Saturday, September 15 2012 Gawawis and Bi’r al-‘Id – by David Shulman

I’ve never been expelled from my home or my lands or from anywhere else. No doubt my ancestors could have said something about it. When I came to live in Israel some 45 years ago, I never dreamed that someday I’d be spending my weekends trying to keep Palestinian farmers and shepherds from suffering that prototypically Jewish trauma—at the hands of the Jews.

I can tell you. It feels like hell, even if you’re just watching it happen to someone else. There are times when I think I can’t go through it again. I’m walking beside the shepherds and the goats, and behind me the soldiers and border policemen are barking orders, telling me to move on, telling me that I’m still inside the Closed Military Zone that they’ve drawn in blue on their army maps that, under duress, they finally let us see. Today the soldiers were particularly bad. The Battalion Commander is young, supercilious, arrogant. He loves saying things like, “You don’t know anything about this, and anyway 15 seconds have already gone by, which leaves 4 minutes and 45 seconds before we arrest you.” He keeps looking at his watch, especially when Amiel explains to him, with cool clarity, that what he, the Battalion Commander, is doing is totally illegal.

The Battalion Commander, who probably has a name, turned up right from the start, around 7:30 in this almost-autumnal morning. A minute before a deer had raced past us with that wild grace that human beings are mostly incapable of achieving. Instead of those arcs and leaps, we use words, mostly to no great effect. The hills were almost blue in the early morning, the sheep were grazing with gusto, and the shepherds were clearly happy to be back on this thorny hill that is theirs, of course, for centuries but to which they normally have no access. The settlement (technically, I think it’s an “illegal outpost”) of Mitzpeh Yair sits on top of the hill, and two settlers in their white Shabbat clothes have already come down to harass us, with the soldiers fast on their heels.

I’m used to all gradations of human wickedness in the South Hebron hills, but the Battalion Commander easily ranks among the worst I’ve seen in recent years. On second thought, I suppose the settlers who have attacked us from time to time, with murder in their eyes, might rank even lower. But the Battalion Commander, let’s not forget, has the power. He is the public face of the Occupation system. He literally calls the shots. He has a long black submachine-gun, as do all of his men, and he seems to enjoy fondling it as he forces us downhill. At one point Amiel says to Maria, who is protesting at this abuse of authority and the blatant contravention of the army’s own laws: “There is the law, and they’re violating it at every level, but here the law doesn’t really exist. The only law that counts is this gun.” He draws a long ellipse with his hand in the space inhabited by the gun, which in fact hides nearly all of the Battalion Commander’s short body. The man has become his gun. I know it can happen; I remember from the war.

He interests me, the Battalion Commander, and I wish I could draw him into conversation; but this is almost impossible. He is reveling in his power to push us out of his lordly domain. Still, I figure I have to try. “Don’t you feel bad inside yourself?” I say to him (it sounds better in Hebrew).

“No.”

Of course we have recited to him the Supreme Court rulings about Closed Military Zones, about how the army is strictly forbidden to impose one on Palestinian grazing grounds or fields if this means keeping the farmers and shepherds off their lands, about how the commander in the field is required to show us the order and the attached map and to allow us to photograph them, about arbitrary arrest and arbitrary rulings and all the other things that are standard practice here in the Wild South. None of this has made the slightest impression. The Battalion Commander, still looking at his watch, has been joined by some senior commander from the Civil Administration and another one from the Border Police, bearded and black, whom I remember from previous encounters.

In the end, he’s the one who detains Ella and me. It happens like this. We were prepared to defy the order and the Closed Military Zone and get arrested on the top of the hill, but the shepherds, at the last minute, decided—as often happens—not to risk arrest, which is potentially a big thing for them and can last for a long time. There are two of them—a father and his son—and the father, tough, weather-beaten, beaten down in others ways, shrugs and says, “We’ll go water the goats.” The well is some ways down the hill, in the direction the soldiers want us to go. We have our rules: if our Palestinian hosts back off, we won’t try to make them stay and fight it out. Once they go, there’s no point in our staying. So very slowly and deliberately, at the pace of a stubborn goat, with the soldiers bullying and threatening from behind, dogging our steps, we begin our descent.

My spirits sink. At the bottom of my stomach, black bile thickens and boils. I hate this. Unusually for me, I even hate the Battalion Commander. I feel insulted in every pore of my skin. He treats the Palestinians with contempt and us with virulent disgust. Words like “law” or “decency” clearly mean nothing to him. Maybe words in general mean little to him. I feel impotent. I can’t protect these innocent shepherds, can’t break through the crystal surface of human cruelty. I want to see the Battalion Commander in the prisoner’s dock at the Hague. Maybe someday he’ll be there, and I’ll come and remind him of this morning in South Hebron. I’ll tell him he deserves to be punished, and I’ll bear witness against him, since I promise you I will never forget. Even better would be if this narrow, clenched, hard-hearted man would somehow, later in his life, by some miracle, become a human being. I think there’s a slight chance.

But the worst of it is that feeling of losing what is most yours. I figure the shepherds must be feeling it. Maybe even the goats somehow sense it. These thorns and rocks are your most intimate friends, you have spent your childhood and youth among them, and then the settlers arrived and with them the soldiers and the officious clerks of the Civil Administration waving their papers and they all said you have no right to be here any longer and drove you away at gunpoint. And today you came back until they drove you away again, and we couldn’t help.

Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. Our lawyers will work on the case, and we’ll go to court if we have to, and in the end these shepherds will have the right to graze here unhindered. Usually, if we persist, that’s how it ends. We have filmed it all, the courts will have no dearth of evidence, the result is more or less known in advance. We’ve been through it many times. But for the moment, as the sun rages higher in the sky, I rage, too.

Then they make a mistake. They seem suddenly to realize that Nasser, our close friend from Susya, is a Palestinian, thus vulnerable to their threats. He’s been walking with us downhill toward the road that constitutes the outer border of the CMZ, but they stop him and demand that he hand over his identity card. “You don’t belong here,” says the Border Policeman, studying the card. “You’re not allowed to be in this zone.” He’s detained. So now there’s no question about what we have to do. We turn around. The older shepherd is hauling buckets of water from the well for the goats. We stand beside him, facing the bullies and their guns. Amiel, furious, says to the Battalion Commander: “Everything you’ve done today was illegal, but now what you’re doing is racist, in more ways than one, and I won’t allow it to happen.” Arresting the Palestinian and allowing the Jews to go free—there’s no way we’ll accept this. As they begin to drag Nasser back up the hill, where Nissim, veteran photographer of these expeditions, has already been detained, we follow them. The Border Policeman turns to Ella and me and says: “Stop. Where do you think you’re going?”

“We’re going with Nasser.”

“Give me your identity cards. You’re being detained.”

Amiel, Dolev, and several others have suffered the same fate. We march uphill. I’m feeling better already. In fact, a wave of relief washes over me. The world suddenly looks more interesting. It’s only a small, an infinitesimal act of defiance and resistance, but it’s enough to make you feel alive again. Black bile begins to dissolve. Life offers you a chance from time to time. You can do the right thing. The initiative has suddenly, surprisingly, passed to us. The Battalion Commander looks far from pleased, though I hear him say to one of his officers, “Don’t worry, this is good for us.” He’s probably glad to see us arrested, though he enjoyed driving us off even more. Lately, when the soldiers arrest us because of Closed Military Zones, they usually tack on another, entirely invented charge, like “attacking an officer” or “preventing a policeman from discharging his duties” or “illegal assembly.” What this means, in practice, is that the legal procedures drag on and may go to court and may end with a ban on entering South Hebron for some weeks or months—or worse, if the police can make the fake charges stick.

We climb the hill. Eventually they group us together near the main road. We wait, as one always waits in such situations. It’s hot. I’m feeling ridiculously happy. To add to my joy, we hear the messages coming through on the police network. They have phoned in our identity numbers, and someone sitting near a computer in some air-conditioned office far away has checked them and calls back with what she’s discovered: “David Shulman, takin. [That is: OK, acceptable, in good working order].” “Ella Janatovsky—tekina.” We burst out laughing. I say to the policeman: “I don’t think my wife would agree.” Ella sends a Facebook message: “The police say I’m OK!”

A black-uniformed super-policeman turns up, a welcome antidote to the Battalion Commander. Young, genial, assuming control, the policeman beams at us and says, all butter and honey: “Just in case you have a feeling that the police are anti-leftist, I want you to know that this is simply not the case. We aren’t pro or anti anybody. We’re here to enforce the law.” Ezra, standing beside him, nods and says, “Of course. God forbid you should be partisan.” “No, really,” says the policeman, “I mean it. We’re completely neutral.” “I would never doubt it,” says Ezra. This goes on for a while. Slowly it dawns on me that we won’t be spending the next few hours in the police station after all. They return our identity cards. Nasser, Amiel, and Dolev have to fill out “detention forms.” Then they, too, will be released. I hope the Battalion Commander is eating his heart.

We go with Ezra to Bi’r al-‘Id for a double visit. First there is tea with Haj Isma’il. Recently four settlers attacked him with iron bars and knives; he had to be hospitalized. Today he’s looking more or less all right, except for one hand where you can still see the scars from the slashes and two bad spots on his skull. His skin has the texture of rock. “You’ll be fine in time for the wedding,” Ezra teases him. Haj Isma’il has four wives and thirty-three children, but he’s been trying for years to persuade the Qadi to allow him to marry a fifth.

“We’ve seen it all,” he says to us. “The Turks, the British, and the Jordanians all ruled us, but we’ve seen nothing as bad as the Israelis, ma shufna as’ab min Israel.”

Then there’s the donkey. Ezra found him abandoned on the road, very weak, thin, sick. He adopted him. Now he brings him delicacies to eat every time he comes (which is most days). The donkey has discriminating tastes. He is particularly fond of ripe grapes and rice cakes. We offer him some of both along with a few south Indian cashews. He still looks a little skinny, his white hair thinned out and scraggly. “You love donkeys,” I say to Ezra, mindful of similar visits long ago. “It’s not that I love them,” Ezra says, “but I feel sorry for them. Everyone is always making fun of them and exploiting them without mercy. They’re sturdy and reliable and no prima donnas. They deserve to live, too.” He’s battle-worn, Ezra, a fighter, and I’ve never seen a gentler heart.