On my way to the West Bank I could only think about how I hadn't flossed my teeth in weeks. I tongued the outer enamel of my incisors.
I thought: Should I return safely with all my teeth, I will begin to floss regularly.
I suppose I focused on the potential food between my teeth because there were two much larger and indigestible thoughts in mind:
First, there was fear.
When I told my Israeli acquaintances that I was to visit the South Hebron Hills--Palestinian territory in the West Bank 28 kilometers south of Jerusalem--I was asked if I was suicidal. Even though the latest conflict was on the other side of Israel in Gaza, I feared some reprisal upon my visit to the West Bank. I was 13 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and, hard as I try to shake the less-than-fair Western portrait of Arab people, the anxiety remains.
Then there was guilt.
Guilt for introducing myself to people as a journalist but not making an opportunity to see the other side until the second-to-last-day of my stay in Israel.
The night before I didn't sleep much as I debated whether or not I should call loved ones for a potential farewell. For my mother's sake, I didn't say a word about the visit. That morning I woke hoping to receive a message from Breaking the Silence (an organization of former IDF soldiers who served in the West Bank and want Israelis to know what is being done in their name) that the trip was cancelled for safety reasons. I waited by my phone until the absolute last minute to leave my apartment in Jaffa and take the bus to the Tel Aviv station where the group was to meet.
The group was tall and blonde. There were maybe 15 of us and the majority were German or of some Scandinavian variety. That the group was conspicuously Aryan made me feel safer. That I was the only Jew made me feel odd. We got on a bus and headed east.
After an hour, our first stop in the West Bank was a gas station outside of Eshkolot, a Jewish settlement that looked like a sub-development you might find in the suburbs of Arizona. The roofs were red clay tile and the buildings were stone. Armed guards, both private and military, were stationed all around the settlement. Our guide, Nadav, who served in the IDF in Hebron during the Second Infitada and looked more like a barista than a former soldier, encouraged us not to buy anything from the store because Palestinians were forbidden to shop there.
I introduced myself to a girl in our group who was sitting outside of the gas station eating a croissant. I asked her if she felt guilty patronizing the settlement's store.
“Yeah, of course. I pass by this station all the time and this is first time I've bought anything, but I'm starving.”
Turned out she was volunteering and lived and worked in a small village near Hebron where she taught English. She was originally from the suburbs of Maryland. She was on this trip because she had taken a weekend off in Tel Aviv and it was the easiest way for her to get back into the West Bank.
I looked around and saw settlers drinking Slurpees while carrying their assault rifles.
The English teacher told me things were really awful here. “The people here are sick of everything,” she said. “Hamas, Fatah and even the Palestinian Authority. The PA is basically an extension of the IDF. They don't trust anyone. And my friends back home don't understand. I have to explain to them—I’m not pro-Hamas; I'm pro-human.”
We got back on the bus to head to Susiya, an area in the West Bank split between a Palestinian village, a Jewish settlement and a historic site. Before we arrived we had to pass through a checkpoint. Nadav hopped out of the bus. He spoke with the guards and returned to us with a sheepish expression on his face.
“Guys, sorry, but you gotta pull out your passports.”
Two guards walked on the bus. One wore a bulletproof Kevlar vest; the other had a loaded assault rifle strapped around his shoulder. They seemed bored. They opened and looked through all the passengers’ passports. Some were given a harder time than others. I was spared the usual intimidating questions: Why are you here in Israel? What town are you from in your country? What's your favorite color?
Turns out that they were not soldiers but private security guards hired by the Israeli government to man checkpoints throughout the West Bank. They got off the bus and waved us through.
At Susiya, there wasn't much to look at. It appeared more like the vestiges of an archaeological dig than a village, a ghost town with people living in it. Rusted-out cars permanently parked in all directions, the houses were made of mismatching tarps and the requisite broken swing set sat quietly in the shadeless plot. Because it was midday during Ramadan, we were told not to expect much activity. Little Palestinian boys began to stick their heads out from places of shade and watch the group move through. We all waved. The only thing in decent condition was a sign that read “State of Palestine Ministry of Local Government Village Council Susiya.”
We walked by an old man sitting in the shade of a tent. He asked where we were from in broken English.
“America,” I said.
“I hate United States.”
I shrugged my shoulders. He continued.
“That Obama,” he scoffed. “He is no good.”
The guide quickly ushered us away.
I don't think that Obama gets enough credit for unifying disparate groups of people.
Nadav walked us to some rubble and a hole in the ground.
“This is, or it was, a well,” he said.
The square hole still had some water in it, but most of it was filled with trash. Oil streaks lazily floated on its surface. Nadav continued:
“The people cannot drink from it anymore. A car was crushed and stuffed into the hole by IDF contractors. The people are not allowed to dig another well because they need to get permission from the Israeli government in order to build or alter anything in the West Bank.”
Nadav went on to describe the Kafkaesque bureaucratic hoops that Palestinians have to jump through to get permission for almost anything. If the Palestinians were to dig another well, the government would "legally" seize that land and bulldoze structures around it. So the people of Susiya, their main sources of water contaminated, have to drive to stores in neighboring towns to purchase potable water.
Across a valley to the southeast was the Jewish Susiya Settlement. Surrounding all Jewish settlements in the West Bank are "special security zones" monitored by IDF soldiers. Palestinians are forbidden from entering or passing through these zones, which often stretch for miles and encompass arable land and wells.
Most Israelis I'd met struggled with the conflict between themselves and Palestine, often resigning themselves to sigh and conclude that it's complicated. What wasn't complicated for the vast majority of Israelis I spoke to was the existence of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. They all agreed that settlers were an immoral presence and needed to leave the West Bank.
Allow me to try explaining what these settlements are like for those of you who are unfamiliar. Imagine Brooklyn and the hipsters who gentrify it. Now, instead of mostly white artists who drink expensive coffee and eat kale and try to get you to come to their band's show, replace these hipsters with hundreds of thousands of George Zimmermans who operate with a Stand Your Ground mentality that is supported by the Israeli military.
Nadav explained that the directive of the Israel Defense Forces stationed in the West Bank is to protect Jewish settlers—not Palestinians. The two sides are governed by two different courts. Let's say there was a fight between a settler and a Palestinian where the two lobbed rocks at each other. The settler would be arrested and prosecuted in a civilian court. The Palestinian would go to a military court and be charged as a terrorist.
Nadav said that there was an instance where settlers threw stones at Palestinian children as they walked to school. The local IDF commander thought that if he had his soldiers accompany the children to school, the settlers would move on to whatever it is settlers do in their free time. Instead, the settlers threw rocks at the Palestinians and the soldiers. One soldier was struck in the face and the blow broke his jaw. The commander fired a round from his rifle into the air. The commander was then court martialed for improper use of his weapon.
The young boys of Susiya tugged at our shirts and tried to sell us juice or jam in little plastic containers. No one bought anything. I reached in my pocket and gave one little boy a handful of shekels. I felt very foolish for ever being afraid.
What was clear to me was that I hadn't learned enough. This tour through Hebron, grateful though I was for being allowed to accompany the group, served to remind me that I learned more about people on the court than anywhere else. I wanted to play basketball with the Palestinians. I have my sights set on returning in November.
After returning from the West Bank with all that tragic profundity swimming around my head, I did the most responsible and practical thing—I went to play basketball.
At Sportek, the court where I have played most in Israel, I saw many familiar faces. Nadav (the basketball player, not the tour guide) was there, along with some other people who acknowledged me with a flick of the chin. During the first game of three-on-three, an air raid siren went off. There weren't any bomb shelters or buildings to take cover under, so most people wandered to the concession stand sheltered by a few palm trees. Nadav didn't even seem to notice. I fumbled in different directions, unsure of where I was supposed to go. Nadav kept shooting.
Even in the daylight, you cannot see the missiles launched by Hamas, but you can watch as two interceptors of the Iron Dome leave a hot wake in the sky and hunt down the rocket. Moments before the interceptors meet the threat, their tails disappear. Then you hear the thunder. The missiles exploded overhead. It took only a moment for everyone to collect themselves and find their place from before, like resetting a chessboard after its pieces got shuffled. I walked up to Nadav, unsure of what to say. He shot a three and it went in.
“I finally got my shot working,” he said.
There were others who did the same—they did not take cover and kept playing basketball. Whether out of sheer defiance or the simple impulse to live a normal life, they refused to allow their routines to be interrupted. Of the thousands of rockets aimed at Israel, only a handful had landed and done any damage. Because of the Iron Dome, whose funding is entirely American, the missiles hurled by Hamas are like irritatingly curious bees—mostly innocuous, but potentially harmful. Until the missiles cause direct death, they are, in a way, a form of nonviolent protest. I wonder if Israel would be better off swatting them away than responding in kind with missiles that cannot be rendered into shrapnel.
Soon the games picked up where they left off, and though you could still see the cottony streaks the missiles left in the sky, everyone had all but forgotten the moment before. Nadav and I started to win consecutive games and the competition started to get more resentful. There's nothing more satisfying than dethroning success by any means necessary. One of our challengers had on its team a young player, maybe 15 years old. He was talented offensively but weighed only 120 pounds. I started to instruct the other player on our team to take advantage of the mismatch by posting up the boy inside and forcing the other team's hand. After the game, an older player from the challenging side punted the ball away from the court.
“In my ten years of playing here, this was the worst game I've ever played!”
He was upset that we took advantage of the asymmetry between our teams. Most everyone else on both sides agreed with him.
“You shouldn't pick on a little guy!”
“He should be treated the same us the rest of us if he wants to play,” I said. “Plus, he was more than holding his own on offensive. He scored most of your points.”
The angered man walked away in disgust.
Nadav left after he made a game-winning three.
“That's enough for me,” he said.
We said our goodbyes and he jumped on his electric bicycle and headed home to his wife.
Raz, the court's resident jerk, arrived with the same short-shorts and bad attitude he always wears. I hoped to play against him, but he seemed depressed and just sat around. I didn't care enough to ask him why, but I felt a twinge of pity for him. I played and I played and I played. It was after 11 o'clock at night and I could feel my calves start to give.
Physically exhausted and too tired for a single thought, I headed back to Jaffa to spend my final night in Israel. I showered and packed my things. In Ron's room was a desk, and on that desk I saw some scribblings on a piece of paper.
One line stood out:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.--Exodus 22:21