April 22, 2022. ‘Auja. Text: David Shulman

The hills of ‘Auja in January. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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Abu Isma‘il calls at 7 in the morning, in a panic. Four or five settlers are lined up to block the shepherds’ path to their grazing grounds. What to do? Still half-asleep, I make some phone calls and learn that two of our activists are on their way. I let Abu Isma‘il know. I can hear the relief in his voice. In the end he and the other herds take a long, roundabout way into the hills, and the sheep get to eat their fill. Enough for one day.

Photograph: David Shulman

            All this is routine. Virtually every day there are attacks by the settlers from one or both of the two new illegal outposts in ‘Auja. They drive their ATVs into the midst of the sheep and scatter them over the hills. Or they use their drones, which dive-bomb into the herd, with the same result. Sometimes they attack the shepherds physically. Abu Isma‘il—he’s an old man in Palestinian terms— was kicked and beaten and thrown to the ground and had to go to hospital. As you know, he’s my friend. I should have been with him that day.

Auja in January. Photograph: Margaret Olin

            Then there’s the army. Soldiers appear, invariably to back up the settlers. Lately they’ve taken to drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, a line the shepherds must not cross. Whole chunks of precious grazing land are lost like this. It’s our job to stop the continuous attrition, by whatever means we can. 

            A senior army officer in this arena, a brigade commander, was recorded last week in a moment of obnoxious candor. Arik was doing his best to teach him Torah.

Arik: “These shepherds and farmers are struggling to survive on their own lands. I’m here to protect them.”

Officer: “No. My job is to keep the peace. You create conflict and chaos, balagan. You’re not doing anything useful to anybody. What you are doing is bad, only bad. If you didn’t come here, the Palestinians wouldn’t come here, and there would be quiet.”

Arik: “Before we were here and you were here, the Palestinians were farming these lands all the way up to the intersection. Shall I show you the wells they dug here long ago?”

Officer: “I’m not interested.”

Arik: “So you want these people to submit, to give up on their rights.”

Officer: “No, I want quiet.”

Arik: “So how are they going to come here [to their lands]? How can they reach them if I am not here? They are afraid.”

Officer: “If they come here, there will be friction.”**

Arik: “But these lands are registered in their names. And you want….”

Officer: “What do you want? To bring Palestinians here? What you are doing is simply wrong, the wrong way, period.”

Arik: “And what is the right way?”

Officer: “You bring Palestinians here where there are [Jewish] mityashvim—[those who sit on the land, a new, laundered term, DS]—and create unnecessary conflict.”

Arik: “Wait a minute. Do you want to see a map that shows that these lands belong to Palestinians? Shall I show you the map?”

Officer: “I say again, that is not my job. It’s not for me. Let the police handle it or the Matak from the Civil Administration. You come here only to create chaos. You’re nothing like a human-rights activist. You’re a sham and a provocateur. You’re disturbing the public peace. You created this mess. I’m doing my job.”

anonymous video for Torat Tzedek

            In short, the man with the guns, with all the power in the world, says, over and over: “You are the problem.”  And he’s talking about the violent mityashvim of Maaleh Ahuvia, another illegal outpost, needless to say, who have devastated the fields and vineyards of Palestinian Dir Jarir. Were it not for Arik’s perseverance, the lands of the village would by now have been irrevocably lost. The danger that they will yet be lost is still very real.

            As anyone can see, it’s a war fought on the battleground of awareness, and we’re mostly losing it.

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Auja in January. Photograph: Margaret Olin

            Despite all this, despite the gnawing despair, today’s grazing is peaceful. We see only one settler with his flock, and we ignore him. And he ignores us. We spend the morning hours with the intrepid Umm Rashid and with Nadia, and later with another herd and two young shepherds, Mustafa and Adnan. All of them live with the anxiety of imminent assault. Adnan, who is seventeen and knows the world he lives in, keeps saying to me:  “You’ll stay with us, won’t you? You won’t go away.” And indeed we stay until it is too hot even for the sheep and they are thirsty and ready to go home. The shepherds are fasting, too, for Ramadan.

Photograph: David Shulman

            We walk with them over the hills to the main road, the point of greatest danger, and watch them cross it. On the way I see something new to me, even after years with the sheep and goats. Mustafa grabs hold of a ewe and, after a struggle, positions her in what he hopes is an inviting pose; Adnan entices one of the rams to service her. Mating season. It all happens very fast; sometimes the project fails. Birthing time is in the fall, before the rains, a moment the army regularly chooses to demolish sheepfolds and homes, leaving the newborns to die outside under the sun and the stars.

Photograph: David Shulman

            Life balanced on the edge of the abyss—I suppose for all of us. Certainly for them. For nearly three months I was away, with a torn meniscus, not quite able to walk. Longing for the people of  ‘Auja. Is the terror they live with, that I sometimes share, weirdly woven into the rare happiness I feel today, so unlike the other happinesses I have known?

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Photograph: David Shulman

A hopeful, precarious vignette from mid-week. The Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah invited all the activists to join them for the Iftar meal. Some two hundred people came, all of them veterans of the struggle to keep the Sheikh Jarrah families in their homes, in the face of the Israeli courts, the often brutal police, the army, the settlers, and the governments that have been trying for years to dispossess these families (with no little success).  After the cannon marking the end of the day’s fast sounded its solemn boom, the families brought out vast trays of food cooked at home for this event. Long tables were set up in the street. With the limitless generosity that is their cardinal virtue, young men served us before breaking their own fast. In the end there was a hot sweet whose name I don’t know; never has sweetness been so precise.

Photograph: David Shulman

            It was a freezing night in Jerusalem, there were speeches, a celebration, syllables of gratitude and deep caring and sharing, Arabic and Hebrew mixed like milk and water, it was like the reality that could, that must, become ours, Palestinians and Israelis, on some improbable distant day. Salah spoke: “That day is coming closer, it will be here sooner than you think, the day when Palestine is free.” Two hundred meters away, rabid Jewish nationalists, waving flags, even wrapped in flags, bent on destruction, hell-bent on hate, were trying to force their way into the Old City. If you want to know life in Israel in 2022, think this unthinkable conjunction.

Still from video by David Shulman

            After most of us had dispersed, settler thugs turned up and attacked our friend Muhammad Abu Hummus, whose body has survived so much Israeli violence that it’s a miracle he can still stand up and walk (with a brace). This morning he was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet—once again—by Border Police, near the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Haram.

text: David Shulman © 2022; photographs © 2022, as credited.

Photograph: David Shulman

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