Hebron Letter: A Good Man

This, from my old friend David Shulman, who is continuing his campaign of witness in the south Hebron hills, still led by by the indomitable Ezra Nawi:

No settlers anywhere nearby, no soldiers, nothing will happen today"— Ezra keeps reassuring our Palestinian friends on the cell phone as we drive down to south Hebron in the early morning. By the time we reach our meeting point near Samu'a, a good group is in place: some twenty Palestinians and another eight or nine Ta'ayush activists. Most of the Palestinians belong to Samu'a, and the fields we are heading toward through the wadis belong to them, though they have no access to them any more. The "illegal outpost" of Asael, one of the uglier and more malignant in this area, has stolen them.

Ezra seems in good spirits despite the handing down of his sentence on Wednesday, three days ago. Judge Eilata Ziskind, who had already found him guilty of assaulting two Border Policemen in February 2007—a trumped-up charge, in my estimation—sentenced him to a month in jail, a fine of 750 Israeli shekels, another 500 shekels to each of the allegedly traumatized policemen and, the real killer, a six-month suspended jail sentence, in force for the next three years, to be activated any time Ezra is arrested again for "unlawful assembly" or similar heinous crimes. She clearly wanted to neutralize him for the coming years. In addition, she used the occasion to read out a moralistic sermon about orderliness and democracy. "Freedom of expression," she said, "is not the freedom to incite and take actions that prevent or disrupt police work… Democracy cannot allow this, for if the law enforcement system collapses, anarchy will reign and democracy and freedom of expression will be no more." It's more or less what one could have expected. After all, one wouldn't ever want to disrupt, by non-violent protest, the work of the police or the soldiers, not even when they come to knock down the rickety hovels of Palestinian shepherds as they did that day at Umm al-Khair. Ezra threw himself in front of the bulldozers, thus delaying the demolitions by a few minutes—an excellent reason, no doubt, to send him to jail. If you don't, anarchy may reign.

Maybe the appeal will quash this verdict. The international campaign clearly has had an effect. In the meantime, it's business as usual; it will take much more than this to stop Ezra Nawi. So here we are in the sun-baked fields of Samu'a, in the mid-morning sun, just below Asael. I have to say these fields don't look too promising. There was little rain last year, and the land seems terminally dessicated, almost beyond redemption. 'Id, walking beside me, can see at a glance that even the thorny bushes they call natj have remained untouched for a long time by the goats who usually feed on them. Apparently, the settlers have driven the shepherds off. The few goat droppings he can see, with his farmer's eyes, are very old. The only fresh droppings are from the wild gazelles that roam these hills: recently 'Id saw a herd of twenty of them, magnificent in these open spaces on the edge of the desert. To make these fields arable again, they will have to be cleared of stones and rained upon; the first task, a forbidding one, is ours. I glance over the first plot, at the bottom of the hill; at a conservative estimate, some 10,000 rocks, of varying shapes and sizes, will have to be pried out of the clay and re-instated as a terrace that will stand up to the water that will, hopefully, come pouring down the hill when the rains do start. By comparison, Sisyphus had an easy time.

We begin working with pick-axes and our bare hands, and as always there is the joy of doing it and especially of seeing the rightful owners of this land returning, at last, to care for it. I'm especially moved watching a middle-aged Palestinian woman working, face partly covered, hands heavy with thorns and stones, beside me. Of course we can't remove all the rocks, but the plot is looking more inviting by the minute, and soon we drift to the next terrace up, and the next one, getting closer at every step to the outer perimeter of the settlement on top of the hill. Naturally, we haven't gone unnoticed. A heavy-set settler in his Shabbat white is staring down at us, and beside him there are soldiers, first only a few, then more and more, and in less than an hour, with the horrid sense of inevitability that so often signals human folly, they are clumsily descending in our direction. They are proudly waving the piece of paper that can only be the order declaring this area a Closed Military Zone.

The senior officer, bearded, young, opaque, reads it out: "By the authority legally vested in me, etc. etc." He gives us exactly ten minutes to desist from our subversive activity and to disappear. Well drilled in these rituals, we argue with him. If this is a CMZ and we are supposed to leave, we say, then why do those settlers on the hilltop get to stay? Ah yes, "by the authority vested in me, those whom I allow to stay can stay. You now have nine and a half minutes." Amiel leaps to the occasion. He carries with him, always, the text of the Supreme Court's ruling that local military commanders have no right to declare these closed military zones whenever the whim strikes them, and above all they are prohibited from using this mechanism to keep farmers away from their lands. Amiel reads out the text of the court's decision. The officer is utterly unimpressed. "You have eight minutes left."

We go back to work, and now each rock I pry from the recalcitrant soil seems to have some special meaning, as if defiance, however quixotic, were imprinted on it. The Palestinians also accelerate their pace. As always, the South Hebron hills are a good place for unexpected encounters. One of the soldiers, smiling, suddenly greets me by name. I don't recognize him at first, in his fancy-dress costume—helmet, uniform, rifle—but he tells me his name: Spartak, a former student. He studied Sanskrit with me, wrote a very good M.A. thesis. I haven't seen him for some years, but I announce at once to whoever wants to hear: "I don’t mind being arrested, but only if Spartak carries out the order." It would be nice to hear his views on the task he is engaged in. "Seven and a half minutes." By now a genial policeman whom we know well from many such occasions has also turned up and announced, in his mild-mannered way, that by refusing to leave the CMZ we are committing a crime, hindering a public servant in discharging his duty (shades of Judge Ziskind). I figure this merits a response, so I say to him: "And what about those settlers? Their very presence here is a crime by international law and by any ethical standard." He smiles and nods. To my surprise, he agrees with me. "True," he says, "but that's not relevant now." "How could it not be relevant?" "Six minutes left before we start making arrests."

You remember what Priam said to Achilles, how he kissed the hand that had killed his son, and how the two of them wept together, Achilles remembering his old father, and how the whole huge war and everything that had been said or sung about it suddenly seemed so futile and foolish and unbearable, a world empty of anything remotely like glory but suffused by shame. You remember how you didn't really want to get up so early this morning and go off to South Hebron because it all seems so futile, and now that today is over it still feels futile and yet strangely beautiful, as if some intimate chord had been struck even if no one could hear it, even if you could barely hear it yourself. Maybe, you might think for a passing moment, it's beautiful because it's futile—but actually you don't believe that. You remember how when you were driving down this morning there were ragged children playing ball by the roadside and the ball rolled onto the highway and Ezra stopped the car right there in the middle of the vast desert and waited for them to cross over and retrieve their ball safely, and you thought: it's a small, everyday gesture, hardly worth noticing in the midst of the madness, but this is the act of a good man.