The rains have come in force, the hills are muddy, and there is food for the goats and sheep. Over morning tea in Makhul we get the weekly litany of hurts. Walid—still a boy—was out alone with the herd, and settlers came and beat him. It’s really dangerous to be alone on the hills. A large posse of settlers attacked Qadri and several others; there were two broken legs. A few days earlier, settlers killed Qadri’s uncle’s cow.
At Ibziq the army confiscated 21 Palestinian tractors, private vehicles, and water tanks. It’s hard to survive in the Jordan Valley without a tractor. At Ein Sukut there was the murdered sheep I wrote about in my last report. It goes on and on. No day passes without violence, insult, and hurt.
“I don’t understand why they do that,” Burhan says to me. Everyone loves Burhan and his family of eight children—seven girls in a row, and then at last a boy, Ahmad, now in first grade, learning to read.
“Just look,” Burhan says, “there is so much empty space here”—his hand describes a wide arc that encompasses the hills sliding into the distance, toward the Jordan River
— “there is room for all of us, but they want to steal the very air we breathe.
Why should human beings want to do that? Are we not men and women like them?” Since we were speaking Arabic, he didn’t quite say to me: “Hath not a Palestinian eyes? Hath not a Palestinian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Jew is?” But that is what he meant. We will get an answer to these questions an hour later.
At first things are quiet, and the sun comes out. Burhan sends me downhill to round up the goats and move them a little to the east. I am surprised to find that they obey my ridiculously gentle coaxing. Usually they respond to the gruff clicks and calls that the shepherds utter, a goat-and-sheep language all their own.
It turns out that Burhan is an accomplished singer. He admits it; he sings at weddings and other gatherings. An exquisite video makes its way from his phone to mine. I would play it for you here, but I have to ask his permission. He remembers well the time Guy and I brought the great Carnatic singer T. M. Krishna to meet him—two artists who became friends in Makhul. Burhan asks me to send Krishna his regards.
Then fate sends us an army jeep. Two women carrying their rifles and rather a lot of other useless junk climb up to tell us that we have to leave: it’s a military zone, actually a firing zone, can’t we see the army camp at Hemdat just below us? We can see it, but they can’t just chase us off without a signed order. They don’t acknowledge this elementary truth; shouting at us, in the rapid-fire talk-before-thinking Israeli default, should do the trick. The senior woman, who can’t be more than 19 years old, assumes an air of authority belied by her rudeness and ignorance. She thinks the firing zone is a fact of nature, like gravity. Actually, she thinks she owns it. The second woman is irritated by our resistance. I quickly tire of the legal arguments, though I know the soldiers are dead wrong. I want to move the discussion, so to speak, into a deeper vein. “Just look at these people,” I say to her, “they have nothing, they are poorer than poor, they are attacked day after day and you back up the attackers, you come here carrying guns and order them around, you insult them and hurt them and harass them and try to drive them off their land. They were living on this land, right here, long before you were born.” “Who cares?” says the teenage authority. “My people lived here for thousands of years.”
That’s the answer to Shylock’s slightly reformulated questions. The answer is no. Jews have eyes, hands, organs, and so on; Palestinians are lesser beings, if they even count as beings. Don’t forget that these women are young and may someday grow up, though you can see already the corroded state of their minds.
Just so you know, 46% of all the land in the Jordan Valley is classified as Closed Military Zones, including eleven firing zones. Does the army need all that land for its periodic training exercises? And why have they situated the firing zones on private Palestinian land? For that matter, 85% of Jordan Valley land, all of it Palestinian, is off limits to Palestinians. Not much is left, and Israel wants all of it as well.
But for now, Makhul, against all odds, is still alive and well.
We have brought with us huge sacks filled with blankets, sheets, clothes, shoes, winter jackets, and much else—for Humsa al-Foqa. Humsa is also situated in one of those firing zones. Its people are routinely evacuated for some days or more several times every year because of army exercises. They have a name for it: ikhlaa, emptying out. [I have written about this before: here] They live in dread of it. The Israeli settlements of Beqaot and Ro’i, a couple of kilometers away, are never emptied out. Their people wouldn’t dream of abandoning their swimming pools and cottages for even an hour.
Now prepare yourselves for the next pictures.
* * *
On November 3rd—not by chance; election day in America, when the world was looking away from Humsa—the army sent 6 bulldozers and around a hundred soldiers to destroy the village. The soldiers did a very thorough job. They came in the afternoon, gave the villagers ten minutes to salvage what they could, which wasn’t much, and quickly finished the job. According to the people of Humsa, some of the soldiers were laughing as they worked. [see here and here]
This was emptying out of a new order. As in permanent expulsion. Seventy-four people, including some forty children, from eleven extended families, were left without shelter, without a home. As it happened, again, I assume, not by chance, this was just before the first torrential rainfall of the winter. They spent the first night sleeping on cots under the open skies, the lightning and thunder. And it was cold.
Everything was lost. Household things, clothes, food, stoves, electricity generators, the solar energy panels donated by European organizations, something like twenty to thirty tons of grains and fodder, books, notebooks, dishes, pots, the sheep- and goat-pens, outhouses, chairs, tables, beds, wedding pictures, tools, copies of the Qur’an, water tanks (the village has no running water). The soldiers also confiscated two tractors and at least one car. The villagers say they pulled young babies out of the car before dragging it away.
Destruction of an entire village in the territories is rather rare. House demolitions happen all the time and the numbers are high, in the thousands, if you count them up over a few years. [For precise figures, see here and here] But to erase Humsa from the earth—that is something new.
I wander among the ruins. It’s a bit like entering into Picasso’s Guernica, though the Nazis and the Italian Fascists killed many people when they bombed the city, and no one in Humsa was killed this time. The ruined tents and shacks, metal rods and wooden planks sticking out akimbo in the Cubist manner, impart the familiar sense of horror. Spilled grain is everywhere. Fire smolders in some of the ruins.
A grandmother is sitting on the ground, wailing, a lament that comes in gasps and moans, as grandmothers have lamented in the Middle East since the days of the Assyrians, or before. I stand beside her. I piece together the words she is crying out—there are no sentences. “They took everything. Nothing is left. They took our lives, and the lives of our children. We have nowhere to go.” On and on. She sways back and forth, a thousand wrinkles on her face made yet starker by tears. Beside her sit other women and some young girls. She looks up at me, and I manage a few broken phrases of condolence. I say that we are with her, with all of Humsa; that our hearts are aching with a great grief. That I am ashamed of what Israel has done, a terrible shame that has no name. And then I, too, start to cry.
I’ve been thinking about wickedness; it’s one of those themes. Maybe the urge to inflict unspeakable cruelty has some dark source that one could look for in the soul, something that could be called a cause. But that’s like saying that love, for example, is the result of some other hidden drive, in the end or the beginning an innate biological thing. Someone has said that. The gap between the drive or instinct and human loving is at least as big as the universe. And so it must be with hurting and killing. Those soldiers laughed.
For almost three hours we pick our way through wreckage, stopping here and there to speak with someone. Despite everything, Humsa lives. Children are running over the rocks, playing. The older boys have taken the sheep out to graze on the hill. Women are hanging laundry on a line. I see no one cooking or eating or making tea. The men are talking about rebuilding. In fact, it seems they have started building a new sheep-pen a little distance away from the debris. They need iron rods to make the fence; one set, for a single pen, costs 50,000 shekels. We’ll have to help raise the money.
We say goodbye. But exiting the village on the mud-and-gravel access road, we find an army vehicle waiting. As if to finish the job. Three male soldiers, one woman. They ask where we are going. Home, we say. They look relieved at this reply. But we can’t go home. Who knows what these soldiers will do? We turn around and drive back into Humsa, or what was Humsa until Tuesday.
The soldiers get down from the vehicle, fasten helmets on their heads, with the camouflage nets they are issued; guns ready for action. The woman soldier has a tear-gas launcher attached to her gun. They stand there, looking awkward. There are still many people, visitors like us, in Humsa, several dozen at least—diplomats, journalists, television crews, and a large contingent from Combatants from Peace. Humsa is not alone.
Then something amazing happens. Arik Ascherman, indomitable humanist, one of the last true Jews on earth, addresses the soldiers. He is relentless. Long minutes pass. I wish I could transcribe what he said– a masterpiece of compassionate wisdom and courage. The clouds heard it, the birds heard it, I heard it, but I don’t think the soldiers heard it. I see them leaning against their vehicle, fingering their weapons, looking bored, not daring, yet, to move into the maze of ruined homes. Maybe they’re also afraid.
For the record, Arik said something like this. “Tomorrow we read the Torah portion called Vayera [“And God was seen” …. Genesis 18:1]. It’s a really important portion. It’s about our Father Abraham. You may remember it. About how he argued with God when God wanted to destroy the evil city of Sodom. What, he asks God, if there are, say, fifty good people in Sodom. How could you kill the good with the bad? השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט ?. Will the Judge of the whole world not render justice? And God gives in and says, if there are fifty good people, he won’t destroy the city. Then Abraham bargains him down to ten. Our father Abraham was that kind of person, and we are his children, though we may not live up to his example. We know about justice. When you go into Humsa, remember that those people are human beings, like us. Just like us. Human beings. You have to treat them like human beings. Don’t forget for even a single moment. It’s not about Jews and Palestinians, it’s about human beings. But remember that for centuries we Jews suffered terrible acts of cruelty from those who had power, and we cannot, we must not, ever, do to others what those people did to us. Not if we want to be human beings ourselves. The army had no reason to cause this destruction. When you go into Humsa, remember who and what you are.”
After a while, the soldiers do their as-if tour of Humsa. It’s what the army calls “making a show of your presence.” It’s supposed to frighten the people who have to put up with it. Then they leave, and we, too, try once more to leave. Maybe we’ll be home for Shabbat after all, Shabbat Vayera. I think I’ll read those chapters tomorrow. But no. A little farther down the road, here they are again, the same soldiers, reinforced by another platoon. They are waiting; they check every vehicle that comes along. The high officer in charge, an affable man, authoritative in a jovial way, recognizes Arik immediately. He knows him from Al-Auja, farther south, where, it seems, they have had long discussions.What are you doing here? Arik asks him.
He smiles. “We’re here to carry out the law. Look at you—you’re wearing a mask, aren’t you? A corona mask. Why are you wearing it? Because the law tells you that you have to. And the law also says that the people of Humsa have to leave the firing zone so they won’t be hurt.
“It’s good we have laws, isn’t it?”
text: david shulman © 2020, photographs as noted