Saturday, March 30 2013 Umm al-Ara’is by David Shulman
I’ll spare you today’s report, which would only follow the standard
sequence. By now you know it better than I do—the stolen fields, ripening
barley, settlers, soldiers, detention, release, expulsion, waiting, more waiting,
arrests, release, more soldiers, sheep, thorns, fury.
Photographer: Gwynn Kessler
And you don’t need me to draw the stark lines of right and wrong. Some
time ago a high officer from the Civil Administration summoned Sa‘id al-‘Awad,
who’s leading the Palestinian cause in Umm al-Ara’is, where the stolen lands
have been officially classified as “in dispute.” Settlers have plowed and sowed
them (that’s what the category “in dispute” means: settlers have open access,
Palestinians have none). It’s quite a large swath of fertile land hugging the bed of
the wadi. The officer said to Sa’id, “We know these lands belong to you, so I want
to propose a deal. Let the settlers have half of them and you can keep the other
half.” Sa’id naturally refused. Note the emblematic nature of the proposed deal.
He’s a remarkable man: cool, persistent, articulate, authoritative, calm.
Handsome. Gentle. Tough. Some quality of transparent goodness. Here’s what he
said to me a few minutes after they drove us off the fields.
“We come from a large family, ‘Awad, which is part of a much larger clan,
the Muhamre. Originally we came from Khaibar in Saudia. The family tradition is
that we were Jews. One branch of the family became Christian; they live today in
Syria. We came here, to south Hebron, some 500 years ago. Everywhere you go in
south Hebron you will find the Muhamre. We are farmers, people who live on the
land. These lands that they claim are “in dispute” belong, in fact, to a thousand
people from our family. That is how land was owned here in the old days, and it is
still like that today.
“I am fighting this battle in the name of simple justice. The settlers claim
they are religious. So let us take the Taurat, the Torah, and let us take the Qur’an,
and let us read them and see if either of them says it is permitted to steal or to kill.
“Most people are good and want to leave in peace, but there are some
people who are bad, on both sides. It can’t be that a thousand bad people on our
side and a thousand bad people on your side can ruin the lives of all eleven million
who live in this land west of the River.
“I don’t hate anyone, not even the settlers. There are hard men among the
police, who torment you if they arrest you. And there are soldiers who are changed
by serving here. They’re not bad men. They do what they are told, but they come to
see who we are, we who live here. When I am with someone I don’t see a Jew or a
Palestinian, all I see is a human being.
“I want to live in peace. I want to work and save money and take my family
on vacation once in a while and enjoy the beauty of the world. All I am asking for is
decency, that they return what was stolen. It’s not such a big request.”
What I don’t say to him is that common decency is far too much to ask of a
Netanyahu or, for that matter, of anyone else who holds power in Jerusalem.
I ask Sa’id if our coming down here is of any use to him. He softens visibly,
and his eyes seem to me to fill with light. “Kol hakavod lachem,” he says in
Hebrew, “all honor to you. You come here because you feel something is unjust
and you want to help. We feel much less alone when you are here.” “But we are
few in number,” I say, “a few dozen or so.” “You are few,” he says, “but look at
what you are able to do. If there were a few hundred like you, we would change
the world.”
Another al-‘Awad man, stocky, bursting with élan, greets me with a vast
“How are you?” I ask him, a little taken aback.
“Very fine.”
“But they’ve just driven you off your land once again, and us with you.”
“Yes, they drive us off every week, and every week we come back. We will
never stop coming back.”
“We’ll be here with you next week.”
For the record, it was a perfect spring day, sun mixed with cloud. At first it
was cold, with a brisk wind, blue-and-gold. The earth was still almost soft under
our feet. There were good spring smells, and patches of anemones and dark
poppies, and the barley in the stolen fields was waist-high, green, in movement.
Ravished again.
To Maria, as we are leaving: “Sometimes I have this dream that all the
nitpicking foolishness, the futile arguments over the Closed Military Zone, the
idiotic arrests, all the threats and petty cruelty, and the not-so-petty kind, too,
and the lies, and the greed, all of this will be washed by some huge wave into the
“It will happen,” she says, “when this desert becomes a sea.”