May 14, 2018: Al-Auja, Turmus‘ayya. Text by David Shulman; Photographs by Margaret Olin

20180514-BC5A3690lvlcrv

1.

First, today, there was the madness and the dissonance, sharp as thorns. Early morning in the Jordan Valley:  still cool. We step out into the light. In the distance, the soft, convex mauve of the hills. Closer to us, they turn beige, then white, billowing like waves. Closer still, it’s all yellow and brown and thick with jagged pebbles. About two hundred yards away, scattered over the slope, are black and white goats and disheveled sheep. I recognize one of them, from long-standing acquaintance; her fleece has been dyed a spotty red. There’s a donkey, too, down in the wadi. Two young shepherds—Ahmad, whom I know well, and Mhammad. This hill and the wadi are also, by now, old friends.

20180514-BC5A3730crv

Hence the madness: Is it possible that human wickedness can survive in this vast beauty? Wouldn’t it dry up in the fierce light or melt in the mid-day heat? But clearly it doesn’t. Who, in this elation of color and shape and touch, could think the thought that is evil? Who would harbor a desire to banish those shepherds and their flocks? They belong on this hill. They live here. They harm no one. They have always been there. Only a supreme delight in inflicting pain could drive the system that drives us off today.

We see the soldiers from a distance, before we can rendezvous with the shepherds. Three dark silhouettes on the hilltop, the guns darker still. This, too, is a surprise, a black intrusion into the silence of the desert. Ahmad and Mhammad have been out here for an hour or more—they go out early, since by mid-morning it’s too hot even for the goats and sheep. They greet us warmly, shake our hands, and by now the soldiers are there, too.

20180514-BC5A3700crv

T., the officer, wishes us a good morning. He is affable and rather gentle. A smile, almost shy. He takes our identity cards away. The other two, male and female, have nothing to say. The young woman, also laden with a gun, is chewing gum and seems bored or, as Peg says, striving hard to achieve an out-of-body experience.

20180514-BC5A3755crprotlvlcrv

“These people can’t be here,” says T. We protest. These are their lands. Until a few months ago, there was an agreement with the army—at the army’s own initiative—and according to the maps and the boundary markers the soldiers put in place, this hill and the next one and the one farther to the east and the whole length of the wadi and the hills leading back to their simple homes and pens, all this and much more was theirs to graze on. This after many years during which Omer, the settler, wouldn’t let them near these lands. But T. isn’t interested in prehistory. He has his orders. “I’m checking,” he tells us. What that means, as he explains, is that he is waiting for the order from above declaring this area off bounds to Palestinians. “Stay here,” he says, “the order will come in ten minutes.”

20180514-BC5A3738crp2crv2

Amazing how quickly the heat sinks in. “Just out of curiosity,” Arik says, mildly, a teacher, “do you happen to know the status of that settlement over there?”  We can see it from where we stand. A dense crowd of green date palms in the middle of the yellow desert. Inside the grove lives Omer. He took over the land, a huge area, when the army cleared out of a base it had had here, ten or twelve years back. Until a year ago, Omer ruled like a sheriff. He sustained a temporary setback when the army made its agreement with the Palestinians. For the last three months or so, he’s been making a comeback. They say he’s well connected with the high command; perhaps with right-wing politicians, too. Who knows? What is certain is that the soldiers now take their orders from Omer, which is why they are here with us on this hill today. Omer doesn’t like Palestinians anywhere near his date palms.

Arik explains this to T. in understated words. Even before he gets into the details, he tells the three of them: “We understand that you have your orders, we’re not asking you to disobey them, at least not yet. But I’d like you to think about what we have to say.”

That’s the hardest thing. Thinking. Especially for soldiers. The settlers are a lost case, there’s no point, but sometimes soldiers can be invited to think. T. says, “I’m new down here, just a month and a half. I heard about the agreement, but I’m not much interested in that. I’m a field soldier. I deal with reality. My job is to carry out my orders.” A lucky man, he knows what reality is.20180514-BC5A3747crplvlcrv

“Of course,” Arik says, even more gently than before. “You’re a soldier, that’s what soldiers do. But all of you are also citizens, just as we are. You go home sometimes. As citizens, you could think about what you are doing here. Remember that under Israeli law that settlement is totally illegal. And Omer has no right to give you orders, and no right to dispossess these people. But you are doing what he, and your officers, have told you to do. Think about it.”

20180514-BC5A3745crplvlcrv

Meanwhile, the goats are chewing on what lean pickings they can find. It’s summer now; the real food is gone until next winter. Anyway, they’re busy in that meditative, genial way goats have. Peg says to me: “Isn’t it interesting to watch them eat? They don’t seem to fight, ever, for some juicy mouthful. Unlike humans.” My heart sick with dissonance, for a moment I admire the apparent altruism of goats.

A surprise:  the second soldier, hitherto silent, says, “Yeah, maybe I’ll think about it when I get home.” Or something like that. I’m not sure I heard him right. Not all is lost. “It’s something between you and yourself,” says Arik, “or between you and your god.” Arik is one of the few people I know, maybe only two or three, who use that word in an easy, natural tone, like talking of trees or goats; a tone that carries a whiff of truth.

20180514-BC5A3729crvcrp

T. comes back down the hill waving the order.

20180514-BC5A3790crp

There’s a map with a big pink patch in the middle. “We are here,” he says confidently, pointing at the middle of the patch. “You have to be there”—outside the patch.

20180514-BC5A3782crpcrv

20180514-BC5A3777crp

20180514-BC5A3772lvl

By now the goats have put some distance between themselves and the soldiers; they’re moving toward home. Mhammad wants the officer to know that one of the settler thugs stoned his sheep this morning, and he has a video on his phone to prove it. T. watches it and says he will act.

20180514-BC5A3783

I can’t make head or tail of the map, but I can see that it’s the last nail in the coffin of the agreement we had with the army. Exile again. Whatever we gained has been taken away. This hill, these rocks, the wadi—all gone. We have to start over, and that is what we will do. T. wishes us a happy day.

20180514-BC5A3682crvlvl

 

2

Turmus‘ayya, in the central West Bank, has the misfortune to have the large, veteran settlement of Shiloh as its neighbor. There are other settlements, too—Eli, Adei Ad. Shiloh is where the Art of the Covenant rested for long years before eventually being brought to Jerusalem. Where the prophet Samuel grew up. Once it was a holy place. Now the fertile valley between Turmus‘ayya and the settlers is a battlefield.

20180514-BC5A3806crv

Settler violence is a daily business. There’s no doubt they want to take over the whole valley with its fields and olive groves. Two weeks ago settlers came into Turmus‘ayya at 2 AM and set fire to several cars. How many? We ask Abu Sama‘. Four. Well, actually, seven. Actually, ten. There are Hebrew graffiti on the walls of homes:  “Let us handle them.” “Them” means Palestinians, and “handling them” means just what you think it means.

20180514-BC5A3802crp1lvlcrv

Yesterday the Palestinians of Turmus‘ayya planted olive trees in their fields, and beside every tree they planted a small plastic flag. Not just Palestinian flags—some are Turkish, Iraqi, Swiss. It’s not so easy to see the olive saplings, but the valley is dancing with flags. Arik was there during the planting. Settlers came down to uproot the baby trees, then the soldiers arrived, and the Border Police. “What’s that thing on your head?” the Border Police asked him. “You know what it is.” “Are you even Jewish? Were you circumcised?” “Do you want me to show you?” As Arik says, it’s bad enough when they see a Jew standing up for Palestinians, but a religious Jew—that drives them crazy. The discussion ended with volleys of tear gas.

20180514-BC5A3801crpsat

So the practical problem for now is to get the army to recognize the Supreme Court ruling that unequivocally allows Palestinian farmers access to their fields—and to get the soldiers to protect them from marauding settlers. I think this is an achievable goal. Note, however, that the government is pushing new legislation that will allow a simple majority vote in the Knesset (61 MP’s) to override the Supreme Court. If it passes, the very idea of inalienable human rights will be erased, and we will be living under a tyranny of the majority—nationalist, annexationist, racist, whatever you want to call it. That’s the idea. What will happen to those fields? Those trees? What will happen to people here in Turmus‘ayya, to people like us? But Turmus‘ayya, scarred and battered, has a reassuring, solid look.

3.

Today there are over 50 dead on the Gaza border and over a thousand wounded, many of them children. By tomorrow the numbers will rise. The same malevolent system that seeks to expel the shepherds of Al-Auja and the northern Jordan Valley, that craves to demolish the homes of our friends in Susya, that routinely terrorizes the people of Turmus‘ayya, has brought us to this point of despair. Some of those soldiers who shot today will someday agonize in remorse, though they don’t yet know it. Two and a half million people live in the open-air prison that is called Gaza; when they protest, they are killed. Some, inevitably, are violent. Violent, too, is the system of the occupation, put in place with the sole goal of stealing ever more land. From Gaza to Al-Auja, hour by hour it works its savagery, which all too few Israelis allow themselves to see, though many, perhaps most, know it without knowing that they know. Each time I go there, I come home grieving; I wander through the house and the streets, restless, looking for myself, as if I had misplaced that self and forgotten where. Today, too, it is like that, for the grief is more than I can bear.

20180514-BC5A3688crp3crvsat

text: © David Shulman photographs 2018 © Margaret Olin 2018

20180514-BC5A3751crvcrp

Preemptive Demolition near Hamra, Jordan Valley, 26 July, 2017

20170726-IMG_9147rotlvlIt’s her first time, and it’s an easy start, but it must still be confusing to watch people demolish your home, even if those people are your father, Mahmoud Zouba,

20170726-IMG_9179rawcrp

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,

20170726-IMG_9167crplvl 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.

20170726-IMG_9204crvlvl

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.

20170726-IMG_9202lvlcrp

Then everyone stays to enjoy your family’s hospitality and listen to grandpa tell his story.

20170726-IMG_9128crp

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,

20170726-IMG_9305lvlcrp

damaging everything in their way and crushing the trees surrounding the family home.

20170726-IMG_9314sat

The house and anything inside that there is no time to remove on short notice would be reduced to rubble.

20170726-IMG_9353lvlsat

The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.

20170726-IMG_9345lvlcrp

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.

20170107-IMG_8583lvl2thm

Demolished structure in Umm al Kheir, South Hebron, January, 2017.

In my few years of sporadic visits I have helped rebuild some of them more than once.

20170729-IMG_9855lvlcrp

Rebuilding in Umm al Kheir, South Hebron, July, 2017

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.

20170726-IMG_9417crv

When disheartened villagers eventually decamp for the increasingly crowded cities in “Area A,” under the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements expand into their lands.

20170726-IMG_9297crpcrvlvlTo avoid becoming discouraged is a challenge that most of Mahmoud’s immediate family has not met.

20170726-IMG_9329lvl

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.

20170726-IMG_9152-crp

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 . . .

20170726-IMG_9478crp

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.

20170726-IMG_9484crp.jpg

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.

20170726-IMG_9115lvl

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.

20170726-IMG_9113crv

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?

20170726-IMG_9482-crplvlcrv

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

20170726-IMG_9347-Editlvl.jpg

 

 

 

 

October 13, 2016 ‘Ein el-Hammeh, Harat al-Makhul, al-Hadidiye: A Report by David Shulman

2016-10-14-16-11-04crp

Photograph by David Shulman

There are about 40,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley—the Israeli-occupied segment of the long deep crack in the surface of the earth known as the Syrian-African Rift. Half of them live in the tropical resort town of Jericho, once thought to be the world’s oldest city. The other half are mostly Bedouins, descendents of pastoralist nomadic tribes that have by now settled down in small, fixed clusters of tents and shacks, though they continue to live primarily from their flocks of goats and sheep. A few veteran sites, such as Kardala, Bardala, and ‘Ein al-Baida in the northern Valley, also have solid stone houses. Some Palestinian families from the hill country around Ramallah still maintain a pattern of seasonal migration to the Valley with their flocks. Bedouin settlement here goes back centuries, and the way of life of these settled pastoralists has its own special flavor and integrity. It’s a hard life. It would be hard even if these people were not crushed by the harsh hand of the Israeli Occupation.

Typically, what you find is someone like Burhan in Harat-al-Makhul, whom we meet, surrounded by his sheep, at 7 AM, when the air is still cool with a trace of sweet mist. He lives here alone, for the most part, except for a few close friends and helpers; his wife and children are in the town of Tubas in the hills to the west, with its schools and shops. I count close to a hundred sheep, including fifteen or twenty newborn lambs. One ewe, he tells us, is about to give birth within half an hour or so. He advises us to wait and see the birth, which, clearly, has lost nothing of its miraculous character in his eyes.

He brings us coffee in tiny cups—the first round of perhaps 9 or 10 today. He’s rough-hewn and gentle, his long grey shirt stained a darker grey by handling these dozens of sheep hour by hour. A continuous cacophony of roosters greets the dawn and then goes on greeting the intensifying sunlight. Soon it will be very hot. Inside Burhan’s tent there is a makeshift gas stove, a few white plastic chairs, an assortment of tools and rags and boxes, a shelf for coffee and sugar and the granular heavy pita that the shepherds make. The floor is hard-packed dirt and sand. I think Burhan is a happy man.

But he lives on the edge. There’s no cash to spare, and there are many sheep-mouths to feed, more every day. Like all the shepherds in the Valley, he lives with the constant threat of seeing his home, his sheep-pens, his store-rooms, and his foot-paths demolished by the Israeli army. It could happen literally at any time, just as it did, last week and this week, at al-Hammeh and Ras al-Ahmar. Water is a big problem. He has to bring it by tanker from far away and at huge cost for a small sheep-holder. He used to get it from al-Tuf, which has freshwater springs and is relatively close by, but the road has been blocked by the army. So now he has to import it from ‘Ein al-Baida, at around 20 to 30 shekels per cubic meter, which comes to around 260 Israeli shekels or more for a small tanker—about $65, a princely sum. It’s autumn now, one tanker might last him a week; but in the summer, when the sun is merciless, he goes through a tanker in 3 or 4 days. Burhan knows we’re on our way to ‘Ein al-Hammeh, where some of the worst demolitions have taken place, but he asks us to come back to help him fix the roof over his sheep-pens. If he tries to do it alone, the soldiers may turn up to harass him. The army bases on either side of Harat al-Makhula have big cameras fixed on high metal towers that record his every move.

There’s not much left at ‘Ein al-Hammeh. Here the destruction was very thorough, also carried out in a sadistic rush: the families were given ten minutes to take whatever belongings they could out of their homes, but this permission did not extend to any electrical appliances, cellphones, televisions, in short, anything of real value. The animals, too, were left roofless under the fierce sun and exposed at night to the no less fierce desert cold. Many of the young lambs and goats have died over the last few days. To make things worse, the army or the Civil Administration (perhaps driven on by the brutal new Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman) chose to carry out the destruction at the height of the birthing season, when the young kids emerge into the light. It’s perhaps hard for us to realize the full extent of this disaster; to understand, you would have to be a shepherd living with, and living from, the herds. A whole summer of careful nurture, waiting and feeding and preparing for the autumn births, has been wasted in the space of an hour or two.

The ruins of the homes and pens are lying in place on the sandy ground. Ta’ayush volunteers have been working here, cleaning up the chaos of destruction as best they could; so now you can see wooden boards and plastic bars and black cloth in more or less orderly piles spread over the entire area of the settlement, including the lower approaches of the wadi leading to their grazing grounds. It’s around 8 when we arrive; the shepherds are driving the flocks up through the wadi and onto the yellow-brown slopes of thorn and rock. Mahdi comes to greet us, soon joined by ‘Arif. I grasp their hands, not knowing what to say to someone who has just watched his home smashed by bulldozers while soldiers barked commands. Even by the perverse standards of the Occupation, this demolition of an entire village was entirely illegal (you can see I cling to that word, as if it were still possible to believe in some semblance of “the law.”) For the last three years, there has been a court-ordered freeze on demolitions in a large area of the Valley, including al-Hammeh. I guess the Civil Administration is pursuing a higher goal, beyond the paltry rulings of the court, and we know what it is. They, and the government that gives them their orders, want the Jordan Valley cleansed of its Palestinian residents.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the homes and cattle-pens of al-Hammeh were built without permits. If you’re a Palestinian shepherd or farmer down here, there is no way you will ever get a permit. Not long ago I heard one of the Supreme Court justices blithely announce in court (this with reference to the village of Susya in South Hebron): “The fate of any building built without a permit is destruction.” Houses have fates, books (they say) have fates, and people have fates, too. Then there are people who invent cruel fates and impose them on other people.

There’s worse to come. Three days ago settlers from the “illegal outpost” of Givat Salit—now in the final stages of metamorphosing into a fully legalized settlement, with everything that comes with that enviable status—started building a wooden structure far up the hill, in the midst of the grazing grounds of al-Hammeh. The site was well chosen, for it precisely cuts off the only route the shepherds can take if they are to skirt the vast military firing zone that begins there, on that slope. We drive up over the rocks to see the new foundation and photograph it. Here you have the primeval moment, the not-so-tentative beginning of a process that, in Israel-Palestine, has only one possible end-point. What begins with a few wooden beams with settlers hovering over them, obeying the commandments of their god, will swiftly become another full-fledged settlement sitting on stolen land; it will soon be connected to the Israeli water system and the electric grid and it will have soldiers patrolling around it and it will no doubt entice new residents by offering houses—tile-roofed villas–with government subsidies and dirt-cheap mortgages. All this happens very fast. Guy calls the police and, fighting his way through the receptionist and the lower clerks eventually succeeds in getting through to a policeman, who agrees to come down to the Valley to see this development with his own eyes. This policeman is affable, gregarious, and cooperative. He takes pictures of the new foundations with his I-Pad. The Civil Administration sends a soldier, too. They say they will check into this matter, whatever that means.

Meanwhile, a young settler, maybe 18 years old, maybe 20, is grazing his flock right there, under our noses. Amitai greets him gently and then, even more gently, says to him, “I am sorry to tell you that you can’t be here. This is privately owned Palestinian land, and you have invaded it.” The shepherd looks at him in what seems like genuine surprise. He has no intention of going anywhere, of course. He’s from a settlement farther up the Valley. Finally he says, “How could that be? This is Israel, and the Jews are sovereign here.”

Strange how that sentence keeps coming back at us today. Mid-morning: suddenly there’s a call from al-Hadidiya, some fifteen minutes away over the desert roads. An army bulldozer has turned up and is already at work. Soldiers have come with it. Al-Hadidiye is where I spent much of the day when I was last in the area, a guest of the indomitable Abu Saqer. It’s also in the zone of the hypothetical freeze on demolitions. But at first we imagine the worst. They’re coming to destroy al-Hadidiye as they destroyed ‘Ein al-Hammeh and Ras al-Ahmar. With Arif, we race to al-Hadidiye. It’s one of those Ta’ayush moments, at once horrible and thrilling. ‘Arif, who knows something of the Jews, says, “Yesterday was Yom Kippur. I thought you were supposed to atone for your sins, not start off on new ones.”

14656326_10154507028428329_4698131203384227123_n

Photograph by Guy Hircefeld

Sure enough, we can see the bulldozer from afar. To our relief, it’s still some ways from the village, and it’s busy heaping up mounds of dirt, rock, and swirling dust to block the main access road into it.

You can’t help but wonder why they’re doing that. Al-Hadidiye is only one of a large number of small encampments that depend entirely on this one road, their only truly viable access and egress, especially for heavy traffic such as water-tankers. But we’re in the middle of a rocky desert, extending for many miles. Even if they block the road, the Palestinians will drive over the stones on either side and make their way around the roadblock. So what we’re seeing this morning is the normative, vicious fusion of sheer wickedness and idiocy. The army is there to harass, to maximize discomfort, to drive these people crazy. Over time, the Palestinians will be worn down and go away. It’s good to have a purpose in life. “What did you do in the army?” “I piled up sand in the desert and blocked a Palestinian road.”

Amitai can’t stand it. He jumps onto the mound of earth that the bulldozer is heaping up. There’s one soporific soldier guarding this daring military mission, and there’s the soldier who is driving the bulldozer, which grunts and growls like a beast of prey. The driver yells at Amitai to get out of his way. Amitai asks him why he is following whatever immoral orders he has been given—why he is prepared to deprive whole families of water, for example. Doesn’t this driver have some empathy for the people who live there? No, he doesn’t. “I couldn’t care less what happens to them. This is the State of Israel, and the Jews are sovereign. The rest should go away.”

Amitai: “Did you ever hear the name of Rachel Corrie?” She was the brave young woman who was killed and buried by an Israeli bulldozer that was demolishing Palestinian houses in Gaza in 2003. Surprisingly, the army driver has heard the name.

Amitai: “You don’t want to have something like that on your conscience, do you?” Very disgruntled, the driver stops working. Is this evidence that he indeed has something you could call a conscience? A happy thought. Let’s not put too much weight on it. He has some things to say about leftists meddling in affairs of the state. Soon more soldiers appear in three command cars. They are all over Amitai, who keeps up a steady flow of words, chastising them for their hard hearts and their cruelty and their craven indifference. If you can imagine the prophet Jeremiah with a playful, easy-going manner, an impish smile, and a taste for Quixotic adventures, that’s Amitai. Guy joins him, eloquently describing the moral bankruptcy of these soldiers and their commanders and their orders and the system that has sent them here this morning to heap up sand piles in the desert. One of the women soldiers seems close to tears. Her commander sends her to sit inside the command-car, out of earshot of Guy’s subversive ethics. I’d like to think that some day, maybe 5 years from now, these words, held somewhere in abeyance out of reach of her mind, will bear fruit in her heart. I’ve seen it happen, once or twice.

2016-10-14-16-12-11crp

Photograph by David Shulman

 

It’s really hard to interfere with desperate foolishness intent on fulfilling its autotelic tasks. Systemic foolishness is always stubborn, impervious to words or reason. We thus fail to keep the long winding roadblock from coming into existence. It’s there now. Maybe next week, when Quamar, our invincible lawyer, gets back from abroad, she’ll manage to undo today’s wicked little game. She’ll enjoy the challenge. For now, once we’ve established for sure that the bulldozer is not going to start chewing up the tents and pens of Al-Hadidiyeh, we take our pictures, post them on Facebook, and depart.

 

 

I don’t think you need to hear about the demolitions at Ras al-Ahmar, which I was able to see only from some distance. They follow the pattern of ‘Ein al-Hammeh. The same totality, and the same cruel haste. We sit for some hours more with the orphaned men of al-Hammeh, who, ever hospitable, even in extremis, present us with a feast of maqlubeh, cooked somehow or other, in the open air; we eat with them, surrounded by the broken splinters of their homes. We go back to sit with Burhan; the ewe gave birth. Another tiny white kid has joined his half-brothers and sisters.

But there is one last bit of the day I should mention, a hopeful moment in the midst of all this grief. Guy takes me to meet Osama. It’s good to remember what human beings are sometimes, rarely, capable of. Osama grew up in Jerusalem; joined the Fatah as a teenager; was on the run, then captured by the Israelis. In prison he made the switch to an unshakeable, personal vision of non-violent resistance. I’ve met more than a few others like him over the years. I think the future of Palestine lies in their hands. By comparison, the soldiers we saw today, and the benighted officers of the Civil Administration, not to speak of the unspeakable politicians from the Prime Minister on down, are shrunken creatures crawling fruitlessly over the desert sands. The birth of a genuine human being is no less miraculous than the birth of a baby kid.

Baked dry and weary, I get back to Jerusalem around 6. In the courtyards of the small synagogues in Katamon, where I live, people are buying their etrogim and lulavim for the Succot holiday, which starts on Sunday. They examine the yellow, fragrant etrog with minute circumspection, lest, god forbid, there be a blemish of any kind. Life in Katamon is normal. Sins have been atoned for by fasting and forgiven by the Jewish god. Now we can celebrate the fragility of a home, a hut, a succa, in the autumn, just before the coming of the rains. Succot was always my favorite. Maybe I’m drawn to the beauty of evanescence. I’ve spent this day amidst ruins. As I pass the synagogues, I have Abu Saqer’s words ringing in my ears, in his deep gravelly voice, speaking of the soldiers who had just ruined his road, as if they could hem this man of the wide world into some ever smaller space with no air to breathe and no future left to dream of: “They’re liars,” he said, merely stating a fact.

text and photographs (except where otherwise identified): David Shulman

2016-10-14-16-12-10

Photograph by David Shulman

Al-Hadidiya, Jordan Valley (David Shulman)

Shulman-Bi'r al-'Id. July 11 2015

photograph: Guy Hircefeld

June 30, 2016

Four months away provide just enough distance to see the madness and the cruelty for what they are. Who has set up this crazy system and kept it running for half a century? Is it not mad to deliberately deprive human beings—families, children, the elderly– of water at the height of summer in a scorching desert? It was at least 37 or 38 degrees Centigrade, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, today in Al-Hadidiya. No running water, of course, and almost no water at all. You can’t survive there without water.

I should warn you that reading the following report may make you thirsty, like watching Lawrence of Arabia. I had two liters of water with me, and I wasn’t fasting, unlike most of the Palestinians I met (it’s Ramadan), but still I was thirsty all day. Once the sweet morning chill was soaked up by a white-hot sun, the world turned to flame. You could feel the liquid stuff of life being sucked out of you by the merciless sun-machine. In such heat, stones melt. Metal melts. The sheep out on the hills, the cocks crowing in the tents, the dogs who can barely bark as they limp along the edges of the village—all of them are baked, singed, seared, charred, encindered. As for us, wandering over the hills in search of the lost, ruined wells that once served Al-Hadidiya, we are drunk on the light, giddy with heat. Will I ever not be thirsty?

Before I go any further, I had better tell you what you perhaps already know, that is, that the Israeli settlement of Ro’i, half a mile away, has no dearth of water. Water flows freely through their pipes, some of which run through the grounds of Al-Hadidiya, and their swimming pool is, I presume, blue and beckoning and, above all, full of water.

And there’s another thing you already know. Drying out the Palestinians of Al-Hadidiya is a matter of policy, not a random affair. The Civil Administration knows what it is doing. Without water, they must assume, these people will either die or leave. We are speaking of ethnic cleansing. No one should try to describe it as anything other than what it is.

Here is Abu Saqer, the strong-willed patriarch of this village on the golden slopes slipping down into the Jordan Valley. He has the sun-baked skin, the dark eyes, the breath-taking dignity of a man who was born in this tiny confabulation of black tents and who has lived all his life here among the rocks and the furrows. He is at once calm, lucid, and embittered. He’s a secular man, afraid of no one. He speaks a deep and elevated, even lyrical, Arabic, a mix of the standard literary dialect with the colloquial idioms of the farmer, with many rare words that Arabic-speakers love. He’s a friend. I know it at once. It’s still early, around 7:30, when we sit with him in the tent as the terrible light comes flooding in, and this is what he says.

“The settlers and the Israeli state have committed many crimes and will commit many more, but the worse crime, a moral monstrosity, is denying us water. They have polluted our wells, filled them with rocks and dirt, dried them up by their deep drilling, and dried up the natural springs. I myself owned between 60 and 90 wells on the hills over there, and all of them have been destroyed. It happened already in the 70’s. At the same time, hundreds of cubic meters of water are being wasted on the settlers, on their lawns and swimming pools. Whole communities have been devastated, their people driven out, displaced by army camps and settlements. Once a hundred families lived here in Al-Hadidiya; only 14 are left. We have to bring water in tankers from far away, and often we are held up at the roadblocks for long hours, and we pay more than triple what any Israeli pays for water.

            “In a war, there is the one who kills and the one who is killed, but what has water to do with this? Why are they continually demolishing our homes? Are they experimenting on us like on rats? We live in Area C—where the shepherds are responsible for the eco-system, for the survival of many species of living beings. But they arrest the shepherds and put them on trial and force them to pay enormous fines—at first, it was 5 Jordanian dinars per head of sheep, then 11 dinars per head, just to free the herd from their clutches. A fine could easily add up to a thousand dinars. Helicopters sometimes chase the shepherds and the herds, and the soldiers come running out of them and shoot the animals. They claim this area is a security zone, but why do they have to shoot the sheep? They are enriching the Israeli state with these fines and impoverishing us.

            “In the late 80’s, at the time of the Oslo agreements, there was hope, but in the end the disaster became even more terrible. Just look over there, you can see how they have destroyed our homes. They are doing whatever they can to drive us out. We are simple people, in Al-Hadidiya, in ‘Ein al-Hilwe, in Ra’s al-Ahmar, in the Jiflik. What do we want? We want to graze our sheep, to feed our families, to educate our children. Only that. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the situation here should be frozen, and no more demolitions take place, but the soldiers pay no attention to the court’s ruling. When a soldier comes to tear down my house, where is the judge? Last year there were demolitions (on November 26, 2015), and they are always threatening more. My daughter was wounded in front of my eyes by an Israeli girl (probably a soldier). What am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to live with the Israeli people, in what they claim is the only democracy in the Middle East? A new generation is growing up. We are tired of being lied to. They have also poisoned our sheep—44 killed by poison in 2014. How can we live with them?”

Abu Saqer speaks slowly, weighing his words. An eloquent man. But the story he tells is not only his. All Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley offer versions of it—the same litany of wrongs, of state terror, and, again and again, of unbearable thirst. They thirst for water as they thirst for justice, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Saqer, his son, leads us over the hill dotted with black goats and long-haired sheep. Every few minutes he stops to show us another well that has been stopped up, blocked with stones and dirt. We count twelve on a very rapid circuit. At one of them Saqer peers into the dark depths and discerns a snake. He spends a few minutes hurling rocks at it, apparently killing it. Palestinians in this desert zone hate and fear snakes. Now that we’ve started cleaning the wells here, the activists have come across at least one large snake down at the bottom—but also something far more threatening, military ordnance, unexploded shells, that have been dumped in these wells.

Late morning. We drive to ‘Ein Hilwe, where Madi, apparently soon to be a candidate for the post of head of the Palestinian Regional Council here, speaks about water. It’s the topic closest to heart and mind. We cross the highway to Umm al-Jamal, where there’s a natural spring that the Bedouins use to water their herd of cows. They built a low stone wall around the spring, to protect it. Not surprisingly, this tiny structure is scheduled for demolition by the Civil Administration next week. Umm al-Jamal is dry, hanging on in the heart of the fierce desert. Like sleep-walkers, heavy cows move slowly through the haze of heat, or lie down in scraps of shade from scraggly trees.

Here’s the point. Suppose you want to build a pipeline for water—to be taken from well-known, legal Palestinian sources and paid for according to a water meter that you install—so that your tents and shacks would have the elementary happiness of running water. In theory, you could apply to the Civil Administration for a permit. Your application will be rejected. Almost all such applications are. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley cannot get water through pipes or wells by the standard bureaucratic procedures. In desperation, lacking any alternative, they may try to put a pipeline in place. They can be sure the Civil Administration will send its soldiers and policemen to demolish it and to punish them. It happened today at Al-Hadidiya. I saw it.

13507283_907347609374469_4680191498017875131_n

photograph: Anat Lev

We rush back there when we hear that soldiers have turned up, two full jeeps of them. By now it’s a broiling high noon. The soldiers look pretty hot too. They’re loaded down with the standard hodge-podge of military metal and plastic. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. They seem confused: the Jordan Valley has not had the benefit of a continuous presence of Israeli activists, and as a result the heavy hand of the Occupation has been even heavier here, and more arbitrary, than elsewhere on the West Bank. The soldiers expect a docile, frightened Palestinian population. They’re certainly not used to having us, or others like us, confront them. The officer is not really hostile, but he’s doing his job. He says an order declaring Al-Hadidiya a Closed Military Zone is on its way. On what grounds? “Water works that have not been approved.”

There are eight of us activists, and we’ve all been through this many times before in one way or another. We try to talk to the soldiers, but the officer orders them not to speak to us. One of them is filming us with his cell-phone. This goes on for a long, hot time, as if to keep him busy with something that will take his mind off what he has actually come here to do. They’re waiting for the order to come through, or so they say. Anat asks the photographer how it feels to deny water to a thirsty family. He is not allowed to answer, so he shrugs and screws up his eyes. What does this gesture mean? Yossi says that it’s quite expressive and means something like “What can I do, these are my orders.” It’s an optimistic reading, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It could also mean, “I don’t give a damn.” I’d like to think this soldier feels the faint stirring of inner conflict.

Now the police arrive, and the dogs go mad, sensing that something wrong and menacing is taking place. With whatever is left of their vocal chords, they try to warn Abu Saqer that an enemy has appeared. Then they fall silent. As so often, it’s a waiting game. An hour goes by, then another. The graceful white doves we know from South Hebron sail past, on fire with sunlight. The roosters crow. No sign of the order. Suddenly, a surprise, the soldiers clamber into the jeeps and leave.

But not for long. Soon they’re back with the same affable policeman who would perhaps prefer to be sitting in his distant, air-conditioned office, wherever that is. A higher-ranking officer has joined them, and together they set off through the village, examining every trace of the brazen water pipe, also passing by the jagged ruins of the homes that were demolished less than a year ago. They take pictures. Yesterday soldiers arrested Abu Saqer’s son and held him, handcuffed, for many hours. Today, perhaps because we are here, they refrain from anything as blatant and foolish as that. Again they depart, and again they return, this time following the line of the pipe at the farthest edge of the encampment. They photograph and take notes. Then—gone.

What, indeed, are they supposed to do? The pipe is illegal. The Occupation, too, is illegal. But it has its rules. Soldiers and policemen enforce the rules. Officers issue orders, which are obeyed. Fourteen families in Al-Hadidiya remain thirsty.

Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, Abu Saqer can expect another visit, no doubt to inform him that the evil pipeline the villagers have built will be destroyed, and so on—who knows what other forms of harassment are in store? Running water is not meant to reach the people of Al-Hadidiya. Not yet. We have work to do.

It was a day unlike any other that Al-Hadidiya has seen. Apart from our being there, and the unwelcome soldiers and policemen, large delegations from the European Union and the Norwegian Refuge Council also happened by at noon. Abu Saqer graciously entertained them all. For an hour or two, this little assemblage of black tents was a microcosm. Good intentions, bad intentions, outright wickedness, grace and courage—you could find them all, mingled together, melting down in the vast heat, each of us playing his or her role.

I write these words from my home, at nightfall. I’ve washed off as much of the caked sunlight as I could. I had a cold beer, which helped. I’m a little burnt and sore, and a little sad. Also buoyed up by the miracle of friendship, new and old. By now the sheep and goats are in their pens. All over the Jordan Valley and South Hebron and East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank, people are celebrating the end of today’s fast with the festive Iftar meal. Next week Ramadan will end. Someday thirst, too, will end for Al-Hadidiya and ‘Ein Al-Hilwe. We’ll see to that. I’d like to think that in Abu Saqer, a deep and simple man, Netanyahu and his henchmen have met their match.

with thanks to Guy Hircefeld and Amir Bitan

text © David Shulman 2016

thanks to Anat Lev and Guy Hircefeld for permission to use their photographs

13529115_907346849374545_2323326921158720428_n

photograph: Anat Lev