Friday, June 22 2012 Demonstration in Susiya – by David Shulman

I doubt if Palestinian Susya has ever seen so many people. Some 500, maybe more, have arrived from Jerusalem (including a large Palestinian delegation from East Jerusalem), Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva, and various sites in the occupied territories:  Beit Umar, Mufagara, and the khirbehs close to Susya. It’s a mixed Palestinian-Israel crowd. I see many veterans of the early years of Ta’ayush, some of them returning to Susya after a long time. We know the Susya people well:  we have stood by them in the face of many violent attacks by settlers and soldiers, celebrated weddings and births with them, accompanied them to their grazing grounds, fought the legal battle with them, installed wind-turbines in the village and the surrounding khirbehs, plowed and harvested in the fields, ate and slept in their tents. Today they are serious, even grim, and with good reason:  two weeks ago the Civil Administration sent its inspectors to distribute demolition orders covering nearly the entire village, its tents, ramshackle huts, animal pens, the wind turbine, the cultural center—everything. If the bulldozers arrive next week or the week after, it will be the fourth large-scale expulsion of these people from their lands. If you add the partial expulsions over the last ten years, this will be at least the sixth or seventh.

Today there are no speeches; there is no need to retell the story. It is late morning, the summer sun a dusty fire, the hills parched yellow, gold and white. We hit the ground running. Within a few minutes, as the buses disgorge their passengers, we are marching with the Susyans toward the archaeological park that was once the original village, where many lived in caves. They were driven out of it in 1986, three years after the Israeli settlement of Susya was established over the hill. Today they are heading home.

We ascend through the village escarpment, turn left over the rocky slopes. A strange, focused solemnity takes hold, mixed with pride, despair, a trace of joy. They are going home. We all know, of course, that the army will never let us reach that goal, but there is something right and true about expressing it directly, mapping it, with our feet. Can a person forget a first home? The women of Susya are conspicuous today, often leading the marchers. Children wave flags. A contingent of clowns has arrived, in full costume—a memory of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations. We pass close to one of the old wells—off bounds to the Susya people for years, under threat of being shot—and weave our way rapidly through the thorns toward the heavy green metal gate at the entrance to the archaeological site.

The first stun grenades go off. They seem to come in volleys, an announcement by the army that they won’t let us go any farther. One explodes beside Eyal, deafening him, for now, in one ear. We mostly ignore them. Soon they are followed by minor rounds of tear gas. It takes a minute or two before I feel the slight burning in my eyes and throat; I watch the white trails of smoke rise and dissipate in the blue sky. I’ve stupidly forgotten to bring along an onion, the only effective antidote to tear gas; fortunately, the soldiers seem not too eager to saturate us with gas at this point. The real threat comes from the Bo’esh—the Skunk, the army’s Doomsday Weapon, which sprays an unbearable stench into a crowd, effectively paralyzing it. I’ve never experienced it directly, but I’ve heard about the misery it inflicts; the stench sinks into your pores and clothes and stays there for days. People vomit for hours. The Bo’esh sits atop a long white military vehicle, with a movable turret that has a way of seeking out targets, swerving from side to side, up and down. It’s a little scary when it fixes its sights on you. It’s also maddeningly impersonal, an infernal machine that lacks a human face; you can’t see the driver or the gunner or the officer who will give the order to open fire.

A Palestinian man walking beside me laughs. “Let them spray me,” he says. “It’s only right. It’s a stinking Occupation.” He’s not afraid. A few more stun grenades go off. By now the soldiers have formed a long line, a human wall, to keep us from advancing. They’re a mix of Border Police and reservists; all of them are sweating heavily in the sun under their inevitable load of lethal metal, loaded guns, helmets, ammunition belt, boots, vest, the standard getup designed to maximize misery. 

But they seem unsure of themselves. They make an attempt to arrest one of the marchers. I can’t see it, but I see the thick circle that forms around them—the soldiers and their intended victim—and that swirls and bends and gyrates in intimate struggle. Usually, in my experience, at such moments the soldiers manage to extricate themselves and make off with their prey, but today it doesn’t work; the marcher is released, and the soldiers retreat, jeered by the crowd. There’s something different in the air.

A stand-off: for the next two hours we stand in the sun, face to face with the soldiers, as the Skunk maneuvers itself into position and plays with its potential targets. At moments I think there will be violence from these soldiers, the standard denouement, the army’s default. Meanwhile, Palestinian women are singing and dancing, defiant, within inches of the soldiers’ guns. Maybe this has some effect. And the clowns, too, go into action. I watch as one of them approaches the line of soldiers, kneels to open an ancient, weather-beaten suitcase he is carrying, slowly extracts a long peacock’s feather. He rises, his red nose bobbing in the wind. He is cooing and cackling and bubbling, a delicious mix of nonsense sounds that seem to demand a reply from the hapless soldiers he has chosen as his partners in this game. He polishes the muzzle of a machine-gun with his feather, then– still burbling and chattering without pause—uses it to tickle the soldier’s nostrils, ears, and eyes. In this happy mode, improvising continually, more and more outrageous in his intimacies, he makes his way along the line. A couple of the soldiers seem only too ready to play along.

If you lift, even for a moment, the grisly illusion of earnestness that soldiers are forced, by their very impotence, to maintain, the absurdity of the whole thing shines through. What are they doing here, anyway, standing on the stolen lands of Susya, broiled and charred by the Susya sun, staggering under the weight they have to carry? They must be thirsty and, I imagine, bored. I think, in general, remembering my own experience when I wore the costume, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a soldier and nothing more daffy or demented than following pointless orders even to the point of death, as soldiers are sworn to do—as if it made sense, just for example, to keep the Susyans away from their wells and their homes, or to drive them into the desert after the bulldozers have knocked down their tattered tents, or any of the other cruelties these same soldiers might soon be called upon to carry out. Then again, I suppose there is a certain sense, if sheer malevolence deserves such a name. But I don’t think the bewildered, heat-struck soldiers standing here before me are themselves driven by the wish to hurt. They are trapped by the system they have chosen to be part of, unable or unwilling to free themselves from its foolishness; some of them may almost be aware of their pitiable state. Nothing is ever so true as the truth revealed by a clown.

Around 1:00 the wind rises. It blows the hat off my head; it teases and promises relief while a veil of clouds briefly hides the sun, deepening the brown of the hills. Maybe the wind, in its inconstancy, is our truest ally, since it is probably strong enough to make the officers think twice, or thrice, about unleashing the Skunk:  there’s a strong likelihood the stench will rebound on them. One way or another, the two sides appear to achieve an unspoken conclusion. Enough for now. The protest—far stronger in numbers and energy than the authorities could have expected—has made its point.

The danger to Susya remains as ominous as before. Destruction can take place at any moment. The bulldozers are ready, the soldiers will resume their earnest pose, and the greed and hatred that fuel the whole system have certainly not abated in the least. What reason, then, do we have to believe that Susya will survive? No reason, apart from the tenacity of those who live there and the tiny infusions of help and hope that we can give them.