Outpost, Jordan Valley, January 2017. photograph: Margaret Olin
8:30 AM. Four settlers, more boys than men, block our way as we follow the shepherds up the mountain. One of them is before his army service. They all belong to the new illegal outpost that we’ve watched grow from a few wooden rafters to a fairly substantial set of dwellings, already attached to the water and electricity grids. It was set up where it could do the most damage to the Palestinians of al-Hammeh, cutting off their only route to the grazing grounds outside the army’s firing zone.
They want to talk to us. Guy, whom they hate, has gone ahead up the slope, but three of us stay back—Yankele, badly wounded in the Yom Kippur war, with prosthetic hands, Eyal, and me. They tell us that things were quiet until our friend Guy came here and provoked the hitherto docile Palestinians to make trouble. Good Palestinians are docile.
Actually, I object, it’s your presence here that has produced all this trouble; they own this land, and they have the documents to prove it.
What do you mean, the Jews own all the land here, it’s a Jewish state.
Really? These Bedouins have been here for many generations and they have no rights, do you think that’s right?
- Photograph: Guy Hircefeld
Why, they have rights.
Like what? Can they vote?
Why should they vote?
Do they have legal recourse?
Why do they need legal recourse?
They’re no different from you or me.
If they became citizens, they could vote, but they can never become citizens because they’re not Jews, and they don’t belong here.
What you’re describing is what is called apartheid.
I don’t care what you call it.
You want these people to leave, right?
They can stay as a tolerated minority.
You don’t think that all people should have equal rights?
Not here, it’s a Jewish state. God gave the land to the Jews. The Bible says so.
Eyal got a little farther with his interlocuter. After the usual opening statements, the settler was prepared to say: “OK, from a human standpoint, what we are doing here is not so nice. We take the land. I don’t want them to graze their sheep, and for that matter I don’t want them to have any herds at all. I don’t want them to be here. I know it looks ugly, but if you remember that God gave the land to the Jews, then…..
Photograph: David Shulman
11:30 AM. Hot. Three herds of sheep are scattered in wide arcs over the hills. They are happily eating what sheep eat. Red anemones are popping up everywhere. As the heat increases, a carpet of blue irises unfolds. Like some people I know, irises don’t function well in the morning. They blossom in the afternoon. The desert hills are wild with green. Things are quiet, even boring, a delicious boredom. The sheep are at least a kilometer away from the illegal outpost.
But that’s still too close, as far as the settlers are concerned. They just can’t bear it. A day doesn’t count as a day unless they cause some pain to their Palestinian neighbors. So they summon the army. Dutifully, an officer, his face masked, and another armed soldier turn up in their jeep. They make their way up to us and to Abu Rasmi. Why has the officer masked his face? Private reasons, he says. Maybe he’s about to be promoted to some post in the secret services. Maybe he just doesn’t want his face to be all over Facebook.
Anyway, he’s not one of the bad ones. You can see that at a glance.
I’m here, he tells us, to prevent friction.
What friction? we say. The sheep are nowhere near the outpost.
Abu Rasmi sits down, with infinite dignity, on a white boulder and says: “I don’t want trouble with anyone. I just want my sheep to graze. We own this land for generations. The settlers keep chasing us off. Last weekend they entered the area of our tents and threatened us with their guns. They attacked the shepherds with clubs. They harass us every day.
Oh, says the officer.
Guy lets him have it in an explosion of short, pointed sentences. He’s good at such moments. “What do you think you’re doing here? I know the settlers summoned you. So what? They have no business being here.”
This is not a political thing, says the officer. I don’t care about the politics. I came to prevent friction.
“It’s political through and through. The outpost is totally illegal, as the police documents themselves confirm. If Palestinians were being attacked by these same settlers, you’d take hours to come here, if you came at all. Last weekend it happened, they came to the tents with their guns, we telephoned the police, there were dozens of calls, and no soldier came to help. But if these settlers call you, you’re here in ten minutes. Why? Because of the purity of the Jewish race. What other reason could there be? You’re part of the whole racist, totalitarian system. Instead of protecting the innocent owners of this land, you stand by the thieves who have robbed them of it. That’s a political move, and it’s your decision.
Photograph: Guy Hircefeld
Every once in a while in such situations I see someone like this officer, like a policeman I knew in South Hebron, who is clearly, indubitably, suffering inner conflict. He flinches behind his mask. He sits down next to Abu Rasmi. He’s out of his depth. He says, plaintive, almost pathetic: “I have to follow my orders.” Guy helps him out. “Why don’t you go down there and tell those criminals to stop tormenting Palestinians?” The officer lumbers off. The sun burns into skin and stones. I watch him go. I feel that inner trickle of despair that I know so well.
3:00 PM. The sheep had their fill of thorns and leaves today. I wish you could see them in your mind’s eye as they begin to move homeward, with exquisite slowness, as if the hill itself were alive and inching downward toward the sheepfold and the tents. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful except, perhaps, my granddaughter’s eyes. Amiel and I follow them down the steep slope. As they get near the pen, they accelerate; they know they’re almost there; soon it’s a stampede. One stubborn sheep takes a stand above the tents on the hill; she can’t be hurried. Impassive, a loner, she surveys her regal domain. Meanwhile, the sheep have to drink, but the kids want to nurse, they can’t wait, Mahdi stands in the middle of the pen with his arms raised as he drives the kids back, just a few seconds more, let the poor mothers drink, the kids are screeching, scurrying around him, and the infinite silence of the desert is punctuated by a raucous symphony, a late-afternoon hymn. Today there was quiet and fullness and later, as we eat the simple, ample meal Abu Rasmi offers us—hard flat pitta bread, fried cheese, rice and lentils, yoghurt, olives, salad, red cabbage, green beans grown beside the tents– there is that unthinkable friendship that needs no words. Before that, out on the hills, two shepherds came riding donkeys to greet us. It’s a good day, they said, an unusual day for us, it’s hadi, tranquil, because you are here.
Photograph: David Shulman
text © David Shulman 2017