June 21, 2019. Al-‘Auja. Text by David Shulman

Photograph: Margaret Olin, 2017

“Not long ago the settlers came and shot two of my sheep,” Ahmad says. “If you hadn’t been here today, they might have shot two more. And for sure they would have beaten us as hard as they could.”

Photograph: David Shulman

He is a handsome, soft-spoken, man, also tough and wiry. Thick wrinkles on his face. The settlers, two teenage boys, have turned their tractor around and gone away—perhaps because they are afraid of our cameras. Isma’il and his wife and their large herd have already started for home. The settlers spooked them. I say to them, “Don’t worry, we are here with you.” It doesn’t help.  Fear—or worse, and nameless- is a living thing, something you can smell and touch. “Will you come again tomorrow or Sunday?”

By 9:00 the sky is on fire with light. Ahmad tells me they took the sheep out at 4:00 AM, long before dawn. They’ve had four hours; the sheep have eaten their fill. So it’s OK to go home and sleep. Maybe toward evening they’ll go out again. Our task is almost finished. An ordinary, mostly quiet day, with friends, Reddygaru, Sudha, wide-eyed, first time in Palestine.

Photograph: David Shulman

Then the soldiers arrive. Ahmad sees them from a distance, a large jeep, headlamps on, bumping over the rocks. He’s nervous. Again I say, “Don’t be afraid.” He says, “I’m not afraid, but I don’t need more trouble.” The jeep storms by us, hits the top of the ridge, looks around, hesitates, comes back and stops next to me.

            “Who are you?”

            “I’m from Ta’ayush,” I say.

            “What’s that?”

            “You don’t know Ta’ayush?”

            “We’re new around here.”

I’m not sure they’re not pretending. The young woman officer looks familiar to me. Still, I’m prepared to explain.

            “We come to accompany the shepherds and to protect them.”

            “Who from?”

      “First of all from the settlers, who are constantly harassing them and hurting them. Second of all, from you, because you aren’t doing your duty.”

            “Which is?”

            “It’s your responsibility to safeguard these people and stop the settlers from driving them crazy.”

            “Why should we do that?”

            “I just told you what the settlers do. If you don’t believe me, ask around. People at your base and all the other local people can confirm what I just said.”

            “We never heard anything about that.”

            “I can tell you. I’ve been coming here for years. I’ve seen a lot. I strongly suggest you open your eyes and see where you are living. These people are at risk. They live in terror.”

            “Oh.”

The tall soldier looks at me and says nothing. I think he thinks I’m crazy. But he’s listening. I feel the inner surface of my soul, if I have one, turning hard and dry. Still, I go over the whole thing again, I say I’m from Jerusalem, from Ta’ayush, and for the third or fourth time I tell them that they are responsible for what happens here, and that they are not here to take orders from the settlers, and that there is an occupation, in case they haven’t heard, which indeed they have not. They were born into it. Now they are it.

            “Anyway,” says the girl, “those shepherds came too close to the settlement. They aren’t allowed to be there.”

            “Actually,” I say, “we—the army and us—had an agreement with a map that showed where they could go, and where they were today was inside that area.”

            “Who needs a map? They can’t go there.”

            “Believe it or not, these are their lands. They own them. And the settlement is totally illegal, as you probably know. Those settlers are thieves.”

            “So?”

They climb back into the jeep and drive off in a whirl of dust. Suddenly, there is silence, the sweet full silence of the desert. As if there were no more settlers or soldiers, no jeeps, no guns. Just as suddenly, I know that someday they will be swept away.

Photograph: Ramachandra Reddy

We stand alone on the hill. Far below us, the sheep, heavy with thorns and dry grass, are marching home in a line, partly hidden by the dust. They are getting smaller and smaller. That smell of fear is also gone. Fire falls from the sky.

photograph: Margaret Olin, 2017

Text David Shulman © 2019

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