I was a guest of Hajj Suleman’s twice at Umm al Khayr in the South Hebron Hills, once in 2017 and once in 2019. But for the pandemic, I’d have seen him again in the summer of 2020: my flight was booked, but circumstances conspired against my going. He’s now fighting for life against injuries sustained in his struggle for justice (see the article just below).
Both of the times that I was there, he showed me the hospitality for which the Bedouin are famous: he invited me into his tent, fed me a lavish meal well beyond his means, poured my tea, refilled my glass, gave me a tour of the place, and gave me a heartfelt plea to tell his story to anyone who would listen. He was never armed, but I saw him standing down whole patrols of armed soldiers. As with Rachel Corrie before him, that propensity for confrontation has brought things to a fateful and predictable end. I write of “the end,” despite the fact that unlike Rachel Corrie, he’s still alive, in a coma in the ICU. But as his family has put it, he is now closer to martyrdom than to life. Only an outright medical miracle could save him, and miracles of that sort are one in a million.
Hajj Suleman’s quest to save Umm al Khayr was, from one perspective, the ultimate in zealotry and quixoticism, a lost cause where, even if might didn’t make right, it was certain to prevail. Like Susiya, like the Jahalin Bedouins, like the people of Hebron section H2–like the Lakota Sioux of South Dakota–the people of Umm al Khayr are destined for defeat at the hands of a militarily superior adversary. The forces of modernity are poised to sweep them, impassively, into the dustbin of history, the better to erase and forget them. The Jahalin now literally live in a garbage dump, indistinguishable for practical purposes from the refuse that surrounds them. The people of Hebron H2, Susiya, and Umm al Khayr are sure to meet a similar fate, as already have the Lakota Sioux. By any worldly measure, primitive peoples are defeated or imminently defeated peoples, whose implicit designation as Lebensunwertes Leben is the price for the Lebensraum that civilized people are entitled to enjoy.
It was the Bedouins I came to know in the South Hebron Hills, Hajj Suleman among them, who first induced me to question the distinction between “primitive” and “civilized,” and to take seriously the possibility that it expressed an insidious moral inversion, one that’s hard to shake if you grow up “civilized.” The civilized are brought up in the certainty that their way of life is superior to that of any primitive, uncivilized people. Civilization gives us the gifts of technology, sanitation, public health, literacy, numeracy, prosperity, and the rule of law. Primitive people, lacking or even eschewing these things, live lives of unrelieved misery–nasty, poor, brutish, and short.
There’s a great deal of truth to this, truth it would be pointless to deny. And yet the short time I spent among the Bedouin convinced me that civilized people have a number of blindspots. One is, simply, their thinly-veiled contempt for their presumed civilizational inferiors. A second blindspot explains the first: an unspoken dedication to the idea that moral superiority is a function of what we inherit from the past. We are superior to others, civilized peoples think, because we inherit a civilized past, a past by definition superior to any alternative. But it’s a question whether anyone can be morally superior to anyone else by virtue of what they inherit.
Hajj Suleman’s village lived in tents on a desolate corner of land, without electricity or running water, squeezed by encroaching expropriation, beset by militarized harassment. At some level, it’s unfathomable why anyone would choose to live this way. But he didn’t just choose to live that way. He chose to put his life on the line to defend it. He couldn’t simply have been motivated by material considerations; there was too little stuff at stake. He did that rarest of things: he put his life on the line for justice itself, with no further expectation of reward. Why would a man who had so little choose to risk so much for justice? Why do people who have so much choose to risk so little for it? I have a feeling that the answer to the one question is the answer to the other. I owe Hajj Suleman a debt for whatever part of the answers I’ve gotten right.
For useful background on the situation in the South Hebron Hills, see David Shulman’s Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills, and Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine.
Update, January 9, 2022:
This was originally a video, but the person posting it didn’t make it shareable, so what you see below is an anonymous screenshot. The comment just above the photo speaks for itself, but also implicitly raises the question: is this the behavior or demeanor of people who have respect for life? The video makes clearer than the still that the soldiers came to taunt and provoke the family of the man they’ve likely put to death. It’s all a joke to them, a prank they pull because they can.
The lesson is too easily forgotten: brutality doesn’t dampen the resolve of the brutalized, but stiffens it. That’s the dynamic that leads to mass death: brutality followed by brutalized counter-response. You’re seeing it enacted here. When you kill one man, then laugh at and taunt his family and village, you create more enemies than you had before you killed him. When you create enemies, expect to be treated like one. And don’t expect sympathy when it happens, as it will.