External Affairs

Letters from South Hebron: Reclaiming Palestinian Rights, One Well At a Time

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.

As Israeli soldiers look on, a group of Palestinian and Israeli activists pleacefully reclaim for a Palestinian family what is rightfully theirs. South Hebron. Credit: Guy Batavia

As Israeli soldiers look on, a group of Palestinian and Israeli activists pleacefully reclaim for a Palestinian family what is rightfully theirs. South Hebron. Credit: Guy Batavia

You may be getting tired of hearing about our micro-victories, especially since what is happening in Israel in general, and on the West Bank in particular, is so appalling. We live in Bibiland, ruled by Bibispeak and a government mainly composed of grotesque figures, totalitarian by inclination, racist by persuasion, self-righteous and malicious by creed and need; never, not even in recent years, has Israel seen a government such as this. The race to self-destruction is accelerating, with none to stop it from inside.

How strange, then, to celebrate what nonetheless merits celebration, for example, the still tentative return of hundreds, many hundreds, of dunams of fertile land to the hands of their rightful owners—our hosts today, Ahmad, Ibrahim, and Muhammad Abu Hani, together with ‘Abed and 11-year-old Ahmad, Ibrahim’s sons. At the well, Ahmad slithers down into the dark depths, and Ibrahim manoeuvres himself through the narrow stone aperture and joins him. ‘Abed will be lowering and pulling up the buckets with a muddy, thin, fraying, slippery rope.

The fields and slopes of Asfar belong to the Abu Shinab family. Today they live in the village of Shuyukh, not far away. For 15 years—since two pirate settlements, Pnei Kedem and Metzad, planted themselves here on either side of the wadi and the fields—the Abu Shinab clan has had no access to these lands. As you drive up past the turn to Pnei Kedem, a big sign looms over the road, inscribed with a Biblical verse, Zecharia 8.15: emet umishpat shalom shiftu be-sha’areichem, “Render the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.” The settlers have put it up and painted the inscription in huge white letters on blue. I guess they failed to notice that they had stolen the lands their astonishingly ugly prefab houses are sitting on. They also apparently didn’t read the next verse the prophet uttered: “Do not think in your heart of hurting another person, and have no love for an oath of falsehood.” Or maybe they think Palestinians, or for that matter any non-Jews, are not included in the class of “another person.” It hurts to read the words on the sign. It hurts to hear lies masking themselves as truth, the Netanyahu default. Besides, these settlers have also stolen my prophet.

So in the pincer-like grip of the settlements and the soldiers who are there to defend them, the Abu Shinab family lost their land, and these many years went by. Around a year ago they changed their minds. I don’t know what prompted this change of heart, the sudden and always miraculous rebirth of courage. Anyway, they called Ezra Nawi. It was their initiative. Ezra said to them, “You have to be very clear in your minds and committed to this action, otherwise it won’t work. But if you are certain and unafraid, we will be there beside you at every step of the way, and in the end, together, we will win.” At first it was very hard going. Settler bullies attacked the Palestinians and the Ta’ayush volunteers time and again. Some of the attacks are documented on Youtube. Just last week, on the basis of this evidence, five of the most violent offenders were arrested by the police. It’s worth looking at the video if you want to understand how such people think: simultaneously cursing and whining, striking out, punching, pushing, threatening, screaming, as bullies do, these settlers explain to the soldiers that they are feeling uncomfortable because of the mere presence of Palestinians near “their” lands.

It hurts to read the words on the sign. It hurts to hear lies masking themselves as truth, the Netanyahu default. Besides, these settlers have also stolen my prophet.

Thus you’ll agree, I think, that today there is some reason to feel happy, if happiness needs reasons. Shabbat morning: the settlers huddle inside their huts, making no attempt to disturb us. Three soldiers wander by as we’re working at the well; they send messages via their tablet, no doubt seeking instructions from their officers; they linger, only a few meters away from us, but we speak no words to them, and after a while they leave. For our part, we are keen on cleaning the well.

It’s no doubt an ancient one, like nearly all the wells in this region. Probably for centuries it served farmers and shepherds; but, so Ibrahim and Muhammad tell us, it’s not been cleaned for about a hundred years. There’s no machine that can do this job quickly; like elsewhere, at Bi’r al-‘Id for example, we will have to clean it bucket by bucket of thick black mud and stone. ‘Abed pulls the buckets up, and we take turns emptying them on the slope, which slowly turns black and shiny. It’s heavy work. A sour stench emanates from the dank mud. You have to lift the mud-thick bucket from the stone ledge near the opening of the well and lug it to the dumping site, where you turn it upside down and hope that gravity still operates on such recalcitrant, sticky, viscous solids. Usually you have to dig out some of the gook with your hands before the rest of it starts to slide downwards. It’s hard on the lower back, and it’s impossible to perform this task with anything like elegance and poise. Our hands and arms and clothes are soon covered in mud, and it’s getting hot under the summer sun; sometimes you slip and stumble under the weight. Awkwardness lies in every movement, but this awkward to-and-fro mud-dance has a magic in it, as if we were touching and shaping the dark innerness of the well that has slept, like Rip Van Winkle or Choni Hameagel, for a hundred years.

Activists help clear mud from Credit: Roy Batavia

Activists help clear mud from the Abu Shinab family well. Credit: Roy Batavia

If their calculation is right, the well was last cleaned in late Turkish times, perhaps during the First World War. As I work, the desert unrolling itself in waves below me, I think about what this hilltop must have looked like then. There would have been the stones and the thorns and the sheep and the goats, like today, but no settlers. A vast open space, and silence. What about truth? Was there more of it back then? I doubt it. Truth is a human thing, something only we can make, with our hands and bodies, never something given as fact; it comes with other things, like being a friend, like a modicum of courage. You have to extract it with your fingers from the glossy, gooey mud. When the rains come in November, this well will hold clean, clear water. Even then one has to persevere. A good well needs to be cleaned at least once every year.

For half of those hundred years the Occupation has raged, inflicting sorrow and wickedness with abandon, with none to oppose it. Yesterday in Sheikh Jarrah, in east Jerusalem, Saleh, another of the dispossessed, another friend, said to the activists who had gathered to mourn the 48th birthday of the Occupation that “this Occupation will soon end, we can already smell the beginning of its demise.” For that moment I believed him: “from your mouth,” I said, in Arabic, “to the gates of heaven.” A few minutes later the police arrived, and the senior officer ran amok, yelling and pushing and threatening, and eventually they arrested Saleh and Amir and another activist, which is what happens when the dispossessed dare to complain. For forty-eight years the land-grab and the rule of terror have done their evil, and today we are with Ibrahim and Muhammad, cleaning the well on their land. There is something timeless in a well. You peer down into the darkness and see, flickering on the sheen of the wet sludge, your own face, and what remains of your hope.

Muhammad’s face is another miracle: long auburn beard, a little straggly; bushy eyebrows, aquiline nose, sun-baked wrinkles, kind eyes, shy smile; a red and white kaffiyeh frames this apparition. He wears a long brown ghalabiyeh. At every moment he utters a blessing: bismi ‘llah, insha’llah, allah yihfazak; he never forgets his God, never fails to invoke him. He is a gentle man. I can’t guess his age, he is like the well, but also astonishingly agile as he tugs at the buckets, including the heavy big, deep metal one; each time he carries them off to the slope and empties them and slowly, lovingly cleans away the mud still clinging to them. I speak to him about the courts and the ownership claims; he says—and Ezra confirms this later—that they have the title, they have proof, and he’s certain the courts will confirm this. Our lawyers are on this case. He may have a premature or overly optimistic view.

In the afternoon, as often happens to me here, I feel myself melting into the hills and the wadi, and time slows, maybe even stops, even a hundred years feel no more than the flutter of a thorn in the wind. I stop counting and calculating and wondering what will be with the endless sorrow. The mud has thinned out a little, the buckets are full now of a black watery mix of rock and soil. Another five days of work, says Ibrahim, and the well will be clean. They will lay down a bed of cement inside. The rain will come. Sometimes, rarely, happiness strikes. Sometimes you can make it strike. Last week Ta’ayush replanted hundreds of seedlings after settlers uprooted and destroyed some 800 saplings on the hill below us. By another miracle, last week’s tiny trees-to-be are still there today. They survived a whole week. They might still be here next week, too. If not, we’ll plant them again. I wish I could find words to describe the sharp savoury smell of wild za’atar as you walk over the slope amidst the thorns.

It’s now three or four hours since we left Asfar, and news just in informs me that not long after we left, settlers blocked the path the Palestinians use to drive down the hill to their fields. The settlers used stones and broken glass, and Ibrahim’s car, parked there, was stuck for some time. We will be coming back, next week and the one after that, however long it takes, even a hundred years.

Asfar, June 6, 2015

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