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I wake at 5, enraged, for no special reason. Maybe it’s just the relentless daily cumulation, the noxious blend of racism, hatred and self-righteous nationalism that fills the public space in Israel these days. On Sunday I had to suffer through a speech by Netanyahu at the National Library. This is what he said: “We are the people of the Book. Our Book is the book, better than all other books. When it was translated into Greek, it immediately became clear that all existing Greek books could not compete with it.” I guess he was referring to Homer, Sophocles, and Plato. But this is a minor, almost trivial example. You can hear on the radio talk-shows, any day of the week, how cabinet ministers, retired generals, members of the Knesset, some journalists, and of course many members of the general public regularly pollute the Hebrew language with the profanities of clenched souls and niggardly minds. Sometimes it gets to me.
So I’m very glad to be going down to South Hebron today—it’s the least I can do. One has to strike a blow for truth when truth is so insidiously compromised. Last weekend was hard. Sixteen of our activists were arrested and spent over 24 hours in jail; when they were brought before a judge, he threw the case out of court and reprimanded the army for making illegal arrests and for interfering with the basic right to demonstrate. Much worse happened to Assaf, who was arrested—again illegally—in Silwan, in East Jerusalem; while handcuffed, sitting inside the police command car, the policemen sprayed him with pepper gas. I can tell you from experience that this isn’t fun. It blinds you for a couple of hours or more, and it hurts like hell. They took him to the Emergency Room, and released him toward nightfall.
In short, I’m expecting to be arrested today, and I’m at peace with this thought. We’re a relatively large group, maybe 30 altogether, in two large transits. We’re expecting to be stopped, so we take the back road to Susya, avoiding the Zif roadblock—as Yehuda says, “This is our own roadblock, just for peace activists, perhaps the only one in the territories meant for Israelis; it’s rather nice to have a roadblock that is specially for you”—but this doesn’t help in the end. Outside Susya, a vast flotilla of soldiers and policemen is waiting, probably more than I’ve ever seen at one time in the South Hebron hills. They pull us over. They tell us they’re going to escort us to our destination. In a way, this development may not be a bad one: we’re here today to block the settlers from grazing their sheep and goats in the fields of Susya and Twaneh, and it’s possible that the soldiers, for all their clumsiness and their primary solidarity with the settlers, may end up helping us do just that. We take off, with the army vehicles right behind.
Soon we’re in Susya, and within seconds—good timing—we get the report: Settlers are invading the Palestinian fields. We rush over the hilltop, past the tents and shacks and the wind-generator that Noam installed, then down the slope, over rocks and thorns and a few forlorn patches of green barley, and up the next arid hill to where some ten or twelve settlers are screaming at the Palestinians and threatening them, as is their wont. It’s a colorful scene: settlers in white, their enormous skullcaps and long fringes flapping in the wind, their docile, impassive sheep spreading over the hill; twenty or so Palestinians, men and women, in bright reds and blacks, taking their stand in what is left of their lands; the doomed barley tentatively, hopelessly poking up its gaunt shoots amidst the dominant yellow-brown; a fierce mid-morning spring sun reflecting off the white stones; brilliant blue spring skies; our activists with their back-packs and cameras and cell-phones; and a drab set of soldiers now approaching, intent on separating the two rival parties. We have arrived just in time.
I know the ranking army commander in the field from my last visit, not long ago. He’s not a bad man, but he’s in a lousy mood this morning, barking out orders, trying desperately to get us to retreat back up the hill and to move the settlers and their flocks out of the wadi with its succulent thorns. He of course threatens to arrest us. Surprisingly, after a few minutes the settlers, under pressure, begin to move off to the south—but not before one of them rushes at us with his video camera, eager to record the faces of the Jewish traitors he despises. (Just last week one of the settler rabbis issued a legal ruling allowing Jews in the territories to use video cameras on Shabbat to photograph Palestinians and people like us.) “What’s your name?” he asks me, camera rolling. I tell him. “What are you doing here?” “I’m here,” I say to him, “to perform God’s commandments.” He’s taken aback by the answer, and for one short, blessed moment there’s a pause, a pregnant silence, the faint fragrance of truth.
We all know why we’re here. In the interlude that ensues, Yehuda lucidly formulates the matter for the benefit of a foreign film team. “It is,” he says, “the small things that are important. The real fight against the occupation is happening here, in places like Susya. A very valuable, desperate kind of resistance is going on. The soldiers will say to us, ‘Why are you struggling over this miserable, dry field? What’s the big deal? You’re here only to make a provocation.’ But that is what the rich man says, the man who can’t understand the poor man’s suffering. These few fields are all that are left to the Palestinians in Susya, and they are endangered. The settlers sit in their homes with running water, plenty of food, soldiers to protect them, all that they need, and the Palestinians are scraping a hand-to-mouth existence out of their sheep and these few rocks and thorns, under the settlers’ guns. Every day they are in danger of losing more land. We come here to help them. In this micro-struggle, persistence counts. The moral act counts. Solidarity counts. It’s a game—a deadly game, but a non-violent one on our part—that we play with the soldiers and the settlers, and it has its rules. What we see is that the Palestinian Authority has accepted this form of struggle; they now know this is how we must proceed. Salam Fayyad was here in Susya last week.”
“But why,” asks the film-maker, “do ordinary Israelis treat the occupation with such indifference, why don’t they want to change it?” It’s a good question, one I have asked myself perhaps thousands of times. Yehuda answers: “There’s a system in place, and everything feeds it—the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Security and the Ministry of Agriculture and the Treasury and the Army and the Police and the courts. All are complicit. But beyond that, I think Israeli society has become something like a sect. People unthinkingly follow what their leader tells them to do, like sheep.” ‘Abed, a true shepherd, overhears and objects: “Not my sheep,” he says. “They think for themselves.” Israelis are not, perhaps, as clear at heart as ‘Abed’s sheep.
So already, by mid-morning, we’ve had one minor victory; the settlers have been briefly stopped in their tracks, at one tiny point. They soon try their luck at another one, one hill over. Amiel and his group of activists are waiting for them, and again the soldiers arrive, and this time they arrest the whole Ta’ayush group for infringing on a closed military zone. “You’re not merely arrested,” they scream at the activists, “you’re ‘exponentially’ arrested.” From our perch near the Susya tents, we ponder the wisdom of rushing over to join them; Amiel, speaking to us on the cell-phone, says not to, they don’t need any more detainees just now. So we sit and wait. Yehuda and I chat, believe it or not, about Judaism which, I say, is mostly wasted on the Jews. A confirmed atheist, but from a religious family, Yehuda wants to reclaim his birthright; it’s time, he says, that we try to find the words again, the resonant Hebrew words that still sing the old truths, the ones our grandfathers thought were at the core of who we are. My grandfather, I say, would have been ashamed of those Susya settlers, indeed he would never have believed that Jews could act with such cruelty to others, especially to the weak and helpless. As for me, I have recently realized, to my surprise, that I am, at times, oddly in love with the Jewish God as I feel him to be—rather lonely and sad, hurt by his children, occasionally wise, and full of doubt. He is, I think, one of the gods who haunts these harsh hills.
We see a large group heading toward us—the soldiers have released Amiel and the rest, warning them that this is their “last and only chance” to obey orders. A second minor victory. Things are going well today. We say goodbye to our friends at Susya and drive north to Twaneh, where the army has—illegally, in the wake of an incident where a settler from Chavat Maon stabbed a Palestinian—closed off a major pedestrian path, a “statutory road” in the parlance of Israeli law. Again, the soldiers and policemen are there in force. Amiel takes me to talk to the senior commander, my “acquaintance” from last time. We’re not here, we tell him, to initiate any action about this road– but the obvious hint is that if it’s not open by next week we’ll come back and open it ourselves. For today, this message may suffice.
Maybe, I say to myself, I’ll be home before dark after all. The minute the thought arises I know I shouldn’t have let it through. We stop on the way back at the small town of Beit Umar, which has recently been sealed off entirely by the army as punishment, they say, for rocks thrown at cars on the main road. Two Palestinians from Beit Umar were wounded two weeks ago when a settler opened fire. So now huge cement blocks embellish the main road in and out. We toy with the happy idea of somehow removing the middle one and re-opening the road, but for all our pushing and tugging and chipping away at it, it won’t budge. Meanwhile, two army jeeps full of soldiers have turned up, and they don’t want us there. We decide that we’ll at least stand at the entrance to the town and chant a few slogans, for the benefit of whoever might be listening (the Jewish God?). I should stress that such impromptu demonstrations by a handful of activists in open, public space are entirely legal—as the judge confirmed last week. So we cry out into the void: “End the occupation now! The occupation is a crime. From Beit Umar to Bil’in, Freedom Freedom Palestine.” And so on. Hardly a mighty chorus. But the soldiers, burdened with the endless, ugly masses of lethal metal they have to carry, with their stun grenades and tear gas and combat vests and camouflage helmets, have by now lined up in front of us, and they seem both bewildered and very angry. They’re a different unit from the ones we were dealing with farther south. They push us toward the metal barrier marking the start of Palestinian territory—Area B, in fact, though a huge red sign falsely warns that it is Area A and that it is a crime for Israelis to enter. I figure the grenades will start going off soon, and unfortunately I’m quickly proved right. We argue with the commander, we know we’re well within the limits of the law, but of course it doesn’t help; he declares we’re in a Closed Military Zone, as usual, though in the confusion and tumult hardly anyone can see the signed order, if there is one, and then come the warnings: You have two minutes to leave, after that you’ll be arrested. But they don’t wait even two minutes, they’re pounding us with their fists and twisting our arms and kicking at our groins, all of it gratuitous and unprovoked, and I hear one of them say: “Let’s fire rubber bullets,” and a stun grenade explodes nearby, and Amiel is hurled to the pavement, where he rolls over twice before coming to rest, apparently unscathed; he lies there calmly, smoking his cigarette, as the screams and curses and cries of pain and rage echo through space, and one of the soldiers simply loses it and pounces, like a wild beast, on Yehuda and roars into his ear, “Ahu Sharmuta, Ben Zonah,” which I suppose doesn’t need to be translated, and so it goes for what seems like quite a long time.
I have to confess, I’m not one who gets into shouting matches with the soldiers. Also, violence sickens me. I’m not entirely sure why we have chosen this battlefield, not that it matters, and after all to a large extent it wasn’t really our choice—just more of the occupation routine. But when they arrest Gil, and then Amiel, I can see there’s another, pressing choice to be made: either we bundle the activists into the vans and leave, or we stay and get arrested, too. There’s a certain sense to the former option, because the police are now here and they’ve swooped down on our Palestinian drivers, who are in real danger; we’d like to get them out of here. And there are some who can’t or don’t want to get arrested today. Time wears on. Conflicting instructions come in over the cell-phones: Ezra says we should get the hell out, Amiel says we should stand our ground. I think it through. Where is my place? Where is the place of any good man or woman at such a moment? Then I know: I am not getting on that van. We send one party of activists and internationals off toward Jerusalem, and I turn back to the incredulous policeman who thought he was finally getting rid of us for today, and I say, easily, strangely joyful, calm, “Arrest me now.”
With me are another 14 or so who are marched to the hideous, airless, armored arrest vehicle with its small slits for rifle fire that are now locked shut. One by one we are pushed inside. I have just enough time, a few seconds, to call Eileen on my cell-phone before they handcuff me. She doesn’t answer; I leave a message. “You should know,” says the chief policeman, “that the village of Beit Umar will pay tomorrow for what you’ve done today.” I’m sure he’s right: the only operative law in the Occupied Territories works just like that. They’ll make them pay. Isa, wise, humane, naturally brave Isa, watches sadly from the hill as we disappear. It’s good to be here for Isa’s sake.
In fact, I recommend such moments, odd as this may sound. Really, there’s nothing like it. You feel free. Of course, the plastic handcuffs are too tight and your wrists hurt, and you’re thirsty and physically exhausted and you don’t know how long you’ll be like this and what will happen to you, but you’re with the salt of the earth, truly, and you can laugh, and you recall previous arrests that you’re proud of, and there are other memories to be shared, and a burden has been lifted from your shoulders and a kind of sweet relief takes its place, and there’s no fear but only a tense readiness or anticipation, and bits of texts or broken sentences flit through your mind, I’ve been reading Spinoza lately and some childish inner voice absurdly announces that Spinoza would approve, but actually what you mostly feel is simply, deeply alive. Incongruous well-being mingles with minor bodily pain (after a while your wrists start to chafe and turn red). With this, and with your friends, you wait.
Eventually they pick five from among us and drag them outside; they have been selected for a harsher fate than ours. The rest of us, still cuffed, are driven north at breakneck speed, with occasional sudden lurches of the brakes, past the checkpoint and the tunnels outside Jerusalem to the turn-off at Gilo, where we’re rather unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road. Dolev is saddened by this rough-and-ready emancipation—nine others are still languishing in the Etzion or Kiryat-Arba police stations. A cold wind is blowing, and the skies are heavy with cloud. There’s a bus-stop at this corner that we’ve named Ezra Nawi Junction, and there’s even a large colored graffito on the wall that reads “We are all Ezra Nawi”—this from the day last year when Judge Elata Ziskind sent Ezra to jail for a month for doing the sorts of things we were doing today. (He was, she said, undermining law and order.) The graffito has been painted over by an entirely sinister one: “Kahana was right.” Mostly settlers use this bus-stop. I think someday when the nightmare is over, when the occupation is no more and Palestine is free, there will really and truly be a plaque or a small monument here in stone, in Hebrew, in honor of Ezra and the non-violent struggle he has led for the simplest, most basic rights that all human beings own by virtue of being born. But for now, the settlers are still running the show, and another black graffito on the wall of the bus-stand reads: paam halachti le-eretz rechoka, pagashti sham ‘aravi ve-natati lo boks ba-af shelo. Eizeh keif lihyot yehudi. Mavet la’aravim. That is: “Once I went to a distant land. There I met an Arab, and I smashed him on the nose. It’s fun to be a Jew. Death to Arabs.”