February 10, 2018: Susya, Twaneh, Tuba by David Shulman

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A compound in Susya, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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.

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A kitchen in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

I suppose by now everyone knows the Susya story of repeated expulsions and continuous harassment and demolitions. For years nearly every structure in the village has had a demolition order hanging over it. The legal excuse for this act of gratuitous and extreme cruelty is that these shacks and tents and latrines and wind turbines were built without a permit. That’s because Palestinians living in Area C on the West Bank cannot get permits. Beneath the thin veneer of legality lies the true reason. The government is now keen on driving out entire Palestinian communities, not simply on making their lives miserable and destroying homes one by one. The pace has accelerated, and the goal is clear.

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A compound in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

One could, perhaps, say that when the Supreme Court allowed the immediate destruction of these seven buildings, this was a minor, if temporary, victory for the Palestinians. Another twelve buildings were in the urgent list presented to the court by the Civil Administration and have not yet been approved. Of course, their turn may come next. And after that, the rest of the village may be wiped out. But for now, for the next days and weeks, there’s plenty to mourn for, and more to dread.

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A kitchen in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

We stand in Abu Saddam’s courtyard and examine the miracle of his lemon tree that never stops giving fruit. You can see the early stages of blossoming and maturing on the lower branches; higher up, there are ripe lemons waiting to be picked. Abu Saddam came back to his home in Susya after years of exile in Yata; he’s not well; it seems he’s returned to live out his last days here.He takes us into the largest of the tents, the sitting room cum kitchen. There’s an iron tabun stove—nights in Susya, in the winter, are very cold. Firewood is stacked on the floor near the stove. It’s not clear if this particular tent is included in the demolition plan, but it’s not unlikely that the bulldozers will punch it out anyway on their way to their next task. Abu Saddam says to me, “Shu biddhum al-yahood? What do the Jews want from me? Do they want to take away my leaking canvas ceiling? Is that what threatens them? Am I, an old man, a danger to the Jews?” Litaj, his granddaughter, maybe four years old, buttoned to the chin into her green and blue striped sweater, is sitting in one of the big armchairs. Her mother sits across from her. This is the home that may soon be murdered by the army.

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Photograph: David Shulman

 

It’s more than I can bear, my throat is burning with tears and rage, and I can’t find words, any words. When we say goodbye, I say to Abu Saddam in Arabic, “We are with you, and if they come and destroy these tents, we will come back and rebuild them together with you.” He holds my hand in his. ‘Azzam Yusuf points to the cement pavement at the entrance to his tent:  maybe it’s this floor, he says, that has qualified his home for destruction. They’re also coming to wipe out his sheep-pen, a latrine, a water fountain, and perhaps the kitchen. “How are you?” I ask him, bitter at heart. “Praise to Allah,” he says. “This is something we have to live with.” But I don’t know if I can live with it.

 

 

  * * *

For the last couple of weeks, Tuba, isolated, lonely, vulnerable, on the edge of the ridge overlooking the desert, has been suffering from settler violence. It’s nothing new, just worse than usual. Some of the attacks have been severe. The settlers come from Havat Ma’on, notorious for its savage ways. We have decided to walk from Twaneh along the path that leads to Tuba via the perimeter of Havat Ma’on. It’s a dangerous route. I think today’s settlers are the grown children of the ones who first attacked me in the fields of Twaneh in 2002. It’s in their genes, or in the neurons that they use not to think with but for hate. We are taking this route in solidarity with Tuba, and in the hope that we can force a stop to the daily assaults.

20170114-IMG_9448lvlcrvTuba, 2017. Photograph: Margaret Olin

It takes an hour to walk the road—three or four kilometers over the packed dirt and stones. The Tuba children take it, both ways, every day when they come to school at Twaneh. Since the settlers of Havat Ma’on have a habit of attacking these children, the army—after long persuasion by Ta‘ayush—agreed to provide a jeep of armed soldiers to accompany them to and from school. Sometimes the jeep shows up, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the settlers attack anyway, and the soldiers sit passively in the jeep, watching. They hit these kids with iron chains and other weapons of destruction. My friend ‘Ali’s daughter was badly wounded in her eye. That was some years ago, and the route is no safer today.

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Twaneh, after last year’s attack. photograph: Margaret Olin

Mid-afternoon on a warm winter day. Dark pines and almonds. We are thirteen, maybe enough. With us are Danny and Dudy, both wounded on this path by settlers the last time I reported from Twaneh (for the report, see here). Dudy was hit in the head by a rock, Danny punched and beaten. After ten or fifteen minutes, we see the first settlers:  young, more boys then men, long hair, huge skull-caps, white Shabbat clothes. Some are running fast across the hill, coming closer. Not a good sign. Then it gets worse. They are masking their faces, all except for the eyes. I know what this means. They have the high ground; we’re moving east, not far below them, past the wide bend in the road, through thorns and boulders. We’re trying to stick together. I can’t count them:  maybe eight or nine. They’re shouting something throaty, a war cry.

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photograph: Michal Hai

Then the first stones. Three settlers are some thirty meters away, or less. Heavy rocks, heavy enough to kill. They’re arguably worse than bullets. They come flying through space, very fast, black against the white sky. Soon there’s a veritable rain of rocks; one screams past my ear. We keep moving downward, trying to put some distance between them and us, and we’re filming them as best we can but we also have to keep our eyes on the rocky descent so we don’t stumble or fall; and the only chance you have of avoiding the missiles is if you walk backward, watching them as they come at you. Many times Amiel shouts in warning:  “Rock coming!” Somehow, by a miracle, so far no one has been hit. I begin to wonder if this is the end I’ve so often imagined, but in truth there’s not much time to think about this in the exhilarating rush of feeling, and anyway there’s no space to think about me. I’m trying to keep track of my friends, and also trying hard not to fall, and each time I turn my back on the stones there’s the eerie sense that one is heading, unknown, straight for me.

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Photograph: Michal Hai

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Photograph: Michal Hai

Time stops, as always at such moments. There is no more time in the world. Occasionally there are brief breaks in the rain of stones, even the false thought that we may have left them behind us, but they keep coming down the slope, tailing us, and the stones resume. Now I can see their eyes. I remember that look, the worst that human eyes can show you, the black and icy glare of hatred in action, not human any more.

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Photograph: Michal Hai

  (for video by Guy Butavia follow this link)

Then it is over. Moving slowly, still looking backwards, we have opened up a gap. I don’t know why they stopped. After a while we are out of range; we climb the steep hill toward Tuba, its tents and pens and wind turbine now in sight. We regroup. Everyone OK.

Later it turns out, Amiel tells me, that we may have saved one of the Tuba shepherds who was being beaten by the settlers until they were distracted by our arrival. Maybe that’s why they were running over the hill. The shepherd was hurt. For us, Tuba offers the entirely illusory sense of safety. The goats and sheep are bleating, the tents warm and sturdy; a baby, forty days old, is wailing as the women rock her in her cradle. Mahmud gives me news of ‘Ali, now in Yata, driving a tractor; he has work. Mahmud is the sixth of ten siblings; one died as a child. Proudly, he introduces me to his daughter. The young boys bring us tea.

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photograph: Michal Hai

How are we going to get back? It seems the police have sent an officer to Twaneh. Maybe that will deter them? Somehow I doubt it. We head back along the path, this time a little farther downhill. But they’re waiting for us. Not masked this time. Cameras in hand. Coming closer: the odd intimacy of enemies in the South Hebron hills.  Three of them—are they the three who stoned us an hour before?– merge into our straggly line, shouting curses, the boring, worn-out words. “You are traitors, all of you. You should leave this country. You don’t belong here. You don’t care, do you, that my rabbi was murdered a week ago. His orphans are crying, but you don’t care. You’re not even Jews. You have no idea who you are and where you are going. You don’t know your enemy. You’re in love with your enemy. You deserve to die first of all. You don’t know how to be a man. The Kingdom of David is coming, the Messiah will come, and scum like you will be swept away.” And so on. It goes on for a long time. At least there are no rocks flying. Maybe the dead words are worse. They have circled us on every side.

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photograph: Michal Hai

Until finally, in Twaneh, we hear that the policeman came and went away, and there are hot pittas soaked in olive oil straight from the oven, a huge heap of them, far more than we can devour, and it is over for today.

text: David Shulman © 2018

 

 

December 2, 2017 Umm al-Amad, Ma‘in David Shulman

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Umm al-Amad, July, 2017. photograph: Margaret Olin

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.

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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.

20140607_Taayush-Shepherd0903-EditUmm al-Amad, June, 2014. photograph: margaret olin*

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.”

“Why?”

Kacha—because.”

“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.”

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Photograph: Elena Mucciarelli

“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.

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Umm al-Amad, June, 2014  photograph: margaret olin

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.

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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.

20170722-IMG_0021-EditlvlcrvAhmad in Umm al-Amad,  July, 2017.  photograph: Margaret Olin

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.

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Photograph: David Shulman

 

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.

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Guy in Umm al-Amad, July, 2017. photograph: Margaret Olin

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.

20170722-IMG_9967atext David Shulman © 2017           *you may see more of Um al-Amad in 2014 here

 

 

June, 2017 Susya, Sarura (David Shulman)

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Photograph: Sophie Rose Schor

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.

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photograph: Shiraz Grinbaum

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.

***

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Photograph: Sophie Rose Schor (sophieschor.com)

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.

om Camp, South Hebron Hills, West Bank, 25.5.2017

Photograph: Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org

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.

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Renovated cave in Sarura. photograph: David Shulman

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.”

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photograph: David Shulman

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.”

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Photograph: Sophie Rose Schor (sophieschor.com)

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

 

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.

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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 Biet Omar 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

 

The Hugging Game, Um al ‘Arais, 14 January 2017

20170114-IMG_9319crplvlcrvbrNon violent resistance can take many forms. What they have in common is that they need to be visible and they need to be seen.

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.  20170114-IMG_9291crp2To hang on, Said’s family has an outing each week. The picnic and the boy’s soccer  20170114-IMG_9310crplvlreinforce 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.20170114-IMG_9392lvlcrpbrightVolunteers 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.*20170114-IMG_9380lvlcrvVolunteers pass the time with Sa’id and his family while the boys play soccer20170114-IMG_9314crvlvland the Civil Administration plays its role. 20170114-IMG_9358lvlToday, fortunately, this means that the soldiers, very young and very bored, mostly stay put in military vehicles. 20170114-IMG_9352brightlvl

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20170114-IMG_9369crpcontror near them. It could be and has been, worse.20170114-IMG_9311crvcntcrpThe girls, sidelined,20170114-IMG_9296brctrlvlcrptake matters into their own hands and invent a new game. 20170114-IMG_9365crvlvl

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20170114-IMG_9384brightcrvFinally the boys get interested20170114-IMG_9357lvlvright

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20170114-IMG_9325crp1For just a moment the grazing area turned soccer field turns hugging field.20170114-IMG_9396lvlcrv

*On the eruv, see here and here.  On Ta’ayush https://www.taayush.org/

text and photographs © margaret olin 2017

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January 7, 2017 Asael, Susya, Twaneh, Umm al-Khair

text David Shulman; photographs Margaret Olin

I.

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Asael, possibly the ugliest of all the illegal outposts in the southern West Bank—and the competition is fierce—is rapidly expanding. Yellow bulldozers, parked at the perimeter fence of the settlement, have carved out a huge swathe of intermeshed, criss-crossing gashes in the hill and valley just below. This wide, deep wound in the soil has been sliced, needless to say, through privately owned Palestinian land. We know the families. We’ve plowed here, on the edge of the outpost. There have been many bad moments with the Asael settlers, the ones we can see this Shabbat morning walking their dogs over the hill or praying to their rapacious god or swinging their children on the swings in the painted park just under their pre-fab caravans.

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Winter morning, sunny, ice-cold. Guy is photographing the earthen gashes meter by meter. The families who own the land will submit a complaint to the police, not that it will do much good. The Civil Administration stopped the bulldozers earlier this week, but the fact that they’re still parked here bodes ill. Each one of them costs a few thousands of shekels per day, and they’re still here. Actually, everything bodes ill here at Asael on this sun-drenched day.

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The soldiers appear on cue. Three of them clamber down the hill to put a stop to our intrusion. They’re in winter uniforms, black on top, with ski-masks and heavy weapons. Their officer, affable enough, asks for my identity card. I hand it over. He studies it. “You live near my grandmother’s house. What are you doing here, and why are you photographing me? You’re old enough to be my grandfather, aren’t you ashamed?”

“Why should I be ashamed?”

“I don’t like it when you photograph me. It’s impolite.”

I can see what’s coming. Harmless chatter, nothing worse. I turn off the camera. Peg is still photographing, despite the officer’s repeated demands that she stop. It seems this business of the cameras is all we have to talk about today. Over and over again he tells us that we’re not being nice.

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He consults his superiors on the phone. “There are four Israeli citizens here,” he reports, “they have the right to come here and photograph the bulldozers and the digging, they haven’t invaded the settlement, and they won’t stop photographing me.” By now this is becoming an obsession. I’m tired of it. Moreover, the cognitive dissonance is eating away at me, so wearily I say to him, “Look, forget this stupid thing about the cameras, I’m not photographing you now, just look around you at what is happening here. You know as well as I do that this outpost is illegal, and you can see that they’re now stealing more Palestinian land.”

“That’s none of my business. If you have a problem with the settlers, work it out in the courts. I have my job to do.”

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Later, thinking back on it, I find the conversation insane, and I’m sorry I got into it. A monumental crime is taking place, here and everywhere in the occupied territories. It’s picking up speed. The soldiers are complicit in it, though it’s coming from far above them, from the prime minister’s office on down. And on this bright winter morning, the officer on the spot thinks we’re being impolite.

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II.

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Volleyball in Susiya, 7 January 2017

Last week something unusual happened at Susya. A group of fanatical settlers had produced an inscription made of stones on what we call Flag Hill—Palestinian land, of course (newly plowed). The stones were stacked up to read, in Hebrew: “Revenge.” There was also a big stone-piled star of David. Our people came upon these rocks, and the settlers came at them, and the soldiers turned up, and the settlers attacked them, too. This was too much even for the soldiers, who wrestled them to the ground and arrested three of them. They let them go in the evening, but for a brief moment the tables were turned.

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III.

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These are violent days in South Hebron, also in the Jordan Valley. We reach Twaneh around 2:00 and find a Ta’ayush detachment still shaken after being attacked by masked settlers from Chavat Maon. The Ta’ayush volunteers were there to protect Palestinian farmers who had come to plow. The plowing was successfully completed, and the volunteers were on their way back to Twaneh when fifteen settler thugs attacked, hurling big rocks, lots of them, and assaulting our people with their fists. Dudy was hit in the head by a rock. Danny was beaten. One of the Italian volunteers living in Twaneh was hit, and her (expensive) camera stolen. By sheer good fortune, no one was badly wounded or worse.

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Guy calls the police, who eventually respond. We head uphill toward the site of the attack. The settlers are still flitting through the trees at the end of the path. We have good video footage, but it rapidly becomes apparent that there’s little point in submitting a complaint. The police will do nothing, the settlers were masked, to fill out the police forms is hardly more than a ritual gesture. We move on. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I was attacked, beaten, stoned, and shot at by the settlers of Chavat Maon at this same point. I know what it feels like. I know for sure that they are celebrating their splendid raid and reveling in their spoils. Maybe I shouldn’t care.

 

IV.

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Eid is waiting to welcome us to Umm al-Khair. He’s become almost famous, with exhibitions of his sculptures and installations in Tel Aviv and most recently Berlin. It’s been many months since I’ve seen him. We embrace. We run through the dismal litany of house demolitions from the past few months. For the moment—always only for the moment—the courts have put a freeze on further demolitions at Umm al-Khair. Eid says: “No matter what we do, the Israelis will never let us live here; sooner or later, they will take these lands too.”

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Post-Resettlement, exhibition by Ai Weiwei and Eid Hthaleen. Installation photographs courtesy of Ades Architectural Forum, Berlin.

The settlement of Carmel abuts the shanties of Umm al-Khair, and recently the settlers have invented a new form of torment for their neighbors. Their sewage now flows through pipes that open onto the fertile fields in the wadi and the Palestinian grazing grounds. We pick our way over the rocks to study the large open pipe.

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It’s one of those crystal winter afternoons. Every thorn stands out on the hills. Sheep cluster around the well on the next ridge. Ruins from the last four demolition raids are neatly stacked beside what used to be tents and homes. We’ve rebuilt a little, for the umpteenth time. The hills across the Jordan River turn to limpid mauve. It’s cold; one of the young girls, maybe four years old, in ponytail and a blue sweater, stands barefoot at the entrance to her home. Goats bleat; toward sunset, they get hungry. Tea appears. A wild parabola of pigeons swirls over the golden slope. Beauty is made from pain, great beauty from greater pain.

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Text © 2017 David Shulman;  photographs @ 2017 Margaret Olin except as otherwise noted.

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On Ta’ayush: http://www.taayush.org/

a lucid essay; an absurd topic; a real place

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The essay, “Kafka in Area C,” tells the story of the place in these photographs: here where the ‘Awad family sheep are grazing, is a spare wadi where members of Ta’ayush, the all volunteer group whose work in South Hebron I am following, is stopping briefly at the beginning of our day.

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In the photographs it is early June, 2015. We watch the patterns that the sheep make as they process down the wadi or gather in groups.

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We look across the wadi at a few makeshift houses on what had been the ‘Awad family’s hilltop. Maybe Israeli settlers, in their Shabbat morning peace, are looking back.

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I am told “we’ve been here hundreds of times,” but the visit is quiet. We leave within an hour to visit Susiya, a village of tents and caves where rough conditions are a constant, infuriating reminder of injustice.

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Today, a year and a half later, Susiya still stands, at least most of it, at least for now. But the ‘Awad family, its livestock and its livelihood, have been denied rights to their land. The article, by a Ta’ayush volunteer, explains the absurd circular process of dispossession that has become business as usual. If the comparison to Kafka fails to appeal to you, think “Catch-22.” But after you glance at the photographs, read it. here.

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photographs and text © Margaret Olin 2016

Susiya is in danger again. Here’s how to help

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Slightly over a year ago David Shulman pleaded urgently on this blog for help in sparing Susiya, a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills, from immanent destruction by the bulldozers of the Israeli Civil Administration. You may read his eloquent message here. At the time, people mobilized in Israel and abroad.

Large demonstrations occurred at the village; the European Union sent representatives and the spokesperson for the United States Department of State complained to the Israeli government. Susya was spared.

Now, after a year, the forces that desire Susiya’s land seem to believe that the world must have forgotten Susiya by now. The civil administration has restarted preparations to demolish the village. The same dreary process, including the obligatory fruitless appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, has already begun. Now the fate of the village is to be decided by August 15 by the ultra right Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman.

If you heeded David Shulman’s call then, if you wrote to your representative, your foreign minister and/or your country’s ambassador to Israel or if you regret that you did not, please consider doing so now. Ask them to apply pressure to Israel, as they successfully did last year and keep Susiya’s families, more than 300 people, many of them children, from having to abandon their homes and rebuild once more.

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children from Susiya in school, March 2016

Susiya is not important merely because of the injustice of the ongoing process, but here it is in brief: boards that approve construction are composed of settlers intent on clearing the land and securing it for Israel; these boards prevent Palestinians from acquiring permits that would make dwelling on their own land legal;

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a kitchen in Susiya

in order to live on their land and support their livestock and their orchards the residents build, without permits, temporary buildings that serve as dwellings and kitchens and everything that one needs to make a home.

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They plant gardens around them and do what they can to make and remake real homes in a situation that is more than challenging. Donated sustainable energy supports their lives while Israel’s huge power lines bypass the village to bring power to encroaching settlements. I have visited Susiya repeatedly, made friends there, and found role models among these people. You may read about their work here

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But Susiya’s importance transcends these reasons, which apply to many villages, Bedouin and Palestinian, scattered in the South Hebron Hills. All these communities suffer repeated demolitions. Their children grew up perceiving every Israeli as a threat to their homes. All of them,Susiya included, rebuild, at great expense of resources, effort, and emotion, once their village is demolished. This occasion will be no exception. Susiya’s special significance lies in the central role taken by its residents and the town itself. They have been in the front line of efforts by Palestinians in area C to preserve their way of life and their lands from annexation. Leaders of Susya have put themselves forward as spokespeople, organizers and peaceful activists. To many visitors to South Hebron they have become the symbol of Palestinian survival. If the outside world fails to oppose the demolition of Susya and the forcible eviction of its residents, then Israeli authorities may feel perfectly at ease demolishing any village in this region or anywhere else. You can read more about Susiya at Rabbis for Human Rights; and another appeal from David Shulman here.

Finally, here are some actions you can take from the EU, Great Britain, the US, or Canada followed by a sample letter:

1. If you are in Europe, you can write your representative to the European Union or your Foreign minister.

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meps/en/map.html

2. In the UK, you might like to follow this link:

http://www.palestinecampaign.org/fate-two-palestinian-villages/

or you may write one of these officials:

Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
fcocorrespondence@fco.gov.uk
General enquiries switchboard
020 7008 1500

Mr David Quarrey
British Ambassador to Israel
British Embassy
192 Hayarkon Street
6340502 Tel Aviv
Israel
Telephone+972 (0)3 725 1222
Fax +972 (0)3 725 1203
webmaster.telaviv@fco.gov.uk

Deputy Ambassador Eitan Na’eh
Embassy of Israel
2 Palace Green
London
W8 4QB
Tel:020 7957 9500
Fax:0207 957 9555
info@london.mfa.gov.il

3. If you are in the United States, the easiest thing to do is to sign this petition via the organization JStreet:

http://act.jstreet.org/sign/stop-demolition-susya

But you may wish to write your own letter to your representatives. Here is how to find them:

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

http://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

or to the State Department:

https://register.state.gov/contactus/contactusform

4. in Canada:

You can reach the department of defense here (the Honourable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of Defence)

stephane.dion@parl.gc.ca (The Honourable Stéphane Dion, Foreign Minister)

taviv.consular@international.gc.ca (Ambassador Deborah Lyons, Ambassador to Israel)

And of course you may want to write your MP.

5. Here is one letter, but I am sure many of you can do better:

I am writing to express my concern about the immediate threat to the Palestinian village of Susya in Area C of South Hebron. Last year at this time, coordinated international expressions of outrage helped to spare this village from the bulldozers of the Israeli Civil Administration. This year the same parties are renewing their efforts to destroy most of the homes in the village, threatening the homes and livestock of more than three hundred men, women and children. Dialog with the residents has been cut off and this devastating process has begun all over again.

On August 1, the Israeli Supreme Court passed responsibility for the decision to demolish to Israel’s right wing defense minister Avigdor Liebermann giving him two weeks to make his position clear. The situation is urgent. To allow the expulsions and demolitions that were curtailed last year to happen this year would severely limit the chances of any peace negotiations. It would suggest that the West has been distracted from the goal of peace in the Middle East and that Palestinian rights and human rights in general are only momentary concerns. I ask you, my representative [in Congress/the European Community or otherwise as applicable] to apply pressure on the Israeli government and urge your colleagues to do so as well.

[your signature, address, etc. as applicable]

Please add further suggestions for action in comments to this post.

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all photographs © Margaret Olin 2016

A Hot Field in Hebron: Ta’ayush and the Gleaners

Jon Simons has gracefully woven the pastoral and rather romantic image of gleaners (think of Agnes Varda) and its tie to the recent holiday of Shavuot into his discussion of this activity that took place last weekend by Ta’ayush. But of course, it was not Shavuot but rather a harvest-time Shabbat when settlers felt an urgent need to pray on a Palestinian field. Something similar happened last year. My friends whose Ta’ayush activity took them here at harvest time recounted how the settlers prayed under a canopy in the middle of the field where they were working. Soldiers who surrounded the worshippers declared the area off limits to Palestinians. In these routine practices of everyday intimidation settlers, with the cooperation of soldiers, put performative and otherwise visual religious practices – here routine praying on Shabbat, elsewhere the construction of eruv borders (see here), – to use in the service of land expropriation. It is one of the more sobering of common sights. It is also highly photographable. Perhaps next year I will be able to portray this religious practice in photographs. Even better, perhaps next year it will not happen and the lovely vision that Simons evokes at the end of his essay will have come to pass.

Picturing Peace

On one of Saturday’s weekly activities by Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills area, nothing dramatic happened. Neither settlers nor soldiers used direct physical violence, and nobody got arrested. And yet, a lot was happening, a set of connected features of settlement, military rule and the symbiosis between them that characterise the banality of the injustice of occupation.

For once, I would have wished to get up earlier, as by the time the van load of seven Ta’ayush volunteers arrived from Jerusalem to Abu Anan’s house on the outskirts of Hebron, it was already hot. It didn’t help that (on instructions from above) the guard at the road entrance to Kiryat Arba hadn’t let us through, forcing us to find a different, longer route.

The police station above Abu Anan's field. The police station above Abu Anan’s field.

Abu Anan lives in a difficult neighbourhood, sandwiched between the settlement of Givat Ha’avot and Kiryat Arba, and overlooked by…

View original post 890 more words

A Birthright Trip for Photographers? “This Place” at the Brooklyn Museum

I owe the comparison with Birthright to Abby Glogower, so this post is for Abby.

“I came to think that there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognized and wanted to claim for their own.” Stephen Shore, about his contribution to This Place

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A pro-Palestinian, anti-gentrification protest. The protestors are standing in front of a projected photograph by Josef Koudelka, in the exhibition This Place, Brooklyn Museum, May 7, 2016.

It’s all about the land. The same land visited by young Jewish men and women in free trips organized by Taglit-Birthright with an eye to giving them a closer connection to that land and encouraging them to marry other Jews. Similarly, the project This Place brought twelve world-famous photographers to Israel and the West Bank for extended periods to offer them a chance to forge a visual relationship to “this historic and contested place.” The hope was that they would portray Israel in a “universalizing” way and transcend the “polarizing perceptions and familiar images of the region in the mainstream media.”

The introductory text on the opening wall of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition This Place did offer a comparison, but not to Taglit. The text states that this project, spearheaded by Frédéric Brenner, rivals the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration, an undertaking of the United States government during the Great Depression, and the Mission photogtraphique de la DATAR, a French documentation of the French countryside in the 1980s. The differences here, according to the same wall label, are that This Place was privately funded, not publicly, and that its photographers were foreign, not Israeli. On the face of it this comparison is ambitious: I won’t speak to the French project, but the Library of Congress has put 167,000 Farm Security images on line.

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Frédéric Brenner, organizer of This Place, exhibited his own photographs in the exhibition along with those of the famous photographers whom he recruited for the project.

It might seem superfluous to enumerate the differences between it and This Place, but here are some anyway. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, photographers of Roy Stryker’s project, were in their thirties or even younger, much of their famous work still ahead of them. They came to document poverty amid an economic crisis in their own country. The photographers that Brenner has gathered are all well established; most are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties. They were not brought in to document a crisis, although one certainly existed and most of them wanted to see its effects. Brenner had to be persuaded to allow them to visit the West Bank as part of the project; he wished them to avoid politics. Several of them touched on it only obliquely. Certainly they did not come as part of a New-Deal-like effort to combat rural poverty and inequality out of a commitment to social reform. No Migrant Mother can be found in the exhibition, and although part of the bargain with each photographer included the publication of a book, no Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is likely to emerge.

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Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.

 

The photographers of This Place were strangers come for extended, but still limited times. The question, what can a stranger’s eye hope to illuminate in this situation, applies to me as well in my own ongoing project, and this is the light in which I see and worry about This Place.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photographs by Thomas Struth in the exhibition “This Place,” Brooklyn Museum.

Some of these photographers are my favorites, but their contributions to this exhibition are not my favorite work. Thomas Struth was well aware of the ethical situation in which he was enmeshed. His almost surreal look at the settlement Har Homa is perhaps the classic image of that terrible place. But within the framework of the exhibition it is little more than an example of one of his classic genres, along with others: monumental street photography made with a view camera, family portraits, cityscapes and landscapes.

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Josef Koudelka sought to portray Israel’s “security wall” as a force for the destruction of the environment. I appreciate Koudelka’s attention to the way in which the wall affects the landscape and I take his concern seriously. Yet his work, beautiful here as always, in the main shows me what I have already seen and photographed. Murals in the Aida camp, for example, the way the “separation” wall loops through the landscape, swooping to enclose a bit of land in a greedy fist, and the barbed wire that stretches and curves everywhere in the world, but for some reason, is almost irresistible to photograph here. All these subjects immediately strike my eye.

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Protesters in the exhibition This Place

But I could never have duplicated Faisal Sheikh’s series Desert Bloom. It sent me back to my own photographs to look at their subjects differently. He arranged his photographed traces of Beduin villages in the Negev, taken from the air, in a tile like grid format on one wall of the exhibit. I have no interest in making areal photographs; it is too important to me to stay down on earth among people. Yet I could not tear myself away from them.

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Demonstrators near the installation of Desert Bloom by Faisal Sheikh

The unremittingly pale brown, washed out beauty of these desert tiles pulled me in. Subtle deviations in the ground are indications of cataclysmic changes. They signify the nearly effaced suggestions of the people who once lived there. The ominous feel of the title, “desert bloom” alludes to Ben Gurion’s call to the Jewish people to “make the desert bloom.” Here the “bloom” looks less like fertility than like the cruel beauty that keeps a desert from sustaining life.

20160507-IMG_5872lvlcrpOnce I have looked at these distanced photographs, oddly similar to Alan Cohen’s photographs of boundaries in close-up, I can no longer see the ground in the same way again.

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Alan Cohen, Gila River Indian Reservation, 2004. From Lines of Authority

 

Sheikh has provided ample reading material to explain the subtle clues to large changes that have taken place in the land. I look for images like those that Sheik has photographed from far away but writ large that will explain for me patterns of dispossession and camouflage and the sheer effort to go on in the face of them.

 

 

 

 

I wonder what areal views of green strips of land might look like where Palestinians and their sheep are not allowed.

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A Ta’ayush action, 24 March, 2015, South Hebron Hills. For more, look here

I wonder also about areal views of green strips of land where only Palestinians and their livestock are allowed.

 

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From above, volunteers from Ta’ayush accompany a Palestinian grazing his sheep to protect them from nearby settlers. Israelis and, I was told, anyone eligible to become one are prohibited from descending into the valley. Soldiers ensure that we obey the rule.

Can you see isolated solar panels from the air?  abandoned fences and poles and destroyed houses?

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This Place, with photographs by Thomas Struth, Frédéric Brenner, Josef Koudelka

How does an exhibition with well-intentioned photographers fail to attain the complexity to which it aspires? The curators may have something to do with it. The calm, cold beauty, the isolated photographs, the laconic captions with little or inadequate explanations. Jeff Wall’s photograph of Beduins sleeping near a prison in the Negev desert, “where this traditionally nomadic Arab people has lived for centuries.” What exactly does he know, assume, about their centuries-long Nomadic life? Have they always lived in the Negev? What does it mean to be a nomad? Did they always sleep outside on the ground covered only with blankets? Wall himself explains, in an interview, that he sees and photographs in a bubble, but that the photograph “knows” more than he does. I am with him this far, but not when he goes on to say that he can detach the social conditions of the work from its aesthetics.

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Photographs of people Rosalind Fox Solomon met while traveling on commuter buses in Israel and the West Bank.

Sometimes there is no explanation at all.

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Stephen Shore, Nabi Musa, 2010

In an effort to bring to light some of what the photographs, if not the photographers might “know,” demonstrators on Saturday supplied new captions for Stephen Shore’s landscape photographs of “this land that a lot of people want to claim for their own.”

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Photographs by participants in workshops run by photographer Wendy Ewald in Palestine and Israel. What do the explanations say? A line on the floor discourages visitors from finding out.

There are other strategies. The small photographs taken by Wendy Ewald’s workshop participants are arranged on shelves. Wall copy is also arranged on shelves, but viewers cannot come close enough either to the photographs or to the written explanations to examine them and perhaps have their assumptions challenged.

The exhibition strives for complexity but what is complexity? For the most part it seems to suggest that complexity is even handedness. Once one side occupies the other, however, it is impossible to deal an even hand. Similarly, complexity is not universality. To universalize tends to normalize the unacceptable. Complexity demands a degree of nuance that some of these photographs possess but that the framework keeps hidden. All of the photographs “know” more than their photographers, just as my own photographs “know” more than I do. But the neutrality of the installation mutes this knowledge.

The private funding does, too. That the organizations and individuals that funded This Place are not governmental entities means that the organizers did not have to confront the cultural boycott advocated by BDS, the movement that uses cultural boycotts among other strategies to force an end to the occupation. But all the same the funders for the most part fund Zionist organizations; some of them funnel money to settlements and even the Israeli military. None of them fund initiatives to help Palestine or Palestinians. The exhibition itself, which prefers the term “West Bank” to “Palestine,” has tamed its subject.

Perhaps the funders of Taglit-Birthright felt some kinship between This Place and the mission of the Birthright trip to tie young Jews to the land and to one another. The co-founder of Taglit and several of its donors are among the organizations funding This Place. But sometimes a Birthright trip backfires. A young birthrighter may come to see the agonizing contradictions between the framing narrative of the trip and the intolerable ethical situation that confronts any visitor whose Jewish education taught her to regard ethical responsibility as its basis. If so, she might leave feeling that she has been used, and these photographers should do the same.

and one more thing: The demonstration on Saturday, May 6, yoked two protests together, a pro-Palestinian protest aimed at exposing the ideological “neutrality” of This Place and  another that targeted the museum’s role in gentrification through pandering to real-estate moguls on its board. For that protest, the demonstrators targeted an exhibit, Agitprop, about the use of art for social justice.

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Interactivity was built into the exhibition Agitprop

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It also featured numerous protest videos.

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Here, museum security closes Agitprop to actual demonstrators.

if not otherwise identified, all photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.

 

 

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