The second time I visit Susya I’m exhausted and sick. I fall asleep in a tent and when I wake up I don’t know where anybody is. Eventually I get a call from the Operation Dove team who tend to be a little more on the ball than I :-). The protest is over and they pick me up to go back to Mufaqarah. My consolation is that I was able to examine a home-made grain thresher that someone in Susya must have built. Mahmoud tells me I abandoned him, and he almost got arrested. I tell him he deserted me in a foreign country where I can’t speak the language. We are both half serious.
A home made grain thresher.
The next time we go to Susya there is a march organized to protest the harassment and planned destruction of the town.
There are hundreds of people, with bus after bus coming from Israel and Palestine. The military tries to stop them, blocking the vehicles as they approach the village. People don’t turn around though, they get out of the busses and walk the rest of the way towards Susya.
We gather first in the village, then walk down the road.
Walking down the road to protest Susya demolitions.
The military soon attacks us with explosives and chemical weapons to stop the walking. In this short recording you can distinguish the flash grenades, spinning tear gas grenades, people suffering from exposure to the chemicals and the military’s megaphone.
Mahmoud is unable to stand, incapacitated from the chemical weapons. A man on the left holds his ears to protect them from the flash grenade blasts. In the background an Israeli clown works hard to lighten the mood and make fun of the military.
A soldier throws explosives (a flash grenade) at protesters.
These attacks and a cordone of vehicles and soldiers stop the walking but not the protest. People gather to pray, sing, chant and network with each other. Throughout the situation the military and protesters have a close and uneasy relationship, with skirmishes breaking out. The military makes clumsy efforts to tell us where to go and what to do. They speak mostly in Hebrew which many of us can’t even understand. This is just as well because it makes them easier to ignore.
A few of us walk around them and observe the line of soldiers from their backs, a surreal experience. While behind the soldiers, I carefully walk up close to look at the military’s newest chemical weapon, called SKUNK. As the name implies, it is extremely stinky, and by all accounts and awful experience to be sprayed with it. It is a sort of perversion of a fire truck, which instead of spraying water to help people sprays chemicals to hurt people. Many of us here have a recent episode burned into our minds, from Nabi Saleh (1), in which a Canadian-Palestinian activist became isolated from her friends and targeted by the truck. She holds a Palestinian flag in the air as they blast her repeatedly with the awful new chemical. Although the blast knocks her off her feet, she stands up again with the flag. Instead of running away, another woman comes to help and together they face the occupying military as shots are fired.
SKUNK attack in Nabeh Saleh (youtube video)
This sort of thing is a weekly occurrence in Nabih Saleh as the villagers regularly attempt to walk towards a spring that was taken from them.
A SKUNK truck, the military’s newest chemical weapon.
During the protest, there is constant threat of arrest, especially for key activists but anyone isolated from the group is at risk. At one point the military tries to capture Mahmoud, but fortunately there are enough friends around to prevent his capture, a process called “de-arresting”. They literally fight over his body, while he remains as still as possible in order to to minimize risk of being charged with assaulting the people who are trying to take him. This process is also quite dangerous for the people preventing his arrest, because it is very easy for the military to create fictional charges of assault against them. As soon as the struggle begins a forest of cameras forms, watching every square millimeter of the event and lessening the risk of false charges.
The military attempts to take Mahmoud, while solidarity activists prevent his arrest.
After about two hours we feel we have registered our protest for now and call it quits. We walk back towards Susya, exchanging contact information and discussing the situation.
The fourth time I go to Susya it is for an action to maintain the ownership of a tract of land. The expansion of the settlements here follows the familiar routine. Settlers claim an area around their settlement as a “security area” and deny access to the landowners, using the police, military and their own guns2. After three years the state claims the land as abandoned farm land, and gives it to the settler community. Some of the residents in Susya have land papers proving their ownership of the land since the Ottoman period hundreds of years ago, which can be useful in their struggle to survive but often isn’t enough.
There are a lot fewer people this time, perhaps 50 of us total.
The group, on average, is more dedicated and informed. One of the best is an Israeli group called Ta’ayush. Although small in number, I think that Israelis like them are very important. They contribute a lot in practical ways with court cases and documentation. But perhaps even more importantly, they show the people, especially the children, here that not all Israelis are brutal bastards. Otherwise the only time the people would ever see Israelis is when the military is bombing, gassing and shooting at them. Or when settlers are driving by in their cars, often on roads which Palestinian vehicles are not allowed to use. Witnessing such injustice on such a daily basis, it is difficult expect any outcome other than entrenched, durable hatred.
Today, Ta’ayush brings gloves, digging tools and cameras with them. One member of the group, a professor, shows me some of the maps he has obtained, showing multicolored lines chopping up the fields around us. He knows almost to the meter where he can walk, and which areas to avoid to lessen the risk of his groups’ arrest. Being here is like a legal minefield for them. In the past they have been arrested, charged with fake charges, handcuffed and beaten by the military just for stepping in a completely unmarked “wrong spot”(3).
We walk towards the settlement of Susya, across a small valley and up the other side to some olive trees. The trees are not doing well, many have died back and are coming again from the roots. Many have simply died, leaving only an empty space in the planting pattern. The farmers here do not feel safe to take care of them normally. They are on the defense, trying to keep their land for the future but unable to actually use it properly. That is one reason they have asked solidarity activists to come with them today, to lessen the likelihood that they will be attacked. Another is to spread the story.
Beyond the trees, a bunch of military prevent us from crossing the road. For about half an hour we aerate the soil around the trees, which I suppose increases water penetration and we trim the suckers coming from the base. It’s not really enough care to make the trees healthy again, but it is enough to prevent the land being taken. At the same time, the genuine need of the trees adds an important sincerity to the action. It’s easy to almost forget about the actual trees in the tension of the situation. It’s easier to remember afterwards how amazing these trees are, that each one can live for thousands of years and give such a great gift of so much good food. In the time span of olives, religion is a new thing and guns were dreamed up yesterday.
The military blocks the way
Trying to rescue a struggling olive tree.
Two Israelis who made different choices; one works for justice with a hoe, and the other oppresses people with a gun.
After about half an hour we have addressed each tree with at least a little bit of attention. We have documented the event well enough to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the owner of the land has done some work on it. That’s enough for now, and we walk away from the new Susya back to the original one. Without much ceremony, we go our separate ways.
When I get back to Mufaqarah, there is a trailer load, apparently full of old tires. After puzzling for a few minutes about what we are going to do with all these tires, someone lets me in on the secret. Underneath are bags of concrete, and the tires are just a hoax that the resistance used get the concrete past the military. I smile and take some furtive photos. I can’t pay too much attention to it because the military is still watching us from a southern hilltop, their favorite observation place4. I wander off to see if I can find some silty coffee. The hollyhocks are almost finished blooming, the olives are getting bigger by the day, and the almonds haven’t flowered yet. It’s just another normal day in the South Hebron Hills.
A load of concrete disguised as a load of tires
1) This is the same place in which the well documented murder of Mustafa Tamimi took place last year. The military shot him in the head during the same weekly protest.
2) Settlers are automatically granted gun licenses for everything from pistols to assault rifles and use them frequently to shoot at unarmed Palestinians. Things are especially bad this way in the Jordan Valley at the moment.
4) The military watches the West Bank in general with cameras attached to zeppelins and tethered balloons. I can see them floating about on occasion.