The village of ‘Ein Samiya is no more.
These are the days of the summer wheat harvest, as in the Book of Ruth. The Shavuot festival of first fruits. But the Book of Ruth has a happy ending.
We watch the trucks and cars drive down to the center of the village, where the men are taking apart whatever can be salvaged from their homes and sheep-pens. Bedding, kitchen vessels, metal panels, children’s toys, chairs, the bits and pieces of any domestic life, are loaded onto the trucks. After several hours, we see them drive away. They stop to thank us and wish us well. As the last truck departs down the dirt road, my spirit sinks. I see my ancestors forced, repeatedly, into exile. And I see the Nakba reenacted—as the Israel right wants it to be, indeed is doing whatever it can to make this happen.
We are here to harvest the wheat and barley fields of ‘Ein Samiya, because the villagers are too absorbed in dismantling and moving to do it themselves. The crops are ripe. We take turns using the petrol-driven weed-whacker; one of us cuts down the standing grain, the others rake up the sheaves and squeeze them into capacious plastic sacks. The weed-whacker is not in perfect shape and has to be fixed and restarted quite often. It’s heavy work, and even in the early morning the sun is relentless. By mid-morning, it’s a fiery furnace. We have lots of water with us, but most of it is no longer cool. I begin to wonder if I’m too old for this.
A settler shepherd, whom Arik knows well, brings his herd up to the edge of the Palestinian fields and lingers there, pushing the limit—though why should he bother? In a day or two, all of this land will be theirs. He’s a teenager, his face wrapped in a rag against the sun. He seems interested in Arik’s vision of reality. He also seems, like so many of the younger settlers in these outposts, confused, rather lost, at odds with himself and the world; also brainwashed by the noxious ideology the settlers have imparted to him.
I am too busy raking and stuffing the grain into sacks to listen to much of the conversation, but here is a small snippet I overhead:
Settler (his name is, perhaps, Moshe): Have you heard of the Land of Israel?
Moshe: Who does it belong to?
Arik: To God.
Moshe: And have you heard that God gave it to Abraham and his descendants?
Arik: Yes, and God also said, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that He can take it away from them if they act sinfully.
Moshe: So what are the sins?
Arik: That is where you and I differ. For you, it’s a sin not to settle the Land of Israel. For me, the terrible sin is to privilege the Jews over all other beings created in the image of God and to oppress or mistreat those others.
We go down into what was once the main part of the village. Only one man is still poking among the ruins. A team from Palestinian TV seeks him out, interviews him at some length. All of Palestine knows about what is happening here. Later I meet this man at the school. “The grief,” I say, “is unbearable,” al-asaf shadeed. Yes. Actually, he can hardly speak. “And the zulem—injustice– is unbearable.” He repeats the word, as if there were no other words left in the world: zulem, zulem, zulem.
‘Ein Samiya was perched on a small plateau surrounded by the high rocky slopes of the central West Bank, with a view of the Jordan Valley down below. Bedouins of the Qa‘abna tribe, no longer nomadic, have lived there for forty-four years. They are profoundly attached to this site. Now they speak of it with longing, in exile.
I know from first-hand experience of an entire village emptied of its people. It was at Ras al-Tin, not far as the crow flies, from ‘Ein Samiya. A few families are still hanging on at Ras al-Tin. There the army played a savage role in driving the people out. And there have been others. At Bi’r al-Id, in the south Hebron hills, we brought the families back after the army and the courts had expelled them, along with several other villages; but there, too, years of settler violence took their toll, and the families left. Al-Khan al-Ahmar, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, was on the verge of demolition and expulsion—the army bulldozers were already at work—when the International Criminal Court (ICC) declared that destroying the village would be a war crime. That stopped them for the moment. The Israeli right, including cabinet ministers, is still clamoring for the army to finish the job. They could do that at any moment.
The stark truth: Expulsion of the Palestinian population is the raison d’être of the Occupation.
Here, in short, is how it happened at ‘Ein Samiya. The State of Israel declared war on the village some years ago, when the Civil Administration issued a demolition order on the village school—by far the most impressive and important building there. An array of European sponsors supplied the funds. (All the Palestinians I have known are intensely committed to educating their children.) The villagers went to court, and, no surprise, after years, the Jerusalem District Court decreed (May 10, 2022) that the school could indeed be demolished. In January the High Court of Justice put a freeze on executing this ruling. Now the whole question may be no longer relevant.
The school is still standing, but two nights ago settlers from the nearby outposts came into the village and broke the windows. For years these settlers have enthusiastically been doing what settlers do: they invade the village, attack, beat up whoever they find, throw rocks, threaten, curse, steal, bring their herds into the Palestinian fields, thereby destroying the crops; in short, they do whatever they can to make life miserable for the Bedouin shepherds. They’ve had a lot of success in this endeavor.
What finally broke the villagers’ spirit was an event two weeks ago. The settlers came into the village at night, supposedly looking for sheep of theirs that they claimed had been stolen. They couldn’t find any. The next morning, one of the villagers took his flock out to graze. A policeman turned up, arrested him, and announced that the entire flock had been stolen—and handed it over to the settlers. Thirty-seven sheep. It goes without saying that the policeman was acting for the setters and had embraced their lies. Meanwhile, the settlers blocked the access roads to the village and stoned Palestinians trying to reach their homes. The stoning went on for five consecutive days.
The villagers had lived for years with constant harassment and settler violence. They were clinging to the land in the mode of sumud, perseverance at any cost—but this time the humiliation and injustice were too much for them. They can’t fight the whole system. In effect, they have no legal recourse whatsoever; the authorities, police and army, who are charged with protecting them, are hand in glove with the settlers. So the people of ‘Ein Samiye—27 large familes, over 200 souls—have decided to leave. Their land, not a small stretch, will be taken over by the settlers. They are already busy doing just that.
There is another wrinkle to this story. The Palestinian Authority was involved here. They wanted the villagers to hold on, and they promised economic support. Sheep herding in Palestine means living on the edge; in the summer months, or when the settlers prevent access to grazing grounds, constantly whittling away at the space available, the owners have to buy feed; and the cost of it has skyrocketed because of the war in the Ukraine. For people like the Ka‘abna, this means economic disaster. Still, the PA sent Abdallah Abu Rahma, one of the most impressive of the grass-roots leaders—I had the honor of being arrested with him at Bil‘in in 2004, but that’s another story—to try to persuade the people of ‘Ein Samiya to stay in place. He tried hard. But because of the constant, and escalating, violence, they wanted to send the women and children away to a safer site. The PA conditioned their support on the continuous presence of the families in the village, at least for the next two weeks. Impasse. Now they’re all gone—some to Taybeh, some to Nu‘ema in the Jordan Valley, and some to a rocky hill in Area B, between Kufar Malik and Magha’ir. They’ll be a bit farther away from the settlers, who are almost entirely in Area C. Nonetheless, the outposts near Magha’ir are known for their brutality. And after living as a community for decades, the dispersal of the families is terribly painful– even more painful than losing their homes, as one of the villagers said to Arik.
Make no mistake. The settlers are the willing instrument, driven by the fiercest greed known to human beings, but the destruction of the village is a war crime committed by the Israeli government. It’s the paradigm for what they intend to achieve in Palestine. As I write, some thirteen villages in the South Hebron hills, in what is called firing zone 918 (Masafer Yatta), are in imminent danger of sharing this fate; in their case, the army will wreck the villages and drive the people out, unless we—you and we—somehow manage to stop them.
By mid-afternoon, the harvest is more or less complete. Two more settlers—tougher and more sinister than Moshe—have turned up, exploring their newly acquired territory, especially the school and its water tanks. One of them, long-haired, ear-locks, huge skull-cap, crazy eyes, tries to get me to talk. He comes close to me and says,
“Who are you?”
I don’t answer.
“What’s your name.”
“Friend of Arik?”
“Because you’ve driven these people away.”
He grins. “Driven away?” he says, in derision. As if to say, “Who, us? We’ve driven someone away?”
Jake and I drive with the heavy sacks of grain to the hill site where thirteen of the families are setting up their tents. A bulldozer is leveling a small piece of ground (cost: 2000 shekels per day, a fortune). We unload the grain, which goes straight into a feeding trough and from there, without delay, into the mouth of a hungry donkey. At least some of our work today is benefitting someone. We chat a bit with the exiled people of ‘Ein Samiye. Beneath the hill there is a fertile wadi, very green. Can you take your sheep down there to graze? No, that land belongs to another village. Actually, there is no good grazing here.
There isn’t much to say. Much silence between the words—though one of the younger men tries to joke; he wants to know if Arik’s somewhat beaten-up car might be for sale, and for how much. Higher up the hill, the women are working at making the tents habitable. Later, on our second trip with the last sacks of grain, coffee arrives in tiny paper cups. But this is not the moment to stay, to rest from the heat; there is Shavuot dinner tonight, we have to get home; Arik, indefatigable, will be studying Torah all night and teaching Torah at 4 AM-the Torah he lives minute by minute and day by day.
We, all four of the activists, have homes to go back to. What a miracle. One of the older men says to me, “I was born in ‘Ein Samiya. We loved that place. The view, the landscape, the air, the fields, the hills. You can’t even imagine what my heart feels like today.”
text David Shulman © 2023. Most photographs David Shulman © 2023. We are grateful to Jacob Magid for permission to reproduce his photograph of the village of ‘Ein Samiya in 2020.