She looks like a young girl from a distance, her uncovered braid floating back and forth as she sweeps, hoists broken doors, and repeatedly crosses the wide expanse with a bucket to fetch water from a cistern. But when she pauses in her chores to interact briskly and anxiously with the men and boys, I see that her face is old. I wish I could show this narrow, taut face and its look of experience and concern, but photographs of girls and all but the oldest women are banned. Yet I know I am looking at the worry of a grown woman, of a mother for her children; it is not the face of a frightened child. In spite of the uncovered hair I still wonder if somehow I could be seeing the face of a woman who failed to grow. She is off again, so I settle on the expression “diminutive person” for now. Continue reading
June 21, Susya
First day of summer in Susya: a lively wind and the good smells of wild sage and goats and dogs and sun-baked stones. We are there to celebrate the release of Kingdom of Olives and Ash—the anthology of essays by well-known writers from around the world who were brought to the occupied territories by Breaking the Silence to signal the dismal fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation. They wrote what they saw; it isn’t pretty. They wrote well, telling truth. Some of them, including Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the editors, and the indomitable Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and an effervescent group of Hebrew authoresses, have come to give the Susya Palestinians copies in Arabic. Strange how hope is so dependably reborn from ash. I am moved to see Nasir Nawajeh’s father and brother and uncles reading the thick Arabic volume that tells of them and their story. So we have the spell of true words on a page, and outside the bleating of the goats and the rushing wind, and inside the tent the unforeseeable alchemy of friendship. All the shacks and tents of Susya have demolition orders hanging over them, and the court has now removed the last obstacles that held the army back from flinging the bulldozers at these people, from dispossessing them once again, the eighth time, if it happens. If it happens, we will be there to rebuild.
Afterwards we plant olive saplings on the hill overlooking the Susya elementary school with its whitewashed walls and proud Arabic sign. There’s a still active well that supplies the water; buckets keep bursting from the depth as the rest of us settle the young trees into the round pits that have been dug for them, and we water them, letting the first bucketful soak into the caked golden soil, then the second, and then the earth get shoveled back around them and they stand up, sort of, bending almost to half their size under the fierce force of the wind. I say to Nasir: “These trees will grow to maturity and bear fruit long after the Occupation is dead and gone.” “Inshallah,” he says, not quite daring to smile.
June 26, Sarura
Fadil, Abu Fuad, dances like no one else. For long minutes I danced with him, up and down, over the rocks and sand, and though I’m older than he is by some 13 years, it was, I thought, like celebrating with my father, though I never danced with my father. It wasn’t just me. You could touch or taste in the air the uncanny joy given, rarely, to human beings when they emerge intact from the enveloping miasma of wickedness and sorrow. Sa’ada, happiness: the word on everyone’s lips this afternoon. Maybe there is no happiness like home. It’s not so often you get to see Palestinians truly happy, except at weddings.
Fadil has a deep scar on his nose. One of the soldiers who came to Sarura three weeks ago hit him hard with his rifle. They were there to destroy the Sarura camp, to wreck the tents and carry off the mattresses and confiscate the food and water and terrorize the families and the activists. Even in the midst of today’s happiness, I dreamt I would someday see the soldier who struck him, and the cursed officer who gave the order, in the dock of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. That day may yet come.
They’ve still here, the Sarura families, despite ferocious efforts to dispossess them. For over twenty years, after the settlers and the soldiers banded together in a concerted effort to drive them away, the ‘Amar family and the Harainis and the Raba’is and the Hamamdis held fiercely to the land. They grazed their sheep there, and sometimes they would sleep in the caves, those the army had not entirely destroyed. Then, on May 19th, 2017, just over five weeks ago, with the help of a unique coalition of activists from many peace groups– the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills, the Holy Land Trust from Bethlehem, All That’s Left—Anti-Occupation Collective, the Center for Jewish Non-Violence (these last two founded by and largely comprised of North American activists), the Combatants for Peace, among others, with active support from Ta’ayush and Haqel– they began cleaning out the caves. I want to think that they are there for good. For the last weeks, including all of Ramadan, the activists created the Sumud Freedom Camp at Sarura. Sumud: perseverance, holding fast. They worked together, they held workshops in the modes and means of non-violent resistance, they shared the evening Iftar meals. Today is the final, celebratory Iftar this year. Hard days lie ahead.
Fadil has a trim grey beard and the sun-scorched skin of those who live on the hills of South Hebron; also an impish light in his eyes. I asked him to tell me his story, and this is what he said.
“I was born on April 1st, 1962—in Sarura, right over there. [He points to a distant pile of rocks on the hill.] My father, too, was born here, in that cave [pointing north over the ridge], sometime in the nineteenth century. My father’s father was born here, and so on back into the depths of time. I grew up here, I married here, and my first three sons were born here. I myself own fifty dunams of land in the village, and 350 dunams farther east, on the way into the desert, the direct bequest of my father. We are shepherds and farmers; I grew up among the sheep and goats.
The settlers came and harassed us every day; it got worse and worse, and the soldiers joined them in making our lives miserable. By 1997 only a few of us were left in the caves. I lived for some time in Twaneh, but the sheep were here; we never abandoned this place. We always came to graze the herds, we plowed and sowed seeds. It was very difficult. The settlers—from Chavat Maon, just over that hill—blocked up our wells. We had no water. It was a continuous struggle to hang on. We had help from the Italian Dove team and others, and then Ta’ayush arrived and stood by us and protected us from the settlers. They brought us water, since the wells were gone. They worked beside us.
The courts offered no justice and no help. Still we hung on. Sometimes I stayed here in the cave for some months. Then, a few years ago, the settlers killed 35 of my sheep and burnt our tents and all the fodder we’d saved for the herd. We knew we had to be here in a continuous way, otherwise the village would be lost forever. On May 19th we began clearing the caves, together with these activists and volunteers. Hundreds came to help us, young people, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and our Palestinian relatives and neighbors. They are strong and determined. We worked together. I dug with my own hands a deep well that can hold 150 cubic meters.
The soldiers came and destroyed whatever they could, one of them struck me on my face, hard, with his gun, and they confiscated my car. Now they want me to pay 15,000 shekels to get it back. Where can I find that kind of money? Ramadan has come and gone, and with God’s help we will stay. This is our land. We will live here until we die. No settler and no soldier will drive us out. Only God’s will could uproot us.
We thank God for what we have achieved together, and we thank especially those who came from far away to help us. Our resilience and our steadfastness are what we call our own. We will go on. We welcome all of you, without titles and even without names, all of us are one today.”
I think you should hear those words together with what Isaac Kates Rose said during the speeches. He was speaking about the second time the army visited the Sarura camp, on May 22nd, with the obvious aim of breaking it up. “We were five internationals, five Israelis, five Palestinians. There were about 30 soldiers. To put it succinctly: we won. Fadil Abu Fuad was my teacher that day. I grew up in Toronto, and as a child my body had learned to idolize Jewish bodies holding big guns. But when the soldiers came in the middle of the day, marching down the hill, scaring the kids who were playing, in that moment I had a new language teacher and I learned a new language. I looked at Fadil, who showed me that he had in his own body all he needed to resist. Come, he said to me, we will hold on to this tent and not let go of it, and we will hold on to one another and not let go. And here we are: still holding fast. We have built relationships on trust and respect. I believe these relationships have world-historical meaning. Such relationships, rooted in non-violent resistance, will break the Occupation. We stand together in the South Hebron hills to build a future of freedom.”
It is late afternoon: hot, fiery, dry, dusty, with sudden gusts of sand-clogged wind that tears at your eyes and ears. Maybe we are only shouting into the wind. At night the soldiers will surely come, and probably the settlers, too, for good measure. If not tonight, then tomorrow. Everyone knows how far we have to go. The whole weight of the Occupation system will be brought to bear on these few shepherds in their newly cleaned, paved caves with their neatly stacked stone parapets on either side of the entrance. Some of these people may be hurt, God forbid. Some will probably be arrested. There will be long, dreary battles in the courts, and long hot days working to clean one more cave, and then another and another. Phase I at Sarura is over today; it may be a very long time before hundreds of volunteers come again, some to sleep here overnight and watch by day.
Everyone knows that something unprecedented has happened. Phase II begins. Two caves are clean, freshly swept, spacious, livable, cool. And there is the road—they have begun to renovate the pit-filled road. So there is rebuilding this village, in the face of the virulent authorities and the violent settlers, and at the same time the building of a community, re-connected to Mufagara on the next ridge and Twaneh and Susya and Tawamin, and tightly bound to all the organizations that joined together to make this moment happen. It’s part of a wider process slowly unfolding with our help, year after year, of coming home and being at home—in Bi’r al’Id and Susya and Tawamin and Teku’a, a reversal of all that the Occupation stands for and all that it wants. That’s why when Riyad Halees from the Combatants for Peace begins to speak, we hear in his voice the sober delirium of truth: “We declare today that Sarura is free, a place of liberation, where those who live here can assume their responsibilities, for peace comes only with the duty to protect it in the face of all those who wish us harm.” The wind whips at his lips. I think of other, more famous declarations of independence and the lurking dangers that have overtaken them. Hafez al-Haraini, my old friend, completes the thought. “Together we are making a change. We have shown the effectiveness of joint non-violent struggle. You who have joined us—your presence here is more powerful than all the guns of the Occupation. We thank you. We will never give up, lam nistaslim.”
And then we danced.
text: © David Shulman 2017
text David Shulman; photographs Margaret Olin
Asael, possibly the ugliest of all the illegal outposts in the southern West Bank—and the competition is fierce—is rapidly expanding. Yellow bulldozers, parked at the perimeter fence of the settlement, have carved out a huge swathe of intermeshed, criss-crossing gashes in the hill and valley just below. This wide, deep wound in the soil has been sliced, needless to say, through privately owned Palestinian land. We know the families. We’ve plowed here, on the edge of the outpost. There have been many bad moments with the Asael settlers, the ones we can see this Shabbat morning walking their dogs over the hill or praying to their rapacious god or swinging their children on the swings in the painted park just under their pre-fab caravans.
Winter morning, sunny, ice-cold. Guy is photographing the earthen gashes meter by meter. The families who own the land will submit a complaint to the police, not that it will do much good. The Civil Administration stopped the bulldozers earlier this week, but the fact that they’re still parked here bodes ill. Each one of them costs a few thousands of shekels per day, and they’re still here. Actually, everything bodes ill here at Asael on this sun-drenched day.
The soldiers appear on cue. Three of them clamber down the hill to put a stop to our intrusion. They’re in winter uniforms, black on top, with ski-masks and heavy weapons. Their officer, affable enough, asks for my identity card. I hand it over. He studies it. “You live near my grandmother’s house. What are you doing here, and why are you photographing me? You’re old enough to be my grandfather, aren’t you ashamed?”
“Why should I be ashamed?”
“I don’t like it when you photograph me. It’s impolite.”
I can see what’s coming. Harmless chatter, nothing worse. I turn off the camera. Peg is still photographing, despite the officer’s repeated demands that she stop. It seems this business of the cameras is all we have to talk about today. Over and over again he tells us that we’re not being nice.
He consults his superiors on the phone. “There are four Israeli citizens here,” he reports, “they have the right to come here and photograph the bulldozers and the digging, they haven’t invaded the settlement, and they won’t stop photographing me.” By now this is becoming an obsession. I’m tired of it. Moreover, the cognitive dissonance is eating away at me, so wearily I say to him, “Look, forget this stupid thing about the cameras, I’m not photographing you now, just look around you at what is happening here. You know as well as I do that this outpost is illegal, and you can see that they’re now stealing more Palestinian land.”
“That’s none of my business. If you have a problem with the settlers, work it out in the courts. I have my job to do.”
Later, thinking back on it, I find the conversation insane, and I’m sorry I got into it. A monumental crime is taking place, here and everywhere in the occupied territories. It’s picking up speed. The soldiers are complicit in it, though it’s coming from far above them, from the prime minister’s office on down. And on this bright winter morning, the officer on the spot thinks we’re being impolite.
Last week something unusual happened at Susya. A group of fanatical settlers had produced an inscription made of stones on what we call Flag Hill—Palestinian land, of course (newly plowed). The stones were stacked up to read, in Hebrew: “Revenge.” There was also a big stone-piled star of David. Our people came upon these rocks, and the settlers came at them, and the soldiers turned up, and the settlers attacked them, too. This was too much even for the soldiers, who wrestled them to the ground and arrested three of them. They let them go in the evening, but for a brief moment the tables were turned.
These are violent days in South Hebron, also in the Jordan Valley. We reach Twaneh around 2:00 and find a Ta’ayush detachment still shaken after being attacked by masked settlers from Chavat Maon. The Ta’ayush volunteers were there to protect Palestinian farmers who had come to plow. The plowing was successfully completed, and the volunteers were on their way back to Twaneh when fifteen settler thugs attacked, hurling big rocks, lots of them, and assaulting our people with their fists. Dudy was hit in the head by a rock. Danny was beaten. One of the Italian volunteers living in Twaneh was hit, and her (expensive) camera stolen. By sheer good fortune, no one was badly wounded or worse.
Guy calls the police, who eventually respond. We head uphill toward the site of the attack. The settlers are still flitting through the trees at the end of the path. We have good video footage, but it rapidly becomes apparent that there’s little point in submitting a complaint. The police will do nothing, the settlers were masked, to fill out the police forms is hardly more than a ritual gesture. We move on. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I was attacked, beaten, stoned, and shot at by the settlers of Chavat Maon at this same point. I know what it feels like. I know for sure that they are celebrating their splendid raid and reveling in their spoils. Maybe I shouldn’t care.
Eid is waiting to welcome us to Umm al-Khair. He’s become almost famous, with exhibitions of his sculptures and installations in Tel Aviv and most recently Berlin. It’s been many months since I’ve seen him. We embrace. We run through the dismal litany of house demolitions from the past few months. For the moment—always only for the moment—the courts have put a freeze on further demolitions at Umm al-Khair. Eid says: “No matter what we do, the Israelis will never let us live here; sooner or later, they will take these lands too.”
The settlement of Carmel abuts the shanties of Umm al-Khair, and recently the settlers have invented a new form of torment for their neighbors. Their sewage now flows through pipes that open onto the fertile fields in the wadi and the Palestinian grazing grounds. We pick our way over the rocks to study the large open pipe.
It’s one of those crystal winter afternoons. Every thorn stands out on the hills. Sheep cluster around the well on the next ridge. Ruins from the last four demolition raids are neatly stacked beside what used to be tents and homes. We’ve rebuilt a little, for the umpteenth time. The hills across the Jordan River turn to limpid mauve. It’s cold; one of the young girls, maybe four years old, in ponytail and a blue sweater, stands barefoot at the entrance to her home. Goats bleat; toward sunset, they get hungry. Tea appears. A wild parabola of pigeons swirls over the golden slope. Beauty is made from pain, great beauty from greater pain.
Text © 2017 David Shulman; photographs @ 2017 Margaret Olin except as otherwise noted.
On Ta’ayush: http://www.taayush.org/
The essay, “Kafka in Area C,” tells the story of the place in these photographs: here where the ‘Awad family sheep are grazing, is a spare wadi where members of Ta’ayush, the all volunteer group whose work in South Hebron I am following, is stopping briefly at the beginning of our day.
In the photographs it is early June, 2015. We watch the patterns that the sheep make as they process down the wadi or gather in groups.
We look across the wadi at a few makeshift houses on what had been the ‘Awad family’s hilltop. Maybe Israeli settlers, in their Shabbat morning peace, are looking back.
I am told “we’ve been here hundreds of times,” but the visit is quiet. We leave within an hour to visit Susiya, a village of tents and caves where rough conditions are a constant, infuriating reminder of injustice.
Today, a year and a half later, Susiya still stands, at least most of it, at least for now. But the ‘Awad family, its livestock and its livelihood, have been denied rights to their land. The article, by a Ta’ayush volunteer, explains the absurd circular process of dispossession that has become business as usual. If the comparison to Kafka fails to appeal to you, think “Catch-22.” But after you glance at the photographs, read it. here.
photographs and text © Margaret Olin 2016
Slightly over a year ago David Shulman pleaded urgently on this blog for help in sparing Susiya, a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills, from immanent destruction by the bulldozers of the Israeli Civil Administration. You may read his eloquent message here. At the time, people mobilized in Israel and abroad.
Large demonstrations occurred at the village; the European Union sent representatives and the spokesperson for the United States Department of State complained to the Israeli government. Susya was spared.
Now, after a year, the forces that desire Susiya’s land seem to believe that the world must have forgotten Susiya by now. The civil administration has restarted preparations to demolish the village. The same dreary process, including the obligatory fruitless appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, has already begun. Now the fate of the village is to be decided by August 15 by the ultra right Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman.
If you heeded David Shulman’s call then, if you wrote to your representative, your foreign minister and/or your country’s ambassador to Israel or if you regret that you did not, please consider doing so now. Ask them to apply pressure to Israel, as they successfully did last year and keep Susiya’s families, more than 300 people, many of them children, from having to abandon their homes and rebuild once more.
Susiya is not important merely because of the injustice of the ongoing process, but here it is in brief: boards that approve construction are composed of settlers intent on clearing the land and securing it for Israel; these boards prevent Palestinians from acquiring permits that would make dwelling on their own land legal;
in order to live on their land and support their livestock and their orchards the residents build, without permits, temporary buildings that serve as dwellings and kitchens and everything that one needs to make a home.
They plant gardens around them and do what they can to make and remake real homes in a situation that is more than challenging. Donated sustainable energy supports their lives while Israel’s huge power lines bypass the village to bring power to encroaching settlements. I have visited Susiya repeatedly, made friends there, and found role models among these people. You may read about their work here
But Susiya’s importance transcends these reasons, which apply to many villages, Bedouin and Palestinian, scattered in the South Hebron Hills. All these communities suffer repeated demolitions. Their children grew up perceiving every Israeli as a threat to their homes. All of them,Susiya included, rebuild, at great expense of resources, effort, and emotion, once their village is demolished. This occasion will be no exception. Susiya’s special significance lies in the central role taken by its residents and the town itself. They have been in the front line of efforts by Palestinians in area C to preserve their way of life and their lands from annexation. Leaders of Susya have put themselves forward as spokespeople, organizers and peaceful activists. To many visitors to South Hebron they have become the symbol of Palestinian survival. If the outside world fails to oppose the demolition of Susya and the forcible eviction of its residents, then Israeli authorities may feel perfectly at ease demolishing any village in this region or anywhere else. You can read more about Susiya at Rabbis for Human Rights; and another appeal from David Shulman here.
Finally, here are some actions you can take from the EU, Great Britain, the US, or Canada followed by a sample letter:
1. If you are in Europe, you can write your representative to the European Union or your Foreign minister.
2. In the UK, you might like to follow this link:
or you may write one of these officials:
Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
General enquiries switchboard
020 7008 1500
Deputy Ambassador Eitan Na’eh
Embassy of Israel
2 Palace Green
Tel:020 7957 9500
Fax:0207 957 9555
3. If you are in the United States, the easiest thing to do is to sign this petition via the organization JStreet:
But you may wish to write your own letter to your representatives. Here is how to find them:
or to the State Department:
4. in Canada:
You can reach the department of defense here (the Honourable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of Defence)
email@example.com (The Honourable Stéphane Dion, Foreign Minister)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Ambassador Deborah Lyons, Ambassador to Israel)
And of course you may want to write your MP.
5. Here is one letter, but I am sure many of you can do better:
I am writing to express my concern about the immediate threat to the Palestinian village of Susya in Area C of South Hebron. Last year at this time, coordinated international expressions of outrage helped to spare this village from the bulldozers of the Israeli Civil Administration. This year the same parties are renewing their efforts to destroy most of the homes in the village, threatening the homes and livestock of more than three hundred men, women and children. Dialog with the residents has been cut off and this devastating process has begun all over again.
On August 1, the Israeli Supreme Court passed responsibility for the decision to demolish to Israel’s right wing defense minister Avigdor Liebermann giving him two weeks to make his position clear. The situation is urgent. To allow the expulsions and demolitions that were curtailed last year to happen this year would severely limit the chances of any peace negotiations. It would suggest that the West has been distracted from the goal of peace in the Middle East and that Palestinian rights and human rights in general are only momentary concerns. I ask you, my representative [in Congress/the European Community or otherwise as applicable] to apply pressure on the Israeli government and urge your colleagues to do so as well.
[your signature, address, etc. as applicable]
Please add further suggestions for action in comments to this post.
all photographs © Margaret Olin 2016
Jon Simons has gracefully woven the pastoral and rather romantic image of gleaners (think of Agnes Varda) and its tie to the recent holiday of Shavuot into his discussion of this activity that took place last weekend by Ta’ayush. But of course, it was not Shavuot but rather a harvest-time Shabbat when settlers felt an urgent need to pray on a Palestinian field. Something similar happened last year. My friends whose Ta’ayush activity took them here at harvest time recounted how the settlers prayed under a canopy in the middle of the field where they were working. Soldiers who surrounded the worshippers declared the area off limits to Palestinians. In these routine practices of everyday intimidation settlers, with the cooperation of soldiers, put performative and otherwise visual religious practices – here routine praying on Shabbat, elsewhere the construction of eruv borders (see here), – to use in the service of land expropriation. It is one of the more sobering of common sights. It is also highly photographable. Perhaps next year I will be able to portray this religious practice in photographs. Even better, perhaps next year it will not happen and the lovely vision that Simons evokes at the end of his essay will have come to pass.
On one of Saturday’s weekly activities by Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills area, nothing dramatic happened. Neither settlers nor soldiers used direct physical violence, and nobody got arrested. And yet, a lot was happening, a set of connected features of settlement, military rule and the symbiosis between them that characterise the banality of the injustice of occupation.
For once, I would have wished to get up earlier, as by the time the van load of seven Ta’ayush volunteers arrived from Jerusalem to Abu Anan’s house on the outskirts of Hebron, it was already hot. It didn’t help that (on instructions from above) the guard at the road entrance to Kiryat Arba hadn’t let us through, forcing us to find a different, longer route.
Abu Anan lives in a difficult neighbourhood, sandwiched between the settlement of Givat Ha’avot and Kiryat Arba, and overlooked by…
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once 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.
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.
I wonder also about areal views of green strips of land where only Palestinians and their livestock are allowed.
Can you see isolated solar panels from the air? abandoned fences and poles and destroyed houses?
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.
Sometimes there is no explanation at all.
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.”
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.
if not otherwise identified, all photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.
“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.
“I’m not qualified to teach about your lives. I can make a few photographs, perhaps of baking . . .
or the pigeon roost.”
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Naima reports on the group’s financial condition
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.
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.
Economic issues are another topic. Many of the women engage in crafts.
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.
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.
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.
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:
There a staff that includes Israelis and local residents makes solar panels, wind turbines and water filtration systems for tent villages in South Hebron.
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.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016
Photographs tend to personalize, not to visualize, as is the nature of microcosms. It is hard to avoid the temptation to focus a camera on the lone child standing beside one ruined house rather than on the systematic character of land appropriation as seen in borders and structures and other visual signs that articulate land through materials and shapes.
On this day the microcosm is a micro victory: The members of a Palestinian family were too afraid for years to enter their land next to the Israeli settlement Metzad (Asfar). But they realized that visual signs of neglect on the land could eventually lead to a declaration of abandonment followed by confiscation. They decided to risk returning.
With the promise of support from Israeli activists from the organization Ta’ayush who accompany them, they began to tend their land again. Last week, they made their micro victory visible. From a thicket of dense bushes they trimmed away years of neglect, first with a power hedge trimmer and then with more delicate clippers.
Watchers and learners helped make or gazed through piles of trimmed branches – – farmer’s child, volunteers, and soldiers from the civil administration
and the shape of an orchard began to emerge like a statue freed from a block of marble.
And abandoned eruv poles. An eruv is a symbolic courtyard used by orthodox Jews. You may read a previous post about eruvin here or familiarize yourself with them visually here. For one day each week, Shabbat, an eruv turns a neighborhood encompassing many private dwellings into one shared home for anyone who lives there and wishes to take part. The transformation allows its inhabitants to carry things (a prayer book, a meal, a key or handkerchief) from their private homes into the public space and throughout the eruv, an activity otherwise forbidden on that day. For some people, Shabbat would be a somber affair without an eruv. To construct one involves a complex series of rules originating in a notoriously difficult Talmudic tractate devoted to the subject. In South Hebron, as in Israel, characteristic eruv poles connected by strings or wires high above the ground usually mark the “walls” of the shared home. People who do not need an eruv may never notice it, and often something must be attached to the line to make it even faintly visible to those who do. Yet the owners of the land through which the eruv runs, whether users of the eruv or not, must give permission for the boundary markers through their own authorities.
When I first heard of the eruv I thought it beautiful, a subtle way to mark space that makes community while acknowledging others among whom one lives.
Yet when I first visited South Hebron two years ago, I immediately noticed differences in the eruvin. Eruv lines extend for miles through what appears to be wilderness, through farmland and uninhabited areas where I thought eruvin were not supposed to go.
In these settlements, or rather near them, an eruv helps create facts on the ground that can, like untended olive trees, encourage dispossession. I knew that it would be just a matter of time before I would cross an eruv line and have to show a passport. It happened sooner than I thought it would, about a year ago near the settlement Mitzpe Yair, not far from which some of these photographs were taken, as I passed under the eruv shown in the photograph below.
An eruv is a sensitive border. Its movements, in relation to utility poles that it parallels and which tower above it, to barbed wire fences along which it runs; and to the movements of shepherds and the civil administration, articulate the land.
When the land changes, the poles are abandoned.
Or they are abandoned because the symbolic walls are replaced with real ones
The new, agressive significance of the eruv is well understood. When, in a rare move, the civil administration demolished a settlement building, it also uprooted and broke the eruv poles used to claim the land around the building.
A few meters away settlers had uprooted olive trees.
The day at Asfar ended badly. Fortunately the new walls and fences, if not the defunct barbed wire and eruv poles, kept the young settlers far enough away to give us time to escape the heavy, slow moving rocks with which they celebrated Shabbat.
Later they taunted us
while police and civil authorities ignored our complaints. You can watch the incident in Guy Butavia’s video here.
We only hope that the farmers, who fled with their frightened three-year-old child, will return again.
In the long run, the most important spatial articulation involves stark juxtapositions like this one
between a neat red-roofed Israeli settlement on the hill and a poor village of tents below. The authorities, after evicting the residents of Susiya years ago from their historic village, will not issue a permit for a single permanent structure in the village that the farmers reconstituted on their lands. If villagers look up they see a settlement and beyond that the huge power lines that service it. Perhaps they see the eruv lines. What do the settlers see when they look down?
Here the eruv allows residents to live against, rather than with, other people, and some residents make use of its blessings to carry, and to throw, rocks.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016
“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 2015