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It’s not a good time to walk through the fields. The first, tentative green shoots are pushing up from soft soil irrigated by last month’s fierce snowfall. At Umm al-Khair, the huge field we cleared of rocks and thorns last summer is now a miracle of Irish green, wildly at odds with the browns and purples of the desert. The light is wintry, crisp, more than sufficient to highlight the gap between good and evil.
Still, we find ourselves moving rapidly through fields, stepping as lightly as we can around the young shoots. This is a day of many, too many, CMZ’s, Closed Military Zones; the papers keep coming at us, along with the usual barks and threats and the crudely drawn maps, which also keep repeating themselves, each time enlarging the forbidden area further, to the point where one can hardly find a spot to step on. First we are stopped at the Dirat Junction by two sleepy soldiers who order us out of the minibus. They are about to start collecting our identity cards, but we take off on foot down the highway, and there are simply too many of us for them to pursue. Those are always good moments. You feel free. The morning is still young, the air sweet with the taste of dawn. I walk with Amiel, and, in the old Ta’ayush mode, there is time, with soldiers behind and no doubt also ahead of us, to talk about the Phaedrus and Plato’s horror of writing, though clearly he overcame the feeling in order to write down this greatest of all works on the madness of loving. “And of madness there are two kinds; one produced by human infirmity, the other a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention.” Let us see which of the two we will meet today.
Eventually the minibus reappears and we climb in, heading south to Umm al-Ara’is. The police are tailing us, so we know we are going to have to exit the bus very quickly when we arrive at our jumping-off point near Mitzpeh Yair. We hope to slip through their hands a second time. But they’re on to us from the moment we burst from the vehicle, and the idiot officer, whom we know, slams into Amiel’s shoulder, and here is the first Closed Military Zone order ready to go. Amiel takes a quick look at the attached map, decides we can safely head uphill toward the fertile wadi that the settlers have stolen, and we are off, defiant. For the second time this morning, we leave slightly stupefied soldiers behind.
We stop at the edge of the wadi, where more soldiers are waiting. On the ridge in the distance are Sa’id and the ‘Awad Palestinians, moving downhill toward their lost fields. We see their silhouettes against the sun. Across from us are the sprawling greenhouses the settlers have erected on Palestinian land. They look all too solid: the Supreme Court ordered their demolition by a date in September, but of course nothing happened. Who is the Supreme Court anyway? You can be sure the soldiers down here don’t care. Nonetheless, the Army offered the Palestinians a package that would have allowed them, so they were told, free access to their lands in the wadi, but the greenhouses would stay in place. Apparently, the wife of their owner is well connected to the upper echelons of the Likud Party—so carrying out the court’s ruling was not an option. The Palestinians, at first tempted by the bait, tried to get the promise in writing, but the Army naturally refused; so the Palestinians called off the deal. Back to square one. We watch the black shadows, including many children, descend into the wadi.
It’s like watching the doomed actors dancing with Death on the mountain in the Seventh Seal. Soon we hear that, as always, week after week, the ‘Awad families and another party of our activists have been driven off with the inevitable order declaring a CMZ. We join them. Sa’id hugs me. But there’s no time to mourn together, to catch up. Ezra is waiting for me and the two young philosophers I’ve brought with me, David and Antonis; and, as usual, he’s in a hurry. He drives us to another rocky hilltop—Khushiyya. “What are we supposed to do here?” “Just be there. Be with them. You’ll see.”
I know Khushiyya. I won’t bore you with the details of how they’ve been driven from their lands. There’s a certain well that they still hope to reclaim. This morning they’re back—hardened farmers, desperate to come home—with pickaxes and shovels on their shoulders. But the soldiers got there first. And, yes, you guessed it, they have a CMZ order ready and waiting. The farmers won’t get near the well today. So they move down the eastern slope to a field that’s been plowed, and there’s more work to be done here, clearing away rocks, for example, so the shovels are helpful after all. It’s hot; late morning, a hint of breeze. Peaceful. But the soldiers can’t stand this little piece of Palestinian everydayness, so down they come with the same order spruced up a little, the map redrawn to double or perhaps even triple the size of the forbidden zone. The Palestinians protest. The officer from the Civil Administration lays down the law. We walk back with them uphill.
It hurts. It’s beginning to get to me. I can’t contain their grief and bewilderment—it is, after all, their land—and I can’t bear seeing them humiliated like this, treated like fractious children, always, again and again, expelled, ordered here or there or anywhere that is not the fields they have worked for centuries. But worse is in store. At the summit we see the notorious settler-widow, Dalia Har Sinai. She’s an orthodox Jewish woman, but she’s violating the Shabbat today, since the greatest of all God’s commandments is, it seems: “Humiliate as many Palestinians as you can.” She’s relentless, on fire. She speaks at length with the soldiers. She whips out her cellphone and calls someone, probably some senior officer, maybe the Minister of Defense, who knows?
I watch her, fascinated by the face of malice. I’ve “met” her many times, and been the object of her curses and screams. I’m even a little proud of that—maybe I should put it on my CV. In any case, probably as a result of her phone call, the commanding officers come back to us with yet another version of the CMZ order, and now there’s almost no space left on the map for these farmers. All their fields are out of bounds except for one dry plot near the highway. The world has closed in on them, the Occupation has gripped them by the throat. One comes to stand beside me, beside himself with outrage. “She claims to be religious,” he says to me, “but how could a person who believes in God do what she does? She doesn’t care about God.” I don’t know what to say. Finally I manage one word: “sarikin, thieves.”
It’s the hard core of the Occupation. They’re all into it, either silently complicit or actively conniving at it—all the soldiers we see today, and the policemen, and the officers of the Civil Administration, and of course the settlers, and behind them stand the Prime Minister and his cabinet and his party and his coalition and the voters who gave them power. They’re all thieves. One could extend the list still further.
Down the highway, there’s a grove of old olive trees that have been savaged by settlers this week. Almost certainly, the crude attack came from the veteran settlements of Maon and its brutal satellite, Chavat Maon. We know these people. Eleven years ago to the day, on January 18, 2003, I was beaten and shot at in the fields of Twaneh by settlers from Chavat Maon. Let’s celebrate this anniversary. We gather up heavy branches from the mangled olive trees and take them with us to Twaneh, with the police and soldiers hot behind us. We take shelter in Hafez’s house, and we have a plan. We’ll send a small group with Ezra by car in the hope of diverting their attention, and the rest of us will take these branches up into the forbidden interstice between Maon and Chavat Maon, where we will hold them up in silent protest, as is our custom in such cases. We wait, hoping the police will lose interest. After an hour, we move quickly through the house, emerge from the back door, and head uphill toward Twaneh’s ugly neighbors.
Sometimes it’s like that in south Hebron. I find myself playing children’s games—forced into it by circumstance. I had a birthday this week. At 65, it seems it’s time, once again, for Hide-and-Seek. Indeed, at first they don’t notice us. Carrying our olive branches, we climb the path the children from Tuba take on their way to school in Twaneh, skirting the two settlements. There’s a good chance settlers will come out to harass us. At the top we take our stand, olive branches in hand.
That’s where the police find us. They are unpleasantly surprised, and their mission is to get us out of there. They threaten to arrest us. They have, you will be surprised to hear, an order declaring the ground we stand on to be a CMZ. So what use was our protest? No one heard it or saw it except the elegant eagles of south Hebron, the sun god, the wind, and a few passing clouds. Maybe these noble witnesses are enough. We heap the broken branches into a small, disorderly monument to human wickedness, here where Maon meets Chavat Maon. Perhaps they’ll stay there for some days. Still there’s the nagging thought– was it all for nothing?
But that, my dear readers, depends on you. I attach a photo. Perhaps one or two of you will do something with this little quixotic story. Perhaps you’ll tell a friend, or call your congressman, or write an op-ed, or email the President or the Prime Minister of whatever country you live in, or go on the radio with a simple message: Stop the crimes of Israel in south Hebron! It’s in your hands no less than in ours.
But that’s not the end. Scratch the surface down here, and the whole volatile, mad concoction will readily explode. We are winding our way back along the path with the Border Police escorting us when we suddenly see that settlers have come pouring down the hill from Chavat Maon. Shepherds from Twaneh are there on the slope with their sheep. Soldiers, too. Three police vans and an army jeep. Among the settlers are several young boys who triggered the explosion by hurling rocks at the Palestinian shepherds– and then at us. There’s a lot of shouting and cursing, shrill in the desert air. Chaos in slow choreography. The soldiers scramble over the rocks, utterly out of their depth. But they have their tried-and-true methods. Rule One: In difficult moments, find some Palestinian and arrest him. Rule Two: Arrest another one. Remember that in the minds of the police and the soldiers, the mere fact that these Palestinians, including the owner of this patch of land, are still standing there generates an intolerable situation made worse by our presence beside them.
They pick their man. I don’t know why, but their intended victim decides, for once, not to play along. He has deeds of ownership to this slope, and he is so sick and tired of being hemmed in and ordered around and barked at and driven away that he refuses to pay any attention to the soldiers’ announcement of yet another CMZ. It is his land, and this time he won’t leave it. He is old, stout, rough, and stubborn. He has high blood pressure. Livid with rage, he yells at the officer, and in the throes of this afternoon fracas as the sun begins to sink toward the horizon he apparently slips and falls, or perhaps he was pushed and fell—I didn’t see it. Now he lies there on the rocks; they have arrested him. They’re also trying to get us off this slope, pushing us downhill, farther and farther, it’s never far enough. I say to the officer who has come at me: “Wait, I’m a medic, let me through so I can attend to this man,” but the officer is adamant, they’ll handle this alone. More stones come at us, courtesy of the settler boys.
In the midst of the whole wild scene, time stops for me. Somehow, somewhere, pushed and threatened, I lose my Indian watch with the days of the week marked in Sanskrit. I’ve had it for 15 years, and I loved it, but now it’s gone, an offering of endless hours and days to the ancient gods in Twaneh. I stumble over barbed wire. Odd, this particular kind of happiness I’m feeling. Is this the divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention? I find Amiel, who is standing alone. He is at once angry and slightly meditative, almost wistful; better, he says, to nurse the anger than to give in to the vision of surreal foolishness that might almost be amusing. We are already across the wadi and halfway up the opposite slope when he notices that the settler stone-throwers are still in place, indeed reinforced, right in the middle of the newly proclaimed CMZ. This is too much to bear. We climb back toward them, past clusters of ragamuffin Palestinian children from Twaneh who are chanting the Palestinian anthem, Biladi. Violent shadows flicker through the pine trees hiding Chavat Maon. The police vehicles crawl heavily over the dirt path just below them. The senior office gets out, stands staring at the trees, at the boys, at the Palestinian children, at us. He’s lost control. What to do? He waits—a long hour. By the end of it, three of the stone-throwers, with their long sidelocks and their heavy skullcaps and their white Shabbat shirts, have come down to his command car. He runs his fingers through their hair.
We can leave them standing there like that, a suitable emblem for today’s exertions. As Amiel says: “It’s the proper ending. The rightful owner of the land has been arrested on his land,
and the attackers have received the caress they so richly deserve.” The world is back on course. They’ve got their victim. We’ve made our point to the sun and the wind and the clouds. Now it’s up to you.