November 6, 2010, Samu’a, West Bank
Another good day, as good days go in south Hebron. This means two relatively hopeful reports in a row; my readers may begin to lose interest, or to suspect my judgment has somehow become impaired. Certainly, the objective situation, including much violence and terror on the ground in south Hebron, is worse than ever, given this settlers’ government that is contemptuous of Palestinians, blind to the catastrophe that it itself is creating, and utterly unwilling to make even the slightest move toward peace. Then there’s the virulently anti-democratic right, well represented in the government by the Foreign Minister and others of his ilk from the Israel Beitenu party; they, together with other members of the Knesset from the far and not-so-far right, have initiated an unprecedented wave of racist and chauvinist legislation (you can find the whole list in Neve Gordon’s recent essay on “Thought Crimes” in the London Review of Books). If you want to know what it feels like to see the country you live in slide, day by day, toward a rabid, ruthless authoritarianism, or worse—invidious comparisons are ready at hand– all you have to do is read the Israeli newspapers. Nearly every day we wake to another new and terrible surprise.
Actually, it’s much worse than what I’ve just described. Some of the racist bills before the Knesset may not pass; some may be referred to the Supreme Court, which, hopefully, will pronounce them in contravention of the Basic Laws (though the Knesset can then still overrule the court); some—especially those penetrating into the conscience of the individual and attempting to force it to conform—may not be enforceable. It’s important to keep in mind that the men and women who have proposed these laws have a visceral hatred for humane and democratic values and that they are now all too close to the centers of power, their voices heard in cabinet meetings and, with disgusting regularity, in the media. These are people who cheerfully use the democratic framework in order to subvert it. But the truly demoralizing experience is watching the minds of your neighbors and other ordinary people become infected, as if by a virus, with the mean and brutal vision of the far right and its paranoid delights, above all its loathing of Palestinians and failure to recognize them as fully human. A sinister sickness stalks the streets of Israel. The settlers were the first to cultivate it, but it is the amorphous, volatile, and at the same time strangely supine center where it has now taken root.
It is early November, and so far there has been no rain to speak of. Ezra says this is punishment for our sins—and this time he means not just the endless evils of the occupation but the cumulating sins against the planet and its forms of life by human beings everywhere. We are picking stones from the baked soil of a field just under the “illegal outpost” of Asahel, with its row of ugly pre-fab buildings and its watch-tower and its fence. The field belongs to farmers from Samu’a who have had no access to it until today; they cannot approach their own lands bordering on the settlement without Israeli activists beside them. Khalid shows us what this means: high on the slope, and relatively removed from the outpost, is a field recently hoed and plowed, ready now for the rain, if it ever comes, and the sowing of seeds. The soil looks dark and perhaps—if you stretch your imagination to the limit– even potentially fertile. But “our” field is a washed-out, dessicated, caked and crumbly brown, with nothing but thorns and bristles and half-buried rocks to hold the eye. It has been untouched for a long time, except perhaps by the settlers’ goats. In a wild, utopian burst of faith, we have come to clean it and heal it and coax it back to life, though we know that the chances its Palestinian owners will actually be able to plant and reap here are close to nil.
We expect the settlers to descend on us at any moment, but very surprisingly on this hot Shabbat morning the few inhabitants of Asahel appear to be asleep. We work peacefully for an hour, and the field begins to look a little better. It is full of hidden life: a preying mantis sunning herself on a rock; a hibernating yellow scorpion discovered under another rock; several tough white partridge eggs; fresh droppings from the wild deer and antelopes we see from time to time in south Hebron. There is no dearth of stones, but eventually we move on over the hill to another field, immediately abutting the outpost. Now we are no longer alone: a corpulent, bearded settler dressed in Shabbat white, with a huge, pious skull-cap on his head, emerges above us, screaming profanities, his wife and one or two others close behind him. I remember him all too well.
It’s just over a year since I last came here, with our Palestinian friends from Samu’a, to clear away the stones. Now I’m wondering if some kind of bad karma is rooted in this field. Looking at the unimaginable proliferation of stones before us, I do a quick mental calculation. Last time we managed to work for half an hour or so before the soldiers arrived. Today there are more stones than ever. Let’s say we manage to clear at least one of the ruined terraces, assuming we get a respite of an hour or so before we’re either arrested or driven away. At this rate—say, optimistically, four or five hundred stones removed from the ground, three or four times each year—it will take us some 50 years to clear the whole field. And anyway what good will it do? The settler, oozing smugness and derision, is shouting: “How good of you idiots to clear the field for me! You know I’m the one who is going to use it. You know your Palestinian friends all belong to the Hamas, which means you, too, are serving the Hamas. But please do go on working.” He may well, of course, be quite right about the fact that he, and no one else, will successfully claim this field. Khalil—erect, manly, unafraid– cannot bear it, and he shouts back uphill, in Hebrew, at the settler: “God knows that this land is mine. God knows.”
Do stones grow naturally in this soil, like thorns, like the hardness that petrifies the human heart? No, the problem is that since the terraces have all been destroyed, the rains, when they finally come, wash away the topsoil, exposing the infinite store of rocks underneath. We are working well now, it is hot, my hands are scratched and aching, there are not enough hoes and shovels, and it is all borrowed time, since the settler, breaking the Shabbat rules, of course, has already summoned the army on his cellphone. Soon the soldiers begin to filter down the hill, and then the police arrive, too. Yehuda and I consult: how far do we want to go in confronting them? Last time we were arrested here together and spent the day in the Kiryat Arba’ station; for once we had time to talk at leisure. Since then he has written a first novel, about to be published, and he has a good plot sketched out for his next one. I’d welcome the opportunity for another long talk, but today we have about ten guests from abroad with us, and we don’t want to get them into trouble. We decide we’ll wait to see the inevitable order declaring this field a Closed Military Zone—closed, that is, to Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, not to settlers—and then follow Khalid’s lead as best we can. If they arrest any of the Palestinians, of course, we will insist on being arrested with them.
Strangely, miraculously, the soldiers have arrived without the signed order. Of course they can phone back to headquarters and have one delivered. But for the moment, they adopt the superficial tones of reason (is it possible that even they are fed up with the settlers?). “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” We’re working, we answer, in the fields that belong to these people. “What do you mean by ‘belong’?” asks the officer in charge, a lean, young, rather soft-spoken man. It’s a good question; that something might actually “belong” to Palestinians is, perhaps, a novel idea in the south Hebron hills. Yes, I say, they own this field, and they have the kushans—the Ottoman land-registry documents—to prove it. The officer has never heard of a kushan, and we have to explain. He is not overtly hostile. He calls the Palestinian owners together and tells them, in Arabic: You say you have documents. Bring them tomorrow morning to such-and-such an office, and we’ll check into it. In the meantime, stop the work. He says it over and over, ten, twelve times. The Palestinians repeat their claim. Minutes pass, and an incongruous, unhappy intimacy seems to develop between the two parties thrown together on this rugged hill, the soldiers who serve the occupation—and the settlers—and these men from Samu’a who are trying desperately to survive with dignity and, against all odds, to reclaim their land.
Still no written order. Maybe, we joke among ourselves, the Mahat, the senior commander in the area, doesn’t want to defile the Shabbat by signing it. Maybe, Yehuda says, they’ve devised a new system, the “Sacrament of the Closed Military Zone”—the Mahat has only to pass his hand over the printed form and, with God’s help, it signs itself. In any case, the Palestinians are reluctant to leave without that formal piece of paper driving them away. It is humiliating to them, and besides, they are farmers who have touched again their ravished soil; they go back to the shovels, they scrape away more thorns, pry more boulders from the ground, and we work beside them in the sun, thirsty, waiting for some resolution. Time goes by. Finally, they tear themselves away, and we follow them uphill toward the road. I guess the karma of this field isn’t bad after all. For once, you could almost say, we won. In a reality recalcitrant as rock, today we cut loose a few small stones.
Of course, in the end they, and we, must lose, as Khalid bitterly says: Every time it’s like this, they say bring us the papers so we can examine them, then it drags on for months and we have no access to the field, and the rains come and go without sowing, and eventually we lose our claim. Israeli law cruelly says that a field that is not worked for three consecutive years reverts to state ownership. It also says that a field that is more than 50% rocks belongs to the state. There are, I assure you, still plenty of rocks on that hillside, though we made a dent.
Yet even minor victories count in the ongoing micro-struggle of south Hebron, where every well and plot of land and olive tree has to be fought for, held on to with all our might in the face of the settlers’ insatiable greed and the predatory system that nourishes and protects that greed. So it was a good enough morning, and for once no one got hurt or arrested, and they didn’t even manage to drive us away with their guns and bureaucratic forms. The fat white settler, perhaps slightly disgruntled, screams at our backs as we move away from Asahel. “You scum, you fools, you idiots, you whores, you wicked sinners, you will be going straight to Hell.” This is too much for me, so, against my usual rule, I turn back toward him and I shout: “It is you, and those like you, who have turned this place into a living hell.” He sputters and fumes. Zviya—a relatively new recruit to our ranks, a retired head-mistress with the decisiveness and authority and open heart that go with that role—says, walking beside me, “Don’t you have to die to go to hell?” Two weeks ago she saved a Palestinian sheep that soldiers tried to steal; she embraced the sheep, which was bleating in terror, and held on hard even when the soldiers hit her and tried to pry it out of her arms, until in the end they gave up and the sheep ran back to its herd. She’s made for Ta’ayush, anyone can see it. “You know,” I say to her, watching the dizzy hills offering themselves to the flames of the midday sun and the distant blue horizon dipping toward infinity, “I think that when we die we don’t actually go anywhere. I think we simply are not. Or maybe we become a clod of baked earth in some field like this one, and that’s just fine with me.” She laughs. “I want to be cremated when I die,” she says, “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.”
David Shulman is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an activist with Ta’ayush.