10 AM. A dusty blue tractor, idle at the edge of the field. Some twenty soldiers, including many officers and a Druze super-officer from the Civil Administration. Six army vehicles plus the big police van. A dozen settlers or so, held at bay by the soldiers. Fifteen Palestinians of the ‘Awad and Jabareen families, whose land we are standing on. Sa’id ‘Awad, restrained, dignified, is their spokesman today. Children—like Latif, in school in Yata, and Sara, in a long brown coat and pink boots and a knitted scarf for the winter — watch silently as the grown-ups fuss and argue. Approximately 12,000,000 rocks of various shapes and sizes. 10,000,000 thorns. A wind, constant, gentle, and wild. Heavy white clouds, and occasionally a short explosion of sun. In the distance, the endless sprawl of Yata and the yawning brown-blue hills. One half-plowed field. Tiny magenta blossoms of carmelit miraculously pushing their way into the world beside the stones. Ten or twelve Ta’ayush volunteers. The rustle of maps: the Druze officer is pointing at black lines here or there as Sa’id and the tractor driver and other ‘Awads and Jabareens are volubly arguing their case to him: this land is ours, we have proved it before, the courts are with us, why won’t you let us plow it, and so on, the gushing litany of dispossession, all too familiar to us, we have heard it from many mouths over many years. The Druze officer promises that within a day or two, anyway during the week, there will be a binding legal decision, qarar qanuni, he will be in touch. But no plowing today, of course. His manner is friendly, nothing like the surly heaviness of his predecessor, whom we knew well. They want to take him at his word.
Sa’id comes over to Amiel and me and says: What shall we do? Shall we give him a chance? Amiel says, It’s your decision, we’ll back you up no matter what. But, says Sa’id, you have come down here to help us, you have experience, does it make sense for us to leave today like they want us to, like we had to last week and the week before? Amiel: Yes, it makes sense if that’s what you want to do. Sa’id: He seems serious, let’s see if he comes through.
Suddenly one of the settlers takes off, running hard over the hill, waving his rifle, and we soon see why: there’s another tractor chugging in our direction. The settler no doubt intends to drive it and the driver off at gunpoint. If there’s one thing these settlers can’t stand, it’s when a Palestinian plows his field. The soldiers hurry awkwardly in the wake of the settler, looping and stumbling through the field, their gear bouncing on their backs, and in the end they position themselves between the settler and the tractor, which comes to an untimely halt, like the first one. There will be no more plowing today.
— Yesterday a rocket fell in the area of Gush Etzion, apparently near a Palestinian village—some 20 kilometers from Jerusalem. For the first time since the Gulf War, we heard sirens in Jerusalem, just as Shabbat was coming in. According to Li, who spent the morning in Umm al-Amad with teenage Palestinian shepherds, these boys think that so far the war is an even draw: Israel has bombed Gaza, and the Hamas has managed to deliver missiles to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The shepherds are cheered by this. But wait, Li says, I live in Jerusalem, that missile could have hit me! No way, say the shepherds, Allah directs them personally so they hit only bad people, never the good.
It is day 4 of what the army is calling the Pillar of Cloud, that is, Israel’s new war on Gaza, better named Bibi’s War of Re-election, since that is what it is before all else. Gaza is Israel’s punching bag, and the Hamas is always ready and able to provide an excuse for Israel to deliver another punch; often the excuse evolves in the course of ongoing exchanges, the deadly conversation the two sides like to conduct. But given the stubborn refusal of the Israel government to take even the tiniest step toward peace—or rather, given Netanyahu’s abhorrence of the very idea of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians—this new episode in Gaza is meaningless and essentially trivial, except to the highly non-trivial human beings who have already been or will be its victims.
— I walk with Guy in the direction of Susya, a long happy trek over the hills. It’s a perfect day, not hot, not cold, with only a hint of incipient winter. I’ve been away, and unwell , so I ask him what’s new in South Hebron. He runs through the list. There are the demolitions and planned expulsions connected to the army’s declaration of a “Fire Zone,” a training area. The mosque at Mufagara is apparently about to be demolished, all attempts to save it have failed. At Susya there are still demolition orders hanging over the entire village, but the matter is still in the courts, which is good—every day that passes is a day gained. At some point the court will pronounce, and we will have to deal with that judgment. So things aren’t great, obviously, but, Guy says, there’s a vast difference between South Hebron and the situation elsewhere in the West Bank, where there’s a dearth of activists. There disasters happen regularly. In South Hebron, we’ve made a difference.
It’s a long-term struggle, I say. I recall the early days of Ta’ayush, when hundreds of activists would come down to confront the settlers and the soldiers. Guy asks: Where did they go? Where are they today? Burned out, I say, by despair. Sylvana and Piedro, from the Italian Operation Dove, now living in Twaneh, tell me they’re amazed at what we do here routinely, week after week. Yes, I say, but there are so few of us left, and how effective can we be? Sylvana: “It’s the drops that make the difference.”
— Past Susya, right under the big army camp, we join a small group of Palestinian women and children harvesting olives. Normally they can’t even approach these trees of theirs—they’re too close to the soldiers. Today it’s possible, the soldiers are otherwise engaged. In the wadi beyond the olive grove, they’ve set up cardboard humanoid targets, and soldiers keep descending in waves from the camp to take their turns at target practice. They must be reservists called up for the Gaza war under the Emergency Order (Order 8, tsav shomeneh, the dread Hebrew term). Caressed by shifting sun and cloud, we run our fingers through the silver-green branches. Sometimes, actually rather rarely, you hit upon a rich vein of olives; my favorites are the ones that have just begun to ripen, so that purple freckles and splotches dot the surface of glossy green. We work slowly and in peace; nothing is as good as picking olives. At intervals of ten or fifteen minutes, the M-16s go off in uneven sputters that sound puny in the desert, empty tales told by idiots, signifying nothing. After each round, the soldiers run up to the targets to see where, or if, they’ve made hits. From the midst of the olive trees, it looks to me like at least a third of the bullets burrow into the dust.
I watch them, and I remember. The smell. The recoil of the gun against your soldier. The momentary thrill. The dullness of mind. You may not believe me, but only after my basic training was over, and I’d shot at these targets dozens of times, did it suddenly dawn on me that they were meant to evoke the shape of human beings. Watching these men today as they sit on the hillside, waiting their turn, I see a world turned khaki-and-grey, devoid of living color, lacking light; a color-blind, dreary, cold, deadly all-male world. I remember it well. It has a way of repeating itself ad nauseam.
I go back to the olives, relishing the tenderness of light, the ripeness, the patter of olives falling onto the canvases we’ve spread beneath the trees, and in my mind I hear the line by Yehuda Amichai: “Soldiers are always training for one of the wars.”
— We cross over to the over side of the army camp, a hilltop that is new to me. They are plowing, and this time there is no one to interfere or threaten or expel. We watch and wait, just in case. The light deepens as afternoon settles in. A turtle happens by. When the plowing is finished, we head back to the olive grove. At the entrance to the army camp, an Ethiopian soldier standing guard suddenly goes berserk. He screams at Guy: “Out of here! Get out! I’ll blow your head off.” He aims his gun at Guy as he goes on cursing. Guy walks calmly up to him, facing the gun, facing him down. The soldier turns away.
Just then a first lieutenant, lanky, religious, wrinkled, armed, comes tearing out of the camp, down the hill to the olives. He picks on Li. He thinks he’s seen her holding a spent tear-gas grenade (which, I can tell you, would constitute a crime under Israeli law; empty canisters are army property; Abdallah Abu-Rahmah from Bil’in was put on trial for using them, and empty bullet cartridges, to create an anti-war monument in the village). He demands that she empty her knapsack before him, and she complies. There is no bottom to a woman’s bag. This one has many pockets, and one by one the lieutenant goes through them all, he shakes the knapsack, turns it upside down and inside out, its contents now rolling in the dust at his feet. No grenade. Frustrated, he cries, “I’ll find it!” and hunts along the ridge until, sure enough, there it is, that empty metal canister. He pounces on it with delight. “You’re detained,” he says to Li. He demands she give him her identity card. But she knows she doesn’t have to do this, he lacks the authority, only the police can require it, so now he orders one of his soldiers to summon them from wherever, probably Hebron. He paces furiously among the olive trees, speaking into his cell phone, calling, I suppose, whoever he can think of, maybe the Minister of Defense who must surely be involved in so grave a military matter as this, with the security of the state hanging in the balance. We tell him the area is littered with hundreds of spent cartridges and plenty of live bullets, too, which the soldiers have left behind, and that there are children who walk and play here, and that his own men must have shot off the damned grenade.
That’s what I love about South Hebron. Not only is it a litmus standard that shows you the difference between good and evil, between truth and the lie, like nowhere else; but it also regularly unveils the surreal face of the real. Reality is a strong drug. Often it feels crazy. At other times, like now, wildly foolish. That, in fact, is how you know you’re facing something real. The Ethiopian has meanwhile reappeared, still frantically waving his rifle and aiming it at us and threatening to shoot us; the lieutenant, for his part, may have realized that he has no case, but he can’t afford to lose face. Maybe the Minister of Defense didn’t answer his call. We mill around, amused and weary; we’re ready to go home.
Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist from MIT, is with us today, and Ezra, the most blissfully non-academic person I know, says to her: “Here’s a problem that might interest you. What’s going on in these soldiers’ brains? What we need is a new academic discipline, a new department at the university, let’s call it Intracranial Archaeology, to see if it’s possible to figure out what’s buried deep inside these people’s minds, and then to try to change it to something more normal. You can occupy the first Chair.” The lieutenant, out of his depth, by now terminally befuddled, calls Ezra over to him and says, in hushed tones, “What do I do now? Shall I just forget it?”
“Yes, forget it.”
Defeated, no doubt humiliated in the sight of his men, the officer heads uphill to the base, the empty canister clutched in his hand.