Journey to Wadi al-Shajneh: The Illusion of Quiet

Gershom Gorenberg

Dov, the guy who owns the hole-in-the-wall computer lab, explained to Elliott and me that the operating system was only in English; he didn’t have Arabic Windows. As for service, he said, that would be no problem, "as long as he brings it here."

Unfortunately, Muhammad Abu Arkub, to whom we were delivering the computer, has about as much chance as getting a permit to enter Jerusalem for a computer repair as he does of getting back his wife’s gold. Dov wasn’t being snide. He’s the old-fashioned gruff kind of guy who curses about everything and then puts in twice the work fixing your computer that he planned and charges no more, and would be embarrassed if you mentioned it. But the village of Wadi al-Shajneh, in the South Hebron Hills, is beyond where he does service calls. He was surprised when Elliott explained why we were buying the computer. "And you with a kipah ," he said. Not that he objected to what we were doing.

Elliott read about Muhammad in a Ha’aretz article by Gideon Levy, a few days after we went to Hebron to give a washing machine to Ghassan Burqan. If you read my previous post (Journey to Hebron: Nightmares and Hope ), you’ll remember that Ghassan had bought his own washing machine and was carrying it to his home in the Israeli-controlled side of Hebron when he was stopped by Border Police, beat up and arrested. The machine disappeared. In memory of our late friend Gerald Cromer, Elliott decided we should bring Ghassan a replacement.

Muhammad’s home was searched by soldiers who arrived at midnight. They said they were looking for weapons. The search lasted two hours. Muhammad, his wife Lubna, their two small daughters, and Muhammad’s younger brother Rami were all kept under guard in Rami’s home – a single-room shack built onto the side of Muhammad’s house. When the search was over, and the family rushed back into the main house, they found their computer and television smashed. And, they say, the jewelry box where Lubna kept her gold was gone.

Rami ran to where the soldiers’ jeeps were parked, sat down in one, and demanded the gold. Normally a Palestinian could expect arrest for such behavior. Instead, the soldiers pushed him out and left. I measure that as oblique, partial evidence confirming a theft took place: Arresting Rami might have required explaining the incident to higher-ups, and Rami would told why he jumped it in the jeep.

A gift of gold, from groom to bride, is part of Palestinian wedding customs. It’s not just for beauty; it’s a financial asset for emergencies. Muhammad, 24, had given Lubna 200 grams of gold, 7 ounces, over $6,000 at today’s prices.

According to Levy, the B’Tselem human rights organization has testimony of a dozen or so similar incidents in the area in recent months. I want to be careful: A complaint isn’t proof. (Muhammad filed a complaint with the Israeli police in Hebron. Unfortunately, there’s very little chance that the investigation will lead anywhere and that he’ll ever get answers.) If these reports are true, a small number of soldiers are exploiting the opportunies for corruption provided by the occupation, which has created a realm of "ein din ve’ein dayan," as Talmudic texts say: No judge and no justice. Give young men guns and power to search homes to stop terror attacks, and have a "justice" system that ignores abuses, because the abuses are against people who lack the vote and are therefore transparent politically – and you will get abuses. The answer, ultimately, is to end occupation.

Muhammad\'s computer after the search

After the search: The remains of Muhammad’s computer

With the ultimate not scheduled soon, Elliot suggested that we replace Muhammad’s computer. We had donations left over for the washing machine from my friends at Kehillat Yedidya, our progressive Orthodox congregation. The gold was beyond our means, but we could do what we could, with the thought after all that were Gerald around, he would have done it. Yehiel, who works for Rabbis for Human Rights, drove again: Three men with graying beards and skullcaps, driving south, out on Highway 60, on a hot June morning, past the roadblocks, past the red tile roofs of Efrat stretched out in suburban comfort over the terraced hills between the Palestinian villages. The road looped east past Kiryat Arba and Hebron. At junctions near Palestinian villages stood tall pillboxes: cylinders of grey concrete with gun slits at the top, like chess pieces placed on the board of the south Hebron Hills, to show that player with the grey pieces controls the board.

At one checkpoint near the settlement of Otniel, we picked up Musa, the B’Tselem field worker. Then we turned into the Palestinian town of Dura. Muhammad has a barber shop there. The main street is well kept; new stores and apartment buildings have been built recently. A truck with Palestinian plates and the word "Spring" in Hebrew on the side – the name of a soft-drink brand – was delivering to local grocery stores: Musa says the town is relatively prosperous, so the amount of gold that a young man buys his bride is known to be large there, and in the neighboring villages, like Wadi al-Shajneh.

Muhammad’s house is a small one on a dirt road. He invited us to sit in Rami’s shack: a bed on one wall, pillows around the others on the floor for guests. On one wall Rami had taped a photo of himself and some cut-out pictures of beautiful women, clothed but provocative: A bachelor’s room. On the small stereo he had a disc that appeared to be Islamicist speeches. The room was a small village museum to the infinite contradictions of the human soul. Yakut, Muhammad’s three-year-old daughter, danced around the room looking at us. She had curls, and tiny stud earings.

Muhammad, left, holding his daughter Yatuk, with Musa and the new computer

Muhammad and his daughter with Musa and the new computer

This was the difference between Wadi al-Shajneh and Hebron: In Hebron, a three-year-old Palestinian had to be told that the bearded men who’d come in the house were not settlers, that one need not fear them. In the village, the child was unafraid, despite the night of the search. Musa said that Otniel is a quiet settlement. The settlers of Hebron and Kiryat Arba are known as violent, and the ones from the outpost of Havat Maon are "criminals." On Highway 60, settler drivers sometimes try to run Palestinians off the road. But inside Wadi al-Shajneh a three-year-old had not yet learned to hate or fear. This a reason for hope: A generation of Jews and Palestinians might be born who could live without fearing each other.

Elliott had brought a bracelet for Lubna, Muhammad’s wife. He didn’t say where or how he got it. Muhammad took it to her. She appeared at the door, dressed full length in black, wearing a head scarf and a beautiful smile, and thanked us and vanished. The three strangers sit with the master of the house, and the woman is in the tent, Elliott said. And from here, I asked, do we go to take the measure of Sodom, and what should we report?

Muhammad said that before the Israeli search in his house, he’d been called in several times by the Palestinian security services for questioning. On the Israeli side this is called effective cooperation. On the Palestinian side the word to be used would be "collaboration" and it cracks the legitimacy of Abu Mazen’s regime.

I am glad about any bombs found before they find their way to Jerusalem or Beersheba. But security measures, especially harsh ones, without the hope of a political solution – without the hope of the occupation ending – are like healing the skin over a deep wound. Beneath the healing, the abcess festers and the poison spreads.

The destroyed computer and TV were still in the yard. The computer had been pulled from its case; the fan hung out to one side. The TV was a black frame with no screen. Mute relics, unable to provide testimony to anything but force and speed.

Elliott explained to Musa and Muhammad what the technical papers in Hebrew said. Muhammad would have to get an Arabic operating system, he said. He said we’d brought this as mitzvah. Muhammad, who’d once worked in construction inside Israel, before the second intifada, didn’t remember that Hebrew word till Elliott said that "Allah wants…" and then Muhammad shook his head "yes."

Then we shook hands, and waved to Yakut, and drove back through hillsides, terraced with vineyards and olive groves, the twice-loved hills waiting for human beings to stop fighting over them like two angry young men who think the way to show love is jealousy and fists.

8 thoughts on “Journey to Wadi al-Shajneh: The Illusion of Quiet”

  1. I feel that a moral man belonging to the occupying people should leave the country and go into self-exile. The little palliative gestures you can make are in an infernal manner legitimising the injustice, by giving it an illusory air of common humanity. There will be no common humanity there until the premises of the zionist project are overthrown, and this will only occur as a by-product of the final collapse of Western imperialism, which, fortunately for us all, seems to be fairly imminent.

    It is conceivable that after the West has lost its self-declared global primacy, its so-called ‘hegemony’, Jews and Arabs and Russians and what-have-you will live together in the region on a different basis, one not premised on colonialist racial supremacism. That would be something to look forward to, and I don’t think it would be publicly described as an expression of any one belief system, because when many belief systems co-exist, they naturally return to the private sphere. Jews quietly give thanks that something in their heritage has come true, Christians similarly, and Muslims similarly. No one can claim an over-arching confirmation of any one view.

  2. Niqnaq, do you really think that without the Zionist project, as you call it, that the Jews currently living in Israel will rush to embrace their brothers from Hamas (and vice versa)? It’s a nice utopian vision, but I honestly don’t see how it can come true in reality. Perhaps instead of indulging in utopian visions, we should try to figure out how to actually fulfill the two-state solution.

  3. Mr.Gorenberg, you are a beautiful human being.
    I am Russian living in the USA. On one of the human rights forum I met lots of Russian Jewish emigrants living in Israel and in the US.
    I wish they would feel one hundredth of compassion you show! They call Palestinians “animals” and declare that a good Palestinian is dead Palestinian. They also call people like you “useful idiots”.
    When I visited Israel, I met many young Israelis thinking like you. They were asking me to let Americans know that not everybody in Israel wants war and hatred. They were beautiful, idealistic and determined that their generation will be able to make peace with the Palestinians. Ever since my visit I consider it is my debt of honor to let people know about the Israelis who want peace.
    Unfortunately, on the Russian forum I am vilified and ridiculed for my views, and sometimes called antisemitic.
    Finding your blog is like a breath of fresh air for me!
    You really exist! I am not dreaming! Thank you!

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