External Affairs

The Wickedness and Caprice that is the Occupation

Israeli soldiers watch over the road construction from their jeep. Credit: Margaret Olin

Israeli soldiers watch over the road construction from their jeep. Credit: Margaret Olin

It’s the end of  Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, and Palestinians in the occupied territories are visiting their relatives and resting and celebrating, away from fields and grazing grounds, so it’s a good day for us to work again on the road to Bi’r al’-Id. You may remember that last time we calculated we’d need some 200 work days or more to finish this task. To prepare 20 metres or so is a day’s work: gathering stones, filling the potholes, arranging the rocks in some mosaic-like order, levelling the whole stretch, covering it with white lime dust, lining the edges with boulders. It’s slow, happy work. By now some parts of the road are in working order. Only 199 days or so to go.

The soldiers are waiting for us when we arrive, when the air is still cool. They have their signed and stamped order declaring the Closed Military Zone. They don’t want us there. We look at the flimsy paper. We photograph it, to take it to the courts, which will undoubtedly proclaim it illegal (too late). But we can do better than that. Amiel, whose expertise in reading these army maps of south Hebron is beyond compare, studies the document and concludes that if we walk another 150 meters or so down the road, we’ll be outside the area included in their map. Off we go. The soldiers, nonplussed, say they’ll produce another, updated and more inclusive map in a few minutes, but meanwhile, buckets in hands, we set to work.

“Anything that might possibly improve the lives of Palestinians under occupation is apparently ruled out for that very reason.”

Consider the meaning of this little vignette. Is there any intelligible reason that the army should close off the area, making it impossible for us to work on the road? Yigal says to me: “This is ridiculous.” Amiel says: “Anything that might possibly improve the lives of Palestinians under occupation is apparently ruled out for that very reason.” Both speak the truth. But I think it goes well beyond ridiculous. We need to look for another word. I don’t know what that word would be.

You might think there would be some logic to it. After all, why not? The Occupation has its rules. Someone has thought them up. But the new senior commander in this area is given to capricious decisions. Maybe it’s only that, a whim. The short-lived pleasure of showing off your power. Note, however, that this man indeed has the power to enact his caprice at the expense of many innocent people; note, also, that there is no dearth of soldiers who will obey his arbitrary commands. If only one of them would stop and think…..

Beyond all this, look at the reality on the ground in Palestine. All kinds of things happen on some ethereal level: Netanyahu speaks to the Congress, Kerry teeters back and forth between Washington and Jerusalem and Ramallah, big people say this or that. But on the ground, if you want to pave a Palestinian road, to make life just a little easier, there’s an excellent chance the army will stop you. If you burn a Palestinian baby to death, there’s a good chance the security forces of the State of Israel won’t find you, or if they find you, won’t bring you to justice, or if they bring you to justice, it will be no justice. Things are set up like that here in Bi’r al-‘Id. Here caprice literally calls the shots.

So the word I’m searching for can’t be “absurd,” which is anyway rather weak. Absurd assumes the non-absurd, an ordered world, as its necessary shadow. This, I think, is Camus’s mistake when he says Sisyphus, the guy with the rock, is happy because of the absurdity that rules everything. But there is another reason that today’s Closed Military Zone is not absurd. It is predicated on wickedness, hence saturated with meaning. Wickedness, in fact, is its only possible meaning. Hence, it is no longer absurd.

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Building a road. Credit: Margaret Olin

We set to work under a fierce sun. The name “Sisyphus” keeps popping up. After I hear it for the third or fourth time, I begin to wonder about it, as over and over I fill my bucket with rocks. I imagine Sisyphus I: he rolls the rock up the hill because that is who he is and what he does. In a sense, he does it for its own sake. As Camus said, he might even be happy. One might also think, as we often do, that when you act, doing the right thing as best you can, you do so for the intrinsic worth of the act, not mindful, or very mindful, of its consequences. An ethical act is its own reason and its own reward. Gandhi sometimes said things like that.

But I can also imagine Sisyphus II. He knows, from a place of certainty, that one day the rock will not roll down the hill. He cannot know when this moment will arrive — perhaps a thousand years from now, after he has rolled the rock uphill many thousands of times. But one day it will happen. In that faith, he goes on rolling the rock in the burning sun. He, too, may be happy.

I’d like to think that I belong with Sisyphus II. Someday the lunacy of Occupation will cease. The rock will rest where we have placed it, on the summit. We know this will happen. However, I lack the certainty, though not the happiness. In any case, I keep on rolling the rock. The moment will surely come. It is enough for me that it will come.

Then there is Sisyphus III. He thinks that someday the rock might not roll down the hill again. Driven by that slight hope, he keeps on rolling the rock uphill. The subjunctive is enough for him. He holds on to this hope as his most precious possession. I know people who act from this place. They don’t trouble themselves with probabilities.

As for me, I slide in and out of all three, depending on the day or the hour or the heat or the news or the particular circumstances of the moment. Does it matter what I think about this? The rock awaits me. The rock is me. Meanwhile, the soldiers, week after week, are making fools of themselves. I suppose that is what soldiers do in any case, including those times when they surrender to the ultimate foolishness of dying a “glorious” death in battle. I saw some of them doing just that in Lebanon. Given the choice, I prefer Sisyphus, any day.

Today’s soldiers, sitting in the broiling jeep, are probably bored. I suppose they hate us. Might they even envy us? We have the rocks, the sun, the dizzying hills, the blue ridge of the mountains across the river in Jordan, the piles of white lime dust the Palestinians have left for us on the road. These treasures should suffice.

Naturally, inevitably, horribly, the authorities came to Susya to tell Nasser that the memorial to his murdered child was built without a permit and has to be demolished by the Susyans themselves.

And Amiel? You can’t stop Amiel. Even when he gets tired — I see it happening — he keeps on moving those heavy rocks. Between Sisyphus and Amiel there is an unbridgeable gap. Amiel works according to plan — methodical, one-pointed, irresistible. Because of this plan, more than half of the land cases we’ve been involved in in South Hebron have been decided in favour of the Palestinian owners. He is focused on pragmatic results, and mostly, thanks to an astonishing talent for persistence, not only his, the results are good. Over years of unremitting effort, we have changed the world just a little. For that little, Sisyphus, if he is true to himself, should envy Amiel.

When our 20 metres are flat and even, the rocks arranged in their patterns and bathed in white lime, the edges of the road lined with heavy stones to keep the rains from washing it away, we stop for a simple lunch of pita and labaneh and tomatoes. Then we pay a friendly visit to Nasser in Susya, to offer festive blessings. Susya still stands, despite everything. Perhaps here, too, we have won. On one of the tents there is an inscription: Susya 4ever. Above the scattered tents there is now a small rocky memorial to Ali Saad Dawabsheh from the village of Dura, burnt to death by Jewish settlers on July 31st. It has an inscription in Arabic and a picture of the baby, one year old. Naturally, inevitably, horribly, the officers of the Civil Administration came to Susya to tell Nasser that this memorial was built without a permit and has to be demolished by the Susyans themselves. Nasser said: “You can demolish it if you insist, but we will not do this deed.” So far, it’s still there. What word might we use to characterise these officers, doing their weary duty? I am no longer amazed at human wickedness, surely it is well within the range of the usual, even of the normal, especially here in South Hebron, but I am still amazed by the insolent savagery, the unthinkable chutzpah, of the human mind.

September 26, 2015   Bi’r al-‘Id

David Shulman is an Indologist and an authority on the languages of India. A professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he is an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership. His latest book is More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India

, published in April 2015


These notes aim to bear witness at what we, in Ta’ayush– Arab-Jewish Partnership–  see and experience week after week in the Occupied Territories, mostly in the south Hebron hills where we have long-standing ties with the Palestinian herders and farmers. They provide a fairly typical picture of life under the Occupation and of the efforts of Israeli-Palestinian peace groups to protest, to protect the innocent civilian population in the territories, and to keep alive hope for a peace that someday must come. The entries are personal and somewhat introspective, an attempt to make sense for myself of what I see.