Saturday, August 6 2011 Al-Ganub and Al-Sa’ir – By David Shulman

I knew it was a mistake as soon as I said it.

I was apologizing to Russil—an activist guest from abroad, first time in south Hebron—about the relatively placid hours we’d spent here in Ganub. I thought she’d like to see some action, the standard Ta’ayush fare. Maybe it was even a little boring? “Boring?” says one of the Palestinians. “You know,” I say, teasing him, “no settlers, no police, no soldiers….” “This is how we like it,” he says, and I have to agree. We’ve had long hours talking quietly in the shade with new friends.

Hardly are the words out of my mouth than the first jeep of soldiers comes crawling down the road.

We came to help them fix the road, which is full of potholes, rocks, and bumps. But they didn’t really need us to do the work. Heavy dump-trucks unloaded piles of gravel and sand, and eventually, around noon, a yellow tractor turned up to roll these piles over the road and press them into the hard surface and smooth it all down. It was a struggle to get the tractor to come, since the owner was afraid that if something went wrong and the army showed up, the soldiers would confiscate the priceless tractor. Husain persuaded the owner to take the risk and stood surety for the tractor’s safe return.

It’s Ramadan, and our hosts are fasting. They keep telling us that we can drink and eat, that we must drink in this heat, and mid-morning they bring us hot sweet tea that I don’t really want to consume. “If you’re fasting,” I say to Muhammad, “I’m fasting with you,” but he brusquely refuses even to consider this gesture of solidarity: I have to drink the tea. It is all we can do to dissuade them from preparing us a huge midday meal. We promise to come back for the festival, ‘Id, when the month of fasting ends.

They are tough, weather-beaten farmers and shepherds, most of them from the village of Sa’ir, which means “Blazing Fire” or even “Hellfire”—a strange name for a village, which they explain by telling us that long ago this was a wild region, infested by bandits who preyed on the caravans moving between Syria and the Hijaz. Their more recent story is the usual one in the territories. First they lost thousands of dunams to the settlements of Metzad and Asfar, beginning in the early 80’s. Then they suffered through the years of indignity: the time settlers set fire to two houses, thus burning up the thousands of Jordanian dinars that were kept there; the sight of an ancient well that has been made into a settlers’ swimming pool; the periodic attacks and insults, an endless epic of injustice. Still, I think to myself, listening to Muhammad, with his deep, deliberate voice, that by South Hebron standards they’ve got off not so badly. No one killed. They also had one unusual success in the courts, which forced the dismissal of the last security officer in the nearby settlement, a very violent man by their account. But these are people who know about racism, and the bitter word, ‘unsuriya, comes readily off their tongues:  “Are we not, you and I, both creatures born after nine months? So why do they have water and electricity and we have none? We were born here, in the caves on these hills, but they came from outside and told us, ‘Go away, you don’t belong here.’ Who are they to tell me I don’t belong? Still, the settlers know they are doing wrong. I go out on the hills with my sheep, I put my head down to sleep wherever I like, I’m not afraid, but they build fences around themselves, and watchtowers, and they bring watchdogs and guns to protect themselves. It is the criminal who is afraid.”

He offers something like a proverb. “There is the person who sees you in pain and who feels your pain with you, and there is the person who sees you burning and adds wood to the fire.” So one thing, at least, I can say about myself and about every one of the volunteers who came down today. We feel the pain. In fact, my whole body aches with it, a sharp hurt that sits inside me, waits for me when I wake, taunts me day by day. Why have I not done more?

Muhammad has two wives. He wanted to build a small room for the second wife, maybe with a bathroom, attached to his home, but the Civil Administration, of course, wouldn’t let him do it. Racism again.

Many of the men have spent long years in Israeli prisons. Here is Husain, first arrested at the age of 17, imprisoned for 14 years: “I was a soldier fighting for the land. Now I’ve changed. Today I’m a soldier for peace. I believe we will reach peace and a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. It’s an honest hope, and I have earned the right to feel hope.”

Again and again they tell us: “We don’t want you to work today, it is enough that you are here with us.” But maybe we can after all be of use. Just two weeks ago settlers fenced off—stole– another large field that belongs to these families and have already plowed it. I think we’ll get it back.

Now, just when it seems the day is ending, as the tractor advances to the other side of the ridge and can no longer be seen, and I am joking about boredom, just now the soldiers come.

They head straight for the tractor with us right beside them, recording this foolishness, one more among the thousands that always follow the same dark logic. We quickly realize that a heinous crime has been committed:  Palestinians have had the temerity to work on a winding, bumpy dirt road that runs on their own land—without asking permission. How dare they? So the soldiers have come to stop them and make them pay. The tractor driver is clearly scared. They take away his identity card, they threaten him, they call their superiors on their cellphones. We wait. After a while they tell him to get into the tractor and drive away, fast.

So the first, acute danger has passed. They didn’t arrest him and didn’t impound the tractor. Relief. But by now more soldiers are flooding in through the trees, a steady stream; six vehicles pull up, senior officers get out, and then two police vans arrive, a bad sign. They take Husain’s identity card, and Danny’s and Dolev’s. Stating the obvious, a tall lieutenant from the Civil Administration says to Husain: “You can’t just decide to fix this road.”

“But it’s our own road, on our land, we can prove it to you, even your own courts have acknowledged this.”

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t care, but you didn’t ask for a permit.”

“And would you have given me a permit? Look, arrest me if you want. I’m not afraid, and I’ll take responsibility for what we did.”

“I don’t need to arrest you. I’ll call you in the morning. Meanwhile, don’t touch the road. Leave everything as it is.”

“But we brought these piles of gravel, and now the road is blocked, and we need to use it.”

“Don’t touch them. I will call you in the morning and we’ll straighten it all out.”

He says it maybe six times. Tomorrow he will telephone—a mild threat. Who knows what they’ll think up by then? But he’s a reasonable man. He’s also part of the system, and the system tells him that you have to show them who’s in control. Anyone can see what will happen if you let them fix their own road on their own initiative. The next thing you know, there will be suicide bombers in the cities, and then missiles from Lebanon and Syria, and probably a catastrophic war, the end of the State of Israel, the final demise of the Jewish people, the Jewish God will have a bad day, and all this because of one dusty road and three heaps of gravel that the tractor didn’t have time to spread out evenly. If you allow them even an infinitesimal taste of freedom, the whole fabric of your life will unravel. They live at your discretion, and they must learn this time after time.

Anyway, that’s how I try to explain it to Russil, who’s a bit shocked at this sudden massive invasion. But actually I think it’s something much deeper that’s happening, something resistant to normal thought. We could maybe explain it by the basic fact of the land grab, the settlement enterprise that determines everything the army does in the territories and requires dispossession and harassment of Palestinians whenever possible. But beyond that is the cruel and autonomous operation of a lunatic system with its endless rules and whims by which a man like our lieutenant can live his life even, or especially, if they make no sense. Lunacy is remorseless; it must play itself out in recurrent mini-dramas like this one, a seemingly trivial case in which everyone, including us, must memorize their lines and play their part.

As so often before, I contemplate the rampant madness with its ironic intimacies. Just look at it—the soldiers, black machine guns, camouflage helmets, heavy ammunition belts, combat boots; the policemen with their nametags and their air of weary impatience; the Palestinians milling aimlessly around, all too familiar with such moments; the Ta’ayush activists, filming furiously; the afternoon sun baking all of us; the disembodied words that the soldiers speak, words with no evident meaning except to hurt and to claim power, words meant to drive you mad. And meanwhile the white gravel lies roasting on the unfinished road, and on the hill in the distance shepherds are grazing their black goats, you see them trickling down over the burning rocks like flecks of ebony, the loveliest sight I’ve ever seen.

The thing is, the absurdity actually feels real and utterly compelling, in fact more real in its craziness than the rather orderly life that I live in Jerusalem, a life, like all Israeli lives, entirely rooted in the Occupation, that is, in the absurd and the surreal and the arbitrary and the malicious, all of which you can see so clearly here in al-Ganub, with the help of the soldiers, so that in the end I am no longer sure which of these two realities is the more ridiculous.

After an hour, maybe more, the soldiers leave, except for one jeep that is supposed to watch us from the distance. But what about the road, still blocked by three piles of sand and gravel? We clear them away with buckets and shovels and our bare hands and our feet, and as always, these minutes of simple physical labor are the best moments of my day, and then the soldiers come back because we have done what they expressly forbade us to do, we have touched the road. And again there are threats, and by now the Palestinians are angry, but we have more or less flattened out the piles so that cars can pass again, and after much going back and forth between the soldiers and our friends it is agreed that the army will go and we will go and no one will be arrested today. We take our leave from Husain and Muhammad and ‘Abd al-Rahim and the others, we thank them, we promise to return.

Still, they’re unhappy because they haven’t fed us, though they’re still some hours away from breaking their fast, so before we go they rush into the almond grove and poke at the trees so that the green almonds fall to the ground. They are huge, and actually not only green but also a subtle pink-purple-brown, like gradations of peach or mango, with the hard shell of the nut inside this outer casing. The farmers gather them up in a bucket that they bring to our minibus, and one man has folded some almonds into his shirt and shakes them out, dozens of them, on the front seat beside Yihya the driver, and that is how we drive away in the sunlight—awash in almonds.