October 7, 2018: al-Khan al-Ahmar. David Shulman

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Photograph: David Shulman

Al-Khan al-Ahmar:  still waiting. Now that Angela Merkel has come and gone, and the holiday season is over, and the court has spoken, there are no further obstacles to the coming devastation. Germany joined other EU countries in condemning the planned demolition as a war crime, and Merkel herself is clearly against it; the government politely delayed execution until after she left Israel. We had hoped she might issue a strong statement while here: hope, or desperation, conjures up hopeless dreams.

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Khan al-Ahmar, September, 18 2018. (Photo: Thomas Dallal). First published on mondoweiss.net, October 2, 2018

The mood in the Khan was somber when Yigal and I arrived not long before midnight. The insouciant tone of a few nights ago has disappeared. Days of waiting to be violently expelled have taken their toll. The big tent houses about a hundred activists, mostly Palestinians from all over the West Bank, with a sprinkling of Israelis and internationals. At night they all sleep on foam mattresses, a vast dormitory for the men; women sleep outside in the school courtyard in the sweet desert air. We climbed up to the roof of the school and spread our mattresses, looking for a quiet corner, but sleep wouldn’t come. I was taut with grim anticipation. Below us, people went on talking through most of the night in small groups scattered over the site—a gentle drone of words along with the constant purring of the generator and occasional raucous notes from the donkeys. At some point I fell asleep.

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Photograph: Guy Hircefeld

And woke at 3 AM. For a long time I watched the stars. My old friend Orion was there, just above me, and to the right the Pleiades were smiling. In the darkness I checked my messages and found a terrifying one from Guy Butavia. On the main Ta‘ayush vehicle, which we use in the Jordan Valley and in South Hebron, the screws holding the suspension in place had come loose on both sides. We can’t say for sure how or why. Wear and tear? Did someone tamper with the vehicle?

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photograph: David Shulman

Late-night thoughts. You can see why I didn’t sleep again after that. The stars move rather slowly in those hours before dawn. At 4:00 the roosters started in, one by one, as if a conductor were giving each his cue. Then there was the morning adhanAllahu Akbar—in the haunting dissonance of prayer, the words tumbling and mixing into the almost audible breathing of the desert just before first light.

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Khan al-Ahmar, September, 18 2018. (Photo: Thomas Dallal). First published on mondoweiss.net, October 2, 2018

Another morning without the bulldozers, so far. You live in time that is no time. Kids come to school. Is it possible that international pressure could still forestall the demolition? Before we leave, the Israeli activists discuss the prospects. It probably won’t happen today. So it goes, day by day. When it comes, the destruction will be brutal. What is worse, it is but the start of a greater disaster. The people who rule Israel—the prime minister and the sordid circle of thugs, sycophants, and flunkies who surround him—will stop at nothing to achieve their maximalist plan, that is, to steal as much land, with as few living Palestinians on it, as possible. Al-Khan al-Ahmar is part of the plan.

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Photograph: Guy Hircefeld

On Thursday, while Merkel was having lunch at President Rivlin’s residence, some fifteen to twenty of the al-Khan al-Ahmar schoolchildren came to demonstrate outside. Some of the signs read: “Angela Merkel, please help save our school.” Arik Ascherman of Torat Tzedek and Guy Hircefeld brought the children there; afterwards they took them to places they’ve never seen. They bought them pizza, and the kids devoured it with a rare passion. They went to look at Al-Aqsa from the Mount of Olives. Then Arik said it was time to go home—the home that may vanish tomorrow.

Text: David Shulman © 2018 photographs © as credited.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photograph: courtesy Tariq Hathaleen, photographer unidentified

text © 2018 David Shulman

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Photograph: Yigal Bronner