Visiting the South Hebron Hills this week with Ta’ayush, David Shulman witnesses a shocking display of land theft and settler impunity while in Al-Laseifar and Susya.
By David Shulman
Two things strike you immediately, closely followed by a familiar third.
The first is the sheer brazenness of the theft—or, rather, of the thief, who stands before you jeering, smug, sure of his power, eager to hurt. He has already taken some 95 percent of your family’s land, and now he bullies his way into the tiny patch that is left in order to harass you and humiliate you further, for this evidently gives him joy.
Then there is the pure racism, purer perhaps than what one sees anywhere else in the world today. The thief regards you as barely human, an object capable only of feeling pain, though he needs you as his victim, for without you he is incomplete, profoundly frustrated, lonely, unfulfilled.
Thus the settler in his Shabbat white, a huge knitted skullcap on his head, takes a pebble and holds it out on his fingertips to a Palestinian woman from Susya as he clucks his tongue at her, beckoning her, teasing her, as one would a dog, then tosses the pebble at her in contempt, as one throws a dog a biscuit, and he laughs. I saw him do it this morning in Susya, and I wasn’t the only witness.
The third thing is the system that protects the thief and ensures that no harm will come to him and that he will never be punished, for the system is built upon his theft.
None of this is new, only somehow starker, more palpable, yet hardly credible, on this perfect spring morning in south Hebron. Drops of bitter-sweet dusty rain fell in Jerusalem as I left home, but here in Susya we witness a shocking choreography of cloud and sun, and the air lingers on my tongue and the light caresses my eyes and the wind is here, too, to welcome us back.
The stubborn barley is a bit higher than it was when I was here three weeks ago. It is 9:00, and there is no time to lose. We rush from the van over the hill to the olive grove in the wadi; a donkey brays. Past the trees, up the slope, on Palestinian land, a group of ten or twelve settlers is enacting a brutal ritual of mockery, singing, snarling, making obscene gestures, sneering at the Palestinians who stand in disarray just below them. The leader—the one of the dog-gesture—literally dances in and out of the Palestinian clusters, daring them to stop him, taunting them, and from time to time he lashes out at them with his fists, pushes, shoves, pounds at them, demonstrating his absolute superiority, relishing this moment of his power and the precious opportunity to insult.
The three soldiers who have clambered down the hill from the settlement cannot stop him, nor do they seem very eager to do so. They struggle vainly to separate the settlers from their victims, but this is not a static setting; the settlers push ever more deeply into the tiny Palestinian enclave, and movement swirls and spills out over the hill, an alternative, ugly human choreography to match that of clouds and sun above as we ebb and flow in arcs and circles, trying to shield the Palestinians from their attackers, and the soldiers bark their futile threats and orders, and soon we’re already half a mile north of the olive grove where we began and the settlers are closing in now on the sheepfold and the tents and the access road, still very much in control.
More soldiers—Border Police—arrive. They begin, as usual, by arresting, more or less at random, an elderly Palestinian gentleman, whom they spirit away to a makeshift holding area among the trees. By now a second Ta’ayush contingent has arrived, a large group. Amiel strides straight into the battle zone and, within seconds, is arrested and handcuffed; as always, he is calm, self-possessed, and unafraid, but the Border Police officer tells him he is resisting arrest and will suffer the consequences. Why, one wonders, should the officer want to lie?
No one touches the rampaging settlers.
So it goes for a long time, maybe two hours or so of dashing madly over the hills to head off one settler attack after another, and then the settlers send their large herd of sheep to graze, where else, in the Palestinian fields and the soldiers force them back uphill, and a vast line of settlers from Susya, women, children, men, some armed with machine guns, emerge for their Shabbat stroll through the lands of their Palestinian neighbors with four or five army command-cars to protect them—as if the Palestinians and not these settlers were the threat to peace and quiet on this bright windy morning.
“They always want to make trouble, and the soldiers go with them,” says a dignified Palestinian shepherd, watching this long column in disgust as he holds high the upper row of a make-shift barbed-wire fence so we can pass through. It’s been some time since I’ve run so far and so fast over these rocks.
We’ve got it all down in high-quality digital films. Someday, I think, not yet but someday, some of the criminals will pay for their crimes. Their time will come.
When at last it’s over and we’re no longer needed, we split into two groups. One crosses the road to what’s left of the Jbur family’s encampment, which the Civil Administration demolished on Thursday. Yesterday the family itself was driven out with stun grenades and tear gas and blows—one woman was wounded in the leg. I won’t repeat the whole story, which I’ve described before. But I take this demolition as a personal affront, since among other acts of violent destruction the army obliterated a large well that I helped dig out from the stones and dirt left by its previous demolition. We worked for hours that day, and it looked like the well would eventually be serviceable again. My back hurt for weeks. There’s nothing left there now. The Civil Administration prides itself on its efficiency.
The other group, which I join, heads for the Abu Kbeita fields on the slopes under a small khirbeh called Al-Laseifar. This is another long and tortuous story.
We are close to the Green Line—and, indeed, the main checkpoint on the road, recently privatized, is several kilometers north of the border, as if Palestinian lands lying to the south had already been annexed to Israel. What this means in practice is that the Abu Kbeita family, among others, have been turned into shabachim, illegal aliens, while residing in their own homes. They’re not the only ones to suffer this fate, heavy with consequences for daily survival; but in addition, they have to deal with a settler, Danny, who claims that the Abu Kbeita fields, leased from the original owner, Hawamdi, in Samu’a, belong to him.
He is wrong: the case went to the Supreme Court, which decided in 1991 in favor of the Palestinians. None of this has stopped the settlers, including those from Beit Yatir just across the main road, from trying to drive Mahmud Abu Kbeita and his three brothers off the land. These settlers, like so many others in south Hebron, are often violent; they have stoned the Abu Kbeitas when they felt like it, broken the arm of Osama, one of Mahmud’s sons, and even penetrated into the family house in Al-Laseifar where, according to some testimonies, they drove a large knife or other weapon right through the wall.
Here is a lesson in reality in the south Hebron hills. In November, the family plowed the main field and sowed it with barley and wheat. In December, settlers came and plowed over the fledgling shoots. The family sowed again, and now it is harvest time—but two weeks ago the settlers invited the police to arrest Mahmud on some trumped-up charge, and the police acceded with alacrity to this request. He spent 24 hours in one of the ugliest lock-ups in the country, handcuffed and footcuffed much of the time. When they finally brought him before a judge, the latter could find no evidence of any possible violation that could be attributed to this man, but the judge fined him anyway with a 5000-shekel “bond”—a huge sum of money for a Palestinian family of small-scale farmers—and also ruled that he could not approach his fields for 14 days. If you have ever met a farmer, you know what this means.
Mahmud is that rarest of beings: a really good man. You know this from the first instant you meet him. Decency and goodness and good cheer radiate from him, and from his sons as well. He tells me the sorry story without acrimony but with a kind of aching bewilderment.
“I don’t understand the judge. He could find nothing against me, but still he ruled that I have to pay and have to stay away from my fields. Where is the law? Why should it lie? And how can Danny the settler stand in front of me and lie to my face? I thought I’d go crazy in the jail; I’m a farmer, I am always outside in the fields and the open air, not confined and chained.
“After 24 hours, your whole body aches. Then they bring you to the court and keep you there, handcuffed, for a whole day with nothing to eat or drink, nothing, your bones hurt, and when you finally come before the judge you can’t find the words. I and my family own 350 dunams, all the way up to and beyond the checkpoint, and I lease this field from Hawamdi and have all the documents to prove it; the Supreme Court also confirmed this, but the settlers still harass us day by day. I submitted a complaint to the police, and you know what happened? Nothing at all. But today you are here, and this is as life should be, Arabs and Jews working together as friends.”
And indeed we are working hard: after a short lesson from Isma’il, another gentle, good-natured son, in the ancient mysteries of ripe barley and wheat, we crouch in the fields and pull the stalks from the caked brown earth with our fingers, brush off the clods sticking to the roots, and pile our treasures here and there in the field in small, slowly swelling heaps. I don’t remember the last time I harvested the spring wheat crop, like in the Book of Ruth, but I remember well the unearthly joy of it, which can, in my view, heal all sorrows of the soul (as I guess it did for Ruth).
I’m not sure I can tell the barley from the wheat, even after Isma’il’s lesson, but clearly both somehow manage to emerge, in bright greens and yellows, out of this unpromising, desiccated soil. When I’m not bending over the stalks, I steal glances at the hills and the Yatir forest and the not-so-distant desert, a landscape that ravishes the heart – perhaps, I think to myself, the most beautiful I’ve seen in the world. They bring us tea and fresh bread and white cheese made this morning and the salty hard yellow cheese of this region that lasts forever, and after a while they invite us to feast on fariki: you take the green, freshly-harvested wheat and roast it in fire, there in the field, then you crack it open and let it rest on your tongue, still hot and pungent, before your swallow. There’s nothing like it, take my word.
A great peace comes over me. For just a moment I let go of the questions that torment me: how can anyone, man or woman, steal such a field and then stand before the true owner and lie shamelessly to his face?
I’m 62 years old and I don’t understand, will clearly never understand. I can imagine greed, in all its cruelty and obsession, can even find it in myself, but that brazen lie, eye to eye, troubles me—that and the ruthless assault on the goodness that the earth offers those who care for it. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about truth and its intrinsic worth, and the value of the moral act, even if it goes unnoticed. It is so easy to say in a wishful, or hopeful, romantic way that truth—speaking truth— will necessarily leave a mark on the world. Is there a deeper, tougher way to think about it? I indulge the romantic notion, no question. And yet to stand up to the lie, even for a moment, even on the simplest and lowliest level, surely heals some small abrasion in the body of a wounded world.
David Shulman is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a long-time activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership.
This post originally appeared in Palestine Monitor and is reprinted with the author’s permission.