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." 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."
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.