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Occupation magazine - Life under occupation

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David Shulman`s new report from South Mt, Hebron
The Villages Group
David Shulman
The Villages Group

Zanuta and Rahwah

Four happy months in India, and today I’m back in south Hebron. Before
leaving I asked my friends to finish off the Occupation before I returned, but
somehow they haven’t managed this. Yesterday I meet my neighbor Rama in the
street, and she asks how it is to be home. It’s good, I say, at first I was
even high, but little by little despair seeps in. “That’s right,” she says,
“here everything is really fine except for the despair.”

It torments me all the way down to south Hebron, a dark and acrid
journey. Why why why? I remember this: when you’ve been away and you come
back, at first you find the reality of Palestine unreal. Unthinkable. A kind
of lunacy. The colonial project, the horrific crime at the heart of it—it all
looks mad, and beyond fixing. Nothing we do can change it. Nothing we say

Then, after an hour on the hills with the shepherds, the craziness
begins to feel natural, normal, and I know what I have to do.

I’m lucky to be with Guy today. He turns out to be a hardened
optimist: Maybe the elections this week will bring the beginning of the
change. But even if they don’t, we’re coming closer to the point of decision:
either full-blown apartheid or a peace agreement, whose details are anyway
well known. If Israel opts for apartheid, the Netanyahu way, then the world
will force a change. The pressure is building up. The boycott will do it. One
day we will come down here to visit our Palestinian friends, we will remember
these bad days, we will have coffee and laugh, we will say: “Do you remember
that hot day in March when the soldiers came and arrested Hatim and Guy and
Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim, when they cooked up this idiotic rule that you
can’t graze the sheep in the wadi or on the slopes to the east, and they held
them for hours in the jeeps and then finally let them go?” Those good days
will certainly come, Guy says, it could, it should, be paradise here. In the
meantime, we have to do what we do to keep things from getting worse.

There are lots of sheep—four or five herds from Zanuta, we count about
300 heads; and another four or five herds from Rahwah, to the south where the
wadi takes this grand ravishing curve. Rashad is responsible for one of the
herds. He has a story to tell, which goes like this, in his fierce and fluent

“It was years ago, this crazy settler, Avi, came with his brother and another
man and they picked a fight with my brother, who was out with the sheep. They
beat him badly, and another shepherd too, and they threatened to kill them. My
brother called me and I came fast, walking over the hill with my shepherd’s
staff. “We’re going to kill you,” they said. They made us sit down on the
ground and wait. They had heavy guns. I was afraid of them, they’re bad and
they’re crazy, you can tell a bad man when you meet one. There’s room for
everyone here, we don’t care if they’re here, but they want only to hurt us
and take the land. [Guy interjects: “We’ll kick them out of here, don’t
worry.”] So we’re sitting there and waiting, and the settlers have their guns
pointed at us, and luckily an army jeep came by on the road, in those days the
roads weren’t so good, I ran to the jeep and stuck my arm through the window
and said to the officer that he has to come with me. He didn’t have much
choice. When he got to where my brother and the other shepherd were sitting,
the settlers started beating them again, and they said to the soldiers, ‘Look,
this one has a stick,’ meaning my staff, so the officer drew his pistol and
cocked it and made sure the bullet was in the barrel and then he pressed the
pistol against my forehead and said, ‘Get rid of that stick or your brains are
going to be blown to heaven.’ I said I don’t need the staff and I threw it
away. Still, they hit us some more, and they told us they’d come back to kill
us some day, for sure, and they went away. In those days we didn’t have
friends like you to help us.”

Rashad has a permit, which means he can work inside Israel; so he’s in
Beersheva most days of the week and out on the hills with the sheep only on
Saturday. He’s rough, good-natured, utterly and oddly innocent, as innocent as
a human being can be. He thinks people have the option of being good. He
laughs a lot. I like the idea that we’ll come back some day to laugh again
with him.

Pastoral interlude. We lie in the sun, resting against the rocks,
waiting. A delicious silence soaks the green slope—green as Ireland, after the
rains. Everywhere the anemones are straggling into the sunlight, and there are
daisies and dandelions and tiny nameless purple blossoms and thick green reeds
as well. A partridge flutters over the stream. Happiness. Guy says it’s the
silence before the storm.

Of course he’s right. Above us, across the wadi, there’s the
settlement of Har Hamor, where a single settler family lives. They’ve cordoned
off huge chunks of the ancient grazing grounds, and, as always, they’ve got
the soldiers to guard them and do their bidding, which means driving
Palestinian shepherds off Palestinian land. It’s no surprise when two drab
khaki-grey jeeps turn up on the path near the tiny stream, heavy with the
sewage of Kiryat Arba, at the base of the hill. Then they are upon us.

There’s a vanguard. “Get these sheep away from here,” they order us,
but of course we demand to see the signed order, and all too soon the Big
Officer comes with those foolish fancy stars on his uniform and his big heavy
gun and with the piece of paper signed by the Brigade Commander and the map on
its inverse. It decrees—illegally, of course—that the wadi and the hill where
the settlement sits and about a third of the hill where we’re standing are all
now a Closed Military Zone. In itself, this wouldn’t be so bad, though it’s a
crime, and cruel, and, more simply, wrong. What makes it worse today is the
Oral Law, the torah sheba’al peh, that accompanies the order and that declares
the whole rolling expanse of the slopes, all the way uphill to the highway a
mile or two away, to be forbidden to Palestinians, since these lands, says Big
Officer, are “Jewish grazing grounds.”

He’s made it up. There’s no legal basis to this draconian restriction.
We tell him so, but it makes no difference. He’s given us 10 minutes to get
the shepherds uphill before he arrests them. We Israelis, he says, can remain
on the “Jewish grazing grounds” if we agree to move a few hundred meters up
the slope. The 10-minute deadline applies to us too, and the clock is running.

Here’s a little mini-apartheid moment, as we firmly inform him. “You
can’t make one law for Palestinians and another for Jews,” we say. It’s
infuriating. I can feel the rage welling up in me, and the morning’s despair
is also kicking in, along with the sick feeling of helplessness. We call
Amiel, who confirms our reading of the law. Now it’s up to the shepherds to
decide; we will follow their lead. I rush over to explain to them in Arabic
what the soldiers are demanding; I tell them that the law is with them if they
move the herd just a little ways up the slope, but that there’s a danger that
the soldiers will arrest them anyway. Several shepherds immediately start
moving the sheep. It’s not so easy. Sheep are notoriously slow about such
things. They’ve been feeding ravenously on the rich diet of thorns and greens
in the wadi and they don’t seem to feel any particular respect for Big Officer
who, looking around for a potential victim, settles on us. We’ve started
walking backwards, very slowly and deliberately, as he barks at us and counts
the seconds left.

Is Big Officer a bad man? Let’s leave this question in abeyance. I’m
not sure what it means. He seems unhappy that his order and his deadline have
not been honored with alacrity. I wonder if he’s put out at having to waste a
beautiful spring Shabbat morning chasing hundreds of stubborn sheep over the
rocks. I also wonder if he has any inkling of how much harm he is doing to
himself, to his manhood, to the subtle, hidden places of his mind, by
inflicting cruelty on innocents, by humiliating them and treating them like
children and by exiling them from what is theirs. These thoughts flit rapidly
through my mind and vanish into the sunlight because Big Officer has lost
patience and arrested Hatim Suleiman Shafiq, though he was actually trying to
obey the order and get the sheep going, and Guy rushes down to try to protect
him so they arrest him too.

The soldiers march their hostages to the jeeps. By now the police have
also turned up, and Hatim and Guy are locked into their blue-white wagon. In
the wadi, considerable chaos reigns. Oblivious, joyful, untold numbers of
sheep are doing what sheep do, dotting the wadi with a furry beige. Two or
three of the shepherds have managed to pry some part of their herds away from
the thick foliage near the stream and to prod them some ways up the slope.
They’re still far from the highway. Surprisingly, the soldiers, perhaps
content with the initial arrests, seem to have forgotten all about their own
arbitrary Oral Law. One contingent of them is poking with sticks through the
tall grass as if they’d lost something of value there—as indeed they have.

The Rahwah shepherds are still deep in the wadi to the south, and they
seem to have found a creative solution to the soldiers’ threats: they’ve sent
young kids, maybe eight or nine years old, to follow the sheep there, on the
tenuous assumption that the army won’t arrest children. (It does it all the
time.) I join Amir and Peg on the southern ridge. Time slows down, as if high
noon had brought it to a leisurely boil. We wait. We call the lawyer who will
take care of Guy and Hatim when they reach the police station. We chat with
Murad and the other shepherds, who want to know why the soldiers took Hatim.
“Who can say?” I answer, a non-answer, since there is no answer.

Just when I come to the conclusion that the men with guns have
resigned themselves to recalcitrant ovine reality and the danger has passed,
they suddenly arrest two more shepherds: Majlis Salim and Jihad Salim. The
arrests are swift and brutal, with much shoving and poking. We’re too far away
to be of help, but I can’t bear watching this: despair again. Is it the good
despair I’ve written about, the kind that makes you act and take risks and not
think about results? I doubt it. It’s a black viscous feeling that goes well
with the liquid gold washing over the hill.

It may make you feel better to know that eventually all those arrested
were released; that the police refused even to accept Majlis Salim and Jihad
Salim at the station and sent them back to the soldiers, who had to let them
go; that the other hostages who had been captured at Shweike and Umm al-Ara’is
were also freed. It was a messy, foolish day, maybe because the settlers are
full of hate and fear as the elections come near, and they know that this time
they may lose, so they pick on their usual victims and command the soldiers to
do the same. Or maybe there’s no logic to it all except for the random but
systemic logic of the Occupation itself, perhaps stirring itself awake in the
first real week of spring. You might also feel better if I tell you that I
figure that if we keep coming back week after week, the Palestinians may
eventually get their wadi back and the herds will flow past the ravishing
curve and happily blanket the hungry hills. What is required of us is no
heroics but a dull steadiness and perseverance. I think it will work. Speaking
of happiness, Peg told me when we said goodbye that she’d felt it today, and
then I knew that I, too, had tasted that unthinking, unreasonable joy, the
South Hebron happiness, unlike any other I have known, the kind that comes
from looking straight at wickedness and not looking away.

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