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The Only Democracy? » On The Ground Reports » Susya


June 22, 2012: Susya

I doubt if Palestinian Susya has ever seen so many people. Some 500, maybe
more, have arrived from Jerusalem (including a large Palestinian delegation from East
Jerusalem), Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva, and various sites in the occupied territories: Beit
Umar, Mufagara, and the khirbehs close to Susya. It’s a mixed Palestinian-Israel
crowd. I see many veterans of the early years of Ta’ayush, some of them returning to
Susya after a long time. We know the Susya people well: we have stood by them in
the face of many violent attacks by settlers and soldiers, celebrated weddings and
births with them, accompanied them to their grazing grounds, fought the legal battle
with them, installed wind-turbines in the village and the surrounding khirbehs, plowed
and harvested in the fields, ate and slept in their tents. Today they are serious, even
grim, and with good reason: two weeks ago the Civil Administration sent its
inspectors to distribute demolition orders covering nearly the entire village, its tents,
ramshackle huts, animal pens, the wind turbine, the cultural center—everything. If the
bulldozers arrive next week or the week after, it will be the fourth large-scale
expulsion of these people from their lands. If you add the partial expulsions over the
last ten years, this will be at least the sixth or seventh.

Today there are no speeches; there is no need to retell the story. It is late
morning, the summer sun a dusty fire, the hills parched yellow, gold and white. We
hit the ground running. Within a few minutes, as the buses disgorge their passengers,
we are marching with the Susyans toward the archaeological park that was once the
original village, where many lived in caves. They were driven out of it in 1986, three
years after the Israeli settlement of Susya was established over the hill. Today they are
heading home.

We ascend through the village escarpment, turn left over the rocky slopes. A
strange, focused solemnity takes hold, mixed with pride, despair, a trace of joy. They
are going home. We all know, of course, that the army will never let us reach that
goal, but there is something right and true about expressing it directly, mapping it,
with our feet. Can a person forget a first home? The women of Susya are conspicuous
today, often leading the marchers. Children wave flags. A contingent of clowns has
arrived, in full costume—a memory of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations. We pass
close to one of the old wells—off bounds to the Susya people for years, under threat
of being shot—and weave our way rapidly through the thorns toward the heavy green
metal gate at the entrance to the archaeological site.

The first stun grenades go off. They seem to come in volleys, an
announcement by the army that they won’t let us go any farther. One explodes beside
Eyal, deafening him, for now, in one ear. We mostly ignore them. Soon they are
followed by minor rounds of tear gas. It takes a minute or two before I feel the slight
burning in my eyes and throat; I watch the white trails of smoke rise and dissipate in
the blue sky. I’ve stupidly forgotten to bring along an onion, the only effective
antidote to tear gas; fortunately, the soldiers seem not too eager to saturate us with gas
at this point. The real threat comes from the Bo’esh—the Skunk, the army’s
Doomsday Weapon, which sprays an unbearable stench into a crowd, effectively
paralyzing it. I’ve never experienced it directly, but I’ve heard about the misery it
inflicts; the stench sinks into your pores and clothes and stays there for days. People
vomit for hours. The Bo’esh sits atop a long white military vehicle, with a movable
turret that has a way of seeking out targets, swerving from side to side, up and down.
It’s a little scary when it fixes its sights on you. It’s also maddeningly impersonal, an
infernal machine that lacks a human face; you can’t see the driver or the gunner or the
officer who will give the order to open fire.

Palestinian man walking beside me laughs. “Let them spray me,” he says.
“It’s only right. It’s a stinking Occupation.” He’s not afraid. A few more stun
grenades go off. By now the soldiers have formed a long line, a human wall, to keep
us from advancing. They’re a mix of Border Police and reservists; all of them are
sweating heavily in the sun under their inevitable load of lethal metal, loaded guns,
helmets, ammunition belt, boots, vest, the standard getup designed to maximize

But they seem unsure of themselves. They make an attempt to arrest one of the
marchers. I can’t see it, but I see the thick circle that forms around them—the soldiers
and their intended victim—and that swirls and bends and gyrates in intimate struggle.
Usually, in my experience, at such moments the soldiers manage to extricate
themselves and make off with their prey, but today it doesn’t work; the marcher is
released, and the soldiers retreat, jeered by the crowd. There’s something different in
the air.

A stand-off: for the next two hours we stand in the sun, face to face with the
soldiers, as the Skunk maneuvers itself into position and plays with its potential
targets. At moments I think there will be violence from these soldiers, the standard
denouement, the army’s default. Meanwhile, Palestinian women are singing and
dancing, defiant, within inches of the soldiers’ guns. Maybe this has some effect. And
the clowns, too, go into action. I watch as one of them approaches the line of soldiers,
kneels to open an ancient, weather-beaten suitcase he is carrying, slowly extracts a
long peacock’s feather. He rises, his red nose bobbing in the wind. He is cooing and
cackling and bubbling, a delicious mix of nonsense sounds that seem to demand a
reply from the hapless soldiers he has chosen as his partners in this game. He polishes
the muzzle of a machine-gun with his feather, then– still burbling and chattering
without pause—uses it to tickle the soldier’s nostrils, ears, and eyes. In this happy
mode, improvising continually, more and more outrageous in his intimacies, he makes
his way along the line. A couple of the soldiers seem only too ready to play along.
If you lift, even for a moment, the grisly illusion of earnestness that soldiers
are forced, by their very impotence, to maintain, the absurdity of the whole thing
shines through. What are they doing here, anyway, standing on the stolen lands of
Susya, broiled and charred by the Susya sun, staggering under the weight they have to
carry? They must be thirsty and, I imagine, bored. I think, in general, remembering
my own experience when I wore the costume, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a
soldier and nothing more daffy or demented than following pointless orders even to
the point of death, as soldiers are sworn to do—as if it made sense, just for example,
to keep the Susyans away from their wells and their homes, or to drive them into the
desert after the bulldozers have knocked down their tattered tents, or any of the other
cruelties these same soldiers might soon be called upon to carry out. Then again, I
suppose there is a certain sense, if sheer malevolence deserves such a name. But I
don’t think the bewildered, heat-struck soldiers standing here before me are
themselves driven by the wish to hurt. They are trapped by the system they have chosen to be part of, unable or unwilling to free themselves from its foolishness; some
of them may almost be aware of their pitiable state. Nothing is ever so true as the
truth revealed by a clown.

Around 1:00 the wind rises. It blows the hat off my head; it teases and
promises relief while a veil of clouds briefly hides the sun, deepening the brown of
the hills. Maybe the wind, in its inconstancy, is our truest ally, since it is probably
strong enough to make the officers think twice, or thrice, about unleashing the Skunk:
there’s a strong likelihood the stench will rebound on them. One way or another, the
two sides appear to achieve an unspoken conclusion. Enough for now. The protest—
far stronger in numbers and energy than the authorities could have expected—has
made its point.

The danger to Susya remains as ominous as before. Destruction can take place
at any moment. The bulldozers are ready, the soldiers will resume their earnest pose,
and the greed and hatred that fuel the whole system have certainly not abated in the
least. What reason, then, do we have to believe that Susya will survive? No reason,
apart from the tenacity of those who live there and the tiny infusions of help and hope
that we can give them

Pictures available here

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