September 21, 2018, Autumnal Equinox: Al-Hamme, by David Shulman

2018-09-21 06.44.20Shirat Haasavi.

Shirat Ha-Asavim. Photograph: David Shulman

Once there was just the firing zone, largely fictive. It spreads over thousands of acres in the northern Jordan Valley, and it’s been in place, on paper and plastic-wrapped military maps, for maybe forty years. This is not the only one in the Valley; a huge percentage of the land here has been declared either a military zone or a nature reserve, or both. But until recently, Palestinians were still grazing their herds in the firing zone just west of al-Hamme. On the two or three days in the year when the army was about to carry out training exercises there, the soldiers would let the Palestinian residents know a few days in advance, and for those days the shepherds would keep away.

Now it’s changed, since the appearance in the Valley of the new crop of Israeli outposts. We’ve watched them grow from scratch. Suddenly the firing zone has become a weapon. The Israeli settlers from the outpost called Shirat Ha-Asavim, “Song of the Grass,” that sits just above al-Hamme, can take their sheep and goats deep into the firing zone whenever they want.* Palestinian shepherds who try to graze there are regularly driven off by these settlers, or by police, or soldiers, or all of the above. In theory, they are now supposed to coordinate grazing times in the zone; in practice, it is next to impossible to do that, as our experience today shows. In short: The master race of the Jews, that is, members of the tribe in good standing, nationalist and religious Jews, not leftists, have free access, and inferior Palestinians have none. Blocked from their traditional grazing grounds, the shepherds will eventually starve or—as the government hopes—pick up and leave.

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Outpost Jordan Valley. April, 2018. Photograph: Margaret Olin

This government of the settlers, by the settlers, and for the settlers has a tripartite plan. First, colonizing the territory and stealing the land. Second, slow ethnic cleansing by whatever means are at hand: denial of water, demolitions, arrests, threats, terror, physical violence. Third, annexation. There will probably be elections in Israel within less than a year; if the extreme right wins, as is likely, they will annex Area C— over 60% of the West Bank, where all the settlements are, including all of the Jordan Valley. The government lawyers have long been preparing the paper work for this move. What will happen to the Palestinians who live in Area C? Some will be driven out. Whole communities will vanish. The rest will be reduced to an existence even more abject than what they have now. Annexation means apartheid in the full light of day and the deep darkness of night.

Actually, the final stage is already in progress. Al-Khan al-Ahmar, the Bedouin village on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, is still waiting for destruction and expulsion. On Sunday morning, September 23rd, the day before Sukkot, the army sent officers there to read out a printed notice. The people of al-Khan al-Ahmar are ordered to demolish their own homes with their own hands. The army kindly offered to provide any help if they wanted it. If they fail to do this by October 1st, according to the notice, the homes and school will be forcibly demolished. If this sounds to your ears like gratuitous cruelty mixed with supercilious insult, coming on top of the cruelty of the demolition plan itself, then we couldn’t agree more.

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al-Hamme, April, 2018. Photograph: Margaret Olin

We start the day at al-Hamme. Tea at sunrise. Abu Rasmi is already out with his herd on the mountain. To the south, another herd is visible on the distant horizon. Settlers, probably. Let’s go see. We park near the main road and start walking uphill. It is steep, rocky, a bit slippery, and above all long and hot, even early in the morning. We pass the junkyard that is Song of the Grass. More steep incline. After some time we reach a vantage point where both herds are visible, still far away. North-northeast, the cows of al-Hamme and their shepherd, mounted on a donkey. They don’t need us today, as far as we can see. The cows are strolling, somnolent, heavy with leaves and thorns, down toward their pen. South-southwest: settlers. Another young settler, whom we know well, strides past us and joins the herd. We figure they’ll probably call the soldiers. Maybe it’s a good idea, since we have plenty to tell them.

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Tahsin and Hamudi’s herd. Photograph: David Shulman

Meanwhile, we’ve been trying to reach the Matak, the officer of the Civil Administration in charge of serious matters like coordinating entrance to the firing zone. He doesn’t answer. We send him messages on WhatsApp, SMS, voice messaging. No sign of life. We try all the numbers we have. After an hour or so someone does pick up the phone. He says to call the lower-ranking Officer of Infrastructure, who also handles coordination. He, too, doesn’t answer. We ask someone in the office of the Matak if the settlers have permission to graze in the firing zone. We give him the coordinates of the settlers’ herd and offer to send pictures. The Matak’s office doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

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Photograph: Guy Hircefeld

It’s not an idle question. On Tuesday Guy, Arik, and one of the Palestinians were arrested here on precisely this charge—entering the firing zone without permission. The settlers, needless to say, were also there, and the soldiers didn’t doubt for a minute their right to be there. For good measure, the army impounded Guy’s car, which, though an inanimate being, more or less, had also violated the new rule and therefore had to be punished. It’s still in some military parking lot. We’ll get it back and, I suppose, pay some fine. But Guy was so incensed by the blatant injustice and the soldiers’ casual, axiomatic solidarity with the settlers that he suddenly developed severe chest pains. He had a heart attack and angioplasty some three years back when he was arrested, right next to me, in the south Hebron hills, on a hot day very much like today. This time he refused to let the army evacuate him. Arik took him to a Palestinian clinic, where the pain subsided. Take it from me, climbing those high hills in the heat is nothing compared to the rage you feel in the face of impassive evil.

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Photograph: David Shulman

Guy’s all right today, but he scared us. We have an appointment with Burhan, a few kilometers down the road. He survives, alone with his father and brothers, in a rocky wadi just underneath the military camp at Ein Zuqa and the far more ominous settlers’ outpost next to the camp. Despite impossible odds, Burhan is a going concern. His herd is fruitful and multiplying. He makes the best white cheese in the world. He brings in water in tankers except for the weeks when the pipeline on the hill overflows. There’s another overflowing pipeline across the main road. We meet Tahsin and Hamudi there, on their way home to Burhan. The sheep and the donkeys, parched by the sun, gulp the bounty of water with the joy of sheep and donkeys. I know just how they feel. Earlier in the morning, the soldiers turned up to threaten and harass these shepherds with the joy that soldiers feel. When it’s not the soldiers, it’s the security officer of the Hemdat outpost. Sometimes he, or the soldiers, chase the shepherds and sheep over the hills. Burhan, terminally vulnerable but indomitable, now has activists who accompany his herd five times every week.

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Photograph: David Shulman

So it was a good day as our days go. No one attacked us, no arrests, the cows ate their fill, as did the sheep and the donkeys, we have fresh pictures and documentation, and there were the good moments at al-Hamme and with Burhan. But waiting for my ride before dawn, I was thinking. Isn’t it ridiculous, this thing that we do? A fearsome machine, remorseless, inhuman, on autopilot, is poised to drive these people out. It has wheels within wheels; often, usually, the smaller wheels aren’t even aware of the machine that drives them. Like the smaller wheels, the bigger wheels follow orders. Anyone can stand back and see it for what it is. And we, a ragamuffin bunch of some twenty-five or thirty volunteers who come down a few at a time when we can to snap, here and there, at the edges and sometimes at the rusty underbelly of the machine— do we stand a chance of stopping it? Of even of slowing it down a little?

Then I thought, Yes, we stand a chance, and there is a way. I know the way. Then it was time to go.

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Jerusalem, early morning, April, 2018. Photograph: Margaret Olin

 

*Shirat Ha-Asavim is a famous song by Naomi Shemer, with words by Reb Nahman of Bratslav. We believe he would have been horrified to see what these settlers have made of his thought and feeling. His love of the land of Israel had nothing to do with armies, flags, postage stamps, expulsions, and coercive and exclusive possession. Listen to it, with English and German subtitles, here.

text: David Shulman © 2018.  Photographs: photographers © 2018 as noted

June 22, 2018 Al-Auja, Khan al-Ahmar – text by David Shulman

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Mhammad and his flock last month. photograph: Margaret Olin

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Today the shepherds wanted to set out at dawn. In summer, here on the outskirts of Jericho, by 9 or 9:30 in the morning it’s already over 38 degrees (100 Fahrenheit)—too hot even for goats. So we leave Jerusalem at first light, and by 6:30 we find Mhammad deep in the desert, close to the fenced-off date-palm grove of the settler Omer, who calls all the shots. Mhammad greets us happily; he’s in a good mood; so far things are quiet. “Soldiers? Have you seen any soldiers?” he asks. “Not yet,” we say.

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Al-Auja, 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

The goats are busy with their lean pickings. Dried-out thorns, a shred of corrugated cardboard, a few leaves—all this constitutes breakfast in the summer. They stand on their hind legs, stretching hopefully toward the higher branches of the tamarisks. It will be months before the rains come and something edible and green re-appears. Among the goats there is one ancient, supremely dignified buck with a long white-brown beard. Mhammad says he’s their leader and commander, mudir. Who would doubt it? The mudir moves slowly, regally, as befits the owner of this patch of creamy rock and sand.

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Al-Auja 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

After an hour, a little longer, the soldiers arrive, as they always do. I recognize the officer; he’s not a bad man. But he’s carrying the cursed piece of paper declaring this area a Closed Military Zone, with a map attached. According to the map, the shepherds have to stay clear of a huge stretch of land that reaches up to their houses, some three or four kilometers away. Meanwhile, Mhammad and his friend have made a fire and boiled tea, and they’re sitting in what, with a little imaginative effort, might be called “shade,” under the branches of a spindly shrub. They’re eating breakfast: fresh pita dipped in olive oil. They pay almost no attention to the soldiers who have come to disturb this feast. We photograph the illegal order and the map and we tell the soldiers to go away; the shepherds will have to move on. The officer clambers back into his jeep. It’s hot, he’s performed the daily ritual, now he waits on the hill to be sure the order is obeyed.

 

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photograph: David Shulman

These shepherds can’t be rushed, and we are certainly not going to urge them forward, or backward, toward home. Why should they hurry? It’s their land. Omer is a cruel intruder. The soldiers are soldiers. Time flows in desert rhythms. Mhammad carries no watch, and occasionally, rarely, he asks us to tell him the time. I think he lives mostly in the slow and beautiful flow of goat time: when the goats have eaten enough, they begin to saunter, or sand-swim, home. They don’t have to be told. From time to time Mhammad gently calls them to order: “Pzhee (high pitch, almost a whistle); khakhakhakha (deep in the throat); cluck-cluck-clack-cluck (flapping the tongue).” It’s a language I’d love to learn. Sometimes he throws a pebble at a sheep or goat who has strayed from the path. By now the soldiers are gone and the sun is high.

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photograph: David Shulman

“I’ve tired you out today,” he says to us, apologetic, concerned for our well-being; we deny it. I offer him really cold water, and he takes it, a long good gulp, standing on a rock near his tethered donkey. I feel like a lean dry thorn myself, with the incontrovertible happiness of being a thorn.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Khan al-Ahmar, we fear, is about to be demolished. The government has announced it, and the Supreme Court, to its eternal shame, has approved it. Since the early 50’s, the Jahalin Bedouin have been living here, after the army chased them off their lands near Tel Arad in the Negev. They’re deeply rooted now in the brown-red hills on both sides of the big road leading from Jerusalem eastward, downhill, to Jericho. That redness (limestone tinged with iron oxide) gives the site its name, the “Red Caravanserai”. Caravans once, not so long ago, would spend the night here on their way to the spice lands in the south. The Good Samaritan of the parable is said to have passed nearby; just down the road there are the remains of a Byzantine monastery that marked the site. On a day like today, rife with wickedness, it’s good to remember that Samaritan who did the right, the only human, thing.

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photograph: David Shulman

We see the Bedouin tents of Khan al-Ahmar each time we drive from Jerusalem to Jericho and each time we return to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. But in the last decades, the settler-suburbs of Maaleh Adumim and Kfar Adumim have spread over the high ridges nearby. These people—or at least some of them, let’s not generalize — don’t want to see an Arab face. It spoils the view. So on the one hand, settlers have been driving the government’s campaign to expel the Jahalin. A ruthless racism rules this policy. On the other hand, there are weighty geopolitical considerations. Khan al-Ahmar is the portal, both tangible and symbolic, to area E1, the vast swathe of land east of Jerusalem that Israel wants to annex, thereby cutting the West Bank in two. If the army expels the 172 souls of Khan al-Ahmar, the other 1200 or 1300 Jahalin Bedouins who live close by will be easy prey.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Even if the school were not there, we would be facing a war crime; it has no other name. But the school magnifies the crime many times over. Today is the first time I’ve visited it. It’s an eco-friendly school, lovingly made from mud or clay and old tires. On the outside walls there are paintings of the Dome of the Rock and, surprise, a white sailboat floating down the non-existent or invisible rivers of Jerusalem to some place, we must assume, of freedom—some place the bulldozers are barred from entering. An inscription in Arabic says: “We will remain here as long as the za’atar and the olives remain.” At the entrance there is a sign declaring this school to be under the supervision of the Palestinian Ministry of Education. This is the Jahalin’s first-ever school. The courtyard is swept clean. Activists from the Combatants for Peace and other organizations are milling around; they have come to protest the crime-to-be. So there are speeches and embraces and kisses and many smiles, along with that unrelenting ache.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Police and soldiers were here several times this week, probably to prepare the ground for the demolitions. They’re a lot like the heartless thieves in the parable. The government has announced that it will resettle the Jahalin in Abu Dis, next to the municipal dump that is now a high hill known simply as “Jabel,” The Hill. No one can live on or near the Jabel. The stench is overpowering, and disease rampant. To dump these human beings on the dump is one of those acts that tell all.

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photograph: David Shulman

But for me, there is something more. To tear down a school is possibly worse even than breaking a home into pieces and burying the pieces in the sand. How many homes have we rebuilt after the army took them down? We’re almost used to it. But a school? Where children first learn to read, where they dream their dreams and play in the courtyard and sing the multiplication table and recite the poetry of the desert and say their prayers? I’m a teacher. I have spent most of my life in classrooms, teaching this and that, languages, thoughts, memories, poems. The mud-and-tires school of Khan al-Ahmar is like any of the others, only more so, like the university I have loved, like the school in Iowa where I learned to read and first fell in love—an almost holy place. It’s not a word I use.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

text David Shulman © 2018  thanks to David Shulman and Amir Bitan for allowing me to use their photographs.

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photograph: David Shulman

 

May 14, 2018: Al-Auja, Turmus‘ayya. Text by David Shulman; Photographs by Margaret Olin

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1.

First, today, there was the madness and the dissonance, sharp as thorns. Early morning in the Jordan Valley:  still cool. We step out into the light. In the distance, the soft, convex mauve of the hills. Closer to us, they turn beige, then white, billowing like waves. Closer still, it’s all yellow and brown and thick with jagged pebbles. About two hundred yards away, scattered over the slope, are black and white goats and disheveled sheep. I recognize one of them, from long-standing acquaintance; her fleece has been dyed a spotty red. There’s a donkey, too, down in the wadi. Two young shepherds—Ahmad, whom I know well, and Mhammad. This hill and the wadi are also, by now, old friends.

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Hence the madness: Is it possible that human wickedness can survive in this vast beauty? Wouldn’t it dry up in the fierce light or melt in the mid-day heat? But clearly it doesn’t. Who, in this elation of color and shape and touch, could think the thought that is evil? Who would harbor a desire to banish those shepherds and their flocks? They belong on this hill. They live here. They harm no one. They have always been there. Only a supreme delight in inflicting pain could drive the system that drives us off today.

We see the soldiers from a distance, before we can rendezvous with the shepherds. Three dark silhouettes on the hilltop, the guns darker still. This, too, is a surprise, a black intrusion into the silence of the desert. Ahmad and Mhammad have been out here for an hour or more—they go out early, since by mid-morning it’s too hot even for the goats and sheep. They greet us warmly, shake our hands, and by now the soldiers are there, too.

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T., the officer, wishes us a good morning. He is affable and rather gentle. A smile, almost shy. He takes our identity cards away. The other two, male and female, have nothing to say. The young woman, also laden with a gun, is chewing gum and seems bored or, as Peg says, striving hard to achieve an out-of-body experience.

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“These people can’t be here,” says T. We protest. These are their lands. Until a few months ago, there was an agreement with the army—at the army’s own initiative—and according to the maps and the boundary markers the soldiers put in place, this hill and the next one and the one farther to the east and the whole length of the wadi and the hills leading back to their simple homes and pens, all this and much more was theirs to graze on. This after many years during which Omer, the settler, wouldn’t let them near these lands. But T. isn’t interested in prehistory. He has his orders. “I’m checking,” he tells us. What that means, as he explains, is that he is waiting for the order from above declaring this area off bounds to Palestinians. “Stay here,” he says, “the order will come in ten minutes.”

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Amazing how quickly the heat sinks in. “Just out of curiosity,” Arik says, mildly, a teacher, “do you happen to know the status of that settlement over there?”  We can see it from where we stand. A dense crowd of green date palms in the middle of the yellow desert. Inside the grove lives Omer. He took over the land, a huge area, when the army cleared out of a base it had had here, ten or twelve years back. Until a year ago, Omer ruled like a sheriff. He sustained a temporary setback when the army made its agreement with the Palestinians. For the last three months or so, he’s been making a comeback. They say he’s well connected with the high command; perhaps with right-wing politicians, too. Who knows? What is certain is that the soldiers now take their orders from Omer, which is why they are here with us on this hill today. Omer doesn’t like Palestinians anywhere near his date palms.

Arik explains this to T. in understated words. Even before he gets into the details, he tells the three of them: “We understand that you have your orders, we’re not asking you to disobey them, at least not yet. But I’d like you to think about what we have to say.”

That’s the hardest thing. Thinking. Especially for soldiers. The settlers are a lost case, there’s no point, but sometimes soldiers can be invited to think. T. says, “I’m new down here, just a month and a half. I heard about the agreement, but I’m not much interested in that. I’m a field soldier. I deal with reality. My job is to carry out my orders.” A lucky man, he knows what reality is.20180514-BC5A3747crplvlcrv

“Of course,” Arik says, even more gently than before. “You’re a soldier, that’s what soldiers do. But all of you are also citizens, just as we are. You go home sometimes. As citizens, you could think about what you are doing here. Remember that under Israeli law that settlement is totally illegal. And Omer has no right to give you orders, and no right to dispossess these people. But you are doing what he, and your officers, have told you to do. Think about it.”

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Meanwhile, the goats are chewing on what lean pickings they can find. It’s summer now; the real food is gone until next winter. Anyway, they’re busy in that meditative, genial way goats have. Peg says to me: “Isn’t it interesting to watch them eat? They don’t seem to fight, ever, for some juicy mouthful. Unlike humans.” My heart sick with dissonance, for a moment I admire the apparent altruism of goats.

A surprise:  the second soldier, hitherto silent, says, “Yeah, maybe I’ll think about it when I get home.” Or something like that. I’m not sure I heard him right. Not all is lost. “It’s something between you and yourself,” says Arik, “or between you and your god.” Arik is one of the few people I know, maybe only two or three, who use that word in an easy, natural tone, like talking of trees or goats; a tone that carries a whiff of truth.

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T. comes back down the hill waving the order.

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There’s a map with a big pink patch in the middle. “We are here,” he says confidently, pointing at the middle of the patch. “You have to be there”—outside the patch.

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By now the goats have put some distance between themselves and the soldiers; they’re moving toward home. Mhammad wants the officer to know that one of the settler thugs stoned his sheep this morning, and he has a video on his phone to prove it. T. watches it and says he will act.

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I can’t make head or tail of the map, but I can see that it’s the last nail in the coffin of the agreement we had with the army. Exile again. Whatever we gained has been taken away. This hill, these rocks, the wadi—all gone. We have to start over, and that is what we will do. T. wishes us a happy day.

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2

Turmus‘ayya, in the central West Bank, has the misfortune to have the large, veteran settlement of Shiloh as its neighbor. There are other settlements, too—Eli, Adei Ad. Shiloh is where the Art of the Covenant rested for long years before eventually being brought to Jerusalem. Where the prophet Samuel grew up. Once it was a holy place. Now the fertile valley between Turmus‘ayya and the settlers is a battlefield.

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Settler violence is a daily business. There’s no doubt they want to take over the whole valley with its fields and olive groves. Two weeks ago settlers came into Turmus‘ayya at 2 AM and set fire to several cars. How many? We ask Abu Sama‘. Four. Well, actually, seven. Actually, ten. There are Hebrew graffiti on the walls of homes:  “Let us handle them.” “Them” means Palestinians, and “handling them” means just what you think it means.

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Yesterday the Palestinians of Turmus‘ayya planted olive trees in their fields, and beside every tree they planted a small plastic flag. Not just Palestinian flags—some are Turkish, Iraqi, Swiss. It’s not so easy to see the olive saplings, but the valley is dancing with flags. Arik was there during the planting. Settlers came down to uproot the baby trees, then the soldiers arrived, and the Border Police. “What’s that thing on your head?” the Border Police asked him. “You know what it is.” “Are you even Jewish? Were you circumcised?” “Do you want me to show you?” As Arik says, it’s bad enough when they see a Jew standing up for Palestinians, but a religious Jew—that drives them crazy. The discussion ended with volleys of tear gas.

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So the practical problem for now is to get the army to recognize the Supreme Court ruling that unequivocally allows Palestinian farmers access to their fields—and to get the soldiers to protect them from marauding settlers. I think this is an achievable goal. Note, however, that the government is pushing new legislation that will allow a simple majority vote in the Knesset (61 MP’s) to override the Supreme Court. If it passes, the very idea of inalienable human rights will be erased, and we will be living under a tyranny of the majority—nationalist, annexationist, racist, whatever you want to call it. That’s the idea. What will happen to those fields? Those trees? What will happen to people here in Turmus‘ayya, to people like us? But Turmus‘ayya, scarred and battered, has a reassuring, solid look.

3.

Today there are over 50 dead on the Gaza border and over a thousand wounded, many of them children. By tomorrow the numbers will rise. The same malevolent system that seeks to expel the shepherds of Al-Auja and the northern Jordan Valley, that craves to demolish the homes of our friends in Susya, that routinely terrorizes the people of Turmus‘ayya, has brought us to this point of despair. Some of those soldiers who shot today will someday agonize in remorse, though they don’t yet know it. Two and a half million people live in the open-air prison that is called Gaza; when they protest, they are killed. Some, inevitably, are violent. Violent, too, is the system of the occupation, put in place with the sole goal of stealing ever more land. From Gaza to Al-Auja, hour by hour it works its savagery, which all too few Israelis allow themselves to see, though many, perhaps most, know it without knowing that they know. Each time I go there, I come home grieving; I wander through the house and the streets, restless, looking for myself, as if I had misplaced that self and forgotten where. Today, too, it is like that, for the grief is more than I can bear.

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text: © David Shulman photographs 2018 © Margaret Olin 2018

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Uneasy Reprieves: March 24, Umm al-Amad; March 26 Al-Auja

20180324-BC5A1011lvlcrvMarch 24, Umm al-Amad

It’s cold. It’s raining. Aziza serves us hot tea.

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20180324-BC5A1022lvlcrp2She shows us the baby goats, some only a few weeks, or days, old.

20180324-BC5A1023-editAnd then it is time to take the flock to graze . . .

20180324-BC5A1038crvlvlunder the huge settlement, Otniel. Ahmad, her son, is with us.

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Walla, Ahmad’s sister, who has been seen here before, is everywhere

20180324-BC5A1039lvlcrv20180324-BC5A1079crvSo is contentment.

20180324-BC5A1047crpcrv2Eventually, we see that, up on the hill, four soldiers have apparently been assigned to keep an eye on us.20180324-BC5A1082crv

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20180324-BC5A1087lvlcrv.jpgAfter they leave, we almost forget them. Ahmad, who is studying at the Polytechnic in Hebron, talks about his exam in electricity tomorrow. He studies Hebrew there, too, and takes the opportunity to discuss with Li those pesky Hebrew nouns that are masculine but have feminine plural forms.

So we don’t notice them again until they are close.

20180324-BC5A1092crvlvlThe soldiers tried to make conversation.

20180324-BC5A1115crv.jpgBut when they try to talk to Elisheva, she starts to sing. Soon others are singing, and after they exhaust their two-song repertoire of protest songs, they fall into a sullen silence.

20180324-BC5A1101.JPGTo Ahmad: “I have your picture; I know where you live. Today you come with these people and you are safe but tomorrow what will you accomplish?”

20180324-BC5A1134crvAhmad says he does not want the children speaking to people who have guns.

20180324-BC5A1129crv.jpg“Perhaps it would be better,” I cannot resist suggesting, “if the gun were not actually pointing at the child.” He ignores me.

In answer to Ahmad he says, with no trace of irony, “What kind of values are you teaching this child?

20180324-BC5A1123crv.jpgTomorrow, you will be alone.”

*****

20180326-BC5A1145-editWe are on the other side of Al-Auja from Mevo’ot Yericho where we were Friday. On Saturday in South Hebron, it was cold and wet. Two days later, in the Jordan Valley, it is dry and hot. Today, when our presence seems sufficient to keep settlers from showing up to harass shepherds and scare away the sheep, and no police have come by to investigate . . .

20180326-BC5A1158crv.jpgthe four of us finally have time to ask the important question:

20180326-BC5A1154crvWhat can these sheep possibly be finding to eat? This rocky mountainside is nothing like the lush meadow grass we saw Saturday in South Hebron.

20180326-BC5A1169lvlcrvPerhaps they are being nourished as I am, simply on texture and light.

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20180326-BC5A1192crvlvlThe sheep return home,

20180326-BC5A1191crvKettles are placed on fires, and we make the rounds of compounds, sipping tea and tasting cheeses, fresh vegetables and eggs.

20180326_114353-Arik-Auja-rot.jpgThe talk is mostly discouraging and only occasionally hopeful, all of it anxious. Everyone knows that today is just a reprieve. Many of the families are tired of constant harassment by settlers and indifference, or worse, from the police.

20180326-BC5A1206rotrawAt one stop it is a woman who gives us tea. She impresses us with her seriousness about our shared mission and goals. As we leave, she thanks us one by one and looks especially closely at the two oldest among us.

20180326-BC5A1200crv“I fear for your children,” she says. In her experience, when a family member opposes the occupation, the whole family has to pay for it. I wonder if she has that in mind or whether this is her usual way of speculating on the future. It is moving but also surprising. Looking at me, she adds, “I am a mother, too.”

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text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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March 23: Along the Road to Bet She’an

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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.

 

September 29, 2017, Erev Yom Kippur Al-Auja – David Shulman

Most photographs here were taken by Margaret Olin in Al-Auja in late July, 2017.

20170728-IMG_9607crpDotting 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. 20170721-IMG_9770lvlcrv2crp2darkerThe 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.

20170721-IMG_9867crvlvl.jpgA 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.20170728-IMG_9722lvlbalcrp2crvsatTa’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.20170721-IMG_9833stplvlcrv.jpgAnd 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.20170728-IMG_9774crpThen 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.

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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.20170728-IMG_9659crpStrange, 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.

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Al-Auja, September, 2017. photograph: David Shulman

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.”20170728-IMG_9761lvlcrvcrp3balAnother one of those atomic nows.20170721-IMG_9818crvlvlbal

I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”20170721-IMG_9846crplvlcrvbalArik 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.20170728-IMG_9685lvlsatHe 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.

text David Shulman © 2017;  photographs (if not otherwise noted) Margaret Olin  © 2017 20170721-IMG_9882lvlcrv2

Preemptive Demolition near Hamra, Jordan Valley, 26 July, 2017

20170726-IMG_9147rotlvlIt’s her first time, and it’s an easy start, but it must still be confusing to watch people demolish your home, even if those people are your father, Mahmoud Zouba,

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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,

20170726-IMG_9167crplvl 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.

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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.

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Then everyone stays to enjoy your family’s hospitality and listen to grandpa tell his story.

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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,

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damaging everything in their way and crushing the trees surrounding the family home.

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The house and anything inside that there is no time to remove on short notice would be reduced to rubble.

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The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.

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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.

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Demolished structure in Umm al Kheir, South Hebron, January, 2017.

In my few years of sporadic visits I have helped rebuild some of them more than once.

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Rebuilding in Umm al Kheir, South Hebron, July, 2017

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.

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When disheartened villagers eventually decamp for the increasingly crowded cities in “Area A,” under the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements expand into their lands.

20170726-IMG_9297crpcrvlvlTo avoid becoming discouraged is a challenge that most of Mahmoud’s immediate family has not met.

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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Waiting: Jinba, January 11, 2017

texts Margaret Olin, with D.M. and A.O. photographs: Margaret Olin 20170111-IMG_8999crplvl

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.

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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.

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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.

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We meet Eid here so that he can accompany us to Jinba.

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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.

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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.

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But they don’t have much time. There are chores.

20170111-IMG_8912crp20170111-IMG_8918crpand tea to serve to guests who want to learn how to make flat bread.

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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.

 

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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.

20170111-IMG_8899crplvlWe have arrived in time to see the preparations for the weekly clinic, when Dr. Nibal comes from Beit Ommar to offer medical help.

 

20170111-IMG_8892lvlToday it is mostly children: among them a little boy who won’t grow. Dr. Nibal has been concerned about him, and details some of the treatments that he might receive.

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A mother allows me to photograph her family’s appointment.

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Sometime during the day, I forget when, the news arrives.

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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.

***

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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.

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Afterward our rented car inches its way down the rocky slope from Umm al Khair in darkness.

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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.:

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Demolition in Umm al-Khair

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A lesson in bread-baking in Jinba.  Photograph: David Massey

 

Al-Hadidiya, Jordan Valley (David Shulman)

Shulman-Bi'r al-'Id. July 11 2015

photograph: Guy Hircefeld

June 30, 2016

Four months away provide just enough distance to see the madness and the cruelty for what they are. Who has set up this crazy system and kept it running for half a century? Is it not mad to deliberately deprive human beings—families, children, the elderly– of water at the height of summer in a scorching desert? It was at least 37 or 38 degrees Centigrade, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, today in Al-Hadidiya. No running water, of course, and almost no water at all. You can’t survive there without water.

I should warn you that reading the following report may make you thirsty, like watching Lawrence of Arabia. I had two liters of water with me, and I wasn’t fasting, unlike most of the Palestinians I met (it’s Ramadan), but still I was thirsty all day. Once the sweet morning chill was soaked up by a white-hot sun, the world turned to flame. You could feel the liquid stuff of life being sucked out of you by the merciless sun-machine. In such heat, stones melt. Metal melts. The sheep out on the hills, the cocks crowing in the tents, the dogs who can barely bark as they limp along the edges of the village—all of them are baked, singed, seared, charred, encindered. As for us, wandering over the hills in search of the lost, ruined wells that once served Al-Hadidiya, we are drunk on the light, giddy with heat. Will I ever not be thirsty?

Before I go any further, I had better tell you what you perhaps already know, that is, that the Israeli settlement of Ro’i, half a mile away, has no dearth of water. Water flows freely through their pipes, some of which run through the grounds of Al-Hadidiya, and their swimming pool is, I presume, blue and beckoning and, above all, full of water.

And there’s another thing you already know. Drying out the Palestinians of Al-Hadidiya is a matter of policy, not a random affair. The Civil Administration knows what it is doing. Without water, they must assume, these people will either die or leave. We are speaking of ethnic cleansing. No one should try to describe it as anything other than what it is.

Here is Abu Saqer, the strong-willed patriarch of this village on the golden slopes slipping down into the Jordan Valley. He has the sun-baked skin, the dark eyes, the breath-taking dignity of a man who was born in this tiny confabulation of black tents and who has lived all his life here among the rocks and the furrows. He is at once calm, lucid, and embittered. He’s a secular man, afraid of no one. He speaks a deep and elevated, even lyrical, Arabic, a mix of the standard literary dialect with the colloquial idioms of the farmer, with many rare words that Arabic-speakers love. He’s a friend. I know it at once. It’s still early, around 7:30, when we sit with him in the tent as the terrible light comes flooding in, and this is what he says.

“The settlers and the Israeli state have committed many crimes and will commit many more, but the worse crime, a moral monstrosity, is denying us water. They have polluted our wells, filled them with rocks and dirt, dried them up by their deep drilling, and dried up the natural springs. I myself owned between 60 and 90 wells on the hills over there, and all of them have been destroyed. It happened already in the 70’s. At the same time, hundreds of cubic meters of water are being wasted on the settlers, on their lawns and swimming pools. Whole communities have been devastated, their people driven out, displaced by army camps and settlements. Once a hundred families lived here in Al-Hadidiya; only 14 are left. We have to bring water in tankers from far away, and often we are held up at the roadblocks for long hours, and we pay more than triple what any Israeli pays for water.

            “In a war, there is the one who kills and the one who is killed, but what has water to do with this? Why are they continually demolishing our homes? Are they experimenting on us like on rats? We live in Area C—where the shepherds are responsible for the eco-system, for the survival of many species of living beings. But they arrest the shepherds and put them on trial and force them to pay enormous fines—at first, it was 5 Jordanian dinars per head of sheep, then 11 dinars per head, just to free the herd from their clutches. A fine could easily add up to a thousand dinars. Helicopters sometimes chase the shepherds and the herds, and the soldiers come running out of them and shoot the animals. They claim this area is a security zone, but why do they have to shoot the sheep? They are enriching the Israeli state with these fines and impoverishing us.

            “In the late 80’s, at the time of the Oslo agreements, there was hope, but in the end the disaster became even more terrible. Just look over there, you can see how they have destroyed our homes. They are doing whatever they can to drive us out. We are simple people, in Al-Hadidiya, in ‘Ein al-Hilwe, in Ra’s al-Ahmar, in the Jiflik. What do we want? We want to graze our sheep, to feed our families, to educate our children. Only that. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the situation here should be frozen, and no more demolitions take place, but the soldiers pay no attention to the court’s ruling. When a soldier comes to tear down my house, where is the judge? Last year there were demolitions (on November 26, 2015), and they are always threatening more. My daughter was wounded in front of my eyes by an Israeli girl (probably a soldier). What am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to live with the Israeli people, in what they claim is the only democracy in the Middle East? A new generation is growing up. We are tired of being lied to. They have also poisoned our sheep—44 killed by poison in 2014. How can we live with them?”

Abu Saqer speaks slowly, weighing his words. An eloquent man. But the story he tells is not only his. All Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley offer versions of it—the same litany of wrongs, of state terror, and, again and again, of unbearable thirst. They thirst for water as they thirst for justice, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Saqer, his son, leads us over the hill dotted with black goats and long-haired sheep. Every few minutes he stops to show us another well that has been stopped up, blocked with stones and dirt. We count twelve on a very rapid circuit. At one of them Saqer peers into the dark depths and discerns a snake. He spends a few minutes hurling rocks at it, apparently killing it. Palestinians in this desert zone hate and fear snakes. Now that we’ve started cleaning the wells here, the activists have come across at least one large snake down at the bottom—but also something far more threatening, military ordnance, unexploded shells, that have been dumped in these wells.

Late morning. We drive to ‘Ein Hilwe, where Madi, apparently soon to be a candidate for the post of head of the Palestinian Regional Council here, speaks about water. It’s the topic closest to heart and mind. We cross the highway to Umm al-Jamal, where there’s a natural spring that the Bedouins use to water their herd of cows. They built a low stone wall around the spring, to protect it. Not surprisingly, this tiny structure is scheduled for demolition by the Civil Administration next week. Umm al-Jamal is dry, hanging on in the heart of the fierce desert. Like sleep-walkers, heavy cows move slowly through the haze of heat, or lie down in scraps of shade from scraggly trees.

Here’s the point. Suppose you want to build a pipeline for water—to be taken from well-known, legal Palestinian sources and paid for according to a water meter that you install—so that your tents and shacks would have the elementary happiness of running water. In theory, you could apply to the Civil Administration for a permit. Your application will be rejected. Almost all such applications are. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley cannot get water through pipes or wells by the standard bureaucratic procedures. In desperation, lacking any alternative, they may try to put a pipeline in place. They can be sure the Civil Administration will send its soldiers and policemen to demolish it and to punish them. It happened today at Al-Hadidiya. I saw it.

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photograph: Anat Lev

We rush back there when we hear that soldiers have turned up, two full jeeps of them. By now it’s a broiling high noon. The soldiers look pretty hot too. They’re loaded down with the standard hodge-podge of military metal and plastic. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. They seem confused: the Jordan Valley has not had the benefit of a continuous presence of Israeli activists, and as a result the heavy hand of the Occupation has been even heavier here, and more arbitrary, than elsewhere on the West Bank. The soldiers expect a docile, frightened Palestinian population. They’re certainly not used to having us, or others like us, confront them. The officer is not really hostile, but he’s doing his job. He says an order declaring Al-Hadidiya a Closed Military Zone is on its way. On what grounds? “Water works that have not been approved.”

There are eight of us activists, and we’ve all been through this many times before in one way or another. We try to talk to the soldiers, but the officer orders them not to speak to us. One of them is filming us with his cell-phone. This goes on for a long, hot time, as if to keep him busy with something that will take his mind off what he has actually come here to do. They’re waiting for the order to come through, or so they say. Anat asks the photographer how it feels to deny water to a thirsty family. He is not allowed to answer, so he shrugs and screws up his eyes. What does this gesture mean? Yossi says that it’s quite expressive and means something like “What can I do, these are my orders.” It’s an optimistic reading, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It could also mean, “I don’t give a damn.” I’d like to think this soldier feels the faint stirring of inner conflict.

Now the police arrive, and the dogs go mad, sensing that something wrong and menacing is taking place. With whatever is left of their vocal chords, they try to warn Abu Saqer that an enemy has appeared. Then they fall silent. As so often, it’s a waiting game. An hour goes by, then another. The graceful white doves we know from South Hebron sail past, on fire with sunlight. The roosters crow. No sign of the order. Suddenly, a surprise, the soldiers clamber into the jeeps and leave.

But not for long. Soon they’re back with the same affable policeman who would perhaps prefer to be sitting in his distant, air-conditioned office, wherever that is. A higher-ranking officer has joined them, and together they set off through the village, examining every trace of the brazen water pipe, also passing by the jagged ruins of the homes that were demolished less than a year ago. They take pictures. Yesterday soldiers arrested Abu Saqer’s son and held him, handcuffed, for many hours. Today, perhaps because we are here, they refrain from anything as blatant and foolish as that. Again they depart, and again they return, this time following the line of the pipe at the farthest edge of the encampment. They photograph and take notes. Then—gone.

What, indeed, are they supposed to do? The pipe is illegal. The Occupation, too, is illegal. But it has its rules. Soldiers and policemen enforce the rules. Officers issue orders, which are obeyed. Fourteen families in Al-Hadidiya remain thirsty.

Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, Abu Saqer can expect another visit, no doubt to inform him that the evil pipeline the villagers have built will be destroyed, and so on—who knows what other forms of harassment are in store? Running water is not meant to reach the people of Al-Hadidiya. Not yet. We have work to do.

It was a day unlike any other that Al-Hadidiya has seen. Apart from our being there, and the unwelcome soldiers and policemen, large delegations from the European Union and the Norwegian Refuge Council also happened by at noon. Abu Saqer graciously entertained them all. For an hour or two, this little assemblage of black tents was a microcosm. Good intentions, bad intentions, outright wickedness, grace and courage—you could find them all, mingled together, melting down in the vast heat, each of us playing his or her role.

I write these words from my home, at nightfall. I’ve washed off as much of the caked sunlight as I could. I had a cold beer, which helped. I’m a little burnt and sore, and a little sad. Also buoyed up by the miracle of friendship, new and old. By now the sheep and goats are in their pens. All over the Jordan Valley and South Hebron and East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank, people are celebrating the end of today’s fast with the festive Iftar meal. Next week Ramadan will end. Someday thirst, too, will end for Al-Hadidiya and ‘Ein Al-Hilwe. We’ll see to that. I’d like to think that in Abu Saqer, a deep and simple man, Netanyahu and his henchmen have met their match.

with thanks to Guy Hircefeld and Amir Bitan

text © David Shulman 2016

thanks to Anat Lev and Guy Hircefeld for permission to use their photographs

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photograph: Anat Lev