RSS Feeds
The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil,    but because of the people who don't do anything about it    
Occupation magazine - Activism

Home page  back Print  Send To friend

Avigail/Jibrin and Um-Nir, or: Taayush/Sisyphus
David Shulman
October 1, 2011: Avigail/Jibrin and Um-Nir

“I think it’s time we changed our name,” I say to Maria as we slip through the olive groves toward the cistern at Um-Nir.

“Really? To what?” she asks.

“How about Ta’ayush/ Sisyphus?”

She laughs. “We can even dispense with the first part. would do just fine.”

It’s high noon, and the morning’s adventures are over. Hot and dry, the hills baked yellow and brown. All morning I’ve carried inside me a somber feeling, after a night of little sleep. Yesterday there were the two pogroms at Anata; I’ll come back to them. Anyway, we’re here to excavate, again, a big cistern, the one I helped dig out from under earth and rocks last year—so I have a personal stake in this matter, and I take what happened as a personal affront. The story of Um-Nir is complicated and unhappy; I’ve told it before. Let’s just say that a large Palestinian family came back here, across the road from Palestinian Susya, after years of exile in Yata; that they rebuilt the site with its goat-pens and stone walls and tents and cisterns, with our help; and that the Civil Administration, in its wisdom, brought its bulldozers to raze Um-Nir to the ground and to stop up the wells with boulders, chunks of twisted iron, and earth. They also drove out all members of the family, wounding one old grandmother seriously in the process.

It’s pretty desolate here today. Several jeeps of soldiers lurk along the edges of the highway, watching us. We climb down the hill amidst a chaotic litter of stones and torn tent-cloths. Haj Muhammad, aged, weather-beaten, with a high-pitched, squeaky voice, is standing alone in what is left of the smaller cistern. I greet him, tell him in Arabic that we’ve come to work. He’s a little incredulous. Soon the rain will come, he says, and the cisterns have to be ready to receive water. A tethered ass brays loudly, almost continuously, in grating, jerky, ass-melodies; she has, says Abu Muhammad, a baby at home, and she’s lonesome.

Our cistern is roughly square, about 3 and a half meters by 3 and a half meters. I don’t know how deep it is: I never saw the bottom of it, even after working through a long afternoon hauling dirt and rocks and debris out of it last year, when we cleaned it and made it serviceable. It`s deep. It takes hours of working together just to remove the upper layers.

Here we are again. “What are the chances,” someone asks, “that once we’ve dug it out the Civil Administration will come back and fill it up again with more rocks and iron and cement?” “Close to 100%,” someone else replies. We’re not nurturing any illusions.

Sisyphus sets to work. He doesn’t have to ask himself why. The rock is there to be rolled uphill. Again and again. After an hour, far from unhappy, I ask Maria, “Is it possible that Sisyphus sometimes finds an odd pleasure in his labors?” “Definitely,” she says. What sort of pleasure? In our case it may be connected to the Gandhian “act of truth,” satyagraha. You do the right thing without much thought, and this form of truthfulness leaves its trace on the world. It’s not something you have to formulate in words. It’s something you just do. One lets the truth speak-- perhaps the only godly act we are capable of; the act alone reveals an unknown richness in our nature. We’ll clear out this cistern, and the soldiers will come back to stop it up, and we’ll come back and clear it out again, and so it will go until the Occupation ends, this year or next or in a hundred years, each time we’ll return to crack the boulders into pieces with the sledge hammers and drag them out to the hillside along with the endless buckets of soil, and maybe the family will have the courage to come back once more, if only for a few days or weeks, and maybe if we keep at it without asking why we’ll keep the settlers from stealing this hill.

So what does truth feel like, and how can you recognize it? I think it has a light and airy gravitas. It takes life easy. It is the enemy of all that is earnest. It is deliciously unsentimental and unselfconscious. No false heroics, no utopian romance. This is dusty work, and hot, and naturally we tease one another as we go along; my hands are hurting, and an unhealed cut on my thumb is stinging, and we’re getting hungry and ever more thirsty; still, no one complains. I’m not sure why. Something about truth.

But there’s also, at the same time, an irritating sense of déjà vu. I’ve done this before and will undoubtedly do it again, at this same spot; the big stone rolls down and crushes me every time I get it to the top of the hill. I try, unsuccessfully, to remember Sisyphus’s sin. Why was he punished? Was it because he chained Death, Thanatos, so no one could die? And why are we punished by having to bear, day by day, the lies and malice of shriveled souls like those of Netanyahu and his settler friends?

As we had to, once again, this morning. The “illegal outpost” of Avigail, which I know well from previous experience, sits on top of lands belonging to the Jibrin family. They have the land-register documents to prove it; Rasmi unrolls a long scroll stamped in 1983 by the Israeli authorities, with the huge number of hectares owned by the family on these hills and wadis clearly written and confirmed. A month ago the Supreme Court ruled that the family could work their lands again, after a seven-year exile—up to the perimeter of the outpost. They wanted us with them today. Three tractors have arrived to plow the fields, and the plan is to plant young olive trees here, along with the standard subsistence crops of barley or wheat. I’d like that. Last week settlers cut down 50 or 60 Palestinian olive trees just a little south of where we are, near Shim’a and Samu’a. Another group of our activists has gone there this morning to protest.

But we are not to be spared the standard scenario, despite the Supreme Court ruling. The tractors start out with great zest, working their way uphill from the wadi. Soon they’re at the edge of Avigail. The soldiers are waiting for them. At first there are only three or four, but soon their numbers swell to over twenty, officers and reservists. They halt the plowing. “What for?” “The senior officer will come from the Civil Administration and show us the boundary.”

What boundary? We know who owns these lands, and we know who has stolen them—there is no other word. Rasmi says, bitterly: “Eighteen caravans are sitting on my land.” Still, it could have been a good day, with the promise of young olive trees. After an hour the officer arrives. He is tall, trim, energetic, affable, fluent in Arabic. He takes Rasmi and another of the elders aside. He objects when we try to film him. This business of land, of who plows where, is to be settled intimately, secretly, between him—clearly a generous, well-intentioned man in his own eyes—and the senior representatives of the families.

He takes them for a little stroll over the hilltop. He points this way and that. He calls his superiors on his cellphone. He consults with the other officers, some of whom look to us like settlers. Finally, with a wave of the hand, he shows the Palestinians: you can plow over there (on the hillside bordering on the highway), but not here, or in the next field, or in the wadi, or on the slope to the south, or on the slope to the east, or anywhere near the settlement, or where you have just plowed, or near the big well, or, for that matter, in any place under the burning sun except for that one, small, rocky, insignificant field I’ve just shown you.

I have to confess that I hate these moments. I’ve had my fill of them. It usually ends up with the Palestinians being pushed farther and farther away, into an ever-narrowing space, until they reach the dead end that was waiting for them all along. There was a time when I felt hate for settlers; to my surprise I’ve somehow, over time, lost that raw, fierce feeling, though I think they’re wrong, indeed criminal; but today I hate this well-intentioned, generous officer of the Civil Administration who is playing his accustomed role, going through the motions, slapping the Palestinian elders on the back as he remorselessly walks them downhill, over the rocks, as far away from the cursed, ugly caravans of Avigail as he can get them. “Call the office tomorrow,” he tells them, “and we’ll sort out the exact boundaries.”

I’d like to talk to him, to tell him what I think of what he’s doing. Even more than that, I’d like to take a stand here on the hill, refuse to budge, refuse to enter the dead-end corral they’ve prepared for us all; let them arrest me, I’ll be all too happy. But this morning there’s no chance. The Jibrins are waving us off, they don’t want us to interfere, they’re a little cowed and afraid, they want no arrests and they haven’t yet learned how to stand up for themselves and their lands, even with the Supreme Court behind them. It’s early days. They will learn. We will be there beside them. It’s a steep learning curve. For today, we have to follow their lead. We can’t afford to get them arrested just to make our point.

Mustafa, like me, is incredulous. He has a rough, farmer’s manner, and his Arabic comes out in a husky, gruff rush of syllables dense with incongruous innocence. “Why?” he asks me, several times. “Why? Tell me why. All the land is ours, so why do they say I can plow in one place and not the other?” I wish I could give an answer, offer some comfort. The truth is, I know why. The thief has his wisdom. On the highway just under Avigail, a big sign reads: “We’re expanding.” If you want, and if you’re Jewish, you can probably already buy a house in Avigail’s newest suburb.

It’s just after Rosh Hashana, and everywhere you meet the shameless falsehood, which is heavy, earnest, and self-righteous. September, the Palestinian September, has come and gone. The mass demonstrations we expected haven’t yet materialized-- though I am sure they will come. On the ground, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or maybe worse. Maybe the killers are better organized. Yesterday morning a group of our activists went to accompany a Palestinian farmer, Yasin Abu-Salih al-Rifa`i, to his lands nominally situated, to his misfortune, inside the grounds of the settlement of Anatot. Some dozens of settlers poured out to attack them. I wasn’t there, but I heard the first-hand reports this morning. Many of these settlers were apparently policemen from the so-called Benjamin District; some were wearing uniforms, others had police hats over civilian clothes, police pistols in their holsters. They were professionals, trained to hurt; first they cracked open Yasin`s head and attacked his wife, breaking her ribs, and then they beat the Israeli activists with clubs and rocks. There were uniformed police there who made no effort to stop them. Salah and his wife and two activists ended up in hospital, and three more were (of course) arrested. At 6 PM a protest demonstration began outside Anatot, and the scenes of the morning repeated themselves; it`s a miracle no one was killed. Asaf’s nose was smashed in, and many others were hurt, some seriously; four more activists were hospitalized, one with head injuries. Many cameras documenting the violence were destroyed by the settlers and police; the vehicles belonging to activists and Palestinians parked nearby were savaged. In short, a pogrom, or perhaps a lynch in the time-honored mode of the American South, with the authorities actively involved or, at best, standing by, indifferent, deliberately blind, as vicious attacks went on-- backed up, no doubt, by the hooligans who sit in the government. Further attacks took place through the night, including settler raids on the villages of Anata and Hizmeh. None of this is new, but it’s perhaps a little starker, cruder, more manifest than usual. And why hide it? It’s the face—one face—of Israel, autumn 2011.

Links to the latest articles in this section

Israelis support Russian opposition to the Ukraine War
All to Burin this Friday! Stand with the Palestinians against settler violence!
The burial of ashes - an emotionally loaded day