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It’s colder than I expected this Christmas morning in South Hebron. I shiver in the thin sunlight as ‘Id plows his field, immediately adjacent to the hothouses of Israeli Susya. The tractor chugs up and down the dry, un-rained-on soil, and there is someone behind it to broadcast the seeds in that ravishing, ancient gesture of the peasant farmer. A large fleet of army and police vehicles are here to watch, but for once they seem disinclined to intervene, to chase us away. We know our presence is critical for this hopeful moment of sowing, which is also an attempt to keep alive this family’s claim on its field, which would otherwise be swallowed up by the endless greed of the Susya settlers. Indeed, they’ve been trying to take it over for years.
Since for the moment things are quiet, Amiel sends Danny and me to pick up five Palestinian gentlemen from Yatta and to proceed to ‘Am al-Ara’is, in a shallow valley that cuts through the hilly ridge overlooking Bi’r al-‘Id. By South Hebron standards, the valley looks relatively fertile—not clogged with stones but covered with a gentle mauve-green fluff of weeds and thorns, rippling slightly in the wind. Until some ten years ago, people lived here; they were driven out along with the families from Bi’r al-‘Id and the other nearby khirbehs, though, like in Susya, they keep coming back to the fields in the hope of being able to plow them and sow them with seed– someday. Like everywhere else in South Hebron, these fields, too, have attracted the settlers: some months ago, settlers from the hideous hilltop outpost of Mitzpeh Yair simply fenced them off, and just three days ago yet another fence went up, taking still more of the land. That’s why we’re here. Actually, the plan is to take down the fence with our bare hands.
Any day in South Hebron offers a variety of possible scripts. It’s easy to read the whole experience as an endless, and rather tedious, morality play, with the settlers, and the soldiers and the police who back them up, cast in the all-too-obvious roles of villains. In fact, there’s no escaping such a view once you get to know the place. In the stark, shattering light of these hills, one sees at once who is innocent and who is guilty. But there are also days that unroll like an exotic theater of the absurd. There’s something crazy about the whole scene, and occasionally you encounter sun-struck, picaresque anti-heroes wandering through it. One of them turns up now at ‘Am al-Ara’is. He’s a settler, no doubt about that; his name is Yohanan Sharet, and he lives, not very comfortably, in Mitzpeh Yair, mentioned above. But the other settlers of the outpost hate him, and he clearly reciprocates this feeling. He’s a maverick; a German convert, son of a priest, carving out some private dominion, or acting out a dark, private fantasy, in these arid hills. He is the one who put up the latest fence on the Hushiyya family’s land.
Boasting a black cowboy hat, he strides down from the outpost to confront the group gathering around his fence. He is alone. If his relations with his co-settlers were good, by now we’d have had ten or twenty fanatics, in their white Shabbat clothes, hurling curses, or maybe rocks, at us and the Palestinians. But Yohanan is a little different. He is gaunt, weather-beaten, and very sure of himself and of the rightness of his cause. He is only too happy to explain it, mostly in German, to the five Palestinian gentlemen, the Israeli activists who have come to help them, and the soldiers who have also started to arrive on the spot. The soldiers, naturally, begin by taking away the Palestinians’ identity cards—a reflex which renders these men rather helpless. They won’t be able to go back to their present homes until the identity cards are returned.
Yohanan begins the “conversation” defiantly: “Do you have the right to be here at all?”
Jamil al-Hushiyya: “This is my field.”
Yohanan: “Prove to me that it’s yours.” This is standard settler-speak. In South Hebron, the burden of proof always rests on the one who has been robbed, not the thief.
Jamil (anger starting to burst out): “What do you mean? My grandfather owned and tilled this field, and my brother-in-law lived here until he was forced off the land.”
Yohanan: “Stop shouting. Stop interrupting me. If you won’t speak politely, I won’t talk to you any more.” He feels a burning need to teach these gentlemen the rules of decorum and civilized intercourse, and there is something in his sheer insouciance that, indeed, compels a grudging compliance. In the silence that settles in, he patiently explains: “I have been plowing this field for the last several years, and that means it is mine. The land belongs to whoever works it.”
By now a truly amazing caravan of military and police vehicles have descended upon us; among the several dozen soldiers is Moshe, a portly major in the Civil Administration, which is in charge of arbitrating claims such as these. He knows the case. He approaches Yohanan, and we overhear him say to him in a low voice: “You know this fence is illegal.” But make no mistake. This doesn’t mean the field will be restored to its rightful owner. All it means is that, on some abstract level, someone high up in the Civil Administration has recognized, in a fleeting and perhaps unrepeatable moment, this theoretical truth. You can be sure the case will drag on, probably for years, in the military courts, and you can be equally sure that Yohanan will go on happily plowing the field for all those years. He continues with his explanation, now entirely in German, since he has discovered that some of us understand:
“Let’s imagine that we’re in Germany. And you have a field. But you’re not working the field. You have other things on your mind. So your neighbor comes along and begins to plow and sow, and you don’t mind, and it goes on like this for years, say ten years. After ten years, the German courts and German law will say: ‘This field is yours.’ That’s the principle that’s working here.” I have to say that transplanting the discussion to Germany is no more helpful than transplanting Yohanan to South Hebron has been, though in his mind, at least, everything is lucid, orderly, and right: alles klar. Our Palestinian friends have been reduced to disgruntled speechlessness, although it seems they are also used to this topsy-turvy world; the wonder is that, through it all, they carry themselves with such natural dignity; they are clearly not cowed by the soldiers or, indeed, the lunatic logic of the system that has made off with their valley.
Someone protests. The land is Palestinian land. Yohanan takes this in stride. “Palestinians,” he says with slow, suave confidence, like a professor in a course for benighted beginners, “are entirely an invention of the British.” They look pretty real to me, at least as real as the thorns and grasses of the valley or the sweep of desert beyond the ridge, but our picaro can apparently see right through the impoverished surface of our ordinary vision. He makes a concession: “I don’t deny that the situation is complex. Very complex. Very very complex.” I don’t remember, to be honest, how many “very’s” roll off his tongue. The sentence seems to go on for a very very long time, especially since he has this agonizingly slow delivery, and he also repeats it for good measure. “The other problem,” he continues, “is that the Jordanians, when they were here, closed the land registry for all of Judea and Samaria and hid it somewhere in Amman, and we don’t know where it is. So there’s no way to adjudicate a claim to a piece of land except by the criterion I have established, namely, that of working the field.”
It’s a bit like the Prolegomenon to the Critique of Pure Reason: irresistible, really, any thinking person must agree, except that somehow, standing there by the fence in the winter sun, which has finally warmed up enough to make me thirsty and impatient, I am simultaneously bemused and dizzy with a furious dry rage. We’re all playing our parts to perfection—the bored soldiers, still holding on to the identity cards; the senior officer from the Civil Administration, whose job is to keep the play going, to maintain the illusion; the policemen, fussing with their papers; the Palestinians, still somewhat hopeful, I think, that somehow or other the system will work for them, despite all previous experience; the enlightened cowboy behind his fence, happy to have a captive audience; the Ta’ayush activists (Amiel and the others have finished in Susya and come to reinforce us here), driven by a strange, somewhat cynical innocence, true believers that the human soul can, with perseverance, be reformed; Nissim, doggedly filming every word, so that this performance will live on, so that you, too, dear reader, will be able to watch it soon on Youtube. The text has, I suppose, a certain weird charm, though its true power derives from the rocks and light and thorns. I must confess: my fingers are itching to attack the fence, to rip the stakes from the ground. But there’s no way this can happen now: the soldiers and the police are there to prevent it, and the only comfort is that we’ve done what we came to do, as Amiel explains to the group. The law is that if someone puts up a fence on your property and you don’t take it down within thirty days, you have to go to court to assert your claim on the property. But the fact that Jamil and the Yatta contingent came here with us today to protest, to stake their claim, and that we have all of this on video, will be enough to make the case in court—at least that. It’s the most we can hope for at this point.
Two good friends are with us today, Ian Buruma and Joel Beinin, and as we begin to move toward Bi’r al-‘Id and our next assignment, we speak of the real and the surreal and their inextricable mad mingling. Something in this landscape, Ian says, and I agree, is conducive to madness: “Isn’t this where the prophets appeared?” In a way, I think, it’s all too familiar, like so much that is mad, an intimate part of the self, if we have such a thing at all—one might wonder in the overwhelming luminosity pouring off the stones on this hill. We still have a well to clean and a wall of stones to build. The well has been blocked by a huge boulder, the kind that my grandfather could no doubt have rolled off the well by himself but that takes Hajj Isma’il and Ziyad and Muhammad several hours, with tractor and cables, to extract. Who put the rock there? Not the army, they say. Settlers, probably, or maybe someone else who lived here long ago. Who can say? And who can promise them that once we’ve cleaned the well and rendered it usable again, the settlers won’t come and take it for themselves, or stop it up with another big stone?
But that’s no reason not to clean it, for now, an intrinsically worthy, sensible act that anyone can understand. And the line of heavy rocks we put in place, and the shallow ditch we dig before it in the incredibly resistant, caked soil, are to force rain-water to flow down toward and maybe into the well—if it ever rains again. A hopeful thing to do in a mad world. Hope, like friendship, is its own reward, in itself a marvelous and unpredictable gain, enough, perhaps, for one day.