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For once, a quiet day in South Hebron. No settler attacks, no Closed Military Zone, no overt violence—only the background hum of a violent machine running through its familiar rhythms. The soldiers came and went without causing any particular harm; even Ezra said, “They’ve never been so nice to me!”—this after they stopped and searched him repeatedly on the road. We were able to work unhindered, so we opened a long, winding water channel and bordered it with heavy rocks and now, if the rain comes mid-week as they say it will, the water will flow downhill directly into the still usable cistern. Then we worked through the thirsty afternoon at Bi’r al-‘Id, fixing the road, hot, heavy, physical work with spades and picks and buckets. A good day. I ache all over, not only metaphysically.
The water channel runs right under the large military base west of Susya. These lands are thus largely inaccessible to their Palestinian owners, such as Jaber, who guided us today as he worked patiently on the critical point where the water enters the cistern and on the ground surrounding it. He widened the entrance to the cistern; every time his hammer hit the rock, you could hear a dull hollow echo, as if the hill itself were slowly rousing itself for its winter tasks on this hot winter day, sunny and windless and dry. Jaber is a taciturn man, weather-beaten like all the farmers in south Hebron and, I think, wary of the future, rightly afraid he’ll lose the land that is his. He liked the way we fixed the channel. Maybe, who knows, he had a fleeting moment of hope.
The senior commander from the Civil Administration turned up to inspect us, together with thirteen bored, awkward soldiers. He’s the same guy I met at Avigayil last month– easy-going, fluent in Arabic, all charm and good nature; the one who put an end to the Jibrin family’s plowing that day. He’s done it again this morning, when the Jibrin farmers attempted once more to plow near the ugly outpost. In fact, this pattern is now well established. They manage to plow for a few minutes, the settlers come out, then the army arrives, and the cheerful man from the Civil Administration plays his inevitable role. The courts have confirmed that the land belongs to the Jibrin, but they only manage to plow it bit by bit, stolen moments before the machine stirs, an ungainly beast, and drives them away. Still, by now they’ve covered a rather large portion of their birthright, patiently coming back day after day for short bursts of work before the settlers descend upon them, and maybe, if it rains, the seeds will sprout and grow: these are not so minor victories over the Occupation, like our water channel and the road at Bi’r al-‘Id.
I suppose we should be grateful. You get used to the whole lunatic business. It even begins to seem normal, the normalcy of the Pax Israelica in the territories. That is: you become habituated to a world dominated by outright theft and all that derives from this single, organizing principle. The land is slipping away—some people say 42% of the West Bank have already been de facto annexed to Israel. What’s left? Here and there a well, a plowed field, a still living olive tree.
All through the day I kept wondering what I was feeling, aside from thirsty. There was the unfailing ecstasy of the earth’s beauty, nowhere more visible than in the south Hebron hills, especially in the late afternoon when the hills turn purple, almost translucent. There’s no way to describe it. Such beauty often makes me restless; I can’t contain it, and I can’t quite contain the incongruity, either: I still don’t understand how human cruelty can unfold against such a backdrop, how our greed can overpower even the generosity of earth and sun. It’s been that way ever since I started coming here over a decade ago. Maybe I come because it’s incongruous, because the dissonance at least feels real. If you live in a world where the lie rules all public space, a world of Netanyahus, you develop a hunger for each tiny fragment of truth. It helps a little to pave a road or clean a cistern. Something true at last.
But a brittle, doomed feeling has been dogging me since I got back from abroad, and not even touching the brown, caked soil, which normally heals most psychic pain, could lift my spirits. A friend said to me last week: “Your grandchildren will not be living here.” On Friday some three hundred of us went to Anatot, north of Jerusalem, to protest the savage attacks six weeks ago by the Anatot settlers on our activists and on Yassin Abu Saleh al-Rifa’i, who owns land within the settlement. At that time the police stood idly by and let the violence unfold. On Friday they channeled us into a large pen outside the settlement, and for an hour we shouted our rage into the desert sky, at the clouds and birds. The birds showed no signs of interest, the clouds shed no tears, the settlers didn’t bother to come out, and the dozens of border policemen who were standing by paid no attention. The press, too, was mostly silent. Protest like this is actually, in its own way, part of the Occupation system, indeed perhaps necessary for its smooth functioning.
Until the day comes when it breaks down.
Meanwhile, what is clearly breaking down is Israeli democracy. Each week sees new anti-democratic, sometimes racist laws passed by the Knesset, with Netanyahu actively fostering this attack on basic liberties. Why mince words? This is Fascism, still masked as parliamentary process. So now, most recently, they’ve passed a law severely curtailing the funding of Israeli human-rights organizations by foreign donors, including foreign governments who are sympathetic to the peace groups here. Human rights are subversive¸ an obvious threat to the regime. One right-wing Knesset member, Danny Danon, has announced that the so-called radical left—that is, in his eyes, people like me—are a cancer that must be burned away. They’re working at it. Most menacing of all is a new bill that will allow the right (in fact, the extreme right) to control the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court. Even given the shameful record of the Israeli courts over the last 44 years of the Occupation, the Supreme Court was still one of the few remaining bastions of civil liberties in Israel. One immediate consequence of the new legislation is that Judge Noam Sohlberg will likely be appointed to the High Court. He’s the man who acquitted the policeman who killed, actually in my view murdered, my friend, Samir Dari from Isawiyya (even though even Sohlberg acknowledged that Samir was walking away from the policeman and constituted no threat to him). Samir was shot in the back, as the autopsy showed. Of all the new laws, this one tampering with the courts is the most menacing—possibly a watershed in Israeli history. But this is only the beginning.
Occasionally, in the thickening darkness, there is a brief flash of light, however ineffectual. This afternoon six Palestinians boarded an Egged bus in the territories—a bus that serves (only) settlers and soldiers. They were modeling themselves after Rosa Parks. One can dither about whether the term “apartheid” is appropriate for the reality of the Occupation; I’m prepared to agree that, technically, it’s not, if you want to reserve the term for the whole system of passbooks and severe segregation and blatantly racist laws of South Africa before the change. But can Palestinians get on an Israeli bus passing their homes in the West Bank? Can Palestinian drivers use the roads built for settlers and settlers only? Can Palestinians get a permit to add a room to their house if it’s in Area C, or even to put up a tent or an outhouse? Can they graze their sheep on their own lands without being driven off at gunpoint by settlers or soldiers or both? Can they put down a gravel road that traverses their fields without the Civil Administration stopping the work and impounding their tractors? Do they enjoy even the most minimal of civil liberties? Do they have legal recourse in the not uncommon event that they are suddenly stripped of their land, their possessions, and their freedom? The six freedom riders of today were, needless to say, arrested and taken off the bus.