Tag Archives: B’tzelem

The Village of the Bulldozers

Palestinians emerge from the Nusseirat refugee camp during the uprising

This is an excerpt from chapter 7 of the book I am writing about how my life and Israel-Palestine have intertwined

I could not tell you when the Arabic word intifada (uprising, literally “shaking off”) entered the Hebrew lexicon and Israeli news discourse. In my memory there is no point at which I understood that a series of incidents of unrest and protest in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, which began on December 9th 1987, amounted to something qualitatively and quantitatively different to the constant incidents of Palestinian resistance to occupation that preceded it. No doubt it happened gradually rather than as a sudden insight. I was already prone to abhor what I took to be “excessive” Israeli military violence in the state’s handling of Palestinians civilians, even those who protested by throwing stones. So, when protests began to be organized by Israeli groups such as Peace Now, I was a willing participant. Yet, I cannot remember the first protest I attended, whether I held a placard, who I knew at the event, or what the focus of attention was. A month after the start of the intifada, which subsequently became known as the first intifada, I wrote a poem about studying in the library on Mt. Scopus while Palestinians were demonstrating in the neighbouring village of Issawiya:

My tower
Is not ivory
And the local stone
Is only a façade.
It is concrete,
Glass and aluminium
That keep the tear gas out

My conscience
Is not quite pure
And my innocence
Is only disinterest.
It is smugness,
Fear and apathy
That keep the guilt away.

Whether or not I had already been on a demonstration or not at that point I cannot say, but there must have been a transition period during which I focused less on my internal feelings, expressed in mawkish poetry, as well as the intellectual demands of my studies, and more on what was happening around me. I did not have a television at home when the intifada began so I relied on radio news and newspapers. The local Jerusalem paper, Kol Ha’ir, which came free with Ha’aretz on Friday was a source not only for news but also announcements about demonstrations. There is one report from Kol Ha’ir which has always stood out in my mind, though I have never been able to locate a copy of it to test my memory against it. It was written, probably in 1988, by two journalists, one a Jewish Israeli and the other a Palestinian from the East Jerusalem refugee camp, Shu’afat, Bassam Eid. Both of the journalists subsequently became human rights workers at B’Tselem, while Bassam Eid went on to establish the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in 1996, to keep a check on the Palestinian Authority’s abuses of power. The two journalists had gone to investigate reports from a village in the West Bank that a Border Police unit had buried some locals alive while using a bulldozer to erect an earth barrier. The Border Police had a reputation for brutality, while earth and other barriers were a form of collective punishment, preventing road traffic to and from villages. The piece was written, at least in my memory, in a way that appealed to Jewish Israeli scepticism that such an atrocity could have happened. It resonated with a belief that while awful things were happening, the Palestinians were exaggerating. The Israeli Jewish journalist wanted to verify what the locals told them about rushing to pull out those on whom earth had been poured, to save their lives. One Palestinian had been dragged out without a shoe. In that case, said the journalist, the other shoe should still be there. The locals dug around until they found the shoe and the Israeli Jewish journalist was satisfied that the story of what became known as the “village of the bulldozers” was true. I had also not wanted to believe that the story was true. Even though there were more fatal incidents in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed, this one crossed a line of cruelty and callousness. Surely “we” could not behave this way? From that point on I knew that “we” could and did.

The incident was referred to in a 1988 protest song about the intifada by pop star Si Heyman, “Shooting and Crying.” Among the lively beats on her second album, the song stands out for its quiet, evocative tone, her voice, full of pain, serving as the main, stark instrument accompanied only by a piano. The title refers to a well-known barb about Israeli self-righteousness towards their Palestinian victims, the self-justifying expressions of bad conscience after the fact. One feature of the mournful lyrics is a feminist refusal to identify with her nation as the side which must vanquish its enemy: “It doesn’t matter to me at all who wins now,” changing in another refrain to “it doesn’t matter to me at all who is the strong one.” Rather than a battle between two sides, “on both sides, people just want to live.” The phrase about the “village of the bulldozers” incident is in the chorus:

Shooting and crying
Burning and laughing
Whenever did we learn
How to bury people alive?

The two lines then repeat, followed by the phrase, “when did we forget that our children were also killed?” The oblique reference to the Holocaust says it all. I came to learn that this extreme discomfort about becoming the oppressor of another people so soon after the Nazi genocide is repeated in Israeli anti-occupation and human rights activism. It is too much to bear. It was also too much for the Israeli military’s radio station, Galei T’zahal, which banned the song at the end of March 1988.[1]

[1] Avi Morgenstern and Ilana Baum, “Sarid to protest to Rabin the IDF’s ban on Si Heyman’s song.” (in Hebrew) Ma’ariv newspaper, 29/3/1988.https://www.nli.org.il/he/newspapers/mar/1988/03/29/01/article/56/?e=——-he-20–1–img-txIN%7ctxTI————–1 Accessed 19/12/2021.

Feeling demolition in your fingers


Wadi Ejheish, June 25, 2016

It is one thing to look at pictures of demolished homes. It is another to feel the rubble with your fingers. It is one thing to see a photograph of the wreckage of a building left by a bulldozer and another to pull the twisted wreck apart with your hands. It is one thing to cast your eyes on documented destruction and another to put your back into repairing the damage. These are two things, two different types of experience. Perhaps neither is better than the other, but they feel quite different.

btselem.reportTwo buildings in the hamlet of Wadi Ejheish were demolished by the (un)Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military government ruling over Area C of the West Bank, of Palestinian Occupied Territories. The demolitions are part of an undeclared process of creeping annexation of Area C, part of a pattern of dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, especially Bedouin. As part of that pattern, the demolitions in Wadi Ejheish were routine, although in this case they broke understandings about refraining from executing demolition orders during Ramadan.


Detail from B’tselem map


Visual and written documentation of the destruction is also routine, notably by B’tselem which shares the information in the hope that it will halt the expulsion that is designed to follow from repeated demolition. Other anti-occupation groups and organizations supporting Palestinian human rights, such as Rabbis for Human Rights, have worked actively for the preservation of communities in Area C, such as in the high-profile campaign to Stand with Susiya. Wadi Ejheish is known as “south Susiya,” somewhat separate from it. While the activists of Ta’ayush do also take part in the sharing of the documentation of destruction, they share experience with the inhabitants of Wadi Ejheish in more tactile, physical ways.

I accompanied the activists on their weekly work in the South Hebron Hills area on June 25th, during which we went to Wadi Ejheish not to look but to touch. The sight is certainly distressing, poignantly marked by the remains of clothing and toys caught in the rubble. Yet as we tried, along with the people who live there, to clear away the mess and salvage the building materials that could be reused, I was struck by the heavy materiality of the destruction. Heavy both literally – the concrete blocks that are thicker for external walls, thinner for internal ones, that had to be sorted separately – but also heavy mentally. No doubt it was easier for we Israelis to regard the work as a job to be done without having to overcome the despair of those whose homes had been destroyed. But still, we were working with the men whose buildings had been crushed days before.

The materiality of demolition is not only about what is found among the ruins – I chanced across the ID card of the wife of the Palestinian man working next to me – but the material of the ruins themselves. To disentangle the tangle of metal poles, rope, tarpaulin, concrete blocks, stones, plastic pipes, electricity cables, corrugated metal is to linger in the violence of demolition. This is a stage between witnessing destruction and the defiance of rebuilding, maybe something like a stage of mourning in which you begin to get through the devastation and, with the help of friends or relatives, start putting a life back together.

But it’s not quite so pat. There are different ways of working together. For some time we worked without much conversation, as men do, coordinating actions by observing what others are doing. After a while two Israeli women came back from accompanying a shepherd elsewhere, and there was more chatter and verbal coordination. It also became more necessary to coordinate as we worked further into the tangle of rubble and it was less easy to pull out individual poles, tarps or pieces of corrugated metal. In any case given that some of us can’t speak Arabic or Hebrew well, some of the cooperation had to rely on gestures. Nonetheless, it was working together, the partnership that Ta’ayush embodies.DSC00205

It’s an odd partnership, not one of equals, but one in which equality is valued rather than achieved. Urban, middle class, and often intellectual Israelis doing Hebrew-Arab labour as if redefining Zionist halutziut (pioneering) alongside poor Bedouin shepherds. For all our privilege, what we offer is what anybody could volunteer. In the shade of a broken down cart, a couple of mathematicians burble away to each other incomprehensibly  (to the rest of us) about zeros while I can’t converse with the guy next to me as he doesn’t speak Hebrew and I don’t speak Arabic. As his son works with a couple of us later, I can only gesture to where he should cut string binding metal grating to corrugated metal. And then a thought flashes into my mind about the common Jewish Israeli saying about Arabs sticking a knife in your back. This work in common, a boy eager to help adults, shows how silly such thoughts are. But I don’t know what he’s thinking. They, the Jews, come with guns and bulldozers to demolition his home, then some other Jews come almost empty handed to help clear the rubble. It’s hard to make sense of that.

By the time we stopped work I’d been close to calling it quits for myself, my strength drained by the hard physical work under the unrelenting sun. I was deeply fatigued, but not in terms of the compassion I could feel by looking at yet another photo or video of Israeli occupation forces demolishing Palestinian homes and work places. I was deeply fatigued by the sheer effort of undoing destruction, and I wish that the photos could convey just a fraction of that difficulty to the Jewish Israelis in whose name the demolitions are executed. For all the sensuous power of visual experience, perhaps you have to feel demolition in your fingers to experience how cruel occupation is.