I am not sure I can find the words for what we went through today.
We are at al-Rakiz, clearing away the rubble that is what is left of the house that was meant for Harun and his bride-to-be, the house that the army destroyed,
when we get news that settlers are attacking at Homra. Five of us—Guy, Amiel, Michal Hai, Eyal, and me—rush over there. It’s midday, and the sun is white fire.
Homra sits in a green wadi, thick with olive trees, underneath the notorious outpost of Chavat Maon and close to the village of Twaneh. The settlers from Chavat Maon have a long-standing habit of cutting down those olive trees, some of them quite ancient.
We leave the car far down the hill and start climbing up toward the ridge where the pogrom is in progress. A steady stream of settlers armed with clubs, stones, and in some cases guns, is flowing down from the outpost, racing to join in the attack. Some are dressed in their white Shabbat clothes; a few are masked, not because of corona. There must be around thirty of them, at least. We see Palestinians, maybe twenty or more, farther up the hill. There are raucous war-cries in Hebrew and Arabic. Some of the Palestinians are yelling “Leave them alone,” probably a failed attempt to get the thugs to stop beating and stoning their brothers and cousins. We also hear at least two gunshots.
It started when settlers attacked Palestinian farmers who were working in their fields in the wadi. Then the violence mushroomed. At least two Palestinians were wounded and had to be evacuated by ambulance. From where we stand, we are able to see only one piece of the battlefield—stones flying through the air from both sides. The settlers are pushing the Palestinians farther up the hill.
Suddenly two thugs are upon us, Eyal and me. I’m filming as best I can—what else can I do? I’m not about to throw a stone. One of the settlers yells at me, “Put down that camera. It’s Shabbat.” That is, I am not supposed to be taking pictures on Shabbat, according to God’s commandments, which do, however, graciously allow the settlers to do what they’re doing now. I’m angry enough to say, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Give me the camera.” He’s got long hair and a skullcap, and his face has that contorted grimace that hatred produces. I’ve seen it too often. I grip my camera, prepared to defend it, he hits me hard with his fists, a few times, then throws me to the ground—as it happens, on to a pile of stones. Meanwhile a second attacker, tall, worse than the first, is beating Eyal, hard, including a powerful jab in the ribs. It all happens very fast. They’re screaming at us and reaching for the phones and the B’tselem cameras we carry.
Amiel calls us to come to him—maybe a hundred yards away. It’s not so easy. For some seconds the goons move off. Then the tall brutal one is back with his dog, a mean-looking being, and the settler is siccing the dog on me, he’s at my heels as we move together over the thorns and stones but fortunately the animal, god bless him, seems unwilling to bite and pounce. That was lucky. Cameras intact, we join Amiel. There are more settlers not far away, some coming toward us. Later Amiel will say, “Today we looked death in the eye.”
Guy has called the army and the police. He is having a hard time persuading them to send some forces to stop the pogrom. He says there has been live gunfire, there are wounded, there is a huge mass of marauding settlers at the Palestinians’ throats, send someone fast, it’s urgent. Long, very long minutes go by. Again and again Guy calls them while the Cossacks do their worst.
Finally, a lonely command car winds its way over the hill. It stops at the edge of the settlers’ outpost. Then: nothing. The soldiers just sit there, watching. I hear cries of desperation, cries of pain, from the ridge. Why don’t those soldiers move their asses? It’s infuriating. I lose track of time. Two soldiers emerge from the command car and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, as if taking their Shabbat stroll, begin to climb up to where the battle is still unfolding.
Riptides of settler thugs in white keep threatening to come at us, though the main front is farther up the hill. More soldiers filter in. Now the noise is overwhelming. Lots of stun grenades and tear-gas directed—guess at whom? Right. The Palestinians. Dozens of tear gas canisters litter the hilltop. The soldiers and the settlers are working together, as usual. Meanwhile, a mob of settlers, with the soldiers close behind, has reached the village of Mufagara, just beyond the hill. You’ll have to imagine what they did there.
Little by little the noise dies down. Five Palestinian cars have been smashed by the settlers. These cars have their own stories to tell. Don’t think the police are interested in hearing them. Don’t think the police are interested in anything. They came, too late to be of any use, and anyway they never touch settlers. Palestinians, and peace activists, are their usual prey. The same goes for most of the soldiers.
We saw it earlier in the morning, at Umm al-Ara’is. Most of you will remember Sa‘id, the leader of Palestinian non-violent resistance to the theft of their lands in the fertile wadi just under the dark outpost called Mitzpe Yair. On March 13 Sa‘id and his wife Rima were beaten badly by masked settlers. They very nearly killed Sa‘id. They broke his jaw in three places, along with two other fractures in his skull. Sa‘id was back with us today, his mouth still wired shut. He is in a lot of pain. And what about the metal plates inserted into his jaw? Will they come out? If not, it’s not clear if he will be able to eat again. Also, those plates are well-known sites of infection.
We did as we always do in Umm al-Ara’is. We stood there with Sa‘id and Rima and two other women and about 15 kids, to maintain their presence in and access to their lands. Soldiers were there, and police cars, too, above us in Mitzpe Yair. And the settlers, probably the same ones who nearly killed Sa‘id six weeks ago, came down to mock him and curse him. There, too, we saw faces jagged with hate. One of the settlers, Yosef, whom we know well, said to Sa‘id: “All this land is ours, from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. The Bible says so. You don’t have any claim here. Soon you won’t be here.” And there was a young Israeli settler woman who was leering, a demented smile, at the Palestinians, their children, at the good man she and her ilk hate enough to kill, and at us, whom they probably hate even more. She was cheerily telling the soldiers just where the so-called state lands end, according to her, and how they simply have to get rid of these Palestinian nuisances. I think she is the second-most odious human being I have met in my seventy-two years on the planet.
Sa‘id says a police investigator came to see him last week—at last. Sa‘id told him, again, the story of the attack. At the end, the policeman said, “By the way, can you give me Yosef’s phone number?” It was Yosef’s son who called down the settlers who beat up Sa‘id. Great police work, Sa‘id says with disdain. Then he adds: “They want us to leave this place. We may die here, but we’ll never leave it.”
We stayed there for an hour or two. Sa‘id had to shout, over and over, at the kids and his cousin Tawfiq and the women to keep their distance from the settlers, to keep quiet. Tawfiq was exploding with rage. We had to restrain him. Worst of all was when it was time to leave. The Awad family had made its point, and Sa‘id managed somehow to pile everyone into his car. As they drove off, we heard the ranking army officer say to the settlers: “See, you’ve won.” In case you have any doubt whose side he was on.
But when I told Amiel about this, he thought a moment and said, “Yes, in a way they did for today, but on the other hand…..”
Two parting thoughts. What happened in Homra is now the norm. Settler gangs are terrorizing Palestinians everywhere in the West Bank. Every day there are incidents like this. The settlers correctly feel they have total impunity and can do what they most like doing, that is, inflicting suffering on innocents. There will be many more such attacks in the near future. A dependable, structural feature of the pattern is the hand-in-glove relation of settlers and the army.
Then, on my way to the rendezvous point in the early morning, I was thinking about the work we do—specifically, about Taybeh Junction, which you may remember as well. Though we have proved that the lands there belong to the Palestinian land-owners, and the army itself ruled that settlers from the wild outposts nearby are forbidden to enter those cultivated fields with their cows and goats, the settlers, as expected, do just that all the time. The only way to protect the growing crops is to keep activists there morning, afternoon, and evening, every day, including Shabbat, to chase the settler herds away. It’s a job for Sisyphus. Anyway, Arik and the rest of us are doing it. It’s like standing in a river and trying to hold back the water with your hands. I was wondering how long we can keep it up—a few more weeks? Months? Years? It was an early-morning thought while I was still half-asleep. But then I knew there was only one possible answer to that question, and I felt ashamed. The answer is: until the end of time.
Thanks to those who contributed to this post, and especially to Michal Hai for permission to use her photographs. If you want good pictures from moments like these, you need Michal to be there.
text © David Shulman, photographs as credited. Uncredited photographs by Margaret Olin