1. Why wasn’t I there? (Olin)
It can feel like you’ve been hired as an extra chaperone at a children’s party. On most Saturdays in Um Safa, Sa‘id ‘Awad packs his wife Rima and six, seven, or eight of his fourteen children into his lively SUV, all of them bumping and bouncing on the uneven roads. After a short hike to the family’s fields in Wadi Al-‘Ara’is, the soccer games begin.
Other children romp in the hills,
where an artist sketches them.
Often their cousins join them. Someone prepares a fire.
The adults sip tea, chat, warm themselves by the fire,
Sometimes they join in on the games or bring their own.
An aspiring student of Arabic might try to talk to the children in their language. A tiny bit of Arabic goes a long way with children, who are eager to help your attempts to speak. They are also fascinated by my camera. The last time I visited I made a note to bring some cheap cameras with me next time, so that I could let the children play with them.
In spite of the soldiers who loiter around the edges of the soccer field near their jeeps, and occasionally attract the attention of the curious children, it is easy to forget the reason why we leave Jerusalem early in the morning to join in the festivities. Foreign visitors and activists like myself join regularly, too, from Israel America Italy Germany Australia Sweden Britain; at least some of us, in my experience, have come nearly every week. . . . And all of us wish that we had been there last week.
But a picnic is rarely just a picnic in occupied Palestine. If you look up, you’ll see the reason why we come: an outpost, Mitzpeh Yair, built on ‘Awad family land and considered illegal even by Israeli law, looms above us. While playing soccer and drinking tea is a great non-violent means to make known one’s commitment to and presence on one’s land, and Sa‘id’s family has been making these Saturday outings for 10 years, it is not the whole story. Much of Sa‘id’s land has been stolen by these settlers with the cooperation of the Civil Administration and the Israeli courts. For years, along with the tea and the soccer, there was the critical moment when all of us– the ‘Awad family, the Ta’ayush activists, the international volunteers– would march together into the stolen wadi; and we would either be attacked by settlers or driven away by the soldiers, or both of these.
Maintaining physical presence on the land was and remains crucial, and eventually it paid off; about two-thirds of the wadi finally came back to its rightful owners. You can learn more about Sa‘id’s astonishing persistence and the unbearable frustration of his efforts to keep his land, in the face of intricate legal and illegal machinations, in the aptly titled essay “Kafka in Area C.” And the settlement continues to have a well-earned violent reputation. About two and a half years ago, members of that settlement put four activists in the hospital and stole their cameras. Sa‘id’s is not an unusual plight. Daily life under the occupation is filled with such stories.
Had you joined me on one of these mornings, you might be tempted to rethink what steadfast resistance (Sumud is the preferred Arabic term) looks like: It looks like children playing soccer, hugging each other (I’ve written about the hugging), giving the occasional visitor one of the sugary treats that they munch during breaks in their games;
But you would be wrong. Israeli settlers, too, have ways of asserting their rights even on public land against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The assailants care nothing for the intricacies of citizenship or other laws, and surely their not-non-violent ways would arrive in Umm Al-‘Ara’is. So last week a settler from Mitzpeh Yair was already on the field with his flock when the family arrived alone. Whenever Sa‘id tried to make complaints about settlers bringing their flocks to eat his crops, authorities always instructed him to bring proof next time, so Sa‘id used his phone to film the settler. Seeing this, the settler called some friends and soon a large group of settlers arrived bearing rocks and metal pipes. The marauders badly damaged the van, injured Rima and battered Sa’id in front of the screaming children. The most complete written account I have seen is in Haaretz.Should you choose to watch this brutal video that Rima somehow managed to take with her phone while running for cover and helping the children in the midst of the chaos, know that as agonizing as it may look to you, it is excruciating for anyone who knows the family.
Israeli and Palestinian activists hurried to al-Arais after the ‘Awad family summoned them along with Nasser Nawaja, a field researcher for B’tselm from the nearby town of Susya, but the army helpfully erected barricades to keep them out of the area until the settlers could leave. The activists finally arrived in time to see Rima and Sa‘id depart for a hospital in Hebron on stretchers. Rima was bruised but turned out to be intact; but the settler’s metal pipe shattered Sa‘id’s jaw. He underwent an operation and he faces a long recuperation. I happen to know through experience that six weeks of pain, with one’s mouth wired shut is not pleasant.
No settlers, although the family knows them well by name, have been, or will be charged. Attacks like this are not random acts of violence but part of a plan. While young thugs do the work, the responsibility lies with higher authorities who fail to stop them, or for that matter, actively egg them on. Their failure is not due to laziness or even incompetence. Any settler who succeeds in scaring Palestinians off their land brings annexation that much closer. If Sa‘id and his family are too frightened to return to their land, to sow or reap their crops, what is left of their land is “vacant” and reverts to the government of Israel — to bestow on Jewish settlers. The land becomes incrementally less Palestinian and more Jewish. Sheep, metal pipes, and even rocks are forced into playing parts in this drama.
So that is the larger picture: no matter how many activists converge on this tiny strip of land to protect its owners, the violence will not stop until the government of Israel recognizes the human rights – and the property rights – of Palestinians and enforces its laws equally among all the people who live in areas under its jurisdiction.
But in the meantime, in the United States and Canada, Great Britain and Australia, in Italy, in Germany and in many other places, even in Israel, people who know the ‘Awads are asking themselves bitterly, “Why wasn’t I there?”
2. Um Safa, March 20 (Shulman)
Ever since we got word of the attack, I’ve been tormented: grief, rage, and guilt. We should have been there with Sa‘id when the thugs descended upon him. Sa‘id is a true friend. He was alone—the unthinkable loneliness of a Palestinian under Israeli occupation—when the settlers came at him.
I’m sorry to say that hatred for the settlers has now re-occupied my mind. I hate what they do, routinely, every day, to innocent Palestinians; but I found long ago that the hatred I once carried for them in my heart had spontaneously disappeared—maybe because it was incompatible with the open-hearted feeling that comes from saying a firm no, heedless of consequence, in the face of wickedness. But for now at least the hatred has returned. You should read the mealy-mouthed denial that the settlers of Mitzpeh Yair issued after the attack. “Our people didn’t do this,” said the statement, “we don’t believe in violence; but after all, we have been suffering from Palestinian vandalism and encroachment….” As if they weren’t themselves the worst encroachers in the world. And they need some excuse, a specious lie, to put beside the fact that Sa‘id was nearly killed by settlers who may very well have come from Mitzpeh Yair.
Sa‘id is on his bed in a room crowded with visitors and relatives. One by one, we kneel beside the bed and take his hand. When my turn comes, I approach in silence. I can’t find the words. Finally: “Sa‘id, what can I say?” He is visibly moved. Somehow, without opening his mouth, he says, speaking to all of us, the Ta’ayush activists: “We have known each other for many years. That you have come today gives me joy.” He has three metal plates in his jaw, which was broken in three places; and there are two fractures in his skull. The settlers hit him with metal bars, over and over, as he tried to defend his children and Rima and himself until he lost consciousness. It’s a miracle he wasn’t killed.
One of his sons makes the rounds of the room, serving coffee and tea in paper cups. Outside, the younger children stand near the door; they want to shake the hand of everyone who enters and leaves.
They are also shy, and, being children, they are bouncy and playful and teasing. We have known them, nearly all of them, since they were babies.
Earlier today, while I was in Zanuta accompanying shepherds, people from the nearby villages, and the children, and the Ta’ayush activists, came back to Umm Al-‘Ara’is and entered the forbidden fields.
The soldiers knew better than to stop them; the settlers looked on, with their evil eyes, from the hilltop. There were games and songs and dances. There was life. I guess the settlers lost this round.
If you knew Sa‘id, you would know the nobility of his nature; the stubborn gentleness with which he speaks to the soldiers who are complicit in the theft of his lands. I have seen and heard it countless times. The soldiers, too, can’t help but respect him. He speaks truth and lives the truth and he doesn’t give up. Courage is never an abstraction. Often, usually, it has a price.
text © Margaret Olin and David Shulman 2021 as noted. photographs © Margaret Olin except where noted. Our thanks to Guy Butavia, Yigal Bronner, and Michel Hai for permission to use their photographs, and to the ‘Awad family for making their video available.
Noga Wizansky is an artist born in Ashkelon, Israel, who now lives and works in Oakland, California. Her images here are from an ongoing project, A Day with Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills, December 2016. They are all charcoal or charcoal and acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches. Noga’s website is http://www.nogawizansky.com