They stand like free men on their own land. And then the men with guns arrive
David Shulman, The Only Democracy
Several large families–among them, Ihrizat, Ihraini, and Abu Samra–belong to Um al-’Amad, perched on a high hill west of the desert and directly across from the drab and violent settlement of Otniel. In fact, Otniel sits on the Abu Samra family’s lands. Like all other settlements, Otniel has also drawn a wide perimeter fence around itself, effectively annexing another large chunk of Palestinian land; still worse, for the last thirteen years the settlers and soldiers have denied the Palestinians access to the relatively fertile grazing and agricultural land in the wadis just under the settlement. Israeli courts have confirmed Palestinian title to these lands in the wadis, but in itself this is by no means a promise of access. Quite the contrary: like in most places in south Hebron, we are faced with a hard micro-struggle for every inch.
Abu Khalil Abu Samra tells me: “Even three weeks ago we could only look with longing at our lands, knowing our feet would never again touch them.” You have to hear this sentence in Arabic and let yourself begin to feel what it means for a farmer to watch his fields being stolen in broad daylight. Then you have to imagine all the rest of it–the endless battle in the courts, the continuous hassle with the soldiers, the threats and abuse, the humiliation of being driven off your property at gun-point. It has gone on like this for years, and it will happen again today.
Last week there was a miracle. Ta’ayush* volunteers accompanied Palestinian shepherds into the wadi and stood by them while the sheep grazed and the farmers plowed one field. Today we are eager to extend the grazing grounds, to recover another chunk of land, closer to the settlement. We make our way on dirt and gravel roads through Al-Karma and Bayt Al-Imra to Um al-’Amad, and we descend into the valley where the sheep are already grazing to their content. It is spring–a brief burst of green; in two weeks it will be gone. The hills, usually a mélange of browns and yellows, look like Ireland. Whole fields are soaked in the red of poppies and the green-yellow of mustard; here and there you can see sheaves of ripening barley and wheat. Who would believe that they have come up out of this caked and arid soil?
It is still early in the morning under a dense blue sky. These are the moments of blessing that I have learned to cherish–the short overture before the soldiers arrive. The world looks almost livable. There are a handful of shepherds, and Abu Khalil and his brother Abu Khalid are with us, not quite believing that they are standing, like free men, on their own soil.
But how free can they be? The first batch of soldiers is waiting for us. For some time they watch us from the hillside as we move along the wadi with the sheep. We can see them calling some superior on their cell phones; even from a distance they’re already busy photographing us. One officer has a camouflage net incongruously pasted over his helmet, a comic touch in these open spaces, as if it were possible for him to go unseen. They have guns and all the metal trinkets that go with guns.
Finally, since by now we’re only 200 meters or so from the perimeter wall of Otniel, they come striding toward us through the fields. They tell us the Matak–a senior officer from the Civil Administration–is on his way with the police. We wait. We know the law is on our side, there is no question about it, we even have it in writing, but we also know that this means next to nothing in south Hebron.
Matak never arrives. Instead, a detachment of Border Policemen turns up, led by Yusuf, a Druze officer, whom we know all too well. The Border Police are bad news. Now the standard sequence kicks in. We know it by heart; here’s a simple précis.
Yusuf: What are you doing here?
Danny and Guy: We’re here with the shepherds who are grazing their sheep on their land.
Yusuf: Who told you it’s their land?
Dani: They know it, and the court confirmed it. We have the documents with us.
Yusuf: Why should I believe them?
Guy: It’s not a matter for belief.
Yusuf: The only place you and I can argue about this is in court. Definitely not here. No one is allowed to be here without coordinating with the army.
Guy: Wrong. What you are saying is completely illegal, as the courts have ruled over and over. You have no right to tell these people to leave, or to order us to leave.
Yusuf: You’re just here to make trouble.
Danny: We’re here to protect these people and to see that their claim is honored.
Two settlers, one in Shabbat white, have turned up, on cue, to control the proceedings. Yusuf looks at the map and the court order. Surely he must realize that he is facing the truth. He has a problem.
“I tell you what,” he says. “If these men”–he means the two Abu Samra brothers–“want to come with me to the end of the wadi to look at the land, I’m prepared to go.” Turning to Guy: “You, only you, can come, too. The rest of your group waits here.”
So we wait. Ten minutes later they’re back, and Yusuf, with the settlers above him, knows what to do: OK, you’ve seen the wadi, now all of you have to leave. I’ll give you five minutes before I start making arrests.
Danny: No! You’re breaking the law, and you know it. You have no right to drive these people off their land. We’ve been through this many times before.
Yusuf: We have reason to fear a clash between you and the settlers. You’re a threat to the peace. I’m a police officer, and I’m ordering you to leave.
Neriya: That’s very nice. The real criminals are right here on the hill, and you’re accusing us of disturbing the peace.
Me: What about these shepherds? Do they or don’t they have the right to graze down here in the wadi?
Yusuf: Yes they do. Now I’m done talking with you. This argument is over.
For good measure, one of his soldiers, short, stocky, and mean, eager to attack and/or arrest us, looks at his watch and says: “Four minutes.”
All of this takes time, much longer than it takes to read my summary, long enough for the sheep to go on happily feeding. But it’s the usual choice, and unfortunately the decision has been made for us–the shepherds and the two brothers are already 50 meters away, heading back toward Um al-’Amad. Perhaps they came to some tacit agreement with Yusuf. They are our hosts; if they leave, there’s no way we can stay.
“Don’t feel bad,” Abu Khalil says to me. “We’re making progress. It’s like climbing a ladder. You go one step at a time, daraj daraj.”
But I do feel bad. The gun has spoken. The gun lies.
We linger in the wadi together with the sheep and the village boys. Yusuf and his men slowly depart. We want to be sure that the Palestinians’ presence here is seen and recognized, that it turns into fact. It’s not a trivial matter. The whole business is as fragile as the little bud of okra–sown just a week ago–that has pushed up through the brown dirt right here before us. In another week, Abu Khalil says, the shoot will be high, and a few days later they’ll harvest the crop–the first from this soil in many years.
The village boys are into theology. “What’s your name?” they ask me. “Da’ud,” I say. “Named for the Prophet Da’ud! Are you a Muslim?” “No, I’m a Jew.” “Do you know how to pray?” “Maybe a little.” I can recite the Fatiha, the opening to the Qur’an. This makes a positive impression. “Sing it,” they say to me, “like the Mu’ezzin does.” I try. They correct me. It’s not so easy to get my voice to the upper register you need for the second phrase, but they seem happy with my efforts. “So why don’t you become a Muslim?” they ask me. “I don’t want to,” I say; “I already told you I’m a Jew.” “But on the Day of Judgment, yaum al-qiyama, only Muslims will go to Paradise, Al-Jannah, Firdaws; the rest will be burned in fire.” “I like the fire.”
They laugh. This has to be put to the test; they borrow a cigarette lighter and hold it to my finger. I fail the test. “Well, maybe we Jews won’t be thrown into the fire,” I say. “Maybe it will be cold there in Hell.” “No way!” They’re very certain. “Fire means fire. The believers and only the believers don’t get burned.” “OK,” I say, “but couldn’t a Jew also be a believer of some sort?” “Absolutely not.”
Now again: “So why don’t you take on Islam?” I’m having trouble explaining, in halting Arabic, the rationale of my choice. Meanwhile, other questions arise. Ella, for example, wants to know if there are animals in Al-Jannah. “Definitely.” “OK,” she says to me, “maybe we should go for it.” She has two beloved cats. Soon a large, ungainly turtle turns up, on his leisurely way to somewhere via this hill, blissfully indifferent, I would guess, to soldiers, settlers, and theologians. They lift him, cradle him in their hands. Might he, too, get a pass into Paradise? It’s definitely possible, they assure me. Things seem to be looking up for turtles, if not for the Jews. One thing we can all agree on: on the Day of Judgment, the settlers will be sent to the fire. The boys laugh again in the relief that certainty brings. Sinners are sinners, and God knows right from wrong.
I hope He does, though sometimes I’m not sure. Or maybe this is the definition of God, which we’ve arrived at together, gently teasing one another on this hill of rocks and thorns. It’s midday: a fierce sun offers a slight, still bearable taste of hellfire. I promise them that, infidel that I am, I’ll be back here next week or the one after. I climb the hill with Abu Khalil. Suddenly I see he has tears in his eyes. “Two weeks ago,” he says, “there was another officer, not Yusuf; a Jew. He was cruel. He told me I would never walk for even one centimeter on my land. And today you came and I walked the whole length of the wadi. My feet are standing on this soil. Do you understand what it means? And we plowed last week and already the first shoots are coming up. I talked to the elders in the village, they said, Forget it, there’s no hope, we’ll never get back the lands they took. I said to them, God will help us.”
Israelis and Palestinians striving together to end the Israeli occupation and to achieve full civil equality through daily non-violent direct-action.