Jibrin says, “I hardly ever sleep. Maybe an hour in the night.”
“Because of the settlers?” I say.
“Yes. I’m afraid. A thousand times they have told me they will slaughter me.”
Actually, it’s something of a miracle he’s still there. He’s got the murderous settlers only a few hundred yards away. His grazing grounds take him close to the settlement. He lives with his family in a cluster of tents and shacks and sheepfolds, totally, terminally alone. The few neighbors he had have moved away. The nearest real people are quite far down the hill, in Lower Gawawis—and they are no less vulnerable than Jibrin.
It’s bitter cold in the early morning. We sit with him, drinking tea, in the tent where he spends the nights. In his gentle, soft-spoken, cultivated manner, he updates us on his ongoing, epic tale of sorrow. We’ve heard earlier installments, and we know what comes next. Settlers have cut down his olive trees; attacks continue almost every day; he lost at least a thousand shekels when they killed six or seven sheep, and the frightened ewes aborted. “We live from day to day. The soldiers and the police are with the settlers. Allah knows, only He knows, we trust that He will care for us. Where could we go? This is our home; these plots of lands are ours. Won’t Allah punish the thieves?”
He will, I think, but it might take a long time.
We need the tea, it stops my shivering for a while. At first there was thick fog over the hills, haunting to the eyes. Also dangerous. Amiel tells us that under these conditions we have to stay in bands of at least three; if an activist gets lost in the mist, as happened to Danny not long ago, he or she will be easy prey for the settlers. Danny was badly beaten (not for the first time).
By the time we go out on the hills with the sheep, the fog has begun to lift. After a while, sunlight breaks through. The hills turn beige-brown-yellow with wistful patches of blue, where the clouds hide the sun. In the distance we can see Umm al-Arā’is– the massed army vehicles on the crest– and we know that Sa‘id is there with his family and the rest of our activists.
Since I’ve mentioned Sa‘id, I am sad to report that the settlers from Mitzpeh Yair have now plowed his lands, thereby establishing ownership. No court in Israel is likely to restore that wadi to its rightful owner. For well over a decade we’ve accompanied him, week after week, into the fertile wadi that belongs to his family, the ‘Awad clan, and that has been stolen by settlers. The soldiers now come, en masse, every Saturday to keep Sa‘id away. And still he comes there every week, and so do we, and so we will until Allah wakes up and punishes the thieves and the State that has created them.
Everywhere in South Hebron feels like being on the front in a deadly war.
Khatim is building an olive grove and orchard on his land, above Ar-Rakiz (Harun’s village; remember Harun?). We’ve come to help him. It’s hard physical work, a pleasant diversion from the war, until the war arrives to remind us. We take turns with the one free shovel—the others are in the hands of Khatim’s sons—filling buckets of earth and rock that have to be cleared away before the trees can be planted. As Amiel says, it’s the prototypical activity in Palestinian villages: moving large masses of heavy things from one point to another. Ely says, shovel in hand, “It’s strange working like this and knowing that it may all be for nothing.” Ar-Rakiz is in the huge firing zone declared by the army that includes some 15 villages that are to be evacuated; the Supreme Court confirmed that they can carry out this massive expulsion. More than a thousand Palestinian shepherds and farmers are to be forced out, forever, an atrocity by any standard. The army says it will happen soon. These are people we know. Meanwhile, we have work to finish.
By now the sun is fully free of cloud, and it’s hot. But after a couple of hours with the buckets, and a long tea break, something happens. A tractor and its driver appear in order to uproot one of the immense boulders. They tie iron chains around the boulder and connect it to the tractor, which slowly, ponderously, over and over, tries to dislodge the rock from the pit they’ve dug around it. Every time it raises the boulder up a bit, Khatim and his boys rush to fill the gap with heavy stones. After a while, the boulder is almost vertical, but still in place.
And then, as you will have guessed, the soldiers came.
First they demand that the driver of the tractor hand over the keys. He refuses. He’s an older, grey-haired man who has been farming his lands with this tractor for over forty years. No one, he tells them, has ever told him that it’s forbidden to do that, mamnu‘. He’s brought the tractor today to help his neighbor.
They point their guns at him and again demand the keys. Again he says no. Finally they settle for his blue identity card. The officer takes it and goes off to call some superior being on his cellphone. He says to the driver, “Wait here.”
The big fear is that they will confiscate the tractor, an extremely common crime by the army against innocent Palestinian farmers who depend on the tractor to survive. It happened just last week in Hamra in the Jordan Valley. Anyway, the guns are still pointed at the terrified driver. We wait. Finally, the officer announces, an act of godlike grace and forgiveness, that the driver, who should be grateful, can keep his tractor if he leaves immediately. So much for the boulder and the olive-grove-to-be.
Why did this happen? We can be certain that settlers across the hill from Ar-Rakiz sent the soldiers to put a stop to Khatim’s plan. Palestinians should not be allowed to plant trees, especially not on their own land.
I was watching the soldiers’ faces (the ones not hidden by their masks and the clownish camouflage headgear they have to wear). Amazing how little there is to see there, in their eyes and mouths. Maybe they have turned themselves off. Maybe they (especially the officer) enjoys this work. We will meet them again in a moment. In any case, for once I thought that Hannah Arendt was right after all about the banality of evil. Usually I protest at the thought that evil—whose face I saw today—can ever be banal.
By 3:00 or so we are almost ready to head back to Jerusalem—in fact, already sitting in the bus—when a call comes in. A shepherd from Twaneh, someone we know well, Hamoudi, is out on the hills with his flock, and a settler from Chavat Maon has turned up with his own herd and, more to the point, a long iron bar, useful for attacking Arabs. There’s also a second settler not far away. We disembark and rush as quickly as we can over the hills until we reach Hamoudi. He’s OK. I don’t know what happened to his sheep. The settler is still there with his iron bar, at the edge of the Palestinian fields that have been plowed and sown with seed. We yell at him to get out of there. But he has meanwhile called the army, his personal servants and slaves, and those same blank-faced soldiers come, trampling the seedlings in the fields.
It might have been a simple business, but it wasn’t. The soldiers, as always, produce a Closed Military Zone order. They order us out of the forbidden zone. OK, we say, but what about the settlers (two more have arrived)? They have to leave too. The officer says, Don’t tell me what to do. If you are not out of the closed zone in five minutes, etc. etc. They start prodding and pushing and sometimes hitting us hard with their fists. Since it’s blatantly unfair, in fact, criminal, we’re not rushing to leave, so now they start dragging some of the activists by their arms across the fields and up the rocky slopes.
Even at this point it could have ended, but Yossi, famous for his fierce tongue, has had enough. He drowns the soldiers in his furious words. Then he sits down near the crest of the hill and refuses to budge. Amiel and three more activists join him in solidarity. They won’t leave until the settlers are chased away.
The rest of us mill around, excoriating the soldiers from time to time—they’ve been reinforced by another ugly contingent. The redoubtable activist Yasmin calls out to them, clearly, in measured tones: “So it’s a Military Zone closed to Arabs and leftists but not to settlers and Jews. Might you call this Apartheid?” An hour goes by before the police turn up and carry off Amiel and the other sit-down activists to the police station where, as I write, they are being interrogated. Hopefully, they will be released tonight.
If intelligent beings from Mars landed here in Twaneh and saw this scene, could I explain it to them? I think not, unless the Martians have a taste for the absurd. It looks like a scene from Brueghel’s Hell except that there’s no fire. (In fact, it was freezing as evening came on.) Guns, flak jackets, creaky old army vehicles, even creakier police vans with their meshed windows, the aging policeman with enormous eyeglasses who is clearly out of his depth, the iron bar and its master, plenty of stray dogs and a turtle and a few befuddled sheep, Ta’ayush people charging at windmills, the trampled fields, darkening hills of stone, the jagged skies, the shepherd we came to save, the officer barking threats and the cries of derision he gets in return, the unabating war of cellphone cameras, enemies recording one another for posterity, the forest where the settler thugs like to hide—in short, Twaneh on any wintry Shabbat afternoon. It’s strangely beautiful. But one thing is clear. The soldiers and police of the State of Israel are fully complicit on every level, consciously or not, in the massive state-driven theft of Palestinian land and the expulsion of innocent Palestinians from their homes and from their homeland. Even the Martians, even the turtle, couldn’t miss it.
text David Shulman © 2022; photographs Margaret Olin © 2022