It’s a rainless winter, so far, in the South Hebron hills: cold, grey, stony, dry. We spend an hour with Ahmad and his herd just after dawn, whipped by the wind. They’re from Gawawis, just over the hill. Ahmad has a seven-month-old baby at home. Like many of the shepherds we know, he also has a modern cell phone, which he delights in showing us. He wants a radio—a modest wish, I think, for someone living the excruciating life of the shepherd on these rough slopes. We’ll see what we can do. At 7 AM it’s probably too early for settlers to be prowling around, so my day starts with a harsh, frozen serenity. I’m glad to be here after a sleepless night. Even the wind is my friend.
We go with Nasser Nawajeh from Susya to his family’s fields, which have the misfortune of being located just under the ranch of the Talia family on a high ridge overlooking the desert. The ranch was founded by Yaakov Talia, a South African of the old school who converted to Judaism and moved here some decades ago, replacing one form of apartheid with the new, improved Israeli version. I knew him a little. He and his sons caused considerable suffering to the Palestinians just downhill at Bi’r al-‘Id. Yaakov Talia died in a work accident a couple of years ago; his two sons now run the ranch. One of them emerges to confront us as Nasser walks through the Nawajeh fields, some 120 dunams stretching into the wadi. By law and with the army’s explicit agreement, recognizing his claim, Nasser has the right to plow these fields. He has to do so soon, if he is not to lose his claim.
But Talia Jnr. doesn’t like this. He keeps up a steady, mind-killing torrent of insults, protests, wild mythic distortions, and threats, spiced from time to time with thick doses of self-pity. Look at me, he says, I have to live here behind wire fences, while you Palestinians can move around freely. You have no right to be here. You came here with your leftist friends as a pure provocation. This land is mine. Listen, Nawajah, let’s have a dialogue. Let’s be logical. Let’s start with something we can both agree on, OK? The world exists, right? We are in the world. So far so good? Do you agree with me? But where in the world? There are the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Have you heard of them? So where are we? Some people think Eurasia was originally in Africa. Did you know that? And there are those who claim that the State of Israel, which owns all the land here, lies in Asia. But have you noticed that the Israel soccer team plays in the Mondial, the World Cup? So we must belong to Europe, right? Do you follow this logic? You can’t refute it. So what are you doing here? This field belongs to me. In fact, everything here is mine. I’m an Israeli Jew. You are standing on state land, and you have no right to be here. Why aren’t you answering me? Can’t you follow me, Nawajeh?
That may give you some idea. It went on for an hour or two that seemed like weeks. The clinching argument about the World Cup was repeated at least ten times. Our Palestinian friends report that these righteous ranchers also tried to steal a herd of sheep last week. Perhaps Talia Jnr. thinks that all sheep, everywhere, belong to the Jews.
Like all the rest of us, this poor fellow has to live with the thoughts that flow through his mind. They came at us without respite in bitter, obsessive, rasping rage. I thought, at first, that maybe there would be some way to find an opening into his inner world, even a tiny crack would do, but—no such luck. Eventually the police arrive, and the army, and then the officers of the Civil Administration, they listen to him, they listen to us, they nod their heads and go away. The CA man hears from his office that Nasser’s claim is correct. Of course it will have to be checked again tomorrow. But I think there’s a good chance we’ll be plowing next week or the week after. It’s a good thing we came today.
On Tuesday the bulldozers came back to Umm al-Khair, their favorite spot for wreaking devastation. Once again they wrecked a few homes and shacks and also brought down the chicken coop on its hapless denizens, killing 8 chickens. I try to remember how many times I have come to Umm al-Khair to disentangle the ruins and to start rebuilding. I can’t count them. If I had to guess, I would say that house demolitions in Umm al-Khair are more regular than the winter rains, and that the army must have wrought havoc here many dozens of times. As all of you know, no Palestinian in Umm al-Khair, or anywhere else for that matter, can get a permit to build, so the houses are technically illegal, ergo—a highly consistent variation on the Talia Jnr. logic—they have to be destroyed. It often happens in the winter. It’s not so good to be houseless, shack-less, tent-less, in the winter.
A large group of Ta’ayush volunteers is already hard at work with our hosts. The first magnificent edifice to crystallize anew is the chicken coop. You should have seen the gentle care with which they built this home for the few survivors of Tuesday’s slaughter. First you have to clear the rubble, sweep the space clean, then build a containing wall of heavy boulders, then stretch a tarpaulin over the sides of this wall, then seal it with another layer of rainproof canvas so the chickens won’t get wet and cold. Mounds of stone and metal rubble surround the coop on every side. I can’t help noticing the contrast between the reality of recurrent, sadistic destruction and the resilience of those who rebuild yet one more time, and after that one more, and so on until the end of time. A wave runs through me. In the never-ending war between human viciousness and the no less human courage to live, and build, and love, the latter sometimes wins.
After some hours we stop to rest, and there is tea and fresh pitta, and patches of the village look a little better now, and Khalil thanks us and tells us to come back to build with them next week. Children are playing, as they always do, amidst the ruins. I see a group of three boys, maybe six years old, maybe seven. They are playing “getting arrested.” One is chosen as the victim, the other two bind his hands behind his back with invisible handcuffs and start marching him down the street. It’s something they know very well.
text and photographs, except where otherwise identified © David Shulman 2016