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Occupation magazine - Life under occupation

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Umm al-Ara`is and Susya
David Shulman
October 19, 2013

Autumn in the South Hebron hills. Thick sun, in and out of cloud. Wind: a taste of winter. Blue hills trimmed with green. Crstyal light, unearthly clarity. Mauve ridges rushing in waves down into the desert. Scattered rocks that look like sheep, and sheep that could be rocks. The smell of wood ovens in Twaneh; someone is baking pitta. It`s good to be back.
I`m here, among other reasons, as a way of remembering, a quiet, intimate gesture for my mother, Deana, who died last month at 96, lucid, witty, and courageous to the very end. She`d have understood.
Last week there were two ugly incidents entirely in harmony with the routine reality of dispossession and expulsion. My old friend Nal was out with his sheep on the hills near the settlement of Avigail in an area where Palestinians are allowed to graze even under the draconian rules of the Occupation. Here is his testimony (courtesy of Guy Butavia):
`I was with the sheep and two young boys in the wadi to the west of Avigail near Road 317. An army DMAX vehicle approached us, and four soldiers got out. One of them grabbed a metal pipe that one of the boys was holding and used it to lash out at the sheep. The soldiers spoke to us in Hebrew although we told them we don`t understand Hebrew. They ordered to stay where we were. We asked if we could telephone home or call Ezra, but they wouldn`t let us. I was holding my phone; one of the soldiers twisted my arm and nearly broke it and said ,`Don`t talk on the phone, don`t take pictures, don`t do anything.` I asked one of the boys to take the sheep home, and I managed to photograph a little bit. My father and Khalid al-Najar arrived and tried to speak with the soldiers, but they drove them away. I was left alone.
`The soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed me and took me in their vehicle in the direction of Susya, to their base. They kept me there for some hours, and they hit me on the back of my head and on my face while I was handcuffed. They brought a burning cigarette close to my mouth and extinguished it on my face. They hit me on my chest and on the back, and one of them kicked me in the foot and said, `Speak Hebrew, speak Hebrew.` I told him I can`t speak Hebrew. He said he`d stop beating me if I spoke Hebrew. The beating went on for a long time, and the soldiers were cursing me, `You bastard, you whoreson, I`m going to fuck you.` Later they said, `You`re Gaddafi, you come from Lebanon, you come from Syria, we`re Israelis and this land is ours.`
`Then a soldier came, put the muzzle of his gun to my head and said, `I`m going to shoot you, I`m going to shoot you, this is our land.`
`Later they put me back in the vehicle and said, `We`re taking you to the Shabak [General Security Service], you`re from Hamas, you`re from Fatah, you come from Syria, from Lebanon, we`re going to fuck you.` They took me to the area of Sham`a [about fifteen kilometers from where he was kidnapped, DS], they dropped me from the vehicle and said, `Go.`
`I left home at 6, at 6:30 the soldiers took me, and they let me go around 12:30, six hours later.`
You can see two short Youtube clips of Nal`s testimony—but it`s only in Arabic.

The second incident, all too similar, involved Muhammad Shwahin; here Gedalia, the security officer at the hard-core settlement of Maon, called the soldiers and told them to arrest him, which they did. I`ll come back to Gedalia later.
As I said, it`s good to be back.
No one should imagine that such things are the exception rather than the rule in South Hebron. But for us it is an easy, even too easy, day, divided into three distinct parts.
Appetizer. We start off at Umm al-Ara`is, the standard ritual. You can find the background details in earlier reports from there. Very briefly, settlers from Mitzpeh Yair have stolen a huge chunk of fertile Palestinian land mostly belonging to the `Awad family, a set of fields spreading through a long wadi. For over two years, the Umm al-Ara`is families, led by Sa`id `Awad, have been struggling to regain their lands. Each week, sometimes several times a week, the ritual is enacted. While the Civil Administration and the Ministry of Defense continue to `study` the case—though the Palestinian claim has, it seems, been recognized on some level by the authorities—the families move down the thorny slope into their fields, cross over to the hill on the other side, and invariably encounter soldiers waiting for them with their ungentle tools. It is critical that the Palestinians make this tangible gesture over and over. In the end, I think, it will work; I believe there`s a good chance the lands will be restored to their owners—although even if the legal issue is settled, we will still no doubt have to force the army to honor the decision. For now, our job is to join these Palestinians in the helter-skelter march into the wadi, to confront the soldiers with them, courting arrest, and to make the moral case, however futile it may seem.
Today the timing is off. We have lingered, unaccountably, in Twaneh, and by the time we hit the end of the two-kilometer dust-and-stone path to Umm al-Ara`is, the Palestinians are already on their way down into the wadi. Some of the volunteers rush to join them. Ezra appears, magically, suddenly, as is his wont, sweeps Eileen, Osnat and me into his car, and deposits us somewhere in the eastern fields, halfway up the farther hill: `Just keep walking, no matter what.` Then he`s gone. It`s nice advice, but the Border Police are on to us within seconds; a particularly nasty, arrogant officer threatens us with arrest if we don`t leave at once or if we ever come back again, and he then chases us at gunpoint off the path. We wait ten minutes. Ezra re-materializes, and we head back into the fields. By now there are many more soldiers; Sa`id and his group, together with our volunteers, many holding young children in their arms, are moving downhill toward us. We reunite. The soldiers trot out the inevitable paper declaring the wadi a Closed Military Zone; settlers watch from the hilltop; we hang on for a while, but eventually we have to go. Everyone has played his part to perfection. I know why I`m here, I tell myself we have to keep doing this, over and over, week after week and month after month, until it finally works out, but I feel like a fool.
Mid-morning. There`s time to reminisce, to wonder why we haven`t brought a finjan to make coffee. Yehuda is here, a Ta`ayush veteran; I haven`t seen him for over a year. He`s moved to the north; got married; published a novel. He tells me a story about that Gedalia I mentioned—we know him well, too well, know his violent ways. It seems that once, after a long, rough tussle between the settlers and our people, one of our volunteers found himself sitting beside Gedalia on some rocky terrace. They started chatting. I know this may sound odd to you, but such things happen. Enemies often converse—if that`s the word-- out there on the hills. So after some time, the Ta`ayush volunteer asked Gedalia: `Why do you keep beating up the Palestinian kids walking to school?` (This is another long story; the kids, who go to school in Twaneh, skirt the settlement of Maon, and there`s an agonizing history of brutal attacks on them by the settlers.) Gedalia looked over his two shoulders to be sure no one was listening, and then he answered: `To tell you the truth, I don`t know.`
Main Course. We spend the mid-day hours picking olives in Susya, right next to the archaeological park that was the original home of the Susya Palestinians. To their great misfortune, an ancient synagogue was discovered there, so they were driven out—the first of at least five increasingly violent expulsions. They probably can`t get to their olives near the park without our presence; and indeed, the olives on the trees I harvested were already overripe, a dark purple, many of them dried and wrinkled. Left too long. Haja Sara, the tough and beautiful matriarch of Susya, is picking olives beside me; we greet one another happily, it`s been a long time.
The sun is gone. From time to time a police car stops, to remind us that they`re watching. Soldiers tear by in their jeeps. But the harvest is a peaceful, happy business. There`s a simple lunch of pitta, olives, yogurt, and tomatoes. Then back to work.
Dessert. By 3:00 there are no more olives on the trees. We make a parting stop at Susya—that is, the edge of the Israeli settlement of Susya, which, in the last few weeks, has taken over another big chunk of Palestinian land adjacent to the settlers` vineyards (that also sit, needless to say, on stolen land). This time the theft has a slightly inventive touch. Because the land next to the vineyards is not very fertile, the settlers helped themselves to rich black soil from yet another private Palestinian field, just over the hill, and dumped it here. They`re already working the plot as if it were theirs. In short, it`s Umm al-Ara`is all over again: the ever-present paradigm in south Hebron. The settlements continually creep, sometimes leap, outward, always hungry for more land. We take pictures, we have excellent material for the lawyers, and yes, maybe here too we`ll reverse the wicked process, over time. We have to. I agree (only about this!) with Oriana Fallaci: `I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born.`
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