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The Land in Winter

Read Madeleine Thien’s contribution to a new collection of writing that confronts the occupation of the West Bank


 
A view of the Palestinian flag and tents in Susiya village, south of the West Bank city of Hebron, on July 20, 2015. (Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

(Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

Madeleine Thien joined writer Michael Chabon and other authors in confronting the occupation of the West Bank in a new collection, Kingdom of Olives and Ash. Here, Maclean’s presents Thien’s contribution, entitled The Land in Winter. Read more about Chabon’s collection here.


 

If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

CITIES AND SIGNS

From a hilltop just beyond the checkpoint, I can see the southern boundary between Israel and Palestine. But, eyes moving between map and world, I can find no border, wall, checkpoint, or cut in the earth to mark the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the UN Security Council and the international community reaffirmed this line, which in 1948 had moved 78.5 percent of historic Palestine into Israeli possession, as the border to be maintained “for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security.”1

There is nothing to be seen of it now, and certainly no sign of it here in the South Hebron Hills, where an Israeli traveler would never know he or she had passed the boundary into Palestine.

A little more than an hour from the deep valleys and soaring hills of Jerusalem, this rocky, barren landscape seems to inhabit another time. Even the sky is austere, a pale blue cloth made entirely of heat.

Days after my visit, as I thought aloud about the emotional pull of the South Hebron Hills, the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh reminded me, “Don’t forget, you’re seeing the land in summer. It will look completely different in the winter.” I was startled to realize that all I could see was one aspect of a harsh, inhospitable season. Raja could see this alongside its opposite: a floating green, both the withering and the generation of possibilities.

Saturday, and the South Hebron Hills flowed out like deep waves on the sea, dipped in the colours of straw and dust. A shepherd was being detained, his flock alleged to have crossed into a military buffer zone. Six bulky soldiers stood with their hands draped over their rifles. The border of the closed military zone was a dirt path along the ridge; surrounded by hills, it appeared innocuous as a line of string. An Israeli settlement, Mitzpeh Avigayil, stood on the opposite hilltop, too distant to be clearly seen. The land, just rocks and slope and wind, seemingly bereft of everything but its longevity, made me feel at once insignificant and alive and ancient.

The shepherd, Nael Abu Aram, a Palestinian, was thirty years old, of slender build, with close-cropped hair and a look of quiet containment. Under the blistering sun, we stood together, waiting to see what the soldiers and the police would do. The pages of our notebooks clapped in the wind, pens fell in the dust. Children, who had run up from a neighbouring village, spun around us.

Nael described his life as a quiet and unremarkable one, which changed dramatically in 1998. Since then, the number of times he had been detained, arrested, and imprisoned was lost to him. Settlers had attacked his sheep with metal pipes. They shook bottles filled with rocks, which frightened the flock and caused them to disperse. He had been beaten by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, border police, and settlers, had his mouth and skin burned by cigarettes, and his skin cut with knives. After one arrest, he was blindfolded and then released, disoriented, on the wrong side of a checkpoint in the middle of the night. Of this encounter, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published video footage of an army commander telling him, “You’re not allowed to be here, because this is Mitzpeh Avigayil. You’re not allowed to be here. There’s a Jewish community here, and you’re not allowed near it.”2 He had been ned numerous times. In 2014, settlers cut down thirty mature olive trees belonging to his family. Last year, his family’s crops were burned. Citing security risks to the settlers, he had been warned against coming too close to the military buffer zone, which is not only adjacent to his land, but on land that once belonged to him.

We watched the police officers drive away to their station, inside the settler outpost. The soldiers and the incessant sun remained. More time passed. Finally, having never been charged, Nael was free to go. “Please excuse me,” he said. “I’m very tired.” He counted the flock and set off, cutting a quick pace across the hills. We followed at a distance. A kilometer later, the sheep made riotous, guttural shouts as they arrived home to water and shade. They leaped comically high, like bouncing balls. It was midday now, the height of summer.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, places are folded inside other places. Cities are not only what they appear to be, but also what they are subjected to: memory, history, desire, forgetfulness, dreams. The buildings, storehouses of emotion, are far more than mere edifices; they are the visible structures of the human condition. In Israel and Palestine, I thought often of Calvino’s seen and unseen places, where the horizontal and vertical axes of history and place bend into the space-time of memory and desire. Of cities, Calvino writes, “Everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.”

Those words were on my mind when I came to Wadi a-Jheish (“Valley of the Little Donkey”), where the concrete rubble was a glaring white. Two weeks earlier, on June 19, 2016, the Israeli army had arrived in the afternoon and bulldozed two buildings. I was surprised to see that the home had not simply been pushed over; it had been carefully, even cleanly, buried under its own rubble. A boy was standing balanced on the loose stones, reminiscent of the Little Prince perched on a moonscape.

Amir, eight years old, had lived here. When I asked him what had happened, he pointed to the rocks. “I lost my clothes. I lost my shoes and we lost our food.” The army had not let them retrieve their possessions, and along with their plates, cooking utensils, and personal objects, had buried the family’s our, sugar, and rice underneath the rubble. The two structures had been home to twenty-one people, including fourteen children and teenagers. Bits of Tupperware and a torn, very small pair of pants were visible in the debris.

Amir’s smile was troubled. He nonetheless offered up his memory of that day to me like a piece of bread on a plate, like a possession. He took me to see the family’s sheep. His three sisters were sitting underneath a truck, inside a slip of shade; the oldest, Wouroud (“Bouquet of Roses”), sixteen years old, joined us. With a video camera borrowed from an uncle, she had filmed the demolition. When I asked if she had been scared, she answered patiently, “Of course.”

We talked about school and marriage and life while, beside us, the family’s twenty sheep swayed restlessly. I asked Amir what he liked best. “I like to graze,” he said. “I like to be with the flock because that’s how we make the milk and butter and cheese. I like them.” But when he grew up, he wanted to leave and go far away.

“To live somewhere else,” I said, assuming that I understood.

“To bring money for my family.”

When I asked Wouroud what she liked best, she looked me straight in the eyes. “I just want to live,” she replied, shrugging.

I asked what her mother had said to them, after the demolition. “She said we only had one house, we didn’t have an alternative. She was very sad. She said to us, we need help. We were in the sun since this moment, and it was Ramadan.”

I was reminded of another Palestinian home I recently saw. Half concrete wall, half tent, yet the makeshift kitchen somehow pristine, under the strict care of two women who cooked the family’s meals while children leaped about their skirts. As the temperature soared, women and children lay down on the cool concrete. Tucked away were the bedding, wash buckets, soap, pots and implements, cups and dishes, jars of our, barley, and sugar, a coffee pot—the necessities for basic family life. It struck me that every demolition carried out by men with bulldozers and guns was a demolition of the world of women, whose lives, already precarious, already exhausting, were destroyed anew.

“In three years, when I get married, I’ll need a home for my family,” Wouroud said. “What do they want from us? We have to live. We have to exist.”

Their village, Wadi a-Jheish, is in Area C of the West Bank. According to the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords, Palestinian residents of Area C are under full Israeli control for security, zoning, and planning. Area C, containing most of the West Bank’s natural resources and open spaces, best exemplifies the policy known as “maximum land, minimum Arabs.”3 Although the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has grown by 340,000 in the last forty years, and settlers have been provided with police and military protection as well as connected to Israel’s water, electricity, and sanitation services, Palestinian construction—even on land the Israeli courts have recognized as registered to Palestinians—has been curtailed. Area C comprises 60 percent of the land in the West Bank and is home to 300,000 Palestinians. In 2014 only one Palestinian building permit was approved; in 2015, the number was zero. A 2013 World Bank report found that potential revenue for Palestinians in Area C alone, of which 99 percent is currently off limits to Palestinian development, would be a staggering USD 3.4 billion, over a billion dollars more than Palestine’s entire current revenue.4

My eyes saw what was before me, but it was so confounding, my mind resisted its credibility.

The question that solidified in my mind was this one: Are the Palestinian people fated to disappear, and does Israel’s interaction with this land inevitably rely on the physical control and consequent disappearance of the Palestinians? Is it true that the state of Israel cannot exist if the state of Palestine does? What does it mean, in our contemporary world, to have a promised land?

Yigal Bronner, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, answered it this way: “Susiya against Susya, this is the whole story.”

A Palestinian man looks out of a tent in Susiya village, south of the West Bank city of Hebron (Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

A Palestinian man looks out of a tent in Susiya village, south of the West Bank city of Hebron (Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

CITIES AND NAMES (1)

The Palestinian village of Susiya, located on a rocky escarpment in the South Hebron Hills, does not look like much. Constructed of light metal, the occasional concrete wall, tarps, and canvas, the village is a ragged collection of homes, sheep pens, water filters and cisterns, and a medical clinic. Sustenance comes from the basic storehouse of what the land makes possible: olives, wheat, barley, cucumbers, tobacco, thyme, tomatoes, and grazing land for herds. Given the harshness of its summer and the desertification of its climate, the South Hebron Hills are emblematic of things perpetually at odds yet bound in coexistence: summer and winter, drought and rain, people and land.

Nasser Najawa’s grandfather was born in the village of Qaryatayn, a few kilometres on the other side of the Green Line. Unable to return to his home after the founding of Israel, his grandfather took the family to Susiya al-Qadim (“Old Susiya,” or Khirbet Susiya), where he continued a life of herding and agriculture. People relied on rainwater caught from the sky via a network of ancient and modern cisterns. They lived below ground, in caverns hollowed out beneath the rocks. These caves stayed remarkably cool in the summer and dry in the winter, and in the harsher months, the herd stayed underground as well.

In 1986, the Israeli government expropriated the land of Susiya al-Qadim, expelling the twenty-five families and demolishing most of the caverns, citing the presence of the ruins of a synagogue, dating from between AD 400 to 700. The government asserted, “There was no historic Palestinian village at the archaeological site there; that the village consists of only a few seasonal residences for a few families; and the land is necessary for the continuation of the archaeological work.” Yet only four years earlier, Plia Albeck, a key Israeli settlement advocate who referred to the settlements as “my children,” had surveyed the area and concluded, “There is a formal registration on the land of Khirbet Susiya with the Land Registry, according to which this land, amounting to approximately 3,000 dunam [741 acres] is privately held by many Arab owners. Therefore the area proximal to the synagogue is in all regards privately owned.”

Asked if he believed that the archaeologists were telling the truth, Nasser said, “I am not an expert but yes, I believe it.” He did not mention other discoveries, including the ruins of an AD 900 mosque. These details I learned only later.

Three years before the excavation, in 1983, the Israeli government had given the green light to the settlement of Susya, part of three new settlements in the region. The government pledged 20 million shekels to support fifty to sixty Jewish families. In three months in 1990 alone, Israel restricted Palestinian access to 32,545 acres of land in the West Bank by declaring it miri (“state land”) or part of closed military zones.5 (Kiryat Arba, now home to almost eight thousand Jewish settlers, began on land that was confiscated from Palestinians for military use.) In 1991, a Jewish settler shot twelve sheep before turning his M16 on a Palestinian shepherd, Mahmoud al-Nawaja, killing him. Al-Nawaja’s son told a journalist, “The settlement has no border. Every year it spreads, each year it is larger than before.” Two years later, Musa Suliman Abu Sabha, who, according to conflicting reports may or may not have been carrying a grenade, but whom the Israeli army confirmed was “bound hand and foot” at the time of his death, was shot eight times at close range by a settler, Yoram Skolnick.

In 1986, with the arrival of the archaeological park in Susiya, the villagers relocated to their grazing lands. Four years later, in 1990, a second expulsion took place. David Shulman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and the Israel Prize, reported that the villagers were loaded onto trucks by the IDF and deposited fifteen kilometres north, at the edge of the desert. Of the villagers, Shulman wrote, “They have hurt nobody. . . . They led peaceful, if somewhat impoverished lives until the settlers came. Since then, there has been no peace. They are tormented, terri ed, incredulous. As am I.” Amnesty International reported that 113 tents in Palestinian Susiya were demolished in 1993; and, in 1996, ten inhabited caves were blown up by the IDF.

Nasser grew up in this precarious Susiya. He walked many kilometres, depending on road closures or restricted paths, to attend school each day in the town of Yatta. “I hoped to be like other children,” he recalled, “to have a home and go to school easily.”

After each removal, the villagers of Susiya rebuilt. Their stubbornness must have driven the settlers mad. But the villagers believed they were on the side of right. What did they possess but their own intimacy with the hills in summer and winter, and those seemingly crucial Ottoman land deeds? Those who have precious little will hold fast to what little they have. Israel did not dispute their ownership; rather, the government argued that building on this land, registered for grazing, required permits. That the Palestinians of Susiya had been evicted from their village without compensation, and were in need of shelter, was immaterial.

On the night of July 2, 2001, Yair Har-Sinai, a Jewish guard, described both as a “pacifist” and as a man who “terrorized the Palestinians” was killed in a fight. The killer did not come from Susiya, but the Israeli military carried out a retaliatory action. That night, forty-five or more people from the area, including Nasser, were rounded up. He was a teenager at the time, utterly terri ed. After being interrogated all night, he was released in the morning and walked home.

“I could not see anything,” he says. “Everything was demolished. All of my home. Everything. To the ground. The caves. Water cisterns. Everything.” With only women and children present, the men having been detained, bulldozers had drilled through the roofs of the caverns and lled them with rubble; cisterns and wells, livestock pens, and tents were gone.

The loss was unbearable, so too the ensuing anger.

The path Nasser chose would have a lasting impact on the future of Susiya. After the demolitions of 2001, he decided to work with Israeli activists.

A young Jewish settler rides a bicycle in front of the West Bank settlement of Susiya. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

A young Jewish settler rides a bicycle in front of the West Bank settlement of Susiya. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

CITIES AND NAMES (2)

In 1983, Susya, the Israeli settlement, was established next door to the Palestinian village of Susiya. Under international law, the settlement is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, in which an occupying power cannot transfer civilian population to an occupied territory, and is considered illegal. The Israeli government is the only government in the world that disputes this illegality, despite an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. In a 2015 report submitted to the Netanyahu government, the settlers’ NGO, Regavim (“Patches of Soil”), a right-wing organization whose stated mission is to “preserve Israel’s national lands,” calculated that Jewish settlers had built 2,026 structures on private Palestinian property. Back in February 2012, Regavim had petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to expedite the demolition of Palestinian Susiya, claiming that it was an illegal outpost, a petition that is, as of this writing, very much ongoing.

The Israeli government contends that all structures in Palestinian Susiya have been built without permits and are therefore illegal and subject to demolition. The settlers believe that the South Hebron Hills are part of the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, a currently “empty area” that belongs to the Jewish state. Yochai Damri, the chairman of the Har Hevron Regional Council, told the UK Independent that it was not the settlers who were newcomers; rather the villagers of Palestinian Susiya had arrived only fifteen years ago. He concluded, “These are criminals who invaded an area that doesn’t belong to them.” The surrounding land allocated to Israeli Susya by the government is now ten times the size of the settlement itself.

Driving in the West Bank, along a Route 60 altered to provide a highly modern and convenient highway between the settlements, and along which, for long stretches, Palestinians were once forbidden to travel (funnelled instead to a network of narrow roads slowed by detours, checkpoints, and barriers, a system the Israeli government named “the fabric of life”), I find it frankly impossible to remember that I’m in Palestine. When we visited the settlement of Kiryat Arba and were confronted by hostile settlers, a man, who proudly told us he had relocated from France five years ago, cried out to his companion, “Ask her where she thinks she’s standing! Is she in Israel or Palestine? Then you’ll know whose side she’s on.” I did feel then that perhaps I shouldn’t be standing in his park, which contained a memorial celebrating Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 walked into a place sacred to both Judaism and Islam, the Cave of the Patriarchs (Hebrew), also known as the Sanctuary of Abraham (Arabic), and opened re in a room that was being used as a mosque, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding 125. I was relieved to depart. The police station here in the settlement of Kiryat Arba is where a Palestinian from the South Hebron Hills must come if she or he wishes to report a crime.

From Route 60, there are two signs, one for Susiya, the archaeological park; and one for Susya, the settlement. There are almost no road signs for the Palestinian villages. Israeli Susya should feel optimistic about its future prospects. The government has offered Palestinian Susiya a piece of land near the boundaries of Yatta (population sixty-four thousand), which would effectively move them into Area A, where more than 70 percent of Palestinians live. I have written earlier about the difficulty of aligning what one reads on a map and what one observes on the land and roads themselves, but there is one important detail in which both suddenly cohere: the highly populated Areas A and B are the cramped spaces of Palestinian life. Home to more than two-and-a-half million Palestinians, and including the cities of Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus, Yatta, and others, it has been subdivided into 166 separate units that have no territorial contiguity. In other words, they are like shattered glass. Encircling each shard are long lines of Israeli settlements. Where the shape of Palestine, according to the Green Line, once appeared like a broad river, now it is a handful of pools, cut off from one another, slowly evaporating. Palestinian Susiya is a droplet being diverted into the nearest pool.

I spent a night in Palestinian Susiya, gazing up at Israeli Susya. I had some childish idea that, from this holy and beautiful landscape, I would see the immensity of the sky and the blanket of stars. As night fell, I sat on the rocky escarpment with Nasser’s son, Ahmed, who attempted to teach me to count to ten in Arabic. His father scrolled idly on his phone. The two places, Susya and Susiya, are literally one above the other. I could walk uphill and be in Israeli Susya within five minutes. Around us, dogs barked. The voices of women came and went. The evening sun diminished and was gone.

All night, Israeli Susya glowed. Its houses, perimeter roads, and guard stations, connected to the electricity grid, were powerfully, warmly lit. Palestinian Susiya, meanwhile, deemed illegal, was barred from connecting to the power supply. Its electricity came from solar panels donated by a German NGO and installed by an Israeli NGO, its water filters from Ireland, also installed by an Israeli NGO, its medical clinic from Australia, and its school from Spain, resulting in an unlikely cosmopolitanism. Prior to the solar panels, villagers would go to the town of Yatta to charge their phones. The visual contrast was crushing: light above, dark below. The future, the past. Safety, the wild. I couldn’t make out the stars. The sky was too well lit, as if we were on the outskirts of a bustling American town.

I fell asleep reading Calvino by the light of my phone—“It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin”—and his description of the city of Berenice, whose just and unjust cities germinate secretly, ad infinitum, inside one another: “all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other.”

Earlier in the day, when I asked Nasser’s father what he hoped for, the elderly man had answered, “I wish not to be woken in the night to have my home demolished.” Unsurprisingly, I slept fitfully. I curled up as small as I could on my mat, in the room I shared with the elderly man and Nasser’s two small sons. All night, the dogs of Palestinian Susiya howled and barked, as if to warn something off, or as if perplexed by their own existence. My dreams clung to this broken sound. I opened my eyes, exhausted, to the sound of Nasser’s wife, Hiam, going out to tend the chickens and the sheep, and to bake the daily bread in the communal taboon, the earth oven.

I got up. On our knees, we mixed feed for the sheep. My notebook fell into the dirt, fluttering stupidly, and my pen rolled away. My grandparents, too, had been villagers. They fled war and poverty, but my grandfather could not escape, and was executed by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. My father had been five years old, but he survived this devastation that claimed thirty-six million lives in Asia alone. The things I tried to see here seemed cloaked from my eyes, as if I walked in a hall of mirrors, surrounded by conjoined cities with the same destiny. As the morning wore on, Nasser’s son led me through the chores, including the milking. Ahmed was so full of goodwill and curiosity it broke my heart. Here, he would say, using every bit of English he possessed. Come here. He smiled as I photographed him holding fast to a sheep. Eat, he said to me. He brought me bread, sheep’s milk, a little hummus, an egg. I learned another word, baladi. The taste of the village and the earth.

Above us, the high-wattage security lights of Israeli Susya were dimming. Here, in the other Susiya, the solar panels were not functioning, and there would be no electricity this morning, but in the crisp morning light, everything could be seen. All the invisibilities were laid bare.

Bassam al-Ja'abari shoots video from atop the roof of his house in the West Bank city of Hebron near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. (Nayef Hashlamoun / Reuters)

Bassam al-Ja’abari shoots video from atop the roof of his house in the West Bank city of Hebron near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. (Nayef Hashlamoun / Reuters)

CITIES AND DESIRE

In 2001, as he stood at the crossroads of his life, Nasser met a small group of Jewish activists who offered solidarity to Susiya. It was confounding: Jewish soldiers were demolishing his home and protecting the settlers, and Jewish individuals were volunteering to work beside him, but Nasser wanted to be neither the target of violence nor the recipient of charity. The questions he asked himself were philosophical: How to exist freely in a place where he was not free? Violent resistance showed him how to die, but what if nonviolence led only to the slow death of capitulation? How could he change his conditions? I thought of sixteen-year-old Wouroud and her searching smile. “I just want to live.” For Nasser, the histories of civil rights movements allowed him to glimpse a possible future.

“I think nonviolent action is the way to change,” he said, as we looked out at his family’s small orchard. “This is the only way.” Injustice persisted, he reasoned, because the world did not know, therefore he would make visible what was happening to them.

The ensuing years of activism led to cooperation with B’Tselem and coordination with other activist groups, including Ta’ayush.6 Nasser learned fluent Hebrew and later English. Solidarity work in Susiya became organized, flexible, and creative. Israeli and Palestinian activists are treated unequally before the law, which makes their cooperation all the more potent: Israeli citizens, protected by Israel’s Basic Laws, have civil rights, including freedom of assembly. Israeli citizens can move through all parts of Area C without any restrictions whatsoever; Palestinians are barred from entering vast areas surrounding settlements without prior coordination with the Israeli Civil Administration, even to cultivate their own land.

Volunteers from Ta’ayush began escorting shepherds to their grazing lands. During planting and harvesting windows, they came singly and sometimes en masse. A small but dedicated group of volunteers hoped their presence would forestall settler attacks, but when it didn’t, they documented the encounters and, most important, put their bodies in the way. The video evidence of violent attacks on shepherds, activists, and Palestinian schoolchildren is horrifying and disturbing—but even video proof did not convince the police to apply the law. Meanwhile, Susiya was mired in a desperate legal battle to save its homes from demolition. Year by year, Nasser’s day-to-day work—with lawyers, activists, and peacemakers—not only strengthened but humanized the ties of Palestinian and Israeli civil society: acts of solidarity became acts of friendship. By 2015, the relentless paper and video documentation by Jewish and Palestinian activists would culminate in stunning international diplomatic and media attention on Susiya, as the village became emblematic of Israel’s policies of land seizure. In June 2015, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Administration had the right to demolish the village. A month later, the Israeli Defense Ministry concluded that Susiya sat on private Palestinian land and that local people had the 1881 Ottoman documents to prove it. Diplomats from some twenty European member states traveled to Susiya to protest Israel’s decision, and the US State Department spoke up in Susiya’s defense.7

The conceptual, legal, and physical infrastructure of occupation aims to entrench separation, disaffiliation, and, most profoundly, estrangement. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish descendants of Israel-Palestine, if they come from the same land, will inevitably carry shared physical attributes and cultural norms. Physical separation is key if one population is deemed to have a different destiny than another. Something as innocuous as friendship, therefore, goes against the totality of the barriers, the checkpoints, outposts, ID cards, sterile streets, the “fabric of life,” and the separation wall. Friendship, such a seemingly flimsy thing, seemed almost a joke in a world of continuous violence.

In January 2016, after the remarkable success of Susiya’s international appeal, thirty riot police forced their way into Nasser’s home in the dead of night. M16s at the ready, they surrounded his elderly father, his wife, and three small children, forced Nasser to the floor, and shackled his hands together as his family watched in terror. This moment is seared into him: his own humiliation, the sick fear and shock, and the mirrored expressions on his children’s faces. They were punishing not just him, he understood, but his family.

Nasser, who through all the years as a community leader and eld worker for B’Tselem was well known to Israeli police and military, disappeared into the police’s interrogation rooms.

“The interrogation is very tough,” he conceded. He did not divulge the following easily. “The pressure starts the second they arrest you, they are shouting, pulling you from one place to another. You sit in a room with two or three of them, they ask different questions in parallel, you get disoriented and confused, you don’t know who to answer. You sit on a chair facing the wall, you are not allowed to look up or down, your legs and hands are cuffed.” When he said this, he kept his hands, open and face down, on his knees. “When you’re not in interrogation, you are in a small room two metres by two metres, all you have is a metal table, and they keep the air conditioning on extremely cold. They put me in solitary confinement underground, a room without light.” His next words, spoken quietly, were followed by silence. “It was a difficult period. They said things about the [Jewish] activists in Ta’ayush, my Israeli friends.”

The legal case that was later brought against Ta’ayush activists— and eventually nullified by the Jerusalem High Court—is complex, sensationalist and heartbreaking, and received wall to wall coverage in the Israeli media. Out of respect for the privacy and health of those involved, I have elected not to detail it here.

The choice, by both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, to trust one another is perilous. Day after day, the mechanisms of life under occupation succeed in their aim: to disavow the possibility of commonality and coexistence. There is a profound loneliness to the Palestinian experience, a heavy irony given that the conflict has been a staple of international news for almost seventy years. Despite worldwide consensus that the Israeli settlement of the West Bank is a clear violation of international law, Palestinians are widely viewed, in North America at least, as the instigators and perpetrators of violence; indeed, as violence itself. Palestinian crimes of hijackings, knifings, suicide bombings, and murders have become, for many, the entirety of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the only tragedies to be mourned. At the same time, Palestinian suffering—more than 10,000 dead since the year 2000, including 1,977 children—is to some an acceptable form of collateral damage.

I wondered if Nasser’s story served as both a microcosm and a warning, exposing the danger of collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians. Historical legacies—not only national but deeply, catastrophically personal—could shatter trust and friendships in an instant.

To my surprise, Nasser disagreed. For him, the old question of how to exist endured. He was committed to the life he had chosen.

But surely his arrest, I said, had changed something in him.

He answered without hesitation. “I think this has given me more power to be active and nonviolent. If Israel wants to separate Palestinian and Israeli activists, my arrest is a sign that what we are doing is working in South Hebron.”

CITIES AND THE LIVING

[The inferno of the living] is what is already here. . . . There are two ways to escape suffering it. The rst is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not the inferno, then make them endure, give them space. —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Before leaving Palestine and Israel in mid-July 2016, I made my way to Palestinian friends in Bethlehem, to a Jewish Israeli friend in Akko, and to Tel Aviv for a gathering of former IDF soldiers who had given testimony on the policies and practices of the army. As I climbed the staircases and walked the chambers of both the visible and invisible worlds, I refused to feel estranged from either the humanity or the despair around me.

Earlier, I had asked Nasser if having children had given him hope or made him more fearful. He had laughed and shaken his head. “Yes, things changed. But I don’t know how to tell you this in English.”

When I pushed him, he said, “My children live in this situation.” The smallness of the word situation and the sorrow of the word children struck me with a terrible force. “I tell them about my Jewish friends,” he continued. “I try to bring in my friends, like Yehuda. He wears a kippa and the children think he’s a settler, and I try to teach them no, he’s not a settler. Inshallah one day I will visit Yehuda in his country and he in my country.”

Shulman writes, “To watch the destruction-self-destruction of an entire world, you need only ordinary eyes and the gift of not looking away.” I try to hold the invisible within the real. The occupation began before I was born, but this numbing of our souls and our reliance on the word intractable: surely this cannot be our apology and our answer.

In the opening pages of the Unbearable lIghtness of beIng, Milan Kundera considers the idea of eternal return. Would a horrific and bloody war, he wonders, if it recurred in the same way over and over again, be altered in any way? “It will: it will become a solid mass,” Kundera concludes, “permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.” But the world as we perceive it, where atrocities or violence occur and are then rinsed from our memories, has also led to its own “profound moral perversity . . . for in this world everything is pardoned in advance, and everything is cynically permitted.” This cynical relationship with history is one we embrace at our peril.

On one of my last nights in the territory, I watched a group of seventy Jewish diaspora volunteers, Israeli activists, and Issa Amro and Youth Against Settlements, work side by side, attempting to clean up a disused Palestinian-owned warehouse in Hebron. Their aim was to lay the ground for what would be the only cinema for Hebron’s 200,000 Palestinians.

Settlers and police instantly appeared, followed by soldiers, who would momentarily begin arresting the activists for disturbing the peace. Watching the scene unfold, which included the activists’ elated singing of African American spirituals and Hebrew traditional songs, the children of the settlers frowned. They asked aloud, again and again, They’re Jews? Through a translator, I spoke to them, wondering about their names and thoughts. A boy, no older than ten, looked me in the eyes and said, “Fuck you.” But behind him, others watched in consternation, with a pensive fascination. An older woman reminded them, “There were Jews who helped Hitler, too.”

“Thank you for building Jewish property,” another called out.

“What do their T-shirts say?” a boy asked.

The words were Occupation is Not My Judaism.

One of the activists said to him, “Do you think that occupation can really continue like this?”

The boy looked at us through the fence, his face open in surprise.

His confusion was real and profound. “What occupation?”

The very earth we stood on momentarily vanished, rendered invisible.

© 2017 Madeleine Thien. All rights reserved. Taken from Kingdom of Olives and Ashes.


FOOTNOTES:

[1] United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously on November 22, 1967. The preamble asserts the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security.” The first clause of Operative Paragraph One is, “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in recent conflict.”

[2] Mitzpeh Avigayil is an Israeli settler outpost, illegal under Israeli law. The High Court of Justice ordered a freeze on its development, and in 2003 the outpost was slated for demolition by the Israeli government. The demolition was never carried out; rather, the settlement grew. In 2014, the Israeli government announced procedures to legalize the outpost. Mitzpeh Avigayil borders Nael Abu Aram’s land, his property rights to which were recognized by the Israeli courts, but a portion of which was seized by Israel as a “closed military zone.”

[3] According to a map from the United Nations Of ce for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA oPt), “Restricting Space in the OPT Area C Map, December 2011,” 99 percent of Area C is heavily restricted or off limits to Palestinian development.

[4] A World Bank report found that potential revenue from Area C for Palestinians would be at least USD 2.2 billion per year, or 23 percent of the Palestinian GDP; the total potential value added would be USD 3.4 billion, or 35 percent of the GDP. See “West Bank and Gaza—Area C and the Future of the Palestinian Economy,” World Bank, 2 October 2013.

[5] “State land,” a term taken from the Ottoman land-tenure system.

[6] B’Tselem is the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; Ta’ayush is the Arab-Jewish Partnership, Israelis and Palestinians striving together to end the Israeli occupation and to achieve full civil equality through daily nonviolent direct action.

[7] A sampling of the July 2015 international media: Diaa Hadid, “How a Palestinian Hamlet of 340 Drew Global Attention,” New York Times, 23 July 2015; Erin McLaughlin, Kareem Khadder, and Bryony Jones, “Life in Susiya, the Palestinian Village Under Threat from Israeli Bulldozers,” CNN, 24 July 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/07/24/ middleeast/susiya-palestinian-village-under-threat/; Peter Beaumont, “EU Protests against Israeli Plans to Demolish Palestinian Village,” The Guardian, 21 July 2015.


 

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