The Nation / January 21, 2022
Hajj Suleiman, an elder of the anti-occupation movement, was run over by a tow truck while protesting an Israeli “operation” to confiscate cars in his village.
On Monday, January 17, a crowd of hundreds of mourners marched through the hills above the Bedouin community of Umm al-Kheir, in the occupied West Bank. At the front of the procession lay the corpse of the village patriarch, Hajj Suleiman Eid al-Hathaleen, struck down two weeks earlier by Israeli police, now wrapped in a Palestinian flag. In death he looked almost unbearably small. In life, though he couldn’t have been more than a couple of inches over five feet tall, his presence was large enough to fill the sky above the South Hebron Hills and the valleys that stretch off into the desert beneath it. At protests in the area and in confrontations with the Israeli military or police, Hajj Suleiman was a constant presence. He was always out in front, unintimidated by the soldiers and settlers with their guns, standing up for his people’s right to live on their land. He died the way he lived, fearlessly.
No one can complain of a shortage of funerals in the West Bank lately. In the last year, Israeli forces have killed more than 300 Palestinians, nearly a quarter of them children. Hajj Suleiman was well into his 70s, but his death hit me hard, and not only because I knew him. His nephew Tariq Salim al-Hathaleen once told me, “There are not many people like Suleiman on Earth.” And he was right. Hajj Suleiman was a whirlwind in human form. His pure anarchic dignity, his defiance, and his courage were the sort that cannot be confined to a political program. The circumstances of his killing are almost too painful to recount—too cruel, too petty, too cowardly, too perfectly typical of Israel’s occupation.
Hajj Suleiman was still a young man in the early 1980s when Israeli settlers arrived in Umm al-Kheir. His father had bought the land there decades earlier after being forced out of Tel Arad, in the northern Naqab desert, in the years following the founding of Israel. (The dispossessions of the Nakba can hardly be said to have ended: more than 100 Palestinians have been arrested resisting expulsion in the Naqab this month alone, while demolition and displacement continues in Jerusalem.) The settlers, backed up by the military, took a piece of it, and keep taking more. They called their community Carmel. The Israeli government provided them with electricity, paved streets, running water, and abundant barbed wire. Umm al-Kheir was given demolition orders along with injury, harassment, death.
In the decades since, it has become an easy place to see the starkness of the inequities sustained by the occupation. On one side of Carmel’s fence is a tidy, red-roofed subdivision. On the other, just yards away, the Hathaleens eke out a living from their flocks and their fields beside the rubble of the houses that Israeli troops have repeatedly destroyed. Soldiers patrol the perimeter between them.
It is Umm al-Kheir’s misfortune to be located within the more than 60 percent of the land in the West Bank that falls under the complete administrative control of the Israeli military. Israeli authorities routinely refuse to grant construction permits to Palestinians, which means that almost every structure in the village is illegal. As Carmel expands, Umm al-Kheir withers. Soldiers arrive periodically to bulldoze any homes that have been built since the last round of demolitions. A few years ago, they towed a portable toilet. Whenever they have come, Hajj Suleiman has been there, leading the village in peaceful protest. He had been arrested more times than anyone can remember, and hospitalized at least once before.
Israeli control reaches into every aspect of life under occupation. No bureaucratic detail is left out. Registering a car is hence inordinately expensive for Palestinians, so in the poor and isolated villages of the South Hebron Hills, where there is no public transport, many rely for their livelihoods on unregistered vehicles, which means living in fear of Israeli police.
On the afternoon of January 5, the police arrived in Umm al-Kheir on an “operation” to tow unregistered cars. After the community came out to protest, a tow truck drove into Hajj Suleiman, who, per a United Nations press release, “had been peacefully protesting on the road…and would have been clearly visible to both the truck driver and the officers…present at the scene.” The driver kept going, running him over and dragging his body for 10 meters. The police then sped away from the area with Hajj Suleiman still lying on the ground, bleeding internally, his skull, spine, ribs, and pelvis fractured. It was left to his neighbors to call an ambulance.
Hajj Suleiman hung on for 12 days in the intensive care unit of a Hebron hospital. When I spoke to Tariq on the night of his uncle’s death, he was still in shock. If they had lost anyone else in Umm al-Kheir, he told me, it could not have hurt more.
A few years ago, in happier times, I stood at the edge of the village with Tariq and his cousin Eid, who is Hajj Suleiman’s son. They talked about Hajj Suleiman, his eccentricities, his courage, his strength. It was late in the day, the sunlight softening, the wind howling up through the wadis. Hajj Suleiman was already over 70 then, but I never saw him rest. I don’t think I ever even saw him stand still. He worked constantly, going out every day with the sheep and goats, tending to the animals. It was hard work. I had gone out with him once and almost passed out from heatstroke halfway through the morning.
Tariq and Eid both lamented that they tried hard to be like Suleiman—as disciplined and as patient—but always fell short. “Suleiman is against all authority—Jewish authority, Palestinian authority, he doesn’t care,” they said. When Rami Hamdallah, who was then prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, visited Umm al-Kheir in 2016 after yet another round of home demolitions, all the men had gathered in a big tent at the top of the village. “They put cushions on the floor for Hamdallah and his advisers, his security and everyone.” Suleiman sat cross-legged on the floor in front of them and criticized Hamdallah to his face for his government’s impotence. “He doesn’t care,” they said. “Suleiman accepts no authority except God’s.”
For an hour, maybe two, Tariq and Eid took turns telling stories about Suleiman, the wind trying to snatch their words away but failing. Always, Eid said, his father told him not to worry. “If the soldiers are coming, don’t worry. If they demolish the houses, don’t worry. What can they do?” So much had already been taken from them. “We have nothing to lose,” Eid said. “What can we lose?”
Now they have lost Hajj Suleiman too. The world has shrunk. May his courage fill those he has left behind.
Ben Ehrenreich’s most recent books include The Way to the Spring, based on his reporting from the West Bank