An east wind blows in Tekoa Dalet. A plastic supermarket bag floats through the air. It catches on a bush, dances with it and blows away to somersault on the stony ground like a circus clown. A valley separates Tekoa Dalet from the Arab village of Tekoa. Nevertheless, the two places are close enough that a conversation could take place by shouting across the gully. Another gust and the plastic bag floats upward, crosses the valley, fades into the distance. Maybe it landed in the other Tekoa, got caught on a rosebush there and rested.
Shimon Palmer gazes out at the plastic bag and then goes back into the kitchen, holding a red pomegranate fallen from a tree in the yard. He picks up a gleaming knife and cuts into the fruit. Red juice pools on the wooden counter. “I told a friend of mine: Let’s cross the wadi [Arabic for gully]. Let’s go into Arab Tekoa. Let’s tell them: ‘Hello, we’re your neighbors. We’ve lived here for 10 years. It’s time we met,’” he says, offering me a handful of seeds.
A month and a half ago, Palmer’s younger brother, Asher, and Asher’s year-old son, Yehonatan, were murdered. A stone was thrown from a passing Palestinian car at their car. Two weeks after the murder, the Israel Defense Forces apprehended the cell responsible for the attack. The cell had perpetrated other similar attacks in the past.
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The murder accelerated a change in Shimon Palmer that had begun long before. A month earlier, he had hosted Palestinian residents from nearby Beit Ummar. “Sitting and talking to them, here at my home, was a transcendental experience,” he says. “Like breaking down a divider. When I talk to God, I break down the divider between heaven and Earth, and in this case, the wall is just as high. In one conversation you can shrink a lot of distance. It’s greater than the distance between life and death, and shrinking that distance is easier than most people think.”
The surrealistic farm on Tekoa Dalet where Palmer lives -- an illegal outpost two kilometers from the much older community of Tekoa -- looks like a cross between an untidy Texan pub and a dusty Amish town. In order to get there, one has to go through Tekoa, one of the first communities in which observant and non-observant people lived together and a fashionable real-estate area, passing the red-roofed houses. Then one must leave this bourgeois settlement behind and proceed toward the small communities on its fringes. During the trip to Tekoa Dalet, we see the monumental Herodion, looking out in its glory over the little points that travel along the narrow road toward the communities whose names are single letters. Only the gigantic rocks at the sides of the road prevent the car from sliding toward the steep, arid slopes over which birds glide in circles.
We have reached Tekoa Dalet. I walk between mobile homes with wooden porches, some with old swings or threadbare sofas, children’s toys, a pair of riding boots. A lovely woman wearing a cowboy hat over her long hair, pushing a stroller, passes by me. Twenty families, observant and non-observant, live here. “It’s no problem to find. We’re the house across from the bus,” Shimon Palmer tells me. “Come over. I’m home almost all the time.”
Indeed, I find the bus with no difficulty -- a round-bodied 1973 Leyland painted white, upholstered inside in pleasant white fabric, that has become the studio of his wife, Shira, a bridal gown designer. A year ago, she bought it from a junkyard, towed it to Tekoa, renovated and painted it, put in air conditioning and electricity, and today brides come to her from all over the country. The lace-covered gowns, made in an old-fashioned, kitschy style, are sold at ridiculous prices.
The entrance to the home goes through a herb garden and a vegetable patch. In the yard is a pile of stones with an oven inside, furniture parts are strewn around in no particular order, and gardening tools lie on the ground among the fruit trees. The lower portion of a mannequin leans against an old piano. Shira opens the door with a welcoming smile, apologizing that the house is disorganized -- last night she slept over at the home of her sister-in-law, Puah, Asher’s widow, and only just got home. This couple might have deserved to have a newspaper article written about them even without Shimon’s status as a bereaved brother, which gives even more significance to his surprising statements. They home-school their children and make almost everything themselves. They have goats to provide their milk and hens to provide eggs. Dark bread is baked in the oven. They have a compost toilet. The home is warm, filled with furniture that Shimon repaired or built himself, and it looks as though it was taken from an old Western. The three children -- Beresheet, 9, Nahala, 8, and Honi, 2 -- come and go through the open door. Shimon brushes dirt off his hands from working in the garden and sits with us in the living room.
He was born to an American Christian mother and a German Christian father who decided to convert to Judaism when he was 4. When he was 15, they came to Israel, settling in Kiryat Arba for ideological reasons. All six of their children still live in the area. Shimon, the eldest, lives in Tekoa Dalet and works by computer for his father’s business, a clinical research management firm that does most of its work in the U.S. Next is an ultra-Orthodx sister who lives in Beitar Illit. Shmuel, the third sibling, works in hi-tech and lives in Jerusalem. Moshe, who joins us for part of the conversation, is a chef at the Ben Ami restaurant on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem (but introduces himself as a cook). He also lives in Tekoa Dalet. Asher, only 25 when he was murdered, was about to begin studying mechanical engineering. The youngest sibling, Ze’ev, who recently completed his regular army service in an IDF combat unit, like the rest of his brothers, and left to travel the world.
Several days before the Jewish New Year, on Friday, Sept. 23, Asher was driving back to his home in Kiryat Arba from Jerusalem. Puah, his wife, a nurse at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, was on duty. Their only son, Yehonatan, was in the back seat. The rock that was thrown from a passing car penetrated the windshield and struck Asher’s head. The car went off the road. Yehonatan was killed by a metal bar that penetrated his body during the accident.
“The team that came to our home said that Asher had been killed in a car accident,” Shimon recalls. “We went out to Kiryat Arba. On the way, we saw his car at the side of the road, crushed. At first, when someone said it wasn’t an accident, but an attack, I though that it was nonsense, that they were just trying to pin it on the Arabs. Later, it turned out that the nonsense came from people who had decided to lie to us deliberately.”
Asher Palmer was a gifted musician who played the violin from a young age. In high school, he studied at the musical yeshiva, Kinor David, and continued his religious studies at the high-level yeshiva in Beit El. After four years of study, he joined the IDF, where he served in a combat unit in the navy, a member of the first group to serve in the navy combat track for yeshiva students. His friends recall a pleasant, refined man. At the end of his military service, he met Puah Peretz, a nursing student from Jerusalem, and they fell in love and married. During the shiva, the seven-day mourning period, Puah marked the second anniversary of her marriage to Asher and Yehonatan’s first birthday. She is seven months pregnant and lives in Efrat with her brother, Aharon, and his family.
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“As early as Saturday, we started hearing things that didn’t seem right to us,” Shimon says. “We heard that somebody took his weapon and went through his car. That there was a hole in the windshield that had been made by a rock, and bloodstains on the front seat. But we still believed what the police officers had told us. When they said it was an accident, we accepted it.”
“We were helpless,” Shira adds. “We had no strength to take on the bureaucracy. Even a person in an ordinary situation trying to establish a business, for example, might give up because the system is insensitive, so imagine people who have gotten the worst possible news. We opened the newspaper just like you and saw a report about the accident. There were questions, but we passed them on.”
The only person to ask the tough questions was Aharon, Puah’s brother, who insisted that the police’s determination of a traffic accident made no sense. A CT scan, the overwhelming evidence on the ground and testimony from soldiers proved beyond any doubt that Asher had been killed by a rock thrown at his head. After a delay of several days, an official announcement was made that the incident had been a nationalistically motivated attack.
Shimon chooses his words carefully. “It’s likely that they didn’t want to cause an uproar around Netanyahu’s speech at the U.N. [made the day that Asher was murdered], but they could have said that the circumstances were unclear. Why hurt a grieving family? The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit released a statement that there was no stone-throwing on that road. They said in the media that Asher drove irresponsibly, at high speed. That is the last thing that anyone could say about Asher. He was a level-headed man and extremely responsible. Everyone who knew him said that it was impossible. They portrayed Asher as a crazy driver, and actually accused him of having killed himself and his child.”
“They turned him from a victim of terrorism to an irresponsible person who destroyed his family out of stupidity,” his brother, Moshe, adds. “The ambulance crew and the police who were at the scene realized right away that it was no accident. It was obvious to anyone who had eyes to see, and still the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated that it was an accident.”
“When we sat shiva, the terror cell continued its pattern of action,” Shira says. “A rock was thrown from a passing car at the rabbi of Nokdim. They also hurt another neighbor on the road between Tekoa and Efrat. There are plenty of ways to make us keep our heads down, but it seems that throwing a rock from a moving car without leaving any traces is one of the most effective.
“When I say ‘Palmer,’ sometimes people remember and say, ‘Oh, the guy who was in the auto accident,’” she continues. “I don’t correct them anymore because it’s so painful for me. You’re a patriot and you love your country until something like this hurts you. Our husbands do reserve duty, we’re part of this country, and suddenly we get this slap in the face, when IDF officers release such false and hurtful information, when no government representative bothers to pay a condolence call after a father and his son have been murdered. A week later, when the mosque in the Galilee was set on fire, the country’s entire leadership, including Shimon Peres, showed up there. It seems that Asher and Yehonatan weren’t important enough.”
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit responded, “We express regret and share the family’s mourning. IDF officials absolutely reject the claim that the circumstances of the incident were reported falsely. A preliminary inspection of the ground by IDF troops at the time, which also relied on detectives from the Israel Police who reached the scene, showed that there was no stone-throwing from the side of the road at the car and that it was a road accident. When the police investigation developed further, it found new evidence and presented it. The IDF worked with the Israel Security Agency to bring those responsible to justice, and they were arrested on Oct. 4.”
The joint funeral of Asher and Yehonatan Palmer was full of restrained anger and pain. Rabbi Dov Lior, the rabbi of Kiryat Arba, called for collective punishment for rioters.
“At the funeral, statements were made that are not our way,” Shimon says. “Rabbis spoke in a language that is not our language. But we were in a state of collapse. We didn’t hear anything. During the shiva, my father silenced people who talked about revenge and about rioting. We live here and the Arabs live here. It’s always better to get along with the people around you than to fight with them. It’s like there’s something almost taken for granted that I’m supposed to think now, as someone who lost his brother, but I see only a terrible conflict in which everybody involved in it is equally guilty.”
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You’re saying that as a settler whom part of the world holds responsible.
“If peace depends on the fact that I, who don’t bother anybody here, leave my home, then I don’t understand what sort of peace that is. But if leaving my home were to bring true peace, I would do it. I have no solution for the whole conflict. Everyone should start by making peace with himself and in his own home, and then with the village across the way.”
Four days after his brother’s murder, during prayers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Palmer met a local activist who holds meetings between settlers and Palestinians. “Even before then, I was open to things like that, but suddenly I felt that it was the right thing at the right time.”
Palmer made contact with residents of Beit Ummar through the Eretz Shalom movement, which works for dialogue and neighborly relations between settlers and Palestinians (full disclosure: this writer attended one of their meetings in the past). His home, a mobile home on the crest of a hill in the outpost, is open to the foreign guests. One of them, a year younger than Shimon, has become a good friend. They hold frequent conversations in English.
“I don’t agree with him about everything, but I don’t even agree with my wife about everything, and we still live together,” says Shimon. “I think, for example, that a Palestinian state won’t solve their problems -- look, the Jewish people got a state and their problems weren’t solved -- but I didn’t tell him that. It’s amazing to find that everything that we think about them, they think about us. The way that we see terrorists, that’s how they see IDF soldiers. We’re sure that we’re victims, while statistically, more of them are killed than the other way around. We’re in control because we have tanks and airplanes, but when you try to suppress something, like in the human psyche, as Freud wrote, that thing will only pop up again and again until it controls you. I have Arab friends on Facebook. I see that they put up photographs of soldiers who hit children, and my first reaction is that it’s cheap propaganda. But my friends put Asher’s picture up on Facebook, and maybe somebody else sees it the same way.”
Several years ago, an episode of the investigative television program “Uvda” ("Fact") looked at the outposts around Tekoa. Shimon Palmer, who was one of the people interviewed, made extreme statements about expelling Arabs. “Even my friends thought I was too extreme,” he said. Today, he talks about the other side in entirely different words. “The world is crazy. Maybe I’m crazy too, but I hope that my craziness is in the opposite direction from the craziness of the rest of the world. The division between Right and Left is only because people need it that way. We live here, and the Arabs live here, and what’s stopping us from opening up and learning to get along is an extremely strong personal feeling of self-righteousness on the part of each side. Incidentally, there are quite a few people in Tekoa who have opinions that are close to mine. People are starting to ask themselves how long this can go on.”
When Palmer contacted the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum and asked to join, he encountered hesitation and cool responses. “They don’t want a settler there. That’s obvious. It’s very comfortable for them to hate you when you’re on the spot, figuring things out. Everybody looks for somebody to hate. If it’s not Arabs, it will be settlers.”
Are you scared?
“Anyone who lives here is scared. Since the Fogel murders [parents and three young children, stabbed to death by Palesitnian terrorists in their home in Itamar, north of Jerusalem, in March this year], I lock my door a thousand times. But on Passover, we went for a hike in the wadi. We met families in tents, Bedouin, I think, and I see that they were scared. When they saw us coming down toward them they got upset. They thought we wanted to hurt them. When they realized that we had no bad intentions, they opened their tent to us. We drank tea with them.”
I remind him of Yair Har Sinai, who stood guard over the land around Sussia in the southern Hebron hills by keeping sheep, and refused to carry a gun out of faith in human beings and revulsion for weapons of destruction. He was gunned down in the pasture.
“I go down into the wadi sometimes,” says Shira. “I meet them. We give them the clothes that we don’t need anymore. But I’ve never actually gone into Palestinian Tekoa. During the summer, we had an idea of holding a Palestinian-Jewish music festival in Tekoa. A friend of mine who lives here offered her home for the performances. We started to think about it seriously, but then we realized that it wouldn’t be enough to bring in Palestinian musicians. We also needed a Palestinian audience, and that’s where everything got stuck. We have another neighbor who has a dream of establishing a ‘Children of Abraham’ center in the wadi between Tekoa and Tekoa. But what can you do -- people have more power to dream than to do.
“God gave us this land to build and create on, and to feel respect for anyone on it. If it weren’t for interference by foreigners, peace would already be here naturally. I drive on the roads here and see the Europeans planting vineyards for them, waving flags for them, stirring up trouble. We pray to a single God. Our prayers for rain and their prayers for rain reach exactly the same place. The conflict isn’t here, from the earth.” She bends and touches the red soil of the garden.
I go back to Shimon, who is preparing a pot of red beans, just like in the stories.
What do you think of the price-tag revenge actions?
“Pure stupidity. The fact that something’s not right doesn’t mean that its opposite is right. A year ago, the home of a family here in Tekoa Dalet was demolished. Anyone who is in that situation is to be pitied. The soldiers who carried out the demolition are also to be pitied. The human tendency is to say, ‘Somebody hurt me, so I’ll hurt somebody too,’ and it doesn’t matter that you’re hurting a person who has nothing to do with it. That’s exactly how the violence that has controlled the world for thousands of years came into being. Wars, killing, occupation, retaliation -- when we look at all of this from above, we realize that the world has not advanced. In war, everybody loses. We invest so much in tools for killing. I could live a whole life just on the cost of one F-16. Human nature doesn’t have to choose that path. There are cultures, such as the Mbuti in Africa, that have no war.”
Would you be able to meet with the people who killed Asher and Yehonatan?
“I would be very interested in knowing what they have to say. It may be that they are absolute fanatics, that their belief in violence is so strong that there’s no chance. Throughout human history, it’s been proven that everyone who is an aggressor is also a victim, and everyone who is a victim is also an aggressor. The murder pains me a great deal, but I don’t feel that I hate whoever did it. Maybe he’s a victim too. We’re all victims of a bizarre situation.”
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