Here is the unlikely battlefield. You have a mountain slope, baked dry, thousands of sun-bleached rocks, millions of thorns. It issues into an even drier wadi, on the other side of which another slope of rocks and thorns rises up only to descend into the next wadi, and so it goes from ridge to ridge and wadi to wadi until pure desert takes over and rolls on as far as the horizon. On the slope in question, there is a functional well, its mouth encased in stone. The well belongs to the Palestinian shepherds of south Hebron, specifically to the Al-Murgh family, which has been chased off its lands here, in the tiny point called Al-Tawamin, by Israeli settlers and soldiers. Settlers from nearby Havat Yair or Sussya covet these lands and this well, as settlers covet every arid centimeter in south Hebron. We’re here, among other reasons, to see that this slope, this well, don’t fall victim to their greed.
Actually, we have a larger ambition, though it will take time to achieve it. We want the Al-Murgh family to come back, as some families have come back to Bi’r al-’Id, with our help. It’s not the only spot we want to save. It’s a slow process, full of danger, and the forces arrayed against its happening are powerful.
But there were some good signs this week, as Amiel informs us on the minibus on the way down. Apparently as a result of continuous pressure by Ta’ayush activists on the ground, backed up by our lawyers, the army and the occupation bureaucrats have moved toward recognizing that Palestinian farmers and shepherds in south Hebron do have some rights—an almost unimaginable thought under the standard conditions of the occupation. The new Brigade Commander in the area is said to be reevaluating army policy in the area to ensure Palestinian access to fields and wells.
There was a flurry of phone calls and faxes between our people and the officer in charge of land rights and the custodian of what are called “state lands” (miri), that is, lands not registered in the name of private individuals or families (much of the land in south Hebron, including large areas traditionally owned and used by the villagers, falls in this category). The Brigade Commander is said to have acknowledged that the wells were dug long before there were Israeli settlers here and must therefore belong to Palestinians, who should, in that case, believe it or not, be allowed to use them. If this idea seems to you axiomatic and unproblematic, you don’t know the reality of south Hebron.
Everyday, normative violence by settlers is the heart of that reality, and it hasn’t changed in recent weeks. We hear the usual stories. Shepherds were out grazing their sheep when armed settlers arrived and stole a sheep, loading it onto their vehicle as soldiers stood by and watched. Other settlers attacked a herd and shot several of the sheep and beat the shepherds. Yaakov Talya, the notorious settler-rancher near Bi’r al-’Id, tried to take possession of the well we cleaned of endless mud and stones just a few weeks ago. All this is standard, tedious, odious, and probably permanent.
But we’ve had some recent successes, and at 7:30 this morning, before the sun has warmed to its true strength, we watch with satisfaction as a tractor-driven water tanker fills up from an ancient well on the hilltop at Al-Tawamin.
We expected soldiers to turn up to stop this, but it didn’t happen—at first. We had time to clamber down the hill to inspect the caves, once homes to whole families, which were deserted overnight under conditions of settler-driven terror in 2001. Large metal cooking pots, riddled with bullet holes, litter the floor of the caves; settlers come here for target practice and other relaxing social events. Can we clean the caves and entice the families back? Maybe. The Zionist dream, updated version 2010.
Mid-morning. A herd of sheep washes over the hilltop and heads for the well. These are settlers’ sheep, and they will have to be stopped. It seems incredible, I am always amazed, but the struggle, our struggle, takes place on the most micro of micro-levels, the level of the individual goat or sheep or well or footpath or thorny bush or olive tree. If we allow them to graze here, to water the sheep at this well, these lands, too, will be lost, absorbed into settler territory. So, though the sheep are thirsty, we send them back up the hill together with the shepherd—a somewhat befuddled employee of Dalia in Chavat Yair.
He keeps asking us, in a peculiar blend of half-baked languages (Hebrew, English, traces of Slavic) who we are. Shortly a more authoritative figure arrives: Avidan, in Shabbat white, with beard and skullcap, of course, and an irresistible urge to show us the error of our ways.
“Why,” he asks rhetorically, self-possessed, cynical, arrogant, voluble, “don’t you look at the real truth?” In the space of half an hour or so of bitter haranguing, he invokes the “real truth” many dozens of times; it’s his favorite phrase. Some truths are more real than others, for example the ones he believes in.
“These people [the Palestinians] don’t own a single millimeter of this land. They have absolutely no right to it. God gave it to us. If they want a state of their own where they can live and develop their own culture, they can have it where they belong, on the other side of the Jordan River. Look at this well. Our grandmothers and grandfathers dug this well. Your grandmother and grandfather. You’re handing over your grandmother’s well to the enemies of the Jews.”
This is a rather unsettling thought, though, to be honest, my grandmother, a very gentle and gracious woman from Nikolayev in the Ukraine, never, to the best of my knowledge, ever dug a well; nor would she have approved of what Avidan and his settler friends are doing. But the point of the metaphor rapidly becomes clear; it is a vision of the end of days.
“If we give them this well,” says Avidan, “everything else will go, too—Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, everything. We’ll be back where we were under the Nazis. They will take your houses in Jerusalem, then they will kill us all, and it will be your fault. Besides, look at the old synagogue they found in Susya. It proves that Jews were here before.”
“I think I’d like to resign from Judaism,” says Amiel, who has been listening without reacting, bemused, detached. We’ve all heard it many times before. Amiel is cooler than I. Though long experience has taught us there’s no point whatsoever in engaging in such debates, I can’t help saying to Avidan,
“In my eyes, you’re no better than a common thief. You’ve stolen the lands that belong to these people, and you keep trying to steal more.”
Avidan is unruffled. He has a lot more to say. He’s not, incidentally, a bad man; there’s something straight, almost innocent, about him, unlike the more violent settlers we sometimes meet. He lives in a stark and simple world governed by a seamless mythology that, whatever else it might mean or do, has been conscripted to the single overriding goal of dispossessing the Palestinians who live here. He doesn’t seem to me to regard them as fully human, and anyway he thinks God, a rather literal-minded figure unskilled in hermeneutics and dealing largely in real estate, is on his side. He has no doubts, unlike me.
Most striking of all is the ultimate threat implicit in every word and thought: the world is structured (by God? perhaps not) to kill Jews, that is its operative inner logic, and if you give way at any point—say this well, for example—the apocalypse will begin at once, right here, from the tiny, dry, prickly, inelegant piece of ground we are standing on. A piece of ground which we, too, by the way, are committed to defending from the likes of Avidan.
I have a moment of sheer surrealism. What are we doing here at the well, under the fiery sun and the watchful, uncomprehending eyes of some forty thirsty sheep?
And why am I listening to this lunatic? Am I feeling sorry for him? There is a kind of sick romanticism about the man, you can see he loves to tell himself the whole crazy story of Jewish exile and return, with its sweet pathos; and he is infected, of course, with the self-righteousness that comes with the story. He loves the Jews, a twisted, tragic love. He invites us to Shabbat lunch. I feel bad that we didn’t let the sheep drink at the well.
Now the soldiers arrive, as always. There is the usual to-and-fro; the details don’t much matter. Negotiations transpire on the crest of the hill in a mirror-like space of infinite depth, with the soldiers filming all of us with their digital video cameras, no doubt for the state security archives, while we film them filming us filming them filming us….
In the end, we tell them we’re prepared to leave on condition that the settlers leave, too. That’s what happens.
The pumping of water is anyway over by now. We walk over the rocks, down to Bi’r al-’Id, and there we see what looks to me like a miracle: sweet, clear water from the tanker is gushing at full blast, under the fiery sun, into the well that we cleaned. It will keep them going for a while. Our friend Nasir from Susya is sitting there on a rock; he has come to say hello. Speaking of the Jews, Nasir is wearing a black tee-shirt with a long inscription in Arabic and English. “Likay la nansa, al-Quds. Jerusalem: We will never forget you.”