“Is that where we’re going ... ? Across the sea? Across the Empty Ocean, to the remnants of that wound, that fracture? It’s not just the land that was broken open—the sea, too. So is that where we’re going? To mine the possibilities in what’s left of that great… cosmic laceration?”
—China Mieville, The Scar
I took this photo in the springtime in the South Hebron Hills village of Umm al Kheir. It was warm then, warm enough to sleep outdoors and watch the stars and the meteors and the moon. That’s Mo'atassim in the photo, posing next to the taboun, the communal oven that the people of Umm al Kheir use to bake bread every morning. Behind him you can see Umm al Kheir's neighbors, the red-roofed houses of the Israeli settlement of Karmel. Yesterday Israeli soldiers arrived in the village with bulldozers. They destroyed the oven as well as six homes that together provided shelter for 28 people. Winter is coming and the nights are already cold. Mo'atassim’s house was one of those destroyed. It was a much humbler affair than the settlers' houses in the photo, a simple two-room shelter without a bathroom of its own. Umm al Kheir falls within the 61 percent of the West Bank in which the Israeli military is charged with all aspects of governance. This means that not even an outhouse can be built there without the permission of the Israeli authorities. (I don’t choose that example idly: last year the army came to Umm al Kheir to confiscate a toilet built for a resident who had been disabled years earlier after being severely beaten by a settler.) Such permission is rarely granted, which means that every structure in the village, from houses to storage sheds to animal pens, is subject to demolition. Umm al Kheir’s neighbors in Karmel would prefer that the village was not there, so Umm al Kheir, like most villages in the South Hebron Hills, suffers a slow squeeze—a few acres confiscated here, a shepherd beaten or arrested there, perhaps a house demolished one bright, clear morning. Or six houses. Sometimes the squeeze is not so slow. This morning, I spoke on the phone with Khairy's cousin Eid Suleiman Hadaleeen. It was night in Umm al Kheir. “It’s like a dream,” Eid said. “It came quickly and it was gone.” Now the village looks like an earthquake hit it, he said: “Everything is broken." They have already rebuilt the oven and expect to be baking bread again tomorrow morning.
"Oh child of noble family, you will see your home and family as though you were meeting them in a dream, but although you speak to them you will get no reply and you will see your relatives and your family weeping, so you will think, “I am dead, what shall I do?” And you will feel intense pain, like the pain of a fish rolling in hot sand. But now suffering is no use. Oh child of noble family, blown by the moving winds of karma, your mind without support rides the wind like a feather, swaying and swinging. You will say to the mourners, “I am here, do not weep,” but they will not perceive you, so you will think, “I have died.” And now you will feel great pain. Do not suffer like that. All the time there will be a gray haze like the gray light of an autumn dawn, neither day nor night. Oh child of noble family, at this time the great tornado of karma—terrifying, unbearable, whirling fiercely—will drive you from behind. Do not be afraid of it. It is your own confused projection, dense darkness, terrifying and unbearable. It will go before you with terrible cries of “Strike!” and “Kill!” Do not be afraid of them. You will feel that you are being chased by various terrifying wild animals and pursued by a great army in snow, rain, storms, and darkness. There will be sounds of mountains crumbling, of lakes flooding, of fire spreading, and of fierce winds springing up. In fear you will escape wherever you can, but you will be cut off by three precipices in front of you, white, red, and black, deep and dreadful, and you will be on the point of falling down them. Oh child of noble family, they are not really precipices…"
—Tibetan Book of the Dead, Trungpa/Fremantle translation, edited here and there
That’s a ceiling, the ceiling of the third floor of the Abu Arab family’s home in the Balata refugee camp, just outside the West Bank city of Nablus. At 1:30 in the morning of June 18, Israeli soldiers blew open the doors to the house. They went from room to room, overturning and smashing furniture, until they came to the third floor, the construction of which had been just completed a few months earlier. Ra’ed Abu Arab had gotten married, built himself an apartment atop the home in which he had been raised—the only place to build in Balata is up— and moved in with his new bride. When he opened the door for the soldiers, his cousin Khaled told me, they punched him in the face and dragged him down the stairs. “Tell the kids to cover their ears,” one of the soldiers said. A moment later the family heard an explosion. Only later did they learn that whatever device the soldiers had detonated had blown out all four walls of a corner room, leaving a crater in the tile floor, concrete debris on the neighbors’ window ledges, holes in the concrete ceiling, holes in the screens of the neighbors’ windows, a hole in the new flatscreen TV mounted on the wall one room over. The soldiers arrested Ra’ed and his cousin Mohammad. The rest of the family—20 people, most of them children—were confined in one small room on the first floor for more than four hours while the soldiers continued ransacking their home.
All of this comes as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper, the aptly named (as in Cain’s “am I my…,” as in fratricide, disavowal and deceit) campaign undertaken by the Israeli military following the disappearance of three Israeli teens while hitchhiking in the West Bank on June 12. In the weeks since, troops have raided more than 1000 Palestinian homes, businesses, charities, universities, and media organizations in their “search” for the missing youth. More than 500 Palestinians have been arrested in raids similar to the one on the Abu Arab house. None have been charged with a crime. Five men and one teenaged boy have been shot to death by Israeli soldiers and two elderly Palestinians died of heart attacks while their homes were being raided. The arrests continue, but over the last week the campaign has begun to wind down. By the time I arrived in Balata, the Abu Arab family had cleaned up, stacking everything worth saving in the kitchen, moving the ruined furniture and carpets to the second floor, knocking out what little broken concrete still separated the room from the open air so that where the exterior walls once provided shelter and some illusory degree of security there was now a precipitous drop to the narrow alleys of the camp fifteen meters below. The Abu Arabs do not know and have not been told on what grounds their home was destroyed, what charges, if any, Ra’d and Mohammad will face, or when they will see them again.
Here's the view from the living room: