It’s cold. It’s raining. Aziza serves us hot tea. Continue reading
Gavriel is the one running, the one with the flowing hair. He looks like he might be at home in a coffee shop with a guitar on his knee, passing a joint. I remember Gavriels like him from my adolescence, non-violent activists who sang of peace. As we shall see, I believe even this Gavriel may see himself as a messenger of peace.
Apologies: The remainder of this post is temporarily removed. I hope to republish it soon.
The hardest part was not the settlers’ attack but sitting in the home of Abu Saddam in Susya. His home—four canvas-roofed tents, an outhouse, a water tank, and a perennial lemon tree—is one of the seven scheduled for immediate demolition, with the blessing of the Supreme Court. The others belong to the Nawaja families. First in line, in the center of the village, is the compound of ‘Azzam Yusuf Jad‘a Nawaja. Almond trees are in full bloom in Susya, intermittent bursts of white amidst thin traces of green and great splashes of brown. They’re waiting for the bulldozers to arrive. It could happen any time. Continue reading
He’s young, the lieutenant; the faint trace of a mustache tells all. Awkward, inexperienced, unsure. More than a boy, hardly a man. He speaks fast, the words clipped, sharp, hurtful. He keeps playing with his rifle, waving it, aiming it, caressing it, turning it upside down, comforting it when it somehow rights itself again. The bullet clip is loaded; I can’t see if the safety catch is released. I don’t like any of this, for two reasons. First, I don’t like guns. I had to carry one, when I was a little older than the lieutenant, and I hated it. Second, I don’t like men who like guns.
Photo: Guy Butavia
He’s here to drive the shepherds off their lands. He’s got the Closed Military Zone order, not in its usual hard-copy form, a piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander, but on his cell phone. Not good enough, we say, show us the order and the signature. There’s no signature on the cell phone. No, he says. We’re more advanced than we used to be.
So Guy tells him clearly, and mildly, that the order is illegal, and we have with us the Supreme Court ruling to prove it. After years of struggle in Umm al-Amad, with all the usual travails—repeated expulsions, beatings, arrests, endless threats, routine state terror, as we fought, week by week, literally meter by meter, to extend the area the shepherds could reclaim as theirs– the Supreme Court recognized that the wadi and the hills beneath the settlement of Otniel were Palestinian lands that the people of Umm al-Amad and Karama and the other villages could freely use. It took us some four years on the ground and in the courts to win back the stolen terrain. Guy carries the ruling with him whenever he comes here. The lieutenant takes it, glances at it, and says, “This means nothing to me. I have my orders. Get these shepherds out of here.”
“What you are doing is illegal.”
“It’s no concern of mine. I’ll be quite happy to arrest them, handcuff them, blindfold them, and leave them lying like that for some hours in the settlement.”
“You have no right to threaten them like that. This is their land.”
“I can do what I want. I don’t need any papers to prove it. I have my gun.”
But he doesn’t look as cocksure as he sounds. He keeps glancing around at his soldiers. There are five of them, in the usual get-up. Helmets, rifles, boots. Some of them seem to me not too happy. But then, when are soldiers happy? It’s worse, I know from experience, when they have an officer who’s no damned good.
The lieutenant likes to issue threats. “I’m very affable,” he says to us, “but when people don’t obey me I get physical and violent very quickly. I don’t like it.” This is the only language he knows, impoverished beyond belief, and I don’t think he’s recently, or maybe ever, had an original thought. However, as an afterthought, he says to his men, “We’re doing this today for the Motherland, the moledet.” Never has the Hebrew word sounded to me so sinister.
Then there’s the question of the map that accompanies the digital CMZ order, as it must. The whole business is illegal, but the lieutenant, who’s not so good at reading maps, compounds the crime. Since we’re worried about what will happen to ‘Abed and Ahmad and Hamid if they get arrested, we’re prepared to move farther away from the settlement, up the wadi, to the hillside that is clearly outside the line on the map. But that’s not good enough for our lieutenant. He thinks the shepherds have to go home, get out of there, not be there, not be. He tells them this in pigeon Arabic, horrible to the ear. Guy, who’s good at maps, tells him over and over that the hill we’re retreating to is beyond the arbitrary line of the map. The lieutenant, unable to lose face, insists that his orders are to clear them out altogether, to make them disappear. He says: “Get them off my lands.” I wonder why he thinks they’re his. We demand that he summon the Matak, a senior officer from the Civil Administration, to settle this point. Now.
He calls the Matak—or someone else. Who can say? Now we wait. Every once in a while he points his gun at us and repeats the threat. If the shepherds dare to cross the line even by an inch, he’ll arrest them. He wants them to know this. It should be crystal clear. But the goats, endowed, one supposes, with the less than lucid consciousness of a goat, have a way of spilling over the hills and crossing the invisible line. On second thought, maybe their awareness is more lucid than the lieutenant’s. It’s the shepherds’ kids who are sent to fetch them, and if you say to the lieutenant—“Look, they’re six years old, stop pointing your gun at them, stop threatening them”—he gets riled. ‘Abed, however, who’s already been through whatever hells the army has to offer, is enraged. “Look at this,” he says to me. “Have you ever seen anything like it? A little boy, a bunch of hungry goats, and six soldiers with their big guns aimed at them. It’s crazy.” I couldn’t agree more. I tell him: the court will decide, and it will decide in our favor. We can’t settle it here on the ground.
I think that only the surreal feels really real. Late winter morning, the sun on our skin. There’s an enormous, heavy, black sheep, probably pregnant, lumbering across the wadi floor. The kids are running up and down the rocks in the wake of the incorrigible goats. One of the shepherds has decided that this is the perfect moment to make tea. He lights a fire and puts the old, soot-soiled kettle on the burning twigs. Soon Wala, impish, insouciant, brings each of us of a glass of tea. The soldiers huddle together, making evil plans. The Matak, of course, never turns up. Ahmad, furious, yells at the lieutenant: “You think you’re some big man, but you’re no more than a common criminal.” The lieutenant probably can’t understand.
Maybe, it occurs to me, he might be amenable to some suggestion that would allow him to climb down off the tree. “Look,” I say to him, “they’re almost finished with today’s grazing. They’ve already moved outside the ‘forbidden’ ground. Give them another 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll wind up and go home. Stop threatening them, it makes everything worse and it scares the kids.” Something like that. The lieutenant looks at me with scorn. “No.”
Wala gathers up the empty tea glasses, balancing them against her body in a delicious, gravity-defying system that only she could invent. These people are poor; every glass counts. She will bring them home over the high hill. How many times have I climbed this hill? But today is worse. I figure my ancestors must have been driven from their homes—in Spain, in the Rhineland, God knows where else—and here it is again, what they must have known, something black inside me, the blackness of rage, of hate, though hate is rare for me in south Hebron, over the years it’s been displaced by something else that I can’t name, something better than hate. And there is the weariness; do we have to start all over? We’ll go back to the courts, and the courts will reaffirm the earlier ruling, and the wadi will be open again, and for a while the sheep will graze there until we have to do it all once more, and the pitiful lieutenant might even grow up some day and discover he is a person with a mind and a body of his own, I know it can happen, maybe after the Occupation ends. Maybe even before.
On the way to Umm al-Khair we stop at Ma‘in and climb the hill to where the owners were digging shallow pits for planting baby olive trees, a few days back. The settlers of Avigail, across the highway, must have summoned the soldiers. This time they arrested ten Palestinians, accusing them of digging in an “archaeological site.” There is no square meter in Palestine-Israel that is not an archaeological site. A new and ominous pretext, potentially useful for stealing land. They kept their prisoners all day and released them in the evening. This story, like Umm al-Amad’s, isn’t over yet.
One thing I can say. Things are getting worse.
text David Shulman © 2017 *you may see more of Um al-Amad in 2014 here
Most photographs here were taken by Margaret Olin in Al-Auja in late July, 2017.
Dotting the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja are the widely scattered houses of Al-Auja. In most cases only three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point, some to the west, climbing the steep hill less than halfway up to the ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley, others, like the homes of our shepherd friends today, further east, near the road to Jericho. The Al-Auja story is a long one; perhaps some day I’ll tell it in full. On April 21st this year, some fifteen masked settlers from the Baladim outpost on the high ridge attacked with clubs and stones a group of Ta’ayush activists accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their grazing grounds. A moment of extreme violence: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, others seriously bruised. The police did nothing; but not long after this attack, which was filmed and widely publicized, the settlers were evacuated from the Baladim. We hear they may have come back.
A little to the south sits the ranch-settlement, entirely illegal even under Israeli law but, like all settlements, extraordinarily privileged, of a settler called Omer. He has been there for eleven years or so, and gathered around him is a group of young, reputedly violent toughs. Hundreds of verdant palm trees tower over the land he has stolen. For the last many years, because of this settlement and the arbitrary boundary it has set in place, the Bedouins of Al-Auja East have had no access to their lands.Ta’ayush took them back across the invisible but fateful border. At first they hesitated, knowing full well that we couldn’t be with them every day and every hour, and that they were vulnerable to all the weapons and wounds that the Occupation can easily bring to bear upon them. Still, we told them that if we persist, together, in the end it’s likely that they will regain the lands, or most of them.And indeed the first few times we went with them and the sheep, it was like returning to Eden. Settlers, soldiers, police all turned up, all equally taken aback and bewildered. I saw the shepherds weep tears of joy: they had given up on these rocky, thorny hills.Then the normal business of the Occupation took over. Day after day the soldiers, egged on, perhaps actually given their orders, by the settlers, or maybe the orders came from higher up, would produce the devilish piece of paper with map attached declaring these lands a Closed Military Zone. The boundaries drawn on the map varied from day to day. The Occupation can’t allow a Palestinian shepherd to graze on his lands without a struggle. So we were driven off time after time, and each time we came back. It’s the usual story. We have been through it in many places. Every time they drive us off at gunpoint, it hurts.
Eventually, our promise will fulfill itself. There was a taste of it today. At dawn we set off with the herds, a long walk up and down the rocks, and three or four hours later we came home with them, the sheep full now of the thorns they love. The soldiers watched from a distance, not interfering. We spread out over the hills. The shepherds made tea. Apart from wind and sun and clouds, the white birds, the ravenous sheep chewing furiously, we heard only the silence of desert and stone. There is no sound in the world like the dusty sweetness of that silence. Two gentle donkeys made no sound.Strange, is it not, that what should be simple, natural, obvious, and right has to be fought for inch by inch? The Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages say that time is an infinite series of atomic moments called “nows,” aanaat. Each such temporal atom has to be created by Allah, moment by moment, an act of divine will and mercy. Each one is a miracle; life itself, the world and all that is in it, the mind and all that it holds, is thus entirely miraculous. Such was our morning in Al-Auja. One infinite atomic now.
On the way back we stopped for cold drinks and flat pitta spread with za’atar at our favorite café on the outskirts of Jericho. It’s the eve of Yom Kippur. I don’t know how it came up, maybe it had to do with the fact that Arik skipped the morning prayers to come to Al-Auja today. He, too, was wounded when the settlers attacked in April. Now, for whatever reason, he tells the famous story, shaped by I. L. Peretz, hero of my youth, of the rabbi of Nemirov who disappears each day before dawn. The days are the days before Yom Kippur when one says the prayers for forgiveness, slichot. His disciples, a little puzzled, decide he goes up to heaven. A skeptic and rationalist, someone like me, arrives in the village and scoffs at this pious dream; he hides under the rabbi’s bed and, when the rabbi gets up before dawn, the skeptic follows him into the forest. The rabbi carries an axe. He cuts firewood and carries it to the hut of a penniless widow. As he enters the hut, he recites the first prayer for forgiveness. As he puts the logs into the stove and lights the fire, he recites the next one. By the time the stove is fully ablaze, the prayers have been said in full. When the skeptic, who has watched this, next hears the disciples say the rabbi has gone up to heaven, the skeptic says: “If not higher.”Another one of those atomic nows.
I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”Arik laughs. All of us laugh. The Palestinian serving hot pitta and za’attar has been listening in, even he laughs, at us or with us. Look what’s happened to the Jews. Except, I think to myself, this story is about Arik.He asks me if I’m fasting tonight and tomorrow. No, I answer. I am going to Not Fast as an act of bearing witness, a moment of fleeting faith that god still exists.
who is taking the house apart one piece at a time with care, unscrewing the fixtures, and laying the pieces to rest one by one,
family friends from the nearby town of Toubas, and Israeli friends from the organization Ta’ayush who work along side him and document everything. Maybe the documentation will convince enough people that such things really happen.
Later, members of another organization committed to non-violent resistance, ISM (the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement) come to help as well and the work ends quickly.
Then everyone stays to enjoy your family’s hospitality and listen to grandpa tell his story.
This has to be preferable to the usual way. Normally the Civil Authority sends bulldozers that would probably roll through the main entrance to the compound,
damaging everything in their way and crushing the trees surrounding the family home.
The house and anything inside that there is no time to remove on short notice would be reduced to rubble.
The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.
It’s my first demolition, too, but I have seen “Area C” dotted with little piles of rubble where homes and community centers once stood.
In my few years of sporadic visits I have helped rebuild some of them more than once.
This is life in “Area C,” the approximately 60% of the West Bank where Israel retained planning rights after the Oslo accords. Uniformly the Civil Authority there rejects master plans for Palestinian towns, and issues barely any building permits to individual Palestinians. Buildings that predate the agreement can stay without additions, and new buildings for growing families are forbidden. The policy might seem to keep the villages frozen in time, but of course life doesn’t work that way, and they are in fact in a constant state of deterioration, as structures crumble into the landscape.
When disheartened villagers eventually decamp for the increasingly crowded cities in “Area A,” under the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements expand into their lands.
Over a meal and coffee, we listen to the Mahmoud’s father tell us that of his eight children (and sixty-four grandchildren), only Mahmoud, with his wife and three daughters remain.
They struggle to keep their land and the fragments of their homes so that eventually the community may grow and perhaps come together again.
Once, Mahmoud’s father reminisces, he and his family lived in a ten-room house . . .
Many of the Israeli settlements that absorb the Palestinian lands were themselves built or expanded without permits, but demolitions of these settlements, and expulsions of Israeli settlers are rare, well publicized, and may be compensated with other land. Just visible behind the compound is a settlement that could someday absorb the Zouba family land.
The home we are demolishing today, a little metal structure donated by the European Union, attracted the attention of Israeli civil authorities right after it was built in 2015. These donated structures are often confiscated or bulldozed, as well as supporting infrastructures such as solar panels donated by individual European countries. The Netherlands recently protested the confiscation of and damage to some 40,000 Euros worth of solar equipment it gave to the village of Jubbet Adh-Dhib.
No permit was issued for Mahmoud’s house, but attempts were made to block the demolition order through the courts. The order overcame all these hurdles on July 2 and the final demolition order came two days ago. Ta’ayush members requested and received a delay of ten days so that the family would have a chance to take apart their own home in their own way, to take a measure of control over their lives. But bulldozers tend to be impatient, so the family decided to go ahead and demolish the house today.
They can use the parts; or perhaps the house can be rebuilt.
Mahmoud and his family will move into the older house with the yellow door next to this house. It is not bad, I am told, but it has no roof, and the sides are not strong enough to support one.
The family will plant olive trees where the little house stood.
But aren’t the olive trees also illegal, someone asks and can’t they be destroyed like the house?
At least, it turns out, a five year old olive tree may not be destroyed.
On Ta’ayush: https://www.taayush.org/
On ISM: https://palsolidarity.org/
Anyone who wishes to help provide the family with a light covering for their house may leave a note below or contact me directly.
text and photographs margaret olin © 2017
June 21, Susya
First day of summer in Susya: a lively wind and the good smells of wild sage and goats and dogs and sun-baked stones. We are there to celebrate the release of Kingdom of Olives and Ash—the anthology of essays by well-known writers from around the world who were brought to the occupied territories by Breaking the Silence to signal the dismal fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation. They wrote what they saw; it isn’t pretty. They wrote well, telling truth. Some of them, including Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the editors, and the indomitable Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and an effervescent group of Hebrew authoresses, have come to give the Susya Palestinians copies in Arabic. Strange how hope is so dependably reborn from ash. I am moved to see Nasir Nawajeh’s father and brother and uncles reading the thick Arabic volume that tells of them and their story. So we have the spell of true words on a page, and outside the bleating of the goats and the rushing wind, and inside the tent the unforeseeable alchemy of friendship. All the shacks and tents of Susya have demolition orders hanging over them, and the court has now removed the last obstacles that held the army back from flinging the bulldozers at these people, from dispossessing them once again, the eighth time, if it happens. If it happens, we will be there to rebuild.
Afterwards we plant olive saplings on the hill overlooking the Susya elementary school with its whitewashed walls and proud Arabic sign. There’s a still active well that supplies the water; buckets keep bursting from the depth as the rest of us settle the young trees into the round pits that have been dug for them, and we water them, letting the first bucketful soak into the caked golden soil, then the second, and then the earth get shoveled back around them and they stand up, sort of, bending almost to half their size under the fierce force of the wind. I say to Nasir: “These trees will grow to maturity and bear fruit long after the Occupation is dead and gone.” “Inshallah,” he says, not quite daring to smile.
June 26, Sarura
Fadil, Abu Fuad, dances like no one else. For long minutes I danced with him, up and down, over the rocks and sand, and though I’m older than he is by some 13 years, it was, I thought, like celebrating with my father, though I never danced with my father. It wasn’t just me. You could touch or taste in the air the uncanny joy given, rarely, to human beings when they emerge intact from the enveloping miasma of wickedness and sorrow. Sa’ada, happiness: the word on everyone’s lips this afternoon. Maybe there is no happiness like home. It’s not so often you get to see Palestinians truly happy, except at weddings.
Fadil has a deep scar on his nose. One of the soldiers who came to Sarura three weeks ago hit him hard with his rifle. They were there to destroy the Sarura camp, to wreck the tents and carry off the mattresses and confiscate the food and water and terrorize the families and the activists. Even in the midst of today’s happiness, I dreamt I would someday see the soldier who struck him, and the cursed officer who gave the order, in the dock of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. That day may yet come.
They’ve still here, the Sarura families, despite ferocious efforts to dispossess them. For over twenty years, after the settlers and the soldiers banded together in a concerted effort to drive them away, the ‘Amar family and the Harainis and the Raba’is and the Hamamdis held fiercely to the land. They grazed their sheep there, and sometimes they would sleep in the caves, those the army had not entirely destroyed. Then, on May 19th, 2017, just over five weeks ago, with the help of a unique coalition of activists from many peace groups– the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills, the Holy Land Trust from Bethlehem, All That’s Left—Anti-Occupation Collective, the Center for Jewish Non-Violence (these last two founded by and largely comprised of North American activists), the Combatants for Peace, among others, with active support from Ta’ayush and Haqel– they began cleaning out the caves. I want to think that they are there for good. For the last weeks, including all of Ramadan, the activists created the Sumud Freedom Camp at Sarura. Sumud: perseverance, holding fast. They worked together, they held workshops in the modes and means of non-violent resistance, they shared the evening Iftar meals. Today is the final, celebratory Iftar this year. Hard days lie ahead.
Fadil has a trim grey beard and the sun-scorched skin of those who live on the hills of South Hebron; also an impish light in his eyes. I asked him to tell me his story, and this is what he said.
“I was born on April 1st, 1962—in Sarura, right over there. [He points to a distant pile of rocks on the hill.] My father, too, was born here, in that cave [pointing north over the ridge], sometime in the nineteenth century. My father’s father was born here, and so on back into the depths of time. I grew up here, I married here, and my first three sons were born here. I myself own fifty dunams of land in the village, and 350 dunams farther east, on the way into the desert, the direct bequest of my father. We are shepherds and farmers; I grew up among the sheep and goats.
The settlers came and harassed us every day; it got worse and worse, and the soldiers joined them in making our lives miserable. By 1997 only a few of us were left in the caves. I lived for some time in Twaneh, but the sheep were here; we never abandoned this place. We always came to graze the herds, we plowed and sowed seeds. It was very difficult. The settlers—from Chavat Maon, just over that hill—blocked up our wells. We had no water. It was a continuous struggle to hang on. We had help from the Italian Dove team and others, and then Ta’ayush arrived and stood by us and protected us from the settlers. They brought us water, since the wells were gone. They worked beside us.
The courts offered no justice and no help. Still we hung on. Sometimes I stayed here in the cave for some months. Then, a few years ago, the settlers killed 35 of my sheep and burnt our tents and all the fodder we’d saved for the herd. We knew we had to be here in a continuous way, otherwise the village would be lost forever. On May 19th we began clearing the caves, together with these activists and volunteers. Hundreds came to help us, young people, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and our Palestinian relatives and neighbors. They are strong and determined. We worked together. I dug with my own hands a deep well that can hold 150 cubic meters.
The soldiers came and destroyed whatever they could, one of them struck me on my face, hard, with his gun, and they confiscated my car. Now they want me to pay 15,000 shekels to get it back. Where can I find that kind of money? Ramadan has come and gone, and with God’s help we will stay. This is our land. We will live here until we die. No settler and no soldier will drive us out. Only God’s will could uproot us.
We thank God for what we have achieved together, and we thank especially those who came from far away to help us. Our resilience and our steadfastness are what we call our own. We will go on. We welcome all of you, without titles and even without names, all of us are one today.”
I think you should hear those words together with what Isaac Kates Rose said during the speeches. He was speaking about the second time the army visited the Sarura camp, on May 22nd, with the obvious aim of breaking it up. “We were five internationals, five Israelis, five Palestinians. There were about 30 soldiers. To put it succinctly: we won. Fadil Abu Fuad was my teacher that day. I grew up in Toronto, and as a child my body had learned to idolize Jewish bodies holding big guns. But when the soldiers came in the middle of the day, marching down the hill, scaring the kids who were playing, in that moment I had a new language teacher and I learned a new language. I looked at Fadil, who showed me that he had in his own body all he needed to resist. Come, he said to me, we will hold on to this tent and not let go of it, and we will hold on to one another and not let go. And here we are: still holding fast. We have built relationships on trust and respect. I believe these relationships have world-historical meaning. Such relationships, rooted in non-violent resistance, will break the Occupation. We stand together in the South Hebron hills to build a future of freedom.”
It is late afternoon: hot, fiery, dry, dusty, with sudden gusts of sand-clogged wind that tears at your eyes and ears. Maybe we are only shouting into the wind. At night the soldiers will surely come, and probably the settlers, too, for good measure. If not tonight, then tomorrow. Everyone knows how far we have to go. The whole weight of the Occupation system will be brought to bear on these few shepherds in their newly cleaned, paved caves with their neatly stacked stone parapets on either side of the entrance. Some of these people may be hurt, God forbid. Some will probably be arrested. There will be long, dreary battles in the courts, and long hot days working to clean one more cave, and then another and another. Phase I at Sarura is over today; it may be a very long time before hundreds of volunteers come again, some to sleep here overnight and watch by day.
Everyone knows that something unprecedented has happened. Phase II begins. Two caves are clean, freshly swept, spacious, livable, cool. And there is the road—they have begun to renovate the pit-filled road. So there is rebuilding this village, in the face of the virulent authorities and the violent settlers, and at the same time the building of a community, re-connected to Mufagara on the next ridge and Twaneh and Susya and Tawamin, and tightly bound to all the organizations that joined together to make this moment happen. It’s part of a wider process slowly unfolding with our help, year after year, of coming home and being at home—in Bi’r al’Id and Susya and Tawamin and Teku’a, a reversal of all that the Occupation stands for and all that it wants. That’s why when Riyad Halees from the Combatants for Peace begins to speak, we hear in his voice the sober delirium of truth: “We declare today that Sarura is free, a place of liberation, where those who live here can assume their responsibilities, for peace comes only with the duty to protect it in the face of all those who wish us harm.” The wind whips at his lips. I think of other, more famous declarations of independence and the lurking dangers that have overtaken them. Hafez al-Haraini, my old friend, completes the thought. “Together we are making a change. We have shown the effectiveness of joint non-violent struggle. You who have joined us—your presence here is more powerful than all the guns of the Occupation. We thank you. We will never give up, lam nistaslim.”
And then we danced.
text: © David Shulman 2017
‘Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’
Mary M. Singleton Currie (Violet Fane)
I regarded my understanding of waiting as complex and subtle.
In June, 2016, I participated in an exhibition called “The Waiting Rooms of History,” at the Kunstverein Paderborn and attended a stimulating conference at the university there on “Waiting as a Cultural Practice.” In the exhibition, the people photographed by Stephanie Schultz had been waiting seven years in what was meant to be a temporary refugee camp in Germany. The children I photographed in Dheisheh refugee camp were all born waiting, as were most of their parents.
There is something good about waiting without an end in sight. To wait with a deadline, knowing that the decision will be either up or down and that you can do nothing about it anymore, can be worse, especially when you realize it will probably be down. In November, in Singapore, I gathered to watch the American election returns on television with a group of expats and visitors. I understand that kind of waiting. As the dreaded moment grows near, people instinctively gather, stare apprehensively at screens, the mood increasingly dark as the decision takes shape.
So when David suggested that we go to Jinba on the day that Israel’s High Court would issue an important decision affecting the very life of the village, I thought I understood what I would encounter.
I feel at times that we are all waiting, each situation and place in its own unique way, with its own pace and rhythm. In the South Hebron Hills alone: settlers waiting for the Messiah to vindicate their biblical nationalism; Eid and Naama from the Bedouin village Umm al Khair waiting for horrid Wednesday to pass, the day when many demolitions take place and they go to work in fear they may not see their home again; A.O waiting for the magical transformation of the seasons in the village of Jinba – in winter she listens to the voices of rain and in spring the land fluctuates to green and in summer everything is yellow, yellow, yellow – everything is golden [A.O. “Jinba is Magic”]; the falahin waiting for the change in the seasons so they can plow and harvest; workers waiting for permits to work in Israel and then waiting in long lines to enter; Nasser from Susiya, banned from entering Israel because he works for the human rights group B’tselem, waiting for the day he can visit with me in Yaffa; waiting for the occupation to end. Waiting entails solitude, helplessness, anticipation and sometimes hope. – D.M.
It’s early in Umm al Khair, Eid’s village in South Hebron.
We meet Eid here so that he can accompany us to Jinba.
The decision that we expect today has been on hold for nearly two decades. It concerns the inhabitants of some dozen villages in the West Bank area of South Hebron located in Masafer Yatta, or as Israel calls it “firing zone 918.” Firing zones are areas that the Israeli army proclaims military training grounds. Normally the military may confiscate land for this purpose without providing compensation. It created firing zone 918 in the 1970s after conquering the West Bank. Now the zone includes several Palestinian villages in area C, the region left under Israel’s control by the Oslo Accords. A village with the bad fortune to be encompassed by it faces major strains. If your village is in a firing zone, the army may arrive at any time and evacuate you and your family for hours or days so that it can conduct “exercises” on your land. When you add this to the aggravations faced by every village in area C, like getting by without connections to the power grid and living in constant fear of attacks by settlers, it makes living in area C even more stressful than life elsewhere in Palestine under the occupation.
As stressful as is life in a firing zone, the high court ruling could make it far worse. It could allow the army to eliminate permanently any village in the zone and expel its inhabitants. No doubt such villages will eventually be incorporated into the nearest Israeli settlement that craves their land. Perhaps Jinba’s land will fall to nearby Mitzpe Yair, a settlement outpost already connected to the power grid and enjoying a plentiful water supply despite its illegal status even under Israeli law. Evacuation orders were issued for the Palestinian villages in 1999, but Israeli civil rights organizations helped them contest these orders, and the case has dragged its way through the courts, in one or another form, ever since – nearly twenty years by now. Some residents of the area were to travel to Jerusalem for the court session, and Israeli activists went to support them. David and I were both urged to attend, but instead we have come to offer our support to Jinba itself. The plan was to arrive early in the morning and assess the mood, to be there when the verdict was announced, and to share the experience.
We three visitors do indeed wait, talking to one another and to whichever of our hosts has time for us.
But they don’t have much time. There are chores.
All the places in Palestine are beautiful. I love all of my country very much, but every human has a special place where he/she finds safety, quietness, and freedom. For me, this special place is my village, located in al-masafer.
The most beautiful thing in al-masafer is the golden sunrise, when the women wake up to bake the bread in their taboon [wood-fired bread ovens], a fantastic smell blankets the whole place. The women make fresh bread and tea on fire for a breakfast that all family members sit and eat together. – A. O.
There are many other topics and problems to talk over: marriage, education, opportunities for employment, few of them directly related to Israel or the occupation.
A mother allows me to photograph her family’s appointment.
Sometime during the day, I forget when, the news arrives.
I always ask myself about the meaning of al-masafer. l can think of so many meanings: maybe al-masafer refers to the people moving from one place to another, or maybe it simply means “the traveler”. I don’t really care about the name itself, what I truly care about is the history, the land, the people, and the life there.
Al-masafer is not only one village, it’s a group of very small villages, each one of these villages has its own strategic location, perfect for its farmers, their sheep and other animals.
Day in and day out we are facing the Israeli wall, the wall that stands between us and our goals and dreams, by God’s will this wall will soon be demolished, and every centimeter in Palestine, will be free. – A. O.
Unsurprisingly, the decision is postponed. The state is given time to prepare a new proposal for the firing zone. It is probably the best news we can expect, since at least it means a reprieve. The process will continue to drag along and who knows, maybe when the occupation ends, as it must, Jinba will still be in place, either here or at least nearby.
Eventually, we leave with Eid and drive through the South Hebron Hills where we visit Ibrahim from Susiya, who works on the Living Archive Project, and meet the new baby that Ibrahim is showing off to a gathering of friends. Night finds us back in Eid’s home in Umm al Khair. I have never seen his sculptures, so he shows me several that have returned from his recent exhibition in Berlin, curated by Ai Weiwei.
Afterward our rented car inches its way down the rocky slope from Umm al Khair in darkness.
The people of Jinba have been threatened with expulsion over and over for decades. These are not empty threats, and when they are carried out – the last, terrible, time was in 1999 – they leave scars. This history determines the climate of waiting in a firing zone. In the United States one might wait on a specified day for the unimaginable to happen. Here, except for brief intervals when the unimaginable is actually happening, or, in the aftermath of the unimaginable, while engaged in finding another place to construct yet another forbidden home, one is always waiting. At any time, whether backed by supreme court orders or not, settlers or army can and do attack, expelling everyone and making them homeless with their elderly parents and their young children, with their animals and goods confiscated and their homes demolished. To many the unimaginable has happened often enough to make it seem like a way of life. What difference does yet one more deadline make when there are immediate chores to do, when the goats must be fed, when children have a chance to see a doctor, and when visitors have come? Why spend one’s time waiting for a message of doom when today a child might have the opportunity to grow?
Postscript: Margaret, you bring to mind the question: What is the difference between waiting and patience? Some kinds of waiting seem to lack a form of agency while patience seems to be an act of waiting as means to an end, a calculated form of waiting that knows when to retort, when to strike back and when to let things pass. I wonder if in the South Hebron Hills the simple everyday life tasks of staying on one’s land, which may seem mundane and banal, are acts of waiting – or of patience – for the right moment to reclaim dignity and freedom. D.M.
photographs © margaret olin 2017 texts © margaret olin 2017 except as otherwise noted. Very special thanks to David Massey for all sorts of things at every stage.
Two scenes from January 2017, for D.M.:
The tenacious Sa’id ‘Awad has been mentioned in these pages before. This link will acquaint you with the combination of legal subterfuge and open seizure that have wrested his land in the South Hebron Hills away from him. To hang on, Said’s family has an outing each week. The picnic and the boy’s soccer reinforce his continued presence. Otherwise, the civil authorities can consider the land abandoned and make it available to Israelis whose settlements watch comfortably above on land already taken from Sa’id. They may do that anyway.Volunteers from the NGO Ta’ayush try to keep settlers from disrupting the games, but today is peaceful. The settlers remain hidden somewhere behind their eruv poles.*Volunteers pass the time with Sa’id and his family while the boys play soccerand the Civil Administration plays its role. Today, fortunately, this means that the soldiers, very young and very bored, mostly stay put in military vehicles.
text and photographs © margaret olin 2017
8:30 AM. Four settlers, more boys than men, block our way as we follow the shepherds up the mountain. One of them is before his army service. They all belong to the new illegal outpost that we’ve watched grow from a few wooden rafters to a fairly substantial set of dwellings, already attached to the water and electricity grids. It was set up where it could do the most damage to the Palestinians of al-Hammeh, cutting off their only route to the grazing grounds outside the army’s firing zone.
They want to talk to us. Guy, whom they hate, has gone ahead up the slope, but three of us stay back—Yankele, badly wounded in the Yom Kippur war, with prosthetic hands, Eyal, and me. They tell us that things were quiet until our friend Guy came here and provoked the hitherto docile Palestinians to make trouble. Good Palestinians are docile.
Actually, I object, it’s your presence here that has produced all this trouble; they own this land, and they have the documents to prove it.
What do you mean, the Jews own all the land here, it’s a Jewish state.
Really? These Bedouins have been here for many generations and they have no rights, do you think that’s right?
Why, they have rights.
Like what? Can they vote?
Why should they vote?
Do they have legal recourse?
Why do they need legal recourse?
They’re no different from you or me.
If they became citizens, they could vote, but they can never become citizens because they’re not Jews, and they don’t belong here.
What you’re describing is what is called apartheid.
I don’t care what you call it.
You want these people to leave, right?
They can stay as a tolerated minority.
You don’t think that all people should have equal rights?
Not here, it’s a Jewish state. God gave the land to the Jews. The Bible says so.
Eyal got a little farther with his interlocuter. After the usual opening statements, the settler was prepared to say: “OK, from a human standpoint, what we are doing here is not so nice. We take the land. I don’t want them to graze their sheep, and for that matter I don’t want them to have any herds at all. I don’t want them to be here. I know it looks ugly, but if you remember that God gave the land to the Jews, then…..
11:30 AM. Hot. Three herds of sheep are scattered in wide arcs over the hills. They are happily eating what sheep eat. Red anemones are popping up everywhere. As the heat increases, a carpet of blue irises unfolds. Like some people I know, irises don’t function well in the morning. They blossom in the afternoon. The desert hills are wild with green. Things are quiet, even boring, a delicious boredom. The sheep are at least a kilometer away from the illegal outpost.
But that’s still too close, as far as the settlers are concerned. They just can’t bear it. A day doesn’t count as a day unless they cause some pain to their Palestinian neighbors. So they summon the army. Dutifully, an officer, his face masked, and another armed soldier turn up in their jeep. They make their way up to us and to Abu Rasmi. Why has the officer masked his face? Private reasons, he says. Maybe he’s about to be promoted to some post in the secret services. Maybe he just doesn’t want his face to be all over Facebook.
Anyway, he’s not one of the bad ones. You can see that at a glance.
I’m here, he tells us, to prevent friction.
What friction? we say. The sheep are nowhere near the outpost.
Abu Rasmi sits down, with infinite dignity, on a white boulder and says: “I don’t want trouble with anyone. I just want my sheep to graze. We own this land for generations. The settlers keep chasing us off. Last weekend they entered the area of our tents and threatened us with their guns. They attacked the shepherds with clubs. They harass us every day.
Oh, says the officer.
Guy lets him have it in an explosion of short, pointed sentences. He’s good at such moments. “What do you think you’re doing here? I know the settlers summoned you. So what? They have no business being here.”
This is not a political thing, says the officer. I don’t care about the politics. I came to prevent friction.
“It’s political through and through. The outpost is totally illegal, as the police documents themselves confirm. If Palestinians were being attacked by these same settlers, you’d take hours to come here, if you came at all. Last weekend it happened, they came to the tents with their guns, we telephoned the police, there were dozens of calls, and no soldier came to help. But if these settlers call you, you’re here in ten minutes. Why? Because of the purity of the Jewish race. What other reason could there be? You’re part of the whole racist, totalitarian system. Instead of protecting the innocent owners of this land, you stand by the thieves who have robbed them of it. That’s a political move, and it’s your decision.
Every once in a while in such situations I see someone like this officer, like a policeman I knew in South Hebron, who is clearly, indubitably, suffering inner conflict. He flinches behind his mask. He sits down next to Abu Rasmi. He’s out of his depth. He says, plaintive, almost pathetic: “I have to follow my orders.” Guy helps him out. “Why don’t you go down there and tell those criminals to stop tormenting Palestinians?” The officer lumbers off. The sun burns into skin and stones. I watch him go. I feel that inner trickle of despair that I know so well.
3:00 PM. The sheep had their fill of thorns and leaves today. I wish you could see them in your mind’s eye as they begin to move homeward, with exquisite slowness, as if the hill itself were alive and inching downward toward the sheepfold and the tents. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful except, perhaps, my granddaughter’s eyes. Amiel and I follow them down the steep slope. As they get near the pen, they accelerate; they know they’re almost there; soon it’s a stampede. One stubborn sheep takes a stand above the tents on the hill; she can’t be hurried. Impassive, a loner, she surveys her regal domain. Meanwhile, the sheep have to drink, but the kids want to nurse, they can’t wait, Mahdi stands in the middle of the pen with his arms raised as he drives the kids back, just a few seconds more, let the poor mothers drink, the kids are screeching, scurrying around him, and the infinite silence of the desert is punctuated by a raucous symphony, a late-afternoon hymn. Today there was quiet and fullness and later, as we eat the simple, ample meal Abu Rasmi offers us—hard flat pitta bread, fried cheese, rice and lentils, yoghurt, olives, salad, red cabbage, green beans grown beside the tents– there is that unthinkable friendship that needs no words. Before that, out on the hills, two shepherds came riding donkeys to greet us. It’s a good day, they said, an unusual day for us, it’s hadi, tranquil, because you are here.
text © David Shulman 2017