– 1 –
April 6-8, 1903 (Julian calendar), Kishinev, Bessarabia: A mob, led partly by Orthodox Russian priests, descends upon the town, killing 49 Jews, wounding scores more, raping many Jewish women, burning down Jewish homes. The local police stand by, watching, making no attempt to stop the massacre. Some of the Jewish men fight back with the meager tools in their possession. Children see their parents murdered before their eyes. Shock waves engulf the Jewish communities of eastern Europe and beyond. In response, many Jewish young men join the anti-Czarist revolutionaries; others leave for Palestine to build a new life for the Jews. Bialik, the national Hebrew poet, writes an epic poem on the massacre.
1909 or 1910, date unknown. Mikalayev, Ukraine. Pogrom in my grandmother’s shtetel. Cossacks ride into town, attack the Jews, killing whoever they can. My grand-uncle, my grandmother’s brother, 17 years old, tries to hide in a pond and drowns. The dead never grow old.
February 26, 2023. Sunday night. Pogrom in Hawara, occupied West Bank. Some 400 Israeli settlers from Itamar and nearby outposts enter the village of Hawara, supposedly to avenge the murder of two settler brothers that day in Hawara. (That murder was preceded by the recent killing of 11 Palestinians in Nablus by the Israeli army, which was preceded by various other outrages, one loses count, but we could in theory trace it all back to Cain and Abel, or to 1947-48, or to 1933, or 1929, or to the uncountable, ongoing daily horrors of the Occupation.) Many of the marauding settlers are armed with automatic weapons; many are masked. They spend five full hours in the town. Israeli soldiers are there, mostly standing idly by.
By all accounts—and there are many first-hand witnesses—it was a night of terror in Hawara. The settler terrorists tried to break into houses and successfully set fire to some 40 homes, in nearly all cases with families huddling inside. Mothers tried to hide their children in the bathrooms or storage rooms; husbands who were coming home from work were unable to get through the vicious settler bands and received desperate phone calls from their wives: “They are here, dozens of them, trying to break down the door. They have broken the windows and they’re throwing flaming torches inside. The smoke is choking us. We can’t see or breathe. We’re going to die. Where are you?” By a miracle none of the children and women and elderly were killed. I guess God exists, sometimes.
But one Palestinian man — Samih Hamdallah Aktash, just returned from a humanitarian mission to Turkey after the earthquakes — was shot and killed in the Zaatra neighborhood, either by settlers or, possibly, by a soldier; the killing remains under investigation. Another man was stabbed 22 times with knives. He survived. Another miracle. Around a hundred men were wounded, four of them critically. Not yet Kishinev, but not for want of trying. Along with the 40 gutted homes, some 250 vehicles were destroyed by fire. It is also important to repeat that the soldiers did next to nothing to stop the killers. Five hours in a pogrom are a very long time. It’s not just my word. The highest army officer, responsible for all West Bank operations, Major General Yehuda Fuchs, used it and admitted he had failed in his duty.
As he may well fail next time. After all, the army knew very well that this was coming; they knew when and they knew where. The settlers had announced their intention on the social media. I hesitate to write the next sentence, but nonetheless I will quote Gideon Levy, who speaks truth. Next time, Levy wrote in Haaretz, it may be Sabra and Shatila 2. In September 1982, in these two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, an area under full Israeli control, Christian Phalangists massacred hundreds while the Israeli army stood by without intervening. It was Kishinev multiplied many times over. Don’t think the settlers are incapable of that. Don’t assume the army would try to stop it. They could well be complicit.
Video footage shot by Palestinians during the rampage in Hawara shows the settlers pausing in the middle of the bloodthirsty violence to recite the evening prayer, arvit, to their presumably bloodthirsty god (at 0:34). Several Palestinians from the village mentioned seeing it to me. I have seen hideous crimes by settlers, by soldiers, and one by a false friend, but this single act of desecration—hilul hashem, taking the name of God in vain—tells all one needs to know of evil.
To make things worse, if they could be any worse, we have the words of right-wing spokesmen like Bezalel Smotrich, the dishonorable Finance Minister of the State of Israel and an outspoken racist.1Here is a link to a petition asking the US State Department to block Smotrich from entering the country for an upcoming visit He said, “We have to wipe out Hawara.” I will spare you more of such ugliness; the public space is full of it. On Thursday evening, after a volatile demonstration in Tel Aviv against the government’s plan to destroy the country’s entire legal system and install a dictatorship, Netanyahu addressed the nation. Not surprisingly, he equated the murderous settlers in Hawara with the non-violent demonstrators in Tel Aviv, whom he likes to call “anarchists,” though it is he who has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Incidentally, this week there were several similar pogroms, on a smaller scale but including the destruction of homes and violent physical attacks by settlers in Palestinian villages in the northern Jordan Valley. The shepherds are terrified and asked us to send activists to sleep there for several nights, since the settlers love to invade and destroy in the dark.
– 2 –
So today I went to Hawara. The peace and human-rights organizations came together to sponsor a solidarity visit to the village, knowing well that we were unlikely to be allowed in. Some 350 Israelis, maybe more, many of them veteran activists in the Israeli left, others new to this business, are on the buses. As expected, as soon as the buses pull up at what is known in Hebrew as Tapuach Junction, and in Arabic as Zaatra, about 4 kilometers from Hawara, the army stops us. The mayor and the city council of Hawara are waiting in the town to meet us, but the soldiers tell us they have a “thinning-out order,” tzav ridud, and we can’t proceed. One advantage of the “thinning-out order” as compared to the Closed Military Zone order, which we usually encounter, is that the former is focused on a single point that one can legally bypass. Another interesting feature of “thinning-out” is that Jewish settlers, including those who set the village on fire on Sunday, are allowed in, no problem, but leftist and peace-oriented Jews are not.
We climb down from the buses and start walking toward Hawara in the mid-day sun, with the soldiers tailing us at every step. I am surprised that even this much was possible. We are holding up signs like “We stand together against the Occupation,” and we are chanting this and that as we march down the main road, and there are very lively non-verbal exchanges with the Palestinian cars passing us, honking in delight at what they see, and at some point someone brings us a big stock of Palestinian flags so the road is flooded with colors. I don’t like flags, any flags, and I don’t much like the nation state with its anthem and postage stamps, but occasionally I make an exception for Palestine. Today I’m happy waving that flag. And there are settlers driving by and cursing us, calling us terrorists, telling us we couldn’t possibly be Jews, it’s some mistake. I’ll come back to this fine point at the end.
We must have walked a good half hour downhill toward the village before we hit the next army roadblock. Swarms of Border Police, male and female, fully armed. We turn aside and find our way into an olive and citrus grove bordered by a stone wall. The soldiers take up their positions on the other side of the wall, sealing us off. But they are dealing with experienced activists, and soon several of the latter try to break through the soldiers’ line. Arik Ascherman is one of the first to lie down on the ground in defiance of a verbal order to leave. Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, is hurled to the earth. Some brutal arrests are made. A few of our people have made it to a dirt path going somewhere or other at the top of the hill. Some of us eventually reach the village by circuitous routes over the rocky paths. Meanwhile, the soldiers have been throwing stun grenades into the crowd, and the Hawara city council, knowing we are close by, arrive to join the main body of activists.
Let me just say that I find ample opportunity to say to the villagers of all ages and different families what I came to say. We’re here to be with you. We know your suffering; it is also ours. We share the pain. We know the injustice, zulum, and the terror you live with, and the fierce anger. We will never abandon you, and we will never give up. And so on. Words that can only be uttered face to face, standing on this soil. And sometimes you don’t even need the words. Some of the men embrace us like long-lost brothers and sisters. It is one of those moments, like many I have known, when the barriers dissolve, when you change your life.
It is certain that the nightmare is far from over. The settlers may return at any moment. We will go home, but the people of Hawara have to get through tonight, and tomorrow night, and the nights and days after that. As for me, though I feel safe, more or less, ever since Friday I can think only of Hawara.
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Here is what A. tells us at Zaatra, the small neighborhood of Hawara close to the junction. He is middle-aged, articulate, smart, and burning to tell us his story. Beside him stands the son, or maybe nephew, of Samih, who was killed on Sunday..
“They came after nightfall, a big group of settlers, maybe forty of them. They tried to force their way into our houses. We stood our ground. They had guns. After a while, there were stones, from both sides. What else do we have to defend ourselves with? Then one of the settlers, or maybe it was a soldier, we can’t tell for sure, opened fire and killed this boy’s father. They had bottles filled with kerosene and they wanted to burn down our homes. There were two jeeps of Border Police right there on the road, next to the settlers, and they could have stopped them. There was heavy shooting. Somehow we drove them away.”
Everyone has his or her own version of what happened that night. You can read some of them in the New York Times or Haaretz. I couldn’t smell the smoldering houses and cars in Hawara, but others, who made it into the town center, did.
– 4 –
I’m not good at making predictions, especially about the future. But I think something has changed. There is something new. In the confrontations with the Border Police, people were shouting over and over: “Where were you in Hawara? What did you do in Hawara?” It’s the new slogan. The pogrom has become an ineradicable black stain on our history, on who we are here in this tortured country. No greater disgrace has been enacted by the Jews in the last half a century (though many somewhat less dramatic disgraces occur every day). It hit people, ordinary decent Israelis, very hard. In the last week, there has been a tidal wave of reserve soldiers—high-ranking officers, pilots, combat commanders, long-serving ordinary reservists, soldiers from the crucial units of military intelligence—who have announced to their commanders that they will no longer serve. We are talking about thousands. It’s as if Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector had decided to walk out of the Iliad after realizing the futility of war. Some were interviewed by Haaretz, and several said that this decision, a wrenching one, was clinched by what happened in Hawara. What happened there was not in their contract with the state or within the terms of their oath of allegiance. And Hawara happened, not by chance, in the context of Netanyahu’s attempt to demolish Israeli democracy—and everyone knows why he wants to do that.
Perhaps Hawara will be remembered as a turning point. Another formulation, which should be obvious, is that mainstream decent Israelis have suddenly been given a trenchant demonstration of the linkage between the Occupation and the profound corruption at the heart of Israeli politics. If through Gandhian methods of mass civil disobedience we manage to save democracy, the next stage may be to confront the Occupation, that is, to end it. What is at stake is the moral foundation, and the very legitimacy, of this state.
What happened at Hawara is not an accident, not an aberration. It is the direct, indeed inevitable consequence of the Occupation in the form it has taken over the last several decades. The army in the territories has made common cause with the crazed and brutal settlers who have, in effect, taken over the state. Soldiers have learned by example, from their officers and from the right-wing politicians, that their task is to protect the Jews. Palestinian lives don’t count. Except when suddenly they do.
There is also a line from Kishinev to Hawara. The victims of the last two generations have become the victimizers of the next. Kishinev, too, was a turning point. It remains to be seen if Israelis can free themselves from the invidious role they have chosen.
Tomorrow, like on each Saturday night, I’ll be at the big demonstration outside the President’s house. I assume I too will be shouting at the soldiers and the Border Police, “Where were you in Hawara?” I’m making myself a new sign to hold up for all to see. It’s a sentence from the Talmud, Tractate Nedarim: מי שאין לו בושת פנים בידוע שאבותיו לא עמדו בהר סיני . “Whoever has no shame, it is clear that his forefathers were not present before Mount Sinai.”
Text 2023 © David Shulman; Photographs 2023 © Dood Evan unless otherwise credited.
- We are grateful to Dood Evan for allowing us to reproduce his photographs.
- See the active petition to the US State Department demanding that it bar Bezalel Smotrich from entering the country for a planned visit next week.