Chapter 11. Violence


The voice of your brother’s blood i
s crying out to me from the ground



What I am going to deal with is
the unambiguous demarcation of a kind,
a degenerate kind, of nationalism,

which of late has begun to spread even in Judaism.

Martin Buber, A Land of Two Peoples


If you look at the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religions,
their first commandments are the same: “Thou shalt not kill.”
It’s not taken seriously.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “19 Varieties of Gazelle”.
Poems of the Middle East


So I would ask what possible difference might it make
that the men of Shekhem were or were not “of the tribe”?
How could it matter if they were in or out? Murder is murder.
There cannot be one morality for us and another for them.
There cannot be one law for Jews and another for Gentiles.
There cannot be one lunch counter for whites and another for blacks.
There cannot be one standard for men and another for women.
A society that makes certain members invisible is doomed to have moral dilemmas
explode from the shadows and rain carnage upon every member of the tribe.

B. Visotzky, The genesis of ethis

Voy donde no hay esclavos
Verdugos, ni opresores
Donde la fe no mata
Donde quien reina es Dios

Jose Rizal, “Mi Ultimo Adios”



What can we do?—Well, not that!

The extreme nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leads too many people on both sides to assume that any measures are justified in order to defend themselves/resist. When speaking to some Palestinians about suicide bombings, I have heard: “Things are so bad, what do you want us to do?” When speaking to Israelis or Diaspora Jews, I commonly hear the parallel justification of the killing of innocent civilians (such as in the Lebanon war or in Gaza) as the necessary and justifiable “collateral damage” of war against militants. To these people on both sides, their actions are necessary for their survival and they see them as justified. To a European like myself, these views are shocking. As much as I feel for the absolutely horrible, demeaning and exasperating conditions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, the killing of Israeli civilians going about their lives in Israel simply cannot be justified. Similarly, as precarious as Israel’s existence is and as justified its claims to self-defense are, the killing of innocent civilians on a regular basis by the Israeli army is unjustifiable.  When each side asks, convinced of its righteousness, “What can we do?,” my answer is “Well, not that!”


When I ask Palestinians why a certain person was in jail –something I did more at the beginning of my stay in Israel/Palestine than I do now–, their answer is almost invariably “politics.” At first, my reaction was one of ignorance and confusion. It was hard for me to believe that Israelis were jailing so many Palestinians just because they were involved in politics. I also did not know that many are simply put in jail to gather information about others or simply as a scare and disempowerment tactic of the occupation. I was once having a conversation with a sympathetic left-wing Israeli about Israeli accusations that Palestinians do not have strong leaders. He snapped: “if they do, they are probably rotting in Israeli jails.” Like some other Israeli policies, this strategy is not only wrong from a humanitarian, democratic or international law perspectives, but also counterproductive. It seems to me that it would be in Israel’s interest to have a strong, reliable, pro-peace Palestinian leadership that one could count on to deliver on negotiated agreements. That is, if one truly wanted a negotiated arrangement.

On the other hand, I have not once heard from Palestinians that someone was in jail because he was involved in violence, suicide bombings or terrorism. I doubt that it is because none of these people were involved in such acts —as many of the Palestinians in prison undoubtedly are–, but rather that no difference is made between one kind of “politics” and another. These Israeli and Palestinian attitudes, unfortunately, feed on each other. If support for terrorist activity is indeed widespread and justified –if not outright supported– by nationalist movements, it is easier for Israelis to justify jailing Palestinians involved in any politics on the grounds that “one thing leads to –and supports–another.” The reverse is also true: if the Israelis make no difference between purely nationalist, independence-seeking, Palestinians who are not involved in violence and those who are, they are alienating potential moderates and confirming Palestinians’ views that both types of activities are just “politics.”

 Go fly a kite

Flying a kite is a beautiful symbol of freedom, of innocence, and of childhood. Like many other things, flying a kite in Palestine is not like flying a kite anywhere else. I attended a presentation on “Palestinian art as political protest” in Washington DC. The presenter –an American Arab artist—shared with us two images of Palestinian children flying kites. The first one was in Gaza, where children had gathered at the beach to break the Guinness record of the largest number of kites being flown simultaneously. As one saw the little children flying their kites in the beach of the locked-up strip, the metaphor for their lack of freedom was inescapable. The second image had taken place in Nablus. During some of the many interminable days of siege by the Israeli army, children were flying kites out of their windows, as the only kind of protest they could muster and as their agents to the outside world, flying in the wind attached with strings from the inside of their homes.

I also heard of a poignant event that took place near Ramallah. I had attended a presentation at a think tank in Ramallah and I was casually chatting with some of the presenters after the event. One of them, Professor Nabulsi, was a brilliant academic who had obtained his PhD in the US, but had decided to spend his life working back in Palestine. He was married to a European woman and they had three children. They lived somewhere outside Ramallah, where Professor Nabulsi’s family is from. We discussed the situation in the West Bank and, in particular, the enormous burden that the settlements constitute for the daily life of Palestinians. Although Professor Nabulsi was measured and polite, he could not but agree. He told me a little incident which reflects to which point the lives of Palestinian people are constrained under the occupation. A couple of days before, Professor Nabulsi and his family were outdoors in the fields outside his town. The fields are in-between his town and a settlement. They belong to his family, just like the whole land that the settlement is on. He and his family had gone out to get some air and for the children to fly their kites. As they were enjoying the day and running in the fields, a group of settlers approached them: “Leave! Go away from here!” they yelled at them in Arabic. Professor Nabulsi asked them in English why they should leave. The settlers told them that that was their land. Professor Nabulsi told them that it was actually his family’s land. I forget the end of the story. I do not know whether the settlers left and the Nabulsi children were able to continue flying their kites or whether they left to avoid further confrontation. What I am sure about is that the settlers spoiled the day for Professor Nabulsi and his family, in their own town, in their own land. I also wondered how Professor Nabulsi could possibly explain to his children that the land that their harassers had built their settlement on was theirs, that the land that they were on as they were flying their kites was also theirs and yet, that the people who wanted to expel them believed it belonged to them.

The machine gun, the workers and the wall

As I take the bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the route we take winds right by the separation wall which Israel is building in the West Bank. It is, at best, an eerie sight. It is physically ugly and harsh. Worse, it has taken yet more land and more water to the “Israeli side” of the wall, leaving yet more Palestinian families divided, trapped, and landless. One of the bitter ironies of the wall is that, like the settlements, it is being built by Palestinians. Some days as we drove by, I would see in the distance the Palestinian workers by the wall, working in the harsh Middle Eastern sun under the guard of Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns. As I see them, I feel my heart sink. I always wonder what it must feel like to have to work, literally under the machine gun of your occupier to build your own occupation and that of your children just because you are poor and powerless and your occupiers are rich and powerful. I wonder whether these men tell their friends where they work and, most of all, I wonder what they tell their children.

The ends and the means

Throughout my two years in Israel/Palestine, I avoided using the word “Zionism” or “Zionist.” For its supporters, identifying oneself as a Zionist is the hallmark of loyalty to the state of Israel. For its detractors, it is simply shorthand for racism.  I felt the term hides more than it reveals and prefer to discuss the desirability and acceptability of specific institutions or policies. However, I agree with its detractors that, as it is typically understood and implemented, Zionism is deeply problematic. This is so for many reasons, but two are foremost among them. The first is its viewing Israel as “a Jewish state.” States should belong to all of their citizens and not to only part of them. There are no “Anglo-Saxon,” “Latin” or “Roman Catholic” states and, in the same vein, there should be no “Jewish” state. The exclusion of a group of citizens from the definition of a state does make the state’s definition racist.

The second problem is that mainstream Zionism uses people as means for political ends. The end of any state should always be the welfare of people (and especially of its citizens). Ideology and political objectives should only and always be means to achieving that end. Zionism does not follow this rule. On the contrary, its end is a political ideology—the building of a “Jewish state.” To achieve this end, it uses people –Arabs and Jews (in Israel and the Diaspora) in whichever way the state apparatus deems needed. It is this fundamental misalignment of ends and means and the resulting willingness to sacrifice human beings for the sake of ideology that lie at the core of Zionism’s failure to build a proper home for either Arabs or Jews in the country.

Close to death

It was Shabbat and the guests around the table included an Israeli woman who lived in Sderot. I asked her why she lived there. She told me that she had married a man who was from Sderot and that was where they lived. She was a kind and gentle woman, with the deep look in her eyes of those used to suffering. I told her I had visited Sderot and that the people I had met with had told me that, because falling rockets were such a common occurrence, they no longer ran to shelters. I asked her what she did. She told me that she did run to a shelter. She explained it all depends: “Those who have never had a rocket fall and explode near them may not go to shelters. Those of us who have, do.” A simple explanation. When you have had death up close, you do your best not to invite it again.

Hamas and cinemas

I was spending a slow summer afternoon with the women of a Palestinian family living between Hebron and Bethlehem. We were chatting and watching TV, the main (only?) entertainment seemingly available to women in much of Palestine. At one point, they started to speak about the good old days when there used to be cinemas and to remark how now there was none in Bethlehem. “There is no cinema in all of Bethlehem?” I asked dumbfounded. “No,” they replied, “not even in Hebron. Only in Ramallah (currently 4 hours away owing to road closures and checkpoints)” I could not believe it. When I asked them why that was, they replied that the cinemas had closed down because “Hamas and its supporters did not like them.” (I have realized that being a Hamas member/supporter, a “sheikh,” and a fundamentalist –the latter a term they do not use—are seen by Palestinians as interchangeable). This remark jived in with other comments I had heard on how, some years ago, life was different and freer in Palestine, how women walked around in the streets and hejabs were rare and how the women who were educated during that time relish its memory. I thought to myself, the lives of Palestinians are hard enough the way they are, with economic hardship and political and military occupation. To those oppressions, the piling up of social and religious repression by the likes of Hamas is a real curse. It also makes the end of economic hardship and of the conflict with Israel more unlikely. And yet, there is not enough of an effort to make sure that a free, quality secular education system is available to all from kindergarten onwards as an alternative to the teachings of the mosques.


Palestinians seem to live in constant fear of being asked for their identification and not being able to produce it to the satisfaction of the Israeli police and military. My friend Moattaz is from the West Bank and he married a Palestinian from Jerusalem. Every year, he needs to wait for the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to renew his residence permit in Israel as he has been denied permanent residence and nationality (like almost every other Palestinian who requests it). This year, the Ministry of the Interior is late in granting his permit, so he does not have a current one. Therefore, he has restricted his travels to the West Bank to visit his family to a minimum for fear of not being able to produce a current residence permit when asked. In that case, he would have to stay in the West Bank while the rest of his family is living in Israel.

The stories are countless. An Israeli friend recounted a shocking one which took place at a checkpoint. As he was waiting his turn, a Palestinian man before him had –without provocation—his permit stripped away from him, torn to pieces and thrown to the ground by the Israeli soldier at the border as he spurted at him: “How will you cross the border now, huh?.” My friend had gotten out of his car and confronted the soldier, who had told him derogatorily “Do you love Arabs?,” clearly a major sin in the eyes of the soldier. Ashraf, a Palestinian from a refugee camp, also recounts that people in his refugee camp live in constant fear of being asked for their identification and not being able to produce it. The day we were discussing it, he told me how just the night before he was at a friend’s home when they heard soldiers barge into the house next door. Ashraf said all he could think of was that he was afraid they would also come to where he was with his friends and that he did not have his identification with him. This fear affects even the professional and well-to-do among Israeli Palestinians. Sayed Kashua wrote an article in Haaretz about how he had wandered from his Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa into the Jewish neighborhood of Bak’a and he panicked when he was faced with an Israeli policeman and realized he had forgotten his identification at home.


Makram lives in a settlement

Makram runs a small hotel in Beit Jalla, just across from the Jewish settlement of Gilo where his home is. The separation wall now runs between his hotel and his home. An Israeli friend explained how it now took Makram almost an hour to go home from his hotel when, before the construction of the wall, it took him only five minutes. “Poor Makram, she said!, as she explained this, And he is a Christian!,” as if it would be less sad or disturbing if he were a Muslim. Another friend had explained to me that he thought it strange that Makram lived in a settlement and that it was probably because he was a keeper of the grounds there. The next time I spoke to Makram I asked him about this. As I had anticipated, he explained that his family were farmers and had lived where his house still is for many generations. At one point, some land was bought by Israelis, but most was expropriated, to build the settlement of Gilo. Only three Arab families were allowed to stay including his. To this day, Makram does not know why. His world has been thus turned around for him. He used to live in an Arab village and now he lives in a Jewish settlement. I need to tell my friend who had said that Makram lives in a settlement that what really happened is that a settlement lives at Makram’s.

Sexy girl

I was on holiday in Spain when I saw the piece of news in the press. A former Israeli soldier had pictured herself in insinuating poses in front of three blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian men. A second take had her sitting down next to one of the blindfolded, hand-cuffed prisoners pretending to blow him a kiss. The young Israeli woman, proud of her achievement, had posted the pictures on her Facebook page. A friend of hers had commented: “You look really sexy!” “I know!” the soldier had answered “I wonder if he is on Facebook too (she added referring to the Palestinian prisoner). I should put his name on the picture!”

Needless to say, the images created an up roar across the world. Everyone saw what I saw: a terrible, cruel affront to human dignity and the arrogance and callousness of people who had lost any sense of humanity. The next day, the press carried a follow-up piece relating how the woman soldier did not understand what the up roar was all about. I had dinner with some Palestinian friends that evening and we discussed the sad event. “It is just like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo” one of my friends said. I understood why he made the comparison, but I disagreed with his interpretation. I told him that the American soldiers who had carried out the acts of abuse against prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were fully aware that their acts were wrong and that everyone in their country would think they were wrong. It would never have occurred to them to post pictures of their abuse proudly on the web. Moreover, those were exceptional acts. The Israeli girl, on the other hand, was proud of her acts and those acts are commonplace –if not the norm—in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Indeed, they are so common and so accepted that she was happy to post them on the web for all to see. Her friends and colleagues complimented her. A few days after the event, when the Israeli public relations machine was arguing that those acts were exceptional, an Israeli NGO put up a large number of such pictures on the web. The point was proven. The rest of the world, who fortunately does not share the utter de-humanization of the Palestinian people that is prevalent in Israel, saw the incident with completely different eyes.

Good settlers and bad settlers

It was the end of my second private Arabic class in Tantur, an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, and I asked my teacher where I could get a bus to go back home. I knew how to get there by bus –on the “Arab” buses that are on their way to the West Bank–, but was having trouble finding the bus stop for the way back. My teacher told me the easiest was to get on Egged bus number 30. I knew that, but did not wish to take it because it comes from Har Gilo, a settlement which is next to Tantur. I told my teacher I did not wish to take a bus that was coming from a settlement. She told me that the settlers in Gilo were not like the settlers in Hebron and that “I could handle them.” I know what she meant and I also know that she was just trying to help me find the easiest way back –it was also already dark out.

Her comment, though, got me thinking because I have heard similar comments from Jews. Like Gideon Levy of Haaretz points out, Israeli Jews have made an art of distinguishing between settlements –in Jerusalem they are just called “neighborhoods” and in the Golan “towns,” “moshavim,” or “kibbutzim”—. Yet, they are all beyond the 1967 green line and, consequently, are settlements in illegally occupied land. Their similarity is not just legal, but also in the consequences they have for Palestinian residents. The point is particularly obvious to me because I know Palestinians who have suffered the consequences of these “good” settlers. My friends in Beit Jalla, Al-Arroub Camp and El Hadr are surrounded by the benign and “progressive” settlement of Har Gilo and Gush Etzion and yet have had their lands expropriated, houses and water tanks demolished, land taken away for building bypass roads, water supplies restricted for the use of the settlements and additional checkpoints installed. The same is true of the three Palestinian families left in Har Gilo. Meanwhile, Arab East Jerusalem is being choked to death, increasingly taken over by settlers, surrounded by Jewish neighborhoods and cut off from its ties to the West Bank. These are the places where the good settlers live.

The bad settlers are the ones in Hebron, who in addition to taking land, water, and freedom of movement away from Palestinians and destroying their world, also throw garbage at them in the old market if they dare tread in –thankfully a covered corridor has been built so the objects thrown by the settlers will not physically harm the Palestinians. Or the settlers I was reading about in Haaretz, who during the olive harvest physically attack Palestinian farmers who are just trying to do what they have done for the past millennia. Just last week some of these settlers held an old Palestinian farmer who could not run away quickly enough and cracked open his head with a stone as they yelled at him “Allah-hu-akbar!.” These are the bad settlers.

Left-wing bitch

Ora is an Israeli woman in her early thirties who has been a left-wing activist for years. She regularly participates in dialogue activities with Palestinians, used to be active in Peace Now and would like to work in a human rights organization like B’tselem when she finishes law school. Last year, she went to visit a young East Jerusalemite who had been the victim of a horrible racist attack. A group of Jewish youth from a nearby settlement had attacked him on Holocaust Remembrance Day. He had been badly beaten up and he was psychologically traumatized by the attack. Only G-d knows what thoughts could possibly have crossed the minds of those youth as they decided to beat up a young Palestinian on the day of the commemoration of the holocaust and which terribly distorted lessons they may have drawn from the Shoa to lead them to such an act. Ora and two of her friends –one Palestinian and one British—decided to go and pay a visit to the Palestinian victim. As they crossed the checkpoint to get into the town where the young man lived, the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint insulted Ora as he let them through: “Left-wing bitch!” he snapped at her. When Ora told me about the incident, it reminded me of the difficult situation in which Israeli Jews who truly care about human rights, justice and the Palestinian people find themselves. They are seen, at best, as dangerous naïve extremists and, at worst, as traitors. It is a sad commentary on the inability of a people who has suffered so much from racist violence to draw the appropriate conclusions as they apply to others.

Identity as violence

As a European, I am weary of flag-waving. Too much harm has been done by it. I always see it as a cheap substitute for Governments who fail to deliver real goods to their populations and, instead, foster easy patriotism and, often, jointly with it, a hatred of the other. The flag becomes yet another way to buy off some and oppress others. This is particularly the case when the flag of the minority is prohibited and that of the majority is imposed on it. In the United States, at least, the flag is a unifying factor. In Israel, it divides and the Palestinian flag is forbidden. The ubiquitous signs of “40 years of reunification” posted all over Jerusalem for my whole stay in the country were particularly disturbing, as were the enormous flags hanging throughout the country for weeks on end during the patriotic holiday period and the religious Jewish symbols, including menorahs during Hannukah hanging in the midst of occupied East Jerusalem.  I asked myself, why rub in the 40 years of occupation on the nose of the population of East Jerusalem? Why put religious Jewish symbols in their neighborhoods? Why would the political right insist that Israeli flags be waved also at Arab schools in Israel? Was that the best way to earn the loyalty of Palestinian Israelis? What did it provide for Israeli Jews?

My conclusions are that it is a cheap substitute for failing to improve the real wellbeing of Israeli Jews, for the enormous gap between the rich and the poor (the largest in the developed world together with the US), for failing to heal the wounds between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardim, between the secular and the religious, between the religious nationalists and the ultra-orthodox, for the cuts in social welfare and education expenditure, for failing to end corruption and provide for the security of the population while continuing to send their youth to occupy their neighbors. With flag waving and chest-beating, perhaps they would feel better about themselves, forget for a moment about the incompetence of their governments and strengthen their resolve to fight “the enemy.” Towards Palestinians, it was just a form of violence.

Israeli governments are doing nothing to make Palestinian Israelis feel at home in Israel. They continue to define them out of the state, limit as much as they can the expansion of their towns, refuse basic services to Bedouin towns in the Negev, decline to build schools in East Jerusalem and deny building permits and afterwards destroy homes built without them. There is no will to integrate, but there is a will to impose one’s culture on the other, without any real belief or expectation that it will be accepted, just as a form of violence. This form of patriotism does not anesthetize those who buy it for long and it radicalizes those against whom it is directed.

The missile in the children’s room

I was speaking to Rima and Mary over drinks in their home town in the Galilee. Rima and Mary are two Palestinian Christian women in their forties. We were discussing various aspects of Palestinian Christian society in the Galilee. At one point, they told me about their experience during the second Lebanon war. They said it was very tough times for them. “Unlike Jewish houses,” they explained, “Palestinian homes do not have bomb shelters and, therefore, we have nowhere to go.” I asked them why they have no bomb shelters. They explained that it was a combination of the fact that contractors in their areas would typically not obey the government regulation to build bomb shelters in every building and the reality that the government did not care enough to build any bomb shelters in their towns. The result was catastrophic as, literally, they had no place to run to when the missiles from Lebanon started falling. “What did you do?” I asked them “We went to Bethlehem” they said. “A very large number of Palestinian Christians from the North went to spend some time in Bethlehem with relatives and in hotels. The hotels were full of Christians from the North.” “When we came back,” Mary explained, “we found the children’s room had been hit by a missile.”

You have to be strong!

I was spending a morning in a West Bank center which provides battered women with refuge, psychological and professional counseling and legal assistance. The friend who had invited me to visit the center asked me if I wanted to join the talk between one of the women in the center, one of the administrators, and the center’s psychologist. I agreed. The talk was in Arabic and I only got parts of the conversation. As it was related to me afterwards, the young woman whom we listened to had just arrived to the center the night before. She had escaped from her husband, who had been physically abusing her from the beginning of their marriage. He would use any excuse to beat her up –that she had not cooked properly, or enough, or on time; that she was “talking back to him” or that she was using her own judgment (rather than his) in raising their two daughters. He also accused her of “looking at other men.” He had forced her to wear a burka, which made it hard for her to look at anyone at all and even then the accusations and the beatings kept on coming. So much so that she dreaded any proposal he made for them to leave the house, because she feared he would accuse her of looking at any of the men around them and beat her afterwards.

After the meeting with the psychologist, we spent some time with her, her two daughters and some other women from the center. Her oldest daughter was around three years of age. She kept on hugging her mother and caressing her face as if she feared she would be hurt or disappear at any time. Her one year-old started crying and her mother told her sternly: “Don’t cry! Don’t cry! You have to be strong.” I felt she was talking to herself as much as she was talking to her baby daughter.

Two kinds of people

It may sound harsh, but in Israel there are two kinds of people –Jews and Arabs– and the first are considered infinitely more valuable than the second.  This is obvious from many aspects of Israeli policy and society, but it struck me most when I read a Gideon Levy article in Haaretz. The article denounced an Israeli hospital for having contributed to the death of two Palestinian girls. The girls were ill with cancer and the hospital agreed to treat them. However, instead of treating them with the new radiation machines that were being used for Jewish patients, they decided to use old radiation machines no longer considered good enough to treat Jews. Seemingly, they were considered good enough for Palestinian girls. As it turned out, the machines were obsolete and contributed to the death of the girls.

I tried to go through the thinking process of the people who took this fatal decision. It must have gone something like: “Let us not burden the new machines and lengthen the wait of our (Jewish) patients. These are Palestinians. The old machines will do. They don’t know how lucky they are that we accept to treat them at all.” I am just imagining this twisted and racist rationale, but I have heard it so many times. When one argues that Palestinians and Jews are treated at such different standards in Israel, the typical Jewish reply is: “they are lucky we are here; their lives were much worse before we arrived. Look at how all Arab countries work.” Somehow, it is felt that the proper comparator is not the degree of equity with which a state treats its various groups of citizens, but rather the previous situation of one group of these citizens some time ago or how these citizens would fare were they to be in another country. For some reason, however, this rationale is not applied to Jews (who also came from much worse off situations in Ethiopia, the Arab world, Iran, India and other developing countries).

This racist distinction between two kinds of people is omnipresent in political discourse including in the national consensus to have “Jewish coalitions” –excluding the Arab parties—and in electoral calculations about “Jewish votes and Jewish majorities” in various political parties. It also applies to life and death. In one of the many prisoner exchange talks Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held with Palestinians, he stressed that he would not approve the release of any prisoner with “Jewish blood in his hands.” I thought to myself, “How about Arab blood?” (There are Arab Israeli victims of terrorism) Is the blood of Arab citizens of Israel worth less? Why should the Prime Minister of Israel not speak of Israeli blood? How would it sound if the President of the United States spoke of Anglo-Saxon blood? Why purposefully exclude a part of Israel’s population from the blood that counts?” Until this racist thinking changes, Israel will not be a normal, democratic country. Unfortunately, there are no signs of this happening as of yet.

 Not a life

I was in Europe for a visit and was having a coffee with my friend Majd, from Gaza. We were talking about Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. I told Majd I had recently visited the Southern Israeli town of Sderot. Sderot is infamous for being the border town on which most missiles launched from Gaza seem to land. I was wondering how Majd would react. He could simply have ignored my comment and continued the conversation with something else, thinking: “whatever these guys are going through can’t even begin to compare with our suffering.” This is something I have heard many times–though interestingly, mostly from Europeans. Majd, as he would often do, impressed me. “What is it like?” he asked with genuine interest and, I woud say, even concern. “It is horrible” I said. “There are no people in the streets. The sirens are constantly going off, and everyone needs to run to bomb shelters every time.” “This is not a life” Majd said shaking his head. He, of all people, should know, I thought.

Centuries of civil war

It was a beautiful and clear winter morning and I was standing atop a tower in Granada’s Alhambra Palace. The Alhambra is, in my view, the most beautiful building in the world. It is exquisite in its sophistication. Its architects and landscapers mixed architecture, lattice-work, windows beckoning the outside world in and the inside world out, light and shadows, fountains and the sound of water, and flowers and other vegetation to create the closest one can come to paradise on earth. They accompanied it with beautiful poetry and a fantastically advanced world of philosophy and religious and political tolerance. I was enthralled in looking at this beauty with Yusuf, a Palestinian friend. I mused out loud to him what Spain might have been like if we had not expelled Muslims and Jews. Yusuf –a staunch secularist — matter-of-factly interrupted my dreaminess: “The result would have been centuries of civil war.” What a sad conclusion, I thought to myself in shock. Econometric studies do find that countries with two or three ethnic groups are much more likely to have civil wars than countries that are either homogenous or those in which many different groups coexist –and, hence, in which no one single group can hold power. Still I wondered whether things could not have been different in Spain and, more importantly, whether –with the appropriate attitudes and institutions—they could not be different now –In Israel/Palestine.

Nothing personal

An Israeli friend recounted a conversation that took place between her and a group of Israeli friends. The conversation dwelled on how the occupation and the continuing expansion of the settlements were increasingly depriving Palestinians of their homes. In particular, my friend told me that she had given the example that a Palestinian Jerusalemite acquaintance of the group had had his land taken away for a settlement expansion. The comment of one of the women in the group was that the occupation and the settlements were policy issues and that “it was nothing personal” against any individual Palestinian, including their acquaintance. I thought it was exactly that kind of thinking that allows Israel to implement the policies it implements –utter depersonalization of the victim. It is not alone. Across the world and across history, regimes and supporters of regimes who believe their policies are justifiable regardless of their consequences on people fail at the root. The truth is the exact opposite of what they hold. The only thing that justifies regimes is people and the only thing that matters is precisely the impact of their policies on people. So, not only are policies “personal,” but, at the end of the day, that is all they are. In Israel/Palestine, the occupation is all “personal” –it is its impact on every human being in the West Bank and Gaza. It is this frightening “personal” impact which many try to avoid seeing that I have tried to illustrate in this book.

The school, the army and the media

I believe there are three institutions that shape the Zionist Israeli mentality as it is today. They are the school, the army and the media. These three institutions engineer the one-sided view of history and of the conflict and the prejudice, lack of compassion, fear and hatred of Palestinians that pervade Israeli society. Those Israelis who were not shaped by those three institutions simply have a different outlook. This is the case, for instance, of the –increasingly few—remaining old European, non-Zionist educated Israelis. They are the left-wing aging intellectual elite that is appalled at what the country has turned out to be, at its values and its policies. It is also the case of the ultra-orthodox. They may not be exactly “open-minded,” but they simply do not share the closed and unfeeling attitude of the Israeli mainstream.  I am convinced this is because they have not attended Zionist schools –their education is traditionally Jewish rather than Israeli–, they have not gone to the army, and they do not read or listen to the dramatically biased and panic-inducing mainstream mass media.

Clap for my birthday!

Ibrahim and I were in the same Hebrew class together for a few trimesters. He is a jovial and polite East Jerusalemite with extremely circumspect political views. When I criticize some Israeli policy to him, he almost invariably argues that it is not as bad as it seems or finds some positive aspect or mitigating angle to the issue. One day, though, I told him about the experience of another East Jerusalemite who had been on a trip to Tel Aviv. He had gotten asked for his ID by police –something very common for Israeli Arabs and East Jerusalemites to have to endure. He had produced it satisfactorily, but the police had forced him to get in their car with them anyway. They drove him around Tel Aviv for what was half an hour, but felt to him like an eternity. While they were driving him around, they hit him and insulted him and his mother, and finally let him go. I told Ibrahim that I had Palestinian Israeli friends who are afraid that something like that could happen to them at any time and, hence, do not feel safe or protected anywhere.

At first, as usual, Ibrahim said that nothing like that had happened to him. After some thought, however, he admitted that he had had one unpleasant experience. One day, he had been driving in the West Bank when he got stopped at a checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint had a number of West Bank Palestinian men detained, sitting on the ground. They decided to play some games with Ibrahim too. One of the soldiers noticed on Ibrahim’s ID that it was his birthday and told him that, unless he got the men sitting on the ground to clap for his birthday, they would not let him through. Since Ibrahim very much wanted to go through the checkpoint, he told the men sitting on the ground that it was his birthday and that the only way the soldiers would let him go through was if they clapped for him. The men obliged and Ibrahim was let through. This is not an example of a major human rights abuse. However, it is also these kinds of abuse — power games of bored teenagers with the lives of thousands of people in their hands– that make the daily lives of Palestinians a living hell of uncertainty, inconvenience and humiliation.

Life and death

Perhaps the most upsetting incidents I learned of while living in Israel/Palestine were the manifold ways in which the Israeli secret services use the control they have over Palestinians’ lives to make them collaborate with them. I am convinced the way in which Israel has stopped suicide bombings into Israel is the absolute and utter control Israeli security has over Palestinian society, how it controls all its communications and how it has infiltrated society with hundreds (thousands?) of collaborators. The good part of this is that there are no more suicide bombings in Israel. The bad part is that it has destroyed the fiber of Palestinian society let alone the relationships between Palestinians and Israelis. As a result, there is simply no trust among Palestinians as no one knows whether someone is working for the Israelis. The methods the Israeli secret services use to “convince” Palestinians to collaborate with them go beyond anything I would have imagined. I read reports from Israeli human rights NGOs about how Palestinians are threatened with jail for relatives, the withholding of work and travel permits and home demolitions. The worst incidents I learned about, however, concerned blackmailing sick people and their relatives. I read reports from B’Tselem and Physicians for Human Rights –and heard confirmations from students of mine working at Palestinian hospitals—that Israeli security will withhold health-related travel permits to go to Israeli hospitals unless the ill person or a relative of theirs agrees to collaborate with Israeli intelligence. I once read about an old Palestinian man whose son was ill with an advanced stage of cancer. They were granted a permit, but when they were at the border, the Israeli army held the father for questioning and asked him to collaborate if he wanted his ill son to be treated at an Israeli hospital. The man declined. He was not allowed through. His son died.

A picnic in Canada Park

My friends Ibrahim and Rami are originally from a village called Imwas. That is, their fathers –who are cousins–, are from that village. Palestinians consider themselves to be from the village where their family (their father’s family in particular) came from. Imwas was a small village near the Latrun road linking Jerusalem with Tel Aviv, just outside the 1967 Israeli borders. Ibrahim’s and Rami’s fathers lived in Imwas until their 20s. In 1967, some of the people of Imwas got involved in the war on the side of the invading Arab armies. As a punishment, the Israeli army gave its inhabitants 3 hours to pack and leave. On foot. My friends’ families packed up and left with all they could carry and walked all the way to Ramallah. Shortly thereafter, the Israeli army bulldozed the town completely. When the war was over, the Israeli Government built “Canada Park” on top of Imwas with funds from the Canadian government. I asked Ibrahim and Rami if they ever went there. They told me they did. “We go there once in a while. We pick almonds, and olives. And we sometimes have a picnic.” “Really?” I asked them? Isn’t it hard for you and your family to go there?” Rami shrugged his shoulders and said in his American English: “Game Over! What can we do?” “We like to go there and be by the trees. It is all that is left,” Ibrahim added.

Losing one’s children

I was coming back from a trip in the West Bank with my friend Mohammed when he asked me if we could stop by to visit his family on the way back to Jerusalem. I eagerly agreed. His family lives in a small town outside Bethlehem. When we arrived at their home, the family was sitting around in the visiting room chatting. We joined them. Mohammed told me about the various members of his family including his sister Samira. Samira was married to Ahmad, with whom she had had four children. Ahmad had eventually immigrated to the United States and divorced Samira so he could legally marry another woman there. The three oldest children were already in the United States with their father and their step-mother. Samira was raising the fourth youngest. When he got a bit older, he would also join his siblings and father in the United States. Samira would then be left alone in Palestine. When Ahmad comes to visit in Palestine though, Mohammed told me, he does behave like a husband to Samira. I was unsure whether this was a blessing or a curse. What was clear was that Samira was heartbroken. Mohammed confirmed the obvious: “it is very hard for her” he told me. “I can only imagine” I replied.

The acceptability of violence on both sides

The acceptability of violence is a problem that manifests itself on both Palestinian and Israeli societies, albeit in different ways. In Palestinian society, there is a worryingly large segment of the population which considers the use of violence as an acceptable means to settle disputes. This acceptability applies both to the settlement of internal problems –within families, between families and between political parties, as the Hamas-Fatah clashes demonstrate—as well as the external problem of the Israeli occupation –reflected in the acceptability of terrorism as a valid means to combat it.

On the Israeli side, on the other hand, the use violence is not considered a legitimate means to settle internal disputes –at either the private level or between political factions. Actually, the level of violent crime in Israeli society is particularly low –a remnant from Diaspora Jewish culture—and the use of violence against one’s political opponents is extremely rare and almost unanimously frowned upon. The use of violence against Palestinians at the least provocation, on the other hand, is widely condoned if not outright supported by Israeli Jewish society. The ultimate act that proved how tolerant Israeli Jewish views are on the acceptability of violence against Palestinians was the killing of ten unarmed Israeli Arabs who demonstrated in the Galilee in 2000. That event was a turning point for Israeli Arabs as Israeli police would never have shot at unarmed Jews. From then on, they felt that what they had always feared was right –that Israeli Jewish society viewed them at a different level than they viewed themselves and that their life counted much less than that of Jews.

A Rabbi friend of mine drove the point home when he told me of a question he asks other Jewish friends in Israel to try and get at this difference in attitude: “If you are in your car with your family, people start throwing stones at you and you have a gun, do you shoot at them?” The answer, he recounted, is typically “of course I do, stones can be lethal.” To which the Rabbi then tells them, “Really, you would shoot at ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem?” implying –contrary to their assumption—that those who are throwing the stones are not Arabs, but Jews. The interlocutors are dumbfounded as they would not shoot at Jews.

Both sides have a problem in their view on the acceptability of violence and I am not sure which one of the two is worse –the Palestinian acceptance of it for themselves as well as for others or the Jewish rejection for one’s own, but acceptance against the other. I think they are different, but both deeply troubling problems and each society needs to address their own.

A balcony in Hebron

Hebron is the saddest sight I have seen in the whole land of Israel /Palestine. I went there for the first time with my friend Taleb, who lives in a smaller neighboring town, but has his office there in the old city. I have never been anywhere else in Palestine where the occupation is so oppressively felt. Towns like Bethlehem and Ramallah, despite being surrounded by settlements and checkpoints, have in their streets a certain semblance of normality carried on by a Palestinian population striving to live their lives at all costs. In Hebron, this is just not possible. The old city has, in large part, been taken over by about 400 of the most radical ideological Jewish settlers and the fabric of Palestinian life in the city has been destroyed. The settlers are so fierce that the army had to separate the areas where they live with barbed wire, install protective cover through the streets so the stones, dirty water and other objects they throw won’t hit the Palestinians walking underneath and in order to protect the settlers from any reprisals by Palestinians. Soldiers and checkpoints are everywhere, including within the city (a much rarer sight in Bethlehem and Ramallah). The soldier patrols in the streets, their presence all over the roofs and in observation towers with their machine guns are a ubiquitous and menacing presence. There is not even the semblance of normality in anything in that town.

After wading through this maze, we entered Taleb’s building and walked up to his office. As he sat down to turn on his computer and get organized, I opened a door and stepped out onto a balcony. The balcony faced over a main street in the old town and one could see the market below. As I looked down, I saw Palestinians looking up apprehensively at me. All of a sudden, I realized that someone with my physical appearance looked to them like a settler and they probably feared one more apartment had been taken over and/or that I may throw something down at them. I quickly stepped back inside and shut the balcony.

I will go to Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Akka!

A couple of months after my return to the US, I visited some Palestinian friends in Canada. They are three brothers from a family I had become friendly with in Palestine and who are now living as refugees in Canada. Majd is nineteen years old and he is the youngest of the three. We were sitting in the early summer sun talking about their plans in Canada. Majd was excited: “I hope to get my Canadian papers soon. Once I am a Canadian, I’ll go to Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Akka!” he said between excited and dreamy. I looked at him. He seemed so happy just thinking about that possibility. His older brother Ahmed stopped his dreaming and told him softly: “You can’t go Majd” “Why?” Majd answered sounding hurt: “I will be a Canadian!” “Even then, Majd, you won’t be able to go” his brother told him reluctantly, knowing his brother did not want to hear his message. “The Israelis won’t let you” “Why?” Majd insisted “Why can’t I go if I am a Canadian” “Because you were born in Palestine” Ahmed told him with a tone of sadness and tiredness in his voice, as if he had gone down the same mental route as Majd before only to be disappointed himself. Majd, however, remained undeterred: “I will try! I will at least try!” “You should” I told him and pondered how tragic it was to have grown up with dreams of visiting the world of one’s ancestors for generations, to live just a few kilometers from that world all of one’s life and to be completely barred from going there. That mythical world at the other side of the border, at the other side of the wall, remained just as elusive even after crossing the sea so as to go back to it. And yet Majd, in his youthful enthusiasm, simply refused to let it go. I thought he was right in holding on to his dream and hoped that, one day, Majd would be able to fulfill his dream. As I felt that way, however, I could no longer tell whether it was now me who was dreaming.


Many measures that Israel takes in its conflict with Palestine are justified in terms of “security.”In reality, however, many of these policies are highly inimical to Israel’s security. Such measures would include the destruction of the Palestinian economy through the myriad checkpoints that are spread across the West Bank and around Gaza. Such weakening of the Palestinian economy only strengthens radicals. The continued Israeli incursions into the West Bank despite the existence of the Palestinian security forces do exactly the same while undermining the PNA. The continuous harassment and humiliation of Palestinians through checkpoints and random arrests create animosity –if not hatred—toward Israel on a daily basis while undermining Palestinians’ belief in the possibility of peace. Even measures that seem directly aimed at attaining security are often futile if not counterproductive. Such is the case of the “security wall,” which has effectively encircled the large settlement blocks within the “Israeli” side of the wall. The wall leaves many gaps through which any aspiring bomber could pass but further fragments an already atomized West Bank, separating Palestinians from their lands, jobs and roads.

What Israelis do not seem to recognize is that the only way to truly ensure their security is having a partner on the other side which sees the preservation of security within and absence of conflict with Israel in its own national interest. Facts speak for themselves. Israel is attacked by rockets from the North and the South by Lebanon and Gaza –where there are governments in place that are complacent if not supportive of those attacks. On the other hand, there are no rocket –or other—attacks from Egypt and Jordan, whose governments see the repression of radicals as being in their own national interest. If Israel truly wants peace and security, it should bolster the type of Palestinian government that will be interested in building its economy and its own political institutions while controlling its radical elements –that would be exactly the kind of government that is running the Palestinian National Authority right now. Unfortunately, Israel is busy undermining them on a daily basis.

A plastic bicycle

As I enjoyed my beautiful Jewish life in the wealthy West Jerusalem neighborhood of Bak’a, the poor Arab neighborhood of Silwan, only a short drive away, was being slowly destroyed. During the time I was living there, I became unfortunately familiar with the regular home demolitions in East Jerusalem. These demolitions became particularly frequent in Silwan when the “City of David” project took steam. The “City of David” project aims to unearth the remains of what is believed to be the city that King David built in Jerusalem some three thousand years ago while, in the process, “Judaizing” the neighborhood and expelling its Palestinian inhabitants. Perhaps the new mayor of Jerusalem stated the objective of the project most clearly when he said that it was “to show that the city is ours and only ours.”

The Israeli NGO Ir Amim or “city of its peoples” has been reporting how, as a result of the excavations, home demolitions have been rapidly rising in the neighborhood. Homes are being demolished without compensation, as is typically the case with the destruction of Arab homes in Israel and Palestine. One day, I read about a particular home demolition that had taken place. The article noted that the family whose house was demolished was left standing in front of their rubble with a few pieces of furniture and a kid’s plastic bicycle. That image stayed in my mind. I tried to imagine how the poor child to whom that bicycle belonged felt as he was expelled from his home with his little plastic bike. I also remembered the story of a wonderful Bedouin woman from the Negev who had told me that, when she was a little girl, the Israeli government destroyed her family’s home. At the time, she asked her father why they were doing this to them and the answer he gave her was: “They are doing this to us because we are Arabs.”

Multiple trauma

Miriam is a psychologist who immigrated to Israel from Belgium and works at an NGO that tries to help Jewish victims of terror attacks. I met her at a friend’s party and we were discussing her work. She told me that an important element to consider in working with Jewish victims of terror attacks is that, for many of them, this is not the first trauma. Rather, many had already experienced traumatizing experiences at earlier points in their lives, whether it was the holocaust or, increasingly, other attacks and experiences of loss in the Arab countries many of them came from. The compounding effect of trauma has a much deeper psychological effect on the victim and it is called multiple trauma. People suffering from such a condition often lose the will or the ability to deal with the outside world, as they are trapped in fear to leave their homes or step onto a bus ever again.

A few days after I had had that conversation with Miriam, I visited an exhibit at the Holocaust museum on the role of holocaust survivors in building the state of Israel. At that exhibit, I read that roughly half of the soldiers fighting in Israel’s war of independence in 1948 were holocaust survivors. Sadly, from the beginning, the history of Israel was one of multiple trauma and it is hard to understand the country without taking that into account. I believe some of the roughness of the country and its seemingly paranoid nature are deeply rooted in a history of thousands of years of persecution and its repercussions on the collective psyche through multiple trauma.

Something we did not discuss with Miriam is that the Palestinian population is also being submitted to multiple trauma. During my stay in Israel/Palestine, I read about numerous cases of Palestinians who, after having become refugees in 1948 or 1967, were being forced to leave their homes again either because of the construction of an Israeli settlement or the “security wall” while others lost their sons to lengthy jail terms or premature death in the ongoing conflict. I believe the “multiple trauma” of both Israelis and Palestinians is a key psychological consideration to be taken into account when interacting with either population group or before jumping to conclusions about their political cultures.

Only one of us

I was talking to my friend Rami about how he felt treated in Israeli society. He said he personally managed pretty well because he was fair and spoke good Hebrew. Things were different when he was with his wife, though, since she wears a hejab and, hence, people automatically know they are Palestinian. He told me he and his family particularly disliked how they were treated at mall entrances. Rami was not the first or the last Palestinian to tell me that. “We very much like going to malls, but it is so humiliating. When they realize we are Palestinians, they make us move to the side and we go through extra searches in front of everybody. Since my boys and I are not recognizably Arab, we now enter separately and have my wife go in on her own. This way, only she gets singled out and searched.” I told him that seemed unkind to his wife. He told me it was a family decision. “This way, only one of us gets humiliated and the children are spared.”


There is a draft law which has been awaiting approval in the Israeli Knesset for years. This law would support and fund the voluntary re-location of West Bank settlers into Israel. It is a wonderful and pragmatic initiative that effectively combines the welfare of Israeli settlers, the Israeli national interest, the wellbeing of the Palestinian population, and the future of the peace process. Only about 20 percent of West Bank settlers are what is called “ideological settlers,” namely, people who live in the West Bank out of purely ideological nationalist-religious motivations. Most of these ideological settlers are vehemently opposed to moving back to Israel.

However, many of the remaining 80 percent would be happy to and some would greatly welcome moving back to Israel. I remember reading an article in Haaretz about a small secular settlement in the West Bank. There were a number of people living there who were desperate to move back to Israel. They felt they had been misled by their government to move to the settlement. They had little idea of where they were moving to and of the hostility of the Palestinian population around them. They felt they were living in a prison and were tired of taking special buses in and out of their self-made prison into the Israeli “mainland.” The settlement was struggling economically and there was no work to be found in or around it. It was clearly not a place to stay in for the future. At this point, the economic advantages of having a larger house and a bigger plot of land, simply had evaporated. These people were ready to leave. But no one was helping them.

This draft law would help them make the transition back to Israel, logistically and financially. People like the ones interviewed in the article would be thrilled to take part in such a program and no one would be made to participate. It is hard to imagine why any Israeli politician who cared about the wellbeing of Israeli citizens, regardless of his or her politics, would oppose such an initiative. The sad answer to this conundrum is that a majority of the Israeli political class is so ideological as to be ready to hold unwilling settlers hostage as pawns in their negotiations with Palestinians. This is exactly what the blocking of this law is doing.

When I read this article, I felt once again that deep disappointment I would often feel in Israel –the disappointment that millennia-old treasured Jewish values were being jettisoned for harsh Realpolitik considerations. The feeling that, in Israel, human beings were means rather than ends in themselves. That was most obviously the case regarding the value of non-Jewish lives. As this case showed, however, this aberration also extended to Jewish lives. The choices put forth by the voluntary re-settlement bill were clear: one could give settlers willing to come back to Israel help, relieve their suffering and support the peace process –let alone improve the lot of Palestinians– or one could play “hard ball” and keep as many settlers as possible in the West Bank, even against their will, to try and drive a harder bargain against Palestinians and end up keeping more land. The choice of Israeli politicians was clear.

If you want freedom, you have to be willing to pay the price

I had spent the day with Manal and Manar, two East Jerusalemite friends from my Hebrew class. We had lunch at Manar’s and then proceeded to Manal’s for coffee. As we walked into her house, the TV was on with the last sequences of a dramatic movie. There was a shooting scene and almost everybody ended up dead on the ground. In the final scene, a man saw his wife breathe her last as he knelt on the ground with her in his arms. Letters which seemed to have been added to the original movie read in Arabic and English: “If you want freedom, you have to be willing to pay the price.” “Hopefully not that price,” I heard myself replying instinctively.

I have thought back to that scene on a number of occasions. Whereas West Bank Palestinians are clearly willing to pay a high price for what they view as the struggle for their freedom, East Jerusalemites are often caught between the (relative) comforts of Israel and their will for independence. Despite the manifold discriminations they suffer, they also get to enjoy some of the benefits of living in a more developed country, foremost of which are higher wages and some social benefits as well as a freedom of movement which West Bank (let alone Gaza) Palestinians do not enjoy. This is one of the reasons why they are reluctant to unequivocally throw in their luck in with the rest of Palestine. Another East Jerusalemite friend summarized what I think are many of his neighbors’ views when he said: “they are both bad options.” Independence and building up a state of one’s own have significant transitional costs, as former European colonies all over the world know. In the beginning, there are sunk costs in building up a state’s institutions and some population groups lose some of the advantages they had under the colonial state and their standard of living can temporarily go down. However, that is the price to be paid to have a state of one’s own.

He should not have been there

Saul is an American-Israeli whose political stance is in the Israeli center-left. One day, we were discussing an article that Gideon Levy had written in the newspaper Haaretz. The article described a Bedouin man who had been collecting metal scrap from some Israeli military zone in the West Bank. The article interviewed the family –who lived in great poverty near the military zone. They explained how they were refugees from what is now Israel within pre-1967 borders. The family had been forced to move over the border to the then Jordanian controlled West Bank in 1948. They had been re-occupied and re-moved from their land a second time as Israel took over the West Bank in 1967 and requisitioned the land these Bedouins had been living in for the past twenty years as a military zone. For Bedouins, borders are meaningless. If they can at all, they continue to move throughout the land as they have been doing for millennia. Getting into an Israeli military zone, however, is dangerous as this old Bedouin man was to find out when a mine exploded on him. As a consequence of the explosion, he lost his leg and he would no longer be able to continue looking for the metal scraps that produced much of his family’s meager income. The article also described the ordeal his young son underwent to find his father the aid he needed to take care of his wounded leg as he stayed behind bleeding in the desert.

Saul’s response was: “He (the Bedouin) should not have been there.” I remembered a similar statement by an Israeli sabra when we discussed the Bedouins of the Negev: “They always go where they are not supposed to” she had said. The Negev is another area in which Bedouins had lived and freely wandered about as far back as humanity can recall. Since the beginning of the state of Israel, however, enclosed military zones were established and the state had attempted –rather unsuccessfully—to confine the Bedouin population to a few centers or “recognized villages.” I could not but wonder at the arrogance of those who would confine a population who has inhabited those lands for so long to such limited physical spaces with so little congruence with their culture and traditions. I also wondered who it was that, in the view of the Bedouins, was always going where they were not supposed to.

Jail, techno music and Mao Tse-Tung

Israelis are great specialists in sophisticated torture. In particular, they specialize in the kinds of torture that use technology (a comparative advantage of theirs), do not leave a trace and are hard to prove. They are particularly adept at psychological torture and sleep deprivation. They practice the latter in many forms, some more covert than others. On Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, however, they do not need to hide. They can use the loudest, most obvious forms of sleep deprivation. I spoke To Majd, a Palestinian academic in his thirties. He told me how, during his time in jail, he was tortured in a number of ways and most prominently through sleep deprivation. “How did they do it?” I asked him. “They would intermittently turn on really loud tecno music and bright lights just as I would try to fall asleep. The cruelty and sophistication of the method was jarring. As I listened to Majd, I wondered what an odyssey his years in prison must have been. He told me that he decided to use those years in a constructive manner to the extent that he could. “I read a lot” Majd told me. I would read revolutionary books that I would ask the Red Cross to bring me. “I read Mao Tse-Tung,” for instance, he told me. “It was introduced under the cover of a cookbook” he smiled thinking back to his ruse.

A toy gun

I was having lunch with my friend Rami in Bethlehem. Rami is the director of a pro-peace Palestinian NGO and we had not seen each other for a while as we both had been quite busy. We were catching up professionally as well as regarding our personal lives. At one point, we discussed the distorted perceptions many westerners have of Palestine and how they tend to over-emphasize Palestinian violence while underestimating that of Israelis. I shared with Rami that some friends of mine had just been visiting from Europe. At the end of their trip, they remarked on the fact that they saw toy guns at a street market in Bethlehem, but not on the fact that Israelis carried real guns all over the place.

Rami shook his head and told me a story which had recently unfolded in his family involving a toy gun. He said one of his nephews –who is fourteen years old–, had a toy gun. Somehow, he had been caught with it on film by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers, believing it was a real gun, had come to his house to arrest him. When they arrived at the house, however, he was not there. His father had tried to explain to the soldiers that the gun was a toy and, in any event, was no longer in the house, as his son had given it to a friend. The soldiers did not believe him. Rami’s cousin had been hidden in friends’ houses for a couple of weeks while the soldiers kept on coming back to get him. Finally, his father decided to take his son to the Israeli army with the toy gun recovered from his friend. The army, instead of recognizing the toy gun and letting him go, put his fourteen-year-old son in jail. When Rami and I spoke, he had already been in jail for five months, for possessing a toy gun.

Jerusalem was a ghost town

During the time that I lived in Jerusalem –March 2007 to March 2009–, the city was relatively free of terror attacks. I only recall two–a bulldozer attack and a horrible rampage of a gunman in a school. Bad as it was, it was nothing compared to the peak days of the second Intifada. No bus exploded and no café or restaurant was blown up. The city’s western neighborhoods were thriving with pedestrians strolling along its streets, sitting in cafes, eating at restaurants. I often wondered what it must have been like during the days when terrorist attacks were the order of the day. How people must have felt, what riding on a bus was like, what the streets, the cafes and the restaurants looked like. I tried to imagine it, unsuccessfully. It is probably one of those experiences that those of us who have been fortunate enough not to undergo simply cannot imagine. One Shabbat, I had one of my Hebrew teachers over for dinner. We were discussing life in Jerusalem when she brought up how different and how lively it was now compared to a few years ago. “Back then,” she said, “there was no one in the streets.” She paused for a few seconds and she summarized: “Jerusalem was a ghost town.” This is the image I think of now when I try to imagine those days and its impact on the city.

The silent majority on both sides

The overwhelming part of the blame in debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is typically assigned to “the extremists on both sides.” That is largely right. Without Islamic Jihad and Hamas on the Palestinian side and the settlers and their supporters on the Israeli side, peace would be much more likely. It is also true, however, that there are problems with the silent majority on both sides. At one point in my stay in Israel/Palestine, I realized that the great majority of both populations were highly supportive of the actions taken by their respective governments and also of the most extreme actions of “their side.” Most polls show that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians think that, given what they are going through, all actions by Palestinian militants (including terrorism against civilians) are justified. Similarly, the great majority of the Israeli public feels that, given what they are going through, their government’s actions (especially the “incursions” or “operations” in the territories, which end up killing many more innocent civilians than militants) are justified. It is this reluctance to set limits to what is justified and what is not, what is moral and what is not, that keeps both populations muzzled and allows the extremists to thrive. It also ends up encouraging policies and actions that are counterproductive to the achievement of the aims of those who espouse them.

In the range of things that could have happened

Jon and I were discussing the latest Gideon Levy piece in Haaretz. The article described how a young Palestinian woman from Hebron had not left the city in time to cross the checkpoint before she went into labor and could no longer walk. Because of the presence of about 400 settlers in Hebron, the city is completely besieged by soldiers. Palestinians are not allowed to drive in and drive out. They can only walk. This means that, if you are about to deliver a baby, you should get out of town beforehand so you can be taken to the hospital when the time comes. Friends working at the World Bank have told me that, because of these restrictions, Palestinian women far along in their pregnancy move to locations with family closer to hospitals and beyond the checkpoints so they do not find themselves in the situation this poor lady found herself in –in labor and unable to get an ambulance to her. She was too far into labor to walk across the checkpoint to the ambulance waiting on the other side to take her to the hospital. So she delivered her baby –successfully, thank G-d—at the checkpoint, in the middle of the night and in the winter cold.

After reading the article, Jon said: “In the range of things that could have happened, this is not so bad. Is it?” Despite her ordeal, my friend was unfortunately still right. The lady successfully delivered her baby, the baby was born healthy and the family returned safely to their home. In the range of things that could have happened in the context of the occupation, this was not so bad and no one died. However, I could not help thinking that, as a single man, Jon had no idea of how scary and traumatic such an experience would be for any woman and for her husband and how they would never forget the anxiety, the injustice and the humiliation of the night when their son was born. At the end of the day, the fact that this was not so bad in the range of things that could have happened spoke volumes about “the range of things” that could happen to Palestinians under occupation.

Killing them all

I was having a conversation with a professor of an Israeli university after Shabbat services. I told him I was working at Bethlehem University and we started discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He told me that he thought the problem was that the Israeli army and security services were not tough enough on Palestinians. I could not believe it. “Not tough enough?” I repeated in surprise. “Yes,” he confirmed. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I mean that they could finish with the problem of terrorism if they killed all the terrorists.”  I told him that, as long as the occupation was what it was, new terrorists would come up to substitute those who were killed. “No,” he shook his head in disagreement, “You can kill them all.”

Two years later, I read that same mantra. It was after the Israeli raid on the flotilla taking humanitarian aid to Gaza. I was in the Philippines, following the horror through my hotel room television and the internet. I received an email from an American Jew who was in Israel at the time and was relating Israeli reactions to the events. He explained that they ranged from those who regretted the actions to those who thought that “they should have killed all of them.”

Using the victims

As time went on during my stay in Israel/Palestine, I increasingly felt that both sides were using their victims –holocaust survivors on Israel’s side and refugees on the Palestinian side—for political purposes. Neither side has done very well in taking care of their victims. Many holocaust survivors have languished with below-the-poverty-line pensions in a high-income country with large expenditures on other areas (such as the army or the settlements). The large funds contributed by Germany and other European countries on account of the Holocaust have largely not reached its victims, but have been used for other purposes. Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, have languished in refugee camps for sixty years, not doing worse than they already are mainly owing to the relatively efficient care of the United Nations Refugee Works Administration and its network of schools and social services and not to the care of the Palestinian Authority –let alone other Arab governments.

Worse than that, both victims are stigmatized by their own side. They are often treated as if they were a shame to a group that tries to appear tough, a sign of defeat they are not willing to acknowledge. I was appalled that Shoah commemoration day in Israel is called “Day of the Holocaust and of the Heroes.” The implication is that the heroes are the few Jews who rebelled –such as those participating in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Those who did not revolt, the implication is, were not heroes. Israeli culture has been largely built by erasing the culture of the European Jewry who was almost blotted out in the Holocaust and by defining Israeli culture precisely by turning that culture on its head as a country of tough and rugged fighters. As a result, it is hardly surprising that the world and culture of the Diaspora, the “ghetto,” (dirty words in Israeli parlance) have been rejected and reviled.

I also realized from speaking to Palestinian refugees that they were often discriminated against by other Palestinians. “Why would anyone do that to the part of the Palestinian population who has suffered the most?” I asked a Palestinian friend. “Because they are seen as weak; as the ones who left; as the ones who abandoned their land” he answered without justifying. Despite this neglect and this stigmatization of their victims with weakness and defeat, both sides eagerly use them when negotiating with others. Israel, despite its treatment of Holocaust survivors and its rejection of their culture, constantly uses the specter and the memory of the Holocaust in its foreign policy dealings with the rest of the world. The Arab world, despite its neglect of Palestinian refugees and its discrimination against them, has used the refugee issue as its trump negotiating card with and public relations campaign against Israel. Both sides would be more credible if they indeed took care of their victims.

The Holocaust and the Palestinians—Using genocide to justify ethnic cleansing

Israeli soldiers are constantly reminded of the Holocaust. It is part of the strategy of their country’s military. Many are taken to visit the death camps in Europe and all are made to visit the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The message is stressed over and over again —this is what happened when we were weak. We will never let this happen again. We cannot falter, we cannot be soft, we need to do whatever it takes. Whatever it takes is then elaborated to imply any and all the policies the Government of Israel and its military takes against the Palestinian population. The, anxiety, fear and trauma fostered through the political use of the Holocaust combines with the utter de-humanization of Palestinians to result in the callousness the large majority of soldiers and the Israeli population at large psychologically need to carry out the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

They started the war!

A recurrent theme when speaking to right-wing Israelis is that Arabs started the 1948 and 1967 wars. This, according to many of them, justifies the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza –indefinitely. It seems to me that, because they use the argument so often among like-minded people, they have ended up believing it sounds reasonable and losing sight of how outlandish it sounds to others. These Israelis –and some Diaspora Jews—will further argue that, typically, countries that win wars end up keeping the territory they conquer. It is true that countries’ borders are often drawn up according to the finishing line of armies in wartime. This does not mean that they are legitimate and recognized by international law. Even in those cases in which conquered land ends up being legitimated by international law, conquering countries absorb the population of the conquered territories and not just the land.

These right-wingers, however, seem to think that Israel can be an exception to this rule and that it is legitimate to keep all the conquered land while not providing citizenship to its people. There is no chance anyone in the world will accept such a proposal –which implies either ethnic cleansing or permanent non-citizenship status of the Palestinian population in a subverted version of a one-state solution. As long as Israel does not face this impasse, it will continue to drift toward the status of pariah nation in the international community while increasingly alienating the peace camp among Palestinians. In the long run, the consequence of such a position is likely to be the recognition that it is all indeed one state, forcing Israel to grant citizenship to Palestinians.

Dressed up and going out to the street!

Rawa may be the most beautiful girl I have ever met. She is six years old and has the gentle features, light olive skin, huge black eyes and silky black hair of many Palestinian women. Rawa is also lively, intelligent and extroverted. She lives with her parents and her two siblings in Al-Arroub camp in the West Bank. Rawa loves to wear nice dresses and have her hair done in beautiful dos. She also likes to play with her hair. The first day I met her, she told me excitedly as she twisted her hair in her fingers, “I can play with my hair because I still don’t have to wear a hejab!.” She was clearly happy about it. During one of my visits, Rawa came into the room where I was visiting with some other members of her family. She had just donned a lovely ochre and beige dress, was wearing golden-colored bracelets and her hair was gorgeously combed down with a couple of hair pins on the side. She clearly felt as beautiful as she looked and she decided she wanted to go out to the street. To her disappointment, her mother grabbed her as she was dashing out. I was explained that Rawa was not allowed to go into the street.

Unless for a specific purpose (such as going to school or shopping if no man is around), girls and women are not allowed to go into the street in the highly conservative society of Al-Arroub. After accepting her mother’s bidding and sitting down in the visiting room, Rawa’s eyes lit up with an air of determination as she told us: “When I grow up, I will go to school. After that, I will go to university. I will put on a beautiful dress and I will go out to the street!” She probably envies the freedom of her older cousin who goes to university every day (though covered with traditional dress and a hejab) and has conflated her wish for emulating her cousin with her own wish of showing off her beauty in the street when she grows up. I really hope she can.

Red Indians

I was having a conversation on the role of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a Palestinian friend whose parents were 1948 refugees. We were discussing the almost unwavering partiality of the US to Israel and its failure to grasp the Palestinian predicament. At one point, my friend said: “How can the United States ever understand us? They killed all the Indians in their country.” I had never thought about it with such clarity and simplicity. She was right. The United States is a country which was built by Europeans on a non-European country by taking the land away from its native inhabitants. Americans simply could not throw stones on Israelis because they themselves were living in glass houses. Jews at least originally came from Israel, had a small but continuing historical presence in the land of Israel, a two-thousand-year-old religious and cultural attachment to the land and, critically, an international legal decision to start the country after the Holocaust. English people did not have any link to America or any international legal basis to take over the continent. They were completely new to it when they arrived in the 17th century and gradually took it over by pushing aside and killing its native inhabitants. (To America’s credit, this is quite openly acknowledged by many by now, Native Americans are full US citizens and they receive special assistance and protection under American law).

This similarity does not fully explain America’s policies nor completely prevent the American people from developing some understanding of Palestinians or a more balanced policy stance on the conflict (as the Presidency of Barack Obama is evincing). However, it clearly limits the degree of empathy average Americans can feel with a Palestinian or the extent to which they can accept Palestinian arguments. Yassir Arafat once made that comparison himself, but concluded: “We are not Red Indians.” Some Palestinians, however, feel that they are. A not insignificant number of Palestinians I have spoken to have told me that they fear that, in 50 or 100 years, “there will be very few Palestinians left” either in Israel or in the West Bank.

Palestinian demographics and people’s lives

My friend Mohammed was born in the West Bank. He is now married to Samira, who is from Jerusalem and hence holds a Jerusalem resident ID. As a result of their marriage some eighteen years ago, he was able to obtain a Jerusalem resident ID as well and move to Jerusalem, which resulted in a significant improvement in his standard of living. Currently, the Israeli government is making it all but impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank who marry Jerusalem ID holders or Palestinian Israelis to obtain that ID and to move to Israel or Jerusalem. This policy is consistent with other Israeli policies trying to keep the number of Palestinians in Israel and Jerusalem as low as possible (in the municipality of Jerusalem there is an “Arab population quota” which they use for the purposes of planning and “policy-making”) even at the cost of legality and basic human rights.

One day, Mohammed was telling me about how he and Samira met, how their relationship developed and how, when they decided to get married, he applied for and obtained a Jerusalem ID to come and live in Jerusalem with her. As he was going through the story, he stopped himself, looked at me and said “You know, I did not do this to increase the number of Palestinians in Israel.” I looked back at him in disbelief and for a second did not even know how to reply since his comment sounded so preposterous to me. I eventually replied to him something along the lines of: “Mohammed, you don’t need to tell me that. I imagine you did not arrange your personal live with demographic goals in mind.” The discourse about Palestinians in Israel is dominated by the demographic fear of Jews that they will eventually be outnumbered by Arabs. As a consequence, Palestinians feel the need to tell themselves and others that they are not waging a demographic battle, but rather just trying to live their lives.

To kill or not to kill

It was Sunday evening and I was making my way to my Hebrew class. That Saturday –Shabbat, of all days–, the Israeli army had just killed over 150 people in Gaza on some kind of “operation” seeking “militants” in the strip. More than half of those killed were civilians, including women and children. I had seen the images of terrified, screaming children and wailing women on Al-Jazeera. It was horrible and I was sad and ashamed. I normally sat next to the Palestinian students in my Hebrew class and was very much at ease speaking to them. I felt we had become friends.

That Sunday, though, I was dreading meeting them. What would I say? Just chat as usual as if nothing had happened? Apologize? On whose behalf? I could not find any suitable answer. So, I sheepishly sat next to Ahmad. He seemed as upbeat and polite as ever. The class had not yet started and we were the first students in the classroom. I looked at him and said something like: “It was horrible.” “What was horrible?” he said, seeming not to know what I was referring to. “The killings in Gaza. They were horrible.” “It is OK,” he said evasively. “No,” I said, “it is not OK.” He looked at me in the eye, this time seriously: “It is not the first time,” he said. “I know. But, in a way, it is the first time for me. I was not here before” I said somewhat incoherently. “I wish Israel was doing things so differently” I mumbled “I wish they were removing settlements instead” “Removing settlements?” Ahmed asked rhetorically, “the question now is not whether to remove settlements or not to remove settlements,” he continued, “the question is whether to kill or not to kill.”

Palestinians are full of rage

I was attending a baby shower for the newborn girl of Ruba, a young Palestinian woman in my Hebrew class. Ruba is tall and beautiful. She dresses like a western woman and wears no hejab. She lives in a large and posh modern condominium in East Jerusalem. I was very happy to have been invited to her baby’s party. As I walked in, I realized I was the only non-Palestinian in a room of around fifty women (not the first or last time this would happen during my stay in Israel/Palestine). Ruba kindly walked over to me, greeted me warmly and introduced me to her mother and to her adorable baby girl and then took me to meet Rima, one of her best friends from college.

Rima was also beautiful and fashionably dressed in western clothes, sporting a knee-length black skirt. She was a graduate student at Birzeit University in public policy. Her English was excellent. We had a lot to talk about and we did. When we started to discuss the Palestinian situation she told me. “Many people voted for Hamas because Fatah had given us nothing. They stole our money and allowed settlement construction to continue. Palestinians are full of rage. I voted for Hamas” she said. I admit that, although I knew that many Palestinians had voted for Hamas for the reasons she mentioned, I did not imagine any of these voters would look like her or, in any way, be like her.

Never again…to us

I was speaking to some American Jewish friends about my time in Israel and we were discussing the Jewish community’s overall detachment from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (though we did not call it that directly). One of my friends said, “my grandmother often says: never again! I once asked her: What are you talking about grandma, it has happened many other times.” “What are you talking about?” her grandmother answered her. “I am saying that it has continued to happen: in Bosnia, Rwanda.” Her grandmother then answered her directly: “I meant, never again to us!”

The killings before Shabbat

It was a Thursday evening and Rosh Hodesh (New month in the Jewish calendar and a minor holiday).  Jerusalem was preparing for the upcoming holiday of Purim. I heard the news in a taxi. There had been a pigua or terrorist attack. There hadn’t been one during my time there yet. This attack was particularly gruesome. A gunman had entered a school in Jerusalem and had gone into a shooting rampage against the students. He killed three of them and injured more before being gunned down himself. The images of the attack were devastating. There was blood all over the place, on the walls, on glass and on prayer shawls. All attacks against civilians are morally reprehensible, but it seemed to me that there was nothing worse than deliberately killing children in school while they were praying. At such times, one’s brain and heart focuses on details which are not necessarily the most relevant. In this case, all I could think about was that those children were preparing for Shabbat and that, that Shabbat their families would be mourning their death. It would not have made a difference if they had been killed on a Tuesday, but all I could focus on was that the families of those murdered children would be wrapped in grief at a time we are supposed to celebrate the joy of the Sabbath.

Each Israeli has a story

Mahmoud is a Palestinian man in his forties. Like most Palestinian men, he spent time in Israeli jails for his involvement in the intifada. Also like most, his only crime was political. He was involved in writing, editing and printing Palestinian nationalist material. He told me that, during his time in jail, he was asked to scrub the prisoners’ toilets. He did it. In fact, he did such a good job at it that the Israeli soldiers asked him to clean their toilets. He refused. He told them he was happy to clean the toilets of the Palestinian prisoners, but that the Israelis would have to clean their own.

He was brought to see an Israeli soldier. That soldier was young and seemed irritable. When Mahmoud explained that he did not intend to clean the Israeli soldiers’ toilets, the soldier started to hit him. He was beating him with intensity and seemed to be in an emotional state of anger and exasperation unrelated to the case at hand. He was sweating and panting. Mahmoud had the presence of mind to notice and told him: “You seem upset. Sit down, take a break.” The soldier sat down and broke down crying. He told Mahmoud that his brother had just been killed in the (first) Lebanon war. He and Mahmoud ended up having a conversation. The beating did not resume and Mahmoud was sent back without orders to clean any further toilets and with an apology. As he recounted me his experience, he generously summed it up by saying: “Every Israeli has a story.” So does every Palestinian, I thought.  Now, at times when I am about to despair from Israeli society, I remember Mahmoud’s sentence and the attitude behind it.

 Home-made rockets

It was the week before Passover and I joined a group of Jews who were planning to deliver care packages to the poor in the battered Negev town of Sderot. Sderot is the town in Israel which is most frequently hit by rockets launched from the Gaza strip. It is a dusty and poor place, with an air of abandon and the flavor of a frontier town. The holiday of Passover has most towns in Israel bubbling with activity as families scurry about to buy goods for the holiday. Sderot’s streets, however, were empty. I was told they are always like that. The constant “rainfall” of rockets has reduced the economic and social life of the town to a minimum. People just stay inside their homes, as close as possible to a shelter, and only go out when it is absolutely necessary.

During our afternoon in Sderot, there were three rocket alarms and we rushed to the bomb shelters the three times. It was crazy. I wondered how people could lead anything resembling a normal life in those circumstances. We visited a café whose storage room was a bomb shelter, a cinema which itself was a bomb shelter and a supermarket whose offices were another bomb shelter. While in the latter, I engaged one of the women clerks in a conversation. She told me the rockets start at 6, sometimes 5, in the morning and only end late at night. I asked her whether, when they heard an alarm at 5 or 6 a.m. while still at home in bed, they got up and tried to run to shelter. She told me they did not. “We just stay in bed and pray that the rocket will not hit us.” I also met a woman whose 2-year old son had started to speak and then stopped and whom doctors had diagnosed with traumatic disorder. That afternoon, I thought of the journalists who emphasize that these are “home-made” rockets, as if this made them less of a threat. I thought it would be good for them to spend a few weeks in Sderot and experience the continuous rainfall of “home-made” rockets.

The power of symbols

Whenever one discusses the diversion of West Bank water for Jewish use with Palestinians, the issue of swimming pools in settlements always seems to come up. At the beginning, I used to think about the issue as a policy analyst and try to explain to my interlocutors that swimming pools could not possibly be an important contributor to water shortages and that the major problem was water-thirsty Israeli agriculture. This would not hold the attention of most Palestinians, who remained fixated on the idea of swimming pools in settlements. I finally realized that it was not the amount of water swimming pools used up, but the sheer affront they represented that bothered Palestinians so much. Palestinians barely have enough water for basic uses, endure water cuts for days and their average per capita water consumption is less than one fourth that of Israelis and significantly below the minimum levels recommended by international health organizations. Literally next door, settlers not only do not suffer from similar water restrictions, but also enjoy lush swimming pools fed with water from the West Bank.

To my surprise, I discovered that some of the settlements have a reputation for their swimming pools even within the Jewish world. On a hot summer afternoon, a twelve-year old ultra-orthodox boy from a modest Jerusalem neighborhood told me wistfully that he had heard that Gush Etzion –a settlement located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem—had an “Olympic-size swimming pool.” How sad, I thought, that settlements are known for their irresponsible water use and that settlers feel that it is acceptable for them to swim in fancy swimming pools while Palestinians next door have no water in the tap. Once more, I felt, this was possible because of the complete separation of two utterly uneven worlds and the failure of so many Israeli Jews to think of Palestinians as one would of oneself.

The Little House on the Prairie

I was reading a newspaper article on an American Jewish family which had immigrated to Israel and decided to set up a house in the middle of the West Bank. The house was not even in a settlement. Rather, it was the first building of what in the Israeli context is called an “illegal outpost.” Namely, it was not only illegal according to international law (which all settlements are), but also according to Israeli law, as the land was not in a settlement approved by the Israeli government. The land had just been taken by individuals. The article featured an interview and included a picture of the family. The look in their eyes was between defiant and dreamy, staring into the distance. They were dressed in what comes across to the untrained eye as a “hippy” outfit. (This is a point we discussed with a group of Europeans living in Israel who, like me, first thought that the settlers were left-wing Jews since their attire is reminiscent of that of flower children). When the parents of the family were interviewed, they spoke as if they were pioneer people, building a country in the midst of an unsown land, in an empty space where G-d was beckoning their presence. As is often the case with settlers, Palestinians simply did not count. They did not exist in their narrative. They were not even mentioned in passing. The combination of moral vacuum regarding “the other”, religious fundamentalism and self-righteousness was striking. They reminded me of the family in the TV series The Little House in the Prairie (which I loved as a child, but I now see with different eyes). A family taking land over in someone else’s country, probably being good to its own, completely isolated from and oblivious to “the other” and convinced that they were G-d’s people, fulfilling G-d’s will.

Six hours at the border

My friend Ashraf was leading a group of young men to a summer camp in France. As Palestinians, they have to fly from Jordan, since they are not allowed into Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. As the group was trying to cross into Jordan from the West Bank, the Israeli soldiers took their passports and made them wait —for six hours. What could conceivably take six hours to check? I ask myself. As they languished around, some of their bags were stolen. I asked Ashraf whether that did not make them miss their flight. “No,” he said, “we know they do these kinds of things to us, so we left a day early.” Just like that. Just one more of the innumerable humiliations and inconveniences Palestinians are constantly subjected to. In the big scheme of the occupation, this is not a horror story. No one got killed, wounded or imprisoned; no one was turned away or singled-out, insulted and publicly humiliated. They were just made to wait for six hours and were robbed in the meantime.


In Israel and Palestine, children are exposed to an enormous amount of violence. The psychological effect of such violence on them is frightening. I was not exposed to the worst effects of violence on children. I was not in Gaza after an Israeli raid nor with surviving child victims of a terrorist attack in Israel. However, even forms of exposure to violence that are further removed from such events are highly disturbing. Two incidents drove this home to me. One Saturday night, I was visiting Palestinian friends in their home near Ramallah. That day, the Israeli army had conducted an “operation” in Gaza during which about 160 people were killed, half of them civilians, and many of them, women and children.

We were sitting in their living room, talking and watching TV. The television had the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera Channel on. In front of the TV were not just the adults, but also John, the son of a Palestinian Christian family who had just come back from America to live in Palestine again. John’s mother explained how they missed Palestine in America and how she and the children had decided to return while the father stayed behind earning a living. John is a gentle and bookish boy of about ten, thin and wearing glasses –he very much reminded me of a Diaspora Jewish kid. He is excellent at school and especially likes and excels at math. Right then, though, he seemed fixated on the TV screen and he could not possibly have been thinking of school. The news program was showing horrible images of all the death and devastation in Gaza, terrified children screaming and crying, bloodied bodies dragged to stretchers, people chanting demanding revenge. John, who is normally a quiet child, did not seem to be able to speak and just stood in front of the TV set motionless and expressionless. I wondered what was going through his mind and how events like those would shape him as a person.

During one of my trips back to the United States while I was living in Israel, a bulldozer attack took place in Jerusalem. I did not realize how close the attack was to the home of the Levis, some ultra-orthodox friends. When I went back to visit them upon my return, the children were eager to tell me about it. “We were home when it happened” twelve-year-old Yaakov said excitedly. “We did not know what was going on” nine-year-old Abraham continued, “we heard the noise of ambulances and police cars.” “It all started in the construction site right next to us” their mother explained. As is the case with ultra-orthodox families, the Levis do not have a television set or a radio they could turn on to listen to the news, so they had to wait for live reports on what had happened. I again wondered what long-lasting impact that would have on the children of the Levis as well as on so many others. What is unfortunately clear is that such violent events are highly traumatic for children and they are likely to greatly influence their view of the world, of the country that they live in, and of “the other.”

Who would ever say there was a village here?

Rami is a friend from Hebrew class. Although he currently lives in Ramallah, his family is originally from Emwas (the Biblical Emmaus), an ancient village which used to be next to Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem. The village was thousands of years old and a holy site to Christians as the place where one of Jesus’ appearances to His disciples took place. It is one of the villages that were destroyed by Israel during the 1967 war. I asked Rami to take me there. He agreed. We went there on a hot summer morning. The location of the town is now in what is called “Canada Park.” I thought it was amazing chutzpah to not only flatten a village and expel its inhabitants, but also to cover it with an innocent nice little park as if nothing had ever happened. Actually, this is what it looks like unless you pay close attention, which we did. Among the trees and the grass, you can (barely) see the remains of houses –the stones shattered into small pieces and strewn around– and the remains of the water system.

“The only things that are left are the trees…” Rami said thoughtfully, “Who would ever say there was a village here?” he went on to ask rhetorically. He was unfortunately right. The only building of Emwas which is still standing, on the outskirts of the village, is a Byzantine church. The Israeli organization “Zochrot” or “remembering” has a campaign to mark all the sites of destroyed Arab villages in Israel. They recently won a legal battle to be able to put up signs in Emwas and other destroyed villages in Israel, marking the site of the relevant Arab village. Shortly after they put the signs in place, they were torn down by those who do not wish uncomfortable history to be remembered. The only signs we found in Emwas were those indicating pre-Arab ruins (Jewish and Roman). Once again, it was as if Palestinians had never lived there.

 The compassionate settler

Joshua is an orthodox Israeli in his late forties. He was born and raised in England and immigrated to Israel as an adult. He is active in an Israeli human rights NGO and, because of that, a mutual friend thought we would enjoy each other. When we met over coffee, I asked Joshua about his work at the NGO. He told me how they had recently been involved in “incidents” arising in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem into which a lot of Jewish settlers were moving. I was familiar with it. It was one the neighborhoods with some of the most ideological settlers, many of them were moving in in a short period of time, the Palestinians living in the already-crowded neighborhood were particularly poor and the atmosphere was extremely tense. I must have said something to that tune when he cut me off and said that his work was not at all political and, therefore, that he had nothing to say about Jews moving into that neighborhood, but only about “human rights abuses.” I told him that settlements were against international law and in and of themselves terrible human rights abuses. He disagreed with me (and international law) and said he had no problem with settlements. I thought that was shocking for a human rights activist, but then remembered a European journalist who had once told me that this was not an uncommon occurrence.  She put it graphically: “They think it is OK to occupy the West Bank as long as Palestinians are not beaten up.” Joshua then told me that he himself had lived in a West Bank settlement and that the settlers could be quite civil with Palestinians. He went on to explain how he always tried to “be nice to Palestinians.” “I would often give them rides in my car!” he said beamingly.

I felt the communication barrier was too great to continue arguing and thought that, just like one cannot “occupy nicely” one cannot be “a nice settler.” These are contradictions in terms.

As far from the Palestinians as possible

I often wonder about the psychological trauma that serving in the Israeli army causes on young Israeli men and women. I remember a young Israeli man who would stay at a kibbutz during his weekends off from serving in Lebanon before the disengagement and who was dreadfully afraid to go back on Sunday mornings. I also remember a young woman who would cry all day before going back to service after the weekend. There is even a Hebrew expression to describe people who have been traumatized by the army. It is said that they have a “scar in the brain.” The story that struck me most, though, was one I read in Haaretz. It was about a gentle young woman from a Kibbutz who loved music and had been involved in peace activities all her teenage years. She strongly opposed the occupation and felt horrible about its impact on Palestinians. Everyone thought she would not go to the army. She, however, wanted badly to conform and, especially, to please her father a mainstream Zionist for whom her not doing army service would have been a serious blow.

To everyone’s surprise, she decided to go to the army in order to please her father and to prove that she was loyal to her country and that she could do it. She told her best friend that she would request a position “as far from the Palestinians as possible.” Instead, she was posted in the West Bank. After a short period in the army, her mood darkened more than usual and one weekend, while on leave in Tel Aviv, she jumped from the top of the Azrieli Towers to her death.


When I see Israeli soldiers –in the streets, on the buses, in the bus stations—I feel sorry for them. I am not sure that this is the politically correct way to feel about soldiers who are currently implementing the occupation that has caused the death of thousands of Palestinians and the misery of millions. However, that is the way I feel. I look at them and I see young men and women who I assume –perhaps incorrectly—would simply like to defend their country or just lie in the beach in Tel Aviv or be in yeshiva in Jerusalem. I imagine they would like to have the chance to grow up like normal teenagers, graduate high school and go to college, study, have fun, fall in love, and eventually mature to be unscarred adults.

Their country, however, does not give them that chance. They are put up against the wall at the age of eighteen and told that, if they are good Israeli patriots, if they want their country to survive and if they want to have a good professional future and not be social outcasts, they need to do army service. This army service will take three years of their lives –for men—and two –for women—plus many more months of reserve duty. Many do not agree with their government’s policies and do not agree with the settlements. Yet, they are given no choice but to obey or be left by the wayside of a pitiless society. Others may believe in the (temporary) necessity to do what they are doing (the occupation), but not in the way that it is being done (with constant human rights abuses).

And yet, they are put in a situation which creates and fosters those very abuses. Many –most?– come back from their army service as a different person. I remember reading an article in which a mother of a young man explained how she sent to the army a soft kibbutznik and got back an irritable, frightened, hardened young man with dark secrets he would not share. I often feel that people come back from their army service as traumatized, broken individuals, aware of the horrors they and their country are capable of and that they never fully recover. Perhaps it is because of this that I feel sorry for them.

Avi and the settlers

Ibrahim is an entrepreneurial Israeli Palestinian of about thirty years of age. He spent over ten years living in Europe, studying engineering, getting a master’s degree and starting a PhD. While he was doing his PhD, however, his mother got ill and he decided to come back to Palestine. His mother eventually passed away and he decided to stay in his country with the rest of his family. He is now the director of a technology center in one of the best universities in Palestine. I had invited him to a Shabbat dinner at my home and we were sitting on my terrace enjoying a pleasant summer evening with friends. We were speaking about Israel and Palestine and our guests shared a number of personal experiences.

Ibrahim told us that he was once on an Egged bus to Haifa when he realized that the people sitting all around him were settlers. He was uncomfortable. The settlers chatted him up. His Hebrew is alright, but definitely not native and they would have quickly noticed he was not a Jew had he spoken much. I asked him what he did. He told me he kept his answers to “Yes” and “No.” He went on to tell us that, to make things worse, the settlers were on their way to a demonstration in favor of the settlements and against disengagement and they invited him to join them. “Great,” I told him ironically, “so what did you do?” “I told them I was busy.” It then occurred to me that they would have immediately known he was Palestinian from his name and asked him about this. Ibrahim told me that when they asked him what his name was, he told them “Avi” (a common Israeli shortened version of Abraham and, hence, a Jewish version of Ibrahim). I asked him why he felt he had to do that. “I was afraid” he answered.

I was wondering if he had been afraid even to come to my neighborhood that Shabbat. That day, he looked undistinguishable from an orthodox Jew (except for the kippa). He was wearing black slacks and a white shirt (the standard orthodox male “uniform”) and glasses (which I had never seen him wear before). I asked him if he had done that consciously. “No,” he said. “These were all the clean clothes I could find.” I still wondered.


It was a spring afternoon and I had just entered my apartment. A killing of school boys in Jerusalem by a Palestinian terrorist had taken place a few days before. The phone rang and it was Khaled, a Palestinian Jerusalemite man I had met at a conference. We started to talk and he brought up the killings (which were foremost in my mind, but I was reluctant to bring up). I expressed my revulsion for the atrocity. Khaled told me that surely it was a bad thing, but that it was like the case of an Arab prince he was going to relate to me. That Arab prince (from some oil country) used to want to have a virgin girl to sleep with every night. So, his assistants looked for a virgin for him among unsuspecting young women every day in the street. The one of their choice was abducted and taken to the prince. According to Khaled, this went on until a day when one of the relatives of one of the girls he had taken killed him. That was the story. I did not know what to say at first as I did not even understand Khaled’s point. He explained that the situations were similar in that the punishment was just, but was not carried out through the right means –the justice system. I still did not understand what he was saying as, in my mind, the two situations were utterly different.

I told him so. In the case of the Arab prince, he had raped those girls. In the case of the Israeli school kids, they had done absolutely nothing. It was a strange moment of recognition that our concepts of what was right and just or even acceptable were completely different. I did not want to get into the issue of whether the occupation and the thousands of miseries of Palestinians were comparable to the raping of girls. I preferred to focus on something else. What had shocked me most was that, for him, it was just to punish a completely innocent person for what other people had done. “How can you blame one person (and a boy at that) for what other people have done?” To him, you could. It was the same “people” who had done it, even if not the same person. You avenge on someone else (the family, the clan, the people). I encountered a similar reaction in another conversation with a young Palestinian man. He told me that, if anything ever happened to his family and he had an opportunity to harm an Israeli, he did not know what he would do. This was, again, the same reaction.

I felt that what these two men were saying was that, in their view, avenging the death of a person on another who had done nothing was acceptable, just because the offender and him or her were part of the same people.

Unfortunately, Israeli Jews are not immune to this thinking either. They will not defend purposely killing an innocent Palestinian (though that does happen in the army), but they view the collective punishment of Gazans, the killing of innocents as “collateral damage” in the assassination of targeted men and the demolition of the homes of families of terrorists as fair game. Again, they do not realize that it is wrong to take revenge for the evils done by one person on another, innocent person. Both sides should know better.


I was discussing the settlements with a British Israeli man in his fifties who has great sympathy for settlers. I told him my views. In particular, that the settlements were the greatest source of suffering for Palestinians in the occupied territories, the greatest burden of the occupation for Israel (financially and psychologically for soldiers who need to serve there) and the most important obstacle to peace. He told me that he sensed I had harsh feelings against settlers. I told him that I did not feel harshly towards specific individuals. Settlers, actually, have helped me finally understand the saying: “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” I do hate what they do. I think it is horrible and I have no sympathy for it. However, I do not hate the people themselves. Even when I see them as I travel in the West Bank, I feel indignation, sadness, disappointment, frustration at what they do. I wish I could do anything so they would not be there. But I do not have any bad feelings toward the individuals themselves. I just wish they were safely in Israel (or wherever they came from—Europe, Russia or America). I was once discussing the settlements with a rabbi friend in Washington. He said: “If the time comes in which, for peace sake, they need to remove the settlements, the Government should help the settlers. The Government put them there, so the government needs to help them move out.” “Absolutely,” I agreed.

The Israeli Government has the greatest responsibility in the settlement enterprise. They started it, spurred it and supported it throughout, including in the “illegal outposts,” which they supply with water, electricity and telephone service. When they decided it was time to go, however, the Israeli government did not deliver on its promises to the former settlers of Gaza who were uprooted from their homes. The Government’s failure to deliver on those promises and the fact that so many of the former settlers are still living on temporary housing is wrong. It is also counterproductive, as it has diminished the chances of disengaging from the West Bank. My rabbi friend was right. It is the Government who needs to take the initiative and support the settlers at the time of disengagement.

 What Arabs like best

It was a sunny winter morning and I was working away at my office at an Israeli university. I realized I needed to speak to one of my colleagues and I went to her office. She was sitting in front of her computer reading a Hebrew newspaper. A picture with some bloodied Middle Eastern-looking men who had been hurt or killed caught my eye. “Oh, my G-d, was is this?” I asked her. “Arabs!” she said with a look of disgust in her face “doing what they like best –killing each other.” It turns out that the picture showed the victims of some of the intra-Palestinian fighting between Hamas and Fatah. When I read about it, I feel sorry. I feel sorry for the men involved, I feel sorry for the whole Palestinian people who have suffered enough to now endure this additional physical and psychological wound, and I feel sorry for Israelis as this cannot bode well for them either. My colleague, though, seemed to feel only contempt and thinly disguised Schadenfreude. Appalled, I told this story to a Palestinian friend from Bethlehem who works at an NGO. He was not as taken aback as I was. “You should hear what the other side says,” he said sadly.


One of the questions which most intrigue me is what leads to hatred. What is surprising about it is that the harshness of the situation endured by a person or a people does not seem to be its most important determinant. My ex-husband had a relative who was a survivor who had lost all of his family in the holocaust (parents, wife, children) and he was one of the kindest people I have ever met. I never sensed one ounce of hatred in him. One of my PhD mentors is also a survivor. His parents, he and his brother escaped Germany during Hitler though other family members were murdered. He, likewise, is one of the most generous-hearted people I know. I also have an American-Israeli friend who was badly hurt in a terrorist attack and is a warm and positive person who seems to feel no hatred. On the other hand, I have seen dry hatred in the eyes of some Israeli Jews who do no appear to have any obvious reason to harbor such feelings. I have encountered similar quandaries in other contexts.

Among Palestinians, there also seems to be no correlation between how much people have suffered and their reaction. Some of the Palestinians who live in the direst circumstances –the poor, the refugees,– were some of the warmest, gentlest and kindest people I met in Palestine, despite everything. On the other hand, the few instances of contained hatred I was able to glimpse all came from people in comfortable circumstances –from the Palestinian elite. I do not know what the exact drivers of hatred are, but it seems to me that it is taught and not just experienced spontaneously, even in the worst of circumstances.

Boring Saturdays in the West Bank

Ghaleb is a Palestinian man in his late twenties. He grew up in Ramallah and was a teenager during the second intifada. One day, we were talking about his childhood and youth. He told me he used to take part in demonstrations. “The soldiers would beat us up if they caught us. I was badly beaten up by them a few times. Once, they even broke my shoulder.”“Saturdays were boring,” he went on to explain. “Why?” I asked him. “Because there were not settlers going by to throw stones at” he answered. “Sunday morning we got going again.”


I was visiting an office of Doctors’ Without Borders in the Hebron area. The head of the office, a European doctor in his forties, told me about their work. He explained that psychological trauma was one of the main issues they helped the Palestinian population with. People were terrified of the settlers and the soldiers, he explained. Some of the children stopped playing and did not wish to go outside their homes. Some of the women were so severely depressed that they had even stopped taking care of their families. Hebron is one of the parts of Palestine where life is worst –together with Gaza and Nablus–. However, my experience corroborated what all research shows–that depression is a widespread phenomenon all over Palestine. People feel there is no hope, nothing to do, nowhere to go –literally. In such circumstances, the help of humanitarian organizations is most welcome, but can in no way substitute for the return of normalcy which unfortunately looks unreachably far off. In such circumstances, I imagine, religious promises of paradise through martyrdom look particularly attractive.

He wouldn’t tell me where he was

I was having dinner with an acquaintance from synagogue. He is an American rabbi who made alyah to Israel many years ago and has since then been moving back and forth between Israel and the United States. The week before our dinner, there had been a terrorist attack against a school in Jerusalem. During the attack, three boys had been shot dead by a gunman. “It is hard to live in the midst of this,” the Rabbi told me. “It was especially hard during the peak days of the intifada when attacks were happening constantly.” At that time, he was living back in the US with his wife. Their sons, however, had preferred to stay in Israel and were in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

“I will never forget my son’s fifteenth birthday,” he said looking downcast. “I knew they were going out to celebrate his birthday and then I heard the news about the bombing of Sbarro’s Pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. Sbarro’s was my son’s favorite restaurant and I thought they were there.” He explained how he tried calling many times, but the lines were down because of the call volume (something that routinely happens after a major terror attack). “Thank G-d he was not there,” he sighed. “Where was he?” I asked rather inconsequentially, “To this day, he will not tell me where he was. “Why?” I asked. “He would just never tell me where he was” the Rabbi repeated. I felt sorry for him. To the typical relationship problems between a teenager and his father was added a very atypical dimension of fear, uncertainty, terror and possible death. This father had clearly not recovered from the anguish of those moments to this day, despite the fact that his son had lived.

Morning tea

Rami is a charming Palestinian doctor and university professor in his mid-thirties. He studied abroad and has been back in Palestine for a couple of years. I asked him how it was to be back home. He said that, in a way, it was wonderful to be back to his country, his culture, his family. On the other hand, though, it was difficult. This is something I encountered with all Palestinians who had spent time abroad. They got used to normality and coming back to a country under occupation over-run by soldiers, settlements, checkpoints and other sorts of restrictions to movement and access, and myriad daily humiliations was a shock. These humiliations and their arbitrary, surreal and seemingly aimless nature are what appear to be most disturbing to Palestinians enduring them. Rami recounted one such incident to me. He was in a shared taxi with one of his students and some of other Palestinians travelling from Bethlehem where he is from to Jenin where he teaches.

At one of the checkpoints, the soldier in duty decided to amuse himself with him and his student. He told them to get out of the taxi and accompany him to the barracks at the checkpoint. Since they had no choice, they did so. Once they got in, the soldier ordered Rami: “Make me tea!” Rami said he had to think quickly about how to react. He explained that he was considering how to do enough to diffuse the soldier’s anger without completely humiliating himself, especially in front of his student. He decided to perform part of the soldier’s order, but not all of it. He put water in a kettle and put it on the stove and told the soldier: “I put the kettle on the stove, now you turn it on.” To Rami’s relief, the soldier did and, shortly thereafter, they were allowed to leave.

The New York Suburbs

I was having a conversation with some friends over Shabbat lunch. We were discussing settlers and the settlements. Dani, an American Israeli in his fifties, agreed that some of the settler community had just gone crazy and vicious and that the violence they perpetrated against Palestinians was a disgrace. He emphasized, though, that these extremist settlers were not the majority (which is correct) and, in particular, that the settlements close to Jerusalem are very different entities with very different types of settlers. Those settlements, he said, “are just like New York suburbs.” That is a very widespread view among Jews –in Israel and in the Diaspora. It is also a judgment which is based on an entirely Jewish perspective of the settlements.

For many Jews, it makes a big difference whether a settlement is near the rest of Israel or standing smack in the middle of the West Bank and whether its inhabitants are people “one can talk to” or “ideological crazies.” For a Palestinian, it makes somewhat of a difference as well. At the most basic level, however, for a Palestinian whose land was confiscated, it does not matter whether the land was near Jerusalem or in the middle of the West Bank –in both cases it was their land and it was their home. Moreover, the settlements around Jerusalem are every bit as contrary to international law as the ones right in the middle of the West Bank and, more insidiously, they strategically sever East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. In all of these senses, these settlements are not at all like New York suburbs.

Smoking on the roof

I was visiting Anne, one of my students from Bethlehem University, and her husband Ali in Nablus. After telling me about the NGO where they were working, Anne and I went up to the roof of the building. From there, she pointed out all the Israeli observation towers. There was one on every hill surrounding Nablus –the town was wholly encircled. As we looked at our surreal surroundings, Anne told me something that had happened to her husband some years ago before they were married. They are both smokers, but do not smoke in the house. Ali had decided to go up to the roof for a quick smoke. He was standing smoking and just breathing in some air. All of a sudden –as it is not uncommon in Nablus–, shooting broke out. Ali had no time to think and just felt something warm in his leg. When he looked down, he realized he had been shot. He tried to get evacuated to a hospital, but the Israeli soldiers, thinking that he had taken part in the fighting, would not let him go anywhere. He sat bleeding in an ambulance for five hours before he was allowed to go through. Thank G-d, he made it to the hospital and they were able to operate on him and extract the bullet from his leg, which did not leave any lasting physical trace. The memory of that smoke on the roof and of the five hours bleeding in the ambulance, however, will stay with him forever.

A window in Nablus

It was my first visit to Nablus and my friend Khaled was taking me on a tour of the old city. Nablus is beautiful, but destroyed. It is probably the Palestinian city which has suffered the most from the occupation, the Intifada and their consequences. During the Israeli re-occupation of the town in 2002, the IDF faced serious resistance in the old city and their response was ruthless. They bombed historic buildings – including an old soap factory which was the hallmark of the town’s traditional industries–, damaged an enormous amount of other buildings and destroyed whole houses with families inside. Even the buildings that were left standing were clearly scarred from the fighting. The town, beautiful as it remained, was a shadow of its past self. We walked past old mosques, churches and typical Nabulsi knafe stands, and entered the fascinating and millenarian Samaritan hamam. What a wealth of history and tradition was still present in that beautiful old town and its people. The wounds of the conflict, though, were everywhere. At one point, as we walked by a house like any other, Khaled stopped and looked up: “This is my bedroom” he said as he looked up to a window. It was surrounded by bullet marks.

My whole life

Ashraf lived his whole life in a refugee camp in the West Bank. When he was twenty-six years old, he was preparing to take a trip to Canada to participate in a peace activity when he got arrested by Israeli soldiers at the Jordanian border. He still does not know why. After over a month in prison, he was released. No explanations provided. None of his luggage, which was taken away from him when he was arrested, was returned to him. Months later, he seemed as traumatized by the unexpected arrest and his time in prison as by the fact that he never recovered his baggage. “My whole life was in there” he said to me emphatically, “My whole life.” He would never get that, as well as much else, back.

Hamas TV for Children

Hamas TV seems to offer a repertoire that ranges from clerics reciting the Koran to children’s programs.  There is nothing I can say about the former. The latter, however, are both funny and disturbing. They are not only full of violence, but present it to children as a model to emulate. I remember a couple of skits. One featured a fake Bugs Bunny character that, because of copyright infringements, had to be withdrawn and screenwriters had it killed by a bee who was supposed to be a Mossad agent. Another featured a young boy who sneaked into the White House and went to find then-President Bush. Once he found him, he started to tell him how wrong his policies were all over the Middle East (with no small amount of truth in his speech). After he was done speaking, however, he proceeded to kill the President. The kid, needless to say, was presented as a hero.

Destroying mountains

It was a Friday morning and I was at Bethlehem University teaching my class on Finance for Development. That day, we were discussing public finance and, in particular, the characteristics of a good tax system. I was explaining that taxes should ideally be sector-neutral so they do not favor one economic sector over another and distort the economy. I also explained that there were exceptions to that general rule in activities causing what in economics is known as “externalities.” Negative externalities, I told my students, are activities that produce costs which bear on the whole economy rather than being directly shouldered by the entrepreneur. I gave the example of logging, which causes enormous environmental damage which is not borne by the loggers. These activities, I explained, should be taxed at a higher rate than others so entrepreneurs pay for the estimated cost of repairing the damage done to the environment.

At that point, one of my students raised her hand. “Yes, please” I told her. “So, the stone quarry industry which is destroying our mountains should be particularly heavily taxed and, instead of that, we have a customs union with Israelis according to which they can take as much of it as they wish tariff-free.” I answered her that she was right. That was a particularly pertinent example. In a normal country, that is what Palestinians would be doing –making sure they tax that environmentally destructive activity properly. Moreover, Israelis do not have many other choices on where to get “Jerusalem” stone for their ever-expanding settlements and other construction. Since it was about the only thing Israel wanted from Palestine as far as exports were concerned, though, the traffic went unimpeded. It was the only product I saw regularly cross checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank –tax and tariff free.

The hilltop youth

As reactionary as the previous generation of settlers was, the new generation is putting it to shame. There is a new generation of young settlers–increasingly referred to in the Israeli press as “the hilltop youth”– who are rabidly fundamentalist. They believe in no compromises in the mission of Jews to settle the whole of the Biblical Land of Israel. They believe the previous generation sold out, stayed within the confines of “legal” settlements, did not expand out far enough to outposts and became allies of the sell-out Israeli government –which at least formally engages in the peace process with Palestinians, is committed to a two-state solution and dismantled settlements in Gaza. In short, this hilltop youth believe that the Israeli government has betrayed them and that their parents are pitiful compromisers if not outright traitors.

Many of them are actively engaged in violence against Palestinians –setting fire to their fields, terrorizing families in their homes and some even beating up, shooting and killing random defenseless individuals, especially during the olive harvest season. I once read an article about the hilltop youth in a conservative English-language Israeli newspaper. It featured an interview with some young girls who had been put in jail by an Israeli court for refusing to evacuate an “illegal” outpost. Their statements were scary. They had clearly been indoctrinated in the fanatical beliefs of Meir Kahane, whom they revered. They believed there was nothing to compromise on, everything to be taken over, and everybody to be confronted in the process. Violence —contrary to any Jewish tradition—was a legitimate tool in the offensive, including against Jews. “What if an Israeli President wants to make peace with Palestinians and reach an agreement on dividing the land? Is violence justified against him?” The journalist asked them. The answer of the girls was as straightforward as it could be without saying directly “yes.”

This is the new hilltop youth of the settlements. It has been reared and educated in Israel’s religious nationalist public school system and it is the greatest obstacle to peace the state of Israel is likely to face in the near future. It also illustrates more clearly than any other group the total perversion Judaism has endured in that troubled land.

Pure Jewish Blood

Ahmed was one of my best friends while I was living in Israel. We travelled together in Palestine on many occasions. One time, we were driving between Jerusalem and Bethlehem around the maze formed by the wall and the Jewish settlements which have taken over fifty percent of the municipality’s land and are surrounding the town. Ahmed looked out the window and said more matter-of-factly than emotionally: “You know, one day this will all be pure Jewish blood.” “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I mean that this will not stop. Nothing will stop the settlements growing and Palestinians being pushed out. In fifty years, all you will find here is pure Jewish blood.” I told him I sincerely hoped not, but I unfortunately had no arguments to convince him or myself that he was wrong.

The world did not seem to be new

It was the beginning of the fall and the Jewish New Year was approaching. Olive harvest season was there and settler attacks on Palestinians seemed to increase by the week and were up significantly from the year before. The images of crazed settlers with sticks harassing and attacking Palestinian families trying to pick their olives had been in the media. Sadly, those actively violent settlers dressed like and would call themselves religious Jews. I could not get them out of my mind. As I was sitting in synagogue during the Jewish New Year, their images kept on coming back to me. This was perhaps because, in Judaism, we ask forgiveness for our sins in a collective fashion because all Jews are considered, to some extent, responsible for each other. In the United States, I was surrounded by a Jewish community I respected and admired and I was busy enough thinking of my own shortcomings. As a result, I never reflected much upon the collective dimension of sin.

In Israel, however, all I could think about was how many accumulated sins we have and how those settlers who had been attacking Palestinians over the preceding weeks would be sitting in their synagogues, just as I was, praying. I wondered how they felt about what they were doing and thought that they most likely saw their actions as justified, possibly even as some kind of religious act in “redeeming the land.” I felt we had fallen so far off from what Judaism had been before we arrived to that troubled country.

The Jewish New Year–which commemorates the birth of the world–, is a time for fresh starts, as if the world began anew. A couple of days after the holiday, I took a bus to the West Bank. As I was travelling by the wall through the check-points and I saw the lines of Palestinians waiting, the Israeli soldiers machine gun in hand, and the settlers whizzing through in their cars, I had the sinking feeling that the world was not new.

War songs

I was spending a weekend with friends in Sfat, a picturesque small town in the hills of the Galilee and a spiritual center of Judaism. As we were getting out of synagogue on Friday evening and walking back to our hotel, we heard very loud singing. The songs being sung were religious songs, but they did not sound it. It is a tradition among religious Jews to sing on Shabbat, a custom which I love. However, this did not sound like Shabbat singing. It was harsh and defiant. Even before we approached the group, I was turned aback by their tone. When I saw them, I realized they were soldiers. They were in full military gear, carried machine guns and intense looks on their faces. Only after we passed them, I realized what had disturbed me so much. They had taken religious songs and made them into war songs.

Eight hours in the sun

Ziad is a Palestinian Christian in his early thirties. He is from Ramallah where his family still lives. Ziad himself is living in the US doing a PhD in political science at a university in the West coast. I met him during his summer break when he was visiting his family in Palestine. We were introduced by a common friend and spent a lovely day together in the area around Ramallah. We spoke about many things, including what it was like to live in the US as a Palestinian. I also asked him how the travel from Ramallah to the US was. I am unfortunately familiar with the fact that even the most trivial things are not easy for Palestinians, especially those involving travel. It does not matter that Ziad is a PhD student in the US, that he has never had any problems with the Israeli –or any other- authorities or that he is a Palestinian Christian. All Palestinians are made to suffer in the crazy world of the occupation. Ziad recounted what I had heard from other Palestinian friends: that the wait to cross into Jordan was a nightmare. I asked him how long it took. He answered that, in the harsh Middle Eastern August heat, he was made to wait for eight hours in the sun.


Chapter 12.  Fear


“After all, you are a Jew and you know what fear is”
Franz Kafka.


Three thousand years of fear

I was in the US for a brief trip during my stay in Israel. I was speaking to my friend Rachel and telling her how I enjoyed having a mix of people at my Shabbat dinners, including non-Jews. I explained that many non-Jews like attending Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays, that they find it interesting and enjoy it and that I like to host them. I also wondered out loud to her why we don’t do this more often and ventured the guess that perhaps we mistakenly don’t think that other people will find it interesting. Rachel–an American Jew of German origin—shook her head. “It is three thousand years of fear” she said. Something sank inside me when I thought about it. This is something that, as a convert to Judaism, I will perhaps never fully understand. I have not grown up with that fear which is very deeply rooted in people who were born Jewish. That fear goes back, like my friend said, thousands of years. It has been passed down from generation to generation and it is a critical element in Jewish culture. It would not even have occurred to me that someone would be afraid to invite a friend into one’s home. And yet, it is that ancestral fear –together with our lack of focus on proselytizing– that has led Judaism and Jews to turn inward and not invite to our homes even those gentiles who would welcome it.

Perhaps they will kill me

I was visiting a center for women who are victims of gender violence in the West Bank. There, I met Saeda, a sharp woman in her early twenties who spoke fluent English. She told me her story. She is from Hebron where she used to live with her family. One day, she was returning home with her sister from a visit to the dentist’s when she was kidnapped and raped. Her rapist abandoned her in the middle of a road at night. When she was finally able to make it back home, her family was outraged as they feared she had lost her “honor.” Weeks of further horror ensued. She was taken to a doctor who confirmed that she had indeed lost her virginity. At that point and later on several occasions her own brothers tried to kill her to restore the family’s “honor.” She eventually escaped and found her way to the center where we were sitting that day.

I did not even know how to react to such horror and what to tell her, since the situation she was expounding was so utterly alien to my world. I simply empathized with her and asked her what her plans were. She said that she had been taken to a doctor in Bethlehem who had told her that now “she was OK” and she could go back to Hebron for a second doctor to testify that her “honor” was indeed intact (I am unsure as to what that meant and I did not ask her). She also told me that what she really wanted was to come live in Bethlehem and go to university and, eventually, study to become a doctor. Before that, though, she needed to go back home to Hebron. Otherwise, she would not be accepted by her family and her life would be in danger wherever she was (the center where she was living at the moment is surrounded by walls and has security). I asked her how she felt about going back to Hebron to her family. “I am afraid,” she acknowledged shyly, “because, depending on what the doctor says, perhaps they will kill me.”

Fear and greed

I was having a coffee with a well-accomplished Palestinian-Israeli sociologist at an Israeli university. We were discussing some of his game theoretical social models. In his games, people have two main motives –fear and greed. We discussed his games, their assumptions and his findings. The similarities with the Israeli motivations in their conflict with Palestinians were striking, though unspoken. At one point, I felt I just had to ask him about them. “Yes,” he acknowledged, “these are indeed the two main drivers of the Israelis in the conflict with Palestinians –fear and greed.” I have thought back to that conversation many times. The political views of the majority of the Israeli public toward the conflict seem to be motivated by fear of Palestinians while the expansion through the settlements exemplifies the greed to take as much land from the Palestinians as possible. What is most striking to me, though, is that sometimes one motive will disguise itself into the other. In particular, greed (an internationally less acceptable motivation) is often presented as fear. For example, the separation wall, which is officially presented as a defensive measure (and hence as motivated by fear), is at least as much of an offensive  “greedy” move to take over land and strategic water resources from the West Bank. It is perhaps the most obvious example of greed presented as fear. The instances, however, are plethora. In fact, the whole occupation has been presented for decades as a “defensive” measure determined by fear (of Palestinian attacks). In fact, it has been the vehicle for the continuous “greed” of the take-over of the land and water resources of the area.

Why aren’t they afraid?

One of the most common misperceptions I encountered among Israeli Jews is the belief that they are the only ones who are afraid in the presence of the other. People will often say: “Why do Arabs feel perfectly comfortable strolling around Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and I can’t walk into an Arab town?” The statement is wrong on both accounts. First off, Arabs do not feel perfectly comfortable walking around Jewish areas. On the contrary, they feel alien and are made to feel alien, and often afraid. Everything is difficult and a potential embarrassment for them –if they go to the airport, a government building, a bank, or a mall –they are almost invariably granted the “special treatment” of being put aside and asked to provide documentation. They are carefully checked out for weapons, and, at the airport, they are asked a barrage of questions. In addition to that, they are afraid worse things can happen.

A Jerusalemite Arab friend recounted to me that he was at a bus stop in Tel Aviv when a police car stopped by and asked him to produce his documentation –Arabs in Israel always need to carry their documentation. He produced it without a problem. Nevertheless, the policemen asked him to get into their car and proceeded to drive around Tel Aviv while beating him up and insulting his mother. He was let out after that unforgettable ride. Most Arabs avoid Jewish areas if they can, but they need to go there for official purposes and sometimes for shopping. However, most of them do not feel comfortable. The only reason Jews think so is that they do not speak to Arabs and have no idea of what it means to be an Arab in Israel.

The second part of their statement is also wrong. As Jews, they can perfectly walk around Arab areas of Israel. They just don’t. The immense majority of Israeli Jews has never been to an Arab town and seems to have no desire to. The fear of Arabs is such that many justify it as it being unsafe —which is certainly true of the occupied territories, but not of Arab areas of Israel. Again, the reason Israeli Jews think so is that their lack of familiarity with and fear of Arabs and things Arab, promoted and reinforced by the education system and the media, keeps them away from having any kind of interaction with their Arab countrymen. This fosters the mistaken perception that, while Arabs are safe in Jewish areas, Jews are not safe in Arab areas. In this guise, Israeli Jews are the victims and Israeli Arabs the threat.

Perhaps they will kill us, my son

My friend Hamid is originally from the West Bank, but he resides in Jerusalem since he married an East Jerusalemite many years ago. He does odd jobs for many Jews in Jerusalem and even in the surrounding settlements. His family owns land in the West Bank, some of which has been taken over by settlers and settlements. He explained to me how, one day, he and his mother were going to a police station in a settlement in order to claim their land, which had been surrounded by Jewish construction. They were following the car of the Israeli police into the settlement where their land was located. As they entered the perimeter of the settlement, Hamid’s mother cringed, “perhaps they will kill us, my son!” she said to him in anguish. Hamid told me that it was at that moment that he realized the extent of the gap in experience and the difference in perspectives between him and his mother. To him, Israeli Jews were people he lived near to and whom he worked with on a regular basis. Aside from violent settlers –the type of which he could identify–, he felt comfortable with Jews. His mother, on the other hand, only knew soldiers and settlers and she was afraid, afraid for her life. Hamid told me, “I felt I thought like an Israeli and my mother like a Palestinian.” Even if Hamid thought like an Israeli, I reflected, his land was still being stolen.

The soldiers and the boy

I was in a bus on my way back from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. We had arrived at the checkpoint and were all getting off the bus and lining up to have our identification cards checked. The checkpoint has two tiers. Buses stop at the second one. As I was waiting in line, I turned to look around me –something I instinctively did at checkpoints—in order to see what was happening. At the first tier of the checkpoint I saw a group of perhaps seven Israeli soldiers. In their midst was a young Palestinian boy of around seven or eight years of age. The group was about forty meters away and the boy was standing with his back to us. I was not able to see his face, but just saw him from the back. He was thin, dressed in casual clothes and wearing a baseball cap. He looked like an American kid. I wondered what was happening, what such a young boy was doing on his own at a checkpoint, what the problem was and what it was that the soldiers were asking him. More than anything, I wondered how he felt surrounded by Israeli soldiers –all of them, as always, carrying large machine guns. I know Palestinians are terrified of Israeli soldiers and asked myself how such a young boy must have felt alone, at a checkpoint, surrounded by soldiers and machine guns. I also realized that this was not as uncommon a sight as it seemed to me. My fellow Palestinian travelers did not even pay attention to the scene. We just had our IDs checked and got back on the bus.

 Even the aggressiveness is defensiveness

Ronit is a young, sharp and vivacious Israeli woman. I met her at a presentation by refuseniks –Israelis who refuse to go to the military and hence get put in jail. I had been impressed with Ronit, talked to her briefly after the presentation was over and asked her if we could meet to discuss further. She agreed and, a week later, we met at a café in central Jerusalem. As we sat down over tea, I asked her about her background. I assumed that she –like many left-wing Israelis—was the daughter of American parents. However, I was wrong. She was a sabra through and through and her parents were as well. Her father –clearly a critical influence on her politics—is a professor at Hebrew University and a left-wing political activist. Ronit had been involved in left-wing politics and anti-occupation activism since she was a child –and that is no exaggeration. She is also one of the few Israelis who has not stopped going to the West Bank despite the fact that it is forbidden. She has many Palestinian friends and she speaks some Arabic. She is jealous of her little sisters, though, who speak Arabic fluently because they go to one of Israel’s four bilingual and mixed Arab-Jewish schools.

I had been waiting to speak with someone like Ronit to ask her where all the aggressiveness of Israeli society comes from, especially regarding Palestinians. I told her that I understood the defensiveness, the fear, but that I simply could not understand where the aggressiveness came from. She gave me an interesting answer which I believe has a lot of truth to it, but is rarely understood by outsiders: “even the aggressiveness is defensiveness” Ronit said. She was not justifying. After all, she has spent a lot of her short life fighting this aggressiveness. She was just explaining it. “But, what about the settlements? In which way is this defensiveness?” I asked her. She answered that, in the eyes of many, even the settler movement was defensiveness, that they truly believed the settlements helped keep Israel safe in a way that they felt the disengagement from Gaza proved right. As a psychologist friend explained, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, only relax after they feel safe. I believe this applies to Israelis. However, the reverse dynamic is true as well. The aggressiveness of Israel causes more aggressiveness among Palestinians. And the resulting cycle of violence has not stopped to this day.


Sometimes during my stay in Israel/Palestine, I would have nightmares. This would happen in particular if I had witnessed or heard about something particularly disturbing. Given what I saw, heard and read, I believe I slept much better than one would have thought. Nevertheless, once in a while, I did have bad dreams. I remember three of them in particular. I spent an evening with friends in Deheishe camp hearing about the situation of the camp in the 1980s when it was fully surrounded by barbed wire and curfews and shootings were constant. That night I slept at my friends’ home in the camp. I dreamt I was back in my apartment and I had put two fish in water in a plastic washbasin where I normally did my hand-washing. One of the fish was big and the other one was small. They were swimming around in the water when I realized that the big fish kept on biting the small fish. I panicked and looked around for another place into which I could put water so I could separate the fish. I ran around all over my house, but I had no other container. The big fish will kill the small fish I kept on thinking. How did I ever think of putting these two fish together? Plus, this washbasin is too small for both. But I can’t separate them because I have no other place to put them in and, if I take one out of the water, it will die. I do not recall how the dream ended.

I forget exactly when I had the second dream. In that dream, it was my job to determine whether Palestinians could enter Israel or not. The way the system worked was that I would get a bright red email in my inbox for every person who wanted to come in and it was my responsibility to determine whether the person could come in or not. I remember I was extremely anxious. I would open the emails and they had very little information on the person. I would agonize thinking: I want to let the person in, but what if they carry out a suicide bombing? And just thinking: I simply do not have enough information to make these decisions. I have no recollection of what decisions I made or did not make. All I can remember is the extreme anguish of those emails popping in my inbox, my responsibility, and the certainty that I just did not have enough information to make those decisions.

The third dream was one I had after visiting my friends in Al-Arroub Camp. After my visit, my friend and I had walked in the streets toward the main road. At one point, she told me to hurry as someone warned us that Israeli soldiers had entered the camp and there was shooting. I got to the main road safely. When I got home that night, though, I dreamt I was walking alone in the camp. It was a winter day and my hands were cold. I thought it would be good to put them in my pockets where they would be warmer. As I started to put my hands in my pockets, however, I took them out immediately in horror as I felt something warm and sticky in them–my pockets were full of blood.

The dream and the nightmare

One of my critiques of Jewish education is that there is an excessive focus on our periods of persecution and insufficient attention to the periods in which we have lived in relative peace among other peoples. These periods have been plentiful and sometimes quite extended. During those times, Jews learned a lot from and contributed enormously to the societies in which they lived. These intersections between Jewish and host cultures are fascinating and often understudied by both Jews and our host societies –I know it applies to Spain, but it is also the case for Eastern Europe and the Arab countries in which Jews lived for centuries. I have discussed this issue with Jewish friends, many of whom agree with my assessment. If we studied more our commonalities with other societies in greater depth and, in particular, our contributions to them and their contributions to us, we would have a more balanced perspective of our history and that of our host societies. I also believe it would be healthy for our collective Jewish psychology.

That being said, I think I know why the focus is on the periods of persecution –because every single historical period of Jewish history which began like a dream ended up like a nightmare. This was the case from Spain to Germany, Poland and, to a lesser extent, the Arab world. Even if things were very good at one point, they ended up in the nightmare of persecution, pogroms, expulsion, and mass killings. With such an ending, it is hard to focus on what happened before as anything but pregnant with the seeds of disaster. As a result, the historical experiences which have shaped Jewish history and our collective consciousness have been the nightmares, not the dreams. It is sadly understandable, even natural. And yet, I believe we would be well-advised to pay greater attention to the periods of peaceful coexistence. There is a lot to be learned from them, for both us and for the rest of the world.

The difference between radical and moderate Arabs

I had gotten up late that Saturday morning and, as I approached the synagogue, services had already finished and the congregation was already standing outside. I was looking for my friend Eric when a man I had met the day before called me and introduced me to his interlocutors. They were a North American Senator and his Israeli wife. Both seemed to be in their late fifties. The group was discussing a newspaper called ‘the Palestinian times” which I never read. The Senator’s wife was clearly exercised: “We need to support the (Arab) moderates, right?” she asked. I did not catch the irony in her rhetorical question. I said: “Yes, we do.” “No! No, we don’t! We should not support any of them!” she responded. I was taken aback by the sudden rise in the volume of her voice, her uncompromising tone and the hard look in her eyes. She was not looking for dialogue and she went on a monologue for the next few minutes.

I admit I do not recall very much of what she said except her conclusion: “The only difference between radical and moderate Arabs is that radicals want to kill us today and moderates want to kill us tomorrow!” I do recall very strikingly, however, the look of sheer terror in her eyes. She was fully convinced of what she was saying. I tried arguing with her, explaining that what she said might have been true some time ago, but was no longer true in the Palestinian or the broader Arab world, much of which was looking for a solution to the Palestinian problem and for stability within their own societies. I also made the point that, even if she was right, it was good to gain time and try to improve relations with those who “did not wish to kill us today,” as things might change tomorrow. I do not think I made much of an inroad. She kept on referring to history, to the past, which she is right in pointing out does not support a cooperative attitude of the Arab world towards Israel.

But she was not willing to give the present and the future a chance. She had no doubt the offer of the Arab League was not sincere. She had no doubt that Fatah was just as bent on eliminating Israel as Hamas –except later. She saw absolutely no window, no hope for peace in a set of views which seemed shaped equally by panic, prejudice about the “Arab mentality,” and backward-looking expectations rather than a rational assessment of current conditions. I do not think she is right in her broader point, though I cannot be sure.  The feeling I was left with, however, was that, with her intellectual and emotional outlook, if there was an opening for peace, she would not be able to see it. She exemplified in extreme form a problem I believe many Jews have –a great deep-seated fear grounded on thousands of years of Jewish persecution, hardened by Israel’s first decades of history and relentlessly hammered by the Israeli education system and media. It is a fear that is so strong and so pervasive that it clouds rationality and does not allow for a cool-headed assessment of present realities.

Continue to Chapters 13-14

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