June 6, 2009
It never, and I mean never, rains in the Hebron hills in June. Days are counted on a continuum of hot-hotter-hottest. But here I am standing in the steep road at Khirbet Safa at 9:30 in the morning under an almost cloudless sky, and raindrops are splattering against my skin. Its no storm, but still a kind of miracle. I put it down to Obamas visit to Cairo this week and to his speechprobably the first in decades from an American president that spoke the cooling, simple truth about Israel and Palestine.
Israeli settlements in Palestine, he said, are wrong and have to go. Years of willful blindness and sordid prevarication were washed away by his words. I dont know if hes determined enough to force the change. I hope so. On the ground, in Palestine, needless to say, theres been no change.
My companions and I were planning to help with the grape harvest in Khirbet Safa, and we were expecting trouble. For the last seven weekends in a row, violent settlers from neighboring Bat Ayin have attacked the Palestinian farmers here and the Israeli activists who came to defend them. Last week they were particularly vicious. Along with the usual punches and kicks and curses, they overturned Ezras car and left it on its back, beetle-like, on the path near the field. It took quite a lot of effort by the villagers to get it back onto its wheels. The settlers also stole Jesses camera and used it as a blunt weapon, and the soldiers, as usual, took no action against them. We were expecting more of the same today.
But the army is ahead of us this time. By the time we arrive, still early morning, the soldiers have turned up with the standard document declaring Khirbet Safa a Closed Military Zone (CMZ) from now until June 21. The order is illegalthe Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that the army has no right to use this device in a blanket fashion, to keep farmers from their lands; and the armys own legal advisor adopted this ruling as binding and issued orders to that effect. But out here in the hills, the Courts writ has little purchase. The local commander does what he sees fit, and you cant do much about itexcept defy his order and get arrested, as we often do. If not picked soon, the grapes of Khirbet Safa will wither on the vine.
On to Susya, to Nassir Nawajeh and his family and the other 70 or so Palestinian shepherds hanging on to whats left of their lands in their tents and shacks perched on the dry escarpment across from the Israeli settlement of Susyaanother cruel and toxic site. Here, at Susya, theres a new illegal outpostthats the standard Israeli term for settler expansion without direct government approval, although the new outpost is, like all the others, backed up by the army and the Israeli police. Last month when we marched up the hill to the new outpost to reclaimfor a brief, heady momentthe Haraini familys well, stolen by the settlers, the soldiers chased us off with the inevitable CMZ order. Theres no doubt theyll repeat this maneuver today. Heres the plan. Once again the Combatants for Peacea group of Israelis and Palestinians who at one time were actively involved in the cycle of violence but now seek nonviolent resolutionare here, maybe a hundred of them, slowly being welded into a single force. Its their initiative. Were going to climb that hill again, right through the Special Security Zone the settlers have declared (illegally) with the armys support, and were going to erect a Palestinian counter-outpost right there on the Nawajeh and Haraini family lands. We dont expect our outpost to survive more than a few minutes (the settlers outposts always turn into permanent settlements). But theres the principle involved, the necessary protest, the symbolic gesture of defiance, and the potential visibility of all the above. If were lucky, a video clip of our adventure will be shown tonight on the evening news. Everyone in Israel watches the eight oclock news on Channel 2.
Shie has brought the pre-fab structure were going to put up. Its a bona fide sukkah, one of the little booths Jews build every year in October to remind themselves of the fragility of things in the world and of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Perfect, in my view, for Susya. In the end everything has its usefulness. There are the long metal poles, and Amiel hunted all over Jerusalem for the cloth panels, in the colors of the Palestinian flag, to tie the poles together. If we get the damned thing up before the settlers and the soldiers attack, it will be a bright burst of red-green-black-white against the stark backdrop of the brown, baked hills.
High noon. Its very hot. Im not feeling very wellIve been sick for some weeks with a parasitebut Im very glad to be back in Susya with my friends. Ready to go. After the long, mandatory briefing in Hebrew and Arabic, Ofra gives the sign, and we set off quickly over the thorns and rocks, first down into the wadi, then up the hill. Jesse has twisted his ankle but hes climbing beside me without complaint. David, a colleague of mine in South Hebron for the first time, smiles at me: I havent had so much fun since the 60s! We pass the welllast months goaland keep going into the Security Zone, and by now we can see, not far from us, jeeps unloading heavily armed soldiers and groups of settlers in their Shabbat white, all converging on us from above.
But not before we get our sukkah up and standing. The nice thing about these modern ones is that theyre quick and easy to assemble. First the poles go up; then we need the cloth panelsbut where are they? Have we forgotten them in the tents? No, one of the Combatants races up the hill with them bundled in his arms. We attach them to the poles, and there it is: our own outpost, a brilliant splash of Palestinian color, the wind on the hilltop puffing up the sheets of cloth so that the whole flimsy contraption looks much bigger than it really is, bigger than we imagined it to be. People are clapping their hands and even singing and the photographers are firing away and by now theres a furious argument going on with the soldiers, wispy, wiry Ofra holding her own, lashing them with her tongue, scorning them and shaming them, telling them again and again that their stupid order is illegal and we can prove it, and the soldiers are looking baffled and more and more impatient, one in particular seems to me to be aching to lash out with fists and stick, and theyre growling out the usual threats and telling us we have three more minutes before they attack, and the settlers are sitting on the hilltop certain that soon their victory will be assured, and Nasser seems to be unable to believe his eyes, he is back on his land, and the fierce sun is beating down on us and Im thirsty and bemused and elated and a little distant and discordant all at the same time.
Its one of those momentsa longish one, by our standards. The sukkah, amazingly, is still intact, for all the soldiers barking and snapping. Its a sight Ill remember, a little slit in reality where you can catch a glimpse of the truth, a faint shadow of hope. We are doing something worth doing only for its own sake, out of the intrinsic rightness of it, however transient it proves. We brought two families back to their ravished land, we even built a little house for them, we staked their claim and were not about to relinquish it, no matter what happens, not now and not tomorrow or the next day or the one after that, not until the settlers and the soldiers and the policemen go away for good and something like peace comes back to South Hebron.
Finally, as we knew (and, indeed, hoped) would happen, the senior officer gives the order, and his men move in and, though our people hang on to the poles and the cloth panels for dear life, in seconds the sukkah is undone. Poles and billowing panels collapse over the activists inside, and the soldiers trip and stumble through the ruins, weighed down by their helmets and their guns. A great cry rises up to the sky. What heroes you are, we scream to these soldiers, you deserve a medal for this noble act. The Israel Defense Force has overcome another enemy bastion. They are stronger, it might appear, than this motley bunch of unarmed civilians (so many of them ex-soldiers themselves) who came here to erect the sukkah on the hill.
Or are they? Upon reflection, I suddenly doubt it. I seek out the commanding officer, a heavy-set career soldier, now standing a little apart, and I say to him: Look at what youve just done, look at the absurdity of it. Forget about the Closed Military Zone and your piece of paper with or without the signature of your superior. Just look at the facts. These settlers have stolen this land from its rightful owners, and youve helped them do it. Its totally crazy. They have no right to be here, and you know it. He looks at menot quite angry; it seems something has unnerved him. Was it Ofras eloquence? Was it the sight of these hundred activists milling around on the hill on a quixotic mission of peace? I seize upon his silence. In six months or twelve months, I tell him, youll be ordered to come back here to demolish the outpost, and a year after that youll be sent to demolish the whole cursed Susya settlement. He looks me in the eyes. Ill do it, he says.
There it is again, that odd happiness that courses through me at such moments. The soldiers behind us, apparently in dire need of a Palestinian victim, suddenly pin one of the Palestinian activists to the ground and then march him away uphill. A random choice, no doubt; the mans only crime was to be himself. But then, what use is it to knock down a sukkah of peace if you dont make an arrest?
Occasionally, even a symbolic gesture of defiance can do the work. I think of Martin Luther Kings principle: you always have to bring the situation to the point of open conflict; and you have to be sure that when that happens, there is someone there to take a picture and get it into the news. We succeeded in this today. And tonight many thousands will be marching in Tel Aviv to call for an end to the occupation: tonight, 42 years after the 1967 war, when the occupation began. Maybe something is, after all, beginning to change, like rain in June in the desert. Maybe we can help it happen, in the small ways that finally count.
On our way out of Susya, the police swoop down on Ezra and arrest himfor no apparent reason. They put their prisoner in their van and head north toward the police lock-up in Kiryat Arba. Probably theyre angry that today we got under the soldiers skin, and for a split second they werent sure what to do, or maybe even what was right. Its enough to make a man a little angry, or sick at heart. So these policemen also spend their fury on our gentle driver, Zaidan. They take away his identity card, they threaten him in all the usual ways, they even wait in ambush for him on the road, hoping hell make some minor mistake and open himself up to a fine, or worse. You need cops for such things, to keep the world on a steady course.
David Shulman, Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is author of Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.