October 29, 2022.  Umm al-‘Ara’is. Text by David Shulman. Photographs by Margaret Olin

By 8:00 when we arrive at Simri, some twenty soldiers are already waiting for us.

There’s a flurry of movement on the hilltop. Sa‘id’s children are running in circles around the soldiers, playing their morning games, shouting, laughing. The soldiers are trying to control them and to push them back down the hill.

The officers waste no time in telling us that we are entering a Closed Military Zone and that we have to leave at once. The senior commander, grumpy, high-handed, impatient, shows us a map on his phone. It’s hard to read it, but anyone can see it covers a huge area.

Meanwhile, near the crest of the hill Sa‘id is arguing with them. After a few minutes they arrest him and march him off to the side.

You will remember Umm al-‘Ara’is and Sa‘id’s stubborn, decade-long attempt to get the lands of his family restored to him. [See previous posts and their links]. There have been moments of temporary victories, also many moments of lethal assault by the settlers. There is no doubt that the land is his, he has the pre-state mali’a document of hereditary rights to it, but in today’s Israel that is far from enough. We think the new military commander in the area is determined to break him.

So today Sa‘id is being detained, as happened last week and the week before. The soldiers are still fussing with the children, who elude them; they’re also pestering Rima, Said’s wife. Those of us who have climbed partway up are also pushed back with threats and curses. Now there is not much we can do except wait. Peg has brought two small cameras for the kids; they love nothing more. They also sing their school songs and dance their dances.

Golan asks me: “Do you like Israel?” I say, “Sometimes I do.” She says: “No, wrong answer.” She asks another activist the same question. He answers correctly.

Tea is served in paper cups.

Nothing could be more transparent. You can see the entire process of outright theft and expulsion on this one rocky hill. The aim is to get rid of these people, also to sanitize all of the south Hebron Hills of human-rights activists, now and maybe forever. We are getting in the way of the land-grab. So if only a few weeks ago Sa‘id was still able to see his lands in the wadi, even to approach them, now that is forbidden. The wadi will soon belong to the settlers, who have won it by chicanery, extreme violence, and furious hate, with the backing of the whole Israeli system, from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff, the Police, on down. Note that the settlers have no use or need for this land, indeed no interest in it. Their sacred goal is to prevent Palestinians from coming anywhere near it.

After an hour or two the army commander comes down to talk at us, not with us. He is the same officer who, just yesterday, presented the world with fake news, claiming that an Israeli leftist activist had thrown stones at soldiers. There is not an iota a truth in this story, but the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff immediately picked it up and demanded that the activist, who happens to be a soldier himself, be severely punished. They are always eager to create a semblance of symmetry between the settlers and the detested leftists. Fortunately, there was a video clip proving that no stones were thrown.** But you can take the measure of the man who cooked up this cockamamy incident.

**Note: On October 31st the army retracted, without apology, its false accusation against the soldier and admitted that he threw no rock at the soldiers.

Now he tells us that he has a signed order from the battalion commander declaring all the south Hebron hills a Closed Military Zone. Or maybe it’s all of the West Bank, or all of Israel, or all the world. He gives us ten seconds to retreat another five or six yards before he detains us. He starts counting, loudly, contemptuously: Ten, Nine, Eight…..

We learn that the soldiers carry the signed but blank order around with them wherever they go, to be completed on the spot whenever needed. The order is unquestionably illegal under Israeli law, but there is no longer a court that could enforce that law. Even the High Court of Justice has sold out to the settlers and to the annexation project. . Palestinians, peace- and human-rights activists, and minimally decent human beings are now without effective legal recourse in the occupied territories. Not that the record of the courts was good before now—it is mostly shameful—but we could at least hope that somewhere in Israel justice, and the idea of justice, were still alive. Not any more.

I won’t wear you out by describing the precise legal mechanisms by which the expulsion is carried out. They are controlled by the Civil Administration, which has free rein to invent ever more tortuous bureaucratic devices. For instance, they can declare Palestinian lands that are now claimed by settlers to be admot seqer, “survey lands,” an amorphous category pertaining to lands that have not been farmed for some years or that are in dispute; this classification may be extended for all eternity. The original owners are, of course, denied access, while the settlers can do as they like in those fields. If you need an analogy, think apartheid. Think worse than that. Or just think of Sa‘id and of the thousands like him. Think of what he thinks of Israeli justice.

After some three hours Sa‘id is released. He has not given up. We embrace him. We will continue to stand with him, no matter what. Let the army chase us over the hills, into the villages, into the groves and wadis, down the rocky slopes, as they did today, always threatening us with arrest, brandishing their all-encompassing order closing the entire area. In Twaneh, where young Israeli activists have been living for weeks at a time in order to protect Palestinian farmers and shepherds, the police, carrying the CMZ order, drive them out. First, the omniscient policeman screamed at the Palestinian families who have hosted these activists in their homes. He said to them—we have it on video—that these families have “princesses” at home who are likely to be corrupted by their Israeli guests. He was hinting that their daughters were being turned into whores. That, as we all know, is what human rights work is all about.

One of the living spaces for Israeli activists in At-Twaneh, January, 2022.

There are some further things that I would like to tell you. They will have to wait. Some moments today were among the most surreal in my life.

text: David Shulman © 2022; photographs: Margaret Olin © 2022, except where otherwise credited

One thought on “October 29, 2022.  Umm al-‘Ara’is. Text by David Shulman. Photographs by Margaret Olin

  1. “The settlers, who have won it by chicanery, extreme violence, and furious hate, with the backing of the whole Israeli system, from the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff, the Police, on down.” And this take place in this out of the way small place in a society that makes claims to democracy and the rule of law and those in power think they can get away with it that the world is preoccupied with the bigger and more terrible to pay any attention to such small outrages and yet there are these civil watchers who are there and bring this news to us. 🙏🙏🙏

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