The Way It Hemmed You In

The violence had been minor, in the grand scheme of things, though unprovoked. Yet the figure of the masked man, prowling round the car, seemed to stand in for a much greater violence. The texture of it is hard to capture, but it suffuses Palestinians’ experiences of the occupation. It is the violence of that moment in which your life is not your own, in which a car full of young people on the way home from a night out, flushed with all the pleasure of youth, is transformed into a threat, and they haven’t even realized.

Soldiers, trigger-fingers, and nerves in Palestine

It was nearly a shooting. The dark had given no warning: just lasers, green and sudden, in through the windows.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp was mostly black at night, the electricity a victim of a power cut. So we could not see much driving down the main road, the music loud—just a single flashlight tracing back and forth across the gray ground. It was only when we came closer that suddenly the point of light made sense, and the shadows told me something, and I shouted, “Army! Army!” But by then lasers were poking into the car.

If things had gone bad enough that there had been some sort of public reckoning, the fact that we were drinking would have been raised. It would have been held up as proof that we were careless, blind to the obvious presence of the troops, even though they were hiding in the dark. On the contrary: that we were a bit drunk just shows how ordinary the night was, and how absurd the situation was in which we found ourselves.

The evening had started perfectly, in an old courtyard in Beit Sahour, the stone walls throwing back the sound of the oud being played. Kofte, thick with oil and flavor, were grilling and we passed beers through the smoke, as well as a bottle of whisky. It was a birthday, and everyone was in a good mood, relieved the heat of the day had gone.

Beit Sahour is a special place: subsumed into the greater urban area of Bethlehem, it nevertheless preserves its own identity. Christian, left-wing, and relaxed, its old town has an unchanged and permissive air that draws foreigners—and Palestinians escaping from the more intense parts of the West Bank—to live there. The cachet from its days of First Intifada activism lingers, but it is rare to see the army in its streets now. With its old stone houses, it is quintessentially Palestinian and removed from what has come to dominate Palestine today: Israel’s military occupation.

Perhaps that is what lends parties like that one the air of a retreat. A mix of Palestinian activists, refugee intellectuals, and foreign workers for international organizations all coming together and shutting the door to the street outside, to the whole country. We told stupid jokes and tried not to discuss politics. We argued over the choice of music, and cursed the poor Wi-Fi that kept causing YouTube to stutter and skip.

When the landlord popped his head through the courtyard door, accidentally unlocked, a tense quiet fell, as if we had been caught in flagrante. The world had intruded, even if it was just to check up on a false report that water was leaking from inside.

He left, and the night drew down. Those who still wanted to drink were reduced to a carload. We headed to the same place we always go when the night is old, a valley near Beit Jala where the air smells good: of olives, and cold soil. The floor of the wadi is dark, but the ridges are strung with lights—the settlement of Har Gilo, and the Tunnels Checkpoint, a tollbooth-like barrier that ensures Palestinians cannot join the flood of settler commuters from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem each morning.

The conversation splintered as the shots took effect. Small groups formed between the five of us, cigarettes rolled by the light of a mobile phone. Some of us talked about girls. Someone else was saying, looking up at the lights of the settlement, how he needed a break from this place, and the way it hemmed you in.

Last year Israeli forces killed two drivers that surprised troops while they were making night raids. It was that memory that brought the adrenaline to my fingers—I always feel it in my fingers—as the car came hard to a halt, and I waited to see if the bullets would come along the line of lasers that probed its tight interior. The soldiers ran out from the shadows, guns raised, and shouting. The car, full of young people who had just been driving home on familiar roads, and now suddenly found themselves confronted by the army, shouted back.

Our driver tried to speak to the soldiers in English, not knowing Hebrew, and was told to shut up and speak Arabic. Tempers were ragged. We had obviously spooked them, and they had shaken us. The sound of shooting and stun grenades rang out from behind the houses. A raid on the camp, and this a detachment to guard its southern perimeter: we had not heard the tell-tale sounds above the music. Now everyone was too angry, and not thinking straight. There was no asking for our IDs—this was not an ordinary traffic stop, just scared men, with guns, pointing them at another scared group who were doing their best to shout their way through that fear.

One masked soldier came quickly from behind the others. He reached in through the driver’s open window and slapped him sharply across the face. The car erupted in anger, and I was suddenly aware of how small a space it was. There were three of us in the back seat—me, my friend next to me, and a young woman, newly arrived in the country, on the other side. The hot interior became cramped in our rage. The friend next to me was leaning forward to shout, his legs pressing against mine, and then turning around, his muscular shoulder pushing into me, to tell me to shut up when I was shouting.

It would have been more helpful not to shout. The masked soldier circled round to my side, and we exchanged an angry stare. I asked him, in Arabic, what the fuck was wrong with him. He moved around to the other side of the car again, stalking, and took out a small baton, one of those that pulls its length out of itself, a tough sheen of gray. He tried to hit the woman who was sitting with us, and my friend leaned over and put up his arm to try to deflect the blow. More cursing. The soldier standing to our right cocked his rifle and held it up to the passenger in the front seat.

It was at this moment that two calmer heads prevailed. One was the passenger in the front seat, who was talking to the driver, livid after being slapped, and telling him to calm down. The other was a soldier—I presume an officer—who came and dragged away the man in the mask who had been hitting people. He waved to us to go, and the driver moved into reverse.

The back roads of Dheisheh are a tight wind, and we were driving through them fast and screaming at one another. Each of us now stood in for the soldiers, and we demanded to know why they had acted the way they had, what gave them the right. Somewhere to our left shots sounded, followed by the deep thud of sound bombs. The woman with us, nervous, asked for us to stop, and we pulled over and paused, breathing, sucking in the cool air, listening to the sounds of the raid.

The friend we had come to the camp to drop off got out and disappeared down a graffiti-strewn alley to see if he could make it back to his house, or if the soldiers were in the street. We drove around the rear of the camp, the Palestinian security headquarters set up on its massive stone blocks. Quiet—no Palestinian police on the roads, of course. Security cooperation with the Israeli army was working well.

At the Russian compound, we should have turned right to head back to Beit Sahour, but we turned left. I was sitting up front now, having taken the departed passenger’s place, and as the car came to a stop I could see the lights of one of the army’s big armored trucks, sitting up the road, back at the camp. Early morning traffic, heading for Road 60, was coming to a stop next to our car and turning around. A man, perhaps in his forties, a plump belly pushing out his polo shirt, was flinging stones towards the impossibly distant soldiers. Three shots—snap, crack, snap—sounded, and I could not tell from where.

“What are we doing here?” I asked the friend who was driving. The car erupted again and argued, in varying pitches, as we sat and looked at the lights of the army jeeps up the road.

In the West Bank, cars can be little hedonistic units. Cheaper than a bar—if your city is one of those that has bars—the late nights see beat-up hatchbacks patrolling the empty streets. Each group of friends has its secret spots, its favored points where you take the night air, sip arak from plastic cups, or beer from the bottle, and listen to music. Perhaps if you have a girlfriend you will go with her in the car to somewhere quiet. You think about the Israeli police, because they are the ones that care about drinking, about seat belts, about whether your car has insurance or not, and you know where they sit up and wait. These cars are somehow representative of a Palestinian masculinity that is cocky and looks for fun, is disdainful of authority but aware of it, knows how it is caught up in the binds of power, and yet desperately tries not to be.

That had been the mode of the car, until we had come across the army, and now the terrifying encounter had injured those of us inside, and pushed another aspect of masculinity to the fore—wounded pride, the desire to respond, to be heedless of the consequences, to crave the fleeting, shallow satisfaction that a response would bring.

It was some more minutes, and a lot of shouting, before we finally turned back for Beit Sahour, the impulse to respond argued down. Even then there were still quarrels, suspicions that the trip back was just a ruse, that the two Palestinians would simply drop off the foreigners and return to the camp.

Back in the courtyard the remains of the party lay where we had left them. The evening felt like it had passed a long time before, and it was a surprise to find the food still fresh. The friend I was staying with returned, and told me the driver was safely home. People who lived in the camp were messaging us reports of the shooting. From the fridge, my friend and I took a pork chop and two last bottles of beer, and sat downstairs, the smell of the smoke suffusing the stones. The call for the dawn prayer floated in from the sky, just tinged with blue, and we sat and drank, clinking the two bottles together, and discussed what was, and what could have been.

In the end, what passed had turned out fine. No one had been seriously hurt, no one arrested, and no one had done anything that would have consequences in the morning. Yet in the coming days each of us found ourselves returning to the incident, and playing it over. Though the Israeli army is not supposed to be in the area of the camp, according to the Oslo Accords, it often is. Raids, and the violence that goes with them, are common. Yet the soldiers’ presence, unadvertised in the gloom, had been a shock, had produced an uncanny effect, perhaps, in the sense that Freud explains: that something familiar—the main street of the camp—had suddenly become unknown, dramatically unfamiliar.

The violence had been minor, in the grand scheme of things, though unprovoked. Yet the figure of the masked man, prowling around the car, seemed to stand in for a much greater violence. The texture of it is hard to capture, but it suffuses Palestinians’ experiences of the occupation. It is the violence of that moment in which your life is not your own, in which a car full of young people on the way home from a night out, flushed with all the pleasure of youth, is transformed into a threat, and they haven’t even realized.

The morning after the party, we woke and went for breakfast in the sunny city that bore no trace of what had happened the night before. No one, apparently, had been wounded in the raid, and no one arrested either. Locals said the only result was the confiscation of security camera footage from some shops along the main road of the camp. That, and some sleepless hours for camp residents, and for five people in a car, the memory of when a desire to escape came up against the world, and lost.

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