The Land In Winter

By Luke

If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

cities and signs

From a hilltop just beyond the checkpoint, I can see the southern boundary between Israel and Palestine. But, eyes moving between map and world, I can find no border, wall, checkpoint, or cut in the earth to mark the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the UN Security Council and the international community reaffirmed this line, which in 1948 had moved 78.5 per cent of historic Palestine into Israeli possession, as the border to be maintained ‘for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security.’[1]

There is nothing to be seen of it now, and certainly no sign of it here in the South Hebron Hills, where an Israeli traveler would never know he or she had passed the boundary into Palestine.

A little more than an hour from the deep valleys and soaring hills of Jerusalem, this rocky, barren landscape seems to inhabit another time. Even the sky is austere, a pale blue cloth made entirely of heat.

Days after my visit, as I thought aloud about the emotional pull of the South Hebron Hills, the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh reminded me, ‘Don’t forget, you’re seeing the land in summer. It will look completely different in the winter.’ I was startled to realize that all I could see was one aspect of a harsh, inhospitable season. Raja could see this alongside its opposite: a floating green, both the withering and the generation of possibilities.


Saturday, and the South Hebron Hills flowed out like deep waves on the sea, dipped in the colours of straw and dust. A shepherd was being detained, his flock alleged to have crossed into a military buffer zone. Six bulky soldiers stood with their hands draped over their rifles. The border of the closed military zone was a dirt path along the ridge; surrounded by hills, it appeared innocuous as a line of string. An Israeli settlement, Mitzpeh Avigayil, stood on the opposite hilltop, too distant to be clearly seen. The land, just rocks and slope and wind, seemingly bereft of everything but its longevity, made me feel at once insignificant and alive and ancient.

The shepherd, Nael Abu Aram, a Palestinian, was thirty years old, of slender build, with close-cropped hair and a look of quiet containment. Under the blistering sun, we stood together, waiting to see what the soldiers and the police would do. The pages of our notebooks clapped in the wind, pens fell in the dust. Children, who had run up from a neighbouring village, spun around us.

Nael described his life as a quiet and unremarkable one, which changed dramatically in 1998. Since then, the number of times he had been detained, arrested, and imprisoned was lost to him. Settlers had attacked his sheep with metal pipes. They shook bottles filled with rocks, which frightened the flock and caused them to disperse. He had been beaten by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers, border police, and settlers, had his mouth and skin burned by cigarettes, and his skin cut with knives. After one arrest, he was blindfolded and then released, disoriented, on the wrong side of a checkpoint in the middle of the night. Of this encounter, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published video footage of an army commander telling him, ‘You’re not allowed to be here, because this is Mitzpeh Avigayil. You’re not allowed to be here. There’s a Jewish community here, and you’re not allowed near it.’[2] He had been fined numerous times. In 2014, settlers cut down thirty mature olive trees belonging to his family. Last year, his family’s crops were burned. Citing security risks to the settlers, he had been warned against coming too close to the military buffer zone, which is not only adjacent to his land, but on land that once belonged to him.

We watched the police officers drive away to their station, inside the settler outpost. The soldiers and the incessant sun remained. More time passed. Finally, having never been charged, Nael was free to go. ‘Please excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’m very tired.’ He counted the flock and set off, cutting a quick pace across the hills. We followed at a distance. A kilometer later, the sheep made riotous, guttural shouts as they arrived home to water and shade. They leaped comically high, like bouncing balls. It was midday now, the height of summer.


In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, places are folded inside other places. Cities are not only what they appear to be, but also what they are subjected to: memory, history, desire, forgetfulness, dreams. The buildings, storehouses of emotion, are far more than mere edifices; they are the visible structures of the human condition. In Israel and Palestine, I thought often of Calvino’s seen and unseen places, where the horizontal and vertical axes of history and place bend into the space-time of memory and desire. Of cities, Calvino writes, ‘Everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.’

Those words were on my mind when I came to Wadi a-Jheish (‘Valley of the Little Donkey’), where the concrete rubble was a glaring white. Two weeks earlier, on June 19, 2016, the Israeli army had arrived in the afternoon and bulldozed two buildings. I was surprised to see that the home had not simply been pushed over; it had been carefully, even cleanly, buried under its own rubble. A boy was standing balanced on the loose stones, reminiscent of the Little Prince perched on a moonscape.

Amir, eight years old, had lived here. When I asked him what had happened, he pointed to the rocks. ‘I lost my clothes. I lost …read more

Source:: The Land In Winter

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