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

 

June 2, 2018, Ramadan: Umm al-Amad and Bi’r al-Id.

1. Umm al-Amad

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Three weeks ago,  resourceful little Walaa was quick-witted enough to use her cell phone to film settlers flying a drone and when the settlers suspected her, to pretend convincingly to be on a call with her aunt. A week later, she leaned against Aziza’s legs, drooping and coughing. Aziza, clearly concerned, kept feeling Walaa’s forehead and eventually sent her home.

20180519-BC5A4000crplvlcrv2.jpgThat first weekend of Ramadan was exceptionally hot, over 30 degrees in the shade. The children were limp.

20180519-BC5A3997crplvlcrvMembers of the activist group Ta’ayush travel from Jerusalem to South Hebron every week on Shabbat, answering requests from Palestinian shepherds and farmers to accompany them and their flocks to their lands which are close to Israeli settlements. On Ramadan it is not always obvious why we make the trip. In fact, there are fewer volunteers than at other times, and we don’t see many Palestinians either. Here, in Umm al-Amad, without so much as water to sustain them on a hot day, shepherds rarely venture down from the hills near home with their flocks into the more intense heat of the valleys close to the settlements.

After sending Walaa home, Aziza remained safely uphill with the sheep. Come earlier next time she says and we do. Today, beginning with Umm al-Amad, I try to comprehend why we are here. As it turns out, soldiers and settlers make the task easier.

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We arrive by seven, and it is cooler than last week. From under her canopy, we hear Aziza explain that she will stay home today anyway with both children. We follow Seff and the sheep through the morning fog past orchards where walls of tires protect the new trees from the goats. From there we descend into the wadi.

20180602-BC5A4434crvWhen the fog lifts, we are joined by soldiers. One of us overhears their report: “There are four anarchists here.” The soldiers’ task is to keep the shepherd and the flock away from the settlement by drawing an imaginary line and preventing them from crossing it.

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These are city boys from Tel Aviv, loaded down with weaponry, but determined to enjoy a day in the country.

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They pose for pictures and baa at the sheep,

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It’s a poor substitute for the sound of the shepherd, who controls his flock through virtuoso cries and high-pitched whines as well as strategically aimed stones.

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Eventually we all settle down to the game of watching: Seff watches the sheep; the soldiers watch Seff and the anarchists; and the anarchists (Guy, Pepe, Caron and me) watch everyone, including each other.

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Once Seff crosses another imaginary line, safely beyond the boundary of the settlement, the soldiers drive away. Is it an empty exercise? The shepherds say no. They ask us to come because when they arrive without “anarchists” they have reason to be afraid.

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2. Bi’r al-Id

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With little we can do to help, we use Ramadan to do tasks on our own. One of them is to labor on the impassable road from Bi’r al-‘Id.  Someday it will lead, as it once must have, to Jinba.

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Our hands encased in hot plastic work gloves, we collect rocks from the slopes and bring them to the road in buckets. Then as though assembling a jigsaw puzzle, we artfully arrange the rocks in the gaps: little rocks go here, bigger rocks go there, and the biggest rocks go in the deepest holes.

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If only we could import heavy equipment and truckloads of materials the work would have ended long ago. At this rate only the youngest among us might live to see it finished. We have written about this absurd process before: here and here. But at least on a hot day like today we will not stay long and I have never known settlers to disturb this work.

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Until today. “How about ten more buckets of rocks?” Amiel says, “and then we’ll leave.” At this moment, the two grown sons of the deceased owner of nearby Nof Nesher (population 4) arrive with a friend. They bring with them police, with whom they have lodged numerous complaints about us, and soldiers. We are picking wild Zatar, a protected plant; the land on which we are working is theirs; a nine-year-old Palestinian girl has tried to stab them. As it happens, zatar does not grow along this road (The zatar ban is a story in itself: you can read about it here); their settlement is illegal even according to Israeli law, and no map places the road on their farm; the story about the child is nonsense.

Documents in hand, the police check our IDs or passports, draw some of us, and some of the settlers aside, and begin nearly endless discussions.

20180602-BC5A4690lvlctr.jpgAll this time volunteers are hurriedly continuing the work. Bucket after bucket of rocks pour out onto the road and punctuate the conversations of the bored girlfriend, the shouting of the loudmouth brother in the green hat and the sullen responses of the one in the white tee shirt. Most of the conversation is out of earshot but occasionally a shouted phrase comes through like “Eretz Yisrael!”; “All this is ours!” Did I hear one of them yell “Misrahi!” at the soldier with the Arabic accent?

The soldiers and the police are not fond of these two who constantly bring complaints, but they are not fond of us either. Their lives would be easier if we would only stay in Jerusalem minding our own business.

20180602-BC5A4758crvNow the brothers carry out a clever plan. They start to pick up stones we have fitted into the road and toss them back onto the slopes. As one glances in my direction I recognize a grimace I used to see frequently in my middle school days.

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20180602-BC5A4762lvlcrv.jpgWhen they tire of throwing stones they start to build piles of them like little toy roadblocks.

20180602-BC5A4743crpcrv.jpg“I have at least as much right to move rocks around the road as they have.” Finally, one policeman loses his patience.

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A soldier declares the zone closed and everyone leaves. First the brothers leave, and then we pick up our tools and leave, too. We leave hurriedly, because suddenly we are under pressure: we have five minutes to gather our people, gather our things and leave.

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Aggravated, I complain as we walk back toward the beginning of the road. But Amiel, who sees possibilities in nearly every situation, reminds me that thanks to the brothers, we worked longer and accomplished more than we would have otherwise. They were, after all, the only reason we stayed. Did I notice any soldier who may be motivated to rethink the occupation by what happened this afternoon?

I don’t know.

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But what about the rocks that the settlers threw off the road?

Trivial.

 

3. Highway 356, between Hebron and Bani Na’im.

20180602-BC5A4778crvOn the way back to Jerusalem we pass a ruined vineyard, like one we passed on highway 60 last week. This time, its owners are standing by the side of the road.

20180602-BC5A4818crvWe stop and let Mohammed and Abu Abdella show us how the dead vines, cut near the base by settlers, still hang from the top of the structure built to support them.

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20180602-BC5A4805crvlvlThey show us a cellphone picture of the same graffiti we saw last week at a burnt wheat field at Ad Deirat: “Enough agricultural terror. We will spread everywhere.”

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They invite us in, but there is no way to serve us anything. After all, it is Ramadan.

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Suddenly my throat feels parched, even though I have been drinking water all day.

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text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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Demolition, Liberation: May 5, 2018, Al-Mirkez

20180505-BC5A3149crvShe looks like a young girl from a distance, her uncovered braid floating back and forth as she sweeps, hoists broken doors, and repeatedly crosses the wide expanse with a bucket to fetch water from a cistern. But when she pauses in her chores to interact briskly and anxiously with the men and boys, I see that her face is old. I wish I could show this narrow, taut face and its look of experience and concern, but photographs of girls and all but the oldest women are banned. Yet I know I am looking at the worry of a grown woman, of a mother for her children; it is not the face of a frightened child. In spite of the uncovered hair I still wonder if somehow I could be seeing the face of a woman who failed to grow. She is off again, so I settle on the expression “diminutive person” for now.

20180505-BC5A3273lvlcrvLast Wednesday, soldiers in two Civil Administration jeeps and two bulldozers arrived in al-Markez in the South Hebron Hills, one of twelve towns in Masafer Yatta located in the area that Israel knows as “firing zone 918.” They began their destruction there and moved on to three other towns. In all, they demolished 6 houses and 2 animal fences, confiscated 9 solar panels and their batteries, and destroyed 3 water tanks. They made homeless 29 people, including 10 children. The excuse was lack of building permits, but as we know, such permits are not issued to Palestinians.

20180502-BC5A2831rawlvlcrv.jpgI found out about the demolitions on May 2, the day they occurred. A group of American legislative aides, constituents, and a few others coordinated by Rebuilding Alliance, an American non-profit organization that works to help Palestinian communities keep their villages standing, had traveled to the village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, which is itself currently under a demolition order. There we met with resident Nasser Nawaja, spokesperson for Susiya, as well as with a representative from Haqel, an Israeli NGO that works through legal channels to save Palestinian land from appropriation, and with Elad Orian, from Comet-ME, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO that provides sustainable energy and clean water to these communities. I have written about Comet-ME before (here). Nasser, who works as a field researcher for the human rights organization B’tselm, had just returned from documenting the demolitions. Elad discussed Comet-ME’s commitment to restore services after demolitions and confiscations.

20180502-BC5A2845clncrvThe group also paid a call on red-haired Sami Huraini in nearby Twaneh. Sami is recovering from an operation on his leg, broken in two places late in March when Israeli settlers from the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on (illegal in the eyes of Israel, not only the international community) ran over Sami in a jeep. The settlers were attacking a group of activists near the Palestinian village of Sarura, which the activists, including Sami, have been trying to protect (see here). He was still limping about on a walker but he seemed in good spirits. He was recovering and expected to return to work soon and continue his studies in International Law at Hebron University. 20180502-BC5A2904crvlvlcrpWhile we were there a group of activists arrived from another NGO, Operation Dove (here) . 20180502-BC5A2909crpThey were preparing to publish their videos from the morning’s demolitions (here and here). 20180502-BC5A2888lvlAl-Mirkez was the hardest hit of the four villages, and it is here that Ta’ayush is needed most today. Jinba also suffered demolitions. In early 2017 a ruling was expected from the High Court that might permit the Civil Administration to evict all the villages located in the firing zone. My friend David M. and I went there then to experience with them the agony of waiting for a court decision, but we found their time so taken up with the daily round of problems, hopes and daily chores that the supposedly decisive moment was lost in the shuffle (for an account that day and an explanation of “firing zones,” see here).

Post demolition, things are different. The firing zone seems far. It takes an extra half hour to drive in and around the hills through stone fields accessible only to four-wheel drive vehicles including, I suppose, bulldozers, to al-Markez. Now that we are there, I confront one of the water tanks whose destruction I saw in a video.

20180505-BC5A3118crpBut the whole area is dotted with heaps of rubble.

20180505-BC5A3126crvlvlcrpWhile others work to clear out space to rebuild a structure,

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20180505-BC5A3306crvbal.jpgI get a tour through more of the devastation.

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20180505-BC5A3325crv.jpgWe don’t have another bulldozer to clear out the rubble made by last week’s bulldozers. With our tools it can take up to twenty minutes and six men to move a large rock into place and line it up with the others that will eventually form a terraced edge for the new foundation.

20180505-BC5A3252crvlvlcrp.jpgBut at least the residents have a little time to tend animals

20180505-BC5A3291-lvlcrp.jpgand do other chores that distracted them while they were waiting, but now threaten to get lost in the rubble.

20180505-BC5A3172lvlcrv.jpgOr become much harder to do because of the lack of clean water and electricity. A refrigerator that no longer has electricity needs to be emptied and cleaned, most of the food discarded and the containers washed. And scarce water that can now only be drawn and carried from a cistern, makes washing dishes a challenge.

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20180505-BC5A3381crv2Eventually some reinforcements come including two journalists working on a story for a Japanese periodical.

20180505-BC5A3442LR.jpg We are shown where the battery for the solar power had been.

20180505-BC5A3466crv.jpgIt is Tahrir who draws the water for the dishes and hoists the broken door and other large ruined pieces of their home. She is my “diminutive person.” When I ask her name (in Arabic) she smiles, and does so with the quintessential child’s smile. Soon she is smiling at me from around every corner and bringing delight to one of the most depressing days I have spent in South Hebron. Tahrir means “liberation.” After a while she asks me for my name and transforms it into Margarita. Enthusiasm is contagious. Her brother Hamid asks me to take his picture. He does so in the cave, where as it happens the soldiers saw fit to cut the electrical lines, I suppose to make life more difficult once the villagers acquire new solar panels.

20180505-BC5A3393LR.jpgCan you make me a print and bring it to me? I have no computer or phone or any other way to have a picture.

20180505-BC5A3451lvlcrv.jpgI will try.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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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

 

 

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/

Germany’s Open Door Policy (padlocked)*

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A few days ago the New York Times published an article about the German pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale. This year the theme was Germany’s open borders; its heartfelt welcome to refugees; and consequent social changes. You may read it here. The exhibition represents open borders by cutting openings into its building. The pavilion’s website provides access to a database of projects for housing the new refugees who are pouring into the country in record numbers. Yet the reviewer notices that “Absent from the database are the voices of refugees or meaningful consideration of what it feels like to live in these spaces, something the curators acknowledge, but attribute partly to the fast-changing situation on the ground.”

The problem of housing the refugees, providing them with a permanent status and a way to seek work and education did not begin with the present crisis, however, as the curators of the Biennale well knew. The country is already crowded with thousands of refugees immobilized by bureaucracy, prevented from working, and isolated from society in facilities that the refugees refer to with the loaded German term “Lager.”

In the pavilion, you will find a selection of photographs by Stefanie Schulz, a young photographer with whom I had the honor of sharing an exhibition, “The Waiting Rooms of History.” The exhibition, at the Kunstverein Paderborn, is open until June 6, 2016. For a year, Stefanie followed refugees in a camp at Lebach. Originally intended as a first admittance facility for brief sojourns of a few months, the camp instead devolved into a long-term residence where some refugees have spent as much as fourteen years. Those who were born here are growing up knowing no other home. While her intimate portraits (you may view some here), do not substitute for voices from refugees themselves, they offer a glimpse into lives in stasis and contradict the idealized vision of Germany’s open arms and heart cherished by many on my side of the Atlantic. Her title “Duldung” means “tolerated” with the connotation of “but just barely,” or “endured.” It is the official status inscribed on refugee’s identity cards until they acquire permanent status – if they do. The feeling goes both ways. The refugees barely tolerate the stasis in which they are forced to live. Duldung is better than nicht geduldet (not tolerated), but in no way does the term mean “welcome.”

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Oranienplatz. No remnants of the demonstration remain today.

I visited a refugee in Berlin who has lived for more than three years in a facility in an abandoned school. In 2012, refugee activists themselves occupied the Oranienplatz, a square in the Kreuzberg neighborhood in central Berlin, where they camped out in tents and then wooden huts. The activists were eventually evicted from Oranienplatz; the tents demolished. The activist artist group Bewegung Nurr, built “the house with 28 doors,” a gathering place and resource center. Activists continued to meet there until March, 2015, when arsonists burnt it down.

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Late in 2012, some of the activists occupied the nearby Gerhardt Hauptmann School on Ohlauer Strasse. The plan was to live there and create a refugee center with facilities for workshops in music, theater and crafts. The refugees demanded access to German lessons, the job market, and education as well as an increased period of “Duldung.” There were several attempts to evict them and many left. But the refugees remaining in the school ultimately won a court order allowing them to stay and for now they remain.

Only residents may enter and leave the building. The ritual of locking and unlocking is repeated interminably. The guard rises from a chair

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or leaves the guardhouse

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unlocks the gate, locks it up again, and returns to his place.

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The rationale for the guards and the padlock is that they protect the residents from skinheads who would break in and attack them. They also protect the residents from visits by journalists, educators, and friends.

The police were adept at dodging the camera. If I return long enough to become better acquainted I will photograph the resident activist I met there.

But for now, a portrait of a wary padlock will have to do.

All photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.

 

20160525-IMG_5949-2crp*Thanks to Gregor Wendler for introducing me to the  Ohlauer Schule, Oranienplatz and other significant sites for refugees in Kreuzberg.

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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Ezra Nawi, Ta’ayush, and 30 seconds of video

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Ezra Nawi, May 31, 2014

“Just as they film, so we film as well”

How powerful is a photographic medium? In Israel, thirty seconds of it is enough to arrest a man and keep him incommunicado for days without access to his lawyer. Enough to prompt from the Prime Minister a vicious condemnation of those who would hide behind the hypocrisy of “caring for human rights,” and, from the Defense Minister and the Education Minister, even more extreme attacks against human rights organizations. At best, there are calls for the “moral left” to repudiate the man who is under arrest, to condemn him without a trial, as well as “to thank the two journalists for their courageous, professional work.” You can read this piece by Ari Shavit here. The officials posted their remarks on their respective Facebook pages.

So: how powerful is a photographic medium? The question has occupied me for a few decades. Most recently, on-and-off over the last year and a half, I have been using my own camera to investigate how human rights groups in Israel use their cameras. One especially has absorbed my attention, the group Ta’ayush (the name is Arabic for “living together”), a rather small all-volunteer organization that works through legal channels to win back land stolen from Palestinians in South Hebron and prevent further robberies and demolitions. On Saturdays members accompany Palestinians to their lands to protect them from settler violence while they plow, graze their sheep, plant and harvest crops. Their cameras are always in action. You can see some of my results and a few of my anxieties in past posts on this blog. Their work is heartbreaking but still manages to inspire hope. To me the group means far more than an academic exercise.

But my epigraph is not from my own research. It is a translation of some of the first spoken words in an incriminating half hour video that appeared on January 7 on Uvda, a major Israeli investigative news program. Author of the report is Omri Assenheim, an award-winning journalist. The report is about two members of the far right organization Ad Kan (meaning literally “up to here” and figuratively “enough is enough”), who “infiltrated” Ta’ayush, filmed its activities, and zeroed in on its most loud-mouthed member. The two, a young man and his girlfriend, eventually succeeded in goading him into saying something outrageous. He said that he hands over “them” (we eventually find out that “them” means Palestinians who sell land to Israelis) to the Palestinian Authority. The infiltrator asks him what happens to the people after that, and he answers that the Authority kills them, after first subjecting them to beatings. There are many problems with the “facts” that the video claims to document, and some good commentary on the film points them out.  In English I recommend David Shulman’s report here. You might also read the report in Haaretz by Amira Hass here. I will add only that I know Ezra Nawi through Ta’ayush and while he might say anything at all, he would never knowingly send anyone to his/her death. Indeed this case is no exception.

Here I want to concentrate on the video itself. When I first saw it I found it hard to imagine that anyone could take it seriously; it has all the hallmarks of a hack job, a video tabloid. Clips taken on different days are bunched together randomly and accompanied by scare music and voice-over narration that romanticizes the investigators. Images of Ad Kan members setting up their cameras are interspersed with those of scary-looking Ta’ayush volunteers. It is possible that one of those alarming “lefties” hiding behind a camera could be this writer, an aging, but not-very fearsome scholar like several other members of Ta’ayush. The founder of Ad Kan says he was horrified to hear a few such people make demeaning remarks, right in front of a young soldier, about his failure to remember the values he must have been taught in high school. The identities of the moles are hidden. The young woman’s face is blacked out in an interview, but not before we are treated to a tantalizing silhouette of her slim body in profile as she tosses back her long silky hair. I have seen many similar videos, some, for example, from anti-abortion groups in the United States seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood. The word “heavily edited” was on everyone’s lips concerning these videos, but other methods are often used to enhance such editing. Shooting so as to conceal the lips of the speaker for example, can hide the cuts that leave out words central to the speaker’s intentions.* Most of the planned-parenthood videos are far more subdued than this sensationalized video by Uvda, however. While watching it eyes roll. At least they should.

The crux of the video from Uvda centers on Nawi. There is a good deal of discussion of a putative land sale by a Palestinian who, we are given to understand, Nawi wishes to lead into a trap. But perhaps the decisive moment takes place in a car, in footage made with a hidden camera and first aired two minutes into the program. There, in less than 30 seconds, Nawi makes the above-mentioned incriminating remarks. The visuals are terrible. It is impossible to see him as he talks. Lights flash twice in the middle, blotting out everything.

But this is just a teaser toward the beginning of the program. The same conversation reappears twenty minutes later in the course of a longer discussion of the deal with the Palestinian selling land.

Or rather, the same audio reappears, but the video is different. This new video, also in the car, has a different time stamp about 15 minutes later than the first one. Or perhaps it was taken on a different day altogether, since there is only a time stamp and no date stamp on the first video. The camera angle is different. A paper in the foreground on the first run-through has mysteriously vanished and there are no blinding flashes. Only in the later video does Nawi wear sunglasses. In the middle of this new video, after Nawi says that he turns people over to the Palestinian Authority, but before he is asked what happens to such people next, there is a cut, and suddenly the time stamp registers a six-minute long gap. Were there two – or three – hidden cameras? I doubt it. Did Nawi repeat the same words with exactly the same inflection after fifteen minutes, then after another six minutes, or on other occasions altogether? I doubt that as well. Only the speaker, whose mouth is invisible in both versions, connects the visuals. At the end of the new 30-second clip you can finally glimpse his mouth and it is smiling. Is Ezra’s “vicious smile” (in the words of the Jewish Press) the reason that the conversation was attached to these visuals and not to others?

Why does the altered video matter? Am I acting like an academic book reviewer who discredits someone’s hard-won argument because of a misplaced comma or a typo? I don’t think so. At best the discrepancy reveals sloppiness in the television producers and at least one place where the video takes words out of context. We should consider the possibility that there may well be more. The incriminating words could have been spliced into the program at nearly any point. Perhaps this thirty seconds is indicative of the false premises on which the entire thirty minutes were constructed.

On this basis, a man has been subjected to death threats and then arrested. Worse, all human rights groups and especially Ta’ayush are immediately drawn in and subject to wholesale condemnation although there is no suggestion that they had anything to do with the land deal. And this at a moment when the government is in the midst of a campaign against them. As I write, Ezra Nawi is about to come before a judge. His guilt or innocence or whether he is charged at all will presumably be decided without the help of this doctored video. I hope he is released unharmed and soon, but whatever happens, it should not affect the work of Israeli human rights organizations. Any Jerusalem resident reading this might consider accompanying Ta’ayush to South Hebron one Saturday.

Epilogue: Soon after I posted this, two more arrests were made; two more dedicated activists were held behind bars with no access to lawyers, without formal charges, their names under a gag order. They were released after about a week. The cases, however, were kept open.

*On March 28, 2017, the two moles who infiltrated Planned Parenthood were indicted in California on 15 criminal counts of illegal recording and conspiracy and a warrant was issued for their arrest. I am not informed that any members of Ad Kan have been subjected to anything similar.

Thanks to Yagil Eliraz for assistance with Hebrew.

 

Text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015Project20140531_0532-crp2

 

 

 

 

Photographic Aggression, Trust, Shame: Susiya, Sheikh Jarrah, June 5, 26, 2015

20150626-IMG_6883lvlcrvYou won’t see the touching photograph I took at a memorial wall in New York after September 11, 2001, when a woman’s smile gave way to tears as my shutter clicked. It amounted to inadvertent aggression. Some regard all “street photography” categorically as aggressive and unethical. But I think photographic aggression needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, even when that can be difficult. Such moments arise frequently during and between my intermittent visits to Palestine this past year, where I have been thinking about and documenting photographic practices while engaging in them. As a foreigner I learn local customs slowly. In my effort to do no harm, I navigate photography’s interrelations and worry about breaking photographic taboos.

For my last post (here) I emailed a photograph to a subject who had not wanted me to take her picture. I planned to add it to an urgent report by David Shulman about the immanent demolition of the Palestinian village Susiya in area “C” in the South Hebron Hills. David has been sharing and following the travails of these families for years, but I am only beginning to know them. It might make sense to illustrate his post with pictures of ragged tents and sad-eyed children. But those images could feed into a patronizing justification for the demolitions, according to which villagers, and especially women (“to improve the(ir) status” in the words of the Civil Authority) would be better off further straining the resources of an already over-crowded, under-served town elsewhere. I prefer to visualize the villagers’ determination to make their tents and temporary structures into a livable town in the face of settler harassment and Civil Administration obstructionism, and even under the shadow of immanent demolition. Fatma’s picture could help me add a hint of this subtext with the face of a strong woman. She granted permission almost immediately; to me the photographic exchange signified trust.  You may learn more about Fatma’s organization, The Rural Woman’s Association, here.

The rest of this post is the one I dropped last week in order to concentrate on Susiya. It also concerns street photography and photographic interaction around it, but on a real street, in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. While my own worries remain with Susiya, still in grave danger, Sheikh Jarrah is worth a detour if only because it involves patterns of appropriation similar to those of Susiya, patterns that involve refusals to issue construction permits to Palestinians, eviction on the basis of missing permits, court cases that drag on for years, and settlers who are welcome in the meantime to stay and build on the “vacant” property and live in the “abandoned” homes, with or without permits. I won’t, however, discuss the details, readily available on the internet, for example, here.

Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, June 26, 2015

20150626-IMG_6889crpcrv2Local residents are waiting for me on a sidewalk on Othman Ibn-Affan street in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. They are members of three families who were evicted in recent years from homes behind us and across the street.

20150626-IMG_6877distcrvSix years ago, Israeli Jews took over the houses, aided by an NGO that seeks to turn East Jerusalem into a Jewish neighborhood. They set off a complex series of legal proceedings as well as Friday afternoon protests at a nearby intersection. A few years ago, these protests were large and boisterous, and attacked by an equally loud and boisterous police force. They were “a scene,” I am told. The court cases and the protests continue and the families remain locked out of their homes, but the land grabs have slowed. The demonstrations, now smaller, are thought to have had an effect. 20150605-IMG_5803crvA few Fridays ago, on June 5, the anniversary of the occupation attracted a larger crowd of peacefully chanting protesters.

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A panicky police force arrived and set off a stun grenade

that injured a fourteen-year-old girl.20150605-IMG_5850lvlcrp

 

 

 

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There were three arrests.

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Saleh, a Palestinian activist, promised to tell me about Sheik Jarrah over coffee after the rally but he was arrested. Although no charges were filed, no one was released until after midnight. I did not manage to return for three weeks, but finally I am back and Saleh still remembers. Now it is Ramadan, so we have our discussion without coffee – but with, and about, photographs. He flips through a bundle of well thumbed pictures at a breakneck speed that makes them as hard to focus on as the confused action they depict. They are faded and crinkled, but with them Saleh relives moments in the story and he pulls each one out like a trump card. They show evictions. 20150626-IMG_6882crvOr they show settlers on the same sidewalks where we are now, with police or soldiers or Palestinians

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“The photographs are proof.”

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“That’s this yard right here. Can you believe what he’s doing?”

I would photograph the settlers now living in Palestinian homes across the street,

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but they are leaving for Shabbos.

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“These people have other places to go. They don’t even live here on the weekend.”

Eventually a settler parks a motorcycle on our side of the street.

“Please photograph him,” requests Nabeel al-Kurd. “He lives in my house.” The settler turns around as I raise my camera. The other settlers are Americans, but apparently not this one. In labored English, asks me not to take pictures:

“They forget something. The house it is not Jewish, but isn’t the land Jewish? I know, I know. These houses are Palestinian. But anyway I do not want to live here. This is uncomfortable. It is too hot. I want to move. I have only lived here six months.”

He is pleading now.

“Do not take my photograph. It is my private self. I am really no more than just a visitor. It is not my fight. I do not want it. We are friends, right?”

He addresses all this to me. He says nothing to Mr. al-Kurd. After he leaves Nabeel says, “He knows what he is doing is wrong.” He fears that his picture could be used, like the one in Salah’s pack, as photographic ammunition. Any photograph is like an assault, a small thrown stone, and the man with the motorcycle does not want one aimed at him.

But sometimes photographic aggression is warranted. “My camera is my weapon. No one should go into the field without a camera,” I am told by Guy, who works with the human rights organization Ta’ayush and Rabbis for Human Rights. What weapons should they use instead? No one would argue that it is unfair to film or photograph a crime in progress. In the United States, film and now videos have played an important role in the opposition to police brutality. Maybe they will help to reduce it some day. Even an aggressive, hostile look deserves an aggressive, hostile look back through the eye of a camera.

Is photographic aggression called for today in Sheik Jarrah or is this settler’s near admission of wrongdoing, his awareness of the complexity of the situation he has waded into, enough to justify deleting the photograph? Will he move out soon? When he does, will the al-Kurd family get its home back? If I show it, will my photograph follow him wherever he goes and cause him harm? And why is the prospect of the photograph so frightening? After all, unlike Saleh’s photographs, mine can show nothing but a man parking a motorcycle on a city street. The only explanation we can come up with is that he does not want to face his own shame.

“May I take your picture?” I ask Mr. al-Kurd.

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text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015