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

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

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who is taking the house apart one piece at a time with care, unscrewing the fixtures, and laying the pieces to rest one by one,

20170726-IMG_9167crplvl family friends from the nearby town of Toubas, and Israeli friends from the organization Ta’ayush who work along side him and document everything. Maybe the documentation will convince enough people that such things really happen.

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Later, members of another organization committed to non-violent resistance, ISM (the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement) come to help as well and the work ends quickly.

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

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This has to be preferable to the usual way. Normally the Civil Authority sends bulldozers that would probably roll through the main entrance to the compound,

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

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

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The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.

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It’s my first demolition, too, but I have seen “Area C” dotted with little piles of rubble where homes and community centers once stood.

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

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

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

This is life in “Area C,” the approximately 60% of the West Bank where Israel retained planning rights after the Oslo accords. Uniformly the Civil Authority there rejects master plans for Palestinian towns, and issues barely any building permits to individual Palestinians. Buildings that predate the agreement can stay without additions, and new buildings for growing families are forbidden. The policy might seem to keep the villages frozen in time, but of course life doesn’t work that way, and they are in fact in a constant state of deterioration, as structures crumble into the landscape.

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

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

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Over a meal and coffee, we listen to the Mahmoud’s father tell us that of his eight children (and sixty-four grandchildren), only Mahmoud, with his wife and three daughters remain.

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They struggle to keep their land and the fragments of their homes so that eventually the community may grow and perhaps come together again.

Once, Mahmoud’s father reminisces, he and his family lived in a ten-room house . . .

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Many of the Israeli settlements that absorb the Palestinian lands were themselves built or expanded without permits, but demolitions of these settlements, and expulsions of Israeli settlers are rare, well publicized, and may be compensated with other land. Just visible behind the compound is a settlement that could someday absorb the Zouba family land.

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The home we are demolishing today, a little metal structure donated by the European Union, attracted the attention of Israeli civil authorities right after it was built in 2015. These donated structures are often confiscated or bulldozed, as well as supporting infrastructures such as solar panels donated by individual European countries. The Netherlands recently protested the confiscation of and damage to some 40,000 Euros worth of solar equipment it gave to the village of Jubbet Adh-Dhib.

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No permit was issued for Mahmoud’s house, but attempts were made to block the demolition order through the courts. The order overcame all these hurdles on July 2 and the final demolition order came two days ago. Ta’ayush members requested and received a delay of ten days so that the family would have a chance to take apart their own home in their own way, to take a measure of control over their lives. But bulldozers tend to be impatient, so the family decided to go ahead and demolish the house today.

They can use the parts; or perhaps the house can be rebuilt.

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Mahmoud and his family will move into the older house with the yellow door next to this house. It is not bad, I am told, but it has no roof, and the sides are not strong enough to support one.

The family will plant olive trees where the little house stood.

But aren’t the olive trees also illegal, someone asks and can’t they be destroyed like the house?

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At least, it turns out, a five year old olive tree may not be destroyed.

On Ta’ayush: https://www.taayush.org/

On ISM: https://palsolidarity.org/

Anyone who wishes to help provide the family with a light covering for their house may leave a note below or contact me directly.

text and photographs margaret olin © 2017

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June, 2017 Susya, Sarura (David Shulman)

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Photograph: Sophie Rose Schor

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.

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photograph: Shiraz Grinbaum

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.

***

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Photograph: Sophie Rose Schor (sophieschor.com)

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.

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Photograph: Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org

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.

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Renovated cave in Sarura. photograph: David Shulman

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.”

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photograph: David Shulman

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.”

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Photograph: Sophie Rose Schor (sophieschor.com)

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

 

Waiting: Jinba, January 11, 2017

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

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

Mary M. Singleton Currie (Violet Fane)

I regarded my understanding of waiting as complex and subtle.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Demolition in Umm al-Khair

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

 

The Hugging Game, Um al ‘Arais, 14 January 2017

20170114-IMG_9319crplvlcrvbrNon violent resistance can take many forms. What they have in common is that they need to be visible and they need to be seen.

The tenacious Sa’id ‘Awad has been mentioned in these pages before.  This link will acquaint you with the combination of legal subterfuge and open seizure that have wrested his land in the South Hebron Hills away from him.  20170114-IMG_9291crp2To hang on, Said’s family has an outing each week. The picnic and the boy’s soccer  20170114-IMG_9310crplvlreinforce his continued presence. Otherwise, the civil authorities can consider the land abandoned and make it available to Israelis whose settlements watch comfortably above on land already taken from Sa’id. They may do that anyway.20170114-IMG_9392lvlcrpbrightVolunteers from the NGO Ta’ayush try to keep settlers from disrupting the games, but today is peaceful. The settlers remain hidden somewhere behind their eruv poles.*20170114-IMG_9380lvlcrvVolunteers pass the time with Sa’id and his family while the boys play soccer20170114-IMG_9314crvlvland the Civil Administration plays its role. 20170114-IMG_9358lvlToday, fortunately, this means that the soldiers, very young and very bored, mostly stay put in military vehicles. 20170114-IMG_9352brightlvl

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20170114-IMG_9369crpcontror near them. It could be and has been, worse.20170114-IMG_9311crvcntcrpThe girls, sidelined,20170114-IMG_9296brctrlvlcrptake matters into their own hands and invent a new game. 20170114-IMG_9365crvlvl

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20170114-IMG_9384brightcrvFinally the boys get interested20170114-IMG_9357lvlvright

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20170114-IMG_9325crp1For just a moment the grazing area turned soccer field turns hugging field.20170114-IMG_9396lvlcrv

*On the eruv, see here and here.  On Ta’ayush https://www.taayush.org/

text and photographs © margaret olin 2017

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January 7, 2017 Asael, Susya, Twaneh, Umm al-Khair

text David Shulman; photographs Margaret Olin

I.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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II.

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Volleyball in Susiya, 7 January 2017

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.

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III.

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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.

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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.

 

IV.

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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.”

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Post-Resettlement, exhibition by Ai Weiwei and Eid Hthaleen. Installation photographs courtesy of Ades Architectural Forum, Berlin.

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.

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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.

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Text © 2017 David Shulman;  photographs @ 2017 Margaret Olin except as otherwise noted.

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On Ta’ayush: http://www.taayush.org/

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

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Photograph by David Shulman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photograph by Guy Hircefeld

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

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

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

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

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

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Photograph by David Shulman

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Photograph by David Shulman

a lucid essay; an absurd topic; a real place

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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photographs and text © Margaret Olin 2016

Susiya is in danger again. Here’s how to help

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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.

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children from Susiya in school, March 2016

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;

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a kitchen in Susiya

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.

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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

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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.

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meps/en/map.html

2. In the UK, you might like to follow this link:

http://www.palestinecampaign.org/fate-two-palestinian-villages/

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
fcocorrespondence@fco.gov.uk
General enquiries switchboard
020 7008 1500

Mr David Quarrey
British Ambassador to Israel
British Embassy
192 Hayarkon Street
6340502 Tel Aviv
Israel
Telephone+972 (0)3 725 1222
Fax +972 (0)3 725 1203
webmaster.telaviv@fco.gov.uk

Deputy Ambassador Eitan Na’eh
Embassy of Israel
2 Palace Green
London
W8 4QB
Tel:020 7957 9500
Fax:0207 957 9555
info@london.mfa.gov.il

3. If you are in the United States, the easiest thing to do is to sign this petition via the organization JStreet:

http://act.jstreet.org/sign/stop-demolition-susya

But you may wish to write your own letter to your representatives. Here is how to find them:

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

http://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

or to the State Department:

https://register.state.gov/contactus/contactusform

4. in Canada:

You can reach the department of defense here (the Honourable Harjit Sajjan, Minister of Defence)

stephane.dion@parl.gc.ca (The Honourable Stéphane Dion, Foreign Minister)

taviv.consular@international.gc.ca (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.

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all photographs © Margaret Olin 2016

A Hot Field in Hebron: Ta’ayush and the Gleaners

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.

Picturing Peace

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.

The police station above Abu Anan's field. The police station above Abu Anan’s field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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Protesters in the exhibition This Place

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

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Demonstrators near the installation of Desert Bloom by Faisal Sheikh

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there is no explanation at all.

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Stephen Shore, Nabi Musa, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interactivity was built into the exhibition Agitprop

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It also featured numerous protest videos.

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Here, museum security closes Agitprop to actual demonstrators.

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

 

 

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