External Affairs

In Palestine, Memory is a Living, Haunting Thing

Greed, blood-lust, malice on one side. On the other side, facing them, this sad and gentle man, who hasn’t forgotten how things were when his grandfathers were alive, long before the settlers came here with the soldiers to rape the soil and to dance with guns.

Hebron agricultural land. Credit: Tbass Effendi

Hebron agricultural land. Credit: Tbass Effendi

Yesterday there was an engagement party for Sa’id’s son; Ezra and Ada went down to celebrate. The little girls, Gamar and Asil, whom we know well from the weekly marches, were all powdered and made up; today when we meet them, we still see traces of yesterday’s eyeliner. They’re busy playing with the coffee pot bubbling over on its bed of stones. Their older brothers are playing soccer under the indifferent eyes of the soldiers, their jeeps parked on the ‘Awad lands. Sa’id is talking to one of these soldiers, re-educating him (which is badly needed). “Every time you kill an innocent Palestinian,” says Sa’id, “you create a hundred more who are ready to die.”

Like the one who was killed near the entrance to Hebron this week: his car broke down, he was trying to fix it, he went down the street to buy a screwdriver, and on his way back to the vehicle soldiers shot him in the head. That, at any rate, is the Palestinian version. The army of course says he was a terrorist (there’s the fatal fact of the screwdriver). You can take your pick.

Speaking of engagements and weddings, this was also the week of the video of a wedding of settlers from Yitzhar. It’s all over the internet. You can see them dancing with their rifles, then whipping out their knives; then they start stabbing the photograph they’re holding up of ‘Ali Dawabsheh, the Palestinian baby burned to death by settlers on the night of July 31st this year. They’re singing, in an ecstasy of blood, making love to their guns. None of this should surprise anyone, we know Yitzhar and its ways. Still, I couldn’t sleep the night after I saw the video. There are times when the horror of things is just too much. Modern nationalism always produces it, sooner or later, wherever it rules. The Yitzhar wedding is the natural and inevitable result of a world driven by people like Netanyahu or, indirectly, by those who elected him.

Sa’id, one of the finest human beings I know, tender, tough, and courageous, speaks to me at length of what is in store. He says that what was once a conflict over land has been turned into a religious war that may destroy us all. He thinks it may be too late to stop it. Yes, I say, I agree, but someday there will be a change. We can’t see it yet. Someday this nightmare will end.

Someday. Always someday, the light shadow of despair. Some shred of hope nesting in the further reaches of the mind. Sa’id manages a smile. You can’t live, he says, without hope. The winter sunlight caresses us. Today the soldiers are bored and nonchalant. Ezra says they’re no longer giving us the honor we deserve: only three jeeps of them today. Anyway, they make no attempt to stop us when, at Ezra’s urging, we walk with Sa’id to the end of the wadi and then up the hill toward Mitzpeh Yair, on the ‘Awad lands not yet restored to their rightful owners. “Not yet.” There I go again. Someone reminds me that four years ago, when we first started coming to Umm al-Ara’is to stand beside Sa’id and the ‘Awad families as they walked, without hope, into their stolen fields, I had blindly predicted, against all probability, that “someday” they would get these fields back. And guess what. With their persistence, and with a little help from us, some 80 dunams of the fertile wadi are theirs again. These fields have been plowed and sown, and the first tentative shoots of green barley are already coming up. Miracles happen. Seeds sprout. Even in the lost crannies of the heart.

Another 150 dunams are still lost, unreachable. At each step Sa’id says: “You see these big stones. They mark the boundaries between the family plots. All the lands in the wadi were directly connected to the lands on the hill, which were also cultivated in the days of our grandfathers.” Today they’re nothing but rock and thorn and the silent boundary markers. There is also the stone tabun where they used to bake bread. These lands on the slope have been classified as “survey lands” by the Civil Administration, which means, Amiel says, that the state is eyeing them with its customary greed. But so far the ‘Awad families have been winning in this unending tug-of-war with the Occupation. You can’t say the same for the Khushiyye and Jabareen plots, which begin where the ‘Awad lands end. Sa’id walks us to the edge of his section, on the ridge overlooking the desert and the hills of Transjordan, barely visible today in the sun-thick haze.

Greed, blood-lust, malice on one side. On the other side, facing them, this sad and gentle man, who hasn’t forgotten how things were when his grandfathers were alive, long before the settlers came here with the soldiers to rape the soil and to dance with guns. As if memory were a living, haunting thing, alive in that soil. A lonely thing, the final resort of the powerless. Standing there with him in the sun, looking down at the green wadi, I was almost happy for a moment. It passed. Tonight, sitting at my desk, remembering, also peering ahead, I’m sad and afraid for my grandchildren. A new baby arrived in our family three weeks ago. And what will he have to remember? That when the settlers came to plunder and kill, a few of us were here to face them, and there was even a fleeting moment of victory?

Through the midday hours we work again on the road to Bi’r al-‘Id. Another 15 meters gained. We’re still some ways from the summit, where the path turns south and the village comes into view on the left. A tractor with attached wagon drives down the newly surfaced road, bumping over the rocks– another non-trivial triumph. In the wagon, a boy stands, holding the rail, schoolbook in hand, his smile awash in sun.

(December 26, 2015.  Umm al-Ara’is and 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.