Random Stopping: A Day in the South Hebron Hills: Umm Al-‘Ara’is, Sh’ab al-Butam, Ar-Rakiz


Umm Al-‘Ara’is. We must see at least twenty soldiers. The first few are friendly. They say they’d been stationed in the territories for four months. When Zev asks them to describe their duties, one of them answers, “stopping people randomly from going to work.” This sets a pattern for the day.

These soldiers leave soon after they arrive. The ones who replace them work with more zeal.

They have already detained Sa’id, although they keep him restrained on the field, unlike last week. Then they come for us, this time with a paper map to argue over.

The place near Simri where we are standing is not obviously in the closed military zone, but the soldier tells us to move anyway. Their main purpose seems to make sure that everyone, soldiers, activists, and Palestinians, are put in their proper place.

These soldiers see their functions differently than the earlier ones. “We make peace,” explains one who is serious and willing to talk.

“The settlers have been there for twenty years and it was always quiet. If Sa’id were working his land and not just coming to cause trouble, everything would be fine. It has been peaceful until now.” He did not mention, probably did not know, that the settlement was on Sa’id’s land, that we have spent over ten years trying to help Sa’id to stay on the bit of land he still has and gain back some of what he has lost, and that it is the soldiers who prohibit Sa’id from working on his land, perhaps so that they can define anything that Sa’id does there as “trouble.”

Eventually the soldiers find a way to mark the boundary unambiguously.

We all find ways to amuse ourselves.

After about three hours, Sa’id arrives in his van. He has been freed.


Sh’ab al-Butam. Even with permission from the civil administration to work your land, it’s hard to do when soldiers confiscate the key to the expensive digging machine you’ve rented. The family at Sh’ab al-Butam has rented a Hyundai digging machine, at 400 NIS/hour (about 112.34 USD, a large sum of money here). But when a settler from the nearby Avigayil Settlement contacts a soldier about the “illegal” work going on, the obedient soldier visits the family and confiscates the key to the rented machine.

One of our group calls headquarters. After a long wait, soldiers appear in the distance. And after another long wait, when the soldiers do not come closer, a group of activists sets out to hike down to them.

When they reach the soldiers, I can just barely see them through my long lens. They all stand talking for about a half hour, and then our friends return with the happy news that the soldiers have agreed that the key should not have been taken. Unfortunately, no one knows where to find the soldier who took the key, but the officer grants permission to the family to use the spare key. Yes, they have a spare key, but, yes again, they were afraid to use it until now.

It has been an hour and a half, or 600 NIS, since we arrived, and who knows how long before that the soldier silenced the machine. But now we thrill to the jovial rat-a-tat-tat of the digging machine drilling holes into stoney earth so that olive trees may be planted.

Even after we leave the farm, we enjoy its faint serenade from the highway.

Later the memory of it warms our souls. It is still with us as our day ends on a sobering note with Harun’s family in Ar-Rakiz. Harun’s condition has worsened; he has had a leg amputated since we last saw him, and he sleeps through this visit.

The generator for which he was attacked comes up again and again, while his mother manages a smile and thanks us many times for coming.

The sound of the digging machine is still echoing in our minds on the way back to Jerusalem: at least we have enabled one family, in Sh’ab al-Butam, to work their land. But by the time we have that thought, we discover, the soldiers have already visited the family and put a stop to the work.

text and photographs Margaret Olin © 2022, where not otherwise credited.

Kamar’s photograph of Ada and Golan, Umm Al-‘Ara’is.

2 thoughts on “Random Stopping: A Day in the South Hebron Hills: Umm Al-‘Ara’is, Sh’ab al-Butam, Ar-Rakiz

  1. Pingback: October 29, 2022.  Umm al-‘Ara’is. Text by David Shulman. Photographs by Margaret Olin | Touching Photographs

  2. Pingback: January 7, 2023    Gawawis, Ar-Rakiz, Twaneh | Touching Photographs

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