Very hard times. The hardest I have known. Like everyone, I’ve suffered grievous losses in my life. I buried a young, brilliant student, Liat. I’ve been to war. I’ve seen awful things happen to my friends on the West Bank. But worst of all is to watch the moral disintegration of a community, my home.
None of us here will ever recover fully from the horrors perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th. Hamas has given new meaning to the word “inhuman.” You’ve seen the pictures and read the words.
Now the very survival of the state is hanging in the balance, thanks to the criminal corruption and sordid delight in destruction driving the present government in Israel and the oblivious narcissist who heads it. It’s not just about physical survival. When the war is finished—but it may take forever, or feel like forever– will we be able to re-create a community rooted in truth, decency, equality, caring?
Meanwhile, the second Nakba is proceeding apace in the occupied territories. Village after village has fallen to the marauding bands of settlers who increasingly control the West Bank. They are into shooting to kill. The soldiers stand with them and sometimes join in the violence. On October 12, in Wadi al-Siq, where I spent a night just over a month ago, settlers and soldiers arrested and beat the villagers (who were packing up to abandon their homes), threatened to kill them along with five of our activists, handcuffed three of the Palestinians, stripped them down to their underclothes, extinguished cigarettes on their bodies, pissed on them, trampled on their backs and heads, forced their faces down into muddy excrement, and tortured them for many hours. You can read about it in Hagar Shezaf’s report in Haaretz. Last week five Palestinians were shot in cold blood in the village of Qusra, near Nablus; another totally innocent man was shot in Twaneh, in the South Hebron Hills, by a settler in the presence of soldiers who stood by passively (see above). I will spare you further instances, except for one: at the village of Mu‘arrajat, in the southern Jordan Valley, settlers from the nearby illegal outpost have been pulling Palestinians out of cars, threatening them with guns, shooting in the air, and ordering them to evacuate the village within twenty-four hours—or else. This after many months of routine settler violence and severe harassment, some of which we have witnessed.
So last night I slept in Mu‘arrajat together with Nimrod, a fellow activist. We have our people in the village 24/7 in what we are calling “protective presence.” The Palestinians of Mu‘arrajat live in constant, unrelenting fear—like Palestinians all over the West Bank. It’s not hard to feel it once you are there. They greeted us warmly when we arrived at dusk; fed us and cared for us like honored guests. After a week of fretting at home with a sore foot, a tooth implant, and my few remaining splinters of a heart, I couldn’t take it any longer. I can’t say I was unafraid. The settler outpost is a few hundred meters away.
Mu‘arrajat is a large, solid village of several hundred people, many tents and some sturdier homes, scattered over a wide rocky hill and the narrow wadi at its base; there is even a Mu‘arrajat Center and a Mu‘arrajat East. We’ve accompanied the shepherds many times to their grazing ground just across the main highway. Once we had the good luck of witnessing the arrival of a newborn kid, out in those fields. By now the danger is much greater and more immediate. Last night Nimrod and I did shifts, guard duty, through the night. I had lots of time to think. It struck me that the last time I did this at night was forty-one years ago, in Lebanon. Though I was passionately against that futile war, I couldn’t have imagined then that a day would come when I would be standing, unarmed, in the dark in order to protect innocent Palestinians from fiendish Jewish settlers.
The constellations whirled above me in the sky. I realized that we are now in autumn; after midnight, my old friends, the Pleiades and Orion (who is known as the Fool in the Book of Job) were in plain sight. Dogs were barking in a furious chorus, or perhaps a vibrant conversation; roosters, supposedly programmed to crow at dawn, never stopped their cock-a-doodle all night long [“Wake up! Wake up!”]. There was the faint music of the sheep bells, occasionally amplified by the donkeys practicing their scales (they need to work harder at it). After some time I noticed that a muffled high-pitched humming was coming out of the desert, never pausing, as if the sand and rocks and hills were living beings, speaking to us, seeking to assuage our pain. It worked for me. For the first time since the Hamas massacre, still heavy with sorrow and rage, I felt an alien twinge of rest, a soupçon of peace.
At 3:30, still long before sunrise, the elegant, self-possessed ‘Aliya got up from her cot outside the room allotted to us and headed down the hill to begin her day. I heard her steps on the stones. I have never met anyone like her. Someday she will be the leader of that community. She speaks a rapid, limpid Arabic. Her brother is studying medicine, wants to become a cardiologist. As I lay there under the stars, the sweet taste of the desert in my mouth, I thought: At the end of the world, the end of time, the end of killing, it will be something like this. Somewhere a young Bedouin shepherdess will be rising before dawn to see to her family and her flock.
Driving back to Jerusalem, we passed the turn-off to Wadi a-Siq. It’s a dirt road, almost invisible unless you know it’s there. A heavy-set settler, in the usual get-up, was sitting there in his car. Smug, I suppose. Wadi a-Siq has been emptied of its people, who had become our friends. Now he and his band of thugs own the place.
text 2023 © David Shulman, photographs as credited