September 14, 2018 al-Khan al-Ahmar David Shulman

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Photograph: David Shulman

Days of Judgment, bein keseh le-asor, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Thick time. Heavy time. We spend the night in al-Khan al-Ahmar, which has already been judged. In an act of moral cowardice to a degree rare even by Israeli standards, the High Court removed the last legal impediments to the demolition of this Bedouin village and the violent expulsion of its people (some 200 in all). Judgment having been rendered, they await the execution. The army bulldozers could come at any moment.

House demolitions in Palestine are nothing new, but the erasure of entire communities is the new fashion cheerfully adopted by the government, the Civil Administration, even the courts. Al-Khan al-Ahmar sits mostly on privately owned Palestinian land, but the judges decided that this fact is “no longer relevant.” The people are to be transferred to a site that sits astride the Jerusalem dump at Abu Dis.

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Al-Khan al-Ahmar school. photograph: Palestinian Monitor, 26 September 2017, photographer, author unidentified. source: here

We have activists with them round the clock. Not that they could stop the bulldozers when they come. They are there to be with the innocents in their hour of sorrow. They are there, too, to witness and to record, for the sake of some luckier generation to come. We drive through darkness. I am wondering if crimes of extraordinary cruelty committed during the Days of Repentance are more harshly punished than those carried out in ordinary time. Perhaps there is no such thing as ordinary time. Perhaps there is no punitive god.

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al-Khan al-Ahmar, September 13, 2018. Photograph: Jose Tavdyoglo

“Look what it’s come to,” Yigal says as we descend into the wadi that will take us to the site. Night in the desert:  good desert smells. Far away, jackals howl. Police are parked on the side of the road. Arik says we can either follow the goat path, which is shorter but also rather precarious, or take the longer route along the wadi and under the highway. We vote for the goat path. But before we have taken more than a few steps, an ambulance-minivan turns up, packed with Palestinians. They offer us a lift, and somehow the van stretches and expands to allow the three of us in. Inside, we notice that the atmosphere is very far from the gloom we are carrying. It’s more like going to a late-night party.

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Photograph: David Shulman

The big tent is packed with people. They have come from all the corners of Palestine, from Nablus and Twaneh and Ramallah and beyond. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a show of solidarity. There must be two hundred or more in the tent, including the Israeli activists from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Yossi greets us. The Nablus people are distributing those special Nablus sweets. A poster in black-and-red letters glows on the wall of the tent: “Education is resistance.” Al-Khan al-Ahmar, you will remember, has built a beautiful school out of mud and tires. It, too, awaits execution.

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al-Khan al-Ahmar, September 13, 2018. Photograph: Jose Tavdyoglo

Strange, more than strange, this unexpected happiness that flows in waves and eddies. I’m not prepared for it. I don’t understand it, but why bother with understanding? Isn’t it enough to feel it slowly begin swirling in me? People greet us, grasp our hands, some embrace us. “Thank you for coming.” A blessing, at once deep and nonchalant. A lightness. “I’m from Ramallah, where are you from?” “Al-Quds.” “East or West?” “West.” “Welcome. Thank you for coming.”

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Photograph: David Shulman

After a while they bring food, plastic bags heavy with fresh pita, plates of white cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hummus, canned meat. Again and again they urge us to eat. We are their honored guests. We sit on the floor, taste the pita and cheese and olive oil. Women and men mingle freely—this, too, is a little strange. Something has let go. Together we try to assess the odds:  tomorrow is Friday, it’s unlikely, isn’t it, that they’ll demolish the village on the day of prayer. No, they may do it on Friday because the kids are not in school. Or simply to sharpen the torment. “You know,” someone says, “there’s betting going on. You place your bet on which day it will happen.” “Where’s the bookie?” “Over there”—just outside the tent, under the dark acacia tree.

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School in Al-Khan al-Ahmar. photograph: Palestinian Monitor, 26 September 2017, photographer, author unidentified, source: here

A young man from Nablus comes over to us, introduces himself, but I can’t catch the name. He has much to say to us, in a crisp, slow Arabic. If only I had the presence of mind to record him. But it isn’t so much the content of his words as something arresting in the tone. “We thank you,” he says. “We know you, like us, are for peace. You are against Netanyahu, against the new Law of the Nation, against racism and violence and expulsion and discrimination and the Occupation that has lasted for decades. We are alike, you and me. We go a long way back, we have a history of many centuries, once there were Canaanites and Jews, now we, you and me, are their descendants. We want to live together. Everyone wants freedom, and we too want to be free. What Netanyahu is doing only creates hatred and grief. It cannot work. He will fail. One day we will be free.” “Min tumak lebab al-sama’,” I say: “From your mouth to the gates of heaven.” There he is again, still waiting, that non-punitive god.

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Bedouin children at the garbage dump at Abu Dis, 2013. Photograph: Federica Marsi source here

Little by little, he tells us his story. “I was in prison for four years. I was shot at a demonstration, I took a bullet in my thigh. I ask myself what the Israeli soldier is thinking. Why does he shoot if he sees a young boy holding a flag? Doesn’t he know? Doesn’t he understand that he is hurting himself even more than he hurts me? What do the Israeli people think? Do they think they can force us to go away? Nothing can make us go away. We are here. Together with you.” “And you’re not afraid, are you?” I say, though it’s obvious. “No,” he says. Never. We are never afraid. We believe in justice, ‘adl. In the end, justice will win.” His voice is free of bitterness; gentle; musical; firm. He tells us he’s doing a degree in gender studies at Al-Najah University. After some time, he thanks us again, this time rather formally, with the ancient words of courtesy, and takes his leave.

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Photograph: Yagil Bronner

By now it is past midnight, and the party shows no sign of abating. Last night, we are told, people went on talking and drinking coffee and smoking narghilehs until 3 AM. The tent is stacked high with mattresses and blankets. Around 1:00 I take a mattress and go outside to search for a place to sleep. It’s not cold, the air is good, I can see the stars. But it’s hard to find a place on the rocky hillside. Finally Yigal and I and a few others take our mattresses to the level ground of the schoolyard.

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Photograph: Yagil Bronner

But I can’t sleep. I watch the stars spinning, laughing, receding. The generator rasps out its steady rhythm. From inside the tent, and from little groups standing on the slope, comes the murmur of many voices. More laughter. By now it makes sense to me. I know this, the joy of the night before day, before violence. I feel the release. It’s a marvel. These people are insouciant, effervescent, assured. They can’t be cowed. They have been hurt, insulted, terrorized by the state, soldiers, police, judges, the whole evil lot, and their future is as obscure and as tenuous as futures must be. More tenuous than most. What is certain is that they will be hurt again, and then again. Soon they will be dumped on the dump. Maybe the absence of an intelligible, ordinary future has unleashed in them a new kind of time, a present moment that for now, for tonight, is happiness enough. A thick and infinite moment of lightness. Maybe the paradox makes them laugh. The more the Jews hurt them, the freer these Bedouin are. Fear falls away. If the bulldozers come tomorrow, some will be beaten and wounded, some will be arrested, there will be scenes of rage, the police and soldiers will act like savages. That much is certain. Everyone knows it. And tonight we have joy flecked with love, utterly unlike the other kind of joy.

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photograph: David Shulman

Somehow, after an hour or two, I fall asleep, and at 5:00, when light slips in from the east, across the river, I wake from a dream. Nothing is left of the dream. The donkey tied to a tree just four or five yards away is stirring. Al-Khan al-Ahmar still stands. Slowly people rise from the cots. Some are drinking fresh coffee in tiny paper cups. Death, said Kalidasa, the great Sanskrit poet, is natural, the default of being. It is life that constitutes an aberration. That we go on breathing minute after minute is the miracle.

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Note: A few hours after we left al-Khan al-Ahmar, the army bulldozers showed up and began to seal off the two or three remaining dirt tracks that are the last access routes to the site. Six Palestinians were arrested. It seems that the final act in this sordid drama of dispossession will happen very soon.

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Photograph: courtesy Tariq Hathaleen, photographer unidentified

text © 2018 David Shulman

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Photograph: Yigal Bronner

July 5, 2018: Susya. Post by David Shulman

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Susiya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Susiya, March, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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Photograph: Awdah al-Halthalean

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

Muhammad Abu-Samad

photograph courtesy of Erella Dunayevsky/the Villages Group

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

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

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

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

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Mufagara, 2018 Photograph: Guy Butavia

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

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Photograph: Guy Butavia

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

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Photograph: Guy Butavia

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

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Mufagara, 2012. Photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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Mufagara, 2018. Photograph: David Shulman

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

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Susiya, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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Mhammad and his flock last month. photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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

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

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Al-Auja 2017-2018. photographs: Margaret Olin

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

 

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photograph: David Shulman

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

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photograph: David Shulman

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

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photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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photograph: David Shulman

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

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photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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photograph: David Shulman

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

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photograph: Amir Bitan

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

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photograph: David Shulman

 

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

1. Umm al-Amad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They pose for pictures and baa at the sheep,

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

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

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

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2. Bi’r al-Id

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A soldier declares the zone closed and everyone leaves. First the brothers leave, and then we pick up our tools and leave, too. We leave hurriedly, because suddenly we are under pressure: we have five minutes to gather our people, gather our things and leave.

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

I don’t know.

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

Trivial.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

2018-06-02 11.48.29

May 14, 2018: Al-Auja, Turmus‘ayya. Text by David Shulman; Photographs by Margaret Olin

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1.

First, today, there was the madness and the dissonance, sharp as thorns. Early morning in the Jordan Valley:  still cool. We step out into the light. In the distance, the soft, convex mauve of the hills. Closer to us, they turn beige, then white, billowing like waves. Closer still, it’s all yellow and brown and thick with jagged pebbles. About two hundred yards away, scattered over the slope, are black and white goats and disheveled sheep. I recognize one of them, from long-standing acquaintance; her fleece has been dyed a spotty red. There’s a donkey, too, down in the wadi. Two young shepherds—Ahmad, whom I know well, and Mhammad. This hill and the wadi are also, by now, old friends.

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Hence the madness: Is it possible that human wickedness can survive in this vast beauty? Wouldn’t it dry up in the fierce light or melt in the mid-day heat? But clearly it doesn’t. Who, in this elation of color and shape and touch, could think the thought that is evil? Who would harbor a desire to banish those shepherds and their flocks? They belong on this hill. They live here. They harm no one. They have always been there. Only a supreme delight in inflicting pain could drive the system that drives us off today.

We see the soldiers from a distance, before we can rendezvous with the shepherds. Three dark silhouettes on the hilltop, the guns darker still. This, too, is a surprise, a black intrusion into the silence of the desert. Ahmad and Mhammad have been out here for an hour or more—they go out early, since by mid-morning it’s too hot even for the goats and sheep. They greet us warmly, shake our hands, and by now the soldiers are there, too.

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T., the officer, wishes us a good morning. He is affable and rather gentle. A smile, almost shy. He takes our identity cards away. The other two, male and female, have nothing to say. The young woman, also laden with a gun, is chewing gum and seems bored or, as Peg says, striving hard to achieve an out-of-body experience.

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“These people can’t be here,” says T. We protest. These are their lands. Until a few months ago, there was an agreement with the army—at the army’s own initiative—and according to the maps and the boundary markers the soldiers put in place, this hill and the next one and the one farther to the east and the whole length of the wadi and the hills leading back to their simple homes and pens, all this and much more was theirs to graze on. This after many years during which Omer, the settler, wouldn’t let them near these lands. But T. isn’t interested in prehistory. He has his orders. “I’m checking,” he tells us. What that means, as he explains, is that he is waiting for the order from above declaring this area off bounds to Palestinians. “Stay here,” he says, “the order will come in ten minutes.”

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Amazing how quickly the heat sinks in. “Just out of curiosity,” Arik says, mildly, a teacher, “do you happen to know the status of that settlement over there?”  We can see it from where we stand. A dense crowd of green date palms in the middle of the yellow desert. Inside the grove lives Omer. He took over the land, a huge area, when the army cleared out of a base it had had here, ten or twelve years back. Until a year ago, Omer ruled like a sheriff. He sustained a temporary setback when the army made its agreement with the Palestinians. For the last three months or so, he’s been making a comeback. They say he’s well connected with the high command; perhaps with right-wing politicians, too. Who knows? What is certain is that the soldiers now take their orders from Omer, which is why they are here with us on this hill today. Omer doesn’t like Palestinians anywhere near his date palms.

Arik explains this to T. in understated words. Even before he gets into the details, he tells the three of them: “We understand that you have your orders, we’re not asking you to disobey them, at least not yet. But I’d like you to think about what we have to say.”

That’s the hardest thing. Thinking. Especially for soldiers. The settlers are a lost case, there’s no point, but sometimes soldiers can be invited to think. T. says, “I’m new down here, just a month and a half. I heard about the agreement, but I’m not much interested in that. I’m a field soldier. I deal with reality. My job is to carry out my orders.” A lucky man, he knows what reality is.20180514-BC5A3747crplvlcrv

“Of course,” Arik says, even more gently than before. “You’re a soldier, that’s what soldiers do. But all of you are also citizens, just as we are. You go home sometimes. As citizens, you could think about what you are doing here. Remember that under Israeli law that settlement is totally illegal. And Omer has no right to give you orders, and no right to dispossess these people. But you are doing what he, and your officers, have told you to do. Think about it.”

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Meanwhile, the goats are chewing on what lean pickings they can find. It’s summer now; the real food is gone until next winter. Anyway, they’re busy in that meditative, genial way goats have. Peg says to me: “Isn’t it interesting to watch them eat? They don’t seem to fight, ever, for some juicy mouthful. Unlike humans.” My heart sick with dissonance, for a moment I admire the apparent altruism of goats.

A surprise:  the second soldier, hitherto silent, says, “Yeah, maybe I’ll think about it when I get home.” Or something like that. I’m not sure I heard him right. Not all is lost. “It’s something between you and yourself,” says Arik, “or between you and your god.” Arik is one of the few people I know, maybe only two or three, who use that word in an easy, natural tone, like talking of trees or goats; a tone that carries a whiff of truth.

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T. comes back down the hill waving the order.

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There’s a map with a big pink patch in the middle. “We are here,” he says confidently, pointing at the middle of the patch. “You have to be there”—outside the patch.

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By now the goats have put some distance between themselves and the soldiers; they’re moving toward home. Mhammad wants the officer to know that one of the settler thugs stoned his sheep this morning, and he has a video on his phone to prove it. T. watches it and says he will act.

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I can’t make head or tail of the map, but I can see that it’s the last nail in the coffin of the agreement we had with the army. Exile again. Whatever we gained has been taken away. This hill, these rocks, the wadi—all gone. We have to start over, and that is what we will do. T. wishes us a happy day.

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2

Turmus‘ayya, in the central West Bank, has the misfortune to have the large, veteran settlement of Shiloh as its neighbor. There are other settlements, too—Eli, Adei Ad. Shiloh is where the Art of the Covenant rested for long years before eventually being brought to Jerusalem. Where the prophet Samuel grew up. Once it was a holy place. Now the fertile valley between Turmus‘ayya and the settlers is a battlefield.

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Settler violence is a daily business. There’s no doubt they want to take over the whole valley with its fields and olive groves. Two weeks ago settlers came into Turmus‘ayya at 2 AM and set fire to several cars. How many? We ask Abu Sama‘. Four. Well, actually, seven. Actually, ten. There are Hebrew graffiti on the walls of homes:  “Let us handle them.” “Them” means Palestinians, and “handling them” means just what you think it means.

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Yesterday the Palestinians of Turmus‘ayya planted olive trees in their fields, and beside every tree they planted a small plastic flag. Not just Palestinian flags—some are Turkish, Iraqi, Swiss. It’s not so easy to see the olive saplings, but the valley is dancing with flags. Arik was there during the planting. Settlers came down to uproot the baby trees, then the soldiers arrived, and the Border Police. “What’s that thing on your head?” the Border Police asked him. “You know what it is.” “Are you even Jewish? Were you circumcised?” “Do you want me to show you?” As Arik says, it’s bad enough when they see a Jew standing up for Palestinians, but a religious Jew—that drives them crazy. The discussion ended with volleys of tear gas.

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So the practical problem for now is to get the army to recognize the Supreme Court ruling that unequivocally allows Palestinian farmers access to their fields—and to get the soldiers to protect them from marauding settlers. I think this is an achievable goal. Note, however, that the government is pushing new legislation that will allow a simple majority vote in the Knesset (61 MP’s) to override the Supreme Court. If it passes, the very idea of inalienable human rights will be erased, and we will be living under a tyranny of the majority—nationalist, annexationist, racist, whatever you want to call it. That’s the idea. What will happen to those fields? Those trees? What will happen to people here in Turmus‘ayya, to people like us? But Turmus‘ayya, scarred and battered, has a reassuring, solid look.

3.

Today there are over 50 dead on the Gaza border and over a thousand wounded, many of them children. By tomorrow the numbers will rise. The same malevolent system that seeks to expel the shepherds of Al-Auja and the northern Jordan Valley, that craves to demolish the homes of our friends in Susya, that routinely terrorizes the people of Turmus‘ayya, has brought us to this point of despair. Some of those soldiers who shot today will someday agonize in remorse, though they don’t yet know it. Two and a half million people live in the open-air prison that is called Gaza; when they protest, they are killed. Some, inevitably, are violent. Violent, too, is the system of the occupation, put in place with the sole goal of stealing ever more land. From Gaza to Al-Auja, hour by hour it works its savagery, which all too few Israelis allow themselves to see, though many, perhaps most, know it without knowing that they know. Each time I go there, I come home grieving; I wander through the house and the streets, restless, looking for myself, as if I had misplaced that self and forgotten where. Today, too, it is like that, for the grief is more than I can bear.

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text: © David Shulman photographs 2018 © Margaret Olin 2018

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Demolition, Liberation: May 5, 2018, Al-Markez

20180505-BC5A3149crvShe 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.

20180505-BC5A3273lvlcrvLast Wednesday, soldiers in two Civil Administration jeeps and two bulldozers arrived in al-Markez in the South Hebron Hills, one of twelve towns in Masafer Yatta located in the area that Israel knows as “firing zone 918.” They began their destruction there and moved on to three other towns. In all, they demolished 6 houses and 2 animal fences, confiscated 9 solar panels and their batteries, and destroyed 3 water tanks. They made homeless 29 people, including 10 children. The excuse was lack of building permits, but as we know, such permits are not issued to Palestinians.

20180502-BC5A2831rawlvlcrv.jpgI found out about the demolitions on May 2, the day they occurred. A group of American legislative aides, constituents, and a few others coordinated by Rebuilding Alliance, an American non-profit organization that works to help Palestinian communities keep their villages standing, had traveled to the village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, which is itself currently under a demolition order. There we met with resident Nasser Nawaja, spokesperson for Susiya, as well as with a representative from Haqel, an Israeli NGO that works through legal channels to save Palestinian land from appropriation, and with Elad Orian, from Comet-ME, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO that provides sustainable energy and clean water to these communities. I have written about Comet-ME before (here). Nasser, who works as a field researcher for the human rights organization B’tselm, had just returned from documenting the demolitions. Elad discussed Comet-ME’s commitment to restore services after demolitions and confiscations.

20180502-BC5A2845clncrvThe group also paid a call on red-haired Sami Huraini in nearby Twaneh. Sami is recovering from an operation on his leg, broken in two places late in March when Israeli settlers from the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on (illegal in the eyes of Israel, not only the international community) ran over Sami in a jeep. The settlers were attacking a group of activists near the Palestinian village of Sarura, which the activists, including Sami, have been trying to protect (see here). He was still limping about on a walker but he seemed in good spirits. He was recovering and expected to return to work soon and continue his studies in International Law at Hebron University. 20180502-BC5A2904crvlvlcrpWhile we were there a group of activists arrived from another NGO, Operation Dove (here) . 20180502-BC5A2909crpThey were preparing to publish their videos from the morning’s demolitions (here and here). 20180502-BC5A2888lvlAl-Mirkez was the hardest hit of the four villages, and it is here that Ta’ayush is needed most today. Jinba also suffered demolitions. In early 2017 a ruling was expected from the High Court that might permit the Civil Administration to evict all the villages located in the firing zone. My friend David M. and I went there then to experience with them the agony of waiting for a court decision, but we found their time so taken up with the daily round of problems, hopes and daily chores that the supposedly decisive moment was lost in the shuffle (for an account that day and an explanation of “firing zones,” see here).

Post demolition, things are different. The firing zone seems far. It takes an extra half hour to drive in and around the hills through stone fields accessible only to four-wheel drive vehicles including, I suppose, bulldozers, to al-Markez. Now that we are there, I confront one of the water tanks whose destruction I saw in a video.

20180505-BC5A3118crpBut the whole area is dotted with heaps of rubble.

20180505-BC5A3126crvlvlcrpWhile others work to clear out space to rebuild a structure,

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20180505-BC5A3306crvbal.jpgI get a tour through more of the devastation.

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20180505-BC5A3325crv.jpgWe don’t have another bulldozer to clear out the rubble made by last week’s bulldozers. With our tools it can take up to twenty minutes and six men to move a large rock into place and line it up with the others that will eventually form a terraced edge for the new foundation.

20180505-BC5A3252crvlvlcrp.jpgBut at least the residents have a little time to tend animals

20180505-BC5A3291-lvlcrp.jpgand do other chores that distracted them while they were waiting, but now threaten to get lost in the rubble.

20180505-BC5A3172lvlcrv.jpgOr become much harder to do because of the lack of clean water and electricity. A refrigerator that no longer has electricity needs to be emptied and cleaned, most of the food discarded and the containers washed. And scarce water that can now only be drawn and carried from a cistern, makes washing dishes a challenge.

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20180505-BC5A3381crv2Eventually some reinforcements come including two journalists working on a story for a Japanese periodical.

20180505-BC5A3442LR.jpg We are shown where the battery for the solar power had been.

20180505-BC5A3466crv.jpgIt is Tahrir who draws the water for the dishes and hoists the broken door and other large ruined pieces of their home. She is my “diminutive person.” When I ask her name (in Arabic) she smiles, and does so with the quintessential child’s smile. Soon she is smiling at me from around every corner and bringing delight to one of the most depressing days I have spent in South Hebron. Tahrir means “liberation.” After a while she asks me for my name and transforms it into Margarita. Enthusiasm is contagious. Her brother Hamid asks me to take his picture. He does so in the cave, where as it happens the soldiers saw fit to cut the electrical lines, I suppose to make life more difficult once the villagers acquire new solar panels.

20180505-BC5A3393LR.jpgCan you make me a print and bring it to me? I have no computer or phone or any other way to have a picture.

20180505-BC5A3451lvlcrv.jpgI will try.

text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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Uneasy Reprieves: March 24, Umm al-Amad; March 26 Al-Auja

20180324-BC5A1011lvlcrvMarch 24, Umm al-Amad

It’s cold. It’s raining. Aziza serves us hot tea.

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20180324-BC5A1022lvlcrp2She shows us the baby goats, some only a few weeks, or days, old.

20180324-BC5A1023-editAnd then it is time to take the flock to graze . . .

20180324-BC5A1038crvlvlunder the huge settlement, Otniel. Ahmad, her son, is with us.

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Walla, Ahmad’s sister, who has been seen here before, is everywhere

20180324-BC5A1039lvlcrv20180324-BC5A1079crvSo is contentment.

20180324-BC5A1047crpcrv2Eventually, we see that, up on the hill, four soldiers have apparently been assigned to keep an eye on us.20180324-BC5A1082crv

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20180324-BC5A1087lvlcrv.jpgAfter they leave, we almost forget them. Ahmad, who is studying at the Polytechnic in Hebron, talks about his exam in electricity tomorrow. He studies Hebrew there, too, and takes the opportunity to discuss with Li those pesky Hebrew nouns that are masculine but have feminine plural forms.

So we don’t notice them again until they are close.

20180324-BC5A1092crvlvlThe soldiers tried to make conversation.

20180324-BC5A1115crv.jpgBut when they try to talk to Elisheva, she starts to sing. Soon others are singing, and after they exhaust their two-song repertoire of protest songs, they fall into a sullen silence.

20180324-BC5A1101.JPGTo Ahmad: “I have your picture; I know where you live. Today you come with these people and you are safe but tomorrow what will you accomplish?”

20180324-BC5A1134crvAhmad says he does not want the children speaking to people who have guns.

20180324-BC5A1129crv.jpg“Perhaps it would be better,” I cannot resist suggesting, “if the gun were not actually pointing at the child.” He ignores me.

In answer to Ahmad he says, with no trace of irony, “What kind of values are you teaching this child?

20180324-BC5A1123crv.jpgTomorrow, you will be alone.”

*****

20180326-BC5A1145-editWe are on the other side of Al-Auja from Mevo’ot Yericho where we were Friday. On Saturday in South Hebron, it was cold and wet. Two days later, in the Jordan Valley, it is dry and hot. Today, when our presence seems sufficient to keep settlers from showing up to harass shepherds and scare away the sheep, and no police have come by to investigate . . .

20180326-BC5A1158crv.jpgthe four of us finally have time to ask the important question:

20180326-BC5A1154crvWhat can these sheep possibly be finding to eat? This rocky mountainside is nothing like the lush meadow grass we saw Saturday in South Hebron.

20180326-BC5A1169lvlcrvPerhaps they are being nourished as I am, simply on texture and light.

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20180326-BC5A1192crvlvlThe sheep return home,

20180326-BC5A1191crvKettles are placed on fires, and we make the rounds of compounds, sipping tea and tasting cheeses, fresh vegetables and eggs.

20180326_114353-Arik-Auja-rot.jpgThe talk is mostly discouraging and only occasionally hopeful, all of it anxious. Everyone knows that today is just a reprieve. Many of the families are tired of constant harassment by settlers and indifference, or worse, from the police.

20180326-BC5A1206rotrawAt one stop it is a woman who gives us tea. She impresses us with her seriousness about our shared mission and goals. As we leave, she thanks us one by one and looks especially closely at the two oldest among us.

20180326-BC5A1200crv“I fear for your children,” she says. In her experience, when a family member opposes the occupation, the whole family has to pay for it. I wonder if she has that in mind or whether this is her usual way of speculating on the future. It is moving but also surprising. Looking at me, she adds, “I am a mother, too.”

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text and photographs margaret olin © 2018

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March 23: Along the Road to Bet She’an

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Gavriel is the one running, the one with the flowing hair. He looks like he might be at home in a coffee shop with a guitar on his knee, passing a joint. I remember Gavriels like him from my adolescence, non-violent activists who sang of peace. As we shall see, I believe even this Gavriel may see himself as a messenger of peace.

Apologies: The remainder of this post is temporarily removed. I hope to republish it soon.

 

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

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A compound in Susya, 2015. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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A kitchen in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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A compound in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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A kitchen in Susya, 2016. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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Photograph: David Shulman

 

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

 

 

  * * *

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

20170114-IMG_9448lvlcrvTuba, 2017. Photograph: Margaret Olin

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

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

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

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photograph: Michal Hai

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

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Photograph: Michal Hai

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Photograph: Michal Hai

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

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Photograph: Michal Hai

  (for video by Guy Butavia follow this link)

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

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

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photograph: Michal Hai

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

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photograph: Michal Hai

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

text: David Shulman © 2018

 

 

December 2, 2017 Umm al-Amad, Ma‘in David Shulman

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Umm al-Amad, July, 2017. photograph: Margaret Olin

He’s young, the lieutenant; the faint trace of a mustache tells all. Awkward, inexperienced, unsure. More than a boy, hardly a man. He speaks fast, the words clipped, sharp, hurtful. He keeps playing with his rifle, waving it, aiming it, caressing it, turning it upside down, comforting it when it somehow rights itself again. The bullet clip is loaded; I can’t see if the safety catch is released. I don’t like any of this, for two reasons. First, I don’t like guns. I had to carry one, when I was a little older than the lieutenant, and I hated it. Second, I don’t like men who like guns.

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He’s here to drive the shepherds off their lands. He’s got the Closed Military Zone order, not in its usual hard-copy form, a piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander, but on his cell phone. Not good enough, we say, show us the order and the signature. There’s no signature on the cell phone. No, he says. We’re more advanced than we used to be.

20140607_Taayush-Shepherd0903-EditUmm al-Amad, June, 2014. photograph: margaret olin*

So Guy tells him clearly, and mildly, that the order is illegal, and we have with us the Supreme Court ruling to prove it. After years of struggle in Umm al-Amad, with all the usual travails—repeated expulsions, beatings, arrests, endless threats, routine state terror, as we fought, week by week, literally meter by meter, to extend the area the shepherds could reclaim as theirs– the Supreme Court recognized that the wadi and the hills beneath the settlement of Otniel were Palestinian lands that the people of Umm al-Amad and Karama and the other villages could freely use. It took us some four years on the ground and in the courts to win back the stolen terrain. Guy carries the ruling with him whenever he comes here. The lieutenant takes it, glances at it, and says, “This means nothing to me. I have my orders. Get these shepherds out of here.”

“Why?”

Kacha—because.”

“What you are doing is illegal.”

“It’s no concern of mine. I’ll be quite happy to arrest them, handcuff them, blindfold them, and leave them lying like that for some hours in the settlement.”

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Photograph: Elena Mucciarelli

“You have no right to threaten them like that. This is their land.”

“I can do what I want. I don’t need any papers to prove it. I have my gun.”

But he doesn’t look as cocksure as he sounds. He keeps glancing around at his soldiers. There are five of them, in the usual get-up. Helmets, rifles, boots. Some of them seem to me not too happy. But then, when are soldiers happy? It’s worse, I know from experience, when they have an officer who’s no damned good.

The lieutenant likes to issue threats. “I’m very affable,” he says to us, “but when people don’t obey me I get physical and violent very quickly. I don’t like it.” This is the only language he knows, impoverished beyond belief, and I don’t think he’s recently, or maybe ever, had an original thought. However, as an afterthought, he says to his men, “We’re doing this today for the Motherland, the moledet.” Never has the Hebrew word sounded to me so sinister.

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Umm al-Amad, June, 2014  photograph: margaret olin

Then there’s the question of the map that accompanies the digital CMZ order, as it must. The whole business is illegal, but the lieutenant, who’s not so good at reading maps, compounds the crime. Since we’re worried about what will happen to ‘Abed and Ahmad and Hamid if they get arrested, we’re prepared to move farther away from the settlement, up the wadi, to the hillside that is clearly outside the line on the map. But that’s not good enough for our lieutenant. He thinks the shepherds have to go home, get out of there, not be there, not be. He tells them this in pigeon Arabic, horrible to the ear. Guy, who’s good at maps, tells him over and over that the hill we’re retreating to is beyond the arbitrary line of the map. The lieutenant, unable to lose face, insists that his orders are to clear them out altogether, to make them disappear. He says: “Get them off my lands.” I wonder why he thinks they’re his. We demand that he summon the Matak, a senior officer from the Civil Administration, to settle this point. Now.

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He calls the Matak—or someone else. Who can say? Now we wait. Every once in a while he points his gun at us and repeats the threat. If the shepherds dare to cross the line even by an inch, he’ll arrest them. He wants them to know this. It should be crystal clear. But the goats, endowed, one supposes, with the less than lucid consciousness of a goat, have a way of spilling over the hills and crossing the invisible line. On second thought, maybe their awareness is more lucid than the lieutenant’s. It’s the shepherds’ kids who are sent to fetch them, and if you say to the lieutenant—“Look, they’re six years old, stop pointing your gun at them, stop threatening them”—he gets riled. ‘Abed, however, who’s already been through whatever hells the army has to offer, is enraged. “Look at this,” he says to me. “Have you ever seen anything like it? A little boy, a bunch of hungry goats, and six soldiers with their big guns aimed at them. It’s crazy.” I couldn’t agree more. I tell him: the court will decide, and it will decide in our favor. We can’t settle it here on the ground.

20170722-IMG_0021-EditlvlcrvAhmad in Umm al-Amad,  July, 2017.  photograph: Margaret Olin

I think that only the surreal feels really real. Late winter morning, the sun on our skin. There’s an enormous, heavy, black sheep, probably pregnant, lumbering across the wadi floor. The kids are running up and down the rocks in the wake of the incorrigible goats. One of the shepherds has decided that this is the perfect moment to make tea. He lights a fire and puts the old, soot-soiled kettle on the burning twigs. Soon Wala, impish, insouciant, brings each of us of a glass of tea. The soldiers huddle together, making evil plans. The Matak, of course, never turns up. Ahmad, furious, yells at the lieutenant: “You think you’re some big man, but you’re no more than a common criminal.” The lieutenant probably can’t understand.

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Photograph: David Shulman

 

Maybe, it occurs to me, he might be amenable to some suggestion that would allow him to climb down off the tree. “Look,” I say to him, “they’re almost finished with today’s grazing. They’ve already moved outside the ‘forbidden’ ground. Give them another 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll wind up and go home. Stop threatening them, it makes everything worse and it scares the kids.” Something like that. The lieutenant looks at me with scorn. “No.”

Wala gathers up the empty tea glasses, balancing them against her body in a delicious, gravity-defying system that only she could invent. These people are poor; every glass counts. She will bring them home over the high hill. How many times have I climbed this hill? But today is worse. I figure my ancestors must have been driven from their homes—in Spain, in the Rhineland, God knows where else—and here it is again, what they must have known, something black inside me, the blackness of rage, of hate, though hate is rare for me in south Hebron, over the years it’s been displaced by something else that I can’t name, something better than hate. And there is the weariness; do we have to start all over? We’ll go back to the courts, and the courts will reaffirm the earlier ruling, and the wadi will be open again, and for a while the sheep will graze there until we have to do it all once more, and the pitiful lieutenant might even grow up some day and discover he is a person with a mind and a body of his own, I know it can happen, maybe after the Occupation ends. Maybe even before.

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Guy in Umm al-Amad, July, 2017. photograph: Margaret Olin

On the way to Umm al-Khair we stop at Ma‘in and climb the hill to where the owners were digging shallow pits for planting baby olive trees, a few days back. The settlers of Avigail, across the highway, must have summoned the soldiers. This time they arrested ten Palestinians, accusing them of digging in an “archaeological site.” There is no square meter in Palestine-Israel that is not an archaeological site. A new and ominous pretext, potentially useful for stealing land. They kept their prisoners all day and released them in the evening. This story, like Umm al-Amad’s, isn’t over yet.

One thing I can say. Things are getting worse.

20170722-IMG_9967atext David Shulman © 2017           *you may see more of Um al-Amad in 2014 here