End of winter, early spring: the hills of south Hebron are a shocking green. It won`t last long. Very soon now, unless there`s one last burst of rain, green will revert to the usual palette of yellow and brown. Already the sun is strong, a taste of the fierce summer to come. The rocky trails are white with asphodels in full bloom—what the Palestinians call ghosalan and the Jews call irit. On the drive down we pass dozens of almond trees, another white miracle, in their short spring flowering. I am so glad to be back, to be outside in the air and light and not at my desk, to be with these people again, to act.
We wind our way slowly uphill over the rocks, a long early-morning walk. We pass a herd of sheep and goats, with their lone Palestinian shepherd; here, on the lower slopes, things are still calm. But on the crest of the hill, where two more herds are grazing happily, a settler—bearded, his tzitzit tassles waving frantically as he moves, his huge white skull-cap askew on his head—is already waiting for us. He`s there to make trouble, no doubt about that. Although it is Shabbat, he`s speaking earnestly into his cellphone, no doubt summoning the soldiers to drive us, and of course the shepherds, off the hill.
And indeed the soldiers rapidly appear, a large contingent. The standard ritual commences. `This hilltop is Jewish,` the senior commander, a major from the Civil Administration (that is, the Occupation authority), grimly announces. `Tell your Palestinian friends to leave.` He`s not overtly mean, in fact by army standards he`s almost pleasant, but he`s very eager to get us off the grazing grounds. Trouble is, we`re quite a large group today, some 25 or so, young and old, women and men, a motley crowd of stubborn individualists, not easily pushed around, and we`ve fanned out over the slopes so he can`t just round us up and deliver his orders. He threatens us, as usual: if we don`t leave, he`ll declare the whole ridge a Closed Military Zone, and then, if we stay, we`ll be breaking the law and subject to arrest. Actually, he explains, the Palestinians have already broken the law just by being there, on Jewish soil.
`Jewish soil?` Danny says to him, outraged. `What Jews are you talking about? I`m Jewish, you`re Jewish, but we don`t own this hill and you have no right to speak in my name. And you know as well as I do that these are the grazing grounds for Palestinian shepherds; we`re standing on privately owned Palestinian land.` `No,` says the major, `the Zionist Federation has taken it over for the settlers who live in Susya` (just a kilometer or so away). `So you`re here,` I say, `to help the settlers steal this piece of land.` No reply. He rustles his map. He consults with his counterpart, an Army captain. They`re clearly trying to find some correlation between the unwieldy army map in their hands and the terrain in question, and not quite succeeding. Meanwhile, another settler has turned up, with two furious, menacing dogs. Unlike Settler A, Settler B is, I think, a full-fledged lunatic, wild-eyed and racist, the kind one meets in the south Hebron hills relatively often. He curses us bitterly and he curses the soldiers who, he says, had coordinated their moves with the settlers in the middle of the week (again, standard practice); but now, to his immense dissatisfaction, these same soldiers seem unprepared to use sufficient force against us, the Jewish traitors—actually, I`m sure he`d be happiest if they simply shot us—and, even worse, they are actually paying some attention to `stinking Arabs,` his endearing term for the young shepherds surrounded by their sheep.
We know this place well. There are two large wells on the hill—hence its name, al-Tawamin, `the Twins.` We also know that these wells belong to the Palestinians; we`ve come here before to help our friends from Bir el-`Id and elsewhere draw water and fill tankers. We mention this to the major and, somewhat surprisingly, he at once agrees that the wells are indeed Palestinian and that Palestinians have the right to take water from them. Good, we say, we want to water the herds now. No, he says, you can`t do that. Why is that? Because, although the wells indeed belong to Palestinians, the area surrounding them, including the high ridge and slope where we are standing, are off limits to Palestinians. They could, he says, in theory, draw water from the wells, if they could somehow manage to approach them, but they definitely can`t bring their sheep there to drink.
He`s a reasonable man, our major. He has his orders. I think even he finds them absurd. Anyway, he has a job to do. Perched somewhere near him and the cohort from the regular army, I hear a soldier report that the police are refusing to come unless violence erupts. This may be good news for us. Meanwhile, the sheep are blithely chewing the thorns and leaves they adore; the hilltop is peppered with seemingly bored and somewhat disoriented soldiers, three or four nonchalant shepherds and small, dispersed clumps of peace activists; and Settler A is losing patience and has started berating us, sneering, ordering us to go away. `You`re the one who should go away,` we say to him, `you shouldn`t be here in the first place, you`re no better than a common thief.` `Where do you want me to go?` he asks, and I know what comes next, `back to Auschwitz?` `Actually,` I say, `I was thinking of Tel Aviv.`
Ezra approaches me and says, sotto voce: `We`re going to bring the sheep to the well, but someone has to distract the soldiers. Go talk to them.` `What about?` I say, reluctant. `Just do it,` he says, `I`m asking you.` OK, it`s my turn. Have to think of something. I approach the portly major and say, `Can I ask you a question?` Something in my tone, it seems, catches his attention, and he nods. I continue: `Doesn`t it seem a bit odd to you that this is a Palestinian well, by your own admission, but that the Palestinians can`t use it because you`ve forbidden them to cross the land around it?` `Odd?` he says, and for a second I get a glimpse of the real person struggling to get out, `of course it`s odd. Everything down here is odd. I`m odd, you`re odd, whatever we do here is odd, the settlers are odd, the Palestinians are odd, nothing makes sense. That is why I stick to my orders. They are clear. If you have a problem with the orders, you can talk to your lawyers and take the matter to court. My job is to keep the peace. I let the people of Bir el-`Id come here to draw water, if they coordinate with us, in fact I even provide them with a security escort. All kinds of crazy things happen here. I`ve seen it all. I`ve been in the territories for thirteen years. Your coming today is a provocation that makes everything worse.`
`Wait a minute,` I say. `You`ve just threatened to declare this hilltop a Closed Military Zone. Don`t you know that`s illegal? The Supreme Court has banned this maneuver of declaring a Closed Military Zone if it means keeping Palestinian farmers or shepherds from their fields and grazing grounds. We can show you a copy of the decision right now. And anyway, why are you protecting the thieves and not their victims? You see that settlement over there, Susya? In a few years, maybe sooner, you`ll be ordered to evacuate it.`
`Maybe I will be, maybe I won`t,` he says. `If they give me the order, I`ll do it. It`s not up to you and me to decide, anyway.`
`Really?` I say. `So who decides, if not you and me? And what about your conscience?`
`Are you asking me to disobey orders, to refuse to serve?`
`No, I`m not, but I`m curious about the state of your conscience.`
`I have my orders.`
`Yes, I know.`
Amiel is listening, bemused, to this futile conversation. He cites Tennyson, deliberately altering the line: `Ours not to reason why,
ours but to do and die.` The major is not amused. He points to his soldiers, not far away. `Look at these young guys,` he says to me. `What do you want them to do? Do you have a son who served in the army?`
`All three of them did,` I say.
`So think about these boys as if they were your sons. You`re confusing them. They`re serving the state. If they go raiding some place like Yata, one of these nights, looking for terrorists, they might get shot.`
`They wouldn`t get shot,` I say, relishing the tautology, `if they weren`t down here in the first place, where they have no business being.`
`Look,` he says, `let`s face it, you and me are Jews, and my job is to protect Jews.`
`No,` I say, `that is certainly not your job.` Do I have to spell it out? He`s an almost honest man.
He has something more to say to me—in fact, I have the strong feeling that he`s glad to have someone to talk to, maybe to justify himself to-- but his cell-phone rings, and off he goes. We linger among the sheep, trying to keep the settlers at bay. Over the years, I`ve developed a fondness for sheep, mostly because of their profoundly innocent, docile imbecility. You tell them to go here, they go here, if you point them there, they go there. They follow orders. It`s amazingly easy to confuse them. Like the young soldiers. The lunatic settler is still barking at us together with his dogs, but meanwhile the herds have moved downhill. We consider, for a moment, bringing them water from the well in cups or buckets—since that, after all, is allowed. But we have other work to do today.
It`s all a bit appalling, of course. I`m feeling discouraged. Tzviya, taking stock, says to me, `You know, yesterday morning I went to the café on Rehov Hapalmach in Jerusalem, I like the coffee there, but I couldn`t enjoy it because I couldn`t stop thinking about the misery we`re inflicting on these people.` She`s taken the Palestinians of South Hebron into her heart, no question. I know exactly what she means—the moral ugliness of the human destroys even our taste for natural beauty and ruins simple pleasures. Eileen, however, says to her, with her characteristic generosity to self and others, `I understand, but I still enjoy my coffee.`
Midday: We walk down toward Susya—what`s left, that is, of Palestinian Susya, not the Israeli settlement-- in the brilliant heat. We`re focused today on a tiny cluster of tents across the road from the main encampment, a relatively recent site. Ten days ago the Civil Administration came by to knock down all the tents and to fill up the two main wells with rocks and soil. Remember, we`re in the desert. You can`t survive here even a single day without water. So why did they destroy the wells? You can make up your own minds about that. All I can say is that the Civil Administration has a flare for gratuitous cruelty.
We work for some hours clearing the well, an entirely Sisyphean enterprise, like much of what we do in south Hebron. Three meters wide, three meters long, and about four meters deep: we fill bucket after bucket, pour the dirt and rocks out on the hillside, but the bottom is still buried far beneath us. It will take another couple of workdays, at least, to remove all the earth and make the well serviceable again; then we have to hope that the Civil Administration won`t come back too soon. I like working like this in the midst of a gentle mélange of Arabic, Hebrew, English, German, Russian, the usual Ta`ayush mosaic, until the light begins to change and the hills grow stark with incipient evening and it is time to leave.
We stop, as usual, at our favorite Palestinian grocery off the main Jerusalem road. There is lichi and pineapple juice from Thailand, creamed chocolate from Switzerland, and a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits, including dark purple eggplants, richly curved and contorted into unlikely parabolas and loops. Tzviya stocks up; eggplants, she says, are definitely one of the more successful creative ventures of the Almighty. `In my view, trees are His crowning achievement, an unmitigated success,` I suggest; `God created trees on a good day. He wasn`t concentrating when he made human beings.` `You have to allow,` says Amiel, `for failures, sometimes there are failures.` Amiel is perhaps the finest human being I have met.