Rotted Hinterland

I am in Massafer Yatta now, in the South Hebron Hills. It’s winter. The desert is bizarrely green. After 7 October, the unease has been replaced by absolute terror. Terror permeates itself through every second of every day. It always approaches; every tick of the clock is riddled with fear.

When you stand in the river’s hinterland, on its banks, amid the detritus of philosophies of states and their world histories, what matters is not the glint of far pyramids bright in the sun. In the brief moment you stand in this hinterland, you forget your heart’s age, you forget the pyramids; instead, while you recite your prayer, the river’s breeze ripples through the yellow stalks, in these gardens, by the river, and when you begin the Bar’chu, you, like the wind-struck stalks, bow and pray in gratitude to G-d. You and the stalks adorn the solid landscape no less than the pyramids; but your sprouting is fed by the river, which the world caresses you into paying reverence to and into which you will disintegrate. These words, I borrow from the medieval Judeo-Arabic poem By the Nile, penned by Yehuda HaLevi.


These days, when you board the plane to Israel, you sit amongst Hasidim visiting family. No one else is traveling there. The press scrum and the expatriate reservists have long since arrived. When you land, an American immigrant explains to you that most of their fellow countrymen fled back to their own promised land, in the days after 7 October. On the plane, old Hasids amble up and down the cabin. The flight attendants, unable to flog their cartons of duty-free cigarettes, grow frustrated. The captain leaves the “fasten seatbelt” sign on ad infinitum. You land. The long corridor to passport control is festooned with hostage poster after hostage poster. Empty gaps in between, for the dead and the returned. You drift in and out of sleep as you make the familiar trundle down to the train, wait 40 minutes because it’s 2 a.m. and you’re too cheap, and too Jewish, and too British to order a taxi. You get to Jerusalem.


The land west of the Jordan River is HaLevi’s riverbank. But the hinterland’s pyramids, here, are ugly. The gardens are filled with debris. The “yellow stalks” rot. The breeze floods your bones with chills. HaLevi’s riverbank is no longer a make-believe of brain-dead petit-bourgeois antisemites, or the focus of diasporic Zionist odes of love. Here, those adorning the riverbanks are raped, taken hostage, butchered, decapitated.


You can try and move closer to the riverbank if you want to. There is an aching sense of unease in the West Bank. This has been the case since long before 7 October. Some years ago, I sat in a cement-walled room in a southern West Bank village, and heard a Palestinian woman named Tasmin speak. Her home had been demolished by the Israeli State. In order to do that very basic thing of sleeping, she and her family had to find a cave. They had to clear it of rocks and mud. That act—clearing rocks from a cave so that she could lie down—constituted illicit building under the martial law that defines life in the West Bank. Tasmin, made homeless by the Israeli State, was criminalized for trying to sleep.


With criminalization comes death. Just across the village from Tasmin, a family had purchased a generator. Much of the little electricity that Palestinians have access to in Area C of the West Bank is supplied by such devices. The military came. They tried to take it: “You do not have a building permit for having a generator.” Harun, the family’s neighbour, placed a hand on the generator. So they shot him in the neck. They paralysed Harun. I watched his own family, crushed, try to care of him over the next two years. All Harun could do was speak. He could not move. He would tell us that, every night, he was plagued by nightmares. Nightmares in which he was shot, again and again, by that soldier. Harun was about to get married before he was paralysed by the Israeli state. Harun was twenty-three, he was my age. After two years of nightmare-riddled paralysis, Harun died.


Tasmin and Harun’s lives are alien to us. Contrast them with the grand American activist tradition, represented so emblematically at my university. Hordes of people find their drive for doing something satiated by the act of saying something antisemitic, by proclaiming support for Hamas’ actions on the Black Shabbat, or by denying some or all the heinous atrocities committed that weekend. Activism, in the West Bank, bears little resemblance to this cesspit of American discursive insanity: it is not fashionable, there is no choice, it does not lead to fame.


I am in Massafer Yatta now, in the South Hebron Hills. It’s winter. The desert is bizarrely green. After 7 October, the unease has been replaced by absolute terror. Terror permeates itself through every second of every day. It always approaches; every tick of the clock is riddled with fear. Since 7 October, the severity and intensity of attacks on Palestinians in Area C has increased inordinately. Terror precipitates death and flight. As of mid-January, 358 Palestinians have been murdered by Israelis. As of mid-January, several hundred have fled their homes, almost certainly never to return.


I trundled through this green desert in an off-road vehicle with two Israelis. We had heard that an arm of the settler militia is sacking a Palestinian village. The village is tucked away on the crest of a hill. As we made progress down the paved settler road towards the general vicinity of the village, we see that the unpaved, rock-strewn access roads leading to the village are blocked by buses filled by dozens of heavily armed Israelis, dressed in military gear. Most were not formally soldiers: most were settlers, armed and dressed by the Israeli state. We finally find a route into the village. As we approach, we see the village’s men. They were lined up and frozen. They were being held at gunpoint. None moved. None spoke. Several masked settler militiamen were training guns on them. Other armed men then began running towards our car. By the grace of G-d, we escape. From an adjacent hill, we watch through camera lenses the tearing apart of two houses. We see two Palestinians being tied up, blindfolded, and bundled into pick-up trucks by settlers. Afterward, the residents in the village tell us that the armed settler-militia men had robbed them of thousands of shekels. The kidnapped Palestinians were not seen again for a week.


Later, I see Adnan, for the first time in a few months. The last time I saw him, he held me in his big, gangly, heavy arms. He had tousled my hair under the olive trees on his family’s land. When I last sat with him, he had, very seriously, asked me to smuggle Viagra from Israel—for “his brother”—he did not want to deal with the embarrassment of going to a pharmacy in Yatta for it. Before 7 October, we would sit with him for days on end, while his sheep grazed under that piercing desert sun. We sat with him because settlers would run out of the trees toward him as he tried to feed his sheep. They wore ski-masks and balaclavas and were armed with assault rifles and knives and bats and dune buggies.


Now, in the weeks and months following 7 October, he can’t leave his house. His sheep cry in pain in the mornings; they can’t eat, they can’t leave their pen. I sleep in his one-room abode, with four others. His dad, shot in the stomach by a settler some years ago—he bears the most gruesome of scars—fills the stove with heaps of plastic, because he can’t afford wood. He switches on Al Jazeera—the TV is the only thing gracing the bare walls—and you have dead Gazan babies blasted into your eye sockets at 5 a.m. The old man looks at me and I wonder how close they know his family are to being ethnically cleansed, too, like hundreds of their family members and neighbours and friends. And I think you can see in his eyes his tiredness.


I also see Samia and Saida, the two beautiful daughters of Deeb. When I was last with his girls, they danced with me and Liora, another activist. We practiced the ABCs with them. And we would practice counting in English by playing hide and seek. And they knew how to say in English “I love you.” And they would ask us in Hebrew how we are. And if we said “I love you back,” then they would say “I love you two.” And “I love you three.” And then they would hug me.


In an attack in the days immediately following 7 October, the girls’ daddy was bludgeoned by Israeli terrorists. He had been made to sit. He had been forced not to move. And then he was struck. Strikes with boots, strikes with butts of rifles. Their daddy had been sleeping in his tractor’s trailer. He was worried his babies would be burned alive if the settlers came and burned their house down while they were still inside. His daughters shook with fear, one with such violence that her nose bled. They were petrified, watching settlers from the settlement on their adjacent plot of land beating their father in the dead of night. He bears physical scars from these strikes and mental ones, from years of settler encroachment—including from them burning down his home with Molotov cocktails some years ago. G-d only knows what trauma his girls bear.


Contra to HaLevi’s stalks, one cannot bow to G-d in this land. The rotted soil spreads from Jerusalem through all the West Bank. In Um Safa, Fahmy, a gentle, aged Palestinian man, makes room for me under an enormous olive tree and speaks to me. This was all his land, he says; he gave it to his sons. Once, he was an Arabic teacher in Ramallah; he was born in 1949. He wears a ragged suit. He says his eyes glistened when he saw me because I was so well dressed. He—just like children here always are—was tickled to hear me utter the Arabic translation of my name, Asaad. A settler called Zvi Bar Yosef had taken over his land, according to an Israeli watchdog. We went there, a dozen Israeli anti-Zionist activists, accompanied by some of the men from the village. We descended the hill. Zvi was grazing his cattle on Fahmy’s land. Zvi had an assault rifle. More settlers came with more assault rifles. The military came. The military police came. They tried to arrest us. We succeeded in shepherding Zvi’s cattle out of a large chunk of Fahmy’s land. We ate well afterward.


Later that day, I see Ezer. He is one of the most radical, gentle, intelligent activists. He is in his early twenties, around my age. A kind, soft-spoken, fierce anti-Zionist Israeli. He was at a demonstration inside Um Safa. At one point during that day, he was inside the house of a Palestinian man named Ghazi, talking to him about Zvi’s invasion. While they were exchanging words, the army entered the village. And then a 17-year-old boy, Hamoudi, was shot to death. Per an activist in attendance, a soldier was heard to laugh as he declared to another, “you just shot a boy in the head.” Ezer ran over to Hamudi. He was by his side as Hamudi bled out. He died as his family screamed in pain and panic. You can’t bow here; you rot.


So, where is hope? A few months before 7 October, I asked Simon McDonald, the former British Ambassador to Israel, if he thought that the British government would ever consider sanctioning Israel in any way. No sanctions, I was informed. Rather, he explained, one should focus on the benefits to be had from Britain’s “soft power” diplomacy: lots of very serious chats with Israeli officials: “Please be restrained when you bomb Gaza.”


Now, Britain and France, dutifully following America’s lead, have issued sanctions on a number of settlers in the West Bank, including the aforementioned Zvi Bar-Yosef. Their logic—that sanctioning is now, all of a sudden, warranted, but had not been prior—eludes sense. The miniscule scale of these sanctions means that nothing material has yet been achieved in mitigating settler terror in the West Bank. Settlers, drinking from a bottomless reservoir of state complicity, continue in their decades-long, wanton campaign of terror and murder. And yet, the step America and its lackies have taken is an important one. We are one step closer to a day in which the US decides to exercise their omniscient wisdom to sanction, on a remotely meaningful scale, settlers and the state apparatus that backs them.

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