It’s 8:00 on a winter morning as we arrive in South Hebron, and immediately there is a call: settlers attacking in Tuba. Five of us—Guy, Yigal, Noah, Yossi, me—tear off over the gravel-and-goat paths , through the desert, to Tuba. Guy is driving as if he were flying a plane or flogging a horse. The car careens over the rocks, kicking up dust. They need us. Now.
We leave the car at the entrance to the village and climb the tall hill where, the villagers say, the attack has happened. At the top we see shepherds, settlers, and soldiers, milling around. We’re filming furiously. Another shepherd, still far below us on the other side of the hill, is bringing up his flock, since the day’s grazing has been ruined. We go to meet him, to ensure his safety. We try to piece together the fragments of a story.
Slowly, it becomes clear. The settlers, young, armed with clubs, invaded the Tuba fields, assaulted one or two of the shepherds, cursed and screamed at them, threatened them with a repeat of Mufagara—where some twenty settlers carried out a pogrom on November 10th. Much of Mufagara was destroyed; they also smashed open the head of a three-year-old child as he lay sleeping in his home. So this morning in Tuba was likely just a prelude. [You can hear the attack in real time in the video, which appears to have been cut off when the shepherd-photographer was beaten.] One of the shepherds may have resisted the incursion—it’s not certain. What is certain is that one settler claimed to have suffered a bruise. The soldiers duly photograph the settler and his sore spot, and then they arrest Omar, who probably had nothing to do with the bruise, if that’s what it was.
The settlers, with their arrogant skullcaps and tassles and heavy black guns, parade confidently over the hilltop. They are the lords of the land; they literally call the shots. The soldiers follow them around; one of the officers even embraces the tall arch-settler who seems in charge of the situation. We try to intervene. We say to the soldiers, “You are standing on the lands of Tuba, which these terrorists are trying to steal. Why haven’t you arrested them? What are you doing here?” And so on. Useless words. The soldiers ignore us, traitors or “anarchists” in their lexicon, who inexplicably hang out with Palestinians.
By now there are women and children on the hilltop, along with maybe a dozen young men from the village. It’s chaos. Shouts, insults, threats, rage, hurt. I don’t like the way the settlers play with their guns, especially with children close by. Do Palestinian children even count as human beings? Soon there are more guns: more soldiers arrive, along with a black-uniformed policeman who starts taking down statements—from the shepherds, from the settlers, from us, one by one. Perhaps his only virtue is that he speaks fluent Arabic. Time slows down. But we know what comes next. The senior officer announces that he is declaring the hilltop a Closed Military Zone. Palestinians and Jewish activists—not, please notice, the supercilious settlers—are told to leave the hilltop at once. They show us the signed order on their cellphones, along with a map of the forbidden area. The order, however, is missing one of the two necessary signatures, and the map is a mess; Tuba isn’t included in the forbidden zone.
Of course we protest, and the threats become more insistent, as are the bitter taunts that several of us are flinging at the soldiers, each in his own style: “You’re real heroes, aren’t you, lording it over innocent women and children, and protecting the thieves and bullies who are taking their land. You know who they are. Is this what you joined the army to do? Is this what you trained for? Use your eyes, you might even try using your heads….” After a while, the CMZ order, no less illegal than it was before, comes back at us with the missing signature, and now the officer gives us five minutes to get off the hilltop and descend to the village houses. He starts counting. The soldiers—Military Police, famous for their untender ways, have turned up as well—begin pushing and shoving the villagers down over the rocks. There is a familiar charm to this ritual of prodding, poking, shouting, intimidating; one of the soldiers picks up a child and throws him over one of the rocks. “Don’t touch that child!” Yigal calls out, again and again. The women take a few hits, too. Slowly, reluctantly, we begin to retreat, filming all of it for the courts, not that this will help the people of Tuba anytime soon, but maybe it will serve the future historian who will someday write the awful truth.
The officer throws a stun grenade. He is holding a tear-gas cannister in his hand, caressing it, and he warns us repeatedly that he’s about to hurl it at us. From a distance, Tuba’s three camels look on, bemused.
Then black comedy takes over. We’re more or less down the hill, less than a hundred meters from the huts and sheep pens, but not down enough to satisfy the soldiers, who now have a mission that gives meaning to their lives. I forgot to mention that some intelligence goon is also involved in the proceedings. And the Matak, the senior officer of the Civil Administration, short, stumpy, and ineffectual, is prowling around, too. Meanwhile, a Palestinian we know, my friend ‘Id’s brother, refuses to play his role in the wicked farce. He lies down on the ground and says he can’t walk. So the soldiers pick him up and drag him downhill and put him down on a slab of stone, but still he won’t sit up or move, so they pick him up again and drag him farther. But he’s not about to cooperate, and neither are the toughest, fiercest characters in this drama, the women of Tuba, who take up their position on a boulder and defy the officer, now fulminating against them and us in his evident failure to impose his will. He keeps saying, with pathos, “I give the orders here,” waving the tear-gas canister at us.
But the women speak words of truth in a fiery Arabic. “If we give in here, we’ll end up losing all of our lands to the settlers. That is what you want, isn’t it? But we won’t go along with it. We’re not budging from this rock.” No threat has any effect on them. The more the officer shouts and screams, the more impotent he appears—no doubt also in the eyes of his own men. More pushing and shoving and yelling. Imagine a row of heavily armed soldiers standing helplessly above clumps of stubborn Palestinians, with us beside them, loudly deriding their obviously impoverished manhood: an impasse. I am beginning to think it will go on for hours or maybe days.
Then something happens. Another settler from the new illegal outpost has driven his sheep into a field of barley that the Tuba villagers have recently plowed, in the wake of the rains that fell last week. And of course the villagers notice him; they sense the presence of an enemy even before they see him. Off they go, in a flurry, over the rocks toward the invader, with the soldiers behind them, trying to catch up, heedlessly stamping over the plowed field. Suddenly those last few meters don’t matter anymore, like most arbitrary battlefields. Meanwhile the indomitable Haj Suleiman, an old sheikh carved from the stone and soil of South Hebron, an unstoppable chatterbox, has climbed uphill to the soldiers and is subjecting them to a torrent of abuse. They eventually arrest him, hold him for some hours, and then let him go.
I’ve called it a comedy, but it isn’t all that funny. It’s rooted in violence and cruelty and greed, driven by the young settlers who have the temerity to call themselves Jews, and who are backed up by the whole of the Occupation system—soldiers, police, Civil Administration, military courts, intelligence goons, the press, and above all the government. All the latter are the real culprits. The new outpost, like all the rest of them, has already appropriated vast swathes of Palestinian land, tightening the noose around the neck of Tuba, infinitely vulnerable Tuba. It’s the new game plan, and it’s working well. As long as the outposts are there, continuing to grow, grabbing more land, the outlook for villages such as Tuba is bleak. I say to ‘Ali, “If they would leave you in peace, you’d have a good life here, hard but good.” He says, “If we had peace, it wouldn’t be hard at all.” But it’s birthing season for the lambs, and a mysterious illness has killed six out of every ten newborns.
We spend most of the day in Tuba, to protect them from further incursions—there were several. The army has left a gaggle of soldiers in two vehicles to make sure that no one tries to climb the forbidden hill. We have activists sleeping in the village tonight, since the danger never goes away. It’s the same everywhere in these hills. How long can we shield them from the settler thugs? At some point as the long day wears on, I tell Yossi that I used to think I’d live to see the end of the occupation, but I no longer believe that. Mid-afternoon: ‘Ali sets foot on the hill—it’s his hill, don’t forget– and three soldiers at once swoop down to chase him off it. Having achieved this decisive military victory, they linger on the hillside for some time, looking, from a distance, rather lost, out of their depth. Then they also wander off. Yossi says to me, “Look, you got to see the end of the occupation after all.” And Yigal says, “Right. When it comes, it will look just like that. There will be three bewildered soldiers standing on some rock or other, taking a long last glance at what they are leaving behind. And then they will be gone.”
Postscript: On December 7th at 3AM a large group of soldiers invaded Tuba and arrested three of the villagers, apparently on suspicion of striking a settler. Convictions of Palestinians who appear before the military courts in the territories run at over 99% of all cases, according to the official figures. The possibility that the fresh arrestees from Tuba will receive anything akin to justice is thus less than 1%. This is how the land-grab works in the occupied territories.
Text: David Shulman © 2021 Photographs: David Shulman © 2021, unless credited otherwise