No one can remember a winter like this one in the Valley.Continue Reading
She looks like a young girl from a distance, her uncovered braid floating back and forth as she sweeps, hoists broken doors, and repeatedly crosses the wide expanse with a bucket to fetch water from a cistern. But when she pauses in her chores to interact briskly and anxiously with the men and boys, I see that her face is old. I wish I could show this narrow, taut face and its look of experience and concern, but photographs of girls and all but the oldest women are banned. Yet I know I am looking at the worry of a grown woman, of a mother for her children; it is not the face of a frightened child. In spite of the uncovered hair I still wonder if somehow I could be seeing the face of a woman who failed to grow. She is off again, so I settle on the expression “diminutive person” for now. Continue reading
Most photographs here were taken by Margaret Olin in Al-Auja in late July, 2017.
Dotting the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja are the widely scattered houses of Al-Auja. In most cases only three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point, some to the west, climbing the steep hill less than halfway up to the ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley, others, like the homes of our shepherd friends today, further east, near the road to Jericho. The Al-Auja story is a long one; perhaps some day I’ll tell it in full. On April 21st this year, some fifteen masked settlers from the Baladim outpost on the high ridge attacked with clubs and stones a group of Ta’ayush activists accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their grazing grounds. A moment of extreme violence: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, others seriously bruised. The police did nothing; but not long after this attack, which was filmed and widely publicized, the settlers were evacuated from the Baladim. We hear they may have come back.
A little to the south sits the ranch-settlement, entirely illegal even under Israeli law but, like all settlements, extraordinarily privileged, of a settler called Omer. He has been there for eleven years or so, and gathered around him is a group of young, reputedly violent toughs. Hundreds of verdant palm trees tower over the land he has stolen. For the last many years, because of this settlement and the arbitrary boundary it has set in place, the Bedouins of Al-Auja East have had no access to their lands.Ta’ayush took them back across the invisible but fateful border. At first they hesitated, knowing full well that we couldn’t be with them every day and every hour, and that they were vulnerable to all the weapons and wounds that the Occupation can easily bring to bear upon them. Still, we told them that if we persist, together, in the end it’s likely that they will regain the lands, or most of them.And indeed the first few times we went with them and the sheep, it was like returning to Eden. Settlers, soldiers, police all turned up, all equally taken aback and bewildered. I saw the shepherds weep tears of joy: they had given up on these rocky, thorny hills.Then the normal business of the Occupation took over. Day after day the soldiers, egged on, perhaps actually given their orders, by the settlers, or maybe the orders came from higher up, would produce the devilish piece of paper with map attached declaring these lands a Closed Military Zone. The boundaries drawn on the map varied from day to day. The Occupation can’t allow a Palestinian shepherd to graze on his lands without a struggle. So we were driven off time after time, and each time we came back. It’s the usual story. We have been through it in many places. Every time they drive us off at gunpoint, it hurts.
Eventually, our promise will fulfill itself. There was a taste of it today. At dawn we set off with the herds, a long walk up and down the rocks, and three or four hours later we came home with them, the sheep full now of the thorns they love. The soldiers watched from a distance, not interfering. We spread out over the hills. The shepherds made tea. Apart from wind and sun and clouds, the white birds, the ravenous sheep chewing furiously, we heard only the silence of desert and stone. There is no sound in the world like the dusty sweetness of that silence. Two gentle donkeys made no sound.Strange, is it not, that what should be simple, natural, obvious, and right has to be fought for inch by inch? The Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages say that time is an infinite series of atomic moments called “nows,” aanaat. Each such temporal atom has to be created by Allah, moment by moment, an act of divine will and mercy. Each one is a miracle; life itself, the world and all that is in it, the mind and all that it holds, is thus entirely miraculous. Such was our morning in Al-Auja. One infinite atomic now.
On the way back we stopped for cold drinks and flat pitta spread with za’atar at our favorite café on the outskirts of Jericho. It’s the eve of Yom Kippur. I don’t know how it came up, maybe it had to do with the fact that Arik skipped the morning prayers to come to Al-Auja today. He, too, was wounded when the settlers attacked in April. Now, for whatever reason, he tells the famous story, shaped by I. L. Peretz, hero of my youth, of the rabbi of Nemirov who disappears each day before dawn. The days are the days before Yom Kippur when one says the prayers for forgiveness, slichot. His disciples, a little puzzled, decide he goes up to heaven. A skeptic and rationalist, someone like me, arrives in the village and scoffs at this pious dream; he hides under the rabbi’s bed and, when the rabbi gets up before dawn, the skeptic follows him into the forest. The rabbi carries an axe. He cuts firewood and carries it to the hut of a penniless widow. As he enters the hut, he recites the first prayer for forgiveness. As he puts the logs into the stove and lights the fire, he recites the next one. By the time the stove is fully ablaze, the prayers have been said in full. When the skeptic, who has watched this, next hears the disciples say the rabbi has gone up to heaven, the skeptic says: “If not higher.”Another one of those atomic nows.
I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”Arik laughs. All of us laugh. The Palestinian serving hot pitta and za’attar has been listening in, even he laughs, at us or with us. Look what’s happened to the Jews. Except, I think to myself, this story is about Arik.He asks me if I’m fasting tonight and tomorrow. No, I answer. I am going to Not Fast as an act of bearing witness, a moment of fleeting faith that god still exists.
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/
There are about 40,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley—the Israeli-occupied segment of the long deep crack in the surface of the earth known as the Syrian-African Rift. Half of them live in the tropical resort town of Jericho, once thought to be the world’s oldest city. The other half are mostly Bedouins, descendents of pastoralist nomadic tribes that have by now settled down in small, fixed clusters of tents and shacks, though they continue to live primarily from their flocks of goats and sheep. A few veteran sites, such as Kardala, Bardala, and ‘Ein al-Baida in the northern Valley, also have solid stone houses. Some Palestinian families from the hill country around Ramallah still maintain a pattern of seasonal migration to the Valley with their flocks. Bedouin settlement here goes back centuries, and the way of life of these settled pastoralists has its own special flavor and integrity. It’s a hard life. It would be hard even if these people were not crushed by the harsh hand of the Israeli Occupation.
Typically, what you find is someone like Burhan in Harat-al-Makhul, whom we meet, surrounded by his sheep, at 7 AM, when the air is still cool with a trace of sweet mist. He lives here alone, for the most part, except for a few close friends and helpers; his wife and children are in the town of Tubas in the hills to the west, with its schools and shops. I count close to a hundred sheep, including fifteen or twenty newborn lambs. One ewe, he tells us, is about to give birth within half an hour or so. He advises us to wait and see the birth, which, clearly, has lost nothing of its miraculous character in his eyes.
He brings us coffee in tiny cups—the first round of perhaps 9 or 10 today. He’s rough-hewn and gentle, his long grey shirt stained a darker grey by handling these dozens of sheep hour by hour. A continuous cacophony of roosters greets the dawn and then goes on greeting the intensifying sunlight. Soon it will be very hot. Inside Burhan’s tent there is a makeshift gas stove, a few white plastic chairs, an assortment of tools and rags and boxes, a shelf for coffee and sugar and the granular heavy pita that the shepherds make. The floor is hard-packed dirt and sand. I think Burhan is a happy man.
But he lives on the edge. There’s no cash to spare, and there are many sheep-mouths to feed, more every day. Like all the shepherds in the Valley, he lives with the constant threat of seeing his home, his sheep-pens, his store-rooms, and his foot-paths demolished by the Israeli army. It could happen literally at any time, just as it did, last week and this week, at al-Hammeh and Ras al-Ahmar. Water is a big problem. He has to bring it by tanker from far away and at huge cost for a small sheep-holder. He used to get it from al-Tuf, which has freshwater springs and is relatively close by, but the road has been blocked by the army. So now he has to import it from ‘Ein al-Baida, at around 20 to 30 shekels per cubic meter, which comes to around 260 Israeli shekels or more for a small tanker—about $65, a princely sum. It’s autumn now, one tanker might last him a week; but in the summer, when the sun is merciless, he goes through a tanker in 3 or 4 days. Burhan knows we’re on our way to ‘Ein al-Hammeh, where some of the worst demolitions have taken place, but he asks us to come back to help him fix the roof over his sheep-pens. If he tries to do it alone, the soldiers may turn up to harass him. The army bases on either side of Harat al-Makhula have big cameras fixed on high metal towers that record his every move.
There’s not much left at ‘Ein al-Hammeh. Here the destruction was very thorough, also carried out in a sadistic rush: the families were given ten minutes to take whatever belongings they could out of their homes, but this permission did not extend to any electrical appliances, cellphones, televisions, in short, anything of real value. The animals, too, were left roofless under the fierce sun and exposed at night to the no less fierce desert cold. Many of the young lambs and goats have died over the last few days. To make things worse, the army or the Civil Administration (perhaps driven on by the brutal new Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman) chose to carry out the destruction at the height of the birthing season, when the young kids emerge into the light. It’s perhaps hard for us to realize the full extent of this disaster; to understand, you would have to be a shepherd living with, and living from, the herds. A whole summer of careful nurture, waiting and feeding and preparing for the autumn births, has been wasted in the space of an hour or two.
The ruins of the homes and pens are lying in place on the sandy ground. Ta’ayush volunteers have been working here, cleaning up the chaos of destruction as best they could; so now you can see wooden boards and plastic bars and black cloth in more or less orderly piles spread over the entire area of the settlement, including the lower approaches of the wadi leading to their grazing grounds. It’s around 8 when we arrive; the shepherds are driving the flocks up through the wadi and onto the yellow-brown slopes of thorn and rock. Mahdi comes to greet us, soon joined by ‘Arif. I grasp their hands, not knowing what to say to someone who has just watched his home smashed by bulldozers while soldiers barked commands. Even by the perverse standards of the Occupation, this demolition of an entire village was entirely illegal (you can see I cling to that word, as if it were still possible to believe in some semblance of “the law.”) For the last three years, there has been a court-ordered freeze on demolitions in a large area of the Valley, including al-Hammeh. I guess the Civil Administration is pursuing a higher goal, beyond the paltry rulings of the court, and we know what it is. They, and the government that gives them their orders, want the Jordan Valley cleansed of its Palestinian residents.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the homes and cattle-pens of al-Hammeh were built without permits. If you’re a Palestinian shepherd or farmer down here, there is no way you will ever get a permit. Not long ago I heard one of the Supreme Court justices blithely announce in court (this with reference to the village of Susya in South Hebron): “The fate of any building built without a permit is destruction.” Houses have fates, books (they say) have fates, and people have fates, too. Then there are people who invent cruel fates and impose them on other people.
There’s worse to come. Three days ago settlers from the “illegal outpost” of Givat Salit—now in the final stages of metamorphosing into a fully legalized settlement, with everything that comes with that enviable status—started building a wooden structure far up the hill, in the midst of the grazing grounds of al-Hammeh. The site was well chosen, for it precisely cuts off the only route the shepherds can take if they are to skirt the vast military firing zone that begins there, on that slope. We drive up over the rocks to see the new foundation and photograph it. Here you have the primeval moment, the not-so-tentative beginning of a process that, in Israel-Palestine, has only one possible end-point. What begins with a few wooden beams with settlers hovering over them, obeying the commandments of their god, will swiftly become another full-fledged settlement sitting on stolen land; it will soon be connected to the Israeli water system and the electric grid and it will have soldiers patrolling around it and it will no doubt entice new residents by offering houses—tile-roofed villas–with government subsidies and dirt-cheap mortgages. All this happens very fast. Guy calls the police and, fighting his way through the receptionist and the lower clerks eventually succeeds in getting through to a policeman, who agrees to come down to the Valley to see this development with his own eyes. This policeman is affable, gregarious, and cooperative. He takes pictures of the new foundations with his I-Pad. The Civil Administration sends a soldier, too. They say they will check into this matter, whatever that means.
Meanwhile, a young settler, maybe 18 years old, maybe 20, is grazing his flock right there, under our noses. Amitai greets him gently and then, even more gently, says to him, “I am sorry to tell you that you can’t be here. This is privately owned Palestinian land, and you have invaded it.” The shepherd looks at him in what seems like genuine surprise. He has no intention of going anywhere, of course. He’s from a settlement farther up the Valley. Finally he says, “How could that be? This is Israel, and the Jews are sovereign here.”
Strange how that sentence keeps coming back at us today. Mid-morning: suddenly there’s a call from al-Hadidiya, some fifteen minutes away over the desert roads. An army bulldozer has turned up and is already at work. Soldiers have come with it. Al-Hadidiye is where I spent much of the day when I was last in the area, a guest of the indomitable Abu Saqer. It’s also in the zone of the hypothetical freeze on demolitions. But at first we imagine the worst. They’re coming to destroy al-Hadidiye as they destroyed ‘Ein al-Hammeh and Ras al-Ahmar. With Arif, we race to al-Hadidiye. It’s one of those Ta’ayush moments, at once horrible and thrilling. ‘Arif, who knows something of the Jews, says, “Yesterday was Yom Kippur. I thought you were supposed to atone for your sins, not start off on new ones.”
Sure enough, we can see the bulldozer from afar. To our relief, it’s still some ways from the village, and it’s busy heaping up mounds of dirt, rock, and swirling dust to block the main access road into it.
You can’t help but wonder why they’re doing that. Al-Hadidiye is only one of a large number of small encampments that depend entirely on this one road, their only truly viable access and egress, especially for heavy traffic such as water-tankers. But we’re in the middle of a rocky desert, extending for many miles. Even if they block the road, the Palestinians will drive over the stones on either side and make their way around the roadblock. So what we’re seeing this morning is the normative, vicious fusion of sheer wickedness and idiocy. The army is there to harass, to maximize discomfort, to drive these people crazy. Over time, the Palestinians will be worn down and go away. It’s good to have a purpose in life. “What did you do in the army?” “I piled up sand in the desert and blocked a Palestinian road.”
Amitai can’t stand it. He jumps onto the mound of earth that the bulldozer is heaping up. There’s one soporific soldier guarding this daring military mission, and there’s the soldier who is driving the bulldozer, which grunts and growls like a beast of prey. The driver yells at Amitai to get out of his way. Amitai asks him why he is following whatever immoral orders he has been given—why he is prepared to deprive whole families of water, for example. Doesn’t this driver have some empathy for the people who live there? No, he doesn’t. “I couldn’t care less what happens to them. This is the State of Israel, and the Jews are sovereign. The rest should go away.”
Amitai: “Did you ever hear the name of Rachel Corrie?” She was the brave young woman who was killed and buried by an Israeli bulldozer that was demolishing Palestinian houses in Gaza in 2003. Surprisingly, the army driver has heard the name.
Amitai: “You don’t want to have something like that on your conscience, do you?” Very disgruntled, the driver stops working. Is this evidence that he indeed has something you could call a conscience? A happy thought. Let’s not put too much weight on it. He has some things to say about leftists meddling in affairs of the state. Soon more soldiers appear in three command cars. They are all over Amitai, who keeps up a steady flow of words, chastising them for their hard hearts and their cruelty and their craven indifference. If you can imagine the prophet Jeremiah with a playful, easy-going manner, an impish smile, and a taste for Quixotic adventures, that’s Amitai. Guy joins him, eloquently describing the moral bankruptcy of these soldiers and their commanders and their orders and the system that has sent them here this morning to heap up sand piles in the desert. One of the women soldiers seems close to tears. Her commander sends her to sit inside the command-car, out of earshot of Guy’s subversive ethics. I’d like to think that some day, maybe 5 years from now, these words, held somewhere in abeyance out of reach of her mind, will bear fruit in her heart. I’ve seen it happen, once or twice.
It’s really hard to interfere with desperate foolishness intent on fulfilling its autotelic tasks. Systemic foolishness is always stubborn, impervious to words or reason. We thus fail to keep the long winding roadblock from coming into existence. It’s there now. Maybe next week, when Quamar, our invincible lawyer, gets back from abroad, she’ll manage to undo today’s wicked little game. She’ll enjoy the challenge. For now, once we’ve established for sure that the bulldozer is not going to start chewing up the tents and pens of Al-Hadidiyeh, we take our pictures, post them on Facebook, and depart.
I don’t think you need to hear about the demolitions at Ras al-Ahmar, which I was able to see only from some distance. They follow the pattern of ‘Ein al-Hammeh. The same totality, and the same cruel haste. We sit for some hours more with the orphaned men of al-Hammeh, who, ever hospitable, even in extremis, present us with a feast of maqlubeh, cooked somehow or other, in the open air; we eat with them, surrounded by the broken splinters of their homes. We go back to sit with Burhan; the ewe gave birth. Another tiny white kid has joined his half-brothers and sisters.
But there is one last bit of the day I should mention, a hopeful moment in the midst of all this grief. Guy takes me to meet Osama. It’s good to remember what human beings are sometimes, rarely, capable of. Osama grew up in Jerusalem; joined the Fatah as a teenager; was on the run, then captured by the Israelis. In prison he made the switch to an unshakeable, personal vision of non-violent resistance. I’ve met more than a few others like him over the years. I think the future of Palestine lies in their hands. By comparison, the soldiers we saw today, and the benighted officers of the Civil Administration, not to speak of the unspeakable politicians from the Prime Minister on down, are shrunken creatures crawling fruitlessly over the desert sands. The birth of a genuine human being is no less miraculous than the birth of a baby kid.
Baked dry and weary, I get back to Jerusalem around 6. In the courtyards of the small synagogues in Katamon, where I live, people are buying their etrogim and lulavim for the Succot holiday, which starts on Sunday. They examine the yellow, fragrant etrog with minute circumspection, lest, god forbid, there be a blemish of any kind. Life in Katamon is normal. Sins have been atoned for by fasting and forgiven by the Jewish god. Now we can celebrate the fragility of a home, a hut, a succa, in the autumn, just before the coming of the rains. Succot was always my favorite. Maybe I’m drawn to the beauty of evanescence. I’ve spent this day amidst ruins. As I pass the synagogues, I have Abu Saqer’s words ringing in my ears, in his deep gravelly voice, speaking of the soldiers who had just ruined his road, as if they could hem this man of the wide world into some ever smaller space with no air to breathe and no future left to dream of: “They’re liars,” he said, merely stating a fact.
text and photographs (except where otherwise identified): David Shulman
June 30, 2016
Four months away provide just enough distance to see the madness and the cruelty for what they are. Who has set up this crazy system and kept it running for half a century? Is it not mad to deliberately deprive human beings—families, children, the elderly– of water at the height of summer in a scorching desert? It was at least 37 or 38 degrees Centigrade, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, today in Al-Hadidiya. No running water, of course, and almost no water at all. You can’t survive there without water.
I should warn you that reading the following report may make you thirsty, like watching Lawrence of Arabia. I had two liters of water with me, and I wasn’t fasting, unlike most of the Palestinians I met (it’s Ramadan), but still I was thirsty all day. Once the sweet morning chill was soaked up by a white-hot sun, the world turned to flame. You could feel the liquid stuff of life being sucked out of you by the merciless sun-machine. In such heat, stones melt. Metal melts. The sheep out on the hills, the cocks crowing in the tents, the dogs who can barely bark as they limp along the edges of the village—all of them are baked, singed, seared, charred, encindered. As for us, wandering over the hills in search of the lost, ruined wells that once served Al-Hadidiya, we are drunk on the light, giddy with heat. Will I ever not be thirsty?
Before I go any further, I had better tell you what you perhaps already know, that is, that the Israeli settlement of Ro’i, half a mile away, has no dearth of water. Water flows freely through their pipes, some of which run through the grounds of Al-Hadidiya, and their swimming pool is, I presume, blue and beckoning and, above all, full of water.
And there’s another thing you already know. Drying out the Palestinians of Al-Hadidiya is a matter of policy, not a random affair. The Civil Administration knows what it is doing. Without water, they must assume, these people will either die or leave. We are speaking of ethnic cleansing. No one should try to describe it as anything other than what it is.
Here is Abu Saqer, the strong-willed patriarch of this village on the golden slopes slipping down into the Jordan Valley. He has the sun-baked skin, the dark eyes, the breath-taking dignity of a man who was born in this tiny confabulation of black tents and who has lived all his life here among the rocks and the furrows. He is at once calm, lucid, and embittered. He’s a secular man, afraid of no one. He speaks a deep and elevated, even lyrical, Arabic, a mix of the standard literary dialect with the colloquial idioms of the farmer, with many rare words that Arabic-speakers love. He’s a friend. I know it at once. It’s still early, around 7:30, when we sit with him in the tent as the terrible light comes flooding in, and this is what he says.
“The settlers and the Israeli state have committed many crimes and will commit many more, but the worse crime, a moral monstrosity, is denying us water. They have polluted our wells, filled them with rocks and dirt, dried them up by their deep drilling, and dried up the natural springs. I myself owned between 60 and 90 wells on the hills over there, and all of them have been destroyed. It happened already in the 70’s. At the same time, hundreds of cubic meters of water are being wasted on the settlers, on their lawns and swimming pools. Whole communities have been devastated, their people driven out, displaced by army camps and settlements. Once a hundred families lived here in Al-Hadidiya; only 14 are left. We have to bring water in tankers from far away, and often we are held up at the roadblocks for long hours, and we pay more than triple what any Israeli pays for water.
“In a war, there is the one who kills and the one who is killed, but what has water to do with this? Why are they continually demolishing our homes? Are they experimenting on us like on rats? We live in Area C—where the shepherds are responsible for the eco-system, for the survival of many species of living beings. But they arrest the shepherds and put them on trial and force them to pay enormous fines—at first, it was 5 Jordanian dinars per head of sheep, then 11 dinars per head, just to free the herd from their clutches. A fine could easily add up to a thousand dinars. Helicopters sometimes chase the shepherds and the herds, and the soldiers come running out of them and shoot the animals. They claim this area is a security zone, but why do they have to shoot the sheep? They are enriching the Israeli state with these fines and impoverishing us.
“In the late 80’s, at the time of the Oslo agreements, there was hope, but in the end the disaster became even more terrible. Just look over there, you can see how they have destroyed our homes. They are doing whatever they can to drive us out. We are simple people, in Al-Hadidiya, in ‘Ein al-Hilwe, in Ra’s al-Ahmar, in the Jiflik. What do we want? We want to graze our sheep, to feed our families, to educate our children. Only that. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the situation here should be frozen, and no more demolitions take place, but the soldiers pay no attention to the court’s ruling. When a soldier comes to tear down my house, where is the judge? Last year there were demolitions (on November 26, 2015), and they are always threatening more. My daughter was wounded in front of my eyes by an Israeli girl (probably a soldier). What am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to live with the Israeli people, in what they claim is the only democracy in the Middle East? A new generation is growing up. We are tired of being lied to. They have also poisoned our sheep—44 killed by poison in 2014. How can we live with them?”
Abu Saqer speaks slowly, weighing his words. An eloquent man. But the story he tells is not only his. All Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley offer versions of it—the same litany of wrongs, of state terror, and, again and again, of unbearable thirst. They thirst for water as they thirst for justice, or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Saqer, his son, leads us over the hill dotted with black goats and long-haired sheep. Every few minutes he stops to show us another well that has been stopped up, blocked with stones and dirt. We count twelve on a very rapid circuit. At one of them Saqer peers into the dark depths and discerns a snake. He spends a few minutes hurling rocks at it, apparently killing it. Palestinians in this desert zone hate and fear snakes. Now that we’ve started cleaning the wells here, the activists have come across at least one large snake down at the bottom—but also something far more threatening, military ordnance, unexploded shells, that have been dumped in these wells.
Late morning. We drive to ‘Ein Hilwe, where Madi, apparently soon to be a candidate for the post of head of the Palestinian Regional Council here, speaks about water. It’s the topic closest to heart and mind. We cross the highway to Umm al-Jamal, where there’s a natural spring that the Bedouins use to water their herd of cows. They built a low stone wall around the spring, to protect it. Not surprisingly, this tiny structure is scheduled for demolition by the Civil Administration next week. Umm al-Jamal is dry, hanging on in the heart of the fierce desert. Like sleep-walkers, heavy cows move slowly through the haze of heat, or lie down in scraps of shade from scraggly trees.
Here’s the point. Suppose you want to build a pipeline for water—to be taken from well-known, legal Palestinian sources and paid for according to a water meter that you install—so that your tents and shacks would have the elementary happiness of running water. In theory, you could apply to the Civil Administration for a permit. Your application will be rejected. Almost all such applications are. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley cannot get water through pipes or wells by the standard bureaucratic procedures. In desperation, lacking any alternative, they may try to put a pipeline in place. They can be sure the Civil Administration will send its soldiers and policemen to demolish it and to punish them. It happened today at Al-Hadidiya. I saw it.
We rush back there when we hear that soldiers have turned up, two full jeeps of them. By now it’s a broiling high noon. The soldiers look pretty hot too. They’re loaded down with the standard hodge-podge of military metal and plastic. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them. They seem confused: the Jordan Valley has not had the benefit of a continuous presence of Israeli activists, and as a result the heavy hand of the Occupation has been even heavier here, and more arbitrary, than elsewhere on the West Bank. The soldiers expect a docile, frightened Palestinian population. They’re certainly not used to having us, or others like us, confront them. The officer is not really hostile, but he’s doing his job. He says an order declaring Al-Hadidiya a Closed Military Zone is on its way. On what grounds? “Water works that have not been approved.”
There are eight of us activists, and we’ve all been through this many times before in one way or another. We try to talk to the soldiers, but the officer orders them not to speak to us. One of them is filming us with his cell-phone. This goes on for a long, hot time, as if to keep him busy with something that will take his mind off what he has actually come here to do. They’re waiting for the order to come through, or so they say. Anat asks the photographer how it feels to deny water to a thirsty family. He is not allowed to answer, so he shrugs and screws up his eyes. What does this gesture mean? Yossi says that it’s quite expressive and means something like “What can I do, these are my orders.” It’s an optimistic reading, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It could also mean, “I don’t give a damn.” I’d like to think this soldier feels the faint stirring of inner conflict.
Now the police arrive, and the dogs go mad, sensing that something wrong and menacing is taking place. With whatever is left of their vocal chords, they try to warn Abu Saqer that an enemy has appeared. Then they fall silent. As so often, it’s a waiting game. An hour goes by, then another. The graceful white doves we know from South Hebron sail past, on fire with sunlight. The roosters crow. No sign of the order. Suddenly, a surprise, the soldiers clamber into the jeeps and leave.
But not for long. Soon they’re back with the same affable policeman who would perhaps prefer to be sitting in his distant, air-conditioned office, wherever that is. A higher-ranking officer has joined them, and together they set off through the village, examining every trace of the brazen water pipe, also passing by the jagged ruins of the homes that were demolished less than a year ago. They take pictures. Yesterday soldiers arrested Abu Saqer’s son and held him, handcuffed, for many hours. Today, perhaps because we are here, they refrain from anything as blatant and foolish as that. Again they depart, and again they return, this time following the line of the pipe at the farthest edge of the encampment. They photograph and take notes. Then—gone.
What, indeed, are they supposed to do? The pipe is illegal. The Occupation, too, is illegal. But it has its rules. Soldiers and policemen enforce the rules. Officers issue orders, which are obeyed. Fourteen families in Al-Hadidiya remain thirsty.
Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, Abu Saqer can expect another visit, no doubt to inform him that the evil pipeline the villagers have built will be destroyed, and so on—who knows what other forms of harassment are in store? Running water is not meant to reach the people of Al-Hadidiya. Not yet. We have work to do.
It was a day unlike any other that Al-Hadidiya has seen. Apart from our being there, and the unwelcome soldiers and policemen, large delegations from the European Union and the Norwegian Refuge Council also happened by at noon. Abu Saqer graciously entertained them all. For an hour or two, this little assemblage of black tents was a microcosm. Good intentions, bad intentions, outright wickedness, grace and courage—you could find them all, mingled together, melting down in the vast heat, each of us playing his or her role.
I write these words from my home, at nightfall. I’ve washed off as much of the caked sunlight as I could. I had a cold beer, which helped. I’m a little burnt and sore, and a little sad. Also buoyed up by the miracle of friendship, new and old. By now the sheep and goats are in their pens. All over the Jordan Valley and South Hebron and East Jerusalem and the northern West Bank, people are celebrating the end of today’s fast with the festive Iftar meal. Next week Ramadan will end. Someday thirst, too, will end for Al-Hadidiya and ‘Ein Al-Hilwe. We’ll see to that. I’d like to think that in Abu Saqer, a deep and simple man, Netanyahu and his henchmen have met their match.
with thanks to Guy Hircefeld and Amir Bitan
text © David Shulman 2016
thanks to Anat Lev and Guy Hircefeld for permission to use their photographs
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.
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