For Things We Do Not Know

by Moshe Dann (July 2014)


From our hilltop we watched scores of police and army forces massing along the road below, preparing their assault against us, red, blue and yellow roof lights spinning in the pre-dawn darkness. A sharp wind whipped across the hills as you zipped your khaki parka and gathered with other men at the entrance gate, hoping to block the road, at least temporarily, knowing that resistance was ultimately useless.  

We had placed an old car and large stones in the middle of the winding access road to make the ascent more difficult, praying for a miracle. Boys and girls from around the country joined us for the anticipated confrontation, huddled in small groups, eating pitas with hummus and olives and drinking from plastic soda and water bottles; discarded tires doused in kerosene lined the road.     

“We can defend ourselves against our enemies,” you said quietly, leaning against the gate, your eyes alert to what was happening as headlights began to illuminate the landscape, “but how do we defend ourselves against our government?” An officer in the reserves, you knew what an army can do. 

Lights were on in the nearby Jewish community as supporters began to walk towards us. You put an arm around me as we waited.

Huge police horses whinnied in the distance, tense and trampling for action. We had seen such preparations before, during the summer of 2005, when our families and 9,000 more Jews were expelled from our homes in the Gaza Strip and northern Shomron. Resistance was useless against overwhelming forces and we knew it, but there was nothing else to do. The government and the High Court had declared war against us; Jewish citizens of a Jewish state, we had become the enemy. The police and army were The Law and could do whatever they wanted. At least we would not surrender without a struggle. It was the last measure of our dignity.

As an army bulldozer began to clear obstacles, two boys ran down to ignite the tires into bonfires. Seeing the flames and heavy smoke, the horses instinctively tried to back up, as their riders struggling to control them.

“Will there be violence?” I asked.

“No,” you answered. “We will resist, but no violence. We won’t attack our brothers.”

 “How will you fight?”

“We will try to stop them; I don’t know how, but we will do what we can.” 

Sounds of thunder echoed in the distance and lightning flashed across the sky. We ran for umbrellas and tarps to protect us as light rain soon became a downpour, stopping the advancing troops as they too began to seek cover in buses that had transported them from army bases. As beacon fires sputtered in the heavy rain, the line of vehicles began to back down to the main road.

“Sometimes we are not alone in our fight,” you smiled, our faces wet and glistening. You kissed me. “It isn’t over. They’ll be back.” The young men and women who had joined us began to sing an old Israeli folksong, a dance welcoming rain. We sang Psalms of thanksgiving and, as the first light of dawn shimmered in the clouds, the rain stopped and the men went to the synagogue to begin the morning service; Shacharit. Shema Yisrael.

When you returned home I told you that I was pregnant. You put your hands on my belly and then held my face, your eyes filled with tears, your damp parka smelling of use.

“We need the rain,” you said, looking at the vineyard you had planted. A few days later you received call-up orders. 

 

She remembers the way he held her in his arms. His guitar hangs on the wall, next to a framed blessing for their home. Home, she writes, the wind whistling through a crack in a window, her pen wandering along the empty page. Alone, the words seeping from memory, she writes in a brown paper covered notebook with blue lines, the kind used in Israeli schools.

She remembers working at a residential center in Jerusalem for severely handicapped children as part of her National Service. She celebrated her 20th birthday in the large playroom at the center filled with children and staff. He had completed his army service in a combat unit and was accompanying a friend whose son was one of the patients at the center. She remembers the children strapped in wheelchairs struggling to communicate with their eyes, pleading sounds scraped from inside, tangled in frustration as she fed them cake which Mazel, the social worker had baked for her.

She remembers him standing by the door, watching as his friend kissed his son and fed him. Across the room, a birthday song, their eyes are a bridge. She turns to the children, as if distracted, and over the shoulder hugs of the other girls who work with her, she notices that he is looking at her and does not move, as if they have already met, as if they are holding hands. She pretends to be focused on the children, her job, where she is needed and loved, where she is a woman with responsibilities and glances in his direction. And he does not move.

A few days later he shows up at the center and asks for her. She is busy with the children; he waits for her at the entrance until she arrives and they walk to a bench outside where he produces falafels-in-pitas and sodas that he had bought on the way. She had been waiting for him, surprised and not surprised, happily fumbling for words that floated between them, her nervous laugh, swooping like a bird in flight, his eyes that flashed in hers. She almost forgot his last name, silently matching their names together, like a secret code. Arranging to meet after work the following week, they exchanged phone numbers as her name blared on a loudspeaker, calling her back to work; legs shaking, she returns to the children, his dark eyes and shy smile embracing her.

She knows. Sure of herself, she is free-falling into herself, soaring.

After their marriage, they moved to a hilltop community along with a dozen other young couples, some with young children; their home, a six-meter long white reinforced plastic and metal caravan on cinder blocks. One family raised chickens; another raised sheep and goats. They planted vegetables and fruit trees. A double caravan served as synagogue and study hall. Electricity and water lines were connected to the nearby large settlement, a narrow dirt road stretched between them.

Emma turns the page, its emptiness glaring at her and says his name, Boaz. She remembers his face, his strength and the way he touched her arm. They were having a discussion about some fine point of Halacha, whether she should, or he should, but now forgotten and he reached over the kitchen table. It wasn’t a physical sensation, but something from his inner being that travelled like a pulse between them, as if he wanted to say without words, "Yes, I understand," and she knew in the silence, absolutely, that he did.  

It was that way between them, a sense of awe for each other.

She writes:                   

I have lived alone without you for 2 years, but you are always there inside me, and the child that was in my womb, the son you never saw, who carries your name, and grows to look like you and me.

Your absence throbs like a dull pain, as if you are inside, pounding to get out. I try to soothe you with my hands, winds of memories fluttering against the emptiness. 

The small home you built for us on this barren hilltop contains us as if you were here to protect, even though you cannot. Only the memory I have of you, a few photographs reminds me of those days when we were so much in this world; now you are gone. Memories hold us together: the way you whistled to let me know you were home, the wind slapping against the thin walls of our home, your body lying next to me, the way you needed me.

She stops, running her finger along the edges of the page, as if to remind herself, this far and no more and pulls at her head scarf. "A few years were not enough."

They had gone to Neve Dekalim, when the government and army prepared to destroy the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of young people and community residents had gathered on the lawn in front of the synagogue to hear speeches denouncing the government’s decision. It was the day after the fast of Tisha B'Av, a day of national mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple and Exile, by the Babylonians and Romans, and now, by the State of Israel.

Sitting in front of the synagogue, arms linked with other young men, singing Psalms, they hoped to prevent soldiers from entering the sanctuary. They sang Hatikva as soldiers in black uniforms marched up the steps and broke through the human barriers of linked arms, ripping us apart, and then expelled the Jews of Gush Katif from their homes and their lands. Afterwards, the army returned with bulldozers to destroy the buildings and playgrounds, until every Jewish community was wiped out.

“We’ll rebuild what they destroyed,” you whispered beneath the chuppah; we drank a cup of wine and you crushed a glass with your foot, for the Holy Temples that were destroyed. "They think they'll break us. They're only making us stronger.” You hugged me. I believed you, but now, without you I am lost.

The hilltop community called Emunah, Faith, was built in the Shomron hills, near the settlement of Shilo, where the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Tabernacle, the Mishkan stood for 369 years. Emma takes out one of Boaz’s books that they had studied together, puts it back on the shelf, unopened. Words spill out.

Living with memories of you, a broken lamp that you fixed, our garden that you hoped would flourish with tomatoes and cucumbers is now full of weeds.

You planted a vineyard and we watched things grow, planning a space for a crib, a place for our dreams, and then it was over. In the evening, two IDF officers from your unit knocked on the door. For a moment they stood silently. I knew. Your commander said that you had been killed. “Boaz was leading a night patrol searching for terrorists who had infiltrated from the Gaza Strip, but it was a trap. They were ambushed.” He praised you as a hero; the next day, choked with tears, he spoke before your grave. A burst of gunfire; a military salute. I held my belly and remembered your promise.  

 “We’ll win.” You kissed me when you left for reserve duty, uniformed and unshaven, smiling your determination, and then suddenly you returned because you had forgotten your tallit and tefilin. I wanted you to stay and held you. We laughed and cried, a rope between our souls, your eyes lit in mine.

After the funeral I sat shiva, your absence unfolding inside, trying to make sense of life without you. We didn’t know that the government intended to destroy our hilltop community.

“You have built on private Palestinian land,” an officer in the Civil Administration informed us, and handed us an eviction notice. Empty land that had never been used, far away from any Arab village; how could this be?

 “We, the military authorities of the state, Medinat Yisrael have ordered.” He does not look at us and leaves quickly in his jeep. Where are our courts and institutions that should protect us? Why are Knesset members afraid to speak the truth? I feel betrayed – by our government, and now, even by you. Where are you? I remember asking this when the midwife urged gently, "Push," she said, and I pushed and cried out for you, through the pain, your eyes watching, waiting for your son, I named for you, your son who would know you only in photographs, your memory in his name.

One Shabbat morning, a bus arrived filled with Arabs, foreign “anarchists” and Israeli “activists,” organized by Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, International Solidarity Movement and other NGOs. Some wore kafiyahs as they descended from their bus, led by Ezra, dressed in colorful clothing and a floppy straw hat. They moved through our vineyard, uprooting the plants that you had carefully tended, tearing apart the irrigation lines, trampling and shouting their hatred. Soldiers in an army jeep watched from a distance but did not intervene.

Then they attacked a small grove of olive and fruit trees with axes. Yosef, a 75 year old Russian immigrant had planted them in memory of his wife. When we tried to stop them they threw stones at us. One of the children was hit.

“This is Palestinian land. You are occupiers,” they shouted. “You are thieves, stealing our land. Get out! ” An army jeep arrived to separate us and then herded them back to their bus. After they left we walked through the ruined fields, trying to salvage what we could, our hearts like vines torn from the earth, stumps and broken limbs of trees.

On an adjacent hilltop Nachum and Efat had built their home and raising 8 children. After several years of hard, patient work, they had a herd of a hundred and fifty goats and had begun to produce milk products, cheese and yogurt to sustain their family. Early one morning Nachum awoke to a strange silence. His dogs didn’t bark. No sound came from the enclosure and pen. Stepping outside his home, his wife and 8 children still asleep, he saw the bodies of his dogs – poisoned; the goat pen was empty. During the night, Arabs from the nearby village had come with large trucks and stolen the entire herd. The army tore down nine newly-built homes and wanted to destroy all the rest of our community. Local Arabs backed by powerful anti-Israel NGOs demonstrated and went to court. Israeli courts. Israeli lawyers. 

“This is private Palestinian land,” Arabs and their left-wing Israeli supporters claim. The proof? Legal advisors employed by the Civil Administration, the military government, signed off on Arab claims without any court decisions, or evidence of legitimate ownership. A legal farce.

Mordecai and Michali built hothouses near their home on a hilltop near the semi-arid Judean settlement of Sussiya, an important Jewish town during the second Temple and Talmudic period. “Private Palestinian land,” Arabs claimed, without proof, sanctioned by the state and High Court. The army destroyed their hothouses. That’s “the law.” Bedouin living nearby steal whatever they can, protected by the army. Jews are “trespassers.”

“Jews out!” the EU and UN scream. Out of our homeland? “It doesn’t belong to you!”

 

“You’ll come to live with us?” Emma’s mother asks. “Being alone with an infant on an isolated hilltop isn’t easy …”

“No,” she replies quickly, instinctively, but unsure if she would be able to live with the pressures and complexities, struggling between wanting a safe place and her independence. Boaz had protected her, she twists the end of her kerchief around her finger, but now she would have to protect herself, and her son.

Shoshana came up from the nearby community with the youngest of her five children, the same age. Her husband had been stabbed to death a year before while waiting at a bus station, widows grieving in silence. “What will you do?” They hugged and knew. “This is our home,” she said, his whisper in the wind.

 

 

She recognized the officer who knocked at her door. “I remember you,” she said quietly.

“Yes. I was the officer who told you about Boaz.”

“And now?”

“I have been ordered to evict you.”

“But why?”

“Those are my orders.” He did not look at her. “The Administration has decided; your homes are on private Palestinian land. Arab families claim ownership and you will have to move.”

”Doesn’t this have to go to a court?”

“No. We decide.”

“Can I appeal?”

“Yes, to us.”

“But you have already decided.”

“Yes.”

“So why appeal?”

“Your choice.”

“And if I refuse …?”

“You will be evicted.”

“By force?”

“If necessary. It’s all legal, quite legal. By laws of the Administration …”

“So, you make the laws and then enforce them …”

“By laws of the state, medinat yisrael. We are the state.”

“And you will obey orders that you do not understand, that make no sense? You will tear down our home?”

“Please. I don’t want to do this. I’m only doing what I was ordered…” a silence between them.

“And you will do this without thinking? That is what you have learned?”

“To obey orders.” He looked at the window, her stove, the bookshelf.

“And you don’t ask why? Perhaps in a combat situation, but now?”

He did not answer. His lips trembled. “Please …” he began. He looked back at the soldiers that stood outside, waiting for him. “Please ...” he repeated, sweat on his forehead, eyebrows knotted.  

She did not move. Suddenly, he turned and walked outside.

 “I need to talk with the Colonel. Get him on the phone.” His back to her, she heard him talking. “I can’t do this.” He spoke on a mobile phone. “No sir, I am a loyal soldier, I want to follow orders, but I can’t do this. I’m sorry. It’s wrong. Yes sir; I understand the consequences. It is a matter of conscience.” He handed the phone to one of the men that surrounded him.  

“We are with you,” one of them spoke up. “We won’t do it. It’s wrong.” He looked at the others. “We’ll fight on a battlefield, we’re ready to give up our lives, but this is not why we are soldiers. Jews don’t evict Jews from their homes.” They moved toward their jeeps. “We’re going back to the base.”

She watched the jeeps move slowly down the road. A cry from the crib, she picked up her son and sat on the torn sofa and nursed, feeling him pull on her breasts, life flowing between them, his face serene as the morning sunlight fell upon them, his eyes closed and content, his fingers wound around one of hers, another miracle. 

 

______________________


Moshe Dann is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His next book, As Far As The Eye Can See, will be published by New English Review Press this fall.

 

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