July 5, 2018: Susya. Post by David Shulman

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Susiya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Susiya, March, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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Photograph: Awdah al-Halthalean

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

Muhammad Abu-Samad

photograph courtesy of Erella Dunayevsky/the Villages Group

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

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

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

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Mufagara, 2018 Photograph: Guy Butavia

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

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Photograph: Guy Butavia

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

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Photograph: Guy Butavia

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

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Mufagara, 2012. Photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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Mufagara, 2018. Photograph: David Shulman

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

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Susiya, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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Mhammad and his flock last month. photograph: Margaret Olin

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Today the shepherds wanted to set out at dawn. In summer, here on the outskirts of Jericho, by 9 or 9:30 in the morning it’s already over 38 degrees (100 Fahrenheit)—too hot even for goats. So we leave Jerusalem at first light, and by 6:30 we find Mhammad deep in the desert, close to the fenced-off date-palm grove of the settler Omer, who calls all the shots. Mhammad greets us happily; he’s in a good mood; so far things are quiet. “Soldiers? Have you seen any soldiers?” he asks. “Not yet,” we say.

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Al-Auja, 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

The goats are busy with their lean pickings. Dried-out thorns, a shred of corrugated cardboard, a few leaves—all this constitutes breakfast in the summer. They stand on their hind legs, stretching hopefully toward the higher branches of the tamarisks. It will be months before the rains come and something edible and green re-appears. Among the goats there is one ancient, supremely dignified buck with a long white-brown beard. Mhammad says he’s their leader and commander, mudir. Who would doubt it? The mudir moves slowly, regally, as befits the owner of this patch of creamy rock and sand.

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Al-Auja 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

After an hour, a little longer, the soldiers arrive, as they always do. I recognize the officer; he’s not a bad man. But he’s carrying the cursed piece of paper declaring this area a Closed Military Zone, with a map attached. According to the map, the shepherds have to stay clear of a huge stretch of land that reaches up to their houses, some three or four kilometers away. Meanwhile, Mhammad and his friend have made a fire and boiled tea, and they’re sitting in what, with a little imaginative effort, might be called “shade,” under the branches of a spindly shrub. They’re eating breakfast: fresh pita dipped in olive oil. They pay almost no attention to the soldiers who have come to disturb this feast. We photograph the illegal order and the map and we tell the soldiers to go away; the shepherds will have to move on. The officer clambers back into his jeep. It’s hot, he’s performed the daily ritual, now he waits on the hill to be sure the order is obeyed.

 

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photograph: David Shulman

These shepherds can’t be rushed, and we are certainly not going to urge them forward, or backward, toward home. Why should they hurry? It’s their land. Omer is a cruel intruder. The soldiers are soldiers. Time flows in desert rhythms. Mhammad carries no watch, and occasionally, rarely, he asks us to tell him the time. I think he lives mostly in the slow and beautiful flow of goat time: when the goats have eaten enough, they begin to saunter, or sand-swim, home. They don’t have to be told. From time to time Mhammad gently calls them to order: “Pzhee (high pitch, almost a whistle); khakhakhakha (deep in the throat); cluck-cluck-clack-cluck (flapping the tongue).” It’s a language I’d love to learn. Sometimes he throws a pebble at a sheep or goat who has strayed from the path. By now the soldiers are gone and the sun is high.

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photograph: David Shulman

“I’ve tired you out today,” he says to us, apologetic, concerned for our well-being; we deny it. I offer him really cold water, and he takes it, a long good gulp, standing on a rock near his tethered donkey. I feel like a lean dry thorn myself, with the incontrovertible happiness of being a thorn.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Khan al-Ahmar, we fear, is about to be demolished. The government has announced it, and the Supreme Court, to its eternal shame, has approved it. Since the early 50’s, the Jahalin Bedouin have been living here, after the army chased them off their lands near Tel Arad in the Negev. They’re deeply rooted now in the brown-red hills on both sides of the big road leading from Jerusalem eastward, downhill, to Jericho. That redness (limestone tinged with iron oxide) gives the site its name, the “Red Caravanserai”. Caravans once, not so long ago, would spend the night here on their way to the spice lands in the south. The Good Samaritan of the parable is said to have passed nearby; just down the road there are the remains of a Byzantine monastery that marked the site. On a day like today, rife with wickedness, it’s good to remember that Samaritan who did the right, the only human, thing.

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photograph: David Shulman

We see the Bedouin tents of Khan al-Ahmar each time we drive from Jerusalem to Jericho and each time we return to Jerusalem from the Jordan Valley. But in the last decades, the settler-suburbs of Maaleh Adumim and Kfar Adumim have spread over the high ridges nearby. These people—or at least some of them, let’s not generalize — don’t want to see an Arab face. It spoils the view. So on the one hand, settlers have been driving the government’s campaign to expel the Jahalin. A ruthless racism rules this policy. On the other hand, there are weighty geopolitical considerations. Khan al-Ahmar is the portal, both tangible and symbolic, to area E1, the vast swathe of land east of Jerusalem that Israel wants to annex, thereby cutting the West Bank in two. If the army expels the 172 souls of Khan al-Ahmar, the other 1200 or 1300 Jahalin Bedouins who live close by will be easy prey.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Even if the school were not there, we would be facing a war crime; it has no other name. But the school magnifies the crime many times over. Today is the first time I’ve visited it. It’s an eco-friendly school, lovingly made from mud or clay and old tires. On the outside walls there are paintings of the Dome of the Rock and, surprise, a white sailboat floating down the non-existent or invisible rivers of Jerusalem to some place, we must assume, of freedom—some place the bulldozers are barred from entering. An inscription in Arabic says: “We will remain here as long as the za’atar and the olives remain.” At the entrance there is a sign declaring this school to be under the supervision of the Palestinian Ministry of Education. This is the Jahalin’s first-ever school. The courtyard is swept clean. Activists from the Combatants for Peace and other organizations are milling around; they have come to protest the crime-to-be. So there are speeches and embraces and kisses and many smiles, along with that unrelenting ache.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

Police and soldiers were here several times this week, probably to prepare the ground for the demolitions. They’re a lot like the heartless thieves in the parable. The government has announced that it will resettle the Jahalin in Abu Dis, next to the municipal dump that is now a high hill known simply as “Jabel,” The Hill. No one can live on or near the Jabel. The stench is overpowering, and disease rampant. To dump these human beings on the dump is one of those acts that tell all.

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photograph: David Shulman

But for me, there is something more. To tear down a school is possibly worse even than breaking a home into pieces and burying the pieces in the sand. How many homes have we rebuilt after the army took them down? We’re almost used to it. But a school? Where children first learn to read, where they dream their dreams and play in the courtyard and sing the multiplication table and recite the poetry of the desert and say their prayers? I’m a teacher. I have spent most of my life in classrooms, teaching this and that, languages, thoughts, memories, poems. The mud-and-tires school of Khan al-Ahmar is like any of the others, only more so, like the university I have loved, like the school in Iowa where I learned to read and first fell in love—an almost holy place. It’s not a word I use.

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photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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photograph: David Shulman

 

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

1. Umm al-Amad

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Three weeks ago,  resourceful little Walaa was quick-witted enough to use her cell phone to film settlers flying a drone and when the settlers suspected her, to pretend convincingly to be on a call with her aunt. A week later, she leaned against Aziza’s legs, drooping and coughing. Aziza, clearly concerned, kept feeling Walaa’s forehead and eventually sent her home.

20180519-BC5A4000crplvlcrv2.jpgThat first weekend of Ramadan was exceptionally hot, over 30 degrees in the shade. The children were limp.

20180519-BC5A3997crplvlcrvMembers of the activist group Ta’ayush travel from Jerusalem to South Hebron every week on Shabbat, answering requests from Palestinian shepherds and farmers to accompany them and their flocks to their lands which are close to Israeli settlements. On Ramadan it is not always obvious why we make the trip. In fact, there are fewer volunteers than at other times, and we don’t see many Palestinians either. Here, in Umm al-Amad, without so much as water to sustain them on a hot day, shepherds rarely venture down from the hills near home with their flocks into the more intense heat of the valleys close to the settlements.

After sending Walaa home, Aziza remained safely uphill with the sheep. Come earlier next time she says and we do. Today, beginning with Umm al-Amad, I try to comprehend why we are here. As it turns out, soldiers and settlers make the task easier.

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We arrive by seven, and it is cooler than last week. From under her canopy, we hear Aziza explain that she will stay home today anyway with both children. We follow Seff and the sheep through the morning fog past orchards where walls of tires protect the new trees from the goats. From there we descend into the wadi.

20180602-BC5A4434crvWhen the fog lifts, we are joined by soldiers. One of us overhears their report: “There are four anarchists here.” The soldiers’ task is to keep the shepherd and the flock away from the settlement by drawing an imaginary line and preventing them from crossing it.

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

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They pose for pictures and baa at the sheep,

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It’s a poor substitute for the sound of the shepherd, who controls his flock through virtuoso cries and high-pitched whines as well as strategically aimed stones.

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Eventually we all settle down to the game of watching: Seff watches the sheep; the soldiers watch Seff and the anarchists; and the anarchists (Guy, Pepe, Caron and me) watch everyone, including each other.

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Once Seff crosses another imaginary line, safely beyond the boundary of the settlement, the soldiers drive away. Is it an empty exercise? The shepherds say no. They ask us to come because when they arrive without “anarchists” they have reason to be afraid.

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2. Bi’r al-Id

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With little we can do to help, we use Ramadan to do tasks on our own. One of them is to labor on the impassable road from Bi’r al-‘Id.  Someday it will lead, as it once must have, to Jinba.

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Our hands encased in hot plastic work gloves, we collect rocks from the slopes and bring them to the road in buckets. Then as though assembling a jigsaw puzzle, we artfully arrange the rocks in the gaps: little rocks go here, bigger rocks go there, and the biggest rocks go in the deepest holes.

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If only we could import heavy equipment and truckloads of materials the work would have ended long ago. At this rate only the youngest among us might live to see it finished. We have written about this absurd process before: here and here. But at least on a hot day like today we will not stay long and I have never known settlers to disturb this work.

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Until today. “How about ten more buckets of rocks?” Amiel says, “and then we’ll leave.” At this moment, the two grown sons of the deceased owner of nearby Nof Nesher (population 4) arrive with a friend. They bring with them police, with whom they have lodged numerous complaints about us, and soldiers. We are picking wild Zatar, a protected plant; the land on which we are working is theirs; a nine-year-old Palestinian girl has tried to stab them. As it happens, zatar does not grow along this road (The zatar ban is a story in itself: you can read about it here); their settlement is illegal even according to Israeli law, and no map places the road on their farm; the story about the child is nonsense.

Documents in hand, the police check our IDs or passports, draw some of us, and some of the settlers aside, and begin nearly endless discussions.

20180602-BC5A4690lvlctr.jpgAll this time volunteers are hurriedly continuing the work. Bucket after bucket of rocks pour out onto the road and punctuate the conversations of the bored girlfriend, the shouting of the loudmouth brother in the green hat and the sullen responses of the one in the white tee shirt. Most of the conversation is out of earshot but occasionally a shouted phrase comes through like “Eretz Yisrael!”; “All this is ours!” Did I hear one of them yell “Misrahi!” at the soldier with the Arabic accent?

The soldiers and the police are not fond of these two who constantly bring complaints, but they are not fond of us either. Their lives would be easier if we would only stay in Jerusalem minding our own business.

20180602-BC5A4758crvNow the brothers carry out a clever plan. They start to pick up stones we have fitted into the road and toss them back onto the slopes. As one glances in my direction I recognize a grimace I used to see frequently in my middle school days.

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20180602-BC5A4762lvlcrv.jpgWhen they tire of throwing stones they start to build piles of them like little toy roadblocks.

20180602-BC5A4743crpcrv.jpg“I have at least as much right to move rocks around the road as they have.” Finally, one policeman loses his patience.

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A soldier declares the zone closed and everyone leaves. First the brothers leave, and then we pick up our tools and leave, too. We leave hurriedly, because suddenly we have an immediate deadline.

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Aggravated, I complain as we walk back toward the beginning of the road. But Amiel, who sees possibilities in nearly every situation, reminds me that thanks to the brothers, we worked longer and accomplished more than we would have otherwise. They were, after all, the only reason we stayed. Did I notice any soldier who may be motivated to rethink the occupation by what happened this afternoon?

20180602-BC5A4709crvdgecrp.jpg         I don’t know.

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

Trivial.

 

 

 

 

3. Highway 356, between Hebron and Bani Na’im.

20180602-BC5A4778crvOn the way back to Jerusalem we pass a ruined vineyard, like one we passed on highway 60 last week. This time, its owners are standing by the side of the road.

20180602-BC5A4818crvWe stop and let Mohammed and Abu Abdella show us how the dead vines, cut near the base by settlers, still hang from the top of the structure built to support them.

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20180602-BC5A4805crvlvlThey show us a cellphone picture of the same graffiti we saw last week at a burnt wheat field at Ad Deirat: “Enough agricultural terror. We will spread everywhere.”

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

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

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text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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February 10, 2018: Susya, Twaneh, Tuba by David Shulman

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A compound in Susya, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

The hardest part was not the settlers’ attack but sitting in the home of Abu Saddam in Susya. His home—four canvas-roofed tents, an outhouse, a water tank, and a perennial lemon tree—is one of the seven scheduled for immediate demolition, with the blessing of the Supreme Court. The others belong to the Nawaja families. First in line, in the center of the village, is the compound of ‘Azzam Yusuf Jad‘a Nawaja. Almond trees are in full bloom in Susya, intermittent bursts of white amidst thin traces of green and great splashes of brown. They’re waiting for the bulldozers to arrive. It could happen any time.

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A kitchen in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

I suppose by now everyone knows the Susya story of repeated expulsions and continuous harassment and demolitions. For years nearly every structure in the village has had a demolition order hanging over it. The legal excuse for this act of gratuitous and extreme cruelty is that these shacks and tents and latrines and wind turbines were built without a permit. That’s because Palestinians living in Area C on the West Bank cannot get permits. Beneath the thin veneer of legality lies the true reason. The government is now keen on driving out entire Palestinian communities, not simply on making their lives miserable and destroying homes one by one. The pace has accelerated, and the goal is clear.

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A compound in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

One could, perhaps, say that when the Supreme Court allowed the immediate destruction of these seven buildings, this was a minor, if temporary, victory for the Palestinians. Another twelve buildings were in the urgent list presented to the court by the Civil Administration and have not yet been approved. Of course, their turn may come next. And after that, the rest of the village may be wiped out. But for now, for the next days and weeks, there’s plenty to mourn for, and more to dread.

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A kitchen in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

We stand in Abu Saddam’s courtyard and examine the miracle of his lemon tree that never stops giving fruit. You can see the early stages of blossoming and maturing on the lower branches; higher up, there are ripe lemons waiting to be picked. Abu Saddam came back to his home in Susya after years of exile in Yata; he’s not well; it seems he’s returned to live out his last days here.He takes us into the largest of the tents, the sitting room cum kitchen. There’s an iron tabun stove—nights in Susya, in the winter, are very cold. Firewood is stacked on the floor near the stove. It’s not clear if this particular tent is included in the demolition plan, but it’s not unlikely that the bulldozers will punch it out anyway on their way to their next task. Abu Saddam says to me, “Shu biddhum al-yahood? What do the Jews want from me? Do they want to take away my leaking canvas ceiling? Is that what threatens them? Am I, an old man, a danger to the Jews?” Litaj, his granddaughter, maybe four years old, buttoned to the chin into her green and blue striped sweater, is sitting in one of the big armchairs. Her mother sits across from her. This is the home that may soon be murdered by the army.

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Photograph: David Shulman

 

It’s more than I can bear, my throat is burning with tears and rage, and I can’t find words, any words. When we say goodbye, I say to Abu Saddam in Arabic, “We are with you, and if they come and destroy these tents, we will come back and rebuild them together with you.” He holds my hand in his. ‘Azzam Yusuf points to the cement pavement at the entrance to his tent:  maybe it’s this floor, he says, that has qualified his home for destruction. They’re also coming to wipe out his sheep-pen, a latrine, a water fountain, and perhaps the kitchen. “How are you?” I ask him, bitter at heart. “Praise to Allah,” he says. “This is something we have to live with.” But I don’t know if I can live with it.

 

 

  * * *

For the last couple of weeks, Tuba, isolated, lonely, vulnerable, on the edge of the ridge overlooking the desert, has been suffering from settler violence. It’s nothing new, just worse than usual. Some of the attacks have been severe. The settlers come from Havat Ma’on, notorious for its savage ways. We have decided to walk from Twaneh along the path that leads to Tuba via the perimeter of Havat Ma’on. It’s a dangerous route. I think today’s settlers are the grown children of the ones who first attacked me in the fields of Twaneh in 2002. It’s in their genes, or in the neurons that they use not to think with but for hate. We are taking this route in solidarity with Tuba, and in the hope that we can force a stop to the daily assaults.

20170114-IMG_9448lvlcrvTuba, 2017. Photograph: Margaret Olin

It takes an hour to walk the road—three or four kilometers over the packed dirt and stones. The Tuba children take it, both ways, every day when they come to school at Twaneh. Since the settlers of Havat Ma’on have a habit of attacking these children, the army—after long persuasion by Ta‘ayush—agreed to provide a jeep of armed soldiers to accompany them to and from school. Sometimes the jeep shows up, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the settlers attack anyway, and the soldiers sit passively in the jeep, watching. They hit these kids with iron chains and other weapons of destruction. My friend ‘Ali’s daughter was badly wounded in her eye. That was some years ago, and the route is no safer today.

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Twaneh, after last year’s attack. photograph: Margaret Olin

Mid-afternoon on a warm winter day. Dark pines and almonds. We are thirteen, maybe enough. With us are Danny and Dudy, both wounded on this path by settlers the last time I reported from Twaneh (for the report, see here). Dudy was hit in the head by a rock, Danny punched and beaten. After ten or fifteen minutes, we see the first settlers:  young, more boys then men, long hair, huge skull-caps, white Shabbat clothes. Some are running fast across the hill, coming closer. Not a good sign. Then it gets worse. They are masking their faces, all except for the eyes. I know what this means. They have the high ground; we’re moving east, not far below them, past the wide bend in the road, through thorns and boulders. We’re trying to stick together. I can’t count them:  maybe eight or nine. They’re shouting something throaty, a war cry.

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photograph: Michal Hai

Then the first stones. Three settlers are some thirty meters away, or less. Heavy rocks, heavy enough to kill. They’re arguably worse than bullets. They come flying through space, very fast, black against the white sky. Soon there’s a veritable rain of rocks; one screams past my ear. We keep moving downward, trying to put some distance between them and us, and we’re filming them as best we can but we also have to keep our eyes on the rocky descent so we don’t stumble or fall; and the only chance you have of avoiding the missiles is if you walk backward, watching them as they come at you. Many times Amiel shouts in warning:  “Rock coming!” Somehow, by a miracle, so far no one has been hit. I begin to wonder if this is the end I’ve so often imagined, but in truth there’s not much time to think about this in the exhilarating rush of feeling, and anyway there’s no space to think about me. I’m trying to keep track of my friends, and also trying hard not to fall, and each time I turn my back on the stones there’s the eerie sense that one is heading, unknown, straight for me.

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Photograph: Michal Hai

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Photograph: Michal Hai

Time stops, as always at such moments. There is no more time in the world. Occasionally there are brief breaks in the rain of stones, even the false thought that we may have left them behind us, but they keep coming down the slope, tailing us, and the stones resume. Now I can see their eyes. I remember that look, the worst that human eyes can show you, the black and icy glare of hatred in action, not human any more.

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Photograph: Michal Hai

  (for video by Guy Butavia follow this link)

Then it is over. Moving slowly, still looking backwards, we have opened up a gap. I don’t know why they stopped. After a while we are out of range; we climb the steep hill toward Tuba, its tents and pens and wind turbine now in sight. We regroup. Everyone OK.

Later it turns out, Amiel tells me, that we may have saved one of the Tuba shepherds who was being beaten by the settlers until they were distracted by our arrival. Maybe that’s why they were running over the hill. The shepherd was hurt. For us, Tuba offers the entirely illusory sense of safety. The goats and sheep are bleating, the tents warm and sturdy; a baby, forty days old, is wailing as the women rock her in her cradle. Mahmud gives me news of ‘Ali, now in Yata, driving a tractor; he has work. Mahmud is the sixth of ten siblings; one died as a child. Proudly, he introduces me to his daughter. The young boys bring us tea.

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photograph: Michal Hai

How are we going to get back? It seems the police have sent an officer to Twaneh. Maybe that will deter them? Somehow I doubt it. We head back along the path, this time a little farther downhill. But they’re waiting for us. Not masked this time. Cameras in hand. Coming closer: the odd intimacy of enemies in the South Hebron hills.  Three of them—are they the three who stoned us an hour before?– merge into our straggly line, shouting curses, the boring, worn-out words. “You are traitors, all of you. You should leave this country. You don’t belong here. You don’t care, do you, that my rabbi was murdered a week ago. His orphans are crying, but you don’t care. You’re not even Jews. You have no idea who you are and where you are going. You don’t know your enemy. You’re in love with your enemy. You deserve to die first of all. You don’t know how to be a man. The Kingdom of David is coming, the Messiah will come, and scum like you will be swept away.” And so on. It goes on for a long time. At least there are no rocks flying. Maybe the dead words are worse. They have circled us on every side.

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photograph: Michal Hai

Until finally, in Twaneh, we hear that the policeman came and went away, and there are hot pittas soaked in olive oil straight from the oven, a huge heap of them, far more than we can devour, and it is over for today.

text: David Shulman © 2018

 

 

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,

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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.

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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.

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

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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,

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

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

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The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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Waiting: Jinba, January 11, 2017

texts Margaret Olin, with D.M. and A.O. photographs: Margaret Olin 20170111-IMG_8999crplvl

Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’ 

Mary M. Singleton Currie (Violet Fane)

I regarded my understanding of waiting as complex and subtle.

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In June, 2016, I participated in an exhibition called “The Waiting Rooms of History,” at the Kunstverein Paderborn and attended a stimulating conference at the university there on “Waiting as a Cultural Practice.” In the exhibition, the people photographed by Stephanie Schultz had been waiting seven years in what was meant to be a temporary refugee camp in Germany. The children I photographed in Dheisheh refugee camp were all born waiting, as were most of their parents.

There is something good about waiting without an end in sight. To wait with a deadline, knowing that the decision will be either up or down and that you can do nothing about it anymore, can be worse, especially when you realize it will probably be down. In November, in Singapore, I gathered to watch the American election returns on television with a group of expats and visitors. I understand that kind of waiting. As the dreaded moment grows near, people instinctively gather, stare apprehensively at screens, the mood increasingly dark as the decision takes shape.

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So when David suggested that we go to Jinba on the day that Israel’s High Court would issue an important decision affecting the very life of the village, I thought I understood what I would encounter.

I feel at times that we are all waiting, each situation and place in its own unique way, with its own pace and rhythm. In the South Hebron Hills alone: settlers waiting for the Messiah to vindicate their biblical nationalism; Eid and Naama from the Bedouin village Umm al Khair waiting for horrid Wednesday to pass, the day when many demolitions take place and they go to work in fear they may not see their home again; A.O waiting for the magical transformation of the seasons in the village of Jinba – in winter she listens to the voices of rain and in spring the land fluctuates to green and in summer everything is yellow, yellow, yellow –  everything is golden [A.O. “Jinba is Magic”]; the falahin waiting for the change in the seasons so they can plow and harvest; workers waiting for permits to work in Israel and then waiting in long lines to enter; Nasser from Susiya, banned from entering Israel because he works for the human rights group B’tselem, waiting for the day he can visit with me in Yaffa; waiting for the occupation to end. Waiting entails solitude, helplessness, anticipation and sometimes hope. – D.M.

***

It’s early in Umm al Khair, Eid’s village in South Hebron.

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We meet Eid here so that he can accompany us to Jinba.

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The decision that we expect today has been on hold for nearly two decades. It concerns the inhabitants of some dozen villages in the West Bank area of South Hebron located in Masafer Yatta, or as Israel calls it “firing zone 918.” Firing zones are areas that the Israeli army proclaims military training grounds. Normally the military may confiscate land for this purpose without providing compensation. It created firing zone 918 in the 1970s after conquering the West Bank. Now the zone includes several Palestinian villages in area C, the region left under Israel’s control by the Oslo Accords. A village with the bad fortune to be encompassed by it faces major strains. If your village is in a firing zone, the army may arrive at any time and evacuate you and your family for hours or days so that it can conduct “exercises” on your land. When you add this to the aggravations faced by every village in area C, like getting by without connections to the power grid and living in constant fear of attacks by settlers, it makes living in area C even more stressful than life elsewhere in Palestine under the occupation.

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As stressful as is life in a firing zone, the high court ruling could make it far worse. It could allow the army to eliminate permanently any village in the zone and expel its inhabitants. No doubt such villages will eventually be incorporated into the nearest Israeli settlement that craves their land. Perhaps Jinba’s land will fall to nearby Mitzpe Yair, a settlement outpost already connected to the power grid and enjoying a plentiful water supply despite its illegal status even under Israeli law. Evacuation orders were issued for the Palestinian villages in 1999, but Israeli civil rights organizations helped them contest these orders, and the case has dragged its way through the courts, in one or another form, ever since – nearly twenty years by now. Some residents of the area were to travel to Jerusalem for the court session, and Israeli activists went to support them. David and I were both urged to attend, but instead we have come to offer our support to Jinba itself. The plan was to arrive early in the morning and assess the mood, to be there when the verdict was announced, and to share the experience.

We three visitors do indeed wait, talking to one another and to whichever of our hosts has time for us.

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But they don’t have much time. There are chores.

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All the places in Palestine are beautiful. I love all of my country very much, but every human has a special place where he/she finds safety, quietness, and freedom. For me, this special place is my village, located in al-masafer.

The most beautiful thing in al-masafer is the golden sunrise, when the women wake up to bake the bread in their taboon [wood-fired bread ovens], a fantastic smell blankets the whole place. The women make fresh bread and tea on fire for a breakfast that all family members sit and eat together. – A. O.

 

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There are many other topics and problems to talk over: marriage, education, opportunities for employment, few of them directly related to Israel or the occupation.

20170111-IMG_8899crplvlWe have arrived in time to see the preparations for the weekly clinic, when Dr. Nibal comes from Biet Omar to offer medical help.

 

20170111-IMG_8892lvlToday it is mostly children: among them a little boy who won’t grow. Dr. Nibal has been concerned about him, and details some of the treatments that he might receive.

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A mother allows me to photograph her family’s appointment.

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Sometime during the day, I forget when, the news arrives.

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I always ask myself about the meaning of al-masafer. l can think of so many meanings: maybe al-masafer refers to the people moving from one place to another, or maybe it simply means “the traveler”. I don’t really care about the name itself, what I truly care about is the history, the land, the people, and the life there.

Al-masafer is not only one village, it’s a group of very small villages, each one of these villages has its own strategic location, perfect for its farmers, their sheep and other animals.

Day in and day out we are facing the Israeli wall, the wall that stands between us and our goals and dreams, by God’s will this wall will soon be demolished, and every centimeter in Palestine, will be free. – A. O.

Unsurprisingly, the decision is postponed. The state is given time to prepare a new proposal for the firing zone. It is probably the best news we can expect, since at least it means a reprieve. The process will continue to drag along and who knows, maybe when the occupation ends, as it must, Jinba will still be in place, either here or at least nearby.

***

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Eventually, we leave with Eid and drive through the South Hebron Hills where we visit Ibrahim from Susiya, who works on the Living Archive Project, and meet the new baby that Ibrahim is showing off to a gathering of friends. Night finds us back in Eid’s home in Umm al Khair. I have never seen his sculptures, so he shows me several that have returned from his recent exhibition in Berlin, curated by Ai Weiwei.

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Afterward our rented car inches its way down the rocky slope from Umm al Khair in darkness.

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The people of Jinba have been threatened with expulsion over and over for decades. These are not empty threats, and when they are carried out – the last, terrible, time was in 1999 –  they leave scars. This history determines the climate of waiting in a firing zone. In the United States one might wait on a specified day for the unimaginable to happen. Here, except for brief intervals when the unimaginable is actually happening, or, in the aftermath of the unimaginable, while engaged in finding another place to construct yet another forbidden home, one is always waiting. At any time, whether backed by supreme court orders or not, settlers or army can and do attack, expelling everyone and making them homeless with their elderly parents and their young children, with their animals and goods confiscated and their homes demolished. To many the unimaginable has happened often enough to make it seem like a way of life. What difference does yet one more deadline make when there are immediate chores to do, when the goats must be fed, when children have a chance to see a doctor, and when visitors have come? Why spend one’s time waiting for a message of doom when today a child might have the opportunity to grow?

Postscript:  Margaret, you bring to mind the question: What is the difference between waiting and patience? Some kinds of waiting seem to lack a form of agency while patience seems to be an act of waiting as means to an end, a calculated form of waiting that knows when to retort, when to strike back and when to let things pass. I wonder if in the South Hebron Hills the simple everyday life tasks of staying on one’s land, which may seem mundane and banal, are acts of waiting – or of patience – for the right moment to reclaim dignity and freedom.  D.M.

photographs © margaret olin 2017  texts © margaret olin 2017 except as otherwise noted. Very special thanks to David Massey for all sorts of things at every stage.

Two scenes from January 2017, for D.M.:

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Demolition in Umm al-Khair

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A lesson in bread-baking in Jinba.  Photograph: David Massey

 

A Birthright Trip for Photographers? “This Place” at the Brooklyn Museum

I owe the comparison with Birthright to Abby Glogower, so this post is for Abby.

“I came to think that there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognized and wanted to claim for their own.” Stephen Shore, about his contribution to This Place

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A pro-Palestinian, anti-gentrification protest. The protestors are standing in front of a projected photograph by Josef Koudelka, in the exhibition This Place, Brooklyn Museum, May 7, 2016.

It’s all about the land. The same land visited by young Jewish men and women in free trips organized by Taglit-Birthright with an eye to giving them a closer connection to that land and encouraging them to marry other Jews. Similarly, the project This Place brought twelve world-famous photographers to Israel and the West Bank for extended periods to offer them a chance to forge a visual relationship to “this historic and contested place.” The hope was that they would portray Israel in a “universalizing” way and transcend the “polarizing perceptions and familiar images of the region in the mainstream media.”

The introductory text on the opening wall of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition This Place did offer a comparison, but not to Taglit. The text states that this project, spearheaded by Frédéric Brenner, rivals the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration, an undertaking of the United States government during the Great Depression, and the Mission photogtraphique de la DATAR, a French documentation of the French countryside in the 1980s. The differences here, according to the same wall label, are that This Place was privately funded, not publicly, and that its photographers were foreign, not Israeli. On the face of it this comparison is ambitious: I won’t speak to the French project, but the Library of Congress has put 167,000 Farm Security images on line.

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Frédéric Brenner, organizer of This Place, exhibited his own photographs in the exhibition along with those of the famous photographers whom he recruited for the project.

It might seem superfluous to enumerate the differences between it and This Place, but here are some anyway. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, photographers of Roy Stryker’s project, were in their thirties or even younger, much of their famous work still ahead of them. They came to document poverty amid an economic crisis in their own country. The photographers that Brenner has gathered are all well established; most are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties. They were not brought in to document a crisis, although one certainly existed and most of them wanted to see its effects. Brenner had to be persuaded to allow them to visit the West Bank as part of the project; he wished them to avoid politics. Several of them touched on it only obliquely. Certainly they did not come as part of a New-Deal-like effort to combat rural poverty and inequality out of a commitment to social reform. No Migrant Mother can be found in the exhibition, and although part of the bargain with each photographer included the publication of a book, no Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is likely to emerge.

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Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.

 

The photographers of This Place were strangers come for extended, but still limited times. The question, what can a stranger’s eye hope to illuminate in this situation, applies to me as well in my own ongoing project, and this is the light in which I see and worry about This Place.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photographs by Thomas Struth in the exhibition “This Place,” Brooklyn Museum.

Some of these photographers are my favorites, but their contributions to this exhibition are not my favorite work. Thomas Struth was well aware of the ethical situation in which he was enmeshed. His almost surreal look at the settlement Har Homa is perhaps the classic image of that terrible place. But within the framework of the exhibition it is little more than an example of one of his classic genres, along with others: monumental street photography made with a view camera, family portraits, cityscapes and landscapes.

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Josef Koudelka sought to portray Israel’s “security wall” as a force for the destruction of the environment. I appreciate Koudelka’s attention to the way in which the wall affects the landscape and I take his concern seriously. Yet his work, beautiful here as always, in the main shows me what I have already seen and photographed. Murals in the Aida camp, for example, the way the “separation” wall loops through the landscape, swooping to enclose a bit of land in a greedy fist, and the barbed wire that stretches and curves everywhere in the world, but for some reason, is almost irresistible to photograph here. All these subjects immediately strike my eye.

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Protesters in the exhibition This Place

But I could never have duplicated Faisal Sheikh’s series Desert Bloom. It sent me back to my own photographs to look at their subjects differently. He arranged his photographed traces of Beduin villages in the Negev, taken from the air, in a tile like grid format on one wall of the exhibit. I have no interest in making areal photographs; it is too important to me to stay down on earth among people. Yet I could not tear myself away from them.

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Demonstrators near the installation of Desert Bloom by Faisal Sheikh

The unremittingly pale brown, washed out beauty of these desert tiles pulled me in. Subtle deviations in the ground are indications of cataclysmic changes. They signify the nearly effaced suggestions of the people who once lived there. The ominous feel of the title, “desert bloom” alludes to Ben Gurion’s call to the Jewish people to “make the desert bloom.” Here the “bloom” looks less like fertility than like the cruel beauty that keeps a desert from sustaining life.

20160507-IMG_5872lvlcrpOnce I have looked at these distanced photographs, oddly similar to Alan Cohen’s photographs of boundaries in close-up, I can no longer see the ground in the same way again.

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Alan Cohen, Gila River Indian Reservation, 2004. From Lines of Authority

 

Sheikh has provided ample reading material to explain the subtle clues to large changes that have taken place in the land. I look for images like those that Sheik has photographed from far away but writ large that will explain for me patterns of dispossession and camouflage and the sheer effort to go on in the face of them.

 

 

 

 

I wonder what areal views of green strips of land might look like where Palestinians and their sheep are not allowed.

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A Ta’ayush action, 24 March, 2015, South Hebron Hills. For more, look here

I wonder also about areal views of green strips of land where only Palestinians and their livestock are allowed.

 

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From above, volunteers from Ta’ayush accompany a Palestinian grazing his sheep to protect them from nearby settlers. Israelis and, I was told, anyone eligible to become one are prohibited from descending into the valley. Soldiers ensure that we obey the rule.

Can you see isolated solar panels from the air?  abandoned fences and poles and destroyed houses?

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This Place, with photographs by Thomas Struth, Frédéric Brenner, Josef Koudelka

How does an exhibition with well-intentioned photographers fail to attain the complexity to which it aspires? The curators may have something to do with it. The calm, cold beauty, the isolated photographs, the laconic captions with little or inadequate explanations. Jeff Wall’s photograph of Beduins sleeping near a prison in the Negev desert, “where this traditionally nomadic Arab people has lived for centuries.” What exactly does he know, assume, about their centuries-long Nomadic life? Have they always lived in the Negev? What does it mean to be a nomad? Did they always sleep outside on the ground covered only with blankets? Wall himself explains, in an interview, that he sees and photographs in a bubble, but that the photograph “knows” more than he does. I am with him this far, but not when he goes on to say that he can detach the social conditions of the work from its aesthetics.

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Photographs of people Rosalind Fox Solomon met while traveling on commuter buses in Israel and the West Bank.

Sometimes there is no explanation at all.

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Stephen Shore, Nabi Musa, 2010

In an effort to bring to light some of what the photographs, if not the photographers might “know,” demonstrators on Saturday supplied new captions for Stephen Shore’s landscape photographs of “this land that a lot of people want to claim for their own.”

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Photographs by participants in workshops run by photographer Wendy Ewald in Palestine and Israel. What do the explanations say? A line on the floor discourages visitors from finding out.

There are other strategies. The small photographs taken by Wendy Ewald’s workshop participants are arranged on shelves. Wall copy is also arranged on shelves, but viewers cannot come close enough either to the photographs or to the written explanations to examine them and perhaps have their assumptions challenged.

The exhibition strives for complexity but what is complexity? For the most part it seems to suggest that complexity is even handedness. Once one side occupies the other, however, it is impossible to deal an even hand. Similarly, complexity is not universality. To universalize tends to normalize the unacceptable. Complexity demands a degree of nuance that some of these photographs possess but that the framework keeps hidden. All of the photographs “know” more than their photographers, just as my own photographs “know” more than I do. But the neutrality of the installation mutes this knowledge.

The private funding does, too. That the organizations and individuals that funded This Place are not governmental entities means that the organizers did not have to confront the cultural boycott advocated by BDS, the movement that uses cultural boycotts among other strategies to force an end to the occupation. But all the same the funders for the most part fund Zionist organizations; some of them funnel money to settlements and even the Israeli military. None of them fund initiatives to help Palestine or Palestinians. The exhibition itself, which prefers the term “West Bank” to “Palestine,” has tamed its subject.

Perhaps the funders of Taglit-Birthright felt some kinship between This Place and the mission of the Birthright trip to tie young Jews to the land and to one another. The co-founder of Taglit and several of its donors are among the organizations funding This Place. But sometimes a Birthright trip backfires. A young birthrighter may come to see the agonizing contradictions between the framing narrative of the trip and the intolerable ethical situation that confronts any visitor whose Jewish education taught her to regard ethical responsibility as its basis. If so, she might leave feeling that she has been used, and these photographers should do the same.

and one more thing: The demonstration on Saturday, May 6, yoked two protests together, a pro-Palestinian protest aimed at exposing the ideological “neutrality” of This Place and  another that targeted the museum’s role in gentrification through pandering to real-estate moguls on its board. For that protest, the demonstrators targeted an exhibit, Agitprop, about the use of art for social justice.

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Interactivity was built into the exhibition Agitprop

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It also featured numerous protest videos.

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Here, museum security closes Agitprop to actual demonstrators.

if not otherwise identified, all photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.

 

 

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Women, Tents, Energy, Caves: The Rural Women Association and Comet-ME

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“Do you teach about this at your university? Do you teach about our lives here?” asks Fatma Nawaja as she prepares for a meeting of the Rural Women Association.

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“I’m not qualified to teach about your lives. I can make a few photographs, perhaps of baking . . .

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or the pigeon roost.”

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“But I would rather photograph your meeting.”

On March 15, 2016, eleven women converge on a tent in Susiya from four scattered villages in the South Hebron Hills. They are determined, Fatma says, to develop the necessary financial and educational resources to achieve autonomy. As she uses the word,  “Autonomy” means individual  advancement toward a collective aim. An autonomous  woman is able to take responsibility in the family and contribute to its support.

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Working together, the women have instituted workshops, school activities and summer camps, but their most important achievement may be that they are meeting at all.

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The association is a new idea and it is not easy to arrange the meetings. Were transportation available, more members from more villages could attend. Today the group comes from four of them: Susiya, Al Mufaqarah and Umm al-Khair, all tent villages, and at-Tuwani, home to the high school and two NGOs. The treasurer of the group, Naima, is from the Beduin village Umm al-Khair. Support for the group comes from small annual dues and donations.

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Of these towns (and several others), at-Tuwani is the only one that can be found on google maps. The “Susiya” on the map is not the village where we are meeting but the Israeli settlement that took part of the village’s land and all of its  name. The archaeological site (see “ancient synagogue”) marks the place where the town was located before the residents were expelled in 1986 to create the archaeological park. The former residents constructed a village on some of their remaining farmland between the two locations named “Susiya.” They have been expelled several times from this location also.  According to Wikipedia, Umm al-Khair is located at 31°25′29.60″N 35°11′46.41″E.

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The Oslo accords placed these villages in “area C,” under Israeli control, and the authorities have refused the residents permission to construct permanent buildings. In the past few months, the civil administration has carried out several demolitions . Since this meeting, too, it has destroyed a number of structures in Um al Khair. I am told that a demolition order is also pending against a memorial erected at the entrance to Susyia in memory of a Palestinian baby burned to death in his home last year by settlers in Duma.

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Naima reports on the group’s financial condition

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The women discuss the development of their  website  – it is unfinished but it lists many of their current and planned initiatives.  Many of them center on education.  English lessons for example are scarce, expensive, and crucial.

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School is another topic. They have been helping children who are struggling, but the school needs trained social workers. Recently one of the woman offered a workshop to children to help them recognize explosives so that the children will stop picking them up on the way to school.

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Economic issues are another topic. Many of the women engage in crafts.

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They sell their wares at fairs and at their embroidery shop in a cave in Susiya. You can see the interior in a previous post here.

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A workshop on techniques for making yogurt and machinery and the skills to spin wool professionally come up in conversation.  Wool from the sheep in the villages tends to go to waste in the summer.

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Dreams and energy fill the room – including the energy without which the meeting would have been next to impossible. The Israeli government sponsors power lines for Israeli settlements; these bypass the Palestinian villages. But an NGO, Community Energy Technology (Comet-ME), has for some years provided renewable technology to these communities and the expertise to maintain it.

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COMET’s office is in a pre-existing building but the added roof over the terrace is subject to demolition. Hence their workshops are in caves:

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There a staff that includes Israelis and local residents makes solar panels, wind turbines and water filtration systems for tent villages in South Hebron.

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The energy also powers television sets in Susiya. There, a mother and her six children can watch Bollywood films at bedtime with their overnight guest after a day that began before dawn.

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text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016

*For information about how to donate to the Rural Women's Association
click here; for Comet-ME, click here.

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Ezra Nawi, Ta’ayush, and 30 seconds of video

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Ezra Nawi, May 31, 2014

“Just as they film, so we film as well”

How powerful is a photographic medium? In Israel, thirty seconds of it is enough to arrest a man and keep him incommunicado for days without access to his lawyer. Enough to prompt from the Prime Minister a vicious condemnation of those who would hide behind the hypocrisy of “caring for human rights,” and, from the Defense Minister and the Education Minister, even more extreme attacks against human rights organizations. At best, there are calls for the “moral left” to repudiate the man who is under arrest, to condemn him without a trial, as well as “to thank the two journalists for their courageous, professional work.” You can read this piece by Ari Shavit here. The officials posted their remarks on their respective Facebook pages.

So: how powerful is a photographic medium? The question has occupied me for a few decades. Most recently, on-and-off over the last year and a half, I have been using my own camera to investigate how human rights groups in Israel use their cameras. One especially has absorbed my attention, the group Ta’ayush (the name is Arabic for “living together”), a rather small all-volunteer organization that works through legal channels to win back land stolen from Palestinians in South Hebron and prevent further robberies and demolitions. On Saturdays members accompany Palestinians to their lands to protect them from settler violence while they plow, graze their sheep, plant and harvest crops. Their cameras are always in action. You can see some of my results and a few of my anxieties in past posts on this blog. Their work is heartbreaking but still manages to inspire hope. To me the group means far more than an academic exercise.

But my epigraph is not from my own research. It is a translation of some of the first spoken words in an incriminating half hour video that appeared on January 7 on Uvda, a major Israeli investigative news program. Author of the report is Omri Assenheim, an award-winning journalist. The report is about two members of the far right organization Ad Kan (meaning literally “up to here” and figuratively “enough is enough”), who “infiltrated” Ta’ayush, filmed its activities, and zeroed in on its most loud-mouthed member. The two, a young man and his girlfriend, eventually succeeded in goading him into saying something outrageous. He said that he hands over “them” (we eventually find out that “them” means Palestinians who sell land to Israelis) to the Palestinian Authority. The infiltrator asks him what happens to the people after that, and he answers that the Authority kills them, after first subjecting them to beatings. There are many problems with the “facts” that the video claims to document, and some good commentary on the film points them out.  In English I recommend David Shulman’s report here. You might also read the report in Haaretz by Amira Hass here. I will add only that I know Ezra Nawi through Ta’ayush and while he might say anything at all, he would never knowingly send anyone to his/her death. Indeed this case is no exception.

Here I want to concentrate on the video itself. When I first saw it I found it hard to imagine that anyone could take it seriously; it has all the hallmarks of a hack job, a video tabloid. Clips taken on different days are bunched together randomly and accompanied by scare music and voice-over narration that romanticizes the investigators. Images of Ad Kan members setting up their cameras are interspersed with those of scary-looking Ta’ayush volunteers. It is possible that one of those alarming “lefties” hiding behind a camera could be this writer, an aging, but not-very fearsome scholar like several other members of Ta’ayush. The founder of Ad Kan says he was horrified to hear a few such people make demeaning remarks, right in front of a young soldier, about his failure to remember the values he must have been taught in high school. The identities of the moles are hidden. The young woman’s face is blacked out in an interview, but not before we are treated to a tantalizing silhouette of her slim body in profile as she tosses back her long silky hair. I have seen many similar videos, some, for example, from anti-abortion groups in the United States seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood. The word “heavily edited” was on everyone’s lips concerning these videos, but other methods are often used to enhance such editing. Shooting so as to conceal the lips of the speaker for example, can hide the cuts that leave out words central to the speaker’s intentions.* Most of the planned-parenthood videos are far more subdued than this sensationalized video by Uvda, however. While watching it eyes roll. At least they should.

The crux of the video from Uvda centers on Nawi. There is a good deal of discussion of a putative land sale by a Palestinian who, we are given to understand, Nawi wishes to lead into a trap. But perhaps the decisive moment takes place in a car, in footage made with a hidden camera and first aired two minutes into the program. There, in less than 30 seconds, Nawi makes the above-mentioned incriminating remarks. The visuals are terrible. It is impossible to see him as he talks. Lights flash twice in the middle, blotting out everything.

But this is just a teaser toward the beginning of the program. The same conversation reappears twenty minutes later in the course of a longer discussion of the deal with the Palestinian selling land.

Or rather, the same audio reappears, but the video is different. This new video, also in the car, has a different time stamp about 15 minutes later than the first one. Or perhaps it was taken on a different day altogether, since there is only a time stamp and no date stamp on the first video. The camera angle is different. A paper in the foreground on the first run-through has mysteriously vanished and there are no blinding flashes. Only in the later video does Nawi wear sunglasses. In the middle of this new video, after Nawi says that he turns people over to the Palestinian Authority, but before he is asked what happens to such people next, there is a cut, and suddenly the time stamp registers a six-minute long gap. Were there two – or three – hidden cameras? I doubt it. Did Nawi repeat the same words with exactly the same inflection after fifteen minutes, then after another six minutes, or on other occasions altogether? I doubt that as well. Only the speaker, whose mouth is invisible in both versions, connects the visuals. At the end of the new 30-second clip you can finally glimpse his mouth and it is smiling. Is Ezra’s “vicious smile” (in the words of the Jewish Press) the reason that the conversation was attached to these visuals and not to others?

Why does the altered video matter? Am I acting like an academic book reviewer who discredits someone’s hard-won argument because of a misplaced comma or a typo? I don’t think so. At best the discrepancy reveals sloppiness in the television producers and at least one place where the video takes words out of context. We should consider the possibility that there may well be more. The incriminating words could have been spliced into the program at nearly any point. Perhaps this thirty seconds is indicative of the false premises on which the entire thirty minutes were constructed.

On this basis, a man has been subjected to death threats and then arrested. Worse, all human rights groups and especially Ta’ayush are immediately drawn in and subject to wholesale condemnation although there is no suggestion that they had anything to do with the land deal. And this at a moment when the government is in the midst of a campaign against them. As I write, Ezra Nawi is about to come before a judge. His guilt or innocence or whether he is charged at all will presumably be decided without the help of this doctored video. I hope he is released unharmed and soon, but whatever happens, it should not affect the work of Israeli human rights organizations. Any Jerusalem resident reading this might consider accompanying Ta’ayush to South Hebron one Saturday.

Epilogue: Soon after I posted this, two more arrests were made; two more dedicated activists were held behind bars with no access to lawyers, without formal charges, their names under a gag order. They were released after about a week. The cases, however, were kept open.

*On March 28, 2017, the two moles who infiltrated Planned Parenthood were indicted in California on 15 criminal counts of illegal recording and conspiracy and a warrant was issued for their arrest. I am not informed that any members of Ad Kan have been subjected to anything similar.

Thanks to Yagil Eliraz for assistance with Hebrew.

 

Text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015Project20140531_0532-crp2

 

 

 

 

March 14, 2015: Zanuta and Rahwah – Guest Post by David Shulman (photographs: Margaret Olin)

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Four happy months in India, and today I’m back in south Hebron. Before leaving I asked my friends to finish off the Occupation before I returned, but somehow they haven’t managed this. Yesterday I meet my neighbor Rama in the street, and she asks how it is to be home. It’s good, I say, at first I was even high, but little by little despair seeps in. “That’s right,” she says, “here everything is really fine except for the despair.”

It torments me all the way down to south Hebron, a dark and acrid journey. Why why why? I remember this: when you’ve been away and you come back, at first you find the reality of Palestine unreal. Unthinkable. A kind of lunacy. The colonial project, the horrific crime at the heart of it—it all looks mad, and beyond fixing. Nothing we do can change it. Nothing we say matters.

Then, after an hour on the hills with the shepherds, the craziness begins to feel natural, normal, and I know what I have to do.

I’m lucky to be with Guy today. He turns out to be a hardened optimist: Maybe the elections this week will bring the beginning of the change. But even if they don’t, we’re coming closer to the point of decision: either full-blown apartheid or a peace agreement, whose details are anyway well known. If Israel opts for apartheid, the Netanyahu way, then the world will force a change. The pressure is building up. The boycott will do it. One day we will come down here to visit our Palestinian friends, we will remember these bad days, we will have coffee and laugh, we will say: “Do you remember that hot day in March when the soldiers came and arrested Hatim and Guy and Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim, when they cooked up this idiotic rule that you can’t graze the sheep in the wadi or on the slopes to the east, and they held them for hours in the jeeps and then finally let them go?” Those good days will certainly come, Guy says, it could, it should, be paradise here. In the meantime, we have to do what we do to keep things from getting worse.

There are lots of sheep—four or five herds from Zanuta, we count about 300 heads; and another four or five herds from Rahwah, to the south where the wadi takes this grand ravishing curve. Rashad is responsible for one of the herds. He has a story to tell, which goes like this, in his fierce and fluent Hebrew:

“It was years ago, this crazy settler, Avi, came with his brother and another man and they picked a fight with my brother, who was out with the sheep. They beat him badly, and another shepherd too, and they threatened to kill them. My brother called me and I came fast, walking over the hill with my shepherd’s staff. “We’re going to kill you,” they said. They made us sit down on the ground and wait. They had heavy guns. I was afraid of them, they’re bad and they’re crazy, you can tell a bad man when you meet one. There’s room for everyone here, we don’t care if they’re here, but they want only to hurt us and take the land. [Guy interjects: “We’ll kick them out of here, don’t worry.”] So we’re sitting there and waiting, and the settlers have their guns pointed at us, and luckily an army jeep came by on the road, in those days the roads weren’t so good, I ran to the jeep and stuck my arm through the window and said to the officer that he has to come with me. He didn’t have much choice. When he got to where my brother and the other shepherd were sitting, the settlers started beating them again, and they said to the soldiers, ‘Look, this one has a stick,’ meaning my staff, so the officer drew his pistol and cocked it and made sure the bullet was in the barrel and then he pressed the pistol against my forehead and said, ‘Get rid of that stick or your brains are going to be blown to heaven.’ I said I don’t need the staff and I threw it away. Still, they hit us some more, and they told us they’d come back to kill us some day, for sure, and they went away. In those days we didn’t have friends like you to help us.”

Rashad has a permit, which means he can work inside Israel; so he’s in Beersheva most days of the week and out on the hills with the sheep only on Saturday. He’s rough, good-natured, utterly and oddly innocent, as innocent as a human being can be. He thinks people have the option of being good. He laughs a lot. I like the idea that we’ll come back some day to laugh again with him.

Pastoral interlude. We lie in the sun, resting against the rocks, waiting. A delicious silence soaks the green slope—green as Ireland, after the rains. Everywhere the anemones are straggling into the sunlight, and there are daisies and dandelions and tiny nameless purple blossoms and thick green reeds as well. A partridge flutters over the stream. Happiness. Guy says it’s the silence before the storm.

Of course he’s right. Above us, across the wadi, there’s the settlement of Har Hamor, where a single settler family lives. They’ve cordoned off huge chunks of the ancient grazing grounds, and, as always, they’ve got the soldiers to guard them and do their bidding, which means driving Palestinian shepherds off Palestinian land. It’s no surprise when two drab khaki-grey jeeps turn up on the path near the tiny stream, heavy with the sewage of Kiryat Arba, at the base of the hill. Then they are upon us.

20150314-IMG_5127-SheepLooking-crpThere’s a vanguard. “Get these sheep away from here,” they order us, but of course we demand to see the signed order, and all too soon the Big Officer comes with those foolish fancy stars on his uniform and his big heavy gun and with the piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander and the map on its inverse. It decrees—illegally, of course—that the wadi and the hill where the settlement sits and about a third of the hill where we’re standing are all now a Closed Military Zone. In itself, this wouldn’t be so bad, though it’s a crime, and cruel, and, more simply, wrong. What makes it worse today is the Oral Law, the torah sheba’al peh, that accompanies the order and that declares the whole rolling expanse of the slopes, all the way uphill to the highway a mile or two away, to be forbidden to Palestinians, since these lands, says Big Officer, are “Jewish grazing grounds.”

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He’s made it up. There’s no legal basis to this draconian restriction. We tell him so, but it makes no difference. He’s given us 10 minutes to get the shepherds uphill before he arrests them. We Israelis, he says, can remain on the “Jewish grazing grounds” if we agree to move a few hundred meters up the slope. The 10-minute deadline applies to us too, and the clock is running.

Here’s a little mini-apartheid moment, as we firmly inform him. “You can’t make one law for Palestinians and another for Jews,” we say. It’s infuriating. I can feel the rage welling up in me, and the morning’s despair is also kicking in, along with the sick feeling of helplessness. We call Amiel, who confirms our reading of the law. Now it’s up to the shepherds to decide; we will follow their lead. I rush over to explain to them in Arabic what the soldiers are demanding; I tell them that the law is with them if they move the herd just a little ways up the slope, but that there’s a danger that the soldiers will arrest them anyway. Several shepherds immediately start moving the sheep. It’s not so easy. Sheep are notoriously slow about such things. They’ve been feeding ravenously on the rich diet of thorns and greens in the wadi and they don’t seem to feel any particular respect for Big Officer who, looking around for a potential victim, settles on us. We’ve started walking backwards, very slowly and deliberately, as he barks at us and counts the seconds left.

Is Big Officer a bad man? Let’s leave this question in abeyance. I’m not sure what it means. He seems unhappy that his order and his deadline have not been honored with alacrity. I wonder if he’s put out at having to waste a beautiful spring Shabbat morning chasing hundreds of stubborn sheep over the rocks. I also wonder if he has any inkling of how much harm he is doing to himself, to his manhood, to the subtle, hidden places of his mind, by inflicting cruelty on innocents, by humiliating them and treating them like children and by exiling them from what is theirs. These thoughts flit rapidly through my mind and vanish into the sunlight because Big Officer has lost patience and arrested Hatim Suleiman Shafiq, though he was actually trying to obey the order and get the sheep going, and Guy rushes down to try to protect him so they arrest him too.

The soldiers march their hostages to the jeeps. By now the police have also turned up, and Hatim and Guy are locked into their blue-white wagon. In the wadi, considerable chaos reigns. Oblivious, joyful, untold numbers of sheep are doing what sheep do, dotting the wadi with a furry beige. Two or three of the shepherds have managed to pry some part of their herds away from the thick foliage near the stream and to prod them some ways up the slope. They’re still far from the highway. Surprisingly, the soldiers, perhaps content with the initial arrests, seem to have forgotten all about their own arbitrary Oral Law. One contingent of them is poking with sticks through the tall grass as if they’d lost something of value there—as indeed they have.

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The Rahwah shepherds are still deep in the wadi to the south, and they seem to have found a creative solution to the soldiers’ threats: they’ve sent young kids, maybe eight or nine years old, to follow the sheep there, on the tenuous assumption that the army won’t arrest children. (It does it all the time.) I join Amir and Peg on the southern ridge. Time slows down, as if high noon had brought it to a leisurely boil. We wait. We call the lawyer who will take care of Guy and Hatim when they reach the police station. We chat with Murad and the other shepherds, who want to know why the soldiers took Hatim. “Who can say?” I answer, a non-answer, since there is no answer    20150314-IMG_5232-lvlCrvCrpFlt

Just when I come to the conclusion that the men with guns have resigned themselves to recalcitrant ovine reality and the danger has passed, they suddenly arrest two more shepherds: Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim. The arrests are swift and brutal, with much shoving and poking. We’re too far away to be of help, but I can’t bear watching this: despair again. Is it the good despair I’ve written about, the kind that makes you act and take risks and not think about results? I doubt it. It’s a black viscous feeling that goes well with the liquid gold washing over the hill.

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It may make you feel better to know that eventually all those arrested were released; that the police refused even to accept Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim at the station and sent them back to the soldiers, who had to let them go; that the other hostages who had been captured at Shweike and Umm al-Ara’is were also freed. It was a messy, foolish day, maybe because the settlers are full of hate and fear as the elections come near, and they know that this time they may lose, so they pick on their usual victims and command the soldiers to do the same. Or maybe there’s no logic to it all except for the random but systemic logic of the Occupation itself, perhaps stirring itself awake in the first real week of spring. You might also feel better if I tell you that I figure that if we keep coming back week after week, the Palestinians may eventually get their wadi back and the herds will flow past the ravishing curve and happily blanket the hungry hills. What is required of us is no heroics but a dull steadiness and perseverance. I think it will work. Speaking of happiness, Peg told me when we said goodbye that she’d felt it today, and then I knew that I, too, had tasted that unthinking, unreasonable joy, the South Hebron happiness, unlike any other I have known, the kind that comes from looking straight at wickedness and not looking away.20150314-IMG_5215Looking-lvlcrpflt

text © David Shulman 2015    photographs © Margaret Olin 2015