I came to Tuwani after reading an entry on the Ta’ayush website: “Yesterday, Tuesday March 22, poison shaped like grains of wheat was spread over part of Tuwani’s grazing lands in the southern part of Mt. Hebron. Settlers from Havat Maon (an unrecognized (“illegal”) outpost – OS) were seen in the area where the poison was discovered. As a result of the poison, a number of sheep have died, and corpses of gazelles have also been found. Anyone who can take part in a solidarity trip this Saturday, notify us.” I notified.
Tuwani, although in the West Bank, looks a lot like one of Israel’s unrecognized villages. Ramshackle structures of tin and cement are scattered about without discernible logic, as though they had sprouted haphazardly out of the earth. By 10:30 a.m. a number of cars have arrived, bringing about 50 activists, 30 from Ta’ayush and 20 from abroad. While waiting to start, I ask around and am brought up to date: The poisoning of the sheep is an escalation in a long conflict over pasture land between Tuwani and Havat Maon. The settlers do not scruple at any method, from poisoning wells to harassing children who come from nearby villages to attend school here. And now the sheep. The Zionist saying, “Another dunam, another goat,” receives a chilling variation: “Poison a goat to gain a dunam.”
The volunteers spread out. We get a brief orientation. The gloves are needed, we are told, to protect our hands from the poison, which appears as small pellets of metallic green. Each shall collect the pellets in a big plastic bag. This will be full by the end of the day.
One of the shepherds talks to a Canadian documentary crew, holding in his ungloved hand a clump of earth with the pellets mixed in. He talks about the sheep and goats that have not died but will give birth to sick offspring. Their milk and cheese are dangerous. A whole food chain will be injured, including birds of prey and the animals that eat carcasses.
On the hill across the wadi occurs a different scene altogether. Israeli soldiers have arrested a shepherd. A young woman beside me yells into a walkie-talkie: “What’s the reason? Let the soldier give a reason!” The answer comes through from another Ta’ayush member: “We are talking with the unit commander. Don’t worry. We won’t give in.”
A few seconds later the walkie-talkie again spits out sentences: “Settlers approaching the village. Send a team to watch them, stop them… No, not from there, that field belongs to them. Go around it. Tell the others too. That’s the last thing we need: to give them a pretext to tear up the village.” On the opposite hill negotiations continue with the unit commander: to free or not to free the shepherd. His sheep have already scattered in the poisoned field.
To think like a settler
We shuffle across the pasture on our knees, finding pellets of poison among the clods, beneath the bushes, in the clefts of the rocks. We try to imagine our way into the settler’s minds: where would they strew poison? The closer we get to the outpost of Havat Maon, the more we find. “Come over here!” someone shouts. “We need lots of hands here!” Havat Maon sits just above our heads, but it is hidden by the angle of the hill. Only the solar antenna protrudes as a sign of civilization. Civilization, did I say? No. Cruelty, rather, decades of evil. The army, the justice system and Israeli law are no longer enough for the settlers of Havat Maon. They have their own techniques for imposing their presence. It is one in the afternoon. The sun beats down. The shepherd, released, returns to gather his flock. How many pellets have we collected? Thousands. The soldiers continue to observe us from a distance. They know they’d better stick around. The day is far from over.
An urban eye, accustomed to artificial colors, quickly picks out the gleaming metallic green of the pellets among the colors of the earth. The ear has become more sensitive to sounds that are not the wind, the flock, or the murmurings of one’s fellow workers. The walkie-talkie blares suddenly: “Settlers still moving toward the village,” and the pastoral quiet is broken. From afar we see them, the “hilltop youngsters” as they are called – in this instance, Yeshiva students of Havat Maon – all in white shirts, marching toward Tuwani. The veterans among us, who come here every Saturday, move rapidly toward the “white shirts” in order to stop them before they reach the village. We first-timers observe from a distance. An army jeep pulls up, interposing itself between the groups. Thirty meters separate them. One of the settlers tries to approach the Ta’ayush volunteers, but a soldier quickly intervenes. The settlers pull back into a grove of trees and vanish.
Toward sunset we organize to leave. Our bags are full, but full as well, full still, are the pasture lands of the village. Some volunteers remain to continue the work on the morrow. There’s another reason too not to leave. Today is Purim, a kind of Saturnalia in Israeli custom, and tonight drunken settlers may rampage. A Jewish holiday is always an occasion for pogrom, and Purim has an especially grim association (the massacre by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, Purim 1994). The fear is that settlers may break into the village, go berserk, hit out at the people and destroy whatever lies in their path.
A few weeks later, Akiva Eldar publishes in Haaretz a report that the poisoning continues. “According to the police of Judea and Samaria,” he writes, “accumulating intelligence information indicates that the danger at the next stage will be physical harm to the Jewish peace activists.”
We recall the punishment of Sisyphus, wisest of mortals, who revealed the secrets of the gods. Zeus condemned him to roll an enormous boulder to the top of a mountain. As soon as it reached the peak, it would tumble back down, and he’d have to start over again. Since the day I have recorded above, the fields have been poisoned again and again. How easy it is to sow poison in the pastures of Tuwani! The police and the army issue warnings against escalation. Other than that, they do not lift a finger. The poisoned pastures, by the way, lie in Area C as defined by the Oslo Accords: Israel is officially responsible for enforcing the law there. How is it, then, that the villagers of Tuwani have no one to save them except organizations like Ta’ayush? And what will become of Tuwani and its neighboring villages when these do not suffice?