I spent part of today wondering which I hated more: sheer stupidity or pure human malevolence. I guess it’s what might be called an academic question. As our friend Guy said, the real killer is when the two come together.
Here’s the story, in brief. The village of Twaneh in the South Hebron hills has an elementary school. (How it was built, and under what impossible conditions, is a story in its own right.) The school serves several of the Palestinian communities in the region, among them Tuba, situated on the edge of the desert uncomfortably close to the notoriously violent Israeli settlement of Chavat Maon.
Children from Tuba who come to school in Twaneh have to walk some two to three kilometers, mostly along the periphery of Chavat Maon. In the old days, twenty years ago, these settlers used to ambush the children on their way to and from the school and beat them up; they also brutally attacked international volunteers who came to accompany the children.The young daughter of my friend Ali Awad, from Tuba, was tortured by these settlers and badly wounded in one eye. Ta’ayush activists, along with some international volunteers, began accompanying the children every day. Today, the children we once protected are grown women and men, some of them activists in their own right.
In November 2004, after persistent efforts by human rights organizations and grass-roots activists, the Knesset Committee for Children’s Rights forced the army to provide the children of Tuba with a military escort on their way to school and on their way back home. That meant that an army jeep would show up in the morning and drive alongside the kids as they walked, and the jeep would also escort them when they headed home in the afternoon. This arrangement is still in force. Sometimes the jeep doesn’t show up, and the kids have to walk alone—a perilous business. Usually it does come (often rather late). However, there were times when settlers attacked the children on the path while the soldiers in the jeep just sat and watched.
Palestinians in South Hebron, by the way, are totally committed to education. I’ve never known a community with such passion for learning. Maybe the Jews were once like that.
Until recently, the Tuba children would walk with the jeep following them until they almost reached Twaneh. About 100 meters before the village, the jeep would stop. It would be waiting there, at the meeting point, in the afternoon when the Tuba children set off for home. All that was fine. Israeli activists who now live for periods in Twaneh often greet the children at the meeting point in the morning and walk them back there after school is let out, just to be sure they are safe. But in the last few days, the army has sent heavily armed soldiers to intercept the accompanying activists. They have declared the 100-meter stretch between the village and the meeting point a Closed Military Zone, and they now, twice every day, threaten the activists with arrest if they cross an arbitrary line they have drawn in the earth.
Why would the army do this? The answer is obvious. The crazed settlers of Chavat Maon will do anything they can to make life more difficult for Palestinians and for Israelis who come to help Palestinians. The settlers have pressured the army into declaring the CMZ (illegally, by the way, according to the Israeli Supreme Court, but who cares?). So now the kids have to cross the sacred 100 meters alone, which is a little scary, especially since the soldiers with their big guns are lined up there in front of them. We are talking about children who are six to about fourteen years old.
We saw it today. We went up the hill with the school children at around 1:00 and before long we reached the ragged line of soldiers. As usual, the latter told us we couldn’t take another step toward the meeting point with the jeep.
Their officer waved his cellphone, which had an image of the order creating the CMZ. He refused to reveal his name, as the law requires him to do. But who cares about the law? This is South Hebron. Assuming his full, majestic authority amidst the rocks and wet soil and the land turtles, he said all of us would be arrested if we crossed his beloved line. Meanwhile, the soldiers had fun pushing and shoving the activists around, especially targeting the Palestinians.
This little ritual has been played out twice each day for the last little while. Each time the activists argue with the soldiers, tell them the order is illegal, tell them there is no sense at all to what they are doing, tell them they are serving as unthinking peons to the settlers, tell them we have every right to accompany the children to the meeting point. We remind them there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, which includes most, maybe all, of what they are doing in the Occupied Territories. Some of us tried out these arguments today, of course to no effect. I saw little point in the barren debate. None of the soldiers had enough neurons to see how foolish the whole thing was. After a while, I started feeling sorry for them. They spend three years in the army, which wastes those precious years on this kind of charade, on making them draw a line in the mud and then defend it at any cost. I’ve seen them do that in many places, over the years (sometimes in sand rather than topsoil) , and every time I am astonished again. You could say that many, perhaps most, wars follow this primitive template.
We watched the children as they crossed the forbidden zone, reached the waiting jeep, and then continued walking toward Tuba, the jeep not far behind them.
Meanwhile, the soldiers lost patience and started escalating their threats. “You have 60 seconds to get back behind the line we drew; a police car is on its way, and anyone standing in the CMZ will be arrested.” After a while the 60 seconds became 30 seconds. We slowly, deliberately turned our backs and walked downhill over the rocks to Twaneh, but not before the officer told one of the activists that they were going after him—that they would criminalize him and bring him to court. For what crime?
It could be something like “hindering a public servant in pursuit of his duty,” one of their favorite cooked-up charges. There was a time when anyone they arrested in South Hebron would automatically be charged with this useful category. It happened to many of us. In theory it could lead to prosecution and further punishment. Or there are other, more inventive offenses they might want to stick on to this activist. The real crime, however, in the eyes of the army and the system it upholds, is to treat Palestinians, young or old, as human.
Last night soldiers came into Twaneh at around 2AM and wandered around. They didn’t do any damage apart from waking people up and terrifying them. The settlers of Chavat Maon, no doubt aided by their friends in the other illegal outposts nearby, have carried out full-scale pogroms at various places in the region in recent weeks. Sometimes they shoot live fire. The army does nothing to stop these attacks, and sometimes the soldiers join in. I guess on balance pure human malevolence is worse.
Text: David Shulman © 2022; photographs: Margaret Olin © 2022