South Hebron – ruled by God and the C.O.
By David Shulman, Ta’ayush
March 01, 2014
We find the shepherds from Tuba with their goats just over the hill from the chicken coup of Chavat Maon, of cursed memory and cursed present. They’re scared. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing Palestinian shepherds so nervous. Last week soldiers came when they were somewhere nearby, in this same wadi, with the sheep and goats; the soldiers pointed their loaded guns at them and told them that if they ever came here again they’d shoot them. The wadi, even by the lunatic rules of the Civil Administration, is Palestinian land; and they’ve come back after all, counting on us to protect them. Still, they’re scared. Every minute or two they say to me, as the goats flow deeper into the wadi or farther uphill, closer to the settlement: “Stay with us, keep close, don’t go away.”
When the first settler turns up in his Shabbat white, even before he’s said a word, they retreat toward the desert. Soon there’s another. Yehuda engages the first, hoping to distract him; Amiel takes on the second. For over an hour, intense conversations unfold on the barren hills. I wonder what they’re talking about. Later, I hear the report: Yehuda’s settler was rather Hegelian, in a New Age sort of way, the other held forth in a Kantian mode, beginning, however, with God’s indubitable creation of the universe; all else follows from that. This one, Amiel’s, predictably insisted that the Biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself applies only to loving the Jews; Amiel tried to nudge him toward the universalist position, with little success. Apparently, there was also some debate about the historicity of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai, witnessed, as one knows, by many thousands.
But since I couldn’t overhear any of this—I was with the sheep, far away—I won’t try to convey any more of these lengthy dialogues. They reached an end when the soldiers came lumbering along, as always carrying the order making the hill we were standing on a Closed Military Zone. Nothing unusual to report about this: they gave us 3 minutes to get off the hill. By then some settler children had turned up on the hilltop, and Guy decided he wouldn’t budge until the soldiers shooed them off, too, which the soldiers of course refused to do, so they arrested him and carted him off to the police station in Kiryat Arba. As for the rest of us, two of the soldiers turned out to be curious about our views. It was a day of many words.
On the one hand, they, the soldiers, surely believe we’re insane—anarchists (in their lexicon), leftists, traitors. On the other hand, something drove them to ask us what we think we’re doing. We patiently explain, improvising on the Socratic method.
“What do you think you’re doing?” we say to them. “Do you realize what you’ve just done is totally illegal?”
“How could it be illegal? The commander signed the order.”
“The Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal to declare a CMZ arbitrarily, particularly if it means driving Palestinian farmers or shepherds off their land.”
“It’s not arbitrary.”
“What else could it be? Even if we choose to obey it today, it’s still illegal.”
“No, it’s legal, and it’s all part of Israeli democracy, right?”
“You think Israel is a democracy? What about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians right here, in Area C? Does anyone represent them? Can they vote?”
A pause. A moment’s thought. “They must be able to vote for somebody.”
“Sorry to say, they can’t. In fact, they have no rights at all. They don’t vote, their lands and other possessions are up for grabs, they have no legal recourse, and to make it worse you’re part and parcel of this system that’s oppressing them. Don’t try to deny it.”
They do, however, try. In fact, they’ll do anything to escape the inescapable awareness of their complicity. Quietly, we force them to confront it, again and again. Of course, they’ll never agree to any of this lesson in civics, but at least they were listening. It went on for some time. I like to think that some day the seed may bud.
Afterwards, there are a couple of hours with the shepherds, who are still worried. I get to ride an old mule. They’re intrigued to hear I speak Indian languages; they watch Indian films all the time, in the village (thanks to the wind turbine and electric grid that Noam and Elad built for them). Here’s another image that’s hard to believe: Ja’abar and ‘Ali sit in Tuba watching Hindi films night after night. Indians speak too fast, they tell me. Can I speak like that too?
‘Ali, sixteen years old, is thoughtful, playful, articulate. “Wain fi mustawtin fi mashakel, where there’s a settler there are problems. They think we want to take advantage, but no, we just want to feed the sheep. We don’t want problems, we don’t want war, we want peace. The soldiers and the settlers are sons-of-bitches. Not long ago settlers killed one of our sheep; she had fourteen knife wounds, and she died.” And so on. A long, sad story. After a while, he says: “I want to be a settler. I’d like to say, ‘You go here, you can’t go there, go away.’” A minute later: “Actually, no. I’d rather die.”
When the sheep and goats have eaten their fill, we say goodbye, gently deferring their invitation to come drink tea in Tuba. Next time, we say. We shake hands. We walk over the hills to Twaneh in the midday sun. The sheep did well today, and the shepherds pushed the boundary a little farther toward Chavat Maon, with our help. That matters. Ever meter counts. There are other adventures ahead. More of the same. Shepherds under the cow barn of Carmel are being harassed by soldiers and police. We go in search of them. In Shahin, in the Etzion Bloc, a farmer, Mahmud, has lost another piece of land to settlers, who shamelessly built a stone zula there where they can go to smoke and hang out. They’ve also knocked down bits of his stone wall, among other depredations. Not long ago Mahmud had no access to his land. He’s surrounded by settlers on every side; no room to breathe. Ta’ayush brought him back to his fields and worked them with him. Now they’ve been freshly plowed, and the vineyard, I’m told, yields grapes of astonishing sweetness in the fall. We stop in to see him, we bring the police to record his complaint.
A long day of minor epiphanies: fiery green fields, alive, a miracle, in this rainless year, against the gold-grey rocky hills; the aged donkey standing, endlessly patient, beside three very pregnant sheep, after the soldiers went away; the hardy scarlet anemones, blossoming for this day alone, proof that goodness may yet flower amidst the rocky hearts of men. You go down to South Hebron, and there is evil in plenty, visible, close, tangible, intimately known. You stand up to it for those fleeting moments. You help a little, as much as you can. You speak the truth. You hear the inimitable music of truth breaking through the crust of lies. You breathe that air, drink in that sun. You open your heart to the shepherds, their goats, their maddening pain. You overcome the gnawing ache of futility and do the decent thing. You take a stand. You take the risk. You feel the friendship, the despair. You’re not afraid. You’re not alone. You don’t look away. You look the soldiers in the eye, you give them no quarter, no ground, but not in hatred. You listen to Amiel talk about Vergil and Yehuda speak about the Zohar as the goats graze beside you. You laugh about Kant and Hegel and their mutations in the minds of your foes. Nothing abstract any more. You see the hills falling away into the desert, the light changing to blue and magenta before evening sets in, the last golden flash of sun. You walk for miles over rocky fields. You do what needs be done. It’s a possible definition of happiness.