Tag Archives: David Shulman

David Shulman: A Shepherd’s day in South Mt. Hebron

World-renowned scholar and Taayush activist David Shulman in one of his finest reports.
Nothing dramatic, just a few hours in the life of one shepherd in south Mt. Hebron- the routine of the occupation in this area, accompanied with much insight to the feelings and thoughts of the non-violent activists of Taayush. It’s a bit of a long reading, but a most rewarding one.
Ehud Krinis
Villages Group
January 30, 2010   Al-Tal’a, Um Zaituna
“The most desperate fights are often the most hopeful,” Istvan says to me as we stand on the hill looking down at the shepherds and their sheep. You can always rely on Istvan for the surprising Hungarian perspective on things—not usually an optimistic one, but humane and morally acute in a dark, perhaps ironic way. This is his fourth trip with us to South Hebron. He likes the Ta’ayush mode, which he thinks exemplifies the central Gandhian principle: what is inside shapes what is outside; if you can overcome your own weaknesses and fear, you will have an incalculable effect on the most recalcitrant situation. Besides, there’s another consideration of a totally non-instrumental nature. He cites an extreme example. Those Germans and Poles and others who saved the lives of Jews during the Nazi period didn’t do it to defeat Nazism; they did it because it was right, a moral act in need of no justification or corroboration outside itself.
This comes as a timely reminder, because yesterday afternoon I was harangued at some length by a former colleague, a Russian humanist of the old school, by now thoroughly disillusioned:  in a struggle, he said, between those with principles, driven by moral concerns, and what he calls the “Hottentot” rule—”If I take your wife, that is good; if you take my wife, that is bad”—in such a struggle, the Hottentots will always win. [I hope my Hottentot readers will forgive him, and me.] Moral scruples, in short, always weaken you; it’s the thugs who come out on top. So here we are in the living laboratory of South Hebron, where we can perform an experiment, in real time, to test these two opposed hypotheses.
We’ve come to accompany the Palestinian shepherds, who have been harassed in recent days even more than usual by Israeli settlers. The settlers, backed up by the army and the police, are constantly driving the shepherds at gunpoint off their historic grazing grounds; sometimes they beat them or throw rocks at them or even shoot at them for good measure. We divide up into three groups, each one responsible for one large herd; I am entrusted with the Al-Tal’a/ Um Zaituna contingent. I find Jamil, together with some 80 or 90 sheep and four of his young sons and other boys, on the rocky slope just under the cow-barn of the Maon settlement. He gives me a radiant welcome, his face alight with pleasure; Jamil is a true bon vivant, odd as the term might sound in the harsh desert setting of South Hebron. (You can see him in the attached picture.)

Jamil and his son

He’s also monolingual in Arabic, a great advantage for me. He tells me that this morning settlers have already pointed their guns at him and his sons and told him to go away—or they would shoot. I think the sheep and the children are still a little too close to the settlement, and together we decide they’ll move some ways down the hill.
So far so good. The sheep are also happy—these slopes, normally inaccessible to Palestinian shepherds, are thick with fresh green undergrowth and the delicious thorny leaves the sheep adore. It’s rained a bit this winter; the soil is reviving under wind and winter cloud, a ravishing pastiche of green and grey. Here the name of the game, as we know well, is somehow to gain time—an hour, two, three, long enough for the herd to graze to its fill before the soldiers and the settlers turn up, as they always do. I have instructions from Amiel to avoid confrontation this time: if we see them approaching, we are to get the shepherds out of danger as quickly as we can. No arrests, if possible, today.
We talk, we laugh, we play. Jamil wants me to mount his donkey, Humara. How is it? he asks after I’ve clambered up on top. Much better than driving a car, I say. The children, as always, want their picture taken; they solemnly introduce themselves and, one by one, come to shake our hands. “Are you afraid of the soldiers?” little Ibrahim asks me, and I say, “No, not afraid, but I don’t want any trouble for you.” An hour goes by, wind whipping at our faces. I dismount from Humara. There is dust in the air, a sign of coming storm.
First we see the police cars driving up to Maon, blue lights flashing. They sit there, waiting. I’m hoping they just came by to have a look and won’t come at us, especially since we’ve now opened up a substantial gap between the herd and the outer perimeter of the settlement. But of course the hope is quickly dashed. A large posse of soldiers and cops is soon marching toward us over the rocks. They reach Zvi and the other Um Zaituna flock first. Even at a distance, I can see them performing the remorseless stages of their beloved ritual:  there is a piece of paper being waved at Zvi and the shepherds, clearly the signed order declaring this little patch of desert a Closed Military Zone; the order is examined, photographed, there are the always Quixotic protests, followed by threats from the soldiers and, after a few minutes, a gradual withdrawal of our people eastwards, deeper into the desert. Maybe, I say to myself, the soldiers won’t bother Jamil and his Ta’ayush protectors. No such luck. Having heroically driven the Um Zaituna flock down toward the wadi, the soldiers and policemen pick their way over the rocks toward us.
“You are now in a Closed Military Zone. You have fifteen minutes to get out of here.”
“And just where are we supposed to go?”
“Down into the wadi, past that curve in the hills.” The soldier points vaguely in an easterly direction. He’s also unrolled the map for our benefit, with a poorly defined area outlined in yellow marker.
“And why are you doing this?”
“I work for the Brigade Commander, ask him.”
“I’ll be glad to ask him, but he doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“You now have 14 minutes.”

Some of the soldiers who enforced a flagrantly illegal order that day in South Hebron Hills.

“You know what you are doing is illegal,” we say, “the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the Army cannot declare a Closed Military Zone arbitrarily, and it is expressly forbidden to do so if this means denying Palestinian shepherds and farmers access to their lands.”
“Doesn’t interest me.”
“And you know that the Army’s own legal adviser in the Territories backed up the Supreme Court’s ruling with a directive issued to all soldiers serving here.”
“Twelve minutes.”
“So why are you here? Taking orders, as usual, from the settlers?” Zvi has joined us, and he’s wonderfully eloquent at such moments.
The lieutenant in charge has had enough words. He stands, features locked, impassive, eyes unseeing. But then why would one want eyes if all they could see was the one thing he doesn’t want to see?
“Or maybe it’s just that you happen to enjoy lording it over those who are weak and helpless, as you enjoy tormenting them?”  I don’t remember who said this—one of the women, I think.
No answer. Glassy stare. Arms folded on his chest. He looks mean to me. Then I start to wonder if, after all, something akin to thought might not be happening in some recess of his mind. Maybe he’s even capable of feeling inner conflict. That would be a distinct improvement. “Whoever the Brigade Commander is,” I say, “I hope someday you will look at the world and begin to think for yourself.”  But I know it’s all a useless gesture, and I, too, am going through my usual paces in a game whose rules have been determined by others. I hate the fact that I continue to play by their rules. We are going to have to think up some better way.
Maybe we should just stop arguing, refuse to move, and get arrested, as we have many times in the past. Does that do any good? It will mean Jamil will also probably be arrested, and then there’s the devil to pay. Believe it or not, he’s never spent a night in prison— which makes him a rather rare species in South Hebron. I’m not about to shatter his luck today.
So I nod to Jamil and we slowly start to move off. The policemen follow us down the hill. We cross over the bed of the wadi and begin to ascend the next slope in line. Here the police, I am happy to see, turn around and go away.
But this isn’t good enough. The dour lieutenant and one of his men have stayed behind to watch us, and soon they decide we haven’t yet reached the particular curve in the hills they had in mind, so they come marching rapidly toward us, and they kick at the sheep and throw a few stones at them, and they threaten us again and we protest again, and we film them and record the whole sordid scene, and so it goes, on and on, until after nearly an hour they have driven us into a distant part of the wadi—past three or four or five curves in the path—and then they finally turn away. We end up, as Istvan observes, in a dry, barren stretch of sandy soil, overgrazed, grazed to death, utterly devoid of the juicy green thorns that the sheep had been enjoying higher up. I ask Jamil:  “Did they at least manage to eat a little?” “Not enough,” he says. “They’re far from full.”
And he breaks into a tirade, utterly familiar in its tenor:  every day the soldiers come and drive us away, the settlers call them and they come, they won’t let us live, it’s not just, it’s not fair, these are our own lands, they’ve taken everything, they leave us nothing, we can’t survive like this, we don’t have the power to resist them, even you couldn’t stop them, tomorrow it will happen again, we are defenseless….I listen, I know it is true, I am appalled that we couldn’t prevent this crime. We failed as we have before and certainly will again.
So who, dear reader, is right, Gandhi/Istvan or my Russian colleague? You can decide for yourself. Here’s what I can say by way of background—nothing new, I’m afraid. The ramified system in place in South Hebron, like everywhere else in the Occupied Territories, exists for one and only one purpose—to steal land and to make the owners of this land disappear. Everything, and everybody, on the Israeli side is fully mortgaged to this single aim. How this monstrous thing developed, how it gradually took over the central institutions of the state and bent them to its will—these are questions for some future historian.
So far, surprisingly, the system has not managed to rid itself of the unwanted population of shepherds and small-scale farmers—a few thousand impoverished innocents—who have been eeking out an existence here for the last many centuries. These shepherds and farmers have proven to be astonishingly resilient; their needs are rather minimal, they are tenacious and brave, and maybe we, too, have had some small part to play in their survival. But, as Amiel says, the only thing that successfully grows in South Hebron is sheep and goats, and if the settlers and the government manage to starve the herds by chasing them off their grazing grounds, in the end our friends will be forced to leave. Every soldier who does what we saw the soldiers do today, and worse, blindly following orders, is complicit in a great human evil that cannot be justified or rationalized in any intelligible human terms. This highly specific, irreducible wickedness has nothing to do with the big questions about making peace, or not, about negotiations with this one or that one or no one (the government’s preferred option), about Realpolitik and the Jews’ endless anxieties and the self-righteousness that may be the surface expression of those anxieties, about anti-Semitism and the bad memories we love to carry around with us, indulging our passion for self-pity. Or second thought, maybe it does have something to do with this last item. Self-pity is pregnant with its own malignant variety of aggression. In any case, wickedness, like goodness, really shouldn’t be explained away—indeed, at bottom, if you look closely, it cannot be explained away. It just is.
Jamil says they’re going home; there’s no chance of grazing again today. He thanks us, takes my hand, and the bedrock bonhomie of his nature flares up once more. They have a long walk ahead, over the hills, to al-Tal’a. There are more goodbyes to be said; I am leaving on sabbatical for the next four months. Sad, a bit overwhelmed, I tell Amiel that I’ll miss this place. “Don’t worry,” he says, “when you come back it will be just like this, or maybe a little worse.” The more desperate things get, the more bemused he seems to be, and the brighter his flashes of wit. As we approach the roadblock at al-Khadr at the outskirts of Jerusalem, the young Border Policewoman gestures our minibus to stop for inspection. Amiel calls out to her: “We’re all circumcised Jews—oh yes, a few circumcised Jewesses, too.” That, apparently, is what she wanted to hear; she waves us on.

Palestinians Return to Bir al-‘Id

One of the most significant developments in south Hebron, which happened few weeks ago, is the rehabilitation of Bir al-‘Id – once the biggest cave dwellers community in the area, and in recent years, an abandoned place (forcibly evacuated exactly 10 years ago under the Barak government), completely deserted under the pressures of the occupation forces and (especially) the nearby settlers post.

The battle for the rehabilitation of Bir al-‘Id has moved
now from the court back to the ground. It is an everyday battle, consuming tremendous efforts from the local Palestinian returnees and the Israeli and International volunteers who try to help them. Below is the story of Bir al-‘Id which was told by one of the returnees – Mahdi – and recorded by Ta’ayush activist and world-renowned scholar David Shulman.


November 21, 2009 Bi’r al-‘Id

“It’s because of the truth that we go there,” Amiel says to me before we get into the waiting “transit” van. He’s been thinking about it since last week’s lectures in celebration of Nita’s book on making peace. I’d been trying to explain in my talk why I keep going down to the South Hebron hills when, after all, our impact on the situation there is so minimal, so pointillist, the task so Sisyphean, the sense of futility so overwhelming. I claimed that despite all this, there is something good about being there, in those landscapes and with those people, and that it had something to do with the difference between truth and falsehood. There are, it seems, situations when the distinction is truly palpable. I listen to my prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, say that he hopes the Palestinians “will get their act together, so that negotiations can begin.”

You hear the lie at once, and you can’t help noticing how thin and superficial it is, how lacking in any human depth; also, of course, how astonishingly twisted and corrupt. We live in the midst of swirling clouds of lies. “That’s the thing about South Hebron,” Amiel says. “It exposes the lie and reveals the truth in all its clarity. That is why we go there.” “Truth” sounds, at first, like a hard and heavy word, and to say “the truth,” as if there were only one and not many, only adds to the heaviness, but I can tell you that there are moments when truth is light and luminous and singular and rather simple and when it lightens the heart to see and taste it.

Like today. We start off southward in the van, but within ten minutes the police appear from nowhere and pull us over. It’s clear they know where we’re going, and why, and they must have received an order from someone higher up to harass us as best they can, so they pick on the most vulnerable among us, our Palestinian driver, Zaidan, from Beit Hanina in the north of the city. They pull him from the van into the police car, and they have rather a lot of questions to ask him about his driver’s license, his insurance, how many people he is allowed to drive in the van, whether he is being paid for this or not, and so on. They hunt through the booklet of rules and laws and, sure enough, they eventually hit on some regulation that allows them to book a charge and slap a fine of 500 shekels on Zaidan—it seems he had 12 passengers in the van but his license allows him to drive only 10. There are endless forms to fill out while we wait helplessly in the mid-morning sun and one of the two policemen swaggers back and forth scowling at us and barking threats. After an hour or so they issue a temporary license which allows Zaidan to drive for the next twenty-four hours, long enough, as it happens, to get us down to south Hebron.

We’re on our way to Bi’r al-‘Id, but first we stop at Mufaqara—a smattering of black tents on grey rock– to escort the shepherds for a while, since already this morning settlers from the “illegal outpost” of Avigail have tried to drive them off their grazing grounds, as happens regularly. It’s a brilliant winter day, the air cool as fine crystal; from this point high in the hills, you can see almost to the end of the earth, each tiny trace of stone or thorn or goat-dung limned in the burning light, the hills rising and falling and eddying, awash in brown and blue and gold. The goats are happily chewing fresh winter thorns, and for the moment, at least, the settlers have retired into their ugly caravans. The moment doesn’t last very long; no sooner do we take our leave, most of us, than a mad settler dashes into the Palestinian encampment shouting curses, and Michael, who has stayed behind for just such an emergency, confronts him, and there’s a scuffle and Michael is hurt a little before the soldiers arrive.

By then we have made our way on foot through the glowing desert, over the hills, to the tiny set of stone terraces and fences and goat-pens and caves that is called Bi’r al-‘Id. It seems to grow organically out of the hillside, a slight extension of the escarpment and utterly at home in it, unlike the khaki-and-grey pre-fab houses of the Israeli settlement, another “illegal outpost,” of Mitzpeh Yair that peers down at Bi’r al-‘Id from the top of the hill. There’s not much left of the caves; the army destroyed them, filling them with sand and rocks, in 1999. Originally some 400 people lived here. Two Palestinian families have now returned after a long struggle in the courts. Mahdi, whom I remember from a visit long ago, tells me the story in the thick, succulent Arabic of these shepherds, his wind-wrinkled face and black eyes alive with insult and rage.

“First they drove us all away. It was November, 1999. Not just from Bi’r al-‘Id but from all the villages here—Jinba, al-Halawi, Markaz, al-Taban, al-Faqit, Swaia foqa and Swaia tihta, al-Majaz, Murgh al-‘Abid, Sa’aba, and Tuba. In March 2000 we came back for a little while, but the settlers attacked us over and over and then they drove us out again and we couldn’t return. They told the courts they wanted to use this area as a firing range for the army, and the courts let them do it. All these years we waited to come back, and we fought in the court, and two weeks ago the court said we could go home. The Rabbis for Human Rights were here, Rabbi Asherman came and helped us rebuild. The settlers attack us regularly, every day, they throw rocks at us and drive away the herds; last week they killed a baby lamb. Now the court says we can live here, but the army has closed the road and they tell us we cannot use it, so there is nowhere we can go, and we cannot bring what we need to build. There is a woman here who is seven months pregnant; how will she get to the hospital? My family had two thousand dunams of land, all the way down to Jinba; the settlers and the soldiers have stolen everything but fifty dunams; that is all that is left.”

(pictures taken from a November 15th photo-essay about the return, by Francesca+MC on Indybay.org)

Mahdi points, despairing, toward the tents of Jinba, far below us in the desert. It is high noon. Settlers to our left, at Mitzpeh Yair; settlers to our right in yet another “illegal outpost,” this one appropriately called Lucifer’s Farm. An immense, oddly orderly line of sheep, following the shepherds from Jinba, is spread along the whole length of the next mountain ridge, white on golden brown. You can easily see across the border into Jordan and the purple hills of Moab. I think to myself: this must be the most beautiful spot in the Middle East. A place to come home to: I am moved, seeing the terraces re-emerging from the hill. And in the strangely delicious silence of these open spaces, I am listening, wholly attentive, to the unmistakable resonance of truth.

And to the equally unmistakable echo of the lie: the army, compelled by the Supreme Court, has grudgingly allowed these people to come home, but it has cut off their only road to the outside world, no doubt “for security reasons.” They can be here, for now, but they can’t move in any direction. I don’t think we have to imagine the real reasons. Neither do we intend to accept the army’s writ. There is a tractor on its way to Bi’r al-‘Id with canvas for tents and sacks of cement. We’re going to see that it arrives.

So we head back to the main road, past the gate of Mitzpeh Yair. Army jeeps pass us from time to time without stopping. I’m feeling light—the truth effect, perhaps—and almost drunk on air and color and friendship. We laugh as we walk. Someone says he’s heard that a group of gay religious Israeli men want to establish a settlement around here. Seems appropriate, I say, everything is so wild here anyway, I only wonder which side they’ll choose to be on—that of the orthodox Jewish settlers or the Palestinians? It’s far from clear, like most things. We speak of the Goldstone report on Gaza and of Abu Mazen’s call, this week, for a third, popular Intifada, a non-violent one, like at Bil’in and Na’alin. For years we’ve been saying that a Palestinian campaign of Gandhian-style civil disobedience is the one thing that could bring the occupation to an end. Israel has no answer to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians marching in non-violent resistance in the territories; if this happens, and the Palestinians declare their state, as I hope and believe they will, the Israeli peace groups—what’s left of them—will be marching beside them. Perhaps the Israeli peace camp will rise from the ashes. Happy early-afternoon thoughts: the tender, scary tang of hope.

And then, suddenly, in the distance, we see the tractor. We race down the road. Ismail ‘Aradeh is driving it, with an attached wagon full of heavy sacks of cement and grout, various poles and rolls of canvas and, crushed against the wire at the far end, one large goat and a small kid. By the time we reach him, Ismail has, of course, been stopped by the soldiers: some seven or eight of them in two jeeps have blocked the road. We protest. They phone their headquarters, or some such authority; they are, they say, “checking” to see whether the tractor can or cannot pass.

We let them know what we think about their blockade; they can see we’re not about to leave. Meanwhile, Ismail is worried about his goats. He summons me to help him; we push and shove at the closest layer of cement sacks, clearing a little space; then he opens the back of the wagon and, before I know it, a rather heavy, furry, bleating goat is in my arms. It seems to approve of its new situation; air is more plentiful now, I guess, enveloped as I am by strong goat odors. We stare curiously at one another, Goat and I, perhaps both of us wondering what the future holds in store. Ezra, however, turns up just in time to extract the scrawny white kid from the wagon, and soon both Goat and the baby are ensconced in Ezra’s car and on their way over the hills to Bi’r al-‘Id. I turn back to the soldiers; Assaf signals to me, thumbs up: they’ve been ordered to open the road. The tractor starts chugging slowly uphill. It would never have happened if we hadn’t been here today.

An hour later there’s another tractor, and the soldiers are there to stop it but it’s too late now, and soon our vehicles are going back and forth to Bi’r al-‘Id carrying more volunteers and materials. Will they close the road again as soon as we’re gone? Maybe. The settlers will certainly pressure the army to do so. If they close it again, we’ll come back and re-open it. But it may be harder for them now that we’ve established the principle. “That’s how it works,” Yehuda explains to one of the international volunteers. “Our task is to push the limits. Always a little further. We push and we prod and we test and the system tries to holds us down, but often we manage to shake them up and extend the range of what is possible. Maybe only a little, but each time we win, it makes a difference.” Even Sisyphus has his hopeful moments.

Look how simple things can be. It’s as if all the violent mendacity of the settlers and the soldiers and the border police who protect them and the prime minister and the minister of defense and their dark allies has evaporated in the intense limpid radiance of this winter afternoon. To keep the families of Bi’r al-‘Id from their simple homes is to cleave to all that is false in the human world—to embrace the lie. Either you help them to bring their lambs and goats back to the stone pens waiting for them on this hill, or you stand in their way and hurt them. It’s your choice. Standing on the sidelines and watching passively is a lot like blocking the road. Either you help them unload the bags of cement and start rebuilding the broken terraces, or you take your stand with the system that drove them out in the first place and now continues to threaten them every day, as Mahdi says. From out of the lunacy and inherent murkiness of the world we live in, you get a sudden shaft of light: a tractor, a shepherd, a goat, a cave that is home again, a truth.