Return to the Occupation: Al-‘Auja, January 14, 2022. Text and Photographs: Margaret Olin

The women did not think they would ever miss Omer, the notorious settler who apparently commands the occupation forces.

He calls the army when Palestinian or Bedouin shepherds approach Havat Omer (Omer’s farm) to graze their flocks on their own land. The soldiers come immediately, orders in hand to expel the supposed intruders, or to expel them without orders, or to expel them using orders with last year’s dates on them. The farm is an illegal settlement (illegal even in Israel’s terms), that has nevertheless stolen much of the Palestinian land. Their fields, richly irrigated courtesy of the Israeli government, lord it over shepherds and farmers who lack any government services. The farmers have to content themselves and their flocks with a desert so arid that it is a wonder that sheep or human beings can survive. They must have hoped that when Omer and his wife traveled to Thailand for some months, their life would temporarily improve.

Abu Ishmael went to graze his sheep in an extremely arid part of the desert far from the farm. He sent us to follow the women who had already brought their flocks to the somewhat better but more dangerous land near the highway and the farm. We strolled in that direction, taking pictures along the way. I was so happy to be back.

As we were nearing the last ridge from the shepherdesses, we heard the screams of women along with other ominous sounds and we broke into a run. By the time Dafna, Avi and I reached the top of the ridge, the noise had subsided and the motorcycles had taken off. We couldn’t tell what had happened. But when Nawal climbed up to see us, she was in tears.

I am not permitted to photograph the faces of these Bedouin women. But even if I could have, would I have brought myself to photograph the tears of some of the strongest women I know? And the five punks on motorcycles: were they inhabitants of yet another, new settlement? the temporary tenants of Omer’s estate? No one knew. But they did not content themselves with driving through the herd and terrifying the animals. They hit the women, pushing Umm Amir to the ground, injuring her arm and bruising her hand.

They stole the cell-phone on which the fifteen-year-old had filmed them.

Eleven-year-old Mohammad was even more traumatized than the women. He kept his injured arm, where the settlers hit him, close to his body, his hand firmly in his pocket. I persuaded him to show it to me, to make sure he could move his arm. He showed me that he could. But the physical injury was only the beginning. The pain was much deeper. He told us, mournfully and more than once, about the poor donkey whom he kept near him, the donkey who had lost its mother a few weeks ago and had cried bitterly about it, the poor little orphan donkey. Brave Mohammad did not cry, but he was shivering, with cold, certainly, perhaps also with fear, an eleven-year-old who has just realized that his mother cannot protect him. I figured out how to close up the open neck of his jacket using thread from its lost button, Dafna contributed extra jackets that she had brought to give away. He gave me a hug, eventually a few transitory smiles. No one would consent to file a complaint.

The morning proceeded calmly after that. And then soldiers arrived.

Dafna told a soldier what happened. The soldier explained that she should call the police, that the Bedouins were not her responsibility. Besides, the land they were on belonged to Omer. Daphna worked hard to convince her that yes, the Bedouin farmers and shepherds were actually her responsibility. She and the other members of the occupying forces needed to protect them from marauding settlers. If she would read and study and find out about the situation here, she would know that the land did not belong to Omer. The soldier had a different view of her job. It was simply, she explained, to obey her orders. As it happens, the successive commanders who hand out the orders to soldiers generally take theirs from Omer, a view that government policy appears to support.

It went on for a long time, and the soldier listened attentively. Later, one of our group thought Dafna had made some progress. The soldier took a picture of the video that David, one of the volunteers, had made of some of the motorcyclists.

Speaking of whom, they returned. But they quickly left, perhaps because they saw us, or perhaps because most of the women fled when the police arrived.

The rain left drops on my lens. Our shoes, caked with mud, alternately stuck to the slope or sent us sliding down it. The stones helped hold us in place, as did our hosts, whose steps seemed to be immune to mud. Warm tea helped, too. And the food.

The women sent us each home with a generous bag of labneh, a tangy cheese made with goat’s milk. They were surprised to find that they missed the detested Omer. This was something new to them. But at least Omer would never hit a woman.

Text and photographs: Margaret Olin © 2021 Thanks to Dafna Alexanderova for driving, helping me out with translations and many other things.

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