Saturday, September 20 2014 Umm al-Ara’is by David Shulman 1601143_928732117141804_807758310035715837_n

New outpost of Givat Sorek. Photo by Amir Bitan.

September 20, 2014

7:00. Ezra leaves me off near the ‘Awad tents on the steep slope north of the wadi. It’s another one of those times when he says: “Just keep walking, and you’ll find the shepherds.” He also tells me that last week there was a violent attack on them by settlers from Mitzpeh Yair; the shepherds and two international volunteers were beaten and a camera smashed. For now, I’m on my own. It’s autumn: sharp wind, a timid sun, and the purple shadows of a hundred clouds soaking the desert far below.

I climb the hill. Silence, but for the wind. A few white birds taking off in that dizzy arc they’re fond of. On the lower slope, close to the wadi, I find Na’il with his sheep and goats. They’re devouring the thorny ‘umra that they relish, oblivious of all human things, such as good and evil.

Na’il welcomes me with the ancient formulas offered to an honored guest; he seems relieved that I’m there. He talks of the attack. But at heart he’s light, even happy-go-lucky. A happy man. I’m shivering in the cold. Meanwhile, at this early hour the first soldiers arrive, then police. They don’t interfere with the furious grazing except to draw a line that is not to be crossed. Ella and Guy Avni join us as the sun warms to its task. One of the policemen, a little too convivial, a little awkward, comes over to shake our hands and to wish us a good day—not cynically, he says, he wants us to know that. Why don’t I believe him?

Two pleasant hours go by as we wait for Sa’id and the ‘Awad families to come down the hill for the weekly ritual. But today the ritual goes askew. The soldiers have mostly disappeared; there is one packed police jeep sitting idly on the dirt path where the fields begin. Sa’id and his people arrive at the far end of the wadi; today they cross over it, through the stolen fields, climbing up toward the settlement of Mitzpeh Yair, where the thieves themselves are gathered, waiting for them, in their white Shabbat clothes.

For once, no piece of paper declaring a Closed Military Zone. No attempt to stop the Palestinian owners. Ella, Guy, and I rush toward the path they have taken; we strike off uphill in their tracks. Now the policemen wake up; they bark at us, then they tell us we’re being detained for entering a forbidden zone. They take our identity cards and order us to stand by the jeep. They’re angry. I speak to A., who seems to be in charge. I tell him no one showed us any document, they have no reason or excuse to arrest us. No, he says: we have violated a tzav aluf, an order signed by a general that is now permanently in force, declaring the whole wadi off bounds. It makes no difference if we knew this or not.

In general, I don’t mind being arrested; sometimes, often, it even feels good. There is that burst of inner freedom that is bound up with knowing that you’ve done the right thing, taken a stand, spoken the truth, even if there’s no one there to hear it. You act and choose. But today everything happened in such a haphazard, foolish way; we were arrested almost by after-thought, or on a whim. There’s no rhyme or reason to it other than the default wish to harass us and the Palestinians. And at first, judging by what they tell us, it seems not unlikely that this business will ramify and mushroom, with all the usual threats and interrogations and tedious waiting around. I wish I was uphill with Sa’id, where we wanted to be, facing whatever dangers he is facing.

One of the settlers strides, heedless, haughty, through the very fields where we were arrested (actually he’s farther in, maybe truly in the area cordoned off by that general). Soon he’s joined by others. “Why don’t you stop them?” we ask the policemen, and they answer at once, “Because they’re Jews.” “So are we,” I say. Another officer, his head dwarfed by a thick blue-and-white skullcap, says in derision: “You, Jews? You make me want to throw up.” “Funny,” Ella says, just back from two months in Berlin, “lately I keep having to work hard just to prove that I’m Jewish.”

“Look at these people,” says another policeman from the jeep, taking this opportunity to educate a young Ethiopian woman who wears the same blue uniform—probably a new recruit. He’s pointing at us. “You see them? They’re compassionate toward the cruel, rahmanim al akhzarim.” It’s an old Jewish concept, I’m afraid. Note that the cruel don’t ever deserve compassion. But no one in his or her right mind could think of Sa’id as cruel. He’s one of the gentlest men I’ve known. The Ethiopian girl nods; she’s learned the lesson.

We can see through the zoom on the video camera that there’s a lot of action on the hilltop: settlers running, soldiers yelling, the Palestinians standing their ground. Some of our people are there with them, and by now they know the three of us have been detained. I’m feeling restless and a little bored. Get it over already.

Michal Peleg comes down to see what’s happening with us and to film the police as they go through their paces. We joke a little. They’re filling out the “Detainees’ Form,” like in every arrest: names, identity numbers, date, and the ostensible reason for detention. I say to Michal, “This ensures us a little corner in Paradise. In two hundred years some historian will find those forms and will say that on September 20, 2014—long ages ago–three Israelis stood up for the innocent. It didn’t do much good, but maybe it’s worth a footnote.” She laughs. Then I take it back. Forget that future vindication. Who cares? I’m in Paradise right now.

It’s true, you know. You should see the way the shadows of the clouds keep painting the stones and sand and thorns, oblivious of human good and evil. I’m amazed I was granted the boon of seeing this sight, along with other blessings like shaking Sa’id’s hand and looking after those omnivorous sheep (with their unnerving fondness for chewing on plastic bags, despite all attempts to stop them) and hearing the thick musical Arabic of the shepherds and the ‘Awad children who, as always, are playing here in the sand and dust. It all adds up to a pretty decent morning in South Hebron.

Umm Al Ara'is, on another Saturday

Umm Al Ara’is, on another Saturday

Just before noon, A. calls me over. He seems to have taken a liking for me for some reason, maybe because I spoke to him without anger. (His colleague, Overly Convivial, has, by contrast, been venting his displeasure with us in what seems like wounded pride: “I even wished you a good day,” he reminds us, “without cynicism, remember?” I remember.) After discussing the ins and outs of our crime with his superiors over the phone in the jeep, A. is happy to inform me that we are being released. He gives me back my identity card and asks when he’ll meet me here again. “Not until February,” I tell him. “I’m going to India for some months.” “Great,” he says. “Yeah,” I answer, “you prefer me there and not here.”

Free again, we spend a while with Sa’id. On September 29th the Civil Administration, that is, the State, is supposed to announce its conclusions on the ownership of land in the wadi. Sa’id is gearing up for this moment and can’t help feeling some hope; but I don’t expect a decent, or honest, result. It will be some ingenious bureaucratic patchwork and will very likely legalize at least some, maybe most, of the theft. The bureaucrats are the worst, even worse than the settlers. There’s a long way still to go before this wadi reverts to its rightful owners. One good piece of news is that the CA, finally acting on the court’s ruling, has started demolishing the 12 or 13 hothouses the settlers built years ago right next to Mitzpeh Ya’ir, some of them on Sa’id’s own family lands.

On the way home we stop at a hill near Karmei Zur, in the Etzion bloc, where settlers have recently put up a few rickety buildings and flags and planted grapevines. More stolen land; Guy knows the owner. We need to photograph this site for the courts. The security officer of Karmei Zur sees us from a distance and dashes over. He’s young, not too aggressive, disdainful. “I wish I could figure out what goes on your heads,” he says. “But I won’t even try. It’s impossible to understand people like you.” We say this and that, not intending to change his mind. But I feel a bit sorry for him. He’s out of his depth. He keeps asking us if there are more crazy leftists coming to visit this hill today, and we say, “Oh yes, there are the Combatants for Peace, maybe some 6000 of them or so, and the Forum of Bereaved Families, another few hundred, and the Rabbis for Human Rights, and Yesh Din, and Machsom Watch, and the Women in Black….” And so on, running through the roster of the Israeli peace organizations or what’s left of them. He can’t tell if we’re kidding or not. I think he’s scared. I can’t resist adding, “And we’re also expecting a few companies of Marines.” Paradise Now. What’s this poor guy going to do? Someone says, “Is that all that’s left of us, a few thousand leftists?” Michal: “Sometimes even one or two people can change history.”

You have to hand it to the settlers. They’ve chosen a hilltop with one of the most splendid views in the territories, a vast westward vista all the way down to the coastal plain and the sea. Unfortunately, this vision is marred by the sight of the settlers’ horrible prefab homes, dull blocks and cubes, snaking over the terraces just below us. In fact, the detritus of settlers’ building is scattered liberally all over this area on the outskirts of Hebron city (and, in effect, all the way south from Jerusalem on Road 60): houses, pipes, trellises, outhouses, walls, fences, scaffolding, pergolas. It keeps spreading day by day. I don’t know what will happen to the Palestinian people, but I can tell you for sure that if the settlers have their way, the ravishing, ravished land of Palestine itself will be ruined, made as ugly as the malice in their hearts—some of their hearts.