Worth reading

March 3, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

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By Professor David Shulman, Hebrew University

Pogroms: it’s something the Jews know about. I grew up on those stories—Cossack raids on the shtetl, the torture and killings and wanton destruction. My grandmother had a brother. They lived in Mikhalayev, in the Ukraine. One day the Cossacks came, and everyone panicked, and the seventeen-year-old brother tried to hide in a pond, and he drowned. She mourned that young death all her life; the dead don’t age, and some wounds never heal.

And now it turns out—who would believe it?—that there are Jews who also know how to carry out pogroms. For the last ten days or so, settlers from Bat ‘Ayin in the so-called Etzion Bloc have been paying violent daily visits to their Palestinian neighbors in Um Safa, perched high on the edge of the western ridge that overlooks the coastal plain all the way to the sea. A terrorist from Um Safa entered Bat ‘Ayin two weeks ago, murdered a settler boy with an axe, and wounded another. The police caught him soon thereafter. But that hasn’t stopped the Bat ‘Ayin settlers from repeated rampages to wreak revenge on Um Safa. They’ve already killed four innocents, and another eleven or twelve have been wounded by gunfire. As if that weren’t bad enough, the soldiers have apparently been making common cause with these settlers, opening fire readily at the villagers. Life in this most beautiful of the mountain villages has become a nightmare; not that it was easy before.

We get the emergency call around 5:00 after a long day that started off in Susya, in South Hebron. At first it looked as though we’d never get through the barriers and the roadblocks; like last week, we had police and army on our tail from the moment we left Jerusalem. Two full buses and several private cars headed south by the long route twisting over the dry hills. A grey, sultry day, summer approaching: in the endless battle in the wadis and terraces between green and brown, green seems to be losing ground. Every once in a while the soldiers would stop one of the cars and threaten to stop the buses. But, happily, by midday we had rendezvoused at Susya with a van of Palestinian activists from all over the West Bank. All in all, some 150 Combatants for Peace—former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian members of the armed resistance organizations who have given up all forms of violence—had come to meet each other and to see the reality of South Hebron.

This is what it will look like one day, I was thinking. Like in Berlin when the Wall fell. Maybe I won’t live to see it, but I know it will be like this. People, ordinary people from both sides, pour out of the vehicles more or less into one another’s arms. The soldiers in their jeeps with their guns and other deadly toys are helpless to hold back this flood of dangerous fraternization. Some of them look to me like they’d like to join us. It all happens fast and very naturally, without thinking. Walking over the rocks and thistles toward the tents of Susya, I hear snippets of conversation like many I’ve heard before. Awkward, tentative, eager. Strangers introduce themselves: “I’m ‘Abed. I live in the refugee camp at Dahariyya.” “We’re from Bethlehem.” “I’m from Tel Aviv, I’m a student. I served in the fucking army for three and a half years.” (This with a somewhat sheepish smile). A young Palestinian man to a dark-haired Israeli woman: “Would you come visit me in my home some day?” “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m afraid.” A short silence. “Yes, I’ll be happy to come.” I, too, embrace my friends: Hafez, Isa, Nasir, ‘Id, the gentle, irrationally hopeful, anxious ‘Id.

We stand among the black tents facing the Israeli settlement of Susya with its red-tile roofs and the new “illegal outpost” that settlers have put up on the next hill, just a couple of hundred meters off. In the distance, at Shuneran, you can see the lonely white whirl of the new turbine our people have recently set up for our Palestinian friends. Wind-driven, it’s already generating enough power to run a refrigerator and a newfangled butter-and-cheese churn: the milk goes into the drum of an old washing machine that shakes it wildly up and down, and in practically no time there is the unlikely miracle of butter. Just two weeks ago I watched Bedouin women doing it the old way, in a goat-skin hung over a fire and rocked back and forth for long hours. This turbine at Shuneran is like a gift from the gods.

Ofra, wiry, battle-worn, lucid, is speaking to the crowd as Yusri translates into Arabic: “The occupation has an interest in preventing us from meeting one another, and an even greater interest in preventing us from struggling together. But we will never allow them to separate us. This is our responsibility and our answer to apartheid. We had to get past the barriers and roadblocks to come here today, and we also had to break through the metaphorical walls that have divided us.” I wonder how Yusri is going to manage this last sentence. He lives in a world of very real walls and barriers. But no, he’s got it, no problem: “hawajiz majaziyeh–that is,” he explains, “the walls that have been erected in our minds.”

Still, it looks like today is going to be rather bland. There are the dialogue sessions that take time—many of the Israeli Combatants have never been in South Hebron or anywhere else in the territories, and some are meeting living people from the other side for the first time. The seasoned few of us from Ta’ayush wait, a little bored. The truth is we’re having trouble holding ourselves back from what our instincts tell us is the thing to do—that is, from marching the whole crowd up the hill toward the new outpost. It’s not every day you get 150 activists here in Susya. But there’s been a decision: no confrontations today. You can’t expose the first-timers to the whole terror and rigor of the occupation. And yet that hill is so enticing. There’s a new settler caravan in place, too. All we have to do is to start walking…..

And then, surprisingly, a new decision crystallizes. We will “take” that hill after all. We’ll follow Nasir up to the ancient well that belongs to the Hadari-Hareini families but that is now off limits to them; the settlers won’t let them near it. South Hebron is a hot, dry land, and a well means the difference between life and death. We head out over the rocky terraces. Movement, at last, and action: the relief is sweet and viscous as a heady liquor. My lungs take in the sharp smell of wild sage, thyme, and the aromatic herb the Palestinians call Amaslimaniya, said to heal infections and stomach pains. I wonder if it heals heart-ache, too. The very fragrance seems to be healing mine.

This was today’s second surpassing moment— all 150 of us fanning out over that hill, advancing toward the settlers’ caravan. We reach the well, and Nasir finds the black leather bucket and lowers it deep into the bowels of the earth and draws up fresh spring water, the sweetest water in the world; he pours it into our bottles and canteens and straight into our mouths, he is smiling as if entranced, drunk on the water of his own well, soaked to the skin, and for that brief unforgettable minute or two the world seems almost right again. And then, of course, the soldiers swoop down on us, with some lunatic settler barking orders at them, and the officer flashes the inevitable piece of paper that declares we are in a Closed Military Zone and we have two minutes to get out before they start hitting us with their clubs and rifle butts and making arrests. The rightful owner of the precious well is driven off, again. The thief who has stolen the well stands beside it together with a small army of soldiers, with their perfectly legal slip of paper, to make sure he gets to keep it.

We have promised the Combatants that we won’t get into any kind of tussle, so slowly—but still almost triumphant—we begin to withdraw. Take it as an object lesson, I say to Amit, a new friend from Tel Aviv. This is how it works. Amit, a doctoral student in philosophy, specialist in Husserl, is incredulous, not for the last time today. Don’t worry, I say; we will yet turn the tide. As we walk, Jesse, by now a stalwart of South Hebron weekends, tells us about the organization called Nefesh be-nefesh, “Soul for Soul”, run by two rabbis in Miami and supported by the Christian Zionist right; they paid him $4000 to come to live in Israel, and they promised him another $4000 if he’d make his home in one of the settlements in the territories.

“I wonder,” he says, “if Palestinian Susya would count.”

By now our appetite has been whetted, and Amiel and Ezra decide that our small Ta’ayush contingent will pay a visit, on our way home, to the plot of land that settlers near Hebron have recently stolen from the Ja’abar family; they’ve put up a small, ugly shack on the land, with a “porch” canopied by brown camouflage net. Last week the army chased them off, because of our pressure, but they came back, of course, within a few hours. It’s time to pay them another visit. So we head north in the Palestinian van with Isa, and at some point along the highway we get out and make our way through desiccated vineyards and fallow fields uphill to the Ja’abars and then on to the hilltop and its hut. Some eight or nine settler teenagers in Sabbath white are sitting there, looking rather weary. Our arrival jogs them awake, and a messenger is sent to bring reinforcements; soon some older ones turn up, including a long-haired, wild-eyed boy-man caressing his M-16, his finger on the trigger and the clip loaded inside. He’s crazy, Amiel says, be careful. We stare him down. Amit tries to talk to them—I think he’d like to persuade them by reasoned argument that what they’re doing is immoral—with the usual result. I’m not sure how long the stalemate would have continued if we hadn’t got the call from Isa: settlers are shooting in the village of Um Safa; come at once.

We rush back to the van and race north, turning west at Beit Umar. At once we’re in the heart of Palestine. The roads are riddled with pot-holes, we pass donkeys and horses and rather a lot of goats and olive trees and ragged children. After a while we see that people are standing on their flat root-tops, apparently watching the battle going on in the village below them. And the first noises impinge upon us—the distant drumming of the guns. I am wondering what we’re supposed to do. And what if we get caught between rock-throwing village teenagers and trigger-happy soldiers? Four people died here in the last few days. Some nervous thoughts flit through my brain, I think of my grandchildren, and Eileen, what am I doing here, then I remember my grand-uncle, drowned at seventeen. If only some decent person had been there to help. My head clears. Like any battle-field, this one is confusing; it takes some time, as we proceed into the village, to figure out who is doing what to whom. But half a kilometer or so away we see the army jeeps and half-tracks, and there are also soldiers standing near a wire fence with guns shouldered, as if to provide cover for the settlers. Two blue jeeps of Border Police turn up beside us on the road, and more soldiers jump out and take up their positions, focusing their telescopic sights.

Then it really begins. First the stun grenades, then the rubber-coated bullets—the Palestinians know each lethal genus and genre by the sound—then live bullets, lots of them. Crack crack crack—and the horrible hollow echo each time, as if the shot had turned back on itself and was reaching out toward any soft, vulnerable surface. We take shelter on the porch of a new stone house by the roadside. There are several women draped in black, and a younger one, elegantly dressed, with a baby cradled in a blanket in her arms. I count seven young children. One of the older women is trembling and crying; I wish I could comfort her or calm her. Isa, gallant Isa, with his weak heart, too full of feeling, smiles calmly. He’s another one of God’s miracles, Isa, a man of principle, totally committed to non-violent action, never afraid, never too tired to notice the fear or pain of those around him. It’s worth coming here just to be with Isa. Then there’s our driver, who says to me—echoing my own words earlier to Amit—”It’s a good lesson. This is how things are, most days. It’s a lesson in politics, or in war, in war as a part of politics.” In the midst of it all, the women, intent on caring for their guests under any circumstances, serve tiny cups of Turkish coffee. Minutes pass to the accompaniment of intermittent rifle fire. The white-and-beige goats next door are furiously chewing away at the thorny shrubs in the yard, heedless of the vast ruckus just outside the gate. Maybe they’re used to it by now.

Slowly we piece together from the villagers the story of this afternoon. First the settlers from Bat ‘Ayin came in, shooting their guns. Some of the young men from the village tried to fight back, to protect their homes and families with whatever they had, and all they had was rocks. Then the soldiers arrived to save the settlers and started shooting, and the rock-throwing intensified. This is one way to reconstruct the sequence. By now it hardly matters. The only question is how to stop it.

I hear wailing and screaming from somewhere to my right, amidst the olive trees and terraces, and then Amiel is calling me to come quickly; I was trained as a combat medic, and someone has been hit. I set off running in the direction of the screams, through the trees behind the houses, trying at the same time to find in my shoulder-bag the small set of pads and bandages and the rubber elastic to use as a tourniquet that I always bring along with me to South Hebron. It’s been almost exactly 27 years, I quickly calculate, since I last ran like this to a wounded man, in the first Lebanon war; and God only knows if I’ll remember what to do. They always used to tell us that the knowledge is buried in your fingers and will re-emerge automatically when you need it. I hope they’re right. In any case, there’s no time to think. The wailing intensifies. Suddenly they’re waving to me to turn back; an ambulance has found its way over the hill and driven off with the victim. Later we hear that he’s wounded “moderately.” Could have been worse.

And then we’re back on the street standing right under the soldiers, and stray rocks are crashing down near us, and one of the young student girls who came with us is hit in the leg. She’s a little shaken. A Palestinian woman needs to get home, perhaps she’s worried about her children, she’s afraid to climb the hill alone, so we envelop her on all sides and walk her uphill past the soldiers, who yell at us and try to stop us, but we ignore them and keep walking, and maybe after all we’re finally having some effect on them because at last they hold their fire. Slowly, tentatively, painfully, a certain quiet sinks in as evening comes on and the hills turn purple and then black. As is his wont, Ezra materializes suddenly, just where he is needed; how he got here through all the chaos I will never know, but he is all smiles and he says to us, “You should know that it’s only because we’re here that they’ve stopped shooting.” He’s indomitable, another great innocent, great-hearted and clear; he stops in the street to remonstrate with the young rock-throwers. If only they would learn not to do that. He thinks someday they will learn.

It’s hard to find a good man or a good woman, but I’ve been lucky in this respect. In fact, I’ve surrounded myself with them. As we walk back toward the van, Amit, the philosopher, tells me that this whole business just doesn’t make sense. Why doesn’t the army demolish the rickety hut those settlers have put up on the Ja’abar family’s land? For that matter, why does the State of Israel send its soldiers to protect the settlers in the first place? And what was the point of shooting live bullets at the village once the settlers had been scuttled away? What’s there to be gained from it? Everything seems to him surreal. He’s right. A Jewish pogrom is surreal. He’s learning Greek, it turns out, and they’ve just started reading Plato’s Apology in class. I remember that joy. It feels good, and somehow right, to remember it here in Um Safa, as we prepare to leave. For a passing second I can hear Socrates speaking to the settlers, who would undoubtedly have been all too happy to condemn him to die—who would probably have shot him outright: “Don’t think that by killing someone you can escape being blamed for your own wickedness; that is neither possible nor honorable….Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods.”