“I was born here, in these hills, sixty-five years ago. I’m a farmer, and these are my lands. We have all the deeds of title: first the Jordanians issued one set, stamped and sealed, in 1953, and then again in 1963, and the Israeli courts have confirmed them. No one can take my land from me. This morning I have come to plow.”
Ahmad Muhammad is heavy-set, his face a palimpsest of wrinkles, his voice jagged and melodious. He lives in al-Rakiz, a tiny khirbeh just over the ridge. It wasn’t so easy to persuade him to come out today. He’s had many disappointments, and he’s not, I think, eager for yet another humiliation.
As it happens, there is someone all too eager to take his land. In the wadi beneath us, in the middle of a long, freshly plowed field, settlers from Avigail have put up two black wooden fences, effectively claiming the field as theirs. Ahmad Muhammad broke the wooden poles on the second fence, as Israeli law allows him to do—or rather, would allow him to do if he were a Jew. For Palestinians in the occupied territories, there’s another law, if you can dignify it with that name.
I suppress the wish to run downhill myself and attack the remaining fence.
Ahmad Muhammad is here with his friend, Musa Ibrahim Muhammad Abu Haram, along with two young boys and a white donkey. Musa Ibrahim is already getting impatient and keeps saying to me in bitter Arabic, “They’ll never let us work. They won’t allow it.” Over and over again. Meanwhile, we’re fighting for time.
From the moment we got out of the van, the soldiers were tailing us. We set off over the rocks, first down into the wadi and then up in the direction of Avigail; they followed close behind. Probably someone tipped them off, or maybe their gadgets had picked up the cell-phone conversations with Ahmad Muhammad. There’s a first lieutenant who looks young and inexperienced and not particularly wicked and several foot-soldiers, armed to the teeth, and soon they’re joined by the Matak, a senior officer from the Civil Administration, and two swarthy policemen in blue.
Some benevolent deity has created this day, all golden sunlight and the infinite dark blue sky that you can only see in south Hebron, and even there only in winter, and a hint of wind, fragrance of stone. Mark Danner is with us, and he says simply: “This landscape glows.” In the midst of it, assaulting the eye, you have the scattered prefab caravans of Avigail, a miracle of ugliness. Some spiteful god or his devotees created them.
The lieutenant, harsh, clipped, a little haughty, addresses himself to Ahmad Muhammad and Musa Ibrahim. They explain why they have come. He is unimpressed. He wants them to leave. He wants us to leave. He digs his feet into the terrace, swaggers a little, and says: `You won`t work today.` Amiel coolly explains to him that he has no right to drive these men off their lands, that the courts have issued their ruling, that the Supreme Court will back them up, and that it is blatantly illegal to keep Palestinian farmers from their fields. “I’m not talking to you,” says the lieutenant. “But I’m talking to you,” says Amiel.
They try to isolate the two Palestinians from the rest of us. We’re a nuisance. They bark at us to step back. “Aren’t you ashamed?” says one of the soldiers, “we’re trying to prevent a terrorist attack and you’re getting in the way.”
Amiel: “If I were you, I’d ask myself the same question you just asked me. Aren’t you ashamed to be chasing these men off their lands, to say nothing of humiliating them and talking to them in this patronizing way?”
Shame is, or would be, a great human achievement, but the soldier doesn`t have it in him. He doesn`t know what to say. I admire the poetic invention of a terrorist attack that could require prevention.
Mark wants to talk to the Matak, and we’ve entered into one of those moments outside of time when there’s nothing to do but wait, so I introduce him to the officer as a well-known journalist and essayist and ask if the Matak would answer some questions. “No,” he says, “I’m in uniform, I can’t.” “He just wants to hear your take on this,” I explain. “Just tell him,” says the Matak in this odd, oblique conversation, the three of us standing side by side, “that we’re here to protect the Palestinians and of course the settlers and we’re just doing our job.” There’s a little added warmth when he adds that “of course.”
It’s clear by now that there will be no plowing. As always, they tell the Palestinians to phone them tomorrow, or the next day, or to come to their offices on Wednesday, and then they’ll look into the matter of who has rights over these fields, since obviously they can’t make a hasty judgment right now, these things take time. The court is a long ways away, more theory than fact, why should they believe it or believe in it? And the court is also, like us, a nuisance, in effect a provocation. We’ve filmed all that’s been said and maybe we’ll be able to use it when the time comes, but Amiel would like to force the soldiers to carry out their threat and declare where we’re standing a Closed Military Zone, since the courts are likely to reprimand the army for issuing this illegal order. That would be a minor but possibly consequential victory. Meanwhile, the officers keep telling us to leave, and we keep refusing to do their bidding. We sit down amidst the stones.
But the Palestinians can’t stand it any longer, they’re heart-sick and angry and ready to go home and they don’t, I think, believe us when we say we’ll win this fight in the end, because “the settlers always win. They force us from the land and they have broken the well, and the soldiers come and back them up and stall and fuss over the papers and tell us to come to the office.” So what’s the point? I know that this is how it must happen, that we have to come here and stand beside them and confront the soldiers and record their words and bring this to the court, that we have to do this again and again and not give up, and that eventually it will work, with a little luck. I know, but I’m also sick in soul.
We walk with Ahmad Muhammad and Musa Ibrahim back over the slope, and as we take our leave, Musa Ibrahim, this sun-blasted farmer who has probably never left South Hebron, who speaks only Arabic, suddenly wants to know where Mark lives and what paper he writes for, and I explain that he’s from America and there are several journals but one of them is the New York Review of Books, and Musa Ibrahim smiles a huge smile, perhaps he’s heard of it, and shakes my hand. Maybe the world is glued together after all.
We spend the next few hours in the sun, working on the twisting dirt road at Bi’r al-‘Id, prying loose the boulders and filling in the pit holes and leveling the surface with freshly dug earth. “What will come to an end first,” someone wonders, “the Occupation or our work on this road?” Soldiers, crushed by ennui, watch us from their jeep, its motor running, and when we’ve finished some 200 meters and the road is looking better than ever before, one of them walks over to insult us with that same, tormenting question, for the second time today: “Why are you doing this? What’s the point?”