Water - or rather the denial of water - is a potent weapon. Here in the south Hebron hills, a harsh, arid land of rock and thorn and sand, it may be the most potent of all. Without water no one can survive here more than a few hours. In the old days, before the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians scattered over these hills in caves and tiny khirbehs (hamlets) survived on their wells and reservoirs.
By now they`ve lost a great many of the wells, some poisoned or stopped up or simply taken over by Israeli settlers, others filled with rocks and sand by the army during violent raids on the khirbehs in the late 90`s and after. These days some water—not nearly enough—is brought in on a daily basis, more or less, by tankers that wind their way laboriously over the goat-paths.
The main access route to Jinbah, a rough, rocky track that eventually links up with the main highway and the town of Yata, has been sealed off by the army—blocked, in fact, at 23 separate points by piles of rock and earth or cut and rendered impassable where it meets a culvert. The army puts these roadblocks in place, and sometimes removes them, at will, for no apparent reason. Over a year ago they issued a document formally promising to open the track again, but they haven`t done so. That`s one reason we`re here today.
It`s expensive to bring in water by tanker to a place like Jinbah, a remote confabulation of black tents, stone goat-pens, and ruined caves. According to my friend `Id, prices are pitched at between 150 and 200 Israeli shekels (roughly $40 to $50) just for hiring the tanker and the driver—a vast sum for these herders and peasant farmers—not including the water. One tanker-full won`t last them more than a few days. If the old track were open, costs would be cut in half. We intend to open it today.
Why, you might ask, has the army closed the track in the first place? The standard excuse, which we hear from the soldiers at various moments through the day, is that they`re fighting terrorism. They`re always doing that, even in the absence of any living terrorists anywhere nearby. The only violence of note that afflicts the south Hebron hills comes from Israeli settlers.
So maybe there`s another reason. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have the general and persistent effort by the Israeli authorities, with the settlers in the lead, to dry up the Palestinian civilian population in this area—that is, to drive them from their homes. For our part, we`re determined to help keep them on their land. That`s the main reason we`re here today.
As usual, the police and army aren`t too happy about our arrival. They dog our steps repeatedly as we make our way south with two busloads of activists, some hundred people in all. At the main turn-off to Um Daraj, the road that will connect us to the water tankers and tractors already waiting for us deep in the desert, the soldiers are ready: several command cars, police vans and other vehicles, some officers, the standard grey-olive flotilla.
Do they really think they can turn us back? We pour out of the buses and start walking rapidly up the road. You can see at a glance that we`re too many for them, they can`t possibly arrest us all, and they can`t stop us. Soon we have left them far behind.
It`s almost 11 in the morning and already very hot and getting hotter, and since we had to abandon our buses because of the soldiers, we have a long walk past a few homes and pens for the flocks and then over the stark golden-white hills, down and up and down again. Soon we are alone in the desert, far from human habitation.
The hills sweep and swirl almost as far as the eye can see; near the horizon, barely visible in the blinding light, a slight blue patch of the Dead Sea shimmers and hides, too vibrant to be real. After thirty or forty minutes, at the end of the road, the end of the world, tractors are waiting with attached metal-and-wood carts— called `platforms` in Hebrew-- to carry us still deeper in, to the glowing, desolate point where the heavy tankers are parked.
Maybe it`s a mirage. I almost rub my eyes. How they did get here? I`m not used to such precision planning. Soon the caravan departs. Groaning and creaking and jiggling and shaking, veering madly from side to side, always threatening to overturn, the tractors, with tankers and platforms attached, crawl over the rocks and plow through thick layers of dust and sand. It`s a long, punishing, breath-taking ride, and just when I start to feel I can`t stand much more of it, we grind to a halt on a rise overlooking a steep stony descent into the wadi.
Here the track has been cut. We jump down from the platforms, mill around aimlessly for a while, unsure of what should happen next. Suddenly I find `Id, and we embrace. I haven`t seen him for some weeks. How`s life? Hard, as always. New houses are going up in the veteran settlement of Carmel, next to Umm al-Khair where `Id leaves. So much for Obama`s settlement freeze.
The Palestinian shacks demolished some months back by the Occupation authorities have not been rebuilt. There`s no money, and no hope. Aside from that, `Id says, if you don`t identify yourself openly with one of the factions, Fatah or Hamas for example, the Palestinian Authority is likely to fire you from your job. It recently happened with about forty teachers. So it`s really hard to find work. The good news is that his little daughter is starting to walk. He smiles, shy with happiness. There`s nothing in the world like `Id`s smile.
A yellow back-hoe (we used to call it a bulldozer) goes into action on the slope, smoothing down what`s left of the narrow track. We race down the hill to help with this rebuilding of the route; we search for heavy boulders to fill the wide gap on either side of the culvert. There is no dearth of boulders. It`s hard on the back and, like much physical labor in the south Hebron hills, strangely rewarding.
Finally the back-hoe rolls back and forth over the newly filled piece of track, compacting rock and dust, turning it into something akin to a road. Victorious, the back-hoe moves on, and the water tankers now slowly creep down the hill and pass us on their way to Jinbah. I feel like cheering, and I can see I`m not alone.
The black tents of Jinbah are clearly visible on the hill above us to our left. Can people really live out here in this ravishing wasteland? And assuming that the answer is yes, who in his right mind would want to drive them off, to starve them of water? At least, I say to myself, water is now on its way. But this, of course, is the moment the soldiers decide to turn up, eager to harass us. Possibly they want revenge for their failure to stop us at the turnoff.
A heavy command car swoops down on us—they must have been waiting somewhere nearby—and heads straight for the back-hoe. It`s immediately clear they need a victim, and they`ve chosen the Palestinian driver. Equally clear that we have to prevent his arrest. We converge from all sides on the back-hoe. There`s some shouting and arguing as the soldiers circle the machine, trying to reach the driver`s cabin. We`re too quick for them. I find myself climbing up, with Amiel and Assaf, to sit in the driver`s seat, while the driver himself is swiftly helped down into the protective crowd and then manages to slip away.
OK, I have to confess. I always wanted to drive one of these things. I don`t have a clue how to do it, but I`m quite happy sitting there, peering down at the ruckus below, inspecting the many mysterious levers and gears. I could easily go on playing like this for some time, like my grandson Inbali when you put him behind the driver`s wheel.
I feel Assaf sliding something metallic and small into the pocket of my trousers: the ignition key. The soldiers mustn`t find out that we still have the key, lest they impound the vehicle and drive it off to their base. That would be a true disaster: the owner of the back-hoe needs it every day, his livelihood depends on it and, once confiscated, the machine is all too likely to be parked in the army camp for four to eight weeks, as in previous cases we can remember. We are going to have to stay here to guard the machine.
The soldiers, meanwhile, are angry and frustrated, since their prey has eluded them. They prowl around the back-hoe, they bark and snarl. They must be hot: it`s mid-day, and they`re loaded down with an entire armory, machine-guns with grenade propellers, helmets, clips, and plenty of tear-gas canisters of different sizes and colors belted the whole length of their legs. I can`t say I feel much sympathy for them at this time.
Maybe it`s the relief that the driver is safe or the satisfaction we felt when the water tankers chugged by on their way to Jinbah or maybe it`s the rage we feel because these soldiers have now announced to us that, by opening the track, we have committed a grave crime and will be punished. Maybe it`s just a passing whim. Anyhow, suddenly the desert air is resounding with the old cry of noble souls committed to doomed causes: No pasaran!
I know it doesn`t sound likely, but nothing is likely in south Hebron. The whole scene is a study in the surreal. I`m shouting, too. Actually, here`s something else I always wanted to do. No pasaran! It`s a little silly, I suppose—or is it? Anyway I`m really glad there are people here who remember what it means and who see the parallel.
But our Palestinian friends are, for once, bewildered. What do these words signify? In my rusty Arabic, in the middle of all the hubbub, immersed in dust and sun, I try to explain, a two-minute historical synopsis: once, in Spain, there was a civil war between the Fascists and people like us, who believe in freedom…..The older ones pass down my explanation to the children, there are many young children with us here today, and now they are calling it out with us, and maybe this time it will be true.
But clearly our plans are in some danger. There`s all that water to be poured into the Jinbah reservoir, and there are four more khirbehs to the east and west waiting to receive their allotment. We`re needed there. So the main body of activists heads off to the Jinbah encampment, leaving ten or twelve of us to guard the back-hoe with the soldiers for company.
The heat is intense. I had a liter and a half of mineral water with me, but at the height of the mini-confrontation I handed the bottle around and it came back empty. It`s not clear how long we`re going to have to wait things out. We make a quick inventory of our water reserves. They`re dangerously low.
It`s another one of those south Hebron scenes, far from rare and absurd by any standard. Here we are, stranded in the middle of the desert in and around a back-hoe that we can`t abandon, with no driver anywhere near but also nowhere to go, with minimal water supply, and with a jeep-full of grumpy and disoriented soldiers glowering at us helplessly.
They also have no idea what to do or even, for the most part, why they are there, as we discover when we begin to engage them in conversation. Perhaps they have orders to wait here in ambush for the missing driver, who will sooner or later come back to reclaim his vehicle.
The stand-off is complete: neither side can budge from its position. It feels like a perfect condensation of the general stand-off in Palestine-Israel: terminal stasis, mental grid-lock, and no workable exit strategy. I confer with Amiel. He says he, too, can`t imagine how this will end; perhaps it will be something unimaginable. All we can do is wait.
Maybe Obama could solve it, I think to myself, though lately I`ve lost whatever hope I had that he would coerce Israel into making peace. I tell my friend Istvan, who has joined us today for the first time in the south Hebron hills, that on the basis of past experience I predict that at some point everyone will just get tired and go home, but I can`t guess when this might happen. Could take hours.
Istvan is in no hurry. He has brought along his Hebrew textbook, and we spend a while discussing the odd fate of vowels in Hebrew and Greek—the perfect topic for such occasions. If only I weren`t so thirsty….
Suddenly, an apparition. Ezra, magically materializing, as always, out of thin air, pulls up in his car together with a tall, older man, perhaps 80 years old, who has something to say to the soldiers. His name is Benny Gefen, from Kabri in the Galilee.
He doesn`t waste words. In a deep voice, crisp with anger, he says to them: `For five years I served in the Palmach [the elite army before and during the 1948 war]. For twenty-nine years I did reserve duty in the paratroopers. My son was killed in the Golani reconnaissance unit on the Lebanese border. I want to tell you that today I am ashamed of the uniform I used to wear, the uniform you are wearing now. In the Palmach they always taught us: think of what the other is feeling, put yourself in his place. But you don`t care what happens to the Palestinians. You deny them water, the most basic of all human needs, and you back up the settlers, who terrorize them every day. I`m ashamed.` He turns away without another word, goes back to the car, disappears, as if a Biblical prophet had wandered by for a moment.
The soldiers, for the first time today, look a little nonplussed; one of them even, to my amazement and delight, appears to hang his head in shame.
And after a while they clamber into their vehicle and drive away. This is our chance. We prepare to turn on the ignition and take off into the desert in the back-hoe, a dozen Ta`ayush activists and five or six Palestinian children flying toward freedom in the empty spaces as if we were in some black-comic action film.
I rather like the idea, to tell the truth. Seems perfectly in harmony with the picaresque adventures of this day. But we`re a minute or two too slow (none of us has driven a back-hoe before), and suddenly a new jeep full of soldiers comes bouncing over the rocks and takes its position on the hilltop above us.
Too late. Stalemate resumes. We hear on the cellphones that the main group of activists has been stopped by the army just as they were about to move out to the other sites, and that the inevitable order declaring the whole area a Closed Military Zone has been issued. Clearly, a water convoy is a serious provocation.
Later it turns out that Benny Gefen emerged from the desert and delivered his sharp rebuke to the commanding officer there, too, and the officer, faced with so unequivocal a moral authority, had no choice but to back down.
Time passes, baked brittle, until at last we see one large contingent of our friends coming back to us, snaking over the track, and now the solution reveals itself: we will envelope the back-hoe on all sides and walk it past the soldiers (a driver has helpfully turned up); we will prevent them, by sheer numbers, from getting anywhere near it. It works like a charm.
And though the military jeeps keep tailing us over the hills, soon we are back on a rickety platform tied to a tractor with two (not three) good wheels, jolting our way painfully and slowly over the rocks in the direction of the main road.
Still thirsty: it`s important on a day like this to know, in your own body, the torment of thirst in the desert. A good day`s work. There`s really no satisfaction quite like it. Maybe it does people good to taste the surreal—more real than anything real-- from time to time. Maybe years from now one of those soldiers will remember Benny Gefen`s words, and they will change his life. Maybe, just maybe, not all has been lost.
Our buses are ready to take us back the city, but there`s one last picaresque scene. At the Al-Khadr terminal-checkpoint just south of Jerusalem, a young soldier comes aboard to check us out. `Where are you coming from?` he asks. From south Hebron. He scowls. `Jewish leftists….Pull over.`
He`s invented a new category, a rather ugly one. There are, in his mind, good Jews (settlers and the like, and your run-of-the-mill paranoid nationalists), there are (uniformly bad) Palestinians, and there are, it now turns out, also bad Jews like us. Leftists. He wants to detain us. This is too much for Yehuda who leaps from the bus in search of the soldier`s commanding officer. He`s determined to lodge a complaint.
The soldier refuses to give his name and serial number, as the law requires, and by now he`s lost it, curses Yehuda, who responds with volcanic invective, and the verbal battle immediately spills over the huge terminal, back and forth, the cameras clicking, activists swarming from the bus, until finally the commanding officer happens by-- a burly young Border Policeman, eager to calm things down and get the damned bus out of the terminal.
The Border Police are not famous for their greatness of spirit or gentle ways, but this one surprises us. `Why are you so upset?` he asks Yehuda, disingenuous. `So what if he called you Jewish leftists? Aren`t you proud of who you are? I`m a leftist myself, and proud of it, too.`