By the third week of august, Beirut’s trendy Gemmayzeh Cafe was once more full of revelers. It was the first time live music had been back since the war, and as the beers were poured and narghiles lit, an oud player finished tuning his instrument and began strumming. “God be with you, oh steadfast south,” he wailed in a low voice, and the crowd of 200 or so cheered at the tribute—an old song, by the famed Wadi al-Safi, for this was not the first war southern Lebanon had endured. Then the music turned to Fairuz, songs of love and pain, and the squat old manager danced and encouraged the young women to do the same, which they did, waists shaking and arms waving and hands twisting as onlookers raised their glasses and clapped. It was almost as if life were back to normal, for indeed here in east Beirut it had barely been disrupted and there were even those in the Sunni and Christian neighborhoods who had initially hoped Israel would succeed in its war to destroy Hezbollah, a war in fact to crush the will of the mostly Shia steadfast people of the south.
The 60-mile trip from Beirut south to the Israeli border might have taken a couple of hours in the past, but now it could take a day or more to navigate around roads and bridges that had been destroyed in what the Lebanese called the “July War.” Beyond Tyre, the biggest city in southern Lebanon, every village I could see from the road lay in ruins. Finally, at the southernmost tip of Lebanon, past a sign spray-painted “We will be back” by Israeli soldiers, I arrived in the town of Aita al Shaab.
It was 10 in the morning, and through the smell of dust and decay wafted a more inviting scent from the Intersection Bakery, named for its spot at a fork in the road. The bakery was crowded as men, women, and children gathered to bring home a breakfast of manqish, a circular flat bread that is cooked with thyme, sesame, cheese, or meat. Some ordered half a dozen thyme or cheese manqish; others prepared the loaves themselves, brushing on oil and throwing on cheese and pinching the edges before handing the manqish to the bakers to slide into the oven. Women in long shirts that reached halfway down their jeans stood beside boys in dusty baseball caps and men who focused on their task with stern dedication.
Aita was a small town, and its residents were closely bound in a cycle that began with the manqish in the morning and continued in the butcher shops, in the planting and harvesting of tobacco, in the mourning of the dead, and in the rebuilding of the town. For although the Intersection Bakery had somehow been spared, outside was a scene from War of the Worlds, or perhaps Dresden. Aita had been attacked more than 30 times in the July War. Only a fraction of its people had trickled back, and when their manqish emerged from the oven, they folded it in half, wrapped it in newspaper, and carried it to the broken, crushed, and exploded remnants of their homes.
It was from the area of Aita that Hezbollah fighters had crossed the border into Israel on July 12 and captured two Israeli soldiers, a daring attack that was the pretext for one month of hell that killed at least 1,200 civilians in Lebanon and wrecked billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure in a country just recovering from a quarter century of war. During the offensive, 85 percent of Aita’s homes had been destroyed. Schools, homes, and tobacco fields had all been targeted, here and elsewhere in the south, in what the locals considered a conscious strategy to erase the villages along the border and make it impossible for residents to return. When Israeli officials said they wanted Hezbollah to move north of the Litani River, it meant to most people here that all their neighbors were being targeted for removal.
Against this backdrop, the “Battle of Aita” had become legendary in Lebanon: Somehow about 100 Hezbollah fighters had held on in the town, making it impossible for the Israelis to capture. Most of these men, I was told, had been from Aita. Nine locals had been killed, including a history teacher, a lawyer, and a few university students. Many in the town had been surprised to learn who among them was a fighter.
Aita’s main road led from the Intersection Bakery up to the old town. Alongside it, on the roofs of any houses that had not completely collapsed, residents had erected tents and hung laundry to dry. In between homes stood towering pine trees, grapevines, and flowers. Well-muscled young men with hard faces and short beards raced through town on off-road motorcycles; they were Hezbollah fighters on patrol. Past a grocery store that had just reopened was a large clearing with a view to a verdant valley and hills that were on the Israeli side. Israeli military bulldozers had made the clearing, and the remains of one of them lay below. Visitors often had their picture taken next to it.
Abu Hassan Bajuki’s toy store, World of Toys, which had opened just a few months earlier but had been very successful because it was the only such store in the region, was gone. The blood of a donkey that Abu Hassan’s family had tied up outside stained what was left of the walls. The town’s main library was gone too, though some 700 of its books had been rescued—texts on religion, the novels of Victor Hugo, the writings of Marx and Lenin and Bakunin.
Muhamad Rida’s grocery store had survived the war and was fully stocked, but every time I walked by, I saw it empty. Muhamad Rida and his family had refused to let Hezbollah and the townspeople take goods from the store, and as a result there was now a silent boycott. Aita was a town of few secrets and long memories; it sat atop the remnants of Roman settlements, and its two main families, the Bajuk and the Srur, had feuded in centuries past. But that conflict had since been replaced by a larger one. Over the past half century, Israel had invaded Lebanon several times and also conducted raids, incursions, and kidnappings to battle Palestinian fighters raiding Israel. Beginning in 1978 it remained as an occupier in the south, establishing a proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, made up of Lebanese Christians as well as local Shia Muslims. When Israel withdrew in 2000, the sla collapsed and Hezbollah took control of much of the area, launching regular rocket attacks into northern Israel.
At the time the July War began, the Israeli military had brought in loudspeaker trucks ordering the people of the town to leave, and elsewhere it had dropped leaflets from the air. But following those orders was harder than it seemed. Fighter planes and drones were bombing vehicles on roads, and with prices for a van ride to Beirut reaching upward of $400, many families could not afford to get out. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International later noted that this war had a higher rate of civilian deaths per day than is typical in modern warfare. During the last 72 hours before the cease-fire, more cluster bombs were dropped in southern Lebanon than during the entire previous month.
Aita normally had about 11,000 people. Almost all had fled when heavy shelling began; after the cease-fire some 7,000 returned, but many of them left upon seeing the destruction, and it was not clear whether they would ever come back.
Aita’s mayor, haj taysir, could be seen everywhere in the town, coordinating relief efforts and reconstruction. He was a pharmacist by trade, and as he talked to people, he hastily took notes on drug-company stationery. Dark-skinned, with prominent features, he looked thin everywhere but his belly and had a slightly disheveled air about him; he had returned to Aita the day after the cease-fire. “I felt an urge for revenge against those who destroyed my town,” he told me. “We tell them the will of this people will be more powerful than their tanks, which want to explode us and destroy us.” His needs now included water, electricity, health care, and “everything you can imagine.” I asked him if he had received help from the Lebanese government. “Lebanese government, bah!” he exclaimed. “We have a government in name only.”
In yards, gardens, and plots in the center of town, and in the fields all around it, tobacco plants withered in the sun. The tobacco cycle dominated life in Aita. The stalks, with their thick, sticky leaves, grew to five feet, and in the summer they bloomed white and pink. The harvest lasted several months. The leaves were hung in the shade in large bundles, and they turned yellow and auburn as they cured. They were then placed in wooden containers, to be sold for about $4 per pound in December, when the cycle began anew. Entire families were involved in the planting, harvesting, and curing, regardless of age or gender, and neighbors would help too if they were finished with their own crop. Now the fields were inaccessible, littered with unexploded bombs.
Like many towns in southern Lebanon, Aita spilled outward from a historic core on a hilltop. The old town had provided good shelter for fighters, who hid in the tight, haphazardly arranged alleys and yards, and so much of it had been bulldozed by the Israelis. Displaced families occasionally came down from Beirut to dig through the rocks and look for their valuables. One man had rented a crane to find files he needed for work. Nearby stood a short old man with a clipped beard and a Nike hat, looking at a pile of rubble that had been his home, garage, and shop. I asked him why he was smiling. “I am very happy because we are the victors,” he said.
He would rebuild his house, and his business too. His family had lost all its personal effects—pictures, passports, ID cards—but that didn’t matter. “What I miss are my trees,” he said. “They were good trees—pomegranate, lemon, fig. They are what I miss, not the house. My two sons fought during the war, so there is no need to be angry from this destruction.” He told me that three Hezbollah fighters had been killed in his house, and when he rebuilt, he would put up a memorial to them.
Across town I met Jamil Jamil, whose family was one of the few to have stayed in Aita during the entire war, helping feed the fighters. When I arrived at his house, he put on his traditional white head scarf and tucked in his shirt. He was a 77-year-old tobacco farmer who also grew olives and wheat, and we sat in the shade of the grapevines that his family carefully tended. Four of his nine sons had fought with Hezbollah, and about ten fighters had stayed in his home.
When Jamil was young, people from Aita had often gone to Palestine to work and had traded their crops across the border; he himself had worked at a restaurant in Haifa. Then came the nakba, or catastrophe, the Arabic term for the expulsion and flight of more than half a million Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Soon, he remembered, “the whole town was full of Palestinians.” The refugees told of others who needed help, so he went into Palestine with his camel to carry people to safety.
“Some men took Palestinian wives, but only one woman from town married a Palestinian man,” Jamil told me. “In the beginning they expected to go back after a week, a month, a year.” They had left eventually, but in the opposite direction—to refugee camps deeper inside Lebanon—and their fate would shape the conflict in the Middle East for generations to come.
Walking through town, it was easy to spot the homes of the dead fighters. On balconies, porches, and in living rooms guests sat silently, the women wearing black, the men’s shoulders slumped. There was always bitter coffee served in tiny ceramic cups, with sweets offered alongside. In one of those homes I met Haj Wehbe, whose son had been one of the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters slain during the war. A small, jovial man of 66, he considered it a kind of triumph that Israeli forces had seen fit to expend so much effort on Aita. “When we came and found our homes destroyed, we were happy,” he told me. “They were fighting homes and stones, and we achieved a victory.” In his view, Aita had defeated Israel and America, and now both George Bush and Ehud Olmert were afraid of Lebanon.
Not far away was the house of Abu Yusuf. Approaching the front steps, I called out, “Ya Allah?” as was the practice; inside, several women in black were seated in silence. Abu Yusuf’s eldest son, Seyid Yusuf Muhamad, had been a mathematics student and an intern at a bank when the war broke out. He immediately came to Aita to help. “He was not in Hezbollah,” his father told me. “He was just a citizen fighting the occupation. But during the war, all the fighters are Hezbollah. At the end, all of us were with Hezbollah and all the south was with Hezbollah.” Abu Yusuf was tired, and the sorrow of losing his son showed in his sun-reddened, pockmarked face. There was little bravado in his voice, and his eyes were soft and mournful.
From 1997 to 2000, Abu Yusuf had been held in Khiam, a prison set up by the South Lebanon Army. For a year and a half, he said, his wife had been imprisoned with him in order to pressure him to talk. There were many stories like his in Aita; their details were impossible to confirm, but they had become part of the town’s lore. “Khiam was worse than Abu Ghraib,” Abu Yusuf said, and he talked about the electrical wires connected to his penis, the hot and cold water, the noises blasted into his ears. He said he had spent 82 days in solitary confinement, in a three-foot-by-five-foot room that was constantly wet, and he still had back pains as a result. In all, more than 150 people from Aita had been in Khiam and in Israeli prisons, he said, “and this is why we resist. The resistance is revenge.” Abu Yusuf had fought in the July War, and it was said that he had killed the Israeli soldier who killed his son.
I found Sikna Ahmed Merai looking down from the balcony of her family’s home, which stood comparatively undamaged, with only its windows and doors blown out. A shy 12-year-old dressed entirely in pink, she told me that she and her two cousins had been playing atop the rubble of her grandmother’s house when a cluster bomb went off and she felt like she was flying. When she awoke, she had shrapnel in her abdomen and torso. Her cousin had been disemboweled. She had seen many other unexploded bombs. “We didn’t run away to Beirut like others,” she smiled proudly, overcoming her shyness for an instant. She told me that she loved Hezbollah. “They help the people and kill the Israelis.”
One of the youngest Hezbollah fighters to die defending Aita was Shadi Hani Safad. I found his house by spotting a row of women in black on a balcony. In family pictures, Safad had large dark eyes and a small tapering chin that made him look younger than his 18 years. He had passed his high school exit exams two days before the war started. His English teacher, Roula Khalil, had joined the mourners at his family’s house. “He was a brilliant student,” she told me. “I was surprised he was a fighter—it was the first time I heard about it. He wanted to learn everything. I never had to criticize him.” Safad had studied in nearby Rmeish, even though it was a Christian town, because the school there taught in French and was very good. He had taken additional classes in English with Khalil. “I am not Shadi’s teacher,” she insisted. “How can you enter a class and teach young men like these? They teach you how to die for something you believe in.” Safad had worked in his father’s restaurant and sold electronic appliances. Although Safad’s mother insisted he was always very devout, his friends admitted that he liked listening to music, something the movement disapproved of.
Safad’s mother told me that as a little boy he had wanted to join Hezbollah and had asked her if it would still be around when he grew up. His cousin had been killed in the 1990s, and the South Lebanon Army had prevented Safad from attending the funeral. He would spit at Israeli vehicles, she said, and tell her that he was not afraid. His sister brought out a picture of Safad at 14, shaking the hand of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader. As more relatives arrived, the women began to cry, and one of the aunts called for Safad, asking why he had to die. His father began to cry as well, until he collected himself and told the women to stop.
Safad had died on the second day of the war. He had two sisters and two younger brothers. “I feel my other sons might join Hezbollah,” his father told me. “I want them to, but their mother is worried.” His nephew had also been killed. Safad’s father, a dark-skinned, thin man with angular features and a dusting of white stubble, told me that as a boy during the ’60s, he had seen the mutilated remains of a couple who had been working in their fields when Israeli bombs fell. He mocked the Lebanese army, which had failed to protect Lebanon then and now. “We will always need a resistance,” he told me.
In the shatila refugee camp in west Beirut, I met a 69-year-old woman named Um Nizam. She sat on a thin mattress with Winnie the Pooh sheets, beneath three faded portraits of young men. Um Nizam remembered coming to Aita with her family as a refugee in 1948, when she was 11. Her town, a suburb of Haifa, had been bombed from the air, and everyone fled; they had walked for several days, over mountains, until her feet bled. They had not taken any of their belongings with them, she explained, because they had expected to return shortly. They had placed their faith in Jaysh al Inqadh, the Army of Salvation, a collection of soldiers from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, who fought a few battles against the Israeli forces but in the end abandoned the Palestinians to their fate.
Um Nizam’s family stayed in Aita for a week in 1948, sleeping under olive trees; they could not afford to buy food from the locals, and 58 years later she still complained that the townspeople had not given them water. The Red Cross eventually took them to Tyre, and from there they moved through a series of other camps until landing at Shatila. By then, the Palestinians had begun to field their own militias—the plo, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and others. Soon, they vowed, they would liberate the homeland and return to their towns in triumph. Um Nizam, too, became a fighter and carried a gun.
I asked Um Nizam if she still hoped to go back. She paused and stared at me silently and intently, as if assessing just how dumb I could possibly be. “If I didn’t want to go back to Palestine, why would I have these three martyrs?” she demanded in a raspy voice, looking up at the portraits above her. Um Nizam had had five sons, four daughters, and twenty grandchildren. Three of her sons had been killed in war: Muhamad had been martyred in the Tel al Zaatar camp in 1976, battling Lebanese Christian militias. Ahmad had been martyred defending the Shatila camp against Syrian-backed militias during the Lebanese civil war. Um Nizam’s eldest, Nizam, had been martyred in 1982 during the Israeli invasion.
The most notorious camp in Lebanon is Ain al Hilweh, which is surrounded by the Lebanese army at all times, with foreigners restricted from entering. A staggering 70,000 stateless Palestinians are crammed into a space of roughly one square mile. After passing a cordon of Lebanese soldiers and then another of Palestinian militiamen, I emerged onto the broken roads of the camp, where the sky itself seemed grayer. Electric cables crisscrossed above, hanging low like old cobwebs. The streets seemed not quite wide enough for cars. I drove by faded posters of Yassir Arafat and of the slain leader of the Palestinian armed movement Hamas, Ahmed Yasin, as well as newer ones of Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, and others optimistically announcing “Today Gaza, tomorrow all of Palestine!” These were the forgotten Palestinians; in the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, the plo had agreed to address only those Palestinians who lived in the West Bank and Gaza, leaving out the vast diaspora. Ain al Hilweh had been bombed several times in the July War, leaving 100 homes damaged and up to 19 people dead.
In the camp I met a young Palestinian called Muhamad Jamal whose family had fled in 1948 and landed in Baghdad. Shia militias had begun attacking Palestinians, most of whom are Sunni, after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and his family had been threatened, so they were refugees once more, back in Lebanon. When asked what he thought of the future, he scoffed: “What future? You see the outside is black. What do you think is in our hearts?” He supported Hezbollah, he said. “God be with them, the mujahideen who go fight in Iraq,” he added. “God be with the mujahideen in every place.”
Thirty-five-year-old Abu Walid was Hamas’ director of information in the camp. He told me about his brother, Ahmad Muhamad Yasin, who in July 2005, at 30 years of age and married for just one month, had left to join the insurgency in Iraq. “He told our parents,” Abu Walid said, “because you need the permission of your parents to fight jihad.” Ahmad had called his family a few times from Iraq, and Abu Walid had spoken to him once. “He wished to be a martyr,” Abu Walid explained. “We needed a martyr in the family for our honor.” Six weeks later Ahmad had been killed; his mother cried for one hour upon hearing the news, and then changed into white clothes to celebrate Ahmad’s martyrdom. Ahmad’s wife did not cry, Abu Walid said. As for himself, he allowed, “Of course I was happy, but I also cried. Of course I miss him.”
Abu Ahmad, the head of Hamas in the camp, kept an office that was reached by bending under a low doorpost off a dark alley and climbing up crooked concrete stairs. The Lebanese government prohibited new construction in the camps, and did not allow building materials in, on the theory that if the Palestinians got too comfortable, they might forget about Palestine. Abu Ahmad’s office was decorated with Hamas flags and a red heart-shaped valentine clock. He insisted on stressing that Hamas had no problems with Jews or Americans. “The problem is occupation,” he said. “If the occupier is your brother, you will fight him.”
Abu Ahmad’s father, Ahmad Muhamad Taha, was 92 years old. He hobbled slowly, relying on a cane and his son’s arm for support, and wore very thick glasses. He was one of the rapidly dwindling generation of Palestinians who had once lived in Palestine where he had owned orchards and fields. He remembered the British proposal for a partition of Palestine in 1937, into what was to be an Arab and a Jewish state, and how the Palestinians took up arms because “the British gave the Jews the best land, and they gave the Palestinians land you can’t use.”
When his village was bombed in 1948, the family fled, taking only their clothes. He next saw the village 32 years later, but barely recognized it; still, when he left, it felt “as if I was leaving my country again, like in 1948.” Palestinians do not have citizenship in Lebanon, but if the government offered it, he said, “we would reject it.” His son chimed in, “I’ll bring you my seven-year-old son, and he will tell you that he is going back to Palestine.”
Outside the Hamas office, residents were lining up for boxes of weekly rations that the group provided. The streets were covered with trash and pools of dirty water, and the people seemed beaten, deprived of hope. They had been there for nearly 60 years, and try as they might to cling to hope, it was hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be there for 60 more.
At the onset of the july war, refugees from Aita and other towns in southern Lebanon began streaming by the hundreds into a park in Beirut. There they were met by local activists, some of them Palestinian, who tried to help the refugees find places to stay and schools for their children. When it became apparent that the fighting was not about to stop anytime soon, these volunteers met and resolved to call themselves Samidoun, a term referring to those who stand fast, or withstand, which Palestinians also use to describe their defiance of Israel. Samidoun soon grew to about 250 volunteers. Even as Israeli planes were still targeting vehicles on the roads in the south, groups of Samidoun members began visiting the region to assess the damage and plan for the reconstruction. When they first arrived in Aita, it was a ghost town.
Samidoun’s coordinator in Aita was a 28-year-old graphic designer named Sharif Bibi. Serious and energetic, Bibi had reddish-brown skin with a thin beard and curly black hair that he tried to brush back. His father was a Palestinian from Jaffa, and though his mother was Lebanese, he was prohibited from obtaining citizenship. As with all Palestinians in Lebanon, his freedom of movement and employment were limited. The Lebanese government—whose position has been that the Palestinians are refugees and should not be assimilated—prohibited Palestinians from owning land and from working in any of 72 job categories, including bank clerk. Three weeks before the war, Bibi had opened an office in Beirut for his freelance graphic design company, and he would have easily fit into any hipster enclave.
Several Samidoun volunteers, including Bibi, had fathers who had fought in left-wing militias in the 1970s and ’80s. “At that time, people believed that Palestine could be liberated if its people fought for it,” he told me. “The whole world was boiling then—Vietnam, Nicaragua, etc.” In 1983, during the Lebanese civil war, a bomb had crashed through the roof of the family’s house and landed, without exploding, in the room next to where they were sitting. “I still remember my father standing there and looking at it,” Bibi laughed.
Bibi had worked for the Lebanese Red Cross, and in 1996 he was with the first rescue team on the scene of the Qana massacre, when Israeli airstrikes on a U.N. refugee camp caused more than 100 deaths. He quit the Red Cross soon afterward. “I’ve seen war,” he told me. “I was raised in war. I have seen people get killed in front of me, but I couldn’t bear seeing it again. Life becomes absurd to you if you see how so easily you can take the lives of a hundred in seconds.” He continued working with children in the camps. Once, he told me, “the Palestinians thought revolution was everything.” That had been a mistake: He wanted to focus on development as well. He had chosen to come to Aita because “the feeling you have, standing on a roof, and 300 meters away from you is your home, which you have never been to—it’s something amazing.
“Twenty years ago Palestinians thought the only reason for going to the south was to attack Israel,” he told me. “But we as the third generation of the nakba believe in development, which will lead to what we dream of.”
I asked him why he wanted to help a nation that had relegated him to second-class status. “It’s refugee guilt,” he said. “When you live as a refugee, you sympathize with all refugees.” He worried about collaborating with Hezbollah, and he feared an Islamic Palestine as well. “The leftists’ dream and project was broken, so they see Hezbollah as the tool for their dreams,” he explained. “In the end, you are the atheist they slaughter, like in the Iranian revolution.”
He struggled to explain what Samidoun was. “It’s a civil society, grassroots, new entity composed of different things,” he said, twisting his arms into a literal knot. “We are trying to empower the community. We believe that our role is trying to participate in resistance, to convince them to stay and give them tools to stay, to preserve the identity and the culture of the village.” Resistance, to Samidoun, meant for the village to continue existing.
Sharif Bibi worked closely with another Palestinian named Ismael, a tall, thin architect and urban planner with a gentle voice, who was preoccupied with the history of reconstruction efforts in the region. In southern Lebanon’s other wars, he said, donors had often arrived quickly and launched projects without consulting the people, dramatically changing their way of life, their connection to the land, the structure of their towns. Samidoun was interested in a broader kind of reconstruction, taking advantage of the destruction to strengthen the community. “It’s a big opportunity to involve people in the process,” Ismael said. Volunteers were interviewing the townspeople about their past, their culture, their crafts, and conducting focus groups about how to rebuild.
Samidoun recruited local youth to help with its work, encouraging young men to help unload relief supplies and girls to get involved in the “psychosocial units” working with children. One of the older volunteers from Aita was Nizar, a 34-year-old who had been imprisoned in Israel three times. He had a handsome face with sharp features, brown eyes, and a nose misshapen, he told me, from being broken in an interrogation. Israeli attacks had killed his uncle in 1972 and his cousin in 1978, he said; two of the martyrs from the July War were his cousins. Nizar said he had lost his hearing in one ear as a result of torture, and that his left index finger ended in a stump because it had been crushed by a soldier’s boot.
Samidoun’s brigade also included Nadia, a nurse who had lived in Sweden as a social worker for 21 years. She had come to Aita with Doctors Without Borders and tirelessly helped with everything from medical aid to coordinating relief efforts with the mayor. Then there was Abir, a 25-year-old architect and urban planner whose research focused on unofficial settlements, or slums. She had raided the library at the American University of Beirut for books on southern Lebanon’s history and postwar reconstruction efforts around the world. Muhamad Ali had just returned from university in Los Angeles, which accounted for his excessive use of the word “dude,” and had gotten a job at Timberland in Beirut, only to be dismissed when the store closed after the war began. During my stay, a delegation of Jordanian architects also arrived to pitch in.
Up to two dozen Samidoun volunteers had set up camp in a home belonging to a teacher, Abu Ali, who was staying in Beirut. The building had taken several direct hits, and the volunteers had hung curtains over the holes in the walls and ceiling. They slept in tight packs on thin mattresses, meeting until late at night to plan their work. They cooked together, cleaned fastidiously, and approached their work with a sense of humor that belied its gravity. They were always sleep-deprived, though ice-cold showers helped, as did Nadia’s coffee in the mornings, by the pomegranate trees that had survived the bombs, as she fiddled with the radio searching for stations that were not Israeli.
Abu Ali visited one weekend to check on the house. “It was a victory,” he told me, as I surveyed the wreckage. “The important thing is our will was stronger.” Soon Abu Ali arranged for his home to be demolished, so that the rebuilding could begin, and Samidoun moved into a different partially destroyed home, until it was that home’s turn. Finally they found homes that were damaged, but not enough to warrant their demolishing, and they split the men and women into two different homes, because the people of Aita were suspicious of them sleeping in the same building.
At least five of the volunteers were Palestinian, and their work was informed by the experience of Palestine, such as the Israeli attacks in 2002 on the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin. Like Aita’s old town, Jenin had been very dense and therefore difficult to occupy, so the Israeli forces had bulldozed a major section of it. The homes had been rebuilt thanks to the United Arab Emirates, but the Palestinian Authority had demanded that the camp not be reconstructed simply to be destroyed again, so wider roads were created that would let Israeli tanks enter easily.
The Samidoun volunteers were consumed with the destruction of Aita’s historic core, which had continued even past the end of the war: One day as they were surveying the old town, they had encountered local contractors at work demolishing several of the historic stone houses. Samidoun had secured commitments from the government that no more of the old buildings would be knocked down, and that the owners would nonetheless receive compensation—a concern for many residents, who feared that they would get money only if they acted quickly. But the government was also paying contractors by the number of homes they demolished; Ismael, the urban planner, had been feuding with one contractor who had warned of trouble if Samidoun did not stop talking to residents about preservation.
One afternoon in the old town, I found an elderly man pacing back and forth over a vast pile of rubble. He was dressed in black except for the white scarf on his head. Haj Ahmad had resisted a contractor’s pressure to demolish his large stone house for several days; that morning he had been away when someone came to tell him that a bulldozer had shown up. A Samidoun crew tried to block the bulldozer’s path, but half the home had already been flattened; then the scavengers arrived, and soon all the stones and the rebar were gone.
The house was more than 50 years old, Haj Ahmad said; he had built it himself, stone by stone. His hands were clasped behind his back and his leathery face was lined with pain. I asked him what he wanted. “I want the government to rebuild my house with new stones because there are no stones left,” he said. “I feel that I am buried under the earth and not living on it. I spent the whole day walking around my house, and when they started taking the iron in trucks, I threatened that I would shoot them. I might die tonight.
“This house is deaf and dumb and can’t speak to stop them from destroying it,” he said. “I’m a rich man, I don’t need their money. I even told them, ‘Keep your $5,000 and take another $5,000 from me, but keep my house and don’t destroy it.’ But they refused.”
It was September now, and at another time the people of Aita would have been winding up the tobacco harvest. Now they had another job to do, one as tiring, it seemed, and as cyclical. “This is a place that might be occupied again,” Ismael told me, “and the historic core had a pattern that made occupying it difficult. We want this community to work and be better. We won’t create a fort. But we won’t make it easy to occupy.”