Not every day does one get to meet a spy. Spies are curious creatures. In an emotional universe of suspicion and secrecy, confrontation with common decency may strike them unprepared.
Saturday the 27th of July. Arrival in Umm al-‘Amad. Ezra says we should hurry down for they say settlers are coming. I run down the hill, adrenaline is diffusing in my veins and the rocks quickly shift under my feet. Past the familiar olive trees and up towards the settlement of ‘Otniel. I stop and grab the cam-corder to film a funny sight. A complete stranger is lying on the ground next to our uneasy hosts.
Fares knows he’s a spy from the very first moment. He came from the settlement, greeted the folks in fluent Arabic – salaam aleykum, Ramadan karim! – and started asking weird questions. What are you doing here? Why do you come here every Saturday? Why do you bring the leftists to make trouble? Why are you filming me?
When I approached and started asking my own questions he gave me the bizarre sensation that he’s afraid of me, that I have some kind of authority over his presence there. In an amusing mix of Arabic and Hebrew, we conversed. I asked him where’s he from, he said the north.
“Oh, so you’re Druze.”
“No, not Druze.”
“Tayyeb, where exactly in the north? Are you Palestinian?”
He hesitated for a brief second. “Arab. Uh, yes.”
Those nationalists, I thought to myself, can’t hold a lie that they’re Palestinian. I was put in a strange position. Knowing that almost everything that is being said is false, but not wanting to be discourteous. His presence was dreadful, but his anxiety was very human to me.
We moved to Hebrew. He told me he’s a journalist for an Arab website. He refused to give me a business card, though. He said he was let into the settlement with an Israeli driver.
“Alright,” I say. “I think we know what’s the deal here.”
“You think so?”
He becomes very defensive. It’s as if words and attitude can physically shoo him off. He mills about a little longer, tries to speak a little bit with the shepherds, fails, says farewell, and goes into the settlement. There’s a foreboding atmosphere. We’re not sure whether he’s from the Shin Bet, the army or the police. Some kind of Mukhabarat. Fares is tense and worried, saying that the spy was recording him with the phone in his pocket to get his voice and pass it on.
An early-rising spy. Rising to accompany shepherds at 6:30 AM in a desolate place between olive trees and barren barley and an oak here and there in the distance. Over the hill, closer to the settlement, there is a land of a different family from a-Samu’a that didn’t choose Sumud, didn’t persist, and let their land grow wild. Our hosts don’t blame them, they have every reason to be afraid. “Spy” is the wrong word to use in this context. It brings up Hollywood connotations. Double O’ seven and the rest. The spy in Syria Eli Cohen that became a minister and was hanged in Damascus. They call Vanunu “the atomic spy,” the technician that leaked information about Israel’s atomic research. Word is he likes playing volleyball in East Jerusalem. More relevant connotations are these – the case that hit the media about the Arabic speaking strangers that went as demonstrators to Bil’in and threw stones at the soldiers to escalate the demo. The Israelis, so they say of themselves, “don’t do Gandhi very well,” so one solution was to send rioters to sabotage nonviolent actions. A funny story that hit the media happened in the South Hebron Hills and appears in Nissim Mossek’s film Wild South Hebron – cops dressed as Palestinian shepherds walk up a hill with a donkey and get attacked by settlers with covered faces and scream “we’re cops, we’re cops, you motherfuckers, we’re gonna arrest you all!”
Our own amateur spy, as it was later revealed on Facebook, was probably a low profile journalist writing for random local settler websites. He happens to speak Arabic and felt particularly adventurous that weekend. A disappointing outcome, we started feeling important. He managed to create some damage in terms of the sense of insecurity and trust in Umm al ‘Amad.
With the air of uncertainty, our hosts stay back, and keep the herds at a considerable distance from the settlement and the security road. The foreboding atmosphere left behind the spy disappeared at once, however, as Ahmad roamed in with his herd, singing loudly (David Shulman wrote about his singing talent here), and carrying with him everyone else, close to the military jeep that watched us from the dirt road, to just slightly more affluent barley. His energetic spirit rejuvenated us all. We warmly embraced and Fares told him about the spy, the Mukhabarat guy. He improvised a song about the victory of Bassam, the smiling one, over the Mukhabarat, the secret agent.
I stay back with Fares and we talk for a couple of hours. He tells me he got a permit to go to Jerusalem for the holiday and went to eat Iftar (the meal to break the Ramadan fast) in Al Aqsa mosque. It’s magnificent, absolutely gorgeous, he says. He’d never been to Al Aqsa before. He plays the flute that Luana gave him, and I listen. It’s a flute with a deep low sound but he improvises with the high tones. Finds some notes he’s comfortable with and plays around them. He teaches me names of different wild herbs. And the hours go by languidly, nicely, until the sheep and goats eat their fill of dust and thorns and huddle around in the heat.
We cordially part from our friends in Umm al-‘Amad and head up north. There’s a protest action in Al Ma’asara. The villages Umm Salamona, Al Masasara and Khalat Haddad didn’t have running water for 70 days and have to buy their water in big black tanks. 300 shekels per tank. They decided to erect a protest tent at the entrance of the nearby settlement Migdal Oz. It appears the authorities knew there was going to be some action but they didn’t know exactly what and where. The action was carried out well. The protest tent was set in 20 seconds, well before the military arrived. And an improvised press conference was held with speeches against occupation exploitation segregation etcetera. The soldiers swarmed in with their usual riot gear and we sat under the tent and chanted for an hour and a half until the closed military zone was issued. The spy from the morning came over with a friend to take photos and behave rudely. As the soldiers broke down the tent and pushed us off into the road with their funny plastic shields (some of the shields had anti-occupation slogans graffitied on them), I put on my red nose and the protesters sang with uncanny joy, “wu-nzelna a-shaware’a – and we went down to the streets…”
At this time two years ago tent cities were sprouting like mushrooms after the rain in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and elsewhere – Jaffa, Hulon, Be’er Sheva – in protest for social justice. They lasted for a month or two and brought half a million people to mass demonstrations in the streets. But you know the story all too well. The tent of the cry of thirst of Al Ma’asara lasted for just over an hour and a half, and even that was unlikely. No Palestinian protest is legal in the West Bank.
The soldiers escorted us as we made our way to the cars and didn’t miss a chance to hit us with their shields. They spared no red-nosed clown dancing on a sidewalk.
On the way back, Ezra’s truck was stopped for a check by the police. They said it’s a casual test, but the whole brigade of soldiers stopped with them and surrounded the vehicle. The truck passed a test two weeks ago, but the cops declared the car is dysfunctional and needs repair. They gave Ezra ten points, a 1500 shekel fine, and said the car has to pass another test before it hits the road again. Clownishly, we brought to the cops’ attention that one of their front parking lights was not working.
At the mechanic two days later, Ezra was told there’s no need for repair. Thus goes the rule of law. And the signs on the way down south say, in both Hebrew and Arabic, “thou shalt not murder,” “on the road everyone is equal,” and “making peace on the road.” One day someone will ad-bust ‘em and erase “on the road.” Until then and afterwards, still yours truly, rmc.