This time there’s a twist to the story.
Taybeh: the fertile wadi, Irish-green after the rains, plowed and sown with seed along with another flat stony stretch at the top of the hill—maybe 1000 dunams altogether (250 acres), enough to keep several families and their herds going for some months. The land belongs to several private Palestinian owners in the village; they rent it out to Bedouins who live there in the spring and summer, grazing their sheep and harvesting whatever is left of the crops after the settlers and their herds have gotten to them. Last year the Palestinians lost tens of thousands of shekels because of these depredations. Just yesterday one settler boy-man hit Arik hard on the head with a club, splitting in two the helmet Arik was fortunately wearing.
Today Arik is back on the front line. We are four with Gabriel, Ariel, and me. It is Ariel’s first time in the field; an auspicious occasion. For the last weeks Arik has kept up a stubborn struggle, often alone. The task is to keep settler sheep and cows out of the cultivated fields. A week ago the settlers openly declared, in a public conference in Jerusalem, that sheep and cows are their new weapons for driving Palestinians away. What this means, in effect, is that we need to have volunteers in Taybeh every day throughout most of the hours of the day. Sisyphus had a much easier mission. Arik says that if he had been born a Catholic, he would have chosen St. Jude, the saint of lost causes, for his patron saint.
Aside from the innumerable times settlers have beaten Arik, they also removed the pins holding the wheels of his car in place with the obvious intention of killing him and the activists who were with him.
We arrive around 9:00: sunny, cold, a biting wind. We see the settler cows in the distance, apparently moving toward the cultivated wadi. A few moments later, two teenage settlers drive a large herd of sheep directly into the wadi. We chase the sheep away, using the precise, eloquent sheep language of shrill clicks and warbles that the shepherds have taught us, over years. The sheep respond well, as sheep do, and ascend the next hill with their masters. The boys hurl insults from above.
After a while a police vehicle materializes on the rocky ridge. The policeman Dudy, whom Arik knows too well, summons him from afar: “Come here. I see you’ve returned to make another provocation.” Arik: “No, you come down here, the thieves are here, you can catch them red-handed.” But Dudy won’t come, he’s not interested in the thieves. Arik and I climb the hill to meet him.
Dudy: “These lands don’t belong to anybody. They are not state lands and not privately owned. That means the settlers can enter them whenever they want, with or without their herds. If you try to stop them, you are disturbing the peace, and I will arrest you.”
Arik: “You know as well as I do that these lands belong to the Taybeh owners. They appear on the old maps, and the owners have papers.”
Dudy: “I know no such thing. I have been serving here for 13 years. I know everyone here, Palestinians, Jews, whoever. Not once has a Palestinian submitted a document proving ownership of lands in this wadi or on that hill. Farther north there are privately owned Palestinian lands, and I won’t let anyone touch them. But not here.”
And so on, for a very long time. Many relentless, passionate words from Arik, the injustice burning in his bones. We call our lawyers. Gabi Lasky speaks to Dudy: if someone invades private property, the owner doesn’t have to go searching for his ownership deed before the police act to stop him. And anyway the lands have been registered, musajjal, no question. Dudy doesn’t buy it. “Let them show me written proof.” He’s neutral, so he says (many times), just enforcing the law. It’s his mission, his raison d’etre. When I have a moment alone with him, I ask him: And what if the law has no shame?
Arik goes off to find ‘Isa, the Mayor of Taybeh, who knows all there is to know about Taybeh land rights, and drives him to our embattled hill. ‘Isa has a document to show the policeman, but it turns out to be some form stamped in the post office and corrected by hand with blue ink. No good. More futile words. I think Dudy says at least a hundred times that the lands in question belong to no one. He’s never been more certain about anything. Arik drives ‘Isa back to look for another, more solid document. Before they get back, the army arrives in the form of the Matak, the District Coordination and Liaison officer (DCL), with a bevy of soldiers. Lots of guns, too. Once again we get to hear Dudy delivering his Torah lesson. The settlers are also there, including the boy who shattered Arik’s helmet yesterday, and Neria Ben-Pazi, the arch-settler and source of most things that are wrong, very wrong, here in Taybeh. Note the eerie intimacy of enemies in the occupied West Bank.
We wander back and forth in our bizarre bicycle helmets, which Arik has supplied for obvious reasons. I figure that our chances are slim, maybe zero. This is the occupation. The settlers and soldiers are already embracing each other. All are complicit in the national project of brutal expulsion. And since we’re not going anywhere, and the herds are still there in or near the cultivated fields, and we won’t let them stay there, arrests can’t be far away. It’s hot in the sun. Heavy. Heart-ache. Impasse.
Then, suddenly, it turns around.
The Matak is holding ‘Isa’s document and playing with his phone, no doubt checking his data base. Minutes pass. Then he pronounces judgment. He is the highest ranking officer present, presumed to be omniscient (as long as he has his phone). He controls all the land in the occupied West Bank. “The wadi, the ridge, the flatland above, all of them, extending farther east and north, are privately owned Palestinian lands. The settlers have no right to set foot in them or to bring their flocks there.” The oracle has spoken. Did I hear him right? I can’t believe it. Arik’s superhuman persistence—all those blows and beatings– has paid off. I notice Dudy’s face: chagrined. The settlers—for once, momentarily nonplussed. They have lost this round, in theory. I ask the Matak if he has made his judgment clear to them as well. Yes, he has. The missing documentary proof has now been offered. Palestinian life in Taybeh rests, for the moment, on a new foundation. In the air I hear an inaudible flutter of something almost like hope.
In the last two decades of struggle, I can remember only one similar moment, when we were plowing near Avigail and the settlers were pleading with the soldiers to shoot us, and a Druze officer from the Civil Administration arrived and said the plowing can continue to the end. And there have been victories in the courts, like the one that allowed the people of Bi’r al-‘Id to go back to their homes (we had to force the soldiers to honor the court’s decision). But today Taybeh lived up to her name, which means “the good one”. Tradition says that Salah al-Din himself gave the village this name after the battle of Hattin in 1187, which was the beginning of the end for the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Sometimes, it seems, bad things do have an end.
But make no mistake, this is a happy non-ending. You don’t think the settlers will respect this decision, do you? In fact, not half an hour passes before we see their cows back at the border of the cultivated land, or just inside the border. We spend a long afternoon the way the day began, keeping them out of those fields. From time to time settlers turn up to curse us with the impoverished obscenities they so love.
As a boy, one of my heroes was the Talmudic master Resh Lakish, a third-century man who lived in Tzippori in the Galilee. In his youth he was a brawny thug, a gladiator in the arena, and a highway robber. All that changed, the Talmud says, when he saw the supremely handsome Rabbi Yohanan bathing in the Jordan River. Resh Lakish jumped into the water. “Your strength would serve you better in studying the Torah,” said Rabbi Yohanan, to which Resh Lakish replied, “And your beauty is well suited to women.” Rabbi Yohanan married his sister to Resh Lakish, and these two great scholars were henceforth inseparable, though occasionally Resh Lakish’s bandit past came back to haunt him. Working with Arik has many rewards. This morning when the settler toughs were taunting us, he shouted back at them a name from the world they supposedly revere: “Today you are thieves. But there is still a chance you could become human. Why not become Resh Lakish?” Resh Lakish is the rabbi who said, “The wish to do evil and the Angel of Death are the same being.”
text: David Shulman © 2021; photographs David Shulman © 2021, except where noted