Tequ’a and Umm al-Ara’is

Dizzy from the dissonance. In the felafel shop off the main street in Tequ’a, the TV is perched high on the wall in the corner. News from Gaza in Arabic. A mother lies on a hospital cot, her face pocked with a hundred tiny, and some not-so-tiny, red wounds, probably from shrapnel. She cannot speak, keeps fading off into sleep (let us hope it’s not death). Beside her, a two-year-old child is crying, hopeless, holding her hand, looking at her face. The young owner of the shop scoops balls of chick-pea mash from a vast mountain of it in front of him, sets them afloat in the boiling oil of a deep black cast-iron fry-pan. When they are ready, he takes them out one by one and, one by one, stacks them with precision in a row along the wide circular rim of the pan. He is an artist. He loves his work and he is happy to feed us. We have come back with the village elders from an afternoon in the newly stolen fields. He welcomes us with the gentle grace that defines Palestinian hospitality.

It’s the best felafel I’ve ever tasted. Two tinted glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling over the white plastic tables and the black plastic chairs. Outside, on the main street, a tractor rolls past. Young men in black shirts come in to serve us. They carry themselves with the dignity of the Mediterranean male. They smile. When we are finished and ready to leave, I go to thank the owner, I tell him it was wonderful. “To your good health,” he says. “You must come again.”

Peace. One hundred kilometers away, Jews and Palestinians are killing one another with the happy ferocity of hyenas and the gloomy self-righteousness of monotheists. The dissonance makes me dizzy. If here, why not there? “It could be there, too,” says Guy.

Why Tequ’a? For the usual reason. After the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, Israeli settlers, backed up by ultra-right politicians, announced the “appropriate Zionist response.” They have set up Tekoa V—three miserable caravans, a few flags. The caravans sit in the middle of what was once a cultivated field. To the west, hills of stone, a swirl of yellow and brown. To the east, the desert, white and gray. In the distance, the blue hills of Moab, across the river. What is left of the field is level and cleared of stones.

It was hard work getting the owners of the land to come with us today. They’re afraid. These fields and grazing grounds abut on the settlements of Tekoa IV and Nokdim. It’s dangerous to come here. Guy and Ezra have both been savagely beaten by settlers in these parts. Ezra warns me today: there’s a 50% chance that we’ll be attacked by settlers or soldiers or both, anyway they’re all the same.

We walk down the long rocky slope beside rusty barbed wire fences under a doomsday sun. We come to a halt a few dozen yards above the caravans. We know the soldiers will come, and they do, first one jeep, then two more. Two soldiers clamber up the hill to accost us. Ezra has ordered me to talk to them, to give them a short lecture about this place.

“Who’s responsible here?” they ask.

“No one is responsible, but I’m ready to speak to you.”

“What are you doing here?”

“We came with the owners of this land to see what is happening.”

“You’re not planning to come down into the settlement?”

“No. But you should know that it’s illegal, an act of state-sponsored theft.”

“All I know is that the Supreme Court granted a two-week extension before demolishing it.”

“True. That’s how all the settlements started. Just wait. And what do you think about all this?

“Think? I’m wearing a uniform, so I don’t have to think.”

But they’re not harsh or scornful or superior, just hot and bored. More keep coming up the hill. For once they make no attempt to drive us away. They tell us we can have our protest, they won’t interfere. Guy argues with them a little, but they don't seem interested. I talk with Daniel, who is studying philosophy at University College London; this year he took a second-year course in Ethics. I say to him that it must be interesting to move from that into Practical Ethics on the Ground. It’s all here, before our eyes.

Maybe we’ll slowly persuade the owners to come back with their goats and sheep, to let us help them here and in the courts, and maybe they’ll even get the land back. We’ve had some luck before in Tequ’a. But you can already see, right here, the whole cancerous process at its initial stage. It begins with a caravan or two, and then the Supreme Court, responding to an appeal by right-wing politicians, lets them stay on, and the bureaucrats start funneling money, and before you know it they’re connected to the water and the electricity grid and they have their own little squad of soldiers to protect them and they can now proceed to bully and attack and humiliate the Palestinians whose land they have taken. Look at Tekoa IV, just over there.

Meanwhile, there’s a war on; maybe it’s winding down, for now. Things are hot in the territories, and many places are, for the moment, out of reach. Nasser, from Susya, called this morning to tell us that under no circumstances can we go into Yata today. At Umm al-Ara’is the standard sequence played itself out. We marched with Sa’id and the ‘Awad clan to the edge of their fields. The soldiers produced their signed order and attached map of the Closed Military Zone. Amitai ignored it, boldly marched into the heart of the wadi and sat there serenely on a rock until the soldiers came to arrest him. One of them threatened him, saying that one day he’d rape him in a back alley in Tel Aviv. But most of these soldiers—reservists-- were relatively mild today. Gabi asked one of them if he didn’t feel something in the face of the women and children whom he was driving away. The soldier said: “I don't have feelings.” Gabi said, “That’s when you’re in uniform, but I’m sure when you take the uniform off you do have feelings.” The soldier said, “No, even when I’m not in uniform I have no feelings.”

I guess that sums it up. The whole story of Israel is enfolded in that inner deadness. It’s evident in the way the war has gone in Gaza, too. You can do anything if you’re dead inside. You can kill children and not notice. What has happened to the Jews? Once we were light and witty and self-deprecating and terribly vulnerable and we used our minds and our hearts to survive, and now we’re heavy and earnest and speak mostly in the language of threats and coercion and, these days, revenge. There are huge posters in Gilo, as you enter Jerusalem from the south, quoting the bloodthirsty verse from Psalms 18:38: erdof oyevai ve-asigem ve-lo ashuv 'ad kalotam, "I will pursue my enemies and overcome them and I will not come back until I have exterminated them." I like some verses of the Bible better than others.

Sometimes I weary of the whole sorrowful, surreal concoction. At Umm al-Ara’is, after the ritual was complete, Amitai played soccer with the Palestinian kids; the ball kept getting kicked downhill into the deep desert. Sometimes it also got kicked into the forbidden fields. No one seemed to care. Soccer on the brink, with everyone present, playing their part: Sa’id, dignified as always, and the ‘Awad people, still fighting to get back their lands; the settler thieves who stole them, uphill in Mitzpe Yair; the soldiers who are there to protect the settlers; us, who have come to confront the latter and to help Sa’id and his people; the birds and clouds and the raging sun, watching from above; the goats in their pens, the wheat threshed on the old stone threshing-ground in the khirbeh, golden in the midday light; the ravaged fields in the wadi, by now, at the height of summer, baked to a crisp. I think the dizziness started then, before we left for Tequ’a.

And then there are the not-so-small miracles that also happen. Some new volunteers have joined us, including a young woman, Noa, from a moshav near the coast who, I discover, has somehow found Ta’ayush and, more important than that, has found, against all odds (or maybe she always had), the unthinkable gift of thinking for herself, resisting the communal brainwashing at high tide now during the war. God exists.

David Shulman of Ta'uyush and The Villages Group

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