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— It’s cold, blustery, a grey-green day. This is that evanescent moment when the hills turn green, like in Ireland, and the red anemones break through the hard surface of the soil. Dark clouds, dark earth. We’re at a bus-stop on the highway near Susya, waiting for the Shamasteh family to pick us up. Here’s their story. They own a large swathe of good land, and they have the registry documents to prove it, but the Susya settlers have stolen, in broad daylight, a big chunk of these holdings; now the Civil Administration in its wisdom has declared these fields “in dispute,” which means, in effect, that settlers can plow them and reap the crops but the rightful Palestinian owners have no access to them. Defining land as “in dispute” is a common method of land-grabbing in south Hebron.
Suddenly we see, in the distance, white-clothed settlers herding their sheep right through the Shamasteh fields, with a large group of soldiers close behind them, and Palestinians gathering in apparent protest. We set off over the hill to join them. Haj Khalil, one of those ageless, wizened farmers, tough, determined, insouciant, is planting almond seeds. He has an iron pike that he pounds deep into the earth with a hammer, then rapidly, lovingly, he takes it out and places the almond seed in the hole he has made, and a young boy pours water from a plastic bottle. The soldiers, angry and helpless, are fluttering beside him as he strides from one rocky patch to another. In goes the pike, then the embryonic almond, the water, and on to the next. “You can’t do this,” they are yelling at him, “we’re telling you to stop, we’ll arrest you, listen to us.” He pays no attention whatsoever. Around him hover his sons and grandsons and a few heavy-set earth-women, perhaps his wives or daughters-in-law, I don’t know. The eldest son veers unevenly between his father and the soldiers; he shields the old man as best he can even as he tries to placate the soldiers: “I’ll tell him, just give me a moment.” But no one can keep up with Haj Khalil, and no human act can compare with the stark beauty of defiance. At least twenty new almond trees will surely spring from the pits he manages to open and impregnate before the soldiers finally bring him to a halt or he runs out of seeds—unless, of course, the settlers uproot them.
Impish, satisfied, happy, he seats himself leisurely on the ground and takes out a pipe, which he proceeds to light very slowly, entirely focused on this demanding task. The pipe is man’s work, and Haj Ismail is equal to it. He offers me a puff, and I accept, immediately choking on the smoke. My friend David does a bit better. He points to the soldiers and says to me, “They have no fear of God, or of Moses, or of Jesus, or of the Prophet. They have no fear of doing wrong.” He seems almost to feel sorry for them. You can see why. They’re still fussing with their cellphones and their guns and their papers; they’re out of their element here. Finally they produce the inevitable order declaring this field, a Shamasteh field, a Closed Military Zone. The order comes with a map. The commanding officer, looking frantically for some useable landmark, points to the dirt foot-path where he is standing and says: “You see this line? You cannot cross this line. You can be there, on the other side of the path, but not here, on this side of it. Am I clear? Anyone on this side of the line will be arrested immediately.” Reluctantly, the Palestinians—by now a sizable contingent, men, women, children—move to the edge of the footpath. What else can they do? Remember that it’s all their land. But the officer is now pleased with himself and with the arbitrary line he has drawn in the desert. He smiles, relieved. “Excellent,” he says, “everyone is in his place, and everything is in order.” That’s his job in life, in this best of all possible worlds. He makes order.
He’s not a bad man, by the way. Just happens to be a thief.
The women set about making fire inside a small rectangular stone pen a few meters down the hillside. Soon there is tea. They form a semi-circle outside the pen while ragamuffin kids race over the stones. A picnic. Pastoral, natural, simple, except for the uninvited guests. Reality is always, in reality, surreal. Against the grand sweep of the hills you can see sheep, the sharp glow of the fire, the blue-red-black of the dresses, the roughness of rock; behind us, guns and more guns. One of the women decides it’s time to give the soldiers a piece of her mind. “What are you doing here? This is our land. You have no right to be standing here. It’s forbidden. It’s wrong, a sin, haram. You come here every day with your lies and your guns. Who do you think you are? God will punish you.”
Ella overhears the soldiers planning, on their radiophones, to demolish the stone pen where the Palestinian women have just made fire. They’ll wait till we’re gone, of course. Then, with nobody watching and no one to protest, they’ll destroy another small sign of the owners’ presence on this land.
These farmers and their wives need to tell the story, so I hear how one day some years back they came here to plow only to find that the fields had been sown the day before by settlers. Since then they’re in the courts. One of the men from the Batsh clan—a subdivision of Shamasteh—traces the tortured history for me. Their name, Batsh, he says, is mentioned in the Qur’an. Haj Khalil is still peacefully savoring his pipe.
But farther up the hill there is trouble. Another party of soldiers has chosen a sacrificial victim. They’re threatening to arrest one of the young men— for no evident reason. They’ve copied down the number of his identity card and phoned it in to whoever is manning the computer at headquarters. We rush up to film this, to try to intervene. The soldiers have surrounded their prey, who appears bewildered but resigned. Suddenly his formidable mother appears. “Musa,” she calls, “come with me. Now.” He gives her a look that suggests there’s not much he can do. She, however, can’t be stopped. You won’t believe it, but she literally pounces on her son, enfolds him in her capacious arms, in her loose black dress, and prods and pushes him past the soldiers in the direction of freedom. They hurl themselves against her, but she remains uncowed. In a wild, relentless choreography of her own invention, she snatches him from their hands, not once but five, six times, each time maneuvering him downwards and away, beyond their grasp, as she cries out at them in continuous derision, a steady flow of thick invective that seems to leave them stunned and impotent. Finally, he’s gone, slipped away. They send him a message with his father: next time they’ll get him.
So that’s what a mother is for.
She, and Haj Khalil, are my teachers today.
— By midday I’m tired, worn out by the wind and transient bursts of mild despair. There’s an arduous expedition by foot to Avigail, where settlers have tried to take back a piece of land that belongs to the Jabarin and that the Jabarin have successfully reclaimed by sheer superhuman persistence. Sure enough, near the outpost, possibly the world’s ugliest set of buildings, we see that the settlers have built on the Jabareen plot. We take photographs for the lawyers. On the hilltop the soldiers are waiting. They demand that Eyal show them his identity card. He says he’ll show it to them if they tell him what he’s accused of. “Fine,” says the officer, “I think you’re a Hizballah terrorist.” He hands over the identity card. Danny, however, refuses to do so and is arrested. Meanwhile, Ezra has a job for David and me.
He drives us south past Otniel into the wide-open spaces near the southern tip of the West Bank. A Palestinian from Zanuta has been arrested, and Ezra wants us to help—somehow or other. Not that we have any good ideas. There’s a settler’s ranch planted in the middle of dizzying hills, and the Palestinian is apparently being held there. Ezra, true to character, drops us at the roadside with simple instructions: “You see that man on a donkey. Go with him.” We head off over the stones and thorns. Eventually we find ourselves at the feet of the donkey. “Follow me,” says the rider, Tarik. Another lesson for today: I never knew how fast a donkey can move. Man and donkey disappear. A quarter of an hour later we catch sight of them, tiny spots of black and white, on the top of a distant ridge. We climb toward them, uphill, downhill, pathless, clueless. I like the walk, but I’m feeling foolish, a pawn in another of Ezra’s mad, good- hearted schemes. We’re in this rocky desert with no clear sense of where to go or, for that matter, what to do when we get there, wherever that may be. Long minutes pass. More up and down. More thorns. Miraculously, Tarik and donkey reappear out of nowhere: “Have we worn you out?” I ask him to tell me what’s happened.
“They arrested my uncle while he was grazing the sheep.”“And where is he now?” “The Jews got him.” He points to the settlers’ ranch. “So you want us to go there?” “Yes. I’m going after the sheep.”
And he’s off. Within seconds, out of sight. The ranch is a good hour’s hike, and what are the chances the uncle is still there? Or that we could be of any use if we turn up there? Far away, near the highway, a black figure is waving to us and shouting. Who’s that? The phone rings: Ezra on the line. He gives me the number of Abu Khalil and tells me to call him. When I get through, Abu Khalil says: “I’m up here near the road. Come quickly.” We begin to retrace our steps, but by the time we finally climb the hill and issue onto the highway, there’s no sign of Abu Khalil.
Zanuta, a tiny enclave of goat-pens and beige, rough-hewn stone walls, is directly across from us. But a kilometer or so down the road there are human figures clustering around an army jeep. This seems our best bet. As we close in on them, we can see three Palestinian men, a civilian in white, a host of soldiers and two others, without uniforms, in black. We approach. Blackclothes One, with an air of authority, asks who we are. I tell him we’re from Ta’ayush, but he seems not to hear. I tell him I’m a professor at the university. This puts his mind at rest—perhaps he correctly assumes that professors are harmless– though one of the officers says to him, “Aren’t they with the filthy leftists we saw earlier?” I decide to let my identity, clean or unclean, resolve itself later; I ask them what’s going on. “A Jew has been attacked in the South Hebron hills,” says Blackclothes One, obviously relishing every syllable. There’s no limit to his joy. Today is his lucky day. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say, “Really? At last!”
The civilian in white is the Jew in question, a young, blonde settler. He looks a lot like the settlers’ poster models. His shirt is torn and stained with blood. He’s sitting on the railing at the edge of the highway. From time to time Blackclothes, whoever he is—one of the settler security officers? Shin Bet?—puts his arm around the settler, offering comfort. All the soldiers have united around this useful, reassuring Jewish victim, who, however, having come to his own conclusion about us, says to me: “It’s very important to go hiking here.” He’s not being sarcastic; he thinks Jewish feet walking on Jewish rocks in Jewish south Hebron are part of the whole wonderful project. He’s decided that’s why we’re here. I make my way over to the three Palestinians and ask them in Arabic what’s happened. Grim-faced, they mumble, unwilling to talk. They’re in trouble, and the soldiers are now combing the hills for another Palestinian—maybe our man on the donkey. Their phones crackle; the Brigade Commander is on his way.
So what really happened? Like any true event, this one exists in several versions. The settler claims he was attacked by two Palestinians while out on the hills, but to me he makes light of it: “just” a routine quarrel about land. The Palestinians say one of them was attacked by two settlers while they were grazing their sheep. One of the Palestinians has a longer version: seeing the settlers, they, the Palestinians, offered them tea, but the settlers lashed out at them, pushing and hitting them. You can decide which version or versions to believe. I don’t know what happened, and anyway there’s not much we can do.
Ezra and Amiel arrive with the rest of our group and confirm this conclusion. The soldiers put one of the Palestinians in the jeep and send the other two back to Zanuta. I watch them slowly, sadly making their way along the side of the road. I feel a little sick. Above all, beyond the absence of even a semblance of justice, I can’t abide the tribal loyalty that trumps all other considerations in south Hebron. Jewish soldiers embrace Jewish settlers, under any circumstances. Only I uselessly cling to an irrelevant notion of truth.
— Ezra was in court this week for what he calls the “case of the dogs” as opposed to the “war-crimes’ case.” Some time ago he insulted a high-ranking officer of the Civil Administration. The officer told him he was leaving his post in the territories. Ezra quoted an Arabic proverb: “One dog goes and another dog comes.” The officer sued him. The judge, either bored or bemused by this case, said: “At least it’s better than the last time.” The last time was when Ezra rightly accused some other officer of war crimes. He hates all generals with a passion. Many times in the field, I’ve tried to get him to hold his tongue (I usually fail). The verdict will be rendered in about two weeks.
— I wasn’t sure we’d even manage to get down here today. The West Bank is tense, volatile. Yesterday there were ten wounded in East Jerusalem when the police opened fire after the Friday prayers in Al-Aqsa. The demonstration in Hebron, aimed at opening Shuhada Street, was hit by intense volleys of tear-gas, stun grenades, and plastic bullets. There were many wounded. There was also a report of live fire by soldiers in Hebron. Elsewhere, too, there was violence, and today there were clashes at many places. Partly fueling these protests is outrage at the fate of the hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. Samir Isawi, whose house we visited in Isawwiya a month ago, is said to be close to death from starvation. He was released from prison in the swap for Gilead Shalit and re-arrested when he technically violated the terms of his release by going to Ar-Ram, just north of Jerusalem, to fix his car. Under Israel’s draconian law, an ex-prisoner like Samir can, if he is re-arrested for any offense whatsoever, be sent back to complete his original sentence—in Samir’s case, 28 more years. If Samir dies, god forbid, a third Intifada could easily break out. Maybe that’s what the army and the government want. Tonight we learn that Arafat Jaradat, another prisoner, has just died suddenly of cardiac arrest.
— My cousin writes to remind me that yesterday, February 22nd, was the yahrzeit of my grandfather, my father’s father, Harry Shulman. He died 55 years ago this week, when I was nine. I didn’t know him well. He started off as a peddler before branching out into other enterprises. Another cousin, in Montreal, has sometimes protested at the reports I write—I, a grandson of Harry Shulman, saying such awful things about the Jews. This same cousin likes to disseminate anti-Muslim hate-mail, indistinguishable from the classic Der Stuermer style. So which of us is closer to my grandfather’s vision of the world? For some reason this question kept flitting through my mind during the long wild-goose-chase over the hills. Predictably, I came to the conclusion that he would have been proud of me if he’d seen me today, however quixotic the quest. Harry Shulman was a diehard Democrat, a man of deep humanistic values, like many or indeed most eastern European immigrants to America at the turn of the twentieth century. There’s also a family tradition that his great-grandfather studied Talmud in White Russia with Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the legendary founder of the (then) rationalist mystical school of Chabad. Once these two vectors, the humane and the Jewish, were miraculously in harmony with one another; not any more, not in south Hebron.