Essays — June 2013

Truth and Lies in South Hebron

1. THE ISRAELI ACTIVISTS

Let’s start with Ezra Nawi. He’s a plumber. Actually that’s how I first met him—he worked in our house. He’s in his early fifties, gay, from an Iraqi Jewish family, lives in Jerusalem. He’s the stuff of legend and is even the subject of a good film: Citizen Nawi by Nissim Mosek. He became an activist when he saw the occupation in action through the eyes of Palestinian partners. Ezra has gone to jail for his beliefs. In February 2007, the Civil Administration—that is the Occupation authority—sent its bulldozers, together with soldiers and police, to demolish the rickety shacks and tents at a place called Umm al-Khair. They do this regularly, and if you knew the place and the people, you’d find the injustice of it infuriating. On that particularly occasion, Ezra threw himself down in front of the bulldozers, Gandhi-style. Later he ran into one of the shacks, and soldiers were sent in to bring him out. They claimed he raised his hands against them; I wasn’t there, but I am sure this is untrue: I’ve known Ezra for many years, and we have been through some tough moments together. But the judge, Eilata Ziskind, believed the soldiers’ word against his—and, what is worse, she wrote a judgment praising the virtues of law and order. ‘The acts and behaviour of the defendant constitute serious interferences that were meant to disturb the peace.’ It’s important to keep in mind that the peace in question involved the violent destruction of the homes of innocent civilians; it was this that Ezra was protesting against. As Gandhi said,’You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees.’

Consider a typical day for Israeli activists in the south Hebron hills. We set off from Jerusalem around 8-8:30, earlier in the summer, because the heat is overwhelming by midday: too hot to work productively in the fields, too hot even for the sheep and goats to graze. Sometimes our hide-and-seek with the police begins at the checkpoint just south of Jerusalem. They often try to stop us from reaching our Palestinian friends in Susya or Twaneh or any of the tiny khirbehs scattered over the arid hills. In the eyes of the police and the army, we’re a nuisance: we interfere with the normal operation of the occupation—that is, above all, the ongoing appropriation of Palestinian land —but also with the Israeli settlers’ attempts to make life unbearable for the small Palestinian population of herders and farmers who still, miraculously, inhabit these hills.

So by mid-morning we’re in the field. Sometimes we accompany shepherds to their grazing grounds—settlers often drive Palestinian shepherds away at gunpoint, and we’re there to protect them. Or we may work beside Palestinian farmers in the fields, clearing them of stones, sowing seeds in the winter, harvesting wheat or barley in the spring and olives in the autumn. None of these basic, everyday activities can be taken for granted in the South Hebron hills; if Israeli activists are not there, the farmers will likely be chased off their lands. Although the settlers are invariably the spearhead of such attacks, the occupation system as a whole is geared towards dispossession. Under Israeli law, ownership of a field which is not cultivated for three years reverts to the state; Palestinian farmers have, at best, intermittent access to their lands, because of the settler attacks. Our job is to help them in the never-ending micro-struggle for each olive tree, each well, each scraggly, thorny patch on the hill.

Dolev Rahat is tall, lanky, curly-haired, in his early twenties. A certain ineradicable sweetness infuses his manner and speech:

I came to Ta’ayush via the solidarity protests in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem–beginning in January 2010, when the protests often ended in violent arrests. One of the activists suggested I come on the weekend to South Hebron. I had a serious baptism of fire–at al-Bawara (Hill 18′) we were attacked by 18 rampaging settlers throwing rocks; Keren was hit in the head, and I, too, took a blow. This was a test of my seriousness, and not long afterwards there was another one–when I was arrested at Um Zeituna and falsely accused of attacking a soldier. They kept us all day in the station and released us after midnight in Hebron.

South Hebron is different from other places on the West Bank, where the local village committees are highly organised and play a central role. In the South Hebron hills, the Palestinians are much weaker, economically and otherwise, and need our help in standing up for their rights. We’ve had some real successes, like at Bir al-Td, where the villagers have come back to stay. I hope we can change their reality–in any case, what motivates me is the thought that if we don’t try, things will be far worse in the future. And who knows if in five years we’ll be able to carry out these activities? We may all be either in jail or in exile. I try not to think too much about that; if I do, it keeps me from acting. There are dilemmas. We’re never eager to coordinate with the army, to grant them any recognition at all; they are the occupiers, and we know they keep track of us all the time. Sometimes we try to persuade the soldiers on the ground not to do what they do, instead of, or along with, direct confrontation.

‘Have you ever succeeded?’ I ask him. ‘No.’

More often than not, within an hour or two of our arrival, and sometimes within minutes, soldiers arrive waving a signed order declaring whatever place we are at to be a Closed Military Zone (CMZ).This means, of course, we are supposed to leave. (Settlers are immune to such orders.) The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled unequivocally that it is illegal to declare a CMZ arbitrarily or routinely and, even more important, that the order must never be used to keep Palestinian farmers or shepherds away from their lands. But in the South Hebron hills, where only the gun rules, the Supreme Court is a distant and hypothetical entity. So in practice, at such moments we have a choice: either we obey the order and move on, or we refuse to leave and are then arrested. Most of us have been arrested many times, and we’re not afraid: we know we are right to perform simple acts of human decency in the face of a harsh, inhuman system, and we are prepared to pay the price for moral action. Occasionally we reluctantly obey the soldiers if, by staying, we are endangering Palestinians with arrest or other forms of harassment.

Dr. Amiel Vardi teaches Classics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more persistent, selfless human being. I’m sure he’s been arrested hundreds of times; sometimes, it seems, he lets this happen in order to have the opportunity to educate the police who have taken him in. At the Qiryat Arba police station, which he has frequented numerous times, the policemen hold him in profound respect. Once when we were arrested together and taken there, the policeman on duty, who was filling out the forms, said to me, in police-speak: ‘If you were to graft the DNA of Ami el Vardi onto the DNA of an ordinary policeman, the result would be a Super-Cop such as the world has never seen.’ Over the years Amiel has acquired an impressive legal expertise: he is probably the world’s expert on Closed Military Zones. I have seen him argue—always cool, collected, wise—with the senior officers who turn up in the field; they don’t usually listen to him, and as a result he has quite often, in the end, received written apologies from the police for unlawful arrest. What drives him? The last time I asked him, he said: ‘I want to expose the injustices of the Occupation.’But I think it’s more than that. He was shot by settlers, in 2002, while picking olives with Palestinian farmers nearYanun, in the northern West Bank. He survived, more committed than ever. He’s thought it through. I’d be embarrassed to ask him to confirm this, but I’m sure that Socrates is one of his models. Once he said to me,’It’s because of the truth that we go to South Hebron. It exposes the lie and reveals truth in all its clarity, like nowhere else.’

So the day draws on. Sometimes we rush from one emergency situation to another as reports of settler attacks come in. Sometimes we organise larger-scale demonstrations with hundreds of participants, including well-known Israeli artists, writers, and public personalities. Sometimes we plan symbolic gestures that photograph well in the press. For example, we once erected an ‘outpost’—actually, a small booth—at Susya, on privately owned Palestinian land that has been stolen by settlers. We didn’t expect the outpost to last for long (by contrast,’illegal outposts’ put up by Israeli settlers are almost never dismantled); and indeed the soldiers tore the booth down after about half an hour. But for those few intoxicating moments, the Nawaja family again had access to its field and to a precious well. You can call such gestures quixotic, and sometimes they feel like that; but they are all part of the micro-struggle, where every positive action counts. In the long run, over the last decade and more, we have helped change the balance of power in the South Hebron hills. Despite immense pressures brought to bear on the Palestinian population to leave their homes, they are still there—primarily because of their own courage and resilience, but also partly because we are there beside them.

Zviya Thier is a retired headmistress (first of a school in Yavneh, then of the well-known Carmeli school in Jerusalem), and she still carries the aura that goes with that role. The soldiers, often only a year or two out of school, sometimes unconsciously defer to her authority. At 67, she’s probably the oldest of our volunteers, and quite possibly the most passionate. She lost a brother in Lebanon in 1983. ‘I was always against the Occupation. Even as headmistress, I always paid attention to the weak and tried to help them.’ Like Dolev, she came to South Hebron via Sheikh Jarrah:

The first time I went down there, I saw the true, the hidden Occupation; the curtain was ripped from before my eyes. I wept with the pain. I had never allowed myself to go to the territories, I didn’t want to be a conqueror. Now I want to see more and more. But I’m defenseless, as if someone had peeled the skin from my body. What I see there causes me physical pain. The Occupation is happening in our back yard. I can no longer sit in a cafe in Jerusalem and enjoy my coffee, because I am aware of the suffering in my back yard. I can’t celebrate Pesach any more–the so-called holiday of freedom. What kind of freedom is it, when millions are under siege? I will not celebrate the seder again in Israel until the Occupation is over. Even Memorial Day, when I am supposed to commune with the memory of my brother, is hard for me; its purity has been ruined for me by what we are doing in the territories.

I ask her if she’s troubled by the sense of futility I myself often have. ‘I’m one small person,’ she says. ‘I can’t change much. Even when I was a headmistress, I wasn’t able to change the whole educational system. But if I can change the lives of even one person, of one child, or of five, for even one moment, that will be enough.’

Ezra Nawi, meanwhile, is oddly full of hope:

Just look around. Two years ago we didn’t even know the name of this place (Bir al-Td ). These people had been driven off their land, the houses and terraces were destroyed, the wells stopped up. Now we’ve brought them back and stood by them, and we’ve helped them to stand up to the settlers and the soldiers and not to be afraid. They are here to stay. They are home. You can train people so they become able to resist. Even a few people like that make a huge difference. In the end we will win. So of course I’m optimistic. You must be optimistic, too, otherwise why would you be here?

This has been a small sample of the activists of the Jerusalem South Hebron Committee of Ta’ayush, ‘Arab-Jewish Partnership’, a volunteer organisation set up in the early days of the second Intifada. The others—Yehuda, Danny, Guy’Id, Shaie, Keren, Ro’i, and Daniel, to name but a few—are no less unusual and articulate. Ta’ayush attracts maverick individualists, dreamers, idealists, hard-bitten romantics. But they all have courage, a virtue I’ve come to respect above most others—the courage of ordinary, good people doing the decent thing. Bad times bring out the worst in many people, and the best in others. In most, they elicit a dark, recalcitrant passivity, an existential and moral numbness. Every one of us makes the choice.

‘I want to be cremated when I die,’ says Zviya, ‘and I used to want my ashes to be spread over some of the many places I have loved in this world. But recently I’ve changed my mind. I want them to spread my ashes over the hills of South Hebron. Maybe they’ll help make one small piece of land fertile.’

2. THE PALESTINIAN LOCAL

This is ‘Id’s story, I’m just reporting it. But I need to give you at least a little background. We’re in Um al-Khair, a ramshackle collection of tents and huts and simple stone houses and sheep-pens and corrugated shacks that borders, tragically, on the settlement of Carmel in the South Hebron hills. Or rather, historically, Carmel borders on Um al-Khair, since the lands appropriated for the settlement in the early 80s all belonged to the Bedouin goat-herders and farmers who live on this rocky hill. They bought the land from the original owners in the town of Yata when they fled from Tel Arad in the Negev in the wake of the 1948 war. These days, like everywhere in South Hebron, the Palestinian shepherds of Um al-Khair face constant depredations from the settlers, who frequently chase them off their historic grazing grounds, hoping to starve them into leaving for good. ‘Id, a handsome man in his twenties, in a bright yellow t-shirt, leads me into the shade of a tent and starts to speak.

I was born in Um al-Khair. Today everyone goes to the hospital to give birth, but my head touched the ground over there, in that stone house. I grew up here. I went to school in the schoolhouse on the opposite ridge. I learned English at school. In tenth grade I stopped, there was no money, but by then I was a ‘gentleman’ in English. I learned Hebrew from watching television and from books.

This is a Bedouin village. We came from Tel Arad after the first war. My grandfather bought the land. Before he died, he spoke to all of us. He said, “Sons, grandsons, listen to me. The peaceful way is the only way.” My father followed his advice. He was against violence. He taught us. He spent his life following the goats. But he studied a lot, and he understood. He also learned Hebrew. He told us, ‘My sons, if settlers attack us, we don’t do what they do. We follow the path of peace.’ He died five years ago. He was a man like you.

At first when the settlers came, they would come to drink tea with us, and my grandfather said, ‘We are cousins. We want to live without problems.’ I saw them building the settlement when I was eight years old. Workers from Gaza did the building. Those were different days. Then the new settlers came, and all the problems.

Today the settler is the king. He drags the whole country and the army after him, just like you would drag a dog. If the settler says to the soldiers, Arrest that man,’ they’ll arrest him. If a settler attacks you and you go to the police to submit a complaint, the police will find all kinds of reasons to block it. They’ll waste your time, they’ll make you wait and wait, then they’ll say, ‘We don’t have a photograph of the man, there’s no identification.’

They attack us all the time. The settler kids throw rocks in the evening. If you’re in your home and a rock falls on the roof — you see that kind of roof we have? — you hear it, it disturbs you, you don’t sleep all night. We’re sick of the police, they never arrest a single settler. They don’t do anything. There’s no money, no electricity, no water. We bring water every day from the well on the other hill, half a kilometer away. We have to bring it on a donkey. You know how hard it is in the winter for the donkey? The donkey is not like a vehicle. We can get water from a pipe farther away, near Maon, but we have a debt of 10,000 shekels to the water company; if we don’t pay this summer, those dogs in the Palestinian Authority will tell the Civil Administration to cut off the water, like they did last summer.

This year there was no rain. Soon the few green leaves in the wadi will be gone. We will have to buy food for the animals from the dealers in Yata. It costs a huge amount of money. My father brought food from Yata for years and ran up a debt of 30,000 shekels. They demand the money. How can we pay 30,000 shekels? I am carrying this debt on my shoulders, but there’s no way we can pay. My father had 120 goats, but only 30 are left.

We’re five families here in Um al-Khair, about seventy people. Someone sent us a solar heating unit from Germany. That was ten years ago. It doesn’t work any more. There’s no way we can get electricity here. But this is where I want to live. My land is here.

I know on my own body that there is no solution except to wage war for peace. Not a war with bullets and rifles and bombs. That isn’t right. There has to be a party of Palestinians and Israelis for peace. The settlers and the Palestinian extremists–we have to change their heads, the way they think. If a settler gets killed, who pays the price? Me and you. Killing is not the way This conflict won’t be solved by war.

My brother was arrested. He was just walking on the hill, and they arrested him and kept him in jail for three months. My father was arrested, too. That’s how it is. If one of us is walking on the path, on his own land, the settlers run after him and attack him. They wanted to do that today, but because you were here, their hands were tied. But maybe when you leave and the police go away, the settlers will hide in the trees and then they’ll come. We know they will come.

It’s not the soldiers who are bad. There are all kinds. Some are extremist, others vote for Meretz or Labor. They come to drink tea with us, no problem. Sometimes there are good surprises. Once one of us was hurt, deep in the desert. The army sent a helicopter to rescue him! They saved him, and they didn’t ask for money. A year ago one of our people had an accident, his car overturned on one of the hills and he was trapped. An army patrol just happened by. God sent that patrol. They called Magen David Adorn, they saved him. Once there was an accident on the main road, and some Israelis passing by stopped to help. They took the wounded man, one of us, all the way to Soroka Hospital. He was in hospital for 30 days, and we didn’t have to pay the hospital any money. When I think of the State of Israel, that is what I see. I don’t see the State of Israel in the settler. I put him aside. I see it in the soldiers who sent the helicopter, and I see it in people like you and your friends.”

I’m married. I have a three-month-old baby. There’s no work. I owe a lot of money for the wedding. I can’t work in Tel Aviv, because I’m too young; they won’t give permits to anyone under

(a full length version of this monologue appears in Manoa Volume 20, Number 2,Winter 2008)

3. THE HARVEST. May 7th 2011.

The settler in his Shabbat white, a huge knitted skullcap on his head, takes a pebble and holds it out on his fingertips to a Palestinian woman from Susya as he clucks his tongue at her, beckoning her as one would a dog. He has already taken 95% of the family’s land, and now he bullies his way into the tiny patch that is left in order to harass and humiliate further. As if throwing a dog a bone, he tosses the pebble at her and laughs.

None of this is new, only somehow starker, on this perfect spring morning in South Hebron. Drops of bitter­sweet dusty rain fell in Jerusalem as I left home, but here in Susya we witness a tense choreography of cloud, sun and welcoming wind. The stubborn barley is a bit higher than it was three weeks ago. It is 9:00, and there is no time to lose. We rush from the van over the hill to the olive grove in the wadi.A donkey brays. Past the trees, up the slope, on Palestinian land, a group of ten or twelve settlers acts out a ritual of mockery, singing, snarling and making obscene gestures at the Palestinians who stand in disarray just below them. The leader—he of the dog-gesture—dances in and out of the Palestinian clusters, daring them to stop him, and from time to time he lashes out at them with his fists. The three soldiers who have clambered down the hill from the settlement cannot stop him, nor do they seem eager to do so. They attempt to separate the settlers from their victims, but the settlers push ever more deeply into the tiny Palestinian enclave, swirling and spilling out over the hill, an ugly human choreography that matches the overhead dance of clouds and sun. We circle around trying to shield the Palestinians from their attackers, the soldiers bark threats and orders, and soon we’re already half a mile north of the olive grove where we began. The settlers are closing in on the sheepfold, the tents and the access road, still very much in control. More soldiers—Border Police—arrive. As usual they begin by arresting, more or less at random, an elderly Palestinian gentleman, whom they spirit away to a makeshift holding area among the trees. By now a second Ta’ayush contingent has arrived, a large group. Ami el strides into the battle zone and, within seconds, is arrested and handcuffed. As ever, he stays calm, self-possessed, and unafraid, but the Border Police officer accuses him of resisting arrest and warns that he will suffer the consequences. No one touches the settlers.

So it goes for a long period, maybe two hours or so, of dashing over the hills to head off one settler attack after another. Then a vast line of settlers from Susya, women, children, men, some armed with machine guns, emerge for their Shabbat stroll through the lands of their Palestinian neighbours with four or five army command-cars to protect them—as if the Palestinians were the threat to peace and quiet on this bright, windy morning. ‘They always want to make trouble, and the soldiers go with them,’ says a Palestinian shepherd, as he holds high the upper row of a make-shift barbed-wire fence so we can pass through.

When at last it’s over and we’re no longer needed, we split into two groups. One crosses the road to what’s left of the Jbur family’s encampment, which the Civil Administration demolished on Thursday. Yesterday the family itself was driven out with stun grenades, tear gas and blows. One woman was wounded in the leg. I take this demolition as a personal affront since, among other acts of violent destruction, the army obliterated a large well that I helped dig out from the stones and dirt left by its previous demolition.We worked for hours that day, and it looked like the well would eventually be serviceable again. My back hurt for weeks.There’s nothing left there now;

The other group, which I join, heads for the Abu Kbeita fields on the slopes under a small khirbeh called al-Laseifar. This is another story. We are close to the Green Line— and, indeed, the main checkpoint on the road, recently privatised, is several kilometers north of the border, as if Palestinian lands lying to the south had already been annexed to Israel. What this means in practice is that the Abu Kbeita family have been turned into shabachim (illegal aliens) while residing in their own homes. They’re not the only ones to suffer this fate, heavy with consequences for daily survival; but in addition, they have to deal with Danny, a settler who claims that the Abu Kbeita fields, leased from the original owner, Hawamdi, in Samu’a, belong to him. He is wrong: the case went to the Supreme Court, which decided in 1991 in favour of the Palestinians. But none of this has stopped the settlers, including those from Beit Yatir just across the main road, from trying to drive Mahmud Abu Kbeita and his three brothers off the land.

Here’s a lesson in reality in the South Hebron hills. In November the family plowed the main field and sowed it with barley and wheat. In December settlers came and plowed over the fledgling shoots. The family sowed again, and now it is harvest time—but two weeks ago the settlers invited the police to arrest Mahmud and he spent 24 hours in one of the ugliest lock-ups in the country, hands and feet cuffed much of the time. He was finally brought before a judge, who could find no evidence of any possible violation attributable to him, but fined him anyway with a 5000-shekel ‘bond’— a huge sum of money for a Palestinian family of small-scale farmers—and ruled that he could not approach his fields for 14 days. If you have ever met a farmer, you know what this means.

Today we are working hard: after a short lesson from Isma’il, another gentle, good-natured son, in the ancient mysteries of ripe barley and wheat, we crouch in the fields and pull the stalks from the caked brown earth with our fingers, brush off the clods sticking to the roots, and pile our treasures here and there in the field in small, slowly swelling heaps. I don’t remember the last time I harvested the spring wheat crop, like in the Book of Ruth, but I remember well the unearthly joy of it, which can, in my view, heal all sorrows of the soul (as I guess it did for Ruth). I’m not sure I can tell the barley from the wheat, even after Isma’il’s lesson, but clearly both somehow manage to emerge, in bright greens and yellows, out of this unpromising, desiccated soil. When I’m not bending over the stalks, I steal glances at the hills and theYatir forest and the not-so-distant desert, a landscape that ravishes the heart—perhaps, I think to myself, the most beautiful I’ve seen in the world. They bring us tea and fresh bread and white cheese made this morning and the salty hard yellow cheese of this region that lasts forever, and after a while they invite us to feast on fariki: you take the green, freshly-harvested wheat and roast it in fire, there in the field, then you crack it open and let it rest on your tongue, still hot and pungent, before swallowing. There’s nothing like it, take my word.

A great peace comes over me. For just a moment I let go of the questions that torment me: how can anyone, man or woman, steal such a field and then stand before the true owner and lie to his face? I’m 62 years old and I don’t understand, will clearly never understand. I can imagine greed, in all its cruelty and obsession, can even find it in myself, but that brazen lie, eye to eye, troubles me—that and the ruthless assault on the goodness that the earth offers those who care for it. Anyway I’ve been thinking about truth and its intrinsic worth, and the value of the moral act, even if it goes unnoticed. It is so easy to say in a wishful, or hopeful, romantic way that truth—speaking truth—will necessarily leave a mark on the world. But to stand up to the lie, even for a moment, even on the simplest and lowliest level, surely heals some small abrasion in the body of a wounded world. Israel today is ruled by lies, beginning with almost everything the Prime Minister says and moving down the scale through his ministers and members of his cabinet to large parts of the press and the army and the courts and down to the soldiers at the checkpoints and the policeman who arrested Mahmud and the Border Police who arrested Amiel today, on and on downwards all the way to a Hell entirely of our own making. Yet I know that an act of truth can cut like a knife and that in the end it will not be wasted. This I have learned in South Hebron.

When it is time to leave we gather up the stalks and sheaves and load them onto a tall cart coupled to a tractor that Isma’il has driven down the hill. There is enough, Mahmud says, to feed the animals for over a week, and some will be left over. And there is still a vast piece of the field waiting to be harvested: maybe next week. You take the sheaves in your arms and hold them to your chest, and then there is the sudden, wild movement when you fling them upward into the cart and let them go, like the wild movement that may happen soon when Palestine flings itself free.

David Shulman was born in Iowa and moved to Israel in 1967. He received a PhD in Indian studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebew University, specialising in the languages and cultures of Southern India. He is an active member of Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership. You can read a longer version of the last section at palestinemonitor.org