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Deb Reich: No More Enemies #5

Deb Reich
October 10, 2012

The Thrill of It All

by Deb Reich
When I first got involved in working for peace in Israel in 1981 at the age of 33, I was astounded to encounter the amazing adrenalin rush that comes with discovering “the other” and experiencing our deep affinity for each other.
Certainly, games of war and death provide a rush, but that is not the only us/them rush available and, arguably, may not even be the best rush available. The war-and-death rush divides the self into a part that takes pleasure and a part that suppresses shame. In peace work, there is both joy and fear – fear of the unknown, and fear of the stranger – but there is no shame to be suppressed. No energy is wasted on hushing up the persistent inner voice that knows it’s wrong to kill and maim and destroy.
These days, when I chat with Israeli Jewish young people doing their compulsory army service, they talk about the challenge, the self-discovery, the growth, the learning. My young nephew was inducted in 2009, after a year of community service in Jaffa. He opted for a combat role and was selected for a junior officers’ course, which he completed with highest distinction. “Basic training was boring,” he confided; “but this course has been great! I’m learning so many useful skills – how to manage people, to motivate my guys, to make sure they accomplish their mission . . .” As I listened, I inwardly flinched, thinking that “their mission” ultimately is killing and destroying. I was also thinking of my daughter, Maya, at college in California at the time, talking in much the same terms about her intensive training as a CA (community assistant) in the dorm: learning to be responsible for monitoring the welfare of others, management skills, communication skills, counseling skills.
This brought to mind an experience I had a few years back, visiting Palestinian Israeli friends on the coastal plain east of Caesarea. I spent one evening with my friend Ramzia, whom I’ve known for more than 30 years, since my volunteer days doing cooperative community work where she grew up, in Wadi Ara. Now a married woman and mother of six wonderful kids, Ramzia took me out for coffee at a café at the entrance to Umm al Fahm in the Wadi Ara hills. We reminisced unhurriedly for a while, enjoying a mild feminist thrill as two women choosing to sit outdoors together and talk at a café in a public place – of a kind frequented mostly by men and by married couples in a conservative Muslim city. Afterwards, Ramzia offered to drive me up to the highest point in the town, to see the historic tomb of Sheikh Iskander. Up we drove, then parked the car and walked around at the summit, enjoying the view. In one direction were the hills of Wadi Ara, lights twinkling in the houses; opposite, the Separation Barrier and, beyond that, the West Bank.
Palestinian laborers from the other side used to walk through Umm al Fahm (and through the town garbage dump, a daily humiliation) to catch rides or buses to work in Israel. The same route was also used on a few occasions by suicide bombers during more violent years. The barrier had now put a stop to all such foot traffic, innocent or otherwise. Designed to discourage militant infiltrators, it also deprives laborers of an income and families of a way to put food on the table, and keeps ordinary Israelis and Palestinians locked in their terrible isolation from each other.

When Ramzia and I had first met, both of us single, she was in her twenties, I in my thirties, it was the summer of 1981, and we still thought peace might be just around the corner. Now I was nearly 60 and Ramzia nearly 50, with eight children between the two of us — but no peace in sight yet. Our friendship, however, had endured. We stood there on the windy hilltop by the tomb of Iskander and shared the bittersweet flavor of the moment, companionably, in silence.
I stayed overnight that night with my adopted kibbutz mom at her kibbutz about half an hour’s drive from Ramzia’s house. The kibbutz sits on the road that goes to Baka al Gharbiyye from the Border Guards junction (named for the rather phallic Border Guards monument there) on route 65. In the morning as I drove out again on my way to work, I stopped on impulse for a young woman soldier hitching a ride in the same direction, going to the bus stop on the main road. I like to talk to soldiers from time to time to hear what they have to say, even if it makes me sad or angry, which is often the case. So, too, on this particular morning.
“What do you do in the army, if it’s not a secret?” I began, smiling encouragingly at her. She was a slender blonde and my first guess (a Russian immigrant) was verified by her accent when she began to speak.
“Oh, I work at a radar post at the border . . . next to Umm al Fahm, just inside the Fence,” she confided.
Indeed! Probably within a hundred or so meters of where I’d stood the previous night with Ramzia, gazing at the Wall.
“And what do you think of the army?” I prompted her – whereupon I got the usual mantra about meeting all kinds of new people, being off on one’s own away from home and family, learning new skills, broadening one’s horizons, stretching one’s abilities.
“And how is your job – for you?” I asked curiously.
“Oh well . . . not too bad, really,” she confided earnestly. “I have a special night-vision camera attached to my surveillance equipment, and if I see anyone at the fence, I have to push a button and photograph them.”
I nodded, visualizing it.
“Most of the time it’s rather boring,” she assured me. “And when something happens, it’s not that bad. The girls who work along the Gaza border have a much tougher time at this job. They don’t have a camera attached to their scope, like I do; they have a rifle.”
She paused – earnest, thin, young, and painfully (to me) unaware. “Yes, in Gaza it’s harder. If the girls on the job there see someone at the fence,” she concluded, “they have to shoot them.”

Deb Reich is an American-Israeli Jew who lived for several years in Muslim Arab Palestinian communities in Israel. She trained in cross-cultural mediation and group facilitation at Wahat al Salam-Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), the shared Jewish/Arab village near Latrun founded in the 1970s. Deb has freelanced widely for civil society organizations in Israel, and was a staff translator with Haaretz-International Herald Tribune. When her book No More Enemies was published (2011), Deb was living in Jerusalem/Al Quds.