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Business as usual in the South Hebron hills. There’s a war on in Gaza, but that too is business as usual, the meaningless biannual ritual in which both sides gleefully smash one another before reverting to the status quo ante. The Israeli media are drowning us in words, a vast and raucous flood, and the government is putting out its familiar, mendacious statements; perhaps in recent days only Abu Mazen has spoken the truth. The only solution, he said, is a political one, and Netanyahu is no partner. Meanwhile, rockets are flying, the Air Force is bombing, children are dying, soldiers are doing what soldiers mostly do, that is, wait around, and in South Hebron the land-grab proceeds apace, as always. Nothing, it seems, can stop that.
But wait a minute, some things have changed. Since the horrible murder of three Israeli teenagers, followed by the equally abominable revenge killing of the Palestinian boy from Shuafat, Israel has witnessed a wave of racist hatred on a scale perhaps not known before. Part of it has to do with the near-infinite opportunities of the internet: tens of thousands of virulent hate messages sent by ordinary Israelis have clogged the major sites; thousands of them call openly for revenge. I remember a time somewhat like this one, in the summer and autumn of 1982, the days of the first Lebanon War; the nadir came when a hate-filled nationalist threw a grenade into a Peace Now demonstration, killing my student, Emil Grunzweig. Some of the internet sites these days have called for the execution of leftists. Perhaps most striking of all is the utter shamelessness of this wave. Probably people used to have these same feelings but were not so ready, or eager, to state them in public. Decades of demagoguery and xenophobic incitement by the right, including, famously, by Netanyahu himself, have had an effect. The sluices are open.
The other innovation in the public sphere is the presence of Israeli lynch gangs prowling the streets of downtown Jerusalem. Sporadic outbursts of mob violence have been seen here before, but this time, after the killing of the teenagers, we saw organized Fascist groups attacking any Palestinians unlucky enough to be going home late at night, after work (the restaurants and pubs in Jerusalem employ many Palestinian workers). Ta’ayush kept small groups of volunteers in the city center for most nights last week and the week before with the aim of forestalling such attacks; there were cases when the police were called in to save Palestinians trapped by savage Jewish mobs. A particularly terrible case occurred when the Light Rail, the electric tram, was surrounded by rabble screaming “Death to Arabs!” A Palestinian Ph.D. student in Islamic studies at the University, a woman well known to my colleagues, was caught in the tram and witnessed passengers trying to shove another Palestinian woman, a young mother with her baby, out of the carriage, into the hands of the mob. Most of the passengers, as always in such cases, watched passively. Fortunately, the tram was eventually able to continue its journey, and the mother and child survived.
I wrote “as always,” but it’s a mystery to me, still, I can’t help it. How can those people who were in the tram live with themselves? I don’t believe they’re all consumed by demented hatred. Here is what Joachim Prinz, who had first-hand experience of Germany in the 1930’s, said during the March on Washington in 1963:
“I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime. I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned in my life is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.”
For this, you don’t need mobs in the streets; look at South Hebron. Here we’re speaking not of Nazis but of enduring, insidious silence, the complicity of ordinary decent people with a system of rampant injustice. Today we had the weekly march at Umm al-Ara’is, to the edge of the stolen fields. Some twenty-five soldiers and police were waiting for us before we even got started. They had the inevitable, illegal order proclaiming the area a Closed Military Zone, and a map that was crudely drawn—so crudely, and off target, that had we seen it early enough we would have ignored the order and marched straight into the fields. As it was, we stood there while Sa’id argued with the bald, cynical officer from the Civil Administration, and the kids played on the rocks, and the cameras whirled, and the sun charbroiled us, and the dust made my eyes ache and water, and after an hour or so we left.
As I write this, the sirens have just gone off, and we’ve heard two explosions, somewhere. Rockets.
It’s Ramadan. Most of our friends stayed home; there were no shepherds to accompany, no farmers working the fields. It’s too hot, and they’re fasting. We made a round of friendly visits: Muhammad Nawajeh at Susya, Abu Tareq in Bi’ir al-‘Id, Mahmud Musa ‘Ala ud-Din in Ma’asara. Abu Tareq’s well-appointed cave was cool at midday as the sun blazed down; his son, Tareq, now a Palestinian policeman in Ramallah, was visiting on the holiday. We didn’t stay long, not wanting to disturb their fast. We brought guests—Dave, from Canandaigua, where my brother lives, and Tzvi, working with Dave on a documentary on peace activists; they had questions for our hosts. What did they think about peace? What would it look like? Is it even possible? Muhammad said, “Peace? What do you mean by peace? It’s far away. They attack us, they take our lands. They make our life impossible. They can go wherever they want, they can go to Europe, and I can’t even go from here to al-Khalil [Hebron]. We want peace, and we want security, and we want them to give back our lands, but how is this possible with Netanyahu? Look what he’s doing in Gaza.” Abu Tareq, who long ago was shot—because he wouldn’t leave his pastureland– by an Israeli security goon and slowly brought back to life over a year in Israeli hospitals, looked perplexed by the whole topic, which even to me felt surreal, almost alien to this day, that sun, those thorny slopes.
But for me the pain was worse, much worse, when we heard Mahmud describe his arrest yesterday in the course of the demonstration in Ma’asara. If you want to see creative, non-violent resistance in Palestine, Ma’asara is where you should go. Mahmud was arrested for no reason and falsely charged with “pushing” a policeman. They handcuffed him and blindfolded him and made him sit on the ground in the sun for a long time, and then they took him to the Etzion station, where they left him cuffed for hours. He has a very precise memory of everything that was said to him in the station—most of it, as always, threats, false accusations, insults, and abuse. The TV was on, and there was a scene of an Israeli attack on a Gaza building where, on the fifth floor, a whole family was killed; seeing this, a soldier in the station clapped his hands. Mahmud said to him: “It’s kids that they’re killing. Violence only brings more violence.”
Finally, they let him go on payment of a thousand shekels as “bail.” The quotations marks are because no one ever gets that money back; Palestinians call it “ransom money,” a far more accurate term. Somehow the Ma’asara committee cobbled together the money, and Mahmud went home last night. He still has a court appearance ahead this week, and who knows how that will go? Nothing threatens the Occupation as much as a good, non-violent man. Despite everything, Mahmud speaks gently, in a deep, steady voice, seemingly without bitterness, and Dave, filming him, notices this and asks: “Can you forgive those policemen?” Mahmud: “If they come back without their guns and act as human beings, then it’s OK.”
What happened to Mahmud is nothing new. We’ve seen and heard it often. In fact, it’s utterly routine. That’s how it goes. The insult to the person, to his or her body, to his or her heart, is built into the reality of the Occupation; it’s the fuel that drives the whole system—that, and insatiable greed. What’s happening in Gaza and southern Israel provides a useful distraction, but in South Hebron it’s business as usual, and it’s hot and dry, and people are fasting, and as I listened to Mahmud’s matter-of-fact report of what they did to him yesterday, recognizing it as an accurate description of the norm, I thought of Joachim Prinz.