Nothing Happens: Three stories from the South Hebron Hills

Nothing can happen in many different ways. When it does happen it is always eventful, full of tension and suspense. Sometimes nothing takes a very long time, and often a lot of work to happen. Here are three brief stories:

1. Nothing but rain: Umm al-Amad, March 16, 2019

One can get impatient with how long it takes for nothing to happen. “I’m sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and all, but haven’t these sheep eaten enough yet? Look at them. They’re just socializing.” Pepe, like the rest of us, was getting cold and wet this past March in Umm al-Ahmad.

Usually we see soldiers here, who come when the settlement’s security officer requests their help to keep the “anarchists” in line. Often the soldiers swagger across the wadi and climb up to our slope to talk or threaten us. Sometimes they stay in the wadi, joke with one another and draw a line in the sand to show the shepherds who is boss (for example, here and here).

We generally have to watch from the hillside because, as is frequently the rule here in Area C, Israeli civilians are forbidden from entering the wadi where shepherds graze their flocks. The stated purpose is to keep the peace by separating settlers from Palestinians. It also keeps activists away and discourages internationals from entering (there were two of us) so as not to invite soldiers to raise questions, check identity cards and find excuses to declare the whole area off limits to everyone.

The security officer’s van was parked as usual on the opposite slope. And eventually an army jeep arrived too. But they huddled in their warm vehicles. Only real trouble could have lured any of them out of their vehicles. The only ones to remain outside in the wet cold were shepherds, their children, activists, and of course sheep.

After a few hours, Guy asked Hassam when he would be finished grazing and we could go.

“Only another half hour,” Hassam answered cheerfully.

In a celebratory mood, Hassan’s cousin asked us to take his picture with his daughter, Wala (Her cousin, whom we have often met before, is also named Wala).

The shepherds down in the wadi must live in a different world that we do. The sheep were munching, having quiet conversations and rattling their bells, and their minders seemed content to stand in cold puddles and prolong the pleasure of grazing in bad weather..

The worse the weather, the less likely that settlers will visit, that soldiers will taunt, threaten, remind the shepherds that the activists do not come every day, and let them know what will happen when they try to graze their sheep alone. But rain is no soldier. It doesn’t thwart shepherds or sheep. It helps grass grow, making it lush for other, harder days, and it keeps soldiers huddling together for warmth in the jeep at the top of the hill. They are, after all, just adolescents doing a job they likely detest. On sunny days they combat boredom by flaunting their toughness aggressively, but in the rain their bluff was called: they were no match for two hardy shepherds and a little girl.

We were no match for them either.

When, after a little over three hours, we finally sank, relieved, into our car, the rain had returned, and by the time we reached the highway it was sleeting.


2. Sometimes nothing happens in good weather. Zanuta, March 23, 2019.

Zanuta, March, 2015

I had not been to Zanuta for four years, and then it had ended badly.

Zanuta, 2015

After the shepherds’ arrest, the children were left to herd the sheep.

But this past March was glorious.

Har HaMor, the Mountain of Myrhh, was deserted because the one family who lives in this tiny outpost was away for the weekend enjoying the spring, luxuriant after last week’s rain.

Taking advantage of the moment, shepherds descended on the grazing ground directly below the outpost with five herds, some 1300 animals.

One of the shepherds, Sliman, gave us our marching orders. Just in case someone should return prematurely, we were to wait directly across from the outpost, where we could see almost everything – except the outpost itself; we could make out little more than its extensive power lines and its flag.

We glanced at it, but mostly we watched shepherds, sheep, children, birds . . .

we napped, browsed our phones . . .

and stayed longer than usual.

Sliman entreated us not to leave. He was sure that trouble would start the minute we were gone. We stayed until he was almost out of the wadi and nothing happened.


3. With effort and good will, nothing can happen: Wadi Swaid, July 13, 2019.

It’s this past Saturday. Ahmad grazes his sheep by the side of the highway, across from the sprawling settlement of Susiya, underneath its eruv line (marked with a broken plastic bottle) that allows religious Jews to carry things on Shabbat.

On the other side of the grazing area above us, settlers are praying in a recently built outpost, which you may read about here.

Like us, they watch from a distance.

Eventually, a young soldier arrives with a map.

He explains to Ahmad that he cannot graze on his own land.

If Amiel feels forced to violate our prescribed distance, his own map is ready. Meanwhile Ahmad’s father Khaled is so fed up that, against his usual practice, he leaves the field where he has been working.

Finally Nasser Nawaj’ah, a field researcher for the human rights organization B’tselem, arrives. As a Palestinian, Nasser can enter the grazing area.

Telephone calls are made. To a lawyer.

To headquarters.

And then, which is almost unthinkable, the soldier admits his mistake, apologizes, and leaves as though nothing has happened.

And it hasn’t.

text and photographs: margaret olin © 2019

5 thoughts on “Nothing Happens: Three stories from the South Hebron Hills

  1. As I was reading your 3 stories I kept waiting for the “ and then” moment and blessedly it didn’t happen. I wish you and David could write stories like this all the time.

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