Out of sight: Ein ar Rashash in December, 2018


December 12: “If a tree falls in the forest . . . “

There is barely a single tree here, but nearly everyone today voiced some version of the famous philosophical puzzle about the observer and existence. Or coexistence.


Ein Rashash is a Bedouin community. Do not let the word “Bedouin” deceive you. Rashash is not a temporary encampment and its shepherd community is there to stay. Some years ago, the civil administration, which controls “Area C” of Palestine for Israel, declared their grazing grounds a “firing zone.” Even that made little difference in their lives. Demolitions seldom occurred,* and during real military exercises – they, too were rare – soldiers would ask the shepherds to keep their flocks from particular areas for a few days. But now, the Israeli settlement outpost Malachei Ha Shalom sits next to an army base. For a while the army supplied this outpost, illegal under both Israeli and international law, with water and utilities, or at least allowed the shepherds to siphon then off, but eventually someone exposed the practice. The settlement has remained here, however, and the settlers do everything they can to keep the Bedouins out of the area. Like the Bedouins, they herd sheep; the idea that Israelis can capture more land by becoming shepherds has been proudly attributed to a current resident of the outpost.*

20181212-BC5A5436.JPGNow, from a high ridge, Israeli shepherds with their flocks often watch Bedouin shepherds with theirs below.

20181212-BC5A5496lvlcrv2.jpgThe army tries to be “fair.” A quiet road was briefly the focus of an attempt to divide the land between the settlers and the Bedouins.

20181219-BC5A5964cln.jpgWhen this effort failed the army decided to expel everyone equally from the firing zone. This means that if the two groups are grazing at the same time, the settler shepherds will move their own flocks just out of the zone and call the army. After the army expels the Palestinians, the settlers can return with their flocks undisturbed. Our mission for today is to help the Bedouins move safely past the one place where they can be seen by settlers. It worked perfectly yesterday. Today, not so much.

20181212-BC5A5463lvlcrvcrpFor a while, everything goes easily. We walk to meet the sheep, content to nibble, and their equally placid minders. Eventually, the settlers and their herd appear on the ridge. From a distance it is hard to distinguish one group of shepherds from another. At first it appears that they will be satisfied just to gaze down and know that they have the upper hand. Michal approaches them. When I join her, she tells me that the shepherds are annoyed because one of the sheep dogs has taken a liking to her. He is not a good herding animal, she laughs. I add, and Michal agrees, that were he here our friend David might have something to say about the dilemma of a sheep dog who can’t tell the difference between settlers, Palestinians, Bedouins, or activists. But of course, to know this kind of difference is part of the dog’s job.

20181212-BC5A5412lvlcrv2.jpgI see one of the settlers on the telephone. Sure enough, a little while later, a jeep appears on the hilltop.

20181212-BC5A5507lvlcrv.jpgThe soldiers are bored and aggravated.

20181212-BC5A5515crp.jpgWhen they are prevented from doing their job in the simplest and most literal way, involving the fewest steps, they can find it annoying. The Palestinians must leave the area, explains the officer.

20181212-BC5A5521.JPG And yes, the settlers will also have to leave. The officer climbs back up the hill; the Palestinians disappear; but the settlers of course stay put. We remain to confirm this, and the officer returns to us.

20181212-BC5A5549.JPGThe conversation continues, and the soldier is feeling cranky. He recognizes that for form’s sake, it would be nice if the settlers would take a few steps back behind the hilltop where they could not be seen, even though they would still be in the firing zone. But the Bedouins, he adds, are playing the same “game.”

20181212-BC5A5554See, he says, they must be in the valley just below. There’s their dog. None of us see the Bedouin’s dog, although all this time the friendly settlers’ dog is trying his best to get acquainted with one of the soldiers. The officer threatens that he can up the ante. I can call the police, he says.

20181212-BC5A5534crv.jpgBelow the ridge, the Bedouins have decided not to return home right away.

20181212-BC5A5588crp.jpgAs we drink their tea, Arik speculates that they make it to claim their land. And also, I say, so that they can live their lives. Arik adds that they want to hold on to their dignity. Whatever their reason, none of us are allowed to enjoy our respite for long. By the time I have gulped down my tea, a new contingent of soldiers is back.

20181212-BC5A5597.JPGThe soldiers are angry. Having to shuttle back and forth between us and the settlers (still high up on their ridge in the firing zone) has tested the endurance of the officer.

20181212-BC5A5605.JPGBut today they have to reckon with Abu Jibril, whose endurance more than matches theirs. While he does not usually join the herd, he is also more determined, more invested, and more willing to express anger than the others.

20181212-BC5A5525lvlcrvcrp.jpgAs he has been telling us all morning, Abu Jibril remembers every day of the 50 years that the community has lived here, and the period of unrest that drove them here in the first place. Eventually, we all leave. The soldiers follow us out. The Bedouins want to rethink this situation. They cannot continue the daily aggravation. They do not want to be dependent on Ta’ayush. They want their lives back.


* * *

December 19: “does it make a sound?”

20181219-BC5A5973-Edit.jpgTa’ayush has been to Ein Rashash every day since. This week Rita and I are with Arik, Guy, three young women from Operation Dove (an Italian NGO), and two filmmakers. Alon and his assistant are making a film about the occupied territories, and Guy and Arik are miked.

20181219-BC5A6016crv.jpgWhen the soldiers first suggested calming the situation with an agreement dividing grazing land between settlers and Bedouins, the Bedouins rejected the offer because they did not see why any of their grazing land should be reserved exclusively for settlers. A few days ago, however, the shepherds asked for an informal, non-written agreement. The soldiers countered that they would just let everyone graze, as long as no problems arose. Arik interjected that the settlers are the ones who need to hear this.

20181219-BC5A6034-2.jpgWe followed Mohammad’s herds last week, but this week they are a bit late, so we follow the others. As we reach the ridge, Arik asks Rita and me to stay down with the Bedouin herds like last time and act as a buffer zone, while the others will climb the hill. As Arik puts it, in words reminiscent of American TV Westerns, “We’ll head them off at the pass.”

20181219-BC5A6038crvlvl.jpgThe settler Elchanan descended to meet them, according to Arik, He and Elchanan talked past each other for a long time.  The settler mouthed the usual nonsense about Bedouins: they are always trying to steel sheep; they attack settlers with stones; they are a danger to the community. And we are the provocateurs that instigate all the trouble. When Elchanan left, Arik and Guy and the others planned to split up, following separate Bedouin herds. There are now about four of them, including Mohammad’s, which has just become visible to Rita and me in the valley. But soldiers show up before the plan can be implemented. By this time, no Bedouins are in sight.

20181219-BC5A6077lvlcrvArik has alerted us about the soldiers and asked us to tell them to move their flocks farther away, so they have quickly made themselves scarce. No tea today. Rita and I recline and blissfully enjoy having the view all to ourselves. Then we come to our senses.

20181219-BC5A6093lvlcrvcrp.jpgWhen we join the activists, the soldiers, and the filmmakers up at the pass, they are deep in conversation. The soldiers – they are different ones than last week – think they are there because someone has complained about the settlers, so naturally their first thought is to expel the activists, who are, after all, always grumbling.

20181219-BC5A6108lvlcrvcrp.jpgBut with no Bedouins in sight, there is time to talk. They request that we refrain from photographing them, and briefly we acquiesce. When I see the filmmakers’ camera running, however, I retreat down the hill and photograph the conversation with a long lens.

20181219-BC5A6103lvlcrvcrp.jpgGuy and Arik take on the job of explaining the deep history of the dispute to the soldiers. I catch a few phrases. Arik evokes Nuremberg – perhaps they have told him they have their orders (?) From Guy I recognize common Hebrew expressions I have learned from him, like טיהור אתני (ethnic cleansing) and מריונטות (marionettes – his word for obedient operatives of the Civil Administration). The soldiers challenge these characterizations but they do engage with the activists.

20181219-BC5A6113.jpgEventually, for whatever reason, because the officer recognizes the absurdity of what the soldiers are doing, because there are still no Bedouin to be seen anywhere, or because of the mutual respect that has somehow developed between the officer and the activists, he calls the commander and reports that there is no conflict here and they all leave. It is a little victory.

20181219-BC5A6115.JPGLater, some of us speculate that the soldiers let everyone be because they couldn’t see the Bedouins. A visible Bedouin can potentially rouse instinctive rage in an officer of the occupation, but an invisible one inspires no reaction, any more than does the everyday barbarism of the occupation in a populace that fails to see any of it.

Or perhaps he was just tired of being surrounded by beauty.

20181219-BC5A6137crplvlcrv2text and photographs margaret olin © 2018


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

2018-09-21 06.44.20Shirat Haasavi.

Shirat Ha-Asavim. Photograph: David Shulman

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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Tahsin and Hamudi’s herd. Photograph: David Shulman

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


Photograph: Guy Hircefeld

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

2018-09-21 06.46.09

Photograph: David Shulman

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

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

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


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

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

September 14, 2018 al-Khan al-Ahmar David Shulman


Photograph: David Shulman

Days of Judgment, bein keseh le-asor, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Thick time. Heavy time. We spend the night in al-Khan al-Ahmar, which has already been judged. In an act of moral cowardice to a degree rare even by Israeli standards, the High Court removed the last legal impediments to the demolition of this Bedouin village and the violent expulsion of its people (some 200 in all). Judgment having been rendered, they await the execution. The army bulldozers could come at any moment.

House demolitions in Palestine are nothing new, but the erasure of entire communities is the new fashion cheerfully adopted by the government, the Civil Administration, even the courts. Al-Khan al-Ahmar sits mostly on privately owned Palestinian land, but the judges decided that this fact is “no longer relevant.” The people are to be transferred to a site that sits astride the Jerusalem dump at Abu Dis.


Al-Khan al-Ahmar school. photograph: Palestinian Monitor, 26 September 2017, photographer, author unidentified. source: here

We have activists with them round the clock. Not that they could stop the bulldozers when they come. They are there to be with the innocents in their hour of sorrow. They are there, too, to witness and to record, for the sake of some luckier generation to come. We drive through darkness. I am wondering if crimes of extraordinary cruelty committed during the Days of Repentance are more harshly punished than those carried out in ordinary time. Perhaps there is no such thing as ordinary time. Perhaps there is no punitive god.

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al-Khan al-Ahmar, September 13, 2018. Photograph: Jose Tavdyoglo

“Look what it’s come to,” Yigal says as we descend into the wadi that will take us to the site. Night in the desert:  good desert smells. Far away, jackals howl. Police are parked on the side of the road. Arik says we can either follow the goat path, which is shorter but also rather precarious, or take the longer route along the wadi and under the highway. We vote for the goat path. But before we have taken more than a few steps, an ambulance-minivan turns up, packed with Palestinians. They offer us a lift, and somehow the van stretches and expands to allow the three of us in. Inside, we notice that the atmosphere is very far from the gloom we are carrying. It’s more like going to a late-night party.

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Photograph: David Shulman

The big tent is packed with people. They have come from all the corners of Palestine, from Nablus and Twaneh and Ramallah and beyond. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a show of solidarity. There must be two hundred or more in the tent, including the Israeli activists from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Yossi greets us. The Nablus people are distributing those special Nablus sweets. A poster in black-and-red letters glows on the wall of the tent: “Education is resistance.” Al-Khan al-Ahmar, you will remember, has built a beautiful school out of mud and tires. It, too, awaits execution.

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al-Khan al-Ahmar, September 13, 2018. Photograph: Jose Tavdyoglo

Strange, more than strange, this unexpected happiness that flows in waves and eddies. I’m not prepared for it. I don’t understand it, but why bother with understanding? Isn’t it enough to feel it slowly begin swirling in me? People greet us, grasp our hands, some embrace us. “Thank you for coming.” A blessing, at once deep and nonchalant. A lightness. “I’m from Ramallah, where are you from?” “Al-Quds.” “East or West?” “West.” “Welcome. Thank you for coming.”


Photograph: David Shulman

After a while they bring food, plastic bags heavy with fresh pita, plates of white cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hummus, canned meat. Again and again they urge us to eat. We are their honored guests. We sit on the floor, taste the pita and cheese and olive oil. Women and men mingle freely—this, too, is a little strange. Something has let go. Together we try to assess the odds:  tomorrow is Friday, it’s unlikely, isn’t it, that they’ll demolish the village on the day of prayer. No, they may do it on Friday because the kids are not in school. Or simply to sharpen the torment. “You know,” someone says, “there’s betting going on. You place your bet on which day it will happen.” “Where’s the bookie?” “Over there”—just outside the tent, under the dark acacia tree.


School in Al-Khan al-Ahmar. photograph: Palestinian Monitor, 26 September 2017, photographer, author unidentified, source: here

A young man from Nablus comes over to us, introduces himself, but I can’t catch the name. He has much to say to us, in a crisp, slow Arabic. If only I had the presence of mind to record him. But it isn’t so much the content of his words as something arresting in the tone. “We thank you,” he says. “We know you, like us, are for peace. You are against Netanyahu, against the new Law of the Nation, against racism and violence and expulsion and discrimination and the Occupation that has lasted for decades. We are alike, you and me. We go a long way back, we have a history of many centuries, once there were Canaanites and Jews, now we, you and me, are their descendants. We want to live together. Everyone wants freedom, and we too want to be free. What Netanyahu is doing only creates hatred and grief. It cannot work. He will fail. One day we will be free.” “Min tumak lebab al-sama’,” I say: “From your mouth to the gates of heaven.” There he is again, still waiting, that non-punitive god.


Bedouin children at the garbage dump at Abu Dis, 2013. Photograph: Federica Marsi source here

Little by little, he tells us his story. “I was in prison for four years. I was shot at a demonstration, I took a bullet in my thigh. I ask myself what the Israeli soldier is thinking. Why does he shoot if he sees a young boy holding a flag? Doesn’t he know? Doesn’t he understand that he is hurting himself even more than he hurts me? What do the Israeli people think? Do they think they can force us to go away? Nothing can make us go away. We are here. Together with you.” “And you’re not afraid, are you?” I say, though it’s obvious. “No,” he says. Never. We are never afraid. We believe in justice, ‘adl. In the end, justice will win.” His voice is free of bitterness; gentle; musical; firm. He tells us he’s doing a degree in gender studies at Al-Najah University. After some time, he thanks us again, this time rather formally, with the ancient words of courtesy, and takes his leave.


Photograph: Yigal Bronner

By now it is past midnight, and the party shows no sign of abating. Last night, we are told, people went on talking and drinking coffee and smoking narghilehs until 3 AM. The tent is stacked high with mattresses and blankets. Around 1:00 I take a mattress and go outside to search for a place to sleep. It’s not cold, the air is good, I can see the stars. But it’s hard to find a place on the rocky hillside. Finally Yigal and I and a few others take our mattresses to the level ground of the schoolyard.


Photograph: Yigal Bronner

But I can’t sleep. I watch the stars spinning, laughing, receding. The generator rasps out its steady rhythm. From inside the tent, and from little groups standing on the slope, comes the murmur of many voices. More laughter. By now it makes sense to me. I know this, the joy of the night before day, before violence. I feel the release. It’s a marvel. These people are insouciant, effervescent, assured. They can’t be cowed. They have been hurt, insulted, terrorized by the state, soldiers, police, judges, the whole evil lot, and their future is as obscure and as tenuous as futures must be. More tenuous than most. What is certain is that they will be hurt again, and then again. Soon they will be dumped on the dump. Maybe the absence of an intelligible, ordinary future has unleashed in them a new kind of time, a present moment that for now, for tonight, is happiness enough. A thick and infinite moment of lightness. Maybe the paradox makes them laugh. The more the Jews hurt them, the freer these Bedouin are. Fear falls away. If the bulldozers come tomorrow, some will be beaten and wounded, some will be arrested, there will be scenes of rage, the police and soldiers will act like savages. That much is certain. Everyone knows it. And tonight we have joy flecked with love, utterly unlike the other kind of joy.

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photograph: David Shulman

Somehow, after an hour or two, I fall asleep, and at 5:00, when light slips in from the east, across the river, I wake from a dream. Nothing is left of the dream. The donkey tied to a tree just four or five yards away is stirring. Al-Khan al-Ahmar still stands. Slowly people rise from the cots. Some are drinking fresh coffee in tiny paper cups. Death, said Kalidasa, the great Sanskrit poet, is natural, the default of being. It is life that constitutes an aberration. That we go on breathing minute after minute is the miracle.


Note: A few hours after we left al-Khan al-Ahmar, the army bulldozers showed up and began to seal off the two or three remaining dirt tracks that are the last access routes to the site. Six Palestinians were arrested. It seems that the final act in this sordid drama of dispossession will happen very soon.


Photograph: courtesy Tariq Hathaleen, photographer unidentified

text © 2018 David Shulman


Photograph: Yigal Bronner

July 5, 2018: Susya. Post by David Shulman


Susiya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin


            So there is the Big Destruction, the one everyone in Susya and in al-Khan al-Ahmar knows will happen, the one everyone fears, and there are the Little Destructions along the way, the tremors that presage what is to come, as if the army were testing the water. ‘Azzam Nawajeh, whose home is on the demolition list, says he wishes they would do the big one already; waiting day after day, for many months, in the certainty that they will come, is torture enough. This morning we thought it was happening, but in the end what we saw were two Little Destructions. They were awful.

You who are reading these words probably know about Susya and al-Khan al-Ahmar. You know that for years the government has been eager to wipe out both villages. Over the years, we were able, again and again, to save Susya. Now times are worse. The Israel High Court of Justice approved the immediate demolition of seven structures in Susya and of everything in al-Khan al-Ahmar. That includes the beautiful school that I wrote about in my last dispatch. This week the brutal drama of al-Khan al-Ahmar began. But last night and today I was in Susya, and I will tell you what I saw.


Compound in Susiya, June, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

You may know about these places, but how many of you have spent an evening with a family whose home will be killed tomorrow or the next day? It’s a special mode of time, unlike any other. You wait in bitterness and terror. Maybe in the morning they will come. But why? Again and again, that terrible why. ‘Azzam is a soft-spoken man, born in Susya in 1961; he is eloquent in Arabic and in Hebrew, and here is what he said to us last night as we stood by the tent under the stars that, by the way, you can see better from Susya than in any modern city. A meteor flashed across the sky, and there was a cool wind blowing, and the air was scented with sage and dust and narghileh smoke and good goat-and-lamb smells, and something more, infinitely savory, that I can’t define.

First we asked him how he came to speak such perfect Hebrew, and he said: “I was a tahzukan, a maintenance person, for all the big petrol companies in Israel; I worked with them for over twenty years. I’m also a trained electrical engineer with a diploma from a college in Hebron. In those days people in this country still respected one another, and we worked together. I worked for a company where everyone was Palestinian except for the manager; people used to ask him why he employed only Arabs, and he would say that he liked it that way. There are good people and there are bad people everywhere. Today the bad people have power.


Compound in Susiya, May, 2018. Photograph: Margaret Olin

“I don’t understand them. Where is their humanity? Some basic human feeling. What happened to their Judaism? I’m ashamed of them for your sake. They want to demolish my house because, they say, it was built without a permit. True. But they took away my first home, the cave I was born in, over there [pointing to the archaeological site of Susya with its second-temple-period synagogue], they wrecked it, and then they drove us out. So who is the criminal here? I live on these rock slabs together with the snakes. I paved the entrance way with concrete. Maybe because there is now a flat surface in front of my house they decided they have to wreck it.

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Susiya, March, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

“I wonder if they can even imagine what life is like here. Have they ever had to live for a whole month without water, have they ever gone begging, for hours, for a glass of water from someone, anyone, out there on the hills? What do they think we want? I can tell you. We want a normal life. A decent home. The settlers over there have stone villas, we live in these tents, which they are coming to destroy.

“We love life. We love living. But how can we live like this? They can attack us and destroy our homes, but we will never leave this place. Never. We have lived on these hills for centuries. It’s burning hot in summer, and in winter the rain and the wind sometimes blow away the tents, you know what it’s like here in winter; once the wind lifted us several feet into the air, and we landed on the rocks and mud, without a roof.

“They think only brute force counts—that they can coerce us, terrify us, make us go away. Can’t they see that force produces nothing but hatred? More hate, ever more hate. It will blow up in their faces. Le’an higa‘nu—look where we are today. How did we sink so low?”

There was more that I don’t remember, much more. What I remember is the pain, and that strange time-that-is-no-time, or no more time, like a person waiting to be executed, let no one say that a home is not a living being. One waits, and time is too slow and too fast; it has fragility and thickness, its rhythm uneven, out of synch, it fingers your skin and your hair, mocking you, tormenting you. It drives you mad. No-Time, No-Mind, continuous grief. Will I sleep tonight?

We sit with the men and boys of Susya and with the visitors from Twaneh. Some are smoking narghilehs. They talk about what is happening in al-Khan al-Ahmar. Today there were many arrests and dozens of wounded. The soldiers acted like savages. The bulldozers plowed a path from the highway to the tents, to make the expulsion easier. The police tried to persuade the people there that they would be better off if they went peacefully, without protest, into the vehicles that are to dump them, literally, on the Jerusalem dump in Abu Dis.


Photograph: Awdah al-Halthalean

Before midnight we retire. They have made room for us in a small structure cluttered with mattresses and pillows. Outside, the young men are still talking; some finally fall asleep in the cool night air wherever they find a cozy spot. A strange elation—possibly of being in the right place at the right time, or maybe because it feels real—keeps me awake. Time is moving through me. At some point, maybe around 4:00, I wake from a dream to hear the muezzins in Yata. They are singing some haunting, low-pitched melody, the music of the spheres, and all the sorrow of the world and all the goodness are in it. In the dream I see the Dalai Lama and I hear him say, “Buddhism is about one thing, only one. It’s about seeing things as they really are.”


Photograph: David Shulman


By 6:00 the dogs, the roosters, and the goats are wide awake. Sunrise. Like on any day. The air still cool. We play a kind of soccer with Ahmad and Hamedi, and breakfast comes: the rough pita, omelets, tomato, olive oil and zaatar, tamarind, the sweet South Hebron tea. There were no soldiers invading us at daybreak, their favorite moment, ergo, there will be no demolitions here today. Maybe the army has been deterred by the uproar over al-Khan al-Ahmar. Or maybe not. Anyway, it’s quiet here, an inaudible pastorale.


Photograph: David Shulman

Yigal and I are about to leave for Jerusalem, but first we go to say goodbye to Muhammad Abu-Sadam, whose entire compound is also on the list of immediate targets. We climb the hill to his home. A goat, looking lame and weak, has somehow stumbled out among the rocks. Muhammad cradles him in his arms.

Muhammad Abu-Samad

photograph courtesy of Erella Dunayevsky/the Villages Group

Just as we arrive, we get a call: soldiers with demolition equipment have been sighted on their way to Susya.

So it’s today, after all. We rush with Nasser to the main road. Five or six army vehicles, a transport truck with bulldozer and crane, some police cars. Suddenly the hills are crawling with soldiers and big guns. Their commander thinks he is god. He speaks, or rather barks, roars, growls, sneers, only in threats. Sometimes he yells. He pokes and pushes us. This is a closed military zone. Get over there or I will arrest you right now. Don’t set foot on the road. Stay over there or you’ll regret it. Don’t ask me questions. I told you not to stand on the road. You’re asking for it. Get away. You’re not allowed to photograph. (He seizes Nasser’s cell phone and slips it into his back pocket.) Only from a distance. I’ll show you where you can stand. You see that hill over there. Photograph from there. I won’t show you the order or the map. You can call the Matak, the guy from the Civil Administration, he’ll tell you… But actually the Matak is there beside him, and he refuses to say a word. He, too, glares at us, a superior being, assured of his eternal prowess. The stench of machismo, vintage army issue, is everywhere. We try to argue, we call the lawyers, the officer refuses to speak with them, he doesn’t give a damn, no map, no photographs, just shut up and stand there or you’ll see what I do to you. He’s a coward, no mistaking it. Is he a human being? I guess so. Does he have a conscience? I don’t know. It’s like staring straight into the hideous face of the Occupation. It’s like seeing things the way they really are.


Photograph: David Shulman

It’s not clear if they’re here for the Big Destruction or not. Meanwhile, the bulldozer goes into action. The home of the family to the north of the main road is demolished. We’re not allowed to see this up close, of course, and there’s no photographic record. The soldiers are rightly afraid of photographs. Later, we see the heap that is what remains when you knock down a home.

All this takes time. The women are chanting the Susya song that I have heard many times. One, two, three, four, Susya forevermore. The children keep getting chased off the road. By now it’s hot. We wait. What comes next? Then, surprise, the army cars turn around, the transport truck groans into movement, and they go away. Susya has survived, with losses, one more day.


Mufagara, 2018 Photograph: Guy Butavia

Where have they gone to? Are they really gone, or will they be back any minute? We get into Yigal’s car and madly chase after them. Some of them have, as expected, gone to park themselves for the moment inside the Israeli settlement of Susya, where they belong. But after a while we find them at the entrance to the hamlet of Mufagara, maybe three kilometers away. Soldiers are standing in a ragged line across the road, blocking any access. Guess what? It’s another closed military zone. Can we see the order and the map? No. Just imagine in your mind a line that starts here and ends there. You can’t cross that line. If you try to……


Photograph: Guy Butavia

Mufagara is no stranger to demolitions. Two years ago, the soldiers even tore down its mosque, which no doubt counts as a crime under international law. But then everything the army does here is a crime. The bulldozer crawls down the slope toward an unfinished contraption of long iron bars; it bites into the bars as we watch. They collapse. Now the bulldozer and the soldiers collect them and transfer them to the army truck. Young Palestinians, angry, sun-broiled, push forward against the soldiers, who have lost patience and are on the point of violence; an older Palestinian man calls out to the young ones, “Intu aghla min al-hadid: you are more precious than iron.” Those metal rods, by the way, cost a small fortune if you’re a Palestinian shepherd living with your sheep and goats in Mufagara.


Photograph: Guy Butavia

In the white-hot meltdown of midday, the always astonishing intimacy of enemies comes to the fore. A Palestinian says, in Hebrew, to one of the border policemen: “You’re garbage.” The soldier, insulted, says, “I’m going to arrest you for insulting a policeman.” He lunges at the Palestinian, who evades him. Then we get an explication de texte. “You didn’t hear me right,” says the Palestinian. “What I said is, ‘All of you are garbage, and that includes Netanyahu too.’” “Oh,” says the policeman. “In that case—it’s OK.”


Mufagara, 2012. Photograph: Amir Bitan

I don’t know how long today’s trail of devastation, of Little Destruction, stretches. It’s pretty clear that Susya is safe, if that’s the word, for the next few hours. We can go back to Jerusalem. Time-that-is-no-time resumes its choppy flow. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, they will come again. In 1453 the Jews were expelled for the last time from Erfurt. Long before that, in 1290, from England. In 1492 from Spain. Actually, it’s a really long list. We know just how it feels to lose your home.


Mufagara, 2018. Photograph: David Shulman

text: @ David Shulman, 2018. photographs @ by photographers, as identified.


Susiya, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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


Mhammad and his flock last month. photograph: Margaret Olin


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


photograph: Amir Bitan

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


photograph: David Shulman


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

1. Umm al-Amad


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.


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.


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


They pose for pictures and baa at the sheep,


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.


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.


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.



2. Bi’r al-Id


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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



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.


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.”


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


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


text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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