Getting Along in the Middle East
West Jerusalem looks like a mall in the US that always feels like it will turn into a live-fire zone
By David Enders
I'd been in Iraq for most of the last year and a half. I was in Lebanon before that, studying Beirut and writing for the Daily Star, the city's english-language paper. When it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict/conflagration/dispute (call it what you will), I've taken sides. Essentially, what exists in Israel and the occupied territories is apartheid. I rolled into Jerusalem/Al-Quds from Amman, Jordan, after what was supposed to be a weeklong holiday had been marred by a friend's kidnapping and the inability of another friend to obtain a US passport. (Strangely enough, the US government does not recognize the new Iraqi passport.)
The trip from Amman to Jerusalem took five and a half hours. The actual driving time is less than an hour. The rest is spent at the border, enduring security checks and stupid questions. There are Iraqi and Lebanese stamps in my passport, so I expected a hassle. But what about the lady in front of me?
"And your husband is Jordanian, Ma'am?'
"And you're Canadian?"
"How did you meet your husband, Ma'am?"
"Well, that was 10 years ago . . . ."
One of the guys in line was the head of a family of four Californians delayed on their way to Ramallah for a Palestinian wedding. "You're going to write about how ridiculous this is, right?" I promised I would.
Customs cleared, I got ready to get onto my real assignment, an article for High Times magazine about pot-smoking Israeli settlers in Yitzhar, a settlement on the West Bank. I took the bus to Jerusalem/Al-Quds. Another U-M alum who had left a couple days before had recommended a place to stay near the Damascus Gate and a nearby falafel stand, so that's where I headed.
Of course, I had no idea how I was going to get the story. But figuring that out is always most of the fun. I knew I couldn't do it on my own; I needed someone who spoke Hebrew, who could navigate all that I couldn't. And that's where Sam came in. A friend from college, she'd emailed me a few days before I left Baghdad. It had been nearly a year since I'd seen her.
dave—hello! how are you? i hope that this email finds you well. i was reading your blog and … noticed that you are currently in/around palestine? I have been working on a kibbutz in the south for most of the summer and am heading back to the states soon, but if you are nearby and want to visit israel before my plane late wednesday night, feel free to shoot me a line: peace, Sam
p.s. i recently went to visit sinai for the weekend and would like to say that experiencing arab culture was quite, well, an experience (and sinai is mostly tourists, at that). . . but in any case, if you have the time to make it over there, its absolutely beautiful and i highly recommend it. (come to think of it, i also highly recommend visiting israel too while you are at it.) take care!
Jackpot. I meet Sam in Jerusalem and we spend a couple days wandering around the city. She translates for me in the Israeli neighborhoods, and I translate for her in the Palestinian ones. We figure out there are a lot of common words. Common symbols. The whole thing feels like a squabble with my little brother over a favorite toy. It's just not going to be resolved until one kid knocks the other down. The day before she is supposed to leave, I take her to the occupied West Bank for the first time in her life. She's so shocked she decides to extend her ticket for another week or so and travel with me.
I'm doing a comparative study and want to wander around the neighborhoods the teams of international observers don't usually bother visiting, not just the extremists and the refugee camps. Sam and I stroll into a market that seems to be full of mostly Orthodox Jews from Russia. Sam says she's never been here before either. While she browses the fresh food, I make mental sketches of the scene. In Iraq there are Shiite clerics with long beards, funny black hats and long black cloaks. In Israel, the Orthodox Jews wear long beards, funny black hats and long black coats. The women from both groups cover up.
We eventually return from the market to the Palestinian side of town to find the falafel stand the other U-M alum recommended. On the way, we buy cigarettes at a kiosk that I belatedly realize is mainly a porn shop. We talk with the proprietor for some time, who warns us about "Jerusalem syndrome."
"Everyone's a little bit crazy in Israel," he says. "You can smell the crazy people."
"Yeah," says Sam. "Before I left, my mom told me, `The country was built on manic people. If you think you're the messiah, call me.' But she knows I want to make el-e'a [settle in to Israel]."
Sam's serious about moving here after graduation, but her seriousness hasn't undermined her sense of humor. "See? Insta-settler," she says, donning a long skirt over her pants.
They call them Yitzarhim (Hilltop Youth) because they make up the vanguard of some of the most contested Jewish settlements in the West Bank, setting up spartan outposts on hills around the settlement and holding the ground until families move in. Then they push out ever farther. It's not a bad plan, possession being nine-tenths of the law. So one morning, Sam and I set off to find them.
We hire a Palestinian cab driver and Sam manages to talk our way through a couple of checkpoints. The cabbie drops us off on the side of the highway, at the beginning of the road that leads uphill to Yitzhar. This is as close as the driver is willing to get. Fortunately, we find a pair of settlers driving up the hill who drop us off at the settlement's store. From there, we move out toward the youth.
After trekking about half a mile, we come upon an outpost that consists of nothing more than a pair of vans, all tires flat, and a couple of tents. A suspicious looking leafy green crop, recently planted, grows nearby in neat rows.
The fence surrounding the crop abuts a grove of Palestinian olive trees. But the single, sullen youth sitting in the camp has no interest in talking to outsiders. Not even from a magazine about smoking pot.
"No politics," I promise.
"I'm asking you nicely. Leave."
I look past him into the van, which holds a healthy amount of ammo. Sam and I decide to try the next outpost. I notice he is on his mobile as we leave and assume the whole settlement will shortly be alerted to our presence.
Avram, 18, and his wife Yael, 19, moved into their trailer on the next ridge last week. They know Yitzhar is scheduled to be one of the first settlements dismantled if the Israeli government follows through on its pledge to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza, but they don't plan on going anywhere. I ask them about the remains of one of the outposts that lies on a nearby ridge. Turns out the Israeli military destroyed it the previous day.
"We'll rebuild it. If they do it again, we'll rebuild it again."
And of course, in keeping with my assignment, I have to ask (I had goofy visions of being offered a spliff when I walked into Yitzhar): "You know, the only reason I came here is because I heard the Hilltop Youth smoke a lot of marijuana."
"Well, not really. Sometimes, I guess."
Nuts. So I move back to what I suppose is a more important subject. "Will the settlers here fight if the military tries to move them out?"
Avram and Yael look at each other. "Yes," he answers.
After a little more one-sided chatting (I thought these people would be a lot more curious about a pair of 20-somethings who had managed to hoof it to this outpost in the middle of nowhere), Sam and I move on. We take a side road to the next ridge, and when we reach it, Avram is waiting for us on his moped, M-16 across his back. We are not more than a half-mile from his house and still inside the settlement, but I suppose he is ever vigilant.
"You said you were from a magazine," he says. "Is that right?"
Sam had told one of the men we had talked to that we were from a newspaper, not knowing the Hebrew word for magazine. And we hadn't told some of the other settlers that we were press at all.
I understand the paranoia—have seen it in Fallujah
I understand the paranoia—have seen it in Fallujah, on US military bases and other places under siege. Not feeling like having to explain ourselves, we decide to take the fastest (and least labor-intensive) route out of Yitzhar, straight down the hill and into the Palestinian village below.
"These are all settlements?" Sam asks, looking at a map I'd brought as we paused to take in the magnificent view. "Oh, God." Then she notices old piles of rock on the hillside that look like they had been organized in some fashion.
"What are those?"
"Those are the old terraces. The farmers have been moved off this land. Look at the trees." Most of them for some distance have been burned, presumably by the settlers.
Once we're back in Jerusalem I promise Sam that I will report both sides of the story, so while I am waiting for a press pass from the Israeli government to allow me to enter Gaza (which never comes), I make a trip down to the kibbutz. At this point, I must admit, I am having trouble suppressing my growing distaste for the Israeli troops I see scanning every crowd with mistrust, and for all the other people who walk around carrying guns.
Iraq looks war torn, but the west side of Jerusalem looks like a mall in the US that always feels like it will turn into a live-fire zone. The militarization of the culture freaks me out. The proximity of serious affluence to streets where a community is being slowly crushed to death is getting to be too much for me to handle.
"Of course, every Israeli kid does what they can to get out of the army," says one of Sam's friends on the kibbutz. "One of the things you can do is not brush your teeth for two weeks, and then take the white stuff from your teeth and put it on your eye. If they think you have an eye infection they don't test for it and just give you like two weeks off."
A soldier who is on day leave and has stopped by the kibbutz to visit has an even better suggestion. "You can rub a potato against your wrist to weaken the bone, and then take a stick and snap your wrist," he says. "It still hurts, but less than it should."
One thing that I am sure hurts more is the bris (circumcision ritual) we are suddenly invited to after we travel to Hebron. It is at the Tomb of Abraham, where what was once a temple built by Herod was turned into a mosque. Now the building is one-half mosque, one-half synagogue—one religion barred from mixing with the other after an Israeli settler from the United States named Baruch Goldstein walked into the mosque during Friday prayers nearly a decade ago and opened fire. He killed at least 29 Palestinians and wounded about 120 others before the worshipers beat him to death.
On this particular morning, the Jewish half of the building is full of a settler family, the little kids scampering around and drinking from faucets that were once used for ablution.
Hebron might be one of the best symbols of the insanity of the whole situation—more than 2,000 troops guarding about 400 settlers. Sam and I stand on the roof of a friend's house one night and look out across the tightly packed city. The roofs of some houses are covered in camouflage netting, though not all the positions are occupied by troops. From a nearby house we hear the crackle of an Israeli soldier's radio. Looking in the distance we can clearly see the barriers that have been put up in town, leaving one street open to Palestinians and another to Israelis.
"I can't tell my family I'm here," Sam says. "I can't even really believe I'm here."
She talks about coming up with slogans that were used in national pro-Israel and pro-security-wall campus campaigns. "For the first 13 years of my life," she tells me, "I didn't have any friends that weren't Jewish. I've been fed propaganda from only one side for most of my life." Still, she won't concede that the Palestinians' situation is desperate enough to justify suicide bombings. She contends that a pullout from the West Bank would doom the Jewish state. But I think most Palestinians, given an actual pullout, would be too tired to push any Israelis into the sea.
We cross the few streets used by both Jewish settlers and Palestinians in Hebron to hitch a ride to Kiryat Arba, the oldest settlement in the West Bank. Somewhere in the settlement stands a monument to Baruch Goldstein, the mass-murderer. From Kiryat Arba we take a bus (with double-thick blast-proof windows) on an Israeli settler- and military-only road out of the West Bank toward Beersheba. I am taking Sam to Atir and Um Al-Hiran, two Bedouin villages I have read about that are officially "unrecognized" by Israel.
We meet the head of one of the families, the principal of the local high school. The school is in one of the nearby towns the Israeli government's Office of Bedouin Affairs is trying to convince the families in Atir and Um Al-Hiran to resettle in. An Israeli Jewish farmer living less than a quarter mile away has water and electricity.
The Bedouin here are Israeli citizens, pre-1948 Arabs. But they don't have water. They don't have electricity. Yet, they soon present us a hearty meal of fried chicken, salad, French fries, yogurt—this is a meal I am used to. I have had it in fighters' homes or in the homes of the dispossessed (usually the same people) throughout Iraq. But this is one of Sam's first real experiences with Arabs.
"I can't believe my people are doing this to these people," she says. "This is apartheid."
I see the break in the wall and go for it: "The people who would do this aren't `your people.'"
Later, when Sam and I return to Ann Arbor, she still argues with people who take the Palestinian side, still refuses to cede much of the ground that she'd refused to cede in college before her stay in Israel. Nevertheless, she's having conversations she wouldn't have had before.
David Enders '03 is a freelance journalist whose book on Iraq, Baghdad Bulletin , will be published in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press. He reported on his co-founding of and tenure at the Baghdad-based Bulletin in our first all-online issue.