A Moral Witness to the ‘Intricate Machine’

I am an Israeli. I live in Jerusalem. I have a story, not yet finished, to tell.” This is the opening line of David Shulman’s powerful and memorable book, Dark Hope, a diary of four years of political activity in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is a record of the author’s intense involvement with a volunteer organization composed of Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews, called Ta’ayush, an Arabic term for “living together” or “life in common.” The group was founded in October 2000, soon after the start of the second Palestinian intifada.

This book aims,” Shulman writes,

at showing something of the Israeli peace movement in action, on the basis of one individual’s very limited experience…. I want to give you some sense of what it feels like to be part of this struggle and of why we do it.

Struggle with whom? Shulman explains:

Israel, like any society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise. Here, in places like Chavat Maon, Itamar, Tapuach, and Hebron, they have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.

His diary proceeds to show how this happens.

Shulman speaks of “the last four decades.” It is forty years since the Israeli victory of 1967 brought the West Bank under occupation. That was also the year Shulman immigrated to Israel from the US, just after graduation from high school. In the Israeli army he was trained as a medic, which turned out to be a great asset for his later work in the West Bank. His first aid skills, as well as the medical kit he always carried with him, were equally in demand by Israeli comrades and Palestinian villagers injured by settlers, soldiers, and police.

Shulman attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he acquired, among many languages, a good mastery of Arabic. This, too, proved to be useful in dealing with the Palestinians whom he and his friends tried to help. He emerged as a formidable scholar: on Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit poetry, Dravidian linguistics, Carnatic music, and Tamil Islam. His linguistic and cultural interests were mainly focused on South India. In 1987, when he was thirty-seven, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. He has published many translations of Indian poetry. Shulman’s language in his diary is fresh and uncontaminated by the lazy clichés often used to describe the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. By temperament and calling, Shulman is a scholar, not a politician. Recalling Auden’s lines on Yeats, we may say that mad Israel hurt him into politics.

Into what sort of politics, one may ask. Shulman’s work on India and its culture suggests that his politics—if this is the term—would draw on Gandhi’s example. He writes, “We follow the classical tradition of civil disobedience, in the footsteps of Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King.” This suggests a much larger question: Would the two sides to the conflict have fared better if the Palestinian struggle against the occupation had been carried out in a Gandhian spirit of nonviolent resistance? This question can be raised as a matter of moral principle, but it can also be raised on practical, tactical grounds.

It is by no means new. At the beginning of the first intifada, in 1988, Israel expelled Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American child psychologist who advocated Gandhian tactics for resisting the occupation. The Israeli government understood right away that nonviolent tactics had the potential to embarrass Israel, and was determined to stop him. In truth, however, the government had no reason to be worried, since Awad made no headway among the Palestinians. I once asked a Palestinian friend why in his opinion Awad failed to convince the Palestinians of the validity of nonviolent tactics. His answer was revealing: nonviolent struggle is perceived by his fellow Palestinians as “unmanly.” They are drawn to the slogan “What was taken by force must be regained by force.”

Since the second intifada, the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh has become the main advocate of Gandhian nonviolent tactics among the Palestinians, both on moral and practical grounds. Nusseibeh does not accept that nonviolent tactics have no chance with the Palestinians because of cultural macho. He believes that nonviolent struggle—in the form of strikes and other protests—was very much in use by the Palestinians during the Ottoman rule of Palestine, and later against the British and the pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Are Israelis more likely to support making concessions to the Palestinians when they are violent or when they are nonviolent?

We seem to have an answer to this question from a surprising source. When Ariel Sharon came to power, he commissioned the political analyst Kalman Gaier to conduct a private poll for him. Gaier asked Israelis whether they were ready to accept a solution to the conflict that would relinquish 94 percent of the territories to the Palestinians in exchange for peace, with 2 percent of the rest of the territory exchanged in a land swap. Palestinian refugees would be settled in Palestine, and East Jerusalem divided. (These terms are close to the Clinton proposals of December 2001.)

Raviv Druker, an Israeli TV journalist, recently had access to polls Sharon never published. They reveal that in March 2002, at a moment when the second intifada was particularly violent, 70 percent of the respondents were willing to accept such a settlement; but when the poll was repeated in May 2005, a period of calm (just before Israel’s disengagement from Gaza), only 44 percent were willing to settle on those terms.

Do these findings indicate that Israelis understand only the language of force, and should they be seen as a decisive argument against nonviolent resistance? I don’t think so. In order to assess a nonviolent strategy one should not compare a period of violence to a period in which violent attacks were not taking place. One should compare, if possible, a period of violent resistance to a period of active nonviolent resistance. But more important than the question of how Palestinian violence influences Israeli public opinion is the question of how it influences Israeli leaders; and here my impression—and it is no more than that—is that no prominent leader, whether of the center-right or center-left, is willing to make serious concessions to the Palestinians in times of violence, lest he or she be perceived as weak. (Sharon, the exception, could withdraw from Gaza while maintaining his popularity.) The factual question—how Palestinian violence affects Israel’s policies toward a peaceful settlement—remains in my opinion an open question. The effect of Palestinian violence on Israel’s war policy is clear. During the second intifada, Palestinian violence elicited an intense military response from the Israeli side, resulting in devastation of the Palestinian community in the West Bank.

Regarding the moral issue of violent struggle, Shulman cites Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor at the Hebrew University, whom we both regard as a moral force in Israel:

Even if you accept the Palestinian reading of what happened at Camp David and assume that the Israeli proposals were inadequate, still it is impossible to accept the violence they have adopted as their weapon while still faced with an Israeli partner who wanted to reach a solution. It is not clear what the Palestinians want—for us not to be there [i.e., not to exist at all], in the territories, or for us not to be. They have the right to end the occupation, but not at any cost. But the Israeli Right uses Palestinian violence to its own advantage. Thus, worst of all, we may well find ourselves in a paradoxical, soul-destroying situation of having to serve in an army that is bent on illegal acts.

Shulman advocates a Gandhian approach on moral grounds and perhaps also on practical grounds, and a large number of his activities would have pleased the Mahatma. But in my opinion he is trying to do something that can be accurately seen as part of the nonviolent struggle to alleviate the burdens of the occupation but is also different from it. Shulman is a moral witness1—he makes an effort to observe and report on suffering arising from evil conduct. He may take risks in doing so, but he has a moral purpose: to expose the evil done by a regime that tries to cover up its immoral deeds. A moral witness acts with a sense of hope: that there is, or will be, a moral community for which his or her testimony matters.

About such hopes, Shulman can be ambivalent. The original Hebrew title of his book is not Dark Hope but Bitter Hope. Abraham, the great believer, is praised by Saint Paul as he who “against hope, believed in hope.” The Russian writer Nadezhda (“hope” in Russian) Mandelstam admired Paul’s account and called her first book about persecution in Stalin’s Russia Hope Against Hope; yet the title of her second book, Hope Abandoned, is drawn not from Paul but from Dante’s Inferno. Shulman’s account seems to me to vacillate between the two: between hoping against hope and abandoning hope.

Shulman starts with an impersonal account describing what happened on April 2, 2005, near a settlement south of the Hebron Hills where the Palestinians lived in caves and kept flocks of sheep and goats:

It began some two weeks ago when Palestinians from [the village of] Twaneh noticed a settler—almost certainly from Chavat Maon, the most virulent of the settlements in the area—walking deliberately through their fields in the early morning. Shortly afterward the animals got sick and the first sheep died. Then the shepherds found the poison scattered over the hills, tiny blue-green pellets of barley coated with… deadly rat poison from the fluoroacetate family…. The aim was clear: to kill the herds of goats and sheep, the backbone of the cave dwellers’ subsistence economy in this harsh terrain, and thus to force them off the land.

Visiting the Arab settlement, Shulman writes:

After half an hour I start to wonder if we have come here for nothing. I stare hard at the rocky ground, the purple wildflowers, the thorns, the fresh sheep droppings. Still no poison. Then a surprise: bending low, with my face nearly touching the soil, I see two—no, three—of the blue-green grains of poisoned barley….

Five minutes later Judy [his companion] strikes gold—a huge cache of them…. The real art of this grotesque treasure hunt is to retrace the vanished footsteps of the poisoner; one pile of pellets should, in theory, lead to another. And so, indeed, it goes.

Shulman then observed that all the while, on the hill opposite, directly under the settlement,

one of these settlers, with his gun, is watching us, advancing…as we move; he is dressed in black, an ominous presence, an Israeli Darth Vader. Farther up, a set of army jeeps is also in place. Maybe this time, at least, they’ll keep the settlers from attacking us.

Shulman seldom makes general comments: he sticks to the concrete and shies away from the symbolic. Not this time, though. Here is his explanation:

I have always hated the symbolic. It is the cheapest, most meretricious act of the mind, and the furthest away from anything real. But today, as I sift through the brown, moist soil under the eyes of the settlers, even I cannot resist the sense of something horribly symbolic. [The settlers] claim to feel something for this land, yet they treat it—her—with contempt. It, she, interests them mostly as an object to be raped, despoiled, and above all stolen by brute force from its rightful owners. It belongs, in this wild, ravished, ravishing landscape, to the people of the caves.

This is not merely a matter of injustice, though flagrant injustice screams out, unmistakably, at every point. Nor is it a matter of madness, though the settlers here are truly demented. It is, in the most serious, most atrocious sense of the word, a crime—a crime against the land the settlers glibly call holy, against life itself. Who, what human individual, would deliberately poison a wild deer? What kind of man would poison a whole herd, and through this, the community of human beings who live off this herd?

Shulman’s account needs some background, which can be found in the reports of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem for July 2005. As it happens, Assaf Sharon, a former student of mine and currently a graduate student at Stanford, also took part in many of the activities that Shulman describes. He is mentioned in the book, like all other “comrades,” by his first name only. Assaf, who studied in his youth in a yeshiva not far from Hebron, is a particularly shrewd observer who, unlike Shulman, has intimate knowledge of the settlers, including the younger generation.

In the southern West Bank, Assaf tells us, southeast of Yata, the main township in the area, more than a thousand Palestinians dwell in caves, in an area of some 7,500 acres. Some of the cave dwellers live in this area only during the seasons for planting and harvesting; some live there throughout the year. Water is scarce and the cave dwellers are dependent to a large degree on local cisterns.

In the 1970s, Israel declared part of the Yata region a “closed military area.” In 1980, next to the closed area, Israel established four settlements, which now have about two thousand settlers. Between 1996 and 2001, these settlers erected four additional outposts—small, armed encampments, said to be needed to protect the larger settlements. A fifth outpost, Maon Farm, was set up inside the area that the occupation forces had said was closed to settlement, and the settlers at Maon Farm were evacuated by the army for a few months; but they soon returned. Before they did so, the army had already expelled the Palestinian cave dwellers by force from the closed area, destroying their wells, blocking their caves, and confiscating their meager property of blankets and food. The army justified the expulsion on grounds of “a necessary military need,” specifically, its need for a training ground that would use live ammunition, endangering anyone who lived there. But the settlers of Maon Farm returned to the closed area unopposed by the Israeli authorities, and there was no mention of live ammunition endangering them.

On the face of it, the story of the cave people may seem to present a relatively small issue in comparison, for example, with what Shulman tells us about how the separation wall has disastrously affected the lives of Palestinians in the more populated parts of the West Bank or in Jerusalem, places where the main drama of the conflict unfolds. The South Hebron Hills, where the poisoning scene took place, is a sparsely populated area, remote from the main action.

But what takes place in the South Hebron Hills shows in stark form what is so bad about the occupation. The actions of some other Israeli settlers may be more ambiguous morally; but what Shulman saw in the South Hebron Hills causes him to use the word “evil” unsparingly:

What we are fighting in the South Hebron Hills is pure, rarefied, unadulterated, unreasoning, uncontainable human evil. Nothing but malice drives this campaign to uproot the few thousand cave dwellers with their babies and lambs. They have hurt nobody. They were never a security threat. They led peaceful, if somewhat impoverished lives until the settlers came. Since then, there has been no peace. They are tormented, terrified, incredulous. As am I.

Shulman shows that the settlers are supported by what he calls the “intricate machine,” a term he uses to describe various Israeli government agencies, including the army, the police, and the civil authorities that administer the West Bank. But the relations among the various agencies can be so intricate that it is no longer clear who is in charge of a particular policy or action. Hagai Allon, an Israeli official appointed by the former defense minister to be in charge of “the social fabric” in the territories, stated that the army does not comply with the defense minister’s orders. Referring specifically to the Hebron Hills area, Allon said the army acts “in the service” of the settlers. It carries out, he said, “an apartheid policy,” establishing facts on the ground that are meant to make evacuation of settlers of the West Bank impossible.

Shulman’s book is not an analysis of how the intricate machinery of the occupation works or, for that matter, of what the settlers do in their daily lives. It mainly describes the face-to-face clashes between human rights activists like himself and the settlers, the soldiers, and the police.

He makes it clear, however, that the settlers in the South Hebron Hills are almost all religious people. The established leaders in most of the older settlements often belong to the Gush Emunim or reflect its mentality: religious, intensely nationalistic, idealistic. They are not just seeking agreeable suburbs from which to commute to Israeli cities. They were born and raised in Israel and are still attached to Israeli society.

By contrast, the members of the second generation of settlers—roughly, those under thirty-five years of age—were born and raised in the closed communities of the territories. They were shocked by the Oslo peace accord of 1992, fearing they were going to be betrayed by Israel’s leaders and forced to move back to the Israel defined by the pre-1967 Green Line. Another formative experience was the assassination in 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin by a fanatical young man who had social and ideological connections with the settlements. Many settlers felt that they were unfairly and collectively blamed for Rabin’s murder. In my own experience, I have found among the second generation a lethal combination of attitudes: a conviction that they have the right to dominate Palestinians and a sense that they are themselves victims. They share the historic megalomania of their parents, seeing themselves, with no small degree of self-righteousness, as a misunderstood avant-garde of a messianic vision. But they have not benefited from the civilizing effect of rabbinic learning as some of their parents did.

In short, Shulman shows that a wild generation was born in the territories, a generation whose members are far bolder than their parents, far more ready to defy the law, and far more capable of utter lawlessness with regard to Palestinians. It is a generation saturated with intense hostility toward the Arabs, and ferociously tribalistic. Shulman describes his encounters with tribalistic young settlers who scorned him:

By now the settlers are upon us, all in their twenties or so, with long embroidered skullcaps and tzitzit fringes and guns. “You should be ashamed,” they scream at us. “What kind of Jews are you?” Helpless, angry, I yell back: “I am a Jew. That’s why I am here.”

There seems no chance that these young people will understand what Shulman is trying to do. On a cold, wet, and muddy January day, Shulman and his friends are on their way to bring blankets to the cave people. The settlers try to stop them. “One of the men shouts that we are on the side of Bin Laden…. They are determined to keep the blankets away from the cave dwellers.” The man who shouted “You are on the side of Bin Laden” was not making a political remark of the kind we expect from Dick Cheney but was expressing a tribalistic view. For these people and especially the young among them, providing the cave dwellers with blankets is giving aid and comfort to mortal enemies of their tribe—to people on the side of bin Laden.

Most of what is written on the ideologically motivated settlers deals with the founding generation. They were more articulate and produced texts that can be quoted. But the older generation in the settlements is by now irrelevant to the day-to-day reality in the occupied territories. After the evacuation of the settlements in Gaza in 2005, which was blamed by the young generation of settlers on the timidity both of the older generation of settlers and of Israelis generally, the older leaders of the settlements lost their grip. For the young generation, Israel itself is a remote reality, an entity to be confronted when it does not go the settlers’ way. The young generation in the South Hebron Hills is a particularly strong manifestation of the second generation of settlers. They have, in fact, succeeded in radicalizing their parents, who are now willing to confront the army and the police in ways that for ideological reasons they would not have dared to do before.

The fantasy of the young generation is “biblical,” and owes something to movies about the American West: you can see them riding horses in “biblical” gowns. They are inspired by charismatic, Sergio Leone types such as Yehoshafat Tor and Dov Driben, the founders of Maon Farm. Driben, who incessantly threatened the Palestinian neighboring cave dwellers, was murdered. The villager accused of killing him was released for lack of evidence after serving four years in jail. Dov Driben’s admirers regarded his death as a license to go wild. In the South Hebron Hills, there is now a place aptly called “Lucifer’s Farm.” Its “owner,” Yaakov Talia, is an Afrikaner who converted to Judaism at the end of apartheid in South Africa. He is another wild, charismatic tough guy who attracts many religious young people. They spend time on his farm helping to take over more and more land.

The second intifada, beginning in 2000, brought about a radical change not only in the young settlers but also in many of the young peace activists, who became highly skeptical about any grand scheme to bring peace. They want to do something concrete, even if it is very limited in scope, not because it will have a large impact, but because it is the morally right thing to do. From my own experience, they know the Palestinians in the West Bank better than the activists of my own generation who advocated the “peace process” ever did.

They have their heroes too, among them Ezra Nawi, a plumber of Iraqi Jewish extraction from Jerusalem, who was greatly admired by the cave dwellers. He organized a summer camp for their children and took them for the first time in their lives to a swimming pool in Jericho. He is constantly subjected to derisive, homophobic shouting by the settlers. To those who know him and those who saw the recent documentary film about him,2 his warm, humorous character is unmistakable. Now in his fifties, he exemplifies the desire of young Israeli activists to act concretely, even if it means working locally and avoiding involvement in large-scale proposals for peace.

Shulman uses as a motto for his book a phrase by the Australian-British human rights activist James Mawdsley: “Hell is realizing that one did not help when one could have.” He does not feel at ease with ambitious plans for peace. He made this view clear when we met a few years ago in Jerusalem with some members of Peace Now to support Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al-Quds University in Abu-Dis, near Jerusalem, in protesting the separation wall that was being built across the soccer field of the al-Quds campus. Shulman asked himself whether the wall across the soccer field was worth the effort to oppose it. “The loss of a few dunams belonging to a university is trivial,” he writes, relative to the other acts that have devastated Palestinian life. He decided, “Yes, it is worth it. Every small victory counts.” Nusseibeh and his supporters were “our colleagues and friends. We cannot just stand by.” In fact, the protesters had a small victory at al-Quds University. The wall was removed from the university grounds after Nusseibeh got some Israelis to appeal to Condoleezza Rice, who asked the government to stop building the wall.

Returning from al-Quds with Israeli protesters from Peace Now, Shulman writes:

My mind wanders away from the relatively minor distress of our colleagues and friends in Al-Quds, away from the intense political discussions going on in the car. There is talk of a new initiative, a document signed by leading public figures on both sides that sets out the basis for an agreed settlement to the conflict—the Geneva initiative…. I listen, halfhearted, my attention wandering.

I was one of those in the car who talked of possible peace plans and of working for a political solution through party politics, winning votes, forming coalitions, and compromising on the way.

Now a new grand scheme is being discussed: a conference of Middle East nations and others is to take place in November, at Annapolis, Maryland. Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Abu Mazen, or so it is hoped, may agree on principles for a settlement of the conflict. But Abu Mazen, according to reports, wants an agreement to be specific and Olmert wants it to be vague, and the question is whether they can arrive at a compromise. The conference would deal with the core issues between the two sides: Jerusalem, refugees, and territories. The two men are desperately in need of an agreement, even if only to show that they are still politically relevant. Many believe that any such deal would fall apart even if it were signed: the two leaders are so politically weak that it does not matter what they agree on.

Still, it is too early to dismiss the possibilities that something useful might emerge from such a conference. To put the matter crudely, Jews and Arabs have to deal with three situations: war, peace, and the “peace process”—which is not a process that leads to peace, but an intermediate stage of neither war nor peace. A realistic way to view the negotiations between Olmert and Abu Mazen is that they could make a move from open hostility (“war”) to the intermediate situation of “peace process.”

Shulman’s diary, however, gives an acute sense of the gap between peace schemes in their “peace process” phase and the relentless and dreadful reality on the ground. The reality is shaped not by agreements but mainly by the violent workings of Israel’s intricate machine and by the violence of Palestinian forces.

The diary gives us only a glimpse of some of the visible workings of the intricate machine. But I believe that understanding what is going on in the South Hebron Hills, a tiny part of the conflict, can free us from misconceptions about how the intricate machine works. There are relatively few settlers around Hebron and far fewer in the outposts that have been set up there. Their number is not about to get dramatically larger. Nonetheless, the official Israeli machinery is inexorably having its effect—it controls the land and gets rid of the Palestinians living on it by making their lives intolerable. The intricate machine does not depend on the number of settlers. It depends far more on the ways the roads to the settlements and the outposts are planned, built, and protected by the Israeli forces.

In fact, many of the outposts in the West Bank are little more than Potemkin villages, but this, too, is almost irrelevant, since the roads leading to them are roads that, according to official doctrine, need to be protected constantly, in order to ensure the safety of the inhabitants even if they consist of only one or two families. The fewer the number of settlers, the more vulnerable they are, and so they need heavier protection. Protecting a road means preventing the Palestinians from getting near both sides of it and regulating their movement by means of barriers on the roads they are allowed to use. There are 539 barriers to movement in the West Bank, eighty-six of which are manned checkpoints.

So the roads are the method by which the West Bank is fragmented, with almost no mobility for the Arabs locked in their enclaves. In addition to this, every settlement and every outpost is surrounded by a safety zone called a “special security area.” So the expansion of Israeli control of the West Bank is not determined by the number of settlers but by the extent of the zone of protection, from which Palestinians are excluded.

Here is how it works. First, a settlement is established with a designated area for future development and a wide zone of protection. Then satellite outposts are erected in the hills on the outskirts of the settlement. The outposts enlarge the area to be protected and especially the roads leading to the outposts. The commentators who emphasize the growth of the number of settlers in the West Bank miss the intricacy of the machine. Population growth is not the main factor. In fact, the main growth in population in recent years has been in four ultra-orthodox towns that are not far from the Green Line. The population in these four towns now amounts to nearly one third of the settlers in the West Bank. Clearly more important than the increase of settlers is the increase in the number of outposts and their interconnecting roads.

The intricate machine works relentlessly—it hardly matters which group is in power. Center- and Labor-based governments believe that it is too much of a political and military hassle to dismantle the settlements one by one. They say that one day these settlements will be dealt with on a wholesale basis—the way Sharon dealt with the Gaza Strip settlements, which were all evacuated at the same time. Likud-based governments, by contrast, are against removing the settlements in any case. All governments of Israel have also shared the view that all the settlers—authorized as well as unauthorized—should be protected by the army. Benefiting from these shared views, the intricate machine works no matter who is in power.

No one among the Palestinians is going to believe in a grand scheme for a final settlement as long as their lives are so degraded. Hamas has declared itself, as a matter of principle, against a large-scale scheme for a peaceful settlement with Israel; but the issue that must be faced is the utter mistrust of large-scale schemes on the part of Palestinians who are not followers of Hamas and want to lead peaceful lives. To narrow the gap between the grand schemes and the reality on the ground, the intricate machine must be halted. Daily life has to be seriously improved if any grand scheme is to be trusted. To believe that this is going to happen, however, calls for a leap of faith—the sort of faith, perhaps, that keeps a man like David Shulman trying to help Palestinians, even while he distrusts grand schemes.

—November 7, 2007

  1. 1

    For an extensive discussion of the idea of moral witness, see Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002), Chapter 5.

  2. 2

    Citizen Nawi, Israel 2007, Nissim Mossek, director, Sharon Schaveet, producer.