Blind justice – and blindness

Al-‘Auja Jordan Valley, April 20, 2018. In the back of the police car, a newly arrested Palestinian shepherd was about to be driven to the police station, blindfolded.

Photograph: Elias Newman

He had been grazing his sheep on Palestinian land since early that morning.

Activists from the Israeli NGO Ta’ayush showed up about 7:30. With our van parked in the valley below, we gazed at the sheep nibbling on yellow grass in the dry heat.

You can see “Omer’s Farm” the local Israeli settlement, over the ridge. it is the green area in front of the chalk hills. Omer Atidiah started this settlement on Palestinian land in 2004, and it is illegal by both Israeli and international criteria. Yet the state fully supports Omer. It connects him to the utilities grid; it gives him the right to build. His orchards are green with the abundant water he receives from the state. When he calls the office of the civil administration, which attends to matters in occupied Area C, soldiers turn up to help him and have no qualms about saying who sent them. If he could frighten all the shepherds into nearby Palestinian area A, he could and would expand his farm all the way to where we were standing that day. There are several posts on this blog about Al-‘Auja and “Omer’s Farm,” and you can also read more here.

About 10:00, soldiers arrived with papers that declared the area a closed military zone.

We disputed the order, and documented it, as we do most days when we are there.

The soldiers seemed confused by all the maps and papers and just about everything else.

Sometimes we buy some time this way. That day not so much.

The sheep, however, had been grazing a long time and managed to eat nearly enough.

But somehow, as we were leaving, one of the shepherds ended up blindfolded and on his way to the station.

The remaining shepherds led the sheep back to their fold.

The children led us to Bassam’s home, where the mood was almost celebratory: after all, because of our presence, the sheep had almost enough to eat.

We had more than enough.

And our friend in the police station? He would be there for a few hours at least. But he’d be charged with nothing, which is exactly what he did, and eventually released. There was some damage of course. He ended up exhausted; the lost time would never be recovered. And then there was the blindfold. It can’t make an arrest any easier. What is the point of a blindfold when someone is in the back of a car and is already wearing handcuffs? Except, I guess, to demean him. With enough humiliation, with enough blindfolds, with handcuffs that are too tight, with detention for hours in the sun while the sheep fend for themselves, and with home raids in the middle of the night, so the reasoning goes, the shepherds should see that they are unwanted here and then they’ll just leave and go, well, somewhere else.

Last year, in the northern Jordan Valley, a shepherd showed me the handcuff marks from his arrest earlier that day. Something similar happened to a Ta’ayush volunteer in the South Hebron Hills earlier this year. see this post

On Friday there was good news. A three-judge panel of Israel’s Supreme Court heard a case about the use of blindfolds on Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley. The case was dismissed because the army issued an order forbidding this practice.

It is a great victory. A coup for the lawyer, Itai Mack, recently honored for his work in human rights. Moreover, the panel awarded a substantial penalty which will be used for continued activities on behalf of the Palestinian residents of the area. Social media is resounding with electronic high fives. I am happy that soldiers will no longer blindfold shepherds when arresting them. Or rather that, when it happens, there is an order in place to point to.

Statue of Justice at the Castellania in Valletta, Malta, 1700s. From Wikimedia Commons

But the blindfolds forced on the shepherds are not the only blindfolds that need to be removed. What about those worn by soldiers who blindly do the bidding of the settlers? By settlers who see their life on land expropriated from Palestinians as a divine mission and a mitzvah in their efforts to drive away those who remain using all possible forms of intimidation and harassment. What about government officials and others who fail to see how their support for illegal settlements in the West Bank threatens Israel’s democracy, its standing in the world, and perhaps its very existence? And then there’s the Israeli public, much of it blind to what is happening right under their eyes and in their name. But the indispensable blindfold, the one that blind Justice wears in countless statues, paintings, and emblems, is too often found discarded, like the occasional piece of shrapnel, in the desert.

text and photographs, where not otherwise credited: Margaret Olin © 2019

thanks to Elias Newman for his photograph of the blindfolded shepherd.

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