June 21, Susya
First day of summer in Susya: a lively wind and the good smells of wild sage and goats and dogs and sun-baked stones. We are there to celebrate the release of Kingdom of Olives and Ash—the anthology of essays by well-known writers from around the world who were brought to the occupied territories by Breaking the Silence to signal the dismal fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation. They wrote what they saw; it isn’t pretty. They wrote well, telling truth. Some of them, including Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the editors, and the indomitable Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and an effervescent group of Hebrew authoresses, have come to give the Susya Palestinians copies in Arabic. Strange how hope is so dependably reborn from ash. I am moved to see Nasir Nawajeh’s father and brother and uncles reading the thick Arabic volume that tells of them and their story. So we have the spell of true words on a page, and outside the bleating of the goats and the rushing wind, and inside the tent the unforeseeable alchemy of friendship. All the shacks and tents of Susya have demolition orders hanging over them, and the court has now removed the last obstacles that held the army back from flinging the bulldozers at these people, from dispossessing them once again, the eighth time, if it happens. If it happens, we will be there to rebuild.
Afterwards we plant olive saplings on the hill overlooking the Susya elementary school with its whitewashed walls and proud Arabic sign. There’s a still active well that supplies the water; buckets keep bursting from the depth as the rest of us settle the young trees into the round pits that have been dug for them, and we water them, letting the first bucketful soak into the caked golden soil, then the second, and then the earth get shoveled back around them and they stand up, sort of, bending almost to half their size under the fierce force of the wind. I say to Nasir: “These trees will grow to maturity and bear fruit long after the Occupation is dead and gone.” “Inshallah,” he says, not quite daring to smile.
June 26, Sarura
Fadil, Abu Fuad, dances like no one else. For long minutes I danced with him, up and down, over the rocks and sand, and though I’m older than he is by some 13 years, it was, I thought, like celebrating with my father, though I never danced with my father. It wasn’t just me. You could touch or taste in the air the uncanny joy given, rarely, to human beings when they emerge intact from the enveloping miasma of wickedness and sorrow. Sa’ada, happiness: the word on everyone’s lips this afternoon. Maybe there is no happiness like home. It’s not so often you get to see Palestinians truly happy, except at weddings.
Fadil has a deep scar on his nose. One of the soldiers who came to Sarura three weeks ago hit him hard with his rifle. They were there to destroy the Sarura camp, to wreck the tents and carry off the mattresses and confiscate the food and water and terrorize the families and the activists. Even in the midst of today’s happiness, I dreamt I would someday see the soldier who struck him, and the cursed officer who gave the order, in the dock of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. That day may yet come.
They’ve still here, the Sarura families, despite ferocious efforts to dispossess them. For over twenty years, after the settlers and the soldiers banded together in a concerted effort to drive them away, the ‘Amar family and the Harainis and the Raba’is and the Hamamdis held fiercely to the land. They grazed their sheep there, and sometimes they would sleep in the caves, those the army had not entirely destroyed. Then, on May 19th, 2017, just over five weeks ago, with the help of a unique coalition of activists from many peace groups– the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills, the Holy Land Trust from Bethlehem, All That’s Left—Anti-Occupation Collective, the Center for Jewish Non-Violence (these last two founded by and largely comprised of North American activists), the Combatants for Peace, among others, with active support from Ta’ayush and Haqel– they began cleaning out the caves. I want to think that they are there for good. For the last weeks, including all of Ramadan, the activists created the Sumud Freedom Camp at Sarura. Sumud: perseverance, holding fast. They worked together, they held workshops in the modes and means of non-violent resistance, they shared the evening Iftar meals. Today is the final, celebratory Iftar this year. Hard days lie ahead.
Fadil has a trim grey beard and the sun-scorched skin of those who live on the hills of South Hebron; also an impish light in his eyes. I asked him to tell me his story, and this is what he said.
“I was born on April 1st, 1962—in Sarura, right over there. [He points to a distant pile of rocks on the hill.] My father, too, was born here, in that cave [pointing north over the ridge], sometime in the nineteenth century. My father’s father was born here, and so on back into the depths of time. I grew up here, I married here, and my first three sons were born here. I myself own fifty dunams of land in the village, and 350 dunams farther east, on the way into the desert, the direct bequest of my father. We are shepherds and farmers; I grew up among the sheep and goats.
The settlers came and harassed us every day; it got worse and worse, and the soldiers joined them in making our lives miserable. By 1997 only a few of us were left in the caves. I lived for some time in Twaneh, but the sheep were here; we never abandoned this place. We always came to graze the herds, we plowed and sowed seeds. It was very difficult. The settlers—from Chavat Maon, just over that hill—blocked up our wells. We had no water. It was a continuous struggle to hang on. We had help from the Italian Dove team and others, and then Ta’ayush arrived and stood by us and protected us from the settlers. They brought us water, since the wells were gone. They worked beside us.
The courts offered no justice and no help. Still we hung on. Sometimes I stayed here in the cave for some months. Then, a few years ago, the settlers killed 35 of my sheep and burnt our tents and all the fodder we’d saved for the herd. We knew we had to be here in a continuous way, otherwise the village would be lost forever. On May 19th we began clearing the caves, together with these activists and volunteers. Hundreds came to help us, young people, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and our Palestinian relatives and neighbors. They are strong and determined. We worked together. I dug with my own hands a deep well that can hold 150 cubic meters.
The soldiers came and destroyed whatever they could, one of them struck me on my face, hard, with his gun, and they confiscated my car. Now they want me to pay 15,000 shekels to get it back. Where can I find that kind of money? Ramadan has come and gone, and with God’s help we will stay. This is our land. We will live here until we die. No settler and no soldier will drive us out. Only God’s will could uproot us.
We thank God for what we have achieved together, and we thank especially those who came from far away to help us. Our resilience and our steadfastness are what we call our own. We will go on. We welcome all of you, without titles and even without names, all of us are one today.”
I think you should hear those words together with what Isaac Kates Rose said during the speeches. He was speaking about the second time the army visited the Sarura camp, on May 22nd, with the obvious aim of breaking it up. “We were five internationals, five Israelis, five Palestinians. There were about 30 soldiers. To put it succinctly: we won. Fadil Abu Fuad was my teacher that day. I grew up in Toronto, and as a child my body had learned to idolize Jewish bodies holding big guns. But when the soldiers came in the middle of the day, marching down the hill, scaring the kids who were playing, in that moment I had a new language teacher and I learned a new language. I looked at Fadil, who showed me that he had in his own body all he needed to resist. Come, he said to me, we will hold on to this tent and not let go of it, and we will hold on to one another and not let go. And here we are: still holding fast. We have built relationships on trust and respect. I believe these relationships have world-historical meaning. Such relationships, rooted in non-violent resistance, will break the Occupation. We stand together in the South Hebron hills to build a future of freedom.”
It is late afternoon: hot, fiery, dry, dusty, with sudden gusts of sand-clogged wind that tears at your eyes and ears. Maybe we are only shouting into the wind. At night the soldiers will surely come, and probably the settlers, too, for good measure. If not tonight, then tomorrow. Everyone knows how far we have to go. The whole weight of the Occupation system will be brought to bear on these few shepherds in their newly cleaned, paved caves with their neatly stacked stone parapets on either side of the entrance. Some of these people may be hurt, God forbid. Some will probably be arrested. There will be long, dreary battles in the courts, and long hot days working to clean one more cave, and then another and another. Phase I at Sarura is over today; it may be a very long time before hundreds of volunteers come again, some to sleep here overnight and watch by day.
Everyone knows that something unprecedented has happened. Phase II begins. Two caves are clean, freshly swept, spacious, livable, cool. And there is the road—they have begun to renovate the pit-filled road. So there is rebuilding this village, in the face of the virulent authorities and the violent settlers, and at the same time the building of a community, re-connected to Mufagara on the next ridge and Twaneh and Susya and Tawamin, and tightly bound to all the organizations that joined together to make this moment happen. It’s part of a wider process slowly unfolding with our help, year after year, of coming home and being at home—in Bi’r al’Id and Susya and Tawamin and Teku’a, a reversal of all that the Occupation stands for and all that it wants. That’s why when Riyad Halees from the Combatants for Peace begins to speak, we hear in his voice the sober delirium of truth: “We declare today that Sarura is free, a place of liberation, where those who live here can assume their responsibilities, for peace comes only with the duty to protect it in the face of all those who wish us harm.” The wind whips at his lips. I think of other, more famous declarations of independence and the lurking dangers that have overtaken them. Hafez al-Haraini, my old friend, completes the thought. “Together we are making a change. We have shown the effectiveness of joint non-violent struggle. You who have joined us—your presence here is more powerful than all the guns of the Occupation. We thank you. We will never give up, lam nistaslim.”
And then we danced.
text: © David Shulman 2017