Saturday, January 28 2012 Umm al-Khair and Sadat al-Tha’ala

 A day in wet mud: cold, slippery, squeaky, clammy, squishy. Mud, they say, is the mother of all life. You sink into it as soon as you set foot in Umm al-Khair. In an instant your shoes are encrusted with dark brown slime that is upwardly mobile; soon your legs, pants, socks are caked with it as well, freezing layer pasted on layer. You slither and slip your way along. The freezing drizzle stops for a moment, I fold my umbrella, somehow it falls from my hand; I pick it up, gleaming with loam.

The hills are awash in welcome rain. For weeks now we have watched and guarded as the farmers sowed their seeds, and the seeds lay dry, perhaps dying, in the dusty soil. Just last week a grandmother in Umm al-Khair spoke of her despair. These people are poor—rock-bottom poor. If the crops fail, what will they feed the sheep and the goats? We could help make the plowing and sowing happen, could keep the settlers away, but we could only pray for the rain.

Now it has come in good time.

But the wet wind scrapes at your skin. On a day like this, a person needs a home.

We follow ‘Id through the mud to see the home the army destroyed on Wednesday. In the midst of the tents and shanties: a jagged pile of rocks, corrugated metal, wooden rafters or poles, shattered blocks of cement. We stand and study it in the rain.

We meet the owner, a tall and handsome widow who serves us tea in a makeshift shelter next door. She has nine orphaned children. I speak with her. Her eyes have the familiar look of aching incomprehension. “We don’t want trouble with anyone,” says her neighbor, a lively, smaller woman, “we just want to live.”

Everyone knows why the house was demolished. The enemies of Umm al-Khair are the settlers of Carmel, whose sturdy houses stand hardly thirty meters from this pile of ruins. And for some reason the Civil Administration takes special joy in targeting the rickety huts of the Bedouins of Umm al-Kheir. The soldiers come regularly with their bulldozers and their signed paper orders; someone, an officer, sitting in a heated office, has signed them.

 ‘Id: “First, on Tuesday, a man came to scout out the route for the bulldozer. But we weren’t sure. All the khirbehs around here have demolition orders on many buildings. We thought maybe they were going somewhere else. Then on Wednesday they came with the soldiers. We begged them. I took out whatever I could save, which wasn’t much. They pushed my father around. We were shocked. It only took them a few minutes to finish the job.”

More driving rain. When it lets up we start to clear the debris—heavy rocks to one side, smaller stones to the other. Picking through the ruins, we find a shoe, a soggy notebook. We work together, mostly in silence, under grey skies, and slowly the mound begins to shrink. After an hour, bedrock appears. For a moment, a wintry sun breaks through. We will rebuild this home. The soldiers will then come to demolish it again.

I know it’s pointless, but for the record let me say: No human mind can make sense of this destruction, unless sheer cruelty is a kind of sense.

Toward mid-day Ezra leads three of us—Sibylle, Monique, and me—on foot over the hills to Sadat al-Tha’ala. We sit around a smoking fire with four brothers from the ‘Awad family. Children, dressed in classic south Hebron hodge-podge style, layers of mismatched shirts and sweaters, hover behind the chairs they have set out for us. More tea. A hen is struggling to lay an egg, her birth-pains echoing through the bare room.

Al-Tha’ala is an old place, visible in the earliest reconnaissance maps made by the British almost a century ago. Recently, with help from abroad and the work of our volunteers, a basic infrastructure for electric power has been put in place. A lone television is plugged into a socket on the wall. “We’re human beings, we also deserve to have electricity.” Rain sweeps the shacks outside, drumming gently on tin roofs. Suddenly, the hen succeeds and, in loud staccato, shares her ecstasy with the world.

Like everyone else in south Hebron, these men have a story to tell. The settlement took away a large grove and part of their pasture grounds. But they’ve been luckier than Umm al-Kheir, which has Carmel breathing down its neck. Sometimes when the settlers come, the army chases them away. But when Ezra helped them pave their only access road with asphalt, the army fined them heavily for this infraction of the rules. I have no idea how they managed to pay the fine. They’re farmers, fellahin, unlike the Bedouin uphill.

 We take our leave and set off again over the rocks and mud. In the distance, near the Dead Sea, a wisp of sunlight splashes over sand, but here the hills are wet with cloud and rain and wind. Ezra tells me that once our friend ‘Ali from Tuba, a cousin of the al-Tha’ala ‘Awads, took him up to some spot like this where they could see the endless swirling of the hills into the desert, and ‘Ali said: “If someone came here from far away, he would ask himself how anyone could survive in this place—and why anyone would want to. But this is the only life we have.”

On the way back, we stop for a moment to examine the new buildings going up in Carmel. Three tractors are resting—today is Shabbat—across from the newest houses the settlers have built, all in standard Carmel style:  yellow lego-like cubes, with almost no windows (the few windows that do exist all face inward, ghetto-like, to the settlement, away from the dizzy hills and, of course, away from Umm al-Khair). Carmel is expanding, like all the other settlements in south Hebron. A lone soldier, armed, in a heavy blue coat, is standing guard.  “This place is off limits to anyone who doesn’t live here,” he explains.

“Really?” says Tamar. “By whose orders? You can’t just close some place at will. Would you close down the neighborhood where I live in Jerusalem?”

“This is different,” says the soldier, clearly baffled, out of his depth. “Only residents are allowed in. I have my orders. Who are you anyway?”

 Tamar, as is her wont, is quickly losing patience. “Do you know about the widow over there with her nine children whose house was demolished this week?”

  “I haven’t heard,” says the soldier, interested, for a moment, despite himself. “Is she Jewish?”