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October 31, 2015
It’s tense in Hebron, tense in Jerusalem, tense inside people’s minds. For several weeks now we’ve had random stabbings (mostly by Palestinian teenagers); extra-judicial on-the-spot executions of Palestinians, or people who happen to look like Palestinians, by soldiers, settlers, and hot-headed passers-by; daily hysterical, hate-driven statements by Netanyahu and the thugs who surround him; attacks on hapless Palestinians by the Fascist squads of Lehava, prowling the city streets at night; and the de facto re-partition of Jerusalem. By contrast, in south Hebron we have a peaceful, almost idyllic day. It’s olive time. There is the odd goodness of olives. We work for six straight hours under an early-winter sun and blue skies, not far from the Susya junction, just under Mitzpeh Yair. The trees belong to Khalid Najjar, who works beside us, laying down plastic and canvas sheets under the trees to catch the olives we pick, climbing the tall wooden ladder himself to reach the upper branches, intent on reaching every last olive. His wife, a woman of grace and smiles, crouches on the ground as she sifts through the fruit, separating out the dust and leaves.
Khalid is 63 years old, a handsome man in a brown ghalabiyyeh and white keffiyeh. Although I’ve often gone to Gawawis– a tiny jumble of tents and goatpens where he lives on the escarpment just beyond the olive grove– I had never heard his story. Suddenly today, around noon, perched on the highest rung of the ladder, he rolls up the ghalabiyyeh to show me his belly. He has a huge, more or less rectangular bulge surrounded by thick scars in the lower abdomen. They say inside it’s mostly plastic. In 2001, he tells me, a settler shot him, just like that. Soldiers were present, too. He wound up in a hospital in Baghdad, where for seven months they tried to fix him. Then he came back to Gawawis. I ask him if he still has pain. “Pain,” he says, waving his hand as if to brush it away, “yes, there is always, every day, much pain.”
I’m sorry, I say. Then we are silent for a few minutes, two men running their fingers through the silver leaves, plucking the oval fruit. Beneath us: the delicious percussion of olives hitting canvas or plastic sheet, a music unlike any other. There must be about fifty trees in the grove. At times settlers have come to burn them or cut them down. He casually mentions these occasions. So the trees are relatively young, about 28 years. Ripe black olives sprayed by golden sunlight: I have, I don’t know why, a sudden urge to tell him that my sister, whom I loved, died a week ago today. “Where did she die?” Khalid asks me, taking it in. At home, I say, far away from here, in America. “Death and life,” he says, “are from Allah. At least she didn’t die at the hands of settlers or soldiers. She was lucky.”
South Hebron words, South Hebron thoughts. I know what he means. Here always the ravishing, lavish surface of face or rock or soil opens up to reveal a savage scar. I could have guessed. How many stories like his have I heard? Sometimes I would tell my sister, Micky, and she would say, still shocked after many years of reading these grim reports: “Don’t you have a government to protect innocent people from these crimes?” And sadly and clumsily I would try once again to explain what it means to live in a state where the government itself is the source of such crimes, where it delights in causing this kind of pain. I think she never understood. I think she knew how much I love these people, these rocks and thorns, these skies.
Ezra comes by, we load up the heavy sacks of olives and drive over the rutted track to Gawawis, where Ahmad, Khalid’s son, heavy-set, muscular, newly married, unloads them. Today we harvested together maybe 200 kilos of olives. Maybe more. I’ve done something useful with this god-given day.
On the way home we pick up the contingent that went to harvest at Tel Rumeida, in the tortured heart of Hebron. The olive trees there are very old. Their Palestinian owners speak of 2000 years, or 1500 years, but maybe the gnarled trees are only 500 years old. They’re very tall. Amiel tells me that as they worked, they heard the shouts and cries from the funerals of Palestinians killed yesterday by soldiers or settlers in the series of stabbing incidents in the city. From time to time a small cloud of tear-gas would waft over the grove, searing their eyes. “It was hard,” Amiel says, “because if there’s one thing I can’t do it’s to climb down from the top of a tree with my eyes closed.”