he is following whatever immoral orders he has been given—why he is prepared to deprive whole families of water, for example. Doesn’t this driver have some empathy for the people who live there? No, he doesn’t. “I couldn’t care less what happens to them. This is the State of Israel, and the Jews are sovereign. The rest should go away.”
Amitai: “Did you ever hear the name of Rachel Corrie?” She was the brave young woman who was killed and buried by an Israeli bulldozer that was demolishing Palestinian houses in Gaza in 2003. Surprisingly, the army driver has heard the name.
Amitai: “You don’t want to have something like that on your conscience, do you?” Very disgruntled, the driver stops working. Is this evidence that he indeed has something you could call a conscience? A happy thought. Let’s not put too much weight on it. He has some things to say about leftists meddling in affairs of the state. Soon more soldiers appear in three command cars. They are all over Amitai, who keeps up a steady flow of words, chastising them for their hard hearts and their cruelty and their craven indifference. If you can imagine the prophet Jeremiah with a playful, easy-going manner, an impish smile, and a taste for Quixotic adventures, that’s Amitai. Guy joins him, eloquently describing the moral bankruptcy of these soldiers and their commanders and their orders and the system that has sent them here this morning to heap up sand piles in the desert. One of the women soldiers seems close to tears. Her commander sends her to sit inside the command-car, out of earshot of Guy’s subversive ethics. I’d like to think that some day, maybe 5 years from now, these words, held somewhere in abeyance out of reach of her mind, will bear fruit in her heart. I’ve seen it happen, once or twice.
It’s really hard to interfere with desperate foolishness intent on fulfilling its autotelic tasks. Systemic foolishness is always stubborn, impervious to words or reason. We thus fail to keep the long winding roadblock from coming into existence. It’s there now. Maybe next week, when Quamar, our invincible lawyer, gets back from abroad, she’ll manage to undo today’s wicked little game. She’ll enjoy the challenge. For now, once we’ve established for sure that the bulldozer is not going to start chewing up the tents and pens of Al-Hadidiyeh, we take our pictures, post them on Facebook, and depart.
I don’t think you need to hear about the demolitions at Ras al-Ahmar, which I was able to see only from some distance. They follow the pattern of ‘Ein al-Hammeh. The same totality, and the same cruel haste. We sit for some hours more with the orphaned men of al-Hammeh, who, ever hospitable, even in extremis, present us with a feast of maqlubeh, cooked somehow or other, in the open air; we eat with them, surrounded by the broken splinters of their homes. We go back to sit with Burhan; the ewe gave birth. Another tiny white kid has joined his half-brothers and sisters.
But there is one last bit of the day I should mention, a hopeful moment in the midst of all this grief. Guy takes me to meet Osama. It’s good to remember what human beings are sometimes, rarely, capable of. Osama grew up in Jerusalem; joined the Fatah as a teenager; was on the run, then captured by the Israelis. In prison he made the switch to an unshakeable, personal vision of non-violent resistance. I’ve met more than a few others like him over the years. I think the future of Palestine lies in their hands. By comparison, the soldiers we saw today, and the benighted officers of the Civil Administration, not to speak of the unspeakable politicians from the Prime Minister on down, are shrunken creatures crawling fruitlessly over the desert sands. The birth of a genuine human being is no less miraculous than the birth of a baby kid.
Baked dry and weary, I get back to Jerusalem around 6. In the courtyards of the small synagogues in Katamon, where I live, people are buying their etrogim and lulavim for the Succot holiday, which starts on Sunday. They examine the yellow, fragrant etrog with minute circumspection, lest, god forbid, there be a blemish of any kind. Life in Katamon is normal. Sins have been atoned for by fasting and forgiven by the Jewish god. Now we can celebrate the fragility of a home, a hut, a succa, in the autumn, just before the coming of the rains. Succot was always my favorite. Maybe I’m drawn to the beauty of evanescence. I’ve spent this day amidst ruins. As I pass the synagogues, I have Abu Saqer’s words ringing in my ears, in his deep gravelly voice, speaking of the soldiers who had just ruined his road, as if they could hem this man of the wide world into some ever smaller space with no air to breathe and no future left to dream of: “They’re liars,” he said, merely stating a fact.
text and photographs (except where otherwise identified): David Shulman