A Literary Gathering in the South Hebron Hills

By Ben EhrenreichJune 27, 2013

A Literary Gathering in the South Hebron Hills

THERE’S NOT MUCH LEFT of the mosque in al-Mufaqara — a tangle of rusted rebar protruding like crazed antennae from a flattened concrete corpse. The loudspeaker from which the call to prayer once issued hangs mutely from the wreckage. A few feet away, a dog sleeps in the shade of a yellow water tank. I want to join it: it’s hot in al-Mufaqara, one of 12 Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills currently targeted by the state of Israel for more a comprehensive demolition.

The mosque was bulldozed for the first time on November 24, 2011. “We built it again and they destroyed it again,” recalls Mahmoud Hamamdeh, whose home was also destroyed. Sometime in the 1970s — no one seems to remember exactly when — the Israeli army renamed al-Mufaqara and the land around it “Firing Zone 918.” Twelve villages with a combined population of about 1300 people fell within the new military training area. In the early 1980s the settlers arrived: in Susiya to the southwest, and Ma’on and Carmel just over the hill to the northeast. Several smaller outposts, still illegal even under Israeli law, have since been established. Attacks by settlers soon became routine, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the IDF began issuing eviction orders — it is, after all, unsafe to live inside a firing zone. That November, soldiers loaded 700 Palestinian villagers on trucks, dumped them in the nearby city of Yatta, leveled their homes and filled their wells with dirt.

So began a court battle that will likely reach its finale on July 15, when the Israeli High Court will decide the villages’ fate. The last time around, in 2000, the villagers’ attorneys packed the front bench of the courtroom with some of the country’s most celebrated writers. The residents won a temporary injunction that has remained in place since. (The army has nonetheless continued destroying homes and water cisterns, no small thing in a landscape this arid.) The lawyers are hoping the same trick will work once more. Novelist David Grossman has petitioned the court in a letter signed by 23 other Israeli writers. “Each and every one of us,” he wrote, “bears the moral obligation to […] do something to bend back the occupation’s giant, cruel hand.”

Grossman couldn’t make it today, and Amos Oz was sick. Another signer, the Palestinian-Israeli novelist, TV-writer and Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua, made it as far as the village of Jinba — a twenty minute crawl from the highway down a twisting, rutted road — but vanished somewhere between there and here. Which leaves the novelists Zeruya Shalev, Alona Kimhi, and Eyal Megged and a white minibus full of foreign journalists bused in to see them by two Israeli activist groups, Ta’ayush and Breaking the Silence. The Wall Street Journal is here, and the Guardian, Le Monde, the Washington Post, a small flock of Spaniards. An activist beside me shakes his head. When soldiers arrive or settlers attack, he says, reporters seldom bother to visit.

But here we are, about 40 of us sitting in a tent. Beyond it are houses of piled stone, their roofs plastic tarps weighed down with stones and tires. Beyond them the hard dry hills. The young men of al-Mufaqara serve us bread, salad, sweet tea in plastic cups. The novelists recline uneasily. Kimhi wets her hair with bottled water. Shlomo Lecker, one of the lawyers for the villagers, talks about the case. “The people here don’t have the right to sit in the court; they don’t have the right to vote; they don’t have the right to do anything for their own lives. The word ‘law’ is quite irrelevant here.”

Hamamdeh talks too. “Like everyone, we will die,” he says, “like our fathers and grandfathers did. But while we live here why do we have to suffer so much?”

It’s the writers’ turn. “This is a day of shame for me,” says Shalev. “I don’t feel comfortable to sit in front of you and talk about the evil of my country.” Megged, her husband, says something about Israel’s mental health: “A healthy country can’t allow itself to have such an ugly face as we see here.” Kimhi, squirming slightly, declines to speak.

Her discomfort is understandable. It’s an odd scene: European and American journalists based in Jerusalem shipped deep into these cruel hills to hear writers based in Tel Aviv talk about how it makes them feel to be Israeli. Is there no one here to interview the journalists about their impressions of the writers’ impressions?

Then it’s over. The journalists scatter and the writers disappear. Four photographers snap photos of the same herd of sheep. I walk back past the mosque. A second dog has joined the first sleeping beneath the water tank, but they stir and both run off as we all head for our cars.

The minibus reverses on the next hillside over, its tinted windows gleaming. "The funny thing is,” one of the activists says to me about the writers' involvement, “it just might work.”

LARB Contributor

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors and Ether. His next book, The Way to the Spring, which is based on his reporting from the West Bank, will be published in June by Penguin Press.


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