Wadi Simsim, Tequ’a
August 30 2014 Wadi Simsim, Tequ’a
There is innocence, and there is the smug delusion of innocence. It’s not hard to tell them apart. I saw a lot of both today. Suhail was born in the tents of Wadi Simsim and has lived his whole life here, in the wadi, with the goats and the sheep. This is his world. He knows every rock. He never studied. He speaks only Arabic (the lush, musical dialect of the south). Yet he is a man of the world, and he knows right from wrong. He’s holding in a lot of anger. The settlers in the “illegal outpost” of Chavat Mor, ever since they came here with their caravans and seized the hill above the wadi—maybe two years back—are ruining his life. He tells me: “I sowed these plots myself, up to fifty meters away from the fence they’ve put up. They’re our fields, our lands, all of them. The settlers have no limits (mush ‘indhum hudud), they can do whatever they want, and the soldiers, who pretend they’re protecting the law, do what the settlers tell them to. They say they have a law, but there is no law here anymore, and they know it. They make it up day by day. They don’t care for us or our losses or our grief.”
Suhail has the sun-scorched face of a south Hebron shepherd. Deep eyes. A certain natural, visible goodness, an ease of being and speaking. He knew today was going to be hard because already at 5AM he saw, from his tent, how the soldiers turned up in their jeeps. We left Jerusalem at 6, when it was barely light, and by 7 we had climbed down the fierce slope of Zanuta and made our rendezvous. For half an hour we sat in the shade of the hill and watched the flocks of hungry goats devouring thorn after thorn. If you haven’t seen the goats rushng through the wadi just past dawn, white and brown and black against the sand and the huge russet sweep of rock and slope, you haven’t fulfilled the gifts of light and sight.
I thought that, like last week, we’d have another hour or more before the soldiers came—enough for the goats and sheep to eat their fill—but I was wrong. First there were three, awkwardly struggling to get the hills to conform to the rough map they had in hand, attached to the order of the Closed Military Zone. It took them some time, but eventually they seemed to find their bearings, and the next move, as always, was to chase Suhail and us and the herd away. But not very far away: we studied their map, we haggled a little, they weren’t particularly hostile or rude, and after some minutes they agreed that the shepherds could climb the long slope toward Zanuta and go on grazing. Of course we told them they, the soldiers, were in the wrong, that they were violating the Supreme Court order, that the whole ritual they were performing was ridiculous and unjust, but Suhail and his colleague were already halfway uphill so it didn’t matter so much. Or so it seemed. Then the second contingent arrived, this time with an officer who was bored and tough, and now a new rule was put in play: not only is the CMZ out of bounds, but all the slopes on both sides of the wadi are “state lands” and therefore grazing is not allowed. I asked to see the text of the order, I read it again, there was no trace of this wide-ranging rule; I’m sure the whole thing was concocted, improvised by some officer in the Civil Administration or some other army unit. Once, long ago, I had heard a similar ruling, at Umm al-Khair; it was subsequently thrown out by the courts.
But none of this did us any good day, and meanwhile the soldiers were pushing shepherds and goats deeper into the desert, with the exception of one hungry sheep who opted for Gandhian non-violent resistance and, fixated on a particularly ramified and clearly delectable bush of thorns, simply refused to budge. By then the flock had moved on. “What’s with that sheep?” says the officer. “She’s hungry,” I say. He couldn’t get her to budge. Gandhian methods usually do work. He waited, still bored but invoking a principle of charity just this time. He’ll allow this one sheep to eat her fill. By 8:00 the sun had turned up the volume on the heat, so, like us, he was also surely feeling hot—incipient combustion.
Finally the soldiers decided they’d made their point and slowly left us in peace and the goats spilled back into the CMZ and no one cared. We sat in the fiery stillness and watched until the goats and sheep were ready to go home, kicking up clouds of white dust as they crossed the rough bridge in the wadi over the steady trickle of sewage, probably from the outpost, and headed south.
“But,” Suhail asked me several times, “what will happen tomorrow morning? The settlers always come down and chase us away.” I can see we should really be here with them every day. It would make a difference. Also, at night, every night, bands of armed settlers invade their encampment and seat themselves on the water wells; they sit there for an hour or two, just for the pleasure of terrorizing Palestinians. I told the officer about it and he promised to put an end to it, but I’m not hopeful that he will.
You know real innocence when you see it. It’s a beautiful human thing. Suhail is angry but not bitter—not yet. Of course there’s the lunatic category of “state lands,” redefined by Israeli courts on the tenuous basis of the old Ottoman land regime. I’m not going to tell the story again. It’s enough to say that this redefinition has provided the legal fig leaf for the whole systemic land-grab in the territories, since the late 1970’s. This legal fiction is what has now reached out to torment Suhail and his friends, not to mention the goats.
That was the morning. By mid-day—white heat sucking up the very blood in our veins—we are back in Tequ’a, which you may remember from one of the August reports. I figure things may end badly today. Two weeks ago the Civil Administration put an end to the settlers’ attempt to create “Tekoa V” on lands stolen from the Tequ’a owners—and indeed the caravans are gone. (But you can never escape settlers, really; they were promised a whole package of benefits in exchange for the loss of Tekoa V, including, it seems, changing the status of Tekoa IV, the hodge-podge of houses on the hill overlooking the Tekoa V campsite, from that of an outpost to that of a legal settlement.) Settlers from Tekoa IV are the enemy who come flying to attack us today after they see a tractor plowing the now deserted field.
Let’s go back a step. The Tequ’a landowners have taken a big decision. They’re now ready, despite much fear and doubt, to try to reclaim their stolen lands. We’re here to stand by them as an old blue tractor with attached plow bumbles its way over the dirt path and down the hill. The driver makes a start on the field, some of it still littered with cement blocks and other remnants of short-lived Tekoa V; there are also a few Israeli flags left behind. He makes two wide arcs around the perimeter. This is no season to sow seeds; the point is to begin the dreary business of staking the claim. It’s a brave move, and we know it will meet with resistance.
At first, as the settlers pour in, it’s scary. Some of them look like toughs and bullies only too eager to assault us. And there’s a real danger they’ll take the tractor—a significant potential loss for any Palestinian farmer. They swarm round the driver, screaming at him, at us; they stop the tractor in its tracks. I’m holding on to the high back wheel, Uri beside me, Amitai in front; we’re prepared to defend this tractor at whatever cost, and it looks like the cost could be great.
They’re also filming us, one by one, and we’re filming them filming us, and they’re filming us filming them filming us, and so on, so we’re in a deep post-modern mode from the start. I have to say I prefer the war of the cameras to fists and clubs. We’ll need this footage in court.
Right from the start, it’s clear they’re not all cut from the same cloth. They’re religious, of course, their tzizit fringes frying in the sun; but some are more ready than others to lash out. You can see faces twisted by hatred. Some of them, however, feel a need to convince us of our criminal foolishness. We are anarchists and provocateurs. If it weren’t for us, the Palestinians of Tequ’a would be docile, safe, and even wealthy, since they work (presumably for a pittance), some of them, building the houses of Tekoa IV, and the settlers buy gas from them and other items. In short, if they would only give up all claims on the land and collude with the settlement project, everything would be fine. It’s all our fault. The settlers are convinced, with fanatical certainty, they we have paid these Palestinians to come down here and plow today. Why else would they do it?
Guy has meanwhile called the police, and the first jeep of soldiers turns up just in time, soon followed by several others, and now the hill is heavy with these soldiers and policemen and officers of the Civil Administration, all of them staggering under the sizzling metal of their guns and helmets. The initial moment of danger has passed. It still seems more than likely that they’ll go for the tractor, impound it, and we’ll have to try to protect it and the driver, too, and there will be arrests and who knows what else. I’m not happy, actually I’m feeling a bit sick, but I’m ready.
Ezra has melted into the hills, for good reason, and the landowners have climbed up the slope and are watching this odd congregation of warring Jews, and a few Druze from the Civil Administration, meandering over the rocks in furious, mutual disdain. Little by little, before the CA officers go into action, the rage is channeled into a series of vociferous debates. I know it serves no purpose, but I, too, join in, as does Erika, our daughter-in-law, who has joined us today. But it is Guy Hirshfeld who is revealed as the great artist of these long, burning hours. He gives no quarter, but he’s so good, and witty, and sane that after a while one of the settlers grudgingly admits: “You’re not such a ‘Spoiler of Israel’ after all, like I thought you were, you’ve got some Jewish spark in your heart. But I can’t see what you’re doing here, helping Arabs.” Guy calmly answers, “I’m not here to help Arabs, I’m here to help myself.” This seems to go over the settler’s head. He doesn’t get it. To him, Tel Aviv and Tekoa IV are identical. He sees no difference. He has, he says, a kushan—a deed of ownership—over the entire Land of Israel. The Bible is his kushan. But in his own eyes, he’s a moderate, even generous, man, and quite prepared to compromise. He’ll let the Arabs keep all the land east of the Euphrates. That’s his limit. All the rest is his. And what can we do, God Himself helps the Jews. He fought the Six-Day War for them and gave them back all the land.
“If you think like you do,” says this settler to Guy, “why are you still here and not in Australia or somewhere?” “I’m attached to this place. Not because I’m a Jew, I don’t keep any of the commandments, none of that speaks to me, but because I’m an Israeli and this is my country.” “Where did your grandfather come from?” “The Ukraine.” “So why not go live in the Ukraine?” “They didn’t want me there.” “My grandfather came from Czechoslovakia. But he felt a connection to the land, unlike your grandfather.” “How do you know what my grandfather felt or didn’t feel?”
It goes on for an endless, fruitless time. I’ve heard it all before, too many times. Maybe it’s one of those Jewish rituals. What these settlers definitely lack, among other things, is a modicum of irony. Makes one wonder if they’re really Jewish after all. They’re of course convinced that they’re all innocence and also, of course, all victims of something or other—of our provocations, for example. One of them climbs up the hill to harangue the Palestinian landowners in fluent Arabic. He points at Tamar: “You want to know who’s the real cause of all our troubles, the very worst person here? It’s her.” One of the landowners leaps to her defense: “She’s the finest person here.” Later I tell her that it was worth coming just to hear those words.
Eventually, after a couple of hours, it ends in a flurry of threats, and we disperse, not before Tamar, inspired by Maria, bravely takes down the Israeli flags that the settlers have planted again on this Palestinian hill. Of course the soldiers race up the hill to save their idol. Another round of violent abuse. Tamar, standing her ground, makes a suggestion. “Take them for dry-cleaning.” There’s no end to the wickedness men can do in the name of a flag.
As for me, I know I’m anything but innocent. I’m complicated, preyed upon by doubt, a volatile test-tube of contrary, confusing feelings, easily disheartened, impatient, sometimes spooked, often sick and tired of the Jews and very sad for their evidently lonely, perhaps despairing god. I think I’m here because I love the landscape. I might even envy Suhail. But if I had to guess what will happen at Tequ’a over the next months, maybe years, I would say that we’ll go through the usual tedious routine of coming back, week after week, with the owners, and we’ll plow again, and maybe when the rain comes we’ll sow the seeds, and from time to time we’ll get beaten up or arrested or both, and we’ll have to stick with it and fight for every meter and every thorn, and we’ll take pictures and get whatever we can out of the courts, and there’s no way to know how it will end. Maybe someday we’ll even win here, like at Umm al-‘Amad. Today was a damned good start.
David Shulman of Ta'uyush and The Villages Group