– 1 –
Army and police swarming all over the roads. Just a week ago they arrested seventeen activists (out of 120) who were fixing the road to Bi’r al-‘Id. Now, still early morning, a car stops beside us. The officer, bored, irascible, dazed, asks what we’re doing.
We say, We’re watching over Ahmad and his goats, as we often do.
And by the way, have you noticed the new illegal outpost just over that hill? We can see it, or at least the top of it; a white tent gleaming in the sun, maybe a mile away. It’s been there for about ten days. Just past the Susya cemetery; on Palestinian land, of course (there is no other kind of land in the south Hebron hills).
No, he says, I didn’t notice.
So are you going to do something about it? Ada asks.
It’s not up to me or to you. I’m sure it’s being monitored.
Ada: You mean “encouraged” by you and all the rest.
No. Listen, I live in Judah and Samaria, and I can tell you, everything is under control.
He goes away. After a while a police car comes by. A rather jolly policeman, all smiles, takes our identity cards “for checking.” Have you seen the new outpost? “No. But don’t worry. Everything here is under control.” Which is true, in a way—under the settlers’ control.
– 2 –
Sami drives us toward Bi’r al-‘Id, where the other activists are again working on the road, or track– a patchwork of potholes and sand and rough boulders– that connects the village to the world.
The army tried to stop them with roadblocks on all the access routes. They set off on foot over the hills, and they made it. We, too, come up against the army roadblock. The soldiers, mild-mannered, affable, have a purple map and an order declaring the area a Closed Military Zone (CMZ). The order is illegal, forbidden by the Supreme Court, and in addition there is no original signature by the ranking general, as the law requires, only a xerox copy, so it’s doubly illegal, and, thirdly, they won’t let us photograph it, as we have the right to do, always, for the benefit of our lawyers and the courts. We argue to no effect. There’s no choice. We too head out over the hills.
At every step I feel more like a goat, though I haven’t yet tasted their beloved thorns. It’s a long detour under heavy sun, and we are quickly riddled with thorns, especially in our shoes.
The same soldiers are waiting for us when we arrive after an hour. So is Ezra Nawi, in high spirits, holding himself up with his two canes. He’s going for a walk. He’s been working on the road for some hours.
It was good work, he says. Another Ramadan or two and we’ll finish the road. I say: “At this pace, it might take a thousand Ramadans.” “Fine,” says Ezra, “what’s the rush?”Ramadan karim. Usually, work days in south Hebron during Ramadan are short, sometimes serene. Our hosts are fasting.
Reunited, we walk back through the thorns. There is one thing left to do today.
– 3 –
We are standing just across from the new, shiny outpost, the one that’s under control. Amiel gives his briefing. “We don’t know if these settlers are violent or not. They may be. If they start throwing rocks, remember you have to keep facing the rocks; don’t turn your back on them, or you’ll be hit. Turn on your cameras now.”
The settlers, in white, are lounging in their tent. They have finished their Shabbat meal. They’re young, with big embroidered skullcaps. Beer bottles on wooden tables. They’re not happy to see us. We arrive just as the soldiers emerge from the other side of the hill. They’re also unhappy, as soldiers tend to be.
They want us out of there.
The settlers are trying hard to ignore us. It occurs to me that they may be scared. But they must know the soldiers are with them, and indeed these soldiers now present us with another CMZ order and a map that rambles over nearly all of South Hebron. Someone scribbled it in haste. They will show it to us, they say, but it’s not to be photographed. More soldiers drive up. They’re waiting for the big officer, as soldiers do.
Amiel: “A Closed Military Zone. Good. That means that everyone has to leave, right? Including them”—pointing to the settlers.
The not-so-big officer (from the Civil Administration) hesitates. He’s religious, as are about half of his men. He might think, God forbid, that God gave the land (only) to the Jews. Perhaps he’s feeling uneasy in himself, this affable man, doing his best? “I have my orders,” he says, the line of first and last resort. “I don’t decide, I do what my superiors order me to do. They have ordered me to clear you out of here.” He thinks for a moment, which is perhaps hard to do in the heat and with twenty activists rooted to the spot, watching. “These people,” he says, meaning the settlers, “are toshavim, ‘residents’, so they can stay.”
“What you mean,” we say, in several voices, “is that they are thieves who have stolen Palestinian land and are now building on it; they’re already connected to electricity and to water, and soon they’re going to expand. And they’re the ones who are giving you orders, as you well know. We won’t leave until they leave.”
Ezra, still with the canes, is dragging a light folding chair, which he puts down beside the entrance to the big tent. He sits, relaxed, enjoying this moment to the full. The soldiers are nonplussed. What are they going to do with this insouciant elderly gentleman? Ezra addresses the settlers: “Shabbat shalom, we’ve come to join you for the third Shabbat meal, seuda shlishit. But I don’t notice any signs of hospitality. When our father Abraham had guests, he would kill a sheep and cook it for them. That’s what the Bible says. I’m not asking for a sheep, but at least a little something would be nice.“ He sighs. “The generations are declining.”
It seems likely that all of us will be arrested. I’m at peace with this thought. Where does a good human being belong when the government and all its slaves side with thieves and bandits and even send them off to steal? I’m sick of the rigmarole of CMZ’s and false papers and hollow words and meaningless doodles on google maps and escalating threats, sick of this waving of guns and squawking and bleating, now it’s the soldiers who seem to me like goats who have lost their way in the sun, who have fallen into some evil trap that they can’t think their way out of. Guy, meanwhile, is scraping at them with his finely-honed scorn: “These guys you’re protecting are terrorists, let’s not pretend they’re anything but that, is this what you joined the army to do? To back up hooligans and thugs? Aren’t you ashamed?”
“I’m not,” says one of the soldiers, religious, smiling; he’s had enough. “I’m proud of what I am doing, and I’ll be proud to tell my children about it someday.”
Now it’s too much for me. I don’t usually get into these futile tussles. What’s the point? I used to think that our words could plant a seed, say in the heart of a single soldier who, years from now, might begin to think for himself, but now I just stand in silence, aching. Still, the sadness is washing through me, so I say to him, looking him in the eye, speaking gently, holding in the anger, but straight, making every syllable count, “You don’t realize it, but they will be ashamed of you when that day comes, as I am ashamed of you today.”
I see him wince.
Long minutes pass. Amiel, also at peace, in his element, as you can tell from his tone, gives us, and the soldiers, a lecture on Closed Military Zones, their history, uses and abuses. He’s the world’s expert. This takes some time. No one’s going anywhere. Nowhere to go.
Until the really big, ornery, impatient officer from the Border Police—we know him– arrives with his men. He gives us five minutes to leave before he starts making arrests. Grudgingly, he shows the order and the skewed map to Amiel. He starts counting. Ten seconds left. Ten, nine, eight….
We haven’t budged.
But we’ve done what needed doing. “How are we going to get them to remove this abomination?” I ask Amiel. We’re slowly, very deliberately, moving downhill toward the road. He says, “By coming like this week after week until they have no choice.” It’s worked before. I suppose there’s a chance. But the soldiers, especially the border police, also the one who is proud of himself, want to hurt us now, and they start pushing us from behind, and Guy is keeping up his beginners’ lesson in ethics as he ignites his car with the soldiers upon him, then, enraged, they open the car door and drag him out and arrest him, and in the last second before they handcuff him he tosses me the car keys, and now Amiel is arrested for not walking fast enough, and then they drag Michal from the minibus and the proud-of-himself soldier handcuffs her, tightening the cuffs to their limit with his hands and then his teeth, just to make sure, and they cut into her vein and she nearly faints, and they’re yelling and pushing and hitting and in the noise and dust and thick sunlight I want them to arrest me too, but I have the keys, the Ta’ayush car, and now the jolly policeman from the morning, no longer jolly, screams at me to get the goddamned car out of there and away or else he’ll torment me with all the tortures at his disposal, and by now we’re halfway down the slope, I make my way back uphill to the car and turn on the ignition which, to my surprise, actually works, and inch by inch through the dust and turmoil coming at me in waves I move the car off the dirt path to where Sami is waiting with the minibus.
But this is only the beginning.
* Update: Those arrested were released unconditionally in the evening; the police investigators could find no legal justification for their arrest.
text © David Shulman 2019; photographs, where not otherwise credited, ©Margaret Olin 2019