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. Continue reading
She 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. Continue reading
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.
He’s young, the lieutenant; the faint trace of a mustache tells all. Awkward, inexperienced, unsure. More than a boy, hardly a man. He speaks fast, the words clipped, sharp, hurtful. He keeps playing with his rifle, waving it, aiming it, caressing it, turning it upside down, comforting it when it somehow rights itself again. The bullet clip is loaded; I can’t see if the safety catch is released. I don’t like any of this, for two reasons. First, I don’t like guns. I had to carry one, when I was a little older than the lieutenant, and I hated it. Second, I don’t like men who like guns.
Photo: Guy Butavia
He’s here to drive the shepherds off their lands. He’s got the Closed Military Zone order, not in its usual hard-copy form, a piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander, but on his cell phone. Not good enough, we say, show us the order and the signature. There’s no signature on the cell phone. No, he says. We’re more advanced than we used to be.
So Guy tells him clearly, and mildly, that the order is illegal, and we have with us the Supreme Court ruling to prove it. After years of struggle in Umm al-Amad, with all the usual travails—repeated expulsions, beatings, arrests, endless threats, routine state terror, as we fought, week by week, literally meter by meter, to extend the area the shepherds could reclaim as theirs– the Supreme Court recognized that the wadi and the hills beneath the settlement of Otniel were Palestinian lands that the people of Umm al-Amad and Karama and the other villages could freely use. It took us some four years on the ground and in the courts to win back the stolen terrain. Guy carries the ruling with him whenever he comes here. The lieutenant takes it, glances at it, and says, “This means nothing to me. I have my orders. Get these shepherds out of here.”
“What you are doing is illegal.”
“It’s no concern of mine. I’ll be quite happy to arrest them, handcuff them, blindfold them, and leave them lying like that for some hours in the settlement.”
“You have no right to threaten them like that. This is their land.”
“I can do what I want. I don’t need any papers to prove it. I have my gun.”
But he doesn’t look as cocksure as he sounds. He keeps glancing around at his soldiers. There are five of them, in the usual get-up. Helmets, rifles, boots. Some of them seem to me not too happy. But then, when are soldiers happy? It’s worse, I know from experience, when they have an officer who’s no damned good.
The lieutenant likes to issue threats. “I’m very affable,” he says to us, “but when people don’t obey me I get physical and violent very quickly. I don’t like it.” This is the only language he knows, impoverished beyond belief, and I don’t think he’s recently, or maybe ever, had an original thought. However, as an afterthought, he says to his men, “We’re doing this today for the Motherland, the moledet.” Never has the Hebrew word sounded to me so sinister.
Then there’s the question of the map that accompanies the digital CMZ order, as it must. The whole business is illegal, but the lieutenant, who’s not so good at reading maps, compounds the crime. Since we’re worried about what will happen to ‘Abed and Ahmad and Hamid if they get arrested, we’re prepared to move farther away from the settlement, up the wadi, to the hillside that is clearly outside the line on the map. But that’s not good enough for our lieutenant. He thinks the shepherds have to go home, get out of there, not be there, not be. He tells them this in pigeon Arabic, horrible to the ear. Guy, who’s good at maps, tells him over and over that the hill we’re retreating to is beyond the arbitrary line of the map. The lieutenant, unable to lose face, insists that his orders are to clear them out altogether, to make them disappear. He says: “Get them off my lands.” I wonder why he thinks they’re his. We demand that he summon the Matak, a senior officer from the Civil Administration, to settle this point. Now.
He calls the Matak—or someone else. Who can say? Now we wait. Every once in a while he points his gun at us and repeats the threat. If the shepherds dare to cross the line even by an inch, he’ll arrest them. He wants them to know this. It should be crystal clear. But the goats, endowed, one supposes, with the less than lucid consciousness of a goat, have a way of spilling over the hills and crossing the invisible line. On second thought, maybe their awareness is more lucid than the lieutenant’s. It’s the shepherds’ kids who are sent to fetch them, and if you say to the lieutenant—“Look, they’re six years old, stop pointing your gun at them, stop threatening them”—he gets riled. ‘Abed, however, who’s already been through whatever hells the army has to offer, is enraged. “Look at this,” he says to me. “Have you ever seen anything like it? A little boy, a bunch of hungry goats, and six soldiers with their big guns aimed at them. It’s crazy.” I couldn’t agree more. I tell him: the court will decide, and it will decide in our favor. We can’t settle it here on the ground.
I think that only the surreal feels really real. Late winter morning, the sun on our skin. There’s an enormous, heavy, black sheep, probably pregnant, lumbering across the wadi floor. The kids are running up and down the rocks in the wake of the incorrigible goats. One of the shepherds has decided that this is the perfect moment to make tea. He lights a fire and puts the old, soot-soiled kettle on the burning twigs. Soon Wala, impish, insouciant, brings each of us of a glass of tea. The soldiers huddle together, making evil plans. The Matak, of course, never turns up. Ahmad, furious, yells at the lieutenant: “You think you’re some big man, but you’re no more than a common criminal.” The lieutenant probably can’t understand.
Maybe, it occurs to me, he might be amenable to some suggestion that would allow him to climb down off the tree. “Look,” I say to him, “they’re almost finished with today’s grazing. They’ve already moved outside the ‘forbidden’ ground. Give them another 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll wind up and go home. Stop threatening them, it makes everything worse and it scares the kids.” Something like that. The lieutenant looks at me with scorn. “No.”
Wala gathers up the empty tea glasses, balancing them against her body in a delicious, gravity-defying system that only she could invent. These people are poor; every glass counts. She will bring them home over the high hill. How many times have I climbed this hill? But today is worse. I figure my ancestors must have been driven from their homes—in Spain, in the Rhineland, God knows where else—and here it is again, what they must have known, something black inside me, the blackness of rage, of hate, though hate is rare for me in south Hebron, over the years it’s been displaced by something else that I can’t name, something better than hate. And there is the weariness; do we have to start all over? We’ll go back to the courts, and the courts will reaffirm the earlier ruling, and the wadi will be open again, and for a while the sheep will graze there until we have to do it all once more, and the pitiful lieutenant might even grow up some day and discover he is a person with a mind and a body of his own, I know it can happen, maybe after the Occupation ends. Maybe even before.
On the way to Umm al-Khair we stop at Ma‘in and climb the hill to where the owners were digging shallow pits for planting baby olive trees, a few days back. The settlers of Avigail, across the highway, must have summoned the soldiers. This time they arrested ten Palestinians, accusing them of digging in an “archaeological site.” There is no square meter in Palestine-Israel that is not an archaeological site. A new and ominous pretext, potentially useful for stealing land. They kept their prisoners all day and released them in the evening. This story, like Umm al-Amad’s, isn’t over yet.
One thing I can say. Things are getting worse.
text David Shulman © 2017 *you may see more of Um al-Amad in 2014 here
Most photographs here were taken by Margaret Olin in Al-Auja in late July, 2017.
Dotting the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja are the widely scattered houses of Al-Auja. In most cases only three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point, some to the west, climbing the steep hill less than halfway up to the ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley, others, like the homes of our shepherd friends today, further east, near the road to Jericho. The Al-Auja story is a long one; perhaps some day I’ll tell it in full. On April 21st this year, some fifteen masked settlers from the Baladim outpost on the high ridge attacked with clubs and stones a group of Ta’ayush activists accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their grazing grounds. A moment of extreme violence: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, others seriously bruised. The police did nothing; but not long after this attack, which was filmed and widely publicized, the settlers were evacuated from the Baladim. We hear they may have come back.
A little to the south sits the ranch-settlement, entirely illegal even under Israeli law but, like all settlements, extraordinarily privileged, of a settler called Omer. He has been there for eleven years or so, and gathered around him is a group of young, reputedly violent toughs. Hundreds of verdant palm trees tower over the land he has stolen. For the last many years, because of this settlement and the arbitrary boundary it has set in place, the Bedouins of Al-Auja East have had no access to their lands.Ta’ayush took them back across the invisible but fateful border. At first they hesitated, knowing full well that we couldn’t be with them every day and every hour, and that they were vulnerable to all the weapons and wounds that the Occupation can easily bring to bear upon them. Still, we told them that if we persist, together, in the end it’s likely that they will regain the lands, or most of them.And indeed the first few times we went with them and the sheep, it was like returning to Eden. Settlers, soldiers, police all turned up, all equally taken aback and bewildered. I saw the shepherds weep tears of joy: they had given up on these rocky, thorny hills.Then the normal business of the Occupation took over. Day after day the soldiers, egged on, perhaps actually given their orders, by the settlers, or maybe the orders came from higher up, would produce the devilish piece of paper with map attached declaring these lands a Closed Military Zone. The boundaries drawn on the map varied from day to day. The Occupation can’t allow a Palestinian shepherd to graze on his lands without a struggle. So we were driven off time after time, and each time we came back. It’s the usual story. We have been through it in many places. Every time they drive us off at gunpoint, it hurts.
Eventually, our promise will fulfill itself. There was a taste of it today. At dawn we set off with the herds, a long walk up and down the rocks, and three or four hours later we came home with them, the sheep full now of the thorns they love. The soldiers watched from a distance, not interfering. We spread out over the hills. The shepherds made tea. Apart from wind and sun and clouds, the white birds, the ravenous sheep chewing furiously, we heard only the silence of desert and stone. There is no sound in the world like the dusty sweetness of that silence. Two gentle donkeys made no sound.Strange, is it not, that what should be simple, natural, obvious, and right has to be fought for inch by inch? The Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages say that time is an infinite series of atomic moments called “nows,” aanaat. Each such temporal atom has to be created by Allah, moment by moment, an act of divine will and mercy. Each one is a miracle; life itself, the world and all that is in it, the mind and all that it holds, is thus entirely miraculous. Such was our morning in Al-Auja. One infinite atomic now.
On the way back we stopped for cold drinks and flat pitta spread with za’atar at our favorite café on the outskirts of Jericho. It’s the eve of Yom Kippur. I don’t know how it came up, maybe it had to do with the fact that Arik skipped the morning prayers to come to Al-Auja today. He, too, was wounded when the settlers attacked in April. Now, for whatever reason, he tells the famous story, shaped by I. L. Peretz, hero of my youth, of the rabbi of Nemirov who disappears each day before dawn. The days are the days before Yom Kippur when one says the prayers for forgiveness, slichot. His disciples, a little puzzled, decide he goes up to heaven. A skeptic and rationalist, someone like me, arrives in the village and scoffs at this pious dream; he hides under the rabbi’s bed and, when the rabbi gets up before dawn, the skeptic follows him into the forest. The rabbi carries an axe. He cuts firewood and carries it to the hut of a penniless widow. As he enters the hut, he recites the first prayer for forgiveness. As he puts the logs into the stove and lights the fire, he recites the next one. By the time the stove is fully ablaze, the prayers have been said in full. When the skeptic, who has watched this, next hears the disciples say the rabbi has gone up to heaven, the skeptic says: “If not higher.”Another one of those atomic nows.
I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”Arik laughs. All of us laugh. The Palestinian serving hot pitta and za’attar has been listening in, even he laughs, at us or with us. Look what’s happened to the Jews. Except, I think to myself, this story is about Arik.He asks me if I’m fasting tonight and tomorrow. No, I answer. I am going to Not Fast as an act of bearing witness, a moment of fleeting faith that god still exists.
who is taking the house apart one piece at a time with care, unscrewing the fixtures, and laying the pieces to rest one by one,
family friends from the nearby town of Toubas, and Israeli friends from the organization Ta’ayush who work along side him and document everything. Maybe the documentation will convince enough people that such things really happen.
Later, members of another organization committed to non-violent resistance, ISM (the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement) come to help as well and the work ends quickly.
Then everyone stays to enjoy your family’s hospitality and listen to grandpa tell his story.
This has to be preferable to the usual way. Normally the Civil Authority sends bulldozers that would probably roll through the main entrance to the compound,
damaging everything in their way and crushing the trees surrounding the family home.
The house and anything inside that there is no time to remove on short notice would be reduced to rubble.
The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.
It’s my first demolition, too, but I have seen “Area C” dotted with little piles of rubble where homes and community centers once stood.
In my few years of sporadic visits I have helped rebuild some of them more than once.
This is life in “Area C,” the approximately 60% of the West Bank where Israel retained planning rights after the Oslo accords. Uniformly the Civil Authority there rejects master plans for Palestinian towns, and issues barely any building permits to individual Palestinians. Buildings that predate the agreement can stay without additions, and new buildings for growing families are forbidden. The policy might seem to keep the villages frozen in time, but of course life doesn’t work that way, and they are in fact in a constant state of deterioration, as structures crumble into the landscape.
When disheartened villagers eventually decamp for the increasingly crowded cities in “Area A,” under the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements expand into their lands.
Over a meal and coffee, we listen to the Mahmoud’s father tell us that of his eight children (and sixty-four grandchildren), only Mahmoud, with his wife and three daughters remain.
They struggle to keep their land and the fragments of their homes so that eventually the community may grow and perhaps come together again.
Once, Mahmoud’s father reminisces, he and his family lived in a ten-room house . . .
Many of the Israeli settlements that absorb the Palestinian lands were themselves built or expanded without permits, but demolitions of these settlements, and expulsions of Israeli settlers are rare, well publicized, and may be compensated with other land. Just visible behind the compound is a settlement that could someday absorb the Zouba family land.
The home we are demolishing today, a little metal structure donated by the European Union, attracted the attention of Israeli civil authorities right after it was built in 2015. These donated structures are often confiscated or bulldozed, as well as supporting infrastructures such as solar panels donated by individual European countries. The Netherlands recently protested the confiscation of and damage to some 40,000 Euros worth of solar equipment it gave to the village of Jubbet Adh-Dhib.
No permit was issued for Mahmoud’s house, but attempts were made to block the demolition order through the courts. The order overcame all these hurdles on July 2 and the final demolition order came two days ago. Ta’ayush members requested and received a delay of ten days so that the family would have a chance to take apart their own home in their own way, to take a measure of control over their lives. But bulldozers tend to be impatient, so the family decided to go ahead and demolish the house today.
They can use the parts; or perhaps the house can be rebuilt.
Mahmoud and his family will move into the older house with the yellow door next to this house. It is not bad, I am told, but it has no roof, and the sides are not strong enough to support one.
The family will plant olive trees where the little house stood.
But aren’t the olive trees also illegal, someone asks and can’t they be destroyed like the house?
At least, it turns out, a five year old olive tree may not be destroyed.
On Ta’ayush: https://www.taayush.org/
On ISM: https://palsolidarity.org/
Anyone who wishes to help provide the family with a light covering for their house may leave a note below or contact me directly.
text and photographs margaret olin © 2017
The tenacious Sa’id ‘Awad has been mentioned in these pages before. This link will acquaint you with the combination of legal subterfuge and open seizure that have wrested his land in the South Hebron Hills away from him. To hang on, Said’s family has an outing each week. The picnic and the boy’s soccer reinforce his continued presence. Otherwise, the civil authorities can consider the land abandoned and make it available to Israelis whose settlements watch comfortably above on land already taken from Sa’id. They may do that anyway.Volunteers from the NGO Ta’ayush try to keep settlers from disrupting the games, but today is peaceful. The settlers remain hidden somewhere behind their eruv poles.*Volunteers pass the time with Sa’id and his family while the boys play soccerand the Civil Administration plays its role. Today, fortunately, this means that the soldiers, very young and very bored, mostly stay put in military vehicles.
text and photographs © margaret olin 2017
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?
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…..
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.
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.
text © David Shulman 2017
text David Shulman; photographs Margaret Olin
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Text © 2017 David Shulman; photographs @ 2017 Margaret Olin except as otherwise noted.
On Ta’ayush: http://www.taayush.org/
A female soccer player, who once faced another girl playing soccer, now seems bewildered to find herself addressing a mysterious man wearing a halo of banned currency. No doubt the man was intended to be a statement concerning the current demonetization crisis, but his presence left the girls of the Khirkee Collective, who painted the soccer players, in a dilemma. While the artist who painted the man felt no qualms about painting a mural over the girls’ soccer mural, the collective has a code that forbids them to paint over the work of another street artist. The mustached man must remain and so must some offensive graffiti to the right of the mural. The girls made a plan to rescue their mural another way and met a few Saturdays ago to implement it.
Fortunately, there was now room on the left side of the wall where earlier a garbage heap had been, so the girls decided to paint not one but two more players there. They gathered this Saturday along side their mentor, artist Sreejata Roy, to paint one of them.
Khirki is a diverse enclave in South Delhi populated by, among others, refugees from Afghanistan, and home to a thriving street art culture. But Khirki is a man’s world. The group of young women in their mid to late teens around Sreejata were trying to assert themselves by painting women into spaces they would like to occupy, involved in activities in which they wish they were allowed to participate.
Above a tea shop, women drink and play cards alongside men
A school teacher sits with her book, while bills cover much of a lady shoemaker who decorates a shoemaker’s stall.
We all cooperate, the shoemaker included, to uncover part of her work table.
While he seems pleased to host the mural above his shop,
not everyone is happy to see the murals enter their domains. The girls wanted to ride motorcycles, so they started painting murals on walls next to places where motorcycles were parked.
Next to this mural, however, a man started an altercation and stopped them from painting.
the work continued as people gathered.
Sreejata drew the outline.
The members of the collective prepared the colors and painted.
Later, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art lent us a gallery so that I could introduce the members of the Khirkee Collective to murals in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine.
In Dheisheh, children currently grow up surrounded by images of martyrs, many of whom are close to their own age. Most of the subjects are men and all of the painters are boys and young men. Sometimes murals are painted quietly at night, but sometimes they are painted in public gatherings similar to the one I had just witnessed in Khirki. The young painters of Khirki noticed the relentless use of black and white in Dheisheh, and I tried to explain to them the aims of a few recent murals colored more cheerfully, like those in their own murals.
Despite the mournful air of the paintings in Dheisheh and the vibrant and hopeful feeling of those in Khirkee, the people of Khirkee and Dheisheh share a great deal. They share a belief in the powerful presence with which an image can dominate a site. They also share respect for the work of others. The muralists in Dheisheh, like those of the Khirkee Collective leave the work of others in peace, choosing to register disagreement by painting alternative murals nearby. And they share the conviction that discussions centered on the murals, which begin even before a mural is painted and continue in words and images, are central to the work of the murals themselves.
I think of these murals as openings in walls, as windows or gates through which the residents of the neighborhood can see into another world. That this world is meant to be the future seems clear even in murals, such as the ones in Dheisheh, that ostensibly do no more than memorialize the past.
But the murals in Khirki focus steadfastly on the future. I asked the refugees from Afghanistan whether they ever wanted to return to their former homes. “Never.” Do your parents ever talk about wanting to return? “Never! It is too dangerous. It will never be any better there.” They look forward, they said, to a better future here in Khirki. I believe they hope that the murals will help them see this future and transform what they see into reality.
photographs and text margaret olin © 2016