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By David Shulman
It never, and I mean never, rains in the south Hebron hills in June. Days are counted on a simple 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. It’s no storm, but still a kind of miracle. I put it down to Obama’s visit to Cairo this week and to his speech which—probably for the first time in decades from an American president—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 don’t know if he’s determined enough to force the change. I hope so. On the ground, in Palestine, needless to say, there’s been no change.
We 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 Ezra’s 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 on to its wheels. The settlers also stole Jesse’s 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. But 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 21st. The order is illegal—the 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 army’s own legal advisor adopted this ruling as binding and issued orders to that effect. But out here in the hills, the Court’s writ has little purchase. The local commander does what he sees fit, and you can’t do much about it—except defy his order and get arrested, as we often do. But today we have other business ahead of us. The grapes of Khirbet Safa will wither on the vine.
On to Susya, to Nassir Nawajeh and his family and the other seventy or so Palestinian shepherds hanging on to what’s left of their lands in their tents and shacks perched on the dry escarpment across from the Israeli settlement of Susya—another cruel and toxic site. Here, at Susya, there’s a new “illegal outpost”—that’s 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 reclaim, for a brief, heady moment, the Haraini family’s well, stolen by the settlers, the soldiers chased us off with the inevitable CMZ order. There’s no doubt they’ll repeat this maneuver today. Here’s the plan. Once again the Combatants for Peace are here in force, maybe a hundred of them, a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians slowly being welded into a single force. It’s their initiative. We’re going to climb that hill again, right through the Special Security Zone the settlers have declared (illegally) with the army’s support, and we’re going to erect a Palestinian “counter-outpost” right there on the Nawajeh and Haraini family lands. We don’t expect our outpost to survive more than a few minutes (the settlers’ outposts always turn into permanent settlements). But there’s the principle involved, and the necessary protest, and the symbolic gesture of defiance, and the potential visibility of all the above. If we’re lucky, a video clip of our adventure will be shown tonight on the evening news. Everyone in Israel watches the 8:00 news on Channel 2.
The pre-fab structure we’re going to put up. It’s a bona fide succah, one of the little “booths” the 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 color 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. It’s very hot. I’m not feeling very well—I’ve been sick for some weeks with a parasite infection—but I’m 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 he’s climbing beside me without complaint. My colleague David Loy, philosopher of Buddhism from Xavier University, in south Hebron for the first time, smiles at me: “I haven’t had so much fun since the 60’s!” We pass the well—last month’s goal—and 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 succah up and standing. The nice thing about these modern ones is that they’re quick and easy to assemble. First the poles go up; then we need the cloth panels—but 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 there’s 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 they’re 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 Nawajeh seems to be unable to believe his eyes, he is back on his land, and the fierce sun is beating down on us and I’m thirsty and bemused and elated and a little distant and discordant all at the same time.
It’s one of those moments—a longish one, by our standards. The succah, amazingly, is still intact, for all the soldiers’ barking and snapping. It’s a sight I’ll 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 we’re 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 succah 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 succah 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 you’ve 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 you’ve helped them do it. It’s totally crazy. They have no right to be here, and you know it.” He looks at me—not quite angry; it seems something has unnerved him. Was it Ofra’s 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, “you’ll be ordered to come back here to demolish the outpost, and a year after that you’ll be sent to demolish the whole cursed Susya settlement.” He looks me in the eyes. “I’ll do it,” he says.
There it is again, that odd happiness that courses through me at such moments. I’m introduced to Joshua Cohen, a political philosopher visiting from Stanford. I try to define this by now familiar feeling. I tell him I’ve been reading Kant on freedom, and I think Kant knew the feeling, too. “You mean,” he asks, “because of the spontaneity he writes about.” Yes, I say, that’s exactly it; there are the moments like this when spontaneity strikes, and a person might feel free, immensely and genuinely free, though the feeling may not last more than a few minutes. It has nothing to do with some abstract, universal notion of the moral. It’s entirely contingent, and all the better for that. He nods; I can see he knows what I mean. While we’re having this little conversation about freedom, 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 man’s only crime was to be himself. But then, what use is it to knock down a succah of peace if you don’t make an arrest?
Occasionally, even a symbolic gesture of defiance can do the work. I think of Martin Luther King’s principle: always you 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 him—for no apparent reason. They put their prisoner in their van and head north toward the police lock-up in Kiryat Arba’. Probably they’re angry that today we got under the soldiers’ skin, and for a split second they weren’t sure what to do, or maybe even what was right. It’s 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 he’ll 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. No one said it was going to be easy.