by Nicholas Jahr
This past February and March, editorial board member Nicholas Jahr took his first trip to Israel, and made several visits to the West Bank. What follows are his reflections on his time there. — Ed.
Prelude with Flute . . . .
Aeroport Mohammed Cinq, Morocco. We pass through security to the strains of a muzak cover of Hotel California. This is not really the song I want to hear at the airport where I’ve got a two-and-a-half hour layover. There’s flute involved. Later, the theme from The Godfather wafts across the departures lounge.
The three border guards are waiting at the top of the escalator just after we disembark the plane. One of them, a redhead, steps in front of me and asks to see my passport. She runs me through some quick questions and sends me on my way. The immigration officer is more thorough; a solid ten minute interrogation about who I am, where I’ve been, what I’m doing here, how long I’m going to stay. She slips a piece of paper into my passport and of course I make it barely a dozen feet before I’m stopped by yet another security official, who runs through it all over again. I go so far as to mention my kindershule education, that our teachers tried to teach us Yiddish. A look of disbelief.
The morning after I arrive, the Histadrut calls a general strike. The garbage immediately starts piling up. There are feral cats everywhere, scavenging in the trash; outside the apartment building where I’m staying someone has added chickens to the mix, and a handful strut around the parking lot. The familiar cries of roosters in the morning.
I’ve found a room in an apartment on the outskirts of Yaffo, or maybe the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Once upon a time they were separate cities, but they’ve long since sprawled over any distinction. Take a ten-minute walk from where I’m staying — winding through a thin belt of light industry and highway on ramps — and you’ll find yourself in Florentin, Tel Aviv’s Greenwich Village. It’s the equivalent of declaring Downtown Brooklyn a separate city from Park Slope.
I’m there because it’s cheap, and it’s cheap because it’s on the margins, so it’s disappointingly predictable that my new neighborhood is a mix of Mizrahi and Orthodox. My building is part of a development of six-story concrete blocks all poured into the same mold; the apartment itself is shared by three other guys who are giving up the lease by the end of the next month, so it’s in about as bad a condition as you’d expect. It takes a day or two for me to notice that the ceiling in my room is deteriorating; clearly there’s a puddle of water on the roof slowly leaking through. The strike and the filth feed a sense of rot and decay. It’s only after I’ve been staying there for ten days that I catch a cab and discover the prison down the street.
A few days after I arrive, I take a ride with Susan Lourenco, an observer with Machsom Watch. Founded in 2001 shortly after the second Intifada kicked off, Machsom Watch was formed by a small group of Israeli women who decided to monitor the conduct of soldiers at the checkpoints their military set up throughout the West Bank. These women saw the conflict as driven by men; they were wary of men’s ability to remain neutral when it came to soldiers and military actions. Machsom Watch would only send women to the front lines of the occupation. These days around 300 (“with 10,000 opinions,” another organizer tells me) keep tabs on about 30 different checkpoints; Susan first joined them in 2004.
She drives us out to the Habla Agricultural Gate, a checkpoint off Route 55. Here the separation barrier—at this spot a wide military access road, both sides of which are hedged by electrified fencing topped with barbed wire—has plowed right through a town, separating kids from their school, businessmen from their stores, shepherds from their pastures. The IDF opens the checkpoint three times each day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. We wait for them to show up and open the gate; people slowly accumulate. One of the first to arrive is a weathered Palestinian guy in a cowboy hat; Susan and her colleagues have taken to referring to him as the Marlboro Man. He stands around chain-smoking while ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ pipes out of some tinny handheld speaker. A mini-bus full of school kids pulls up to the other side and idles. A cart drawn by a donkey ambles up to the gate; Susan tells me these have become more prominent in recent years as Palestinian villages have been cut off from the main roads.
Eventually the soldiers roll up in their humvee; a dark-skinned female MP steps down. “The women are much worse than the men,” Susan says. “They have no power within the army, and if you’re a minority to boot. . .” They slowly start processing people through, a few from one side, then a few from the other.
When everyone has passed, the Marlboro Man invites us to join him for tea. We sit down and make halting conversation. His name is Moustafa and he’s lived in Habla his entire life. There should be peace, he says in his limited English. If only we could just interact as people, one-on-one, there would be peace. Later Susan cautions me against interpreting that as support for a one-state solution. She thinks it’s a matter of preferring relating face-to-face, person-to-person, over politics, the never-ending peace process. All the same, despite having spent years studying the conflict, reading about it on a near daily basis, I’m still struck by how closely intertwined the Palestinian ‘territory’ is with Israeli. As Susan puts it: “It begins to feel more and more like one state around here, but the state is Israel.”
Afterwards she takes me on a quick spin through the nearby settlement of Alfe Menashe. It’s what I’d expected Tel Aviv to look like: all clean white stucco and stone gleaming in the sun.
Rock sprouting everywhere amidst the hills, or maybe the grass and shrubs are forcing their way through the stone, strewn about like rubble or remains or bones, the traces of ancient warfare and cataclysms, one massive breathtaking boneyard, its terraces the work of centuries.
The hills, valleys, mists; the hidden recesses, the sense of mystery. It’s easy to imagine how people could look across this terrain and steel themselves for awesome events.
It’s the seventh anniversary of the protests in Bi’lin, and the Israeli contingent has rented a bus for the occasion. At the checkpoint, the border police climb on board and work through every single passenger’s id. Somehow there are two other foreigners sitting with me in the back row; neither of them brought their passports, and the cops pull them off (both came with friends who go with them). They still refuse to let the bus pass, and escort us back toward Jerusalem, one car in front and one behind us. Once they peel off the bus just sets out for another checkpoint.
At least that’s where I thought we were headed; then one of the organizers gets on the PA and tells us we should get ready to disembark and walk quickly to the taxis on the other side of the barrier. I’m the last person off; everyone is just ducking under a simple barrier gate and jogging straight up the hill beyond it. There isn’t a soldier or border guard in sight. At the top we head off the road, and then we’re marching over hills and through olive orchards and we’re in the West Bank.
After about fifteen minutes we arrive in a Palestinian town and pile into a couple of mini-buses which drive us over to Bi’lin. By the time we arrive, the rally is already underway.
The organizers have trucked some speakers to the site. Someone is addressing the crowd in Arabic, so of course I don’t understand a word, but you can barely hear them over the wind, which is relentless, flaying the hillside. A half dozen men hoist enormous Palestinian flags into the gale for a photo op. Two other guys, their faces covered by keffiyahs, are on top of a van decked out with a larger-than-life photograph of Khader Adnan, the alleged spokesman for Islamic Jihad who at the time had been on a hunger strike for weeks to protest his ‘administrative detention.’ The practice, based in the emergency laws of the British Mandate, allows the IDF to hold prisoners for six months at a time without charging them or showing any evidence. It can be extended over and over, indefinitely. Adnan was first arrested in December 2010, and by this point his lawyers were saying he could die at any minute.
Bi’lin has been the site of regular protests since 2004, when the Israelis built the separation barrier right through the village’s olive orchards. Unlike other Palestinian towns sundered by the wall, the people of Bi’lin went to the Israeli High Court. Eventually the Court determined that the route of the wall should be changed to restore much (but not all) of the town’s land. I’m told it still took a few more years to get around to implementing the Court’s ruling. The old route of the wall, a dirt road to nowhere, meanders along behind us; the hilltop where people are rallying is reclaimed land.
Down below us, the wall wraps around the base of the hill. A little further on, the settlement of Mod’in Illit rises up just beyond the de facto border, the cranes seemingly idle for the moment—and a few dozen people are trying to hoist a Palestinian flag up on top of its sheer concrete face. The Israelis respond with tear gas and the skunk, a white armored vehicle with a water cannon on top that sprays some liquid which stinks like raw sewage. A half dozen young men start throwing stones.
An Israeli peace activist is struggling with the kite he’s brought with him, but the wind isn’t cooperating. When he finally has it laid out, the wind lashes across the hill so fiercely it tears it from its strings instantly, before it’s even off the ground. Eventually he manages to get it aloft, and starts navigating it toward the wall, the letters printed on its underside just possibly visible to the soldiers and the settlers: ‘BDS.’
Some time that afternoon I get my first tastes of tear gas. I’m far enough away from where the canisters land that I can’t even see it in the air, but the corners of my eyes, the back of my mouth, my nose, they’re all on fire.
I catch a ride back to Tel Aviv with the kite runner. As we approach the checkpoint, he and the guy riding shotgun reach into the glove compartment, pull out the sort of knitted kipporot worn by the more militant settlers, and throw them on. They barely come to a stop, tossing ‘shabbat shaloms’ at the soldiers as they pass.
I’m spending the day tagging along with a delegation of British Jews who are being briefed on the situation in the Negev. The trip was organized by the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (AJEEC-NISPED), which promotes peace and cooperative development in the region. We drive out to Hasham Zane, a Bedouin village of around 2,300 people, where our guide, Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, one of AJEEC-NISPED’s co-executive director’s, introduces us to Attiya El Atamin, the chief of the village.
On the other side of the road from Hasham Zane sits Moshav Nevatim, a Jewish cooperative town established in 1953. Just across those two lanes the Israeli government provided roads, electricity, water, services; the residents were encouraged to work in agriculture. Hasham Zane received nothing. As if to drive the point home, smack in the middle of the three clusters of ramshackle homes and dilapidated buildings that make up Hasham Zane is a Jewish cemetery, connected to the highway by the only paved road running in the Bedouin village’s direction.
Hasham Zane is technically an “unrecognized” village, a label that must strike the families who’ve lived there since before the establishment of the state of Israel as ironic, if not an impressive bit of doublespeak. “This is our land,” Attiyah tells us (Amal translates from his Arabic). “It’s not by documents, it’s by oral agreements between people. We never thought we had to write it down. People respected the oral agreements.” If Attiyah wants to cross the road to Moshav Nevatim and buy or rent a house, he’ll be turned away.
The government has a new approach, known as the Prawer Plan, under which many of the unrecognized villages will be demolished and those who live in them relocated to recognized villages. As Vivian Silver, who runs AJEEC-NISPED alongside Amal, tells me later, less than 5% of the Negev is under debate here. Amal sees this as just the latest variation on Ariel Sharon’s old theme: ‘Maximum Arabs, minimum land.’
Avner Gvaryahu didn’t think he had much to say about his time in the IDF. Then he sat down with a member of Breaking the Silence. He talked for three hours. “You don’t recognize yourself,” he says. “You don’t recognize your friends.”
Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by several paratroopers who served in the Palestinian city of Hebron during the second Intifada. Disturbed by what they’d seen and done, they sought to expose the toll the occupation was taking to the broader Israeli public. They started with a photo exhibition. These days, Avner thinks that silence is becoming more and more difficult to break; a recent trip to Hebron arranged by BTS for a high school class was canceled when the police refused to guarantee their security from the settlers. One Israeli MK has introduced a law which would cap donations to groups like BTS; another has proposed legislation under which donations would be taxed (which would effectively cut them off from international funding). While neither law has passed, “It’s not the actual laws,” Avner says. “It’s the feeling. The feeling inside Israeli society that there is an attack on democracy.”
“It doesn’t even matter if the law is passed,” Avner continues. “Because they did what they’re supposed to do. They diverted the discussion. Now it’s about money.” When they meet with new people these days, the first thing he hears is often: “Where’s your money from?”
If that makes it sound like the attack is gaining ground, “Our feeling is exactly the opposite is happening. People feel they have to take a side. Many people are coming forward saying they want to testify and that they’ll testify in front of a video camera.” And more people are attending the tours BTS organizes of occupied areas like Hebron. Even so, Avner declares, “That’s only in the short run. In the long-run, this is a battle we’re losing.”
It’s his bottom line that kills me: “It’s a pretty trivial thing we’re trying to do, looking at it from the outside.”
It’s Friday and I’m back in Bi’lin. This time there are 50 people, tops. That includes a handful of Israelis and a contingent of Belgians. Before the small march has even arrived at the wall the IDF has started firing off rounds of tear gas down at the base of the hill. Of course it’s possible some demonstrators went ahead and started lobbing stones and I didn’t see them. Regardless, it’s not long before a few young guys have taken up the challenge. They creep forward, take cover behind a mound of rock and dirt, and begin hurling stones at the two or three soldiers whose helmeted heads are visible over the wall. For the most part they don’t come anywhere close. Every so often a salvo of tear gas still comes raining down. After about an hour of this, as if at some secret signal, everyone decides to call it a day. A few young kids carry off an iron beam from the trench that runs along the base of the wall; their trophy from the front. One of them carries it to the village across his back, his arms splayed over it, bearing the burden of the occupation over the hills.
On my way back to Tel Aviv after a weekend near Netanya, some blonde teenage girl walks onto the train, biting her lip, sets down her bags but not the M16 slung over her shoulder. Sweater, sunglasses, a good tan. She looks like she’d be at home in the Valley.
We can’t even see the soldiers when they open up on us with tear gas. The march (around 50 people, not including young kids, who were easily another dozen) had wound its way downhill along the main road through a-Nabi Saleh, switchbacked past the gas station at the intersection, and proceeded along the road toward the checkpoint, chanting and singing. Greeted by a half-dozen or so rounds of tear gas, the demonstrators quickly retreat back uphill. The slingshots come out, and maybe a dozen stones get lobbed toward the soldiers’ vicinity, mostly from the high ground to our left. Some of the activists have already spread small boulders across it to slow down the inevitable armored vehicles. This is all obviously fairly well-rehearsed. The IDF send another half dozen tear gas canisters our way; this time Palestinian protestors load three of them into slingshots and fire them back. The hillside is littered with spent shells.
The skunk sets out and drives straight over the demonstrators’ sorry excuse for a road block. As it approaches the gas station, it’s pounded with stones and eventually it begins to retreat. Someone tosses a still-smoking tear gas canister at it and it lands on top. Cheers.
In a-Nabi Saleh, the protests aren’t concerned with the wall but with water. The settlement on the opposite hillside is Halamish, and in July of 2008 the settlers moved in on the spring which the Palestinian village depends on. I’m told Halamish was an IDF base back in the ‘70s; civilians and the army lived together inside. The settlement was officially established in ’77. (Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq reports that in a ’78 court case, Tamimi v. Defense Minister, the Israeli High Court ruled the expropriation of land for the settlement was illegal. Halamish was unphased.) In recent years the IDF got into the habit of raiding the village at 1 or 2 in the morning, yanking kids out of bed and photographing them. I’m told these raids used to be more common; over the last few months the army has been hanging back. A lot seems to depend on the commanding officer; they rotate out regularly and the current one seems to be relatively restrained.
The skunk has retreated now; the IDF and the protestors go another desultory round or two, a few Palestinians slinging stones and the skunk creeping forward, driving them back, dousing the hillside. And then: Hail. It’s fucking hailing. Tear gas. Rocks. Skunk. Hail. Locusts? We’re all getting pelted; I race to the gas station for shelter along with a bunch of other people. In twenty minutes they’ll be back at it.
I’ve walked a pretty large swath of Tel Aviv, and covered a fair amount of ground in Jerusalem, and I can not find a decent bagel anywhere. Burekas, which I’ve only ever enjoyed over the occasional meal with my extended family, no problem. But bagels, which to me seem quintessentially Jewish, are nowhere to be seen. Occasionally I pass women who look like my grandmother’s sisters. I speak little more than a few words of Hebrew, and buying my morning burekas or sheets for my bed or whatever I need on a given day, I run into plenty of people who don’t speak more than a few words of English. A stranger in a strangely familiar land.
Hebron is a ghost town. Or at least the center of it is. Avner and Breaking the Silence are taking a group of American kids on a tour and I’m along for the ride. The largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, Hebron is also home to the supposed burial place of Abraham, and therefore to a few hundred Jewish settlers. Since the main street runs near the tomb, the IDF locked block after block down in the name of security, gutting the souk, the Palestinian market at the heart of the city. Shops that were once bustling are now shuttered and padlocked, some of them overtaken by weeds. Nobody seems to have kept track of how many families lost their livelihoods.
The tomb is now home to both a synagogue and a mosque (of course they’re accessed by different entrances and, as far as I could tell, entirely sealed off from each other). As we tour the former, the latter issues the call-to-prayer at near-ear-splitting volume, resounding throughout the synagogue.
We break for lunch and I grab a slice of something barely resembling pizza from the snack bar nearby. There are a couple of Orthodox Jews behind the counter. Given the context I’d rather spend my money elsewhere, but I’m hungry and this seems to be the only option. I only feel worse when one of the other hangers-on points out that the name of the snack bar’s wifi network is “Kill Issa Amro” — Issa Amro being the Palestinian who owns the store across the street.
Ayal Kantz, another of BTS’ organizers, gives me a lift back to Tel Aviv. We take Highway 1, six lanes of glorious paved speed, which, he informs me, weaves in and out of the West Bank. Up north, where he grew up, he says people don’t even know about the Hebron synagogue. “It will be different in five years,” he tells me. “Every Israeli will visit Hebron, every Israeli will know Hebron.”
Another Friday, another protest, this time in a-Nabi Saleh again. This week the IDF allowed the protestors to make their way almost to their position before letting loose a few stun grenades and rushing the line. The march disintegrates; rocks and tear gas start flying. Then more tear gas. The skunk rumbles up the road, driving everyone back. This time it passes the gas station, dousing the village with its stench, the soldiers following in its wake, the protestors scattering into separate groups as volleys of tear gas fill the air. I find myself cutting through the olive grove across the street from the gas station, tear gas billowing through the trees. From somewhere in the smoke comes the braying of a donkey.
“See him?” Iyad, one of the organizers, and I are sitting on the hill overlooking the road later that afternoon. He’s pointing to a tractor slowly working its way back and forth over the land on the hill opposite us. According to Iyad, that settler takes his tractor out every Friday. Once that land was cultivated by Iyad’s family. He tells me the Israeli High Court ruled this is Palestinian land. “He has no right to be there.”
Later still I’m sitting on another rock wall chatting with one of the Israeli anarchists, talking about bread and roses and how they found themselves here. I barely see the tear gas shell coming as it hits the ground in front of us and ricochets by, careening a foot or so past her head. Before the day is done another activist takes one in the leg, breaking his tibia.
My last Friday finds me back in Bi’lin one more time. They’re down to maybe 30 people this week, and that includes media (most of whom are activists of one stripe or another). The usual four or five soldiers poke their heads over the top, just above graffiti reading “no to the wall.” Today the protestors have brought eggs; they, too, can engage in olfactory warfare. The bellowing chants of Dr. Rateb Rahmah one of the organizers, echo off the wall: “One, two, three, four, Occupation no more, five, six, seven, eight, Palestine will be state.”
Eggs and tear gas are exchanged; after about an hour it starts raining and, both sides having demonstrated their resistance, everybody heads home. I feel a sense of futility that’s hard to shake. The protests pose no real threat to the occupation or the settlers just on the other side of the wall, and have no goal beyond demonstrating that people won’t go quietly, won’t simply acquiesce. The Palestinians vent their frustration, the Israelis flex their domination. Next Friday they’ll do it all again. This is politics at its most symbolic, almost utterly divorced from any goal or end, reduced to the level of ritual.
While I’m in Bi’lin, Naomi Lyth, the 20-something elfin Israeli anarchist who helps organize transportation to a-Nabi Saleh, is shot in the back of the head. Nobody is sure if she was hit with a tear gas canister or a rubber bullet; the doctors she sees later suspect the former. She remembers lying on the ground in pain, the Army catching up and giving her first aid, one of the soldiers telling her in Hebrew, “Try and think if maybe it was a stone, try to remember.”
On the way out of Jerusalem following an aborted meeting a couple of days before my departure, the city is smothered in dust, like some slow-moving wind, in the way that the Glades are actually a river. Is this the hamsin? “A murderous dryness,” writes Amos Oz, “as if the desert had risen to float upside down over our tiny roofs.” It doesn’t cling, caress, or congeal like fog, lacks the consistency of smog. It’s color of smoke, as if the air itself suddenly became opaque. Blotting out the buildings, the city obscured, its details gone soft, already passing into memory.
I wonder how much I’ve already forgotten. We strive to observe, to keep watch, to bear witness, to commit what we see to memory, to sear the details into the synapses, to never forget. But we do, inevitably. We struggle to look past the walls and through the gas, to see the people, the flesh-and-blood, fully-realized people, who might be there, and in the end we fail to recognize even ourselves. We’re like Naomi, we can’t even see what hit us.
I peer out at the hamsin. Up close it’s imperceptible; it’s only looking into the distance that you can perceive its presence. A dull screen before the sun, which is full and flat and drained of fire, a white disc in the sky that might as well be the moon.
The first security officer at the airport seems like she’s about half my damn age and pretty soon I’m getting that sinking feeling. She’s asking me questions about why I wanted to come to Israel and as usual I’m having trouble coming up with simple answers; it’s only when she asks me “Are you Jewish?” that I realize that would’ve done the job. Soon enough she hands me off to her supervisor, a slightly older young woman who is doing a very good job of being serious. They don’t know quite what to make of all these weird stamps in my passport, of my vague profession, of my odd Jewish upbringing. I tell the supervisor they tried to teach us Yiddish but it didn’t take. He laughs. “Of course not.” They unpack all my bags and x-ray the contents separately, brushing everything down and checking for traces of who-knows-what chemicals. I’m led to a room in a secure area where a young guy wands me and then pats me down while a burlier guy in a suit watches. They stop short of the strip search. After a little over an hour they finally decide to let me leave the country.
While they’re walking me through all this I notice they’re giving the young white girl who was behind me in the line the full treatment as well; a security official is carefully inspecting the violin they’ve removed from her bags. Maybe it’s random after all. I catch up to her on the other side; she’s from Michigan and is headed to Taipei to study the Bible for a semester. She’s been staying with a friend whose father is Palestinian. When they asked her the father’s last name, that’s when she knew she was in for it.
The flight to Amman is fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes.
The morning after I left, there was apparently a civil defense drill in Tel Aviv. “I didn’t hear a thing about it,” Erez Bernholtz, 30, tells Haaretz. “I was in the shower and I thought missiles were falling on Israel.”
A week later, a kid takes a rubber bullet through the jaw during the Friday protest at a-Nabi Saleh. Another child leads him up the road in a photo, blood streaming from the wounded boy’s chin. In late April, a group of young Palestinian women from the village, supported by a few Israeli women, made it to the spring.