It wasn’t so easy to find a lone Palestinian man in the vast open spaces of the desert. The six of us—Israeli activists in Ta’ayush (Arab-Jewish Partnership), a group of peaceful volunteers committed to protecting Palestinian farmers and herders in the South Hebron hills—were dropped off near Mufagara, with its tents and sheepfolds. We walked along the rough goat-paths skirting the Israeli outpost of Chavat Maon, up and down the hills, scanning the horizon for some sign of Shehade Mahamra Salama or of his tractor. We were there to be sure settlers didn’t attack this Palestinian and his fellow farmers, driving them at gunpoint from their fields.

It was almost midday, the winter sun washing over us, the air cold and clear. We could see in the distance the cream-colored desert and two tents just beneath the village of Tuba and across the Jordan River an ethereal, ghostly blue line—the mountains of Moab. Opposite Tuba, barely visible, a Palestinian flag was flying in the wind, and not far away from it two camels and a white donkey were winding their way somewhere.

A man cuts an almost imperceptible figure in a wilderness, but we found Shehade and the tractor driving up over the rocks from the even smaller encampment at Swaiy, and soon they were furrowing the resistant dry earth in the wadi and sowing seeds. Shehade sports a white beard; his face is burned red like wine, and his eyes are joyful. He lives in the tiny encampment of Maghair al-’Abid on one of the eastern ridges overlooking the desert. There are four or five extended families here, living in some twenty caves. The lands they own are scattered in a wide arc over the parched hills—some of them, like the plot they’re plowing today, in the shadow of Chavat Maon, perhaps the most notorious and merciless of the Israeli outposts in South Hebron.

Shehade and his family own this land; the courts have confirmed their claim. But the threat of settlers looms constantly over them. Four times, the Chavat Maon settlers stole this entire field, and each time the court eventually returned it to Shehade’s family. Once, when the wheat had grown tall, the settlers burned it. But it rained that night, somehow the burnt wheat sprouted anew, and eventually the Palestinians were able to harvest a new crop. Put this down to the occasional miracles God allows in his otherwise sorrow-stricken world.

Though he laughs easily and often, Shehade reports the usual tales of trauma. One time a settler shot an old woman at Maghair al-’Abid in her legs. Soldiers appeared but of course neither arrested the settler nor helped the woman, whose family lifted her, bleeding profusely, onto a horse to get her to a hospital. Anyone who knows these hills knows what kind of a ride that must have been. Shehade tells many more stories like that one, of attack and humiliation, out-and-out theft and sadistic torment—too many for me to record and remember. This man, however, seems strangely empty of bitterness. He is the South Hebron embodiment of the bon vivant, if one can use such a phrase for a man who lives so close to the ground, with so little, with enemies continually at his throat. He went to Hebron, the big city, last year for the first time, to visit the graves of the Patriarchs, and he was moved. “We [Palestinians and Jews] are brothers,” he says to me. “We know this, and if anyone doubts it he has only to go to the grave of our common father Ibrahim in Hebron. I see those graves and I know: God exists.”

After the wadi has been plowed, Shehade and his men drive the tractor uphill, hoping to gain another small patch for the mixed barley and wheat they are sowing. First they set the thickets of thorn alight, and pungent orange flames dance over the hilltop for half an hour. I find it hard to believe that anything at all could grow on this hill of ten thousand stones. But the tractor, hovering at a dizzy angle, often resting on a single wheel, always on the verge of turning over, does manage to carve out a few furrows.

‘We’re smiling, but our heart has been slightly broken,’ a colleague says. What we’ve seen is nothing new.

In the hills of South Hebron, each cultivated wadi is another victory over both resistant nature and the dependable, recurrent cruelty of human beings. We pray that the rains will come while the seeds are still potent and fertile, and that the settlers won’t spoil it all.

Week after week, we play a game with the settlers and the soldiers—a harsh game with high stakes and the near certainty of defeat. Today we won a round. There are moments when I like the odds. On the long walk down to the village of Twaneh, we notice a patch of decimated olive trees—a common harassment tactic among settlers. The trees lie helter-skelter on the earth, branches amputated, roots exposed.

• • •

Tending sheep at Bi’r al-’Id / David Shulman

Toward sunset, as the hills were drowned in purple light, we paid a visit to Daqaiqeh. Buried far in the desert, the village is nothing more than an untidy cluster of corrugated shacks, a few tents, newly built outhouses and a schoolhouse, recently rebuilt after the previous one was demolished by the army. Its inhabitants include scattered chickens, sheep, a donkey, and a few camels. No electricity, no running water, no phones, no cell-phone connectivity, no produce grown from this ground, no money, no hope. Waves of brown-beige hills, limpid desert air. Shirts and dresses sway on a laundry line. Fiercely handsome Bedouin children appear, including a teenage boy who has hurt his hand. Under duress, he shows it to me for a split second, long enough to see that it is infected. I take out pads, a bandage, and the disinfectant I carry for just such occasions, but no matter how much I coax him, he refuses. I leave the disinfectant and the pads with his family with instructions for treating the wound.

There are 74 demolition orders hanging over Daqaiqeh’s shanties; every building is slated to be destroyed. Four hundred and fifty people live here, but they may soon be gone. Daqaiqeh is very close to the Green Line demarcating Israel from the West Bank, and the army and the Civil Administration (that is, the occupation authority) want them out of there. You have to understand just what this means. These people have land only here. Daqaiqeh, poor as it is, is their only home. For the last two centuries or so, they have buried their dead in its cemetery—the only structure in the village not yet threatened with demolition. The government intends to drive them north to Humaideh, where they are supposed to manage somehow, though they’ll have no land and nothing in common with the Humaideh Bedouins. If the Israeli Supreme Court doesn’t stop it—as it most probably won’t—the demolition will be the end of the Ka’abneh Bedouin way of life in this village, and the end of the world for its people.

Before we leave I remember that I have a big chocolate bar in my knapsack. I present it to a ragamuffin boy whose eyes widen with astonishment. I tell him he’s supposed to share it with his friends (twenty children or so are circling around him, watching this transaction). It’s a foolish thought: with some effort he squeezes the whole bar into his pocket.

“We’re smiling, but our heart has been slightly broken,” a colleague says as we drive back to Jerusalem. What we’ve seen is nothing new; it’s the daily fare of the occupation. But today I feel heart-wracked too, so I ask a friend sitting beside me how he understands human cruelty. Whoever decided to drive them out, I explain, no doubt thinks it’s both good and necessary—even a patriotic gesture—and he won’t be present when the bulldozers raze Daqaiqeh. But suppose he does turn up. How can this person, faced with his victims, inflict such pain? A discussion flowers in the van. Would I feel the same way about evacuating settlers from their lands, albeit stolen? Good question. Maybe. But they have no business being there in the first place. Destroying Daqiqeh is an act of pure malice, whether the soldiers sent on the mission recognize it or not. Maybe what we’re talking about is numbness, a common enough condition—contagious, too.

I’ll be reading The Plague tomorrow with my honor students. Camus writes, “The habit of despair is worse than despair itself” and “all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories” and that even these might even be enough to “win the match.” By “plague” he means something other than microbes: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” That such a pestilence is raging in Israel I have no doubt. I guess that counts as knowledge. Will the memories of today, the little we did and all that we failed, along with the memory of Daqaiqeh, ever be enough?