Now it’s Susiya’s turn. Mu‘arrajat (Central) has fallen to the settlers along with nearly twenty other Palestinian villages.
For the last two decades, Susiya has been a home to me and to many of our activists. Life there was never easy—the Israeli settlement of Susya is just across the wadi, on Palestinian Susiya’s land—but now every minute Fear, a ravenous hyena, stalks the rocky hill with its tents and goat pens and rough paved courtyards and grapevines and flowering shrubs and cats and dogs and donkeys.
Susiya. Photographs: Margaret Olin, 2016.
A world without Susiya is no world of mine.
Last week two gangs of settlers, armed with submachine guns, pistols, and butcher knives, their faces masked, invaded Susiya at two main points: the homes of Nasser and ‘Azzam in the center of the village, and the somewhat more isolated home of Ahmad Ja‘abar down in the wadi. These were large bands of twenty or more, many of them adolescents, probably from the host of illegal outposts, carrying weapons they had not been trained to fire (hence all the more frightening). According to ‘Azzam, they came three times into the village center, screaming threats and curses, beating anyone they could find, breaking what was breakable, including windows and doors, stealing property. In the midst of this rampage, they proudly announced: “We are returning to our land.” They informed the Palestinians that they had 24 hours to flee for their lives; if they remained in their homes, they would all be killed. This is now the settlers’ standard formula, announced at every hamlet they attack (the attacks are clearly synchronized). A particularly awful settler raid took place on October 29th at Umm al-Khair. The men were isolated from the women and children, mocked and humiliated, forced at gunpoint to sit with their faces to a wall while all data on their phones was erased, and repeatedly threatened with death.
clockwise from top left: Mohammed and his granddaughter Dahlia, photograph: Margaret Olin, 2015; Nasser, Dahlia and Ilaf, 2015, photograph: Margaret Olin, 2022; Mohammed and two of his granddaughters. Photograph: David Shulman, 2023
The context is the war in Gaza sparked off by the barbaric, horrific attacks of Hamas terrorists on October 7th. The settlers have been waiting for just such an opportunity. Let me say right now that the Susiya people despise Hamas. What they want is some viable life in their homes and a peace agreement with Israel, as I have heard from them many times and again last night. The settlers, however, have other plans for them. Meanwhile, the army, the police, the Civil Administration, all government agencies, have virtually vanished. The state no longer exists in the South Hebron hills. The de facto rulers are these settler thugs, striving hard for the promised apocalypse.
Evening. We sit outside on benches and plastic chairs: Amitai, me, Katie, several of the wives, and the wonderfully articulate Ahmad, 16 years old. Mohammed, Nasser’s father, not entirely well, is lying down on a bench, wrapped in a blanket. He is eager to know what I teach at the university, specifically which languages. When I tell him “Sansikreeti,” he laughs. In Palestinian and Syrian Arabic, it means “gibberish,” like when we say “It’s Greek to me.” Much of the evening is happily spent with ‘Azzam, the Susiya poet laureate. He is a wonder: eloquent in Arabic and Hebrew, overflowing with classical Arabic poems, which he can recite for hours, a gentle soul with a subtle smile, even when telling me about the horror. Not surprisingly for a poet, he has stark dreams, especially these days and nights—images of cosmic destruction, a vast fireball rising up from the ocean. I say to him: ba‘id al-sharr, “May such evil be far from us”, i.e., “God forbid!” He laughs. “It’s all very well,” he says, “but what to do if evil comes here, not far but very close, pursuing us?”
I meet his three sons, who live in the city of Yatta in Area A. He sends them home before dark; the roads are really dangerous now, especially at night. With good reason, everyone in Susiya is jittery and anxious, taut as a string stretched to snapping. Every little sound sends them into a panic. A settler car passes the village on the main road, stopping at what used to be the dirt road into the village center (the army has blocked the path with huge boulders; it also destroyed two deep wells, once it was at it). Is the car unloading another party of armed hooligans? The villagers barricade themselves in their homes. Moments later they see a bright light in the wadi: settlers coming at us again? The light eventually retreats; they relax a little, if that’s the right word. ‘Azzam says: “When you are here and they attack, your presence might hold them back a bit.” He speaks softly, as always, but I hear the trauma in every syllable. His house was badly hit. He was born in Susiya, grew up here, has never lived anywhere else. I suppose he must be in his sixties. But the whole community lives the danger; the children too. As in the past but worse, much worse, you can’t help but feel the horrible insult and humiliation, the injustice, the helplessness and unrelenting fear, the deliberate laceration of manliness and, above all, of humanity itself, in which they allegedly have no part.
‘Azzam loves the poems attributed to the ancient figure of Luqman the Wise (the 31st sura of the Qur’an bears his name). Toward midnight he tells the story everyone knows. Luqman was an Ethiopian, black and short and strangely wise. He was known for his fables and pithy gnomic sayings. He was captured and sold as a slave to a master who proved to be kind. One day the master asked Luqman to slaughter a sheep and bring him the best parts of the animal. Luqman killed the sheep and brought his master the tongue and the heart. On another day, the master ordered him to slaughter a sheep and bring the worst parts of the animal. Luqman killed the sheep and brought his master the tongue and the heart. “How can the tongue and the heart be both the best and the worst?” asked the master. Luqman replied, “There is nothing better than these when they are good, and nothing worse than these when they are bad.”
A lot of both is present this evening, which I suppose is anyway the case for all of us, in varying degrees. The bad stuff is all too obvious; just look at the settlers, listen to their hatred, the cyanide in their minds. But all night long, half asleep, half awake, I am moved by the goodness of the activists in these hills, at a time of serious risk. We are seventeen tonight, spread out among five different villages, all of them exposed to the settler terror. Most of them (not me) are young Israelis—also one from England, two Americans, one Indian; maybe in their twenties or early thirties. I won’t name their names; I don’t think they’d want me to. They are smart, savvy, witty, brave, and utterly unassuming. They are here doing the right, good thing as if it were the most natural thing in the world, no fuss, no pretense, taking on the risk and the responsibility. They have integrity, they know why they are here, why they come back day after day. They speak the truth, in few words. Good hearts, good tongues. There are none better. Tonight, in their company, I feel there may yet be hope for humans.
A long night. Amitai and I take turns on guard duty. My shift is from 2AM to around 5, with a short break inside to thaw out (it’s cold by now in the hills). Whenever the war planes fly overhead, the dogs start barking at them furiously. It goes on like that all night. At 4:30, still over an hour before dawn, the azan echoes over the hills, a chorus, from the mosques in Yatta and Samu‘a. At this hour, the muezzins sing in a low octave, gently nudging the light to emerge, in a minor scale with intricate grace notes that, I am certain, reach up to the stars. It’s the music of the spheres, the most bewitching sounds I have ever heard. I stand transfixed beside the tent that is Nasser’s home, wanting the prayer never to stop. Eventually it fades into tactile silence –a caress. A few moments later, inside the tent, Amitai’s cellphone, of its own accord, breaks into a Mozart concerto. More perfection. The incongruity is also sweet and true.
I think we may still save Susiya, as we have several times in the past. For decades the resilient people of Susiya have toughed it out. The smaller hamlets nearby—who can say?
text: David Shulman ©2023. Photographs as credited ©2023