“This is Al-Araqib?” I asked Karen when we first arrived in the Bedouin village near the end of June.
I looked to the cemetery on the left, at what looked like a dirt parking lot under our feet, and then back at her. She pointed down at the ground.
“This is where it used to be.”
We walked towards some plastic chairs under a tree and sat down with Sheikh Sayah, Aziz and Salim. Aziz used to be a farmer but now he has nothing to farm so his job is to sit here under this tree, to prove that this place isn’t empty, that this is a place where people live.
We looked as they pointed to all the places that used to make up Al-Araqib — where the trees and houses stood — before the village had been demolished for the first time in 2010 and 98 times since.
A few days after we listened to Sheikh Sayah speak, Al-Araqib was demolished for the 100th time.
There wasn’t much to demolish, just a few tents made from black tarp. But of course there was still somehow a lot to demolish, just like every time the bulldozers come.
Ask yourself a question. What defines a place?
Imagine for a second that your house has been demolished 99 times, that you expect the 100th time will come soon. Imagine that like the Sheikh you’re sitting with a group of Jews who identify — in one way or another — with the people who brought their bulldozers in 2010, uprooted your native trees, and planted new foreign trees in their place. Imagine that when you look at the new trees, they seem to you, as they do to Sheikh Sayah, like tree-shaped soldiers.
They want, he told us — using his hands to speak, leaning forward from the waist — to uproot the Arabs from the land and replace them with trees.
Imagine you look at the group of people sitting in front of you and say, smiling, like the Sheikh: here we sit at the end of the world.
He spoke slowly like his words had a specific, physical weight, like each needed time to drop to the bottom of a deep pool of water.
Now ask yourself the question again.
What defines a place?
And another: what should be done when someone tries to take a place away?
My mother recently sent me a picture taken during a family vacation to Israel when I was ten years old, about twenty years ago. In the picture I’m bent over a shovel and a small tree I’ve just planted, wearing sunglasses and giving the camera a thumbs up. I don’t know where we were.
The tree-planting activity was probably a project of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization that has for a long time forested appropriated Palestinian land in order to shape Israel into its particular definition of what is beautiful. Through this beautification project, the JNF has offered many American Jews the opportunity to visit Israel and take photographs of their lovely daughters posing for photographs in front of newly planted trees.
It was JNF tractors that came, soon after the 100thdemolition of Al Araqib, to plant more new trees on the remainder of the village’s old agricultural land. They started work between the forest they’d planted after the first demolitions in 2010, and the land where the villagers lived in temporary structures.
The tractors’ return marked a renewal of the forestation work that had been paused since 2011, when a letter-writing campaign persuaded the JNF to stop planting. Activists were hopeful that this would remain the case until all land ownership issues were resolved. In the years since, Israel’s High Court has ordered the District Court to hear Al-Araqib’s claims that this land belongs to them, and is not, as the government argues, state land. The village was invited to submit evidence in the case this month. We don’t yet know when the trial will begin.
At first it wasn’t entirely clear why the JNF tractors that had stayed away for 5 years came back to Araqib only now, when the new court case hadn’t even begun. From what Israeli activists could figure out, there was a new chairperson of the board and he either hadn’t been informed of the previous agreement to halt forestation, or had decided to ignore it.
After some time, the work was finally halted. That day the tractors stopped work but weren’t removed.
There was a brief and cautious moment of relief and then the next day — on the 6th anniversary of the first demolition in 2010 — the village was demolished for the 101st time.
The tractors haven’t resumed forestation work in Al-Araqib but, based on comments from the Israel Lands Authority, we expect they will this fall or winter. International pressure seems to be the only way to prevent this eventuality. Whatever is decided, I hope the JNF won’t keep planting foreign trees where Al-Araqib’s fruit trees used to stand. I hope the people of Al-Araqib won’t have to witness this, won’t have to call Israeli activists to come witness with them. I hope the army won’t detain anyone, as it did before, for protesting this project that masquerades as planting but is actually about erasure.
If you grew up like me, putting coins in blue and white JNF boxes, if you already know what this means now and what it meant then, maybe you are asking yourself what the right response to all this is.
After a place, or not the place itself but the things that visibly mark it, has been destroyed a hundred and one times, after the story of this destruction has been told more times than that, what should we do now?
Should we tell the story differently, better somehow? Should we stop telling it at all and just sit under a tree and wait for the end of the world, or — if nothing as dramatic as that — the end of a place? Or should we try again to find the strength, from wherever we can find it, to beat the exhaustion that comes with hearing a sad story too many times, to know that it’s much worse to be the subject of such a story, and to find a way to keep fighting all this uprooting with more and more rootedness?
Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a writer and activist based in the Bay Area. She is working on a book of literary non-fiction with and about Combatants For Peace co-founder Sulaiman Khatib.