My escort was a young man with a Slavic accent who had been hired to get me through airport customs in case I was flagged by Israeli border agents. “Rachel, you are going to love it here,” he said to me. “We are going to be 80 percent very soon. We will be 80 and they will be only 20 percent. That is the plan and you will love it here.” We was Jews. They were Palestinians. It seemed he’d been promised some form of ethnic cleansing, the way a travel brochure might promise white sand beaches and swaying palms. As we rode in his car from one part of the airport to the other, he buoyantly cited this 80/20 aspirational ratio a total of six times. Where did you emigrate from, I asked. “Kosovo.” He had left there in 1999. Enough said. The “here” that I would love was not a war zone, except it is a war zone. But the airport customs escort is on the side of power and strength, and his numbers and exuberance reflect the great successes of the IDF at insulating Israelis from the mechanics of that war.
The next morning I joined my delegation—there were seven of us, writers from all over the world—as we met with Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence. Shaul gave us a bit of background on himself and the organization, which collects and publishes testimonies from former IDF soldiers in order to expose the reality of Israel’s fifty-year-long military occupation of the West Bank to the Israeli public. I had heard some criticism of BtS by activist friends in the US, who felt that its aim was to distinguish good soldiers from bad and thus clean up the image of Israeli military while preserving it as a structure of control. But as if directly rebutting this phantom accusation, Shaul presented BtS to us as “not about good soldiers versus bad. We want to end the occupation, period.”
According to BtS, the IDF’s goal is to give every Palestinian—man, woman, and child—the feeling of being chased. “I never met a Palestinian growing up,” one former soldier told us. “We don’t learn Arabic in Israeli schools. We don’t learn anything about Palestinian culture or history. For many of us, the first time you engage with a Palestinian is through your rifle scope.” That week we would meet former soldiers who had, respectively, thrown tear gas canisters at a 4-year-old eating watermelon (individual was conducting surveillance); raided and occupied houses merely as training, to learn how to raid and occupy houses; killed a man who was smoking a cigarette on a balcony, from a sniper position on a rooftop (individual was identified as a possible scout, but without intelligence of such); blindfolded and handcuffed a man and left him alone in a remote area many miles from his village (individual was identified for retribution by a Shin Bet officer who called himself “Frank” and then disappeared). These are not exceptions, but standard practice. The sniper who spoke to us made it clear that he had killed innocent people, and that his lifelong work now was to deal with the consequences, the implications, for him, his religion, his nationality.
The deeper one digs, the more existential the crisis of these former soldiers starts to seem. Shaul, a former commander in the IDF during the Second Intifada, is the first to emphasize that the tactics of the occupation are modeled on Israel’s own policies developed between 1948 and 1966, and thus the dividing line between nation-building and expansion blurs even for those whose Zionism has been their identity, country, sacrifice, trauma, and faith. These soldiers are also quite isolated. A political left critical of the military occupation, which theoretically one might imagine backing BtS, is almost nonexistent in Israel. Moreover, the Labor Party was historically in power for many of the significant losses of Palestinian land and reduction of freedom of movement.
As the Palestinian scholar Bashir Bashir put it to us later that same morning, “The settlement project is not the sinful baby of the right.” He was debating his friend and colleague Hillel Cohen, whose elegant examinations of history and Zionism present contradictory narratives on both sides, Jewish and Palestinian, with no easy or simplistic moral calculus. And yet, as Cohen says to us, “I like to hear Bashir talk because it reminds me how deep my Zionism is.” His casual summation to us on the founding of Israel in 1948: it was a project of saving Jewish life. Then again, Cohen reminded us, if the US had not changed its immigration laws in 1924, everyone would have gone to America, where Jews tended to prefer to immigrate anyway. Cohen, in his book about the significance of riots and violence between Jews and Palestinians over the Wailing Wall in the flash-point year 1929, distinguishes between Zionists and non-Zionists, in the early stages of Israel’s route to statehood. When I asked him about this, he said, “Non-Zionist Jews were so impressed by the sophistication of Zionism, they were basically overpowered. They joined history, became Zionists.” Bashir then spoke about binationalism. In his writings, Bashir advocates sharing one land. He said Palestinians should contemplate the trauma of the Holocaust, and Jews should do the same with regard to the Nakba. Maybe I was just jetlagged, but as I thought of Bashir’s generously restorative proposal I felt like crying. Palestinians were not involved in the Holocaust. They had nothing to do with it, while the Israelis caused the Nakba.
In the afternoon we toured Silwan, where settler school children are moved around in vans that look like armored personnel carriers—private security contracted and paid for by Israel’s housing ministry. The vans stream past photomurals wrapping the construction fencing of a controversial City of David archeological dig site, with digital renderings featuring fair-skinned children joyously playing, advertising to future tourists a site effectively rid of Palestinians. We entered Palestinian houses whose walls had huge zigzag cracks through which light spilled, and spoke to local community organizer Jawad Siyam, whose own home is under threat.1 The excavation of the “City of David” had made these houses uninhabitable, and now they were slated to be demolished by the Israeli government, as if the construction project had a side-benefit of giving bureaucratic license to clear the area. I thought of the 80/20 goal my airport escort was promised. We visited the former community center that Jawad Siyam had created, now nothing but a foundation, which the IDF had bulldozed on what it had obliquely told the center’s organizers was “a cleaning order.” Next door to the center was a settler home, whose huge flag announced, “I’m that Jew.” Two private security guards walked by, sporting open side arms, and turned up the driveway of the house with the flag.
The next day we went to Nabi Saleh, a tiny village in a fertile valley located in the central West Bank. We met with the Tamimi family, who participate in weekly protests over the cooptation, by a nearby Israeli settlement, of the natural spring that the village farmers had relied upon to irrigate their crops. The Israeli response to these protests includes tear gas, sound cannons, “skunk water” aimed into the windows of Palestinian homes, and live ammunition. The brave Tamimi family, at the center of these protests, are darlings of the international community and happen to be good-looking, intellectually sophisticated, philosophically nonviolent, and emancipatory toward women (also, their daughter Ahed, who was made famous from YouTube clips of her screaming at the soldiers arresting her mother, looks, with her long blond braids, like she could have been cast in The Sound of Music). Several members of the extended family have been killed by Israeli soldiers.
As we traveled from Nabi Saleh to Ramallah by bus, we engaged in a vigorous discussion about the military occupation of the West Bank and whether it resembled apartheid. Yehuda Shaul of BtS told us he had escorted Barbara Hogan, an ANC member and former South African political prisoner, around the occupied territories. Hogan had declared after her tour that apartheid was in fact not an appropriate comparison, because what Hogan saw of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank was so much more extreme than what she knew of apartheid South Africa. Whatever the correct descriptor might be, the military occupation of the West Bank is hard to understand until you see it. You might be surprised at your own intolerance of the idea of a democracy maintaining an open-air prison for 2.7 million people. Before going there myself, I had heard this phrase, open-air prison, and figured it was not literally a prison. (As someone who spends a fair amount of time in prisons, I’m sensitive to its use as a metaphor.) But everywhere I went I saw guard towers and concrete barriers and razor wire—truly an open-air prison—except where there were settlements, which featured posh, Beverly Hills–style landscaping: little blooming flowers, fragile and bright, the guard towers in the far distance.
In Ramallah we met with a Palestinian businessman named Sam Bahour who is an American and also a graduate of Tel Aviv University. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1995, Sam hasn’t been able to visit his own alma mater because his passport is stamped with West Bank residency, which significantly restricts his movement inside Israel. After our walking tour with Sam, we met Fadi Quran, who as a child angrily put bags of rocks along roadways to trick Israeli soldiers into thinking they were IEDs, and later won a scholarship to study at Stanford University. While at Stanford, he went to his campus Hillel, curious about his ontological enemy. He lied and said he was an Iraqi Jew and was accepted with open loving arms. He was taught about the pogroms, he told us, and the Holocaust, and found it all unbearably sad. He understood, all at once, what trauma, fear, pride, and indoctrination—on both sides—could do to a person’s emotional core. Like many young Palestinians I met, Fadi Quran had no interest in political leaders, or in nationalism or religion as solutions to social problems. What do you think of the Palestinian Authority, one writer asked. “I was imprisoned by them last week,” he replied.
Our next stop was Arafat’s tomb, with its stoic PA guards, who have a really boring job standing at attention all day long, guarding a corpse. Prior to the tomb was a tour of the Mahmoud Darwish museum, where a filmed interview with Darwish was playing as we writers filed in. The poet was telling the interviewer about his vow of celibacy. As our guide spoke of the poetic legacy of Darwish, every writer in the room was distractedly thinking only of the poet’s celibacy, which wasn’t explained.
We had dinner that night with the author and human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh and his wife, Penny Johnson. Raja spoke about the 2002 siege of Ramallah, where he is from, and where he and Penny make their home. I had read his book about the siege, When the Birds Stopped Singing, and thus knew some details. Yehuda Shaul of BtS, sitting next to me at the table, said to Raja, “I was a company sergeant stationed there in 2002, occupying the homes of Palestinians.” Shaul’s need to testify, his mission of honesty and clarity, is heartrending, but having no experience sitting between occupier and occupied I instinctively tried to dispel my own discomfort with a bad joke. “Yehuda, I hope you weren’t the soldier inside Raja’s brother’s house.” No one laughed.
The morning after Ramallah, I woke at 4 AM for a visit to Qalandia checkpoint, the main entrance into Jerusalem for residents of the northern West Bank. It was dark and cold when I arrived at the checkpoint at 5 AM, along with the two other writers from my delegation who had risen in time for this early event. Hanna Barag, a tiny woman in her mid-80s, had already been there for an hour, making cell phone calls to assist men who were being denied entry. The Israeli bureaucracy had just invalidated thousands of work permits by some computer glitch, or so Barag had been told. Each day by 4 AM thousands of men are already lined up to get through Qalandia, to their construction jobs in Jerusalem by the start time of 7 AM. The atmosphere is hostile and chaotic and 100 percent male in those early morning hours. There are fights every morning, several men told me. When I was at Qalandia, the required minimum age for men to pass through was 23, though apparently this is subject to change. In addition, men needed to be married, have children, have proof of an Israeli employer, and not be blacklisted. Three to four hundred thousand men from the West Bank are blacklisted, Hanna Barag told me.
The men stand for hours, waiting to get through. They are body to body, lined up in narrow lanes that resemble cattle chutes but worse. There is wire mesh overhead, with low enough clearance that a tall person, at certain points, must stoop. If a man gets to the front and after presenting his required magnetic card, his West Bank green ID, his work permit, and his fingerprint, is declined for any reason, as many were the morning I was there, that man must turn around and squeeze past hundreds of others in his caged shoulder-width lane, person by person, all the way to the entrance, where he can go back to wherever he came from, now probably unemployed, because if you don’t show up for work one morning chances are you will be fired. Another way people are fired, Hanna explained to me: the Israeli bosses call the Civil Administration (which, despite its name, is a military unit of the Defense Ministry) and tell the CA, “I don’t need this worker anymore.” The CA cancels the worker’s permit and the employer does not have to pay that worker whatever he owes him, story over. “How do you find a new employer when you have no freedom of movement?” Hanna asked rhetorically. Bewildered, I watched as the men waited patiently for the next group to be slammed through the turnstiles. When the turnstiles click open, it’s a frantic go, go, go, as soldiers shout at the crowds of men via an intercom system, “Wahad, wahad!” One by one. The turnstiles slam shut and the next group waits in their cages. The jobs these men are desperate to get to pay, on average, 60 shekels per day, or about $16 USD. If you are argumentative at the checkpoint, the authorities take your name permanently off the computerized list of permit-holders. If you are caught illegally passing through, everyone in your family loses their own work permits.
At 6 AM the “humanitarian” checkpoint, on the left side of Qalandia, opens. Women line up to go through. A couple appeared, a man and woman. The woman was carrying the man. He wore a blue surgical mask and looked like he was dying of some kind of terminal illness. Next, an elegantly dressed woman passed through. She turned to me and spoke in unaccented English. She was a Palestinian engineer with a PhD who lives in the West Bank and must pass through the checkpoint every morning to get to her firm in Jerusalem.
Hanna Barag began her checkpoint vigil in 2001, with a group of activist Israeli women who wanted to advocate for the rights of Palestinian men immiserated by the occupation. “At first,” she said, “we just stood there, as witnesses, but of course it is not enough. It is not anything to be a witness, and so I decided to use my contacts to try to help people.” Hanna Barag has contacts because from 1958 to 1965 she was secretary to David Ben-Gurion, founder of the state of Israel and its first prime minister. I ask her if she ever could have imagined this scene, the Qalandia checkpoint, this Israel. “No,” she said. “But I could not have imagined 1967, either. This can’t be sustained. It can’t go on forever. Change will come from outside. And however it happens,” she said, “it will come in a vroom. All at once.” Checkpoint rush hour was over, it was 8:30 AM, so I said goodbye and hurried off to my next destination on this misery tour.
“Imagine if the US State Department decided to put 400,000 American citizens in Afghanistan, to live, and told the US military to guarantee their safety,” Gerard Horton of the British organization Military Court Watch said as we prepared to enter Ofer, the military prison and court that oversees all civil and criminal litigation for West Bank residents. “That’s the analogy to the security situation for Jewish settlers that the IDF has been assigned to manage.”
One tactic of management is to make a huge number of arrests, including of children. The killing of settlers by Palestinians is made rare by a feat of control that is achieved through collective punishment and mass intimidation. After half a century, the Israelis have tens of thousands of informants, whom they have recruited primarily with bribes and blackmail. Palestinian communities know they are infiltrated, and so the fabric of trust is eroded, which further limits acts of resistance. And when there is resistance, the IDF rounds up whoever they can, shuts down shops, and lets the villages sort out for themselves who is or isn’t innocent. Night raids have proven a very effective means for scaring people and reducing the likelihood of riots. Soldiers bang on the door. If the door is not opened quickly, it is rammed open. Palestinian fathers typically try to get to the door as quickly as possible to open it, for fear of having to install, later, a new door. Recently, soldiers have forgone knocking, and prefer to quietly torch doors off their hinges so that they can enter silently. For Palestinian residents of the West Bank, the threat of waking up with an Israeli soldier in your bedroom, a soldier wearing a balaclava and pointing a semiautomatic weapon at you, is an effective means of control.
Whomever the soldiers are there to detain is cuffed with zip ties. Sometimes the detainee is a child. Sometimes the commander has no paper with a name. Sometimes the name is merely written on his hand in ballpoint pen. The individual is then blindfolded as standard procedure, put on the metal floor of an IDF vehicle, taken somewhere and put in a shipping container to wait. Why? It’s the middle of the night and the interrogation center doesn’t open until 8 AM. The soldiers go somewhere to smoke and drink coffee while they wait. By the time a child who has been arrested is questioned, he has been ten hours in a blindfold. He is hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived, his hands are in pain, and his parents do not know where he is. The Israeli soldiers will ask the child not, Did you throw stones, but, Why did you throw stones. At first, Gerard Horton told us, children often deny any wrongdoing. Soldiers will then show the child photographs of his own home, of his parents, brother, and sisters, and inform the child that ruin will come to his whole family if he does not confess. Eventually the child will confess—to any occasion in his life when he picked up a stone, or thought about it, or was with someone who threw a stone, or knew someone who threw a stone or thought about throwing a stone. The interrogators all speak Arabic, but the confession documents, which a judge will review, are only in Hebrew. Invariably, the child signs. In most cases, children are not told of their right to silence, nor told of their right to a lawyer. Regardless, as Horton pointed out, “Most children do not carry the name of a lawyer in their pajamas.”
After their confession the children are transferred to prison and held without bail. A child lucky enough to get a lawyer from an NGO (Israel provides no legal aid to West Bank residents) will be pressured mightily to plead guilty. There is no point in declaring innocence, since 99.47 percent of trials result in a guilty conviction. An anecdote was supplied to us about a rare scene in which a lawyer got an acquittal. The translator stopped proceedings because he did not know the word for “acquitted” in Arabic. Children leave prison, and this court process, angry and distraught. There is no reason to tell the truth, they realize. There is no reason to trust or listen to adults. Everything is pointless.
We learn all this from Gerard Horton and then we enter Ofer military court, which smells of the broad open canal of human shit surrounding the buildings, which are actually just trailers. The stench seeps into every court proceeding. I watch a trial concerning a Bedouin farmer who drove his tractor accidentally on a road that had been temporarily banned to Palestinians. The IDF arrested him and dismantled his tractor into a pile of parts. He is asking to get it back, but instead he will be fined for the infraction of driving on a closed road. The proceedings are entirely in Hebrew and he is provided no translator.
The day continued with a tour of the 25-foot-high cement partition wall that snakes around East Jerusalem, guided by an Israeli architect and planning expert, Alon Cohen-Lifshitz. This wall cost $2 million USD per kilometer to build. The concrete used for it was mined from quarries in the occupied Area C of the West Bank, an area meant to be transferred to the Palestinians after the Oslo Accords. As we listen to Alon talk, a man named Ali Ayyad stops to listen in. He tells us his story. He’s a retired hotel worker who lives in Abu Dis, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem that was sliced in half by this concrete barrier wall during the Second Intifada, in 2004. His family had owned a beautiful hotel at the top of Abu Dis called The Cliff, which the Israeli military acquisitioned for its high vantage. After ruining it and removing the roof, the military offered the hotel back to the Ayyad family.
“Like, I marry a wife, and they take her, and then give me back the legs of the wife,” Ali Ayyad jokes, and we all laugh. “Did they offer you money for their use of the hotel?” I ask. Ayyad says, “You agree to rent to them, it’s like this: They say, we will give you a ring as payment. But in order to give it to you, we need to cut off your hand. Then, we will put your hand in a freezer for 100 years. If you ask, where is my ring, they say: We are still preparing the ring.” We all laugh again. Ayyad’s entire family is in Abu Dis, but on the other side of the huge concrete separation barrier. It takes him one hour and $20 USD in taxi fare to visit his relatives, who, before the wall went up, were a one-minute walk down the road. Can you call to them, I ask? “Yes,” he says, “from the roof we can shout hello.”
“I want to live in peace,” Ayyad tells me. “I want to take my family to Tiberius to swim in the sea, I want that kind of life, of happiness and pleasure. Instead, no one has pleasure. We are afraid and the Israelis are afraid. We are all the sons of Abraham. We have only one God. There is no paradise. This place is paradise, but we are wasting it. When you die, you can’t take anything with you, no dollars, no euros, no black whiskey, no red whiskey, nothing. You sleep alone. So what is the point. We all need peace. We want peace.”
The next day was Hebron, with its “sterile” areas (no Palestinians allowed) and its most infamous resident, Baruch Goldstein, who massacred twenty-nine Palestinians in 1994 and whose grave is a large memorial site in a small park in an Israeli settlement adjacent to Hebron. Many people know Hebron as ground zero for religious zealotry and settler violence. It’s considered an outlier that does not represent Israel or its values. But in Hebron, property is acquired from Palestinians, and Palestinians are pressured to leave, in the same manner that property is acquired and residents pressured to leave in every area of the West Bank where settlers live or settlements are planned. Settlers are the essential agents of planned expansion and a geographic and economic fragmentation that will make a two-state solution, a separate Palestine, impossible. Still, being yelled at by settlers in four-by-four off-road vehicles with big knobby tires and huge Israeli flags flying from the tailgate was uniquely unpleasant, as was being followed and harassed by little gangs of settler boys who seemed not to know any better than to exhibit the aggression and hostility they’d learned from their parents. One of the settler kids, threatening to punch Yahuda Shaul, was reprimanded by an Israeli soldier. The kid said to the soldier, “What are you gonna do, detain me like I’m an Arab?” The soldier let him go.
After a week of touring with the delegation, I was ready to pursue my own plan, which was to spend a couple days staying in Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem. No one knows exactly how many people live in Shuafat camp, which is one square kilometer hemmed in by the separation wall, but estimates from NGOs and from the camp’s own residents tend to be in the 85,000 range. There are no municipal services in the camp, which is technically part of Israel, and thus the PA is not allowed there. The Israelis do not enter the camp, except in massive numbers of troops, to conduct a raid or blow up houses. They do, however, collect taxes from camp residents, who are Jerusalemites with Jerusalem residency status. There is no infrastructure in the camp, few roads, no legally obtained water or electricity or sewer system. There are no police, no security, no laws. While there were a lot of dead cats (including one on the checkpoint lane into the camp, which I almost stepped on) and a lot of garbage—it is burned in great piles, everywhere, as a solution to the lack of refuse removal—I did not feel unsafe the weekend I spent there. Meaning I could not have anticipated that my friendly and charismatic host, Baha Nababta—an organizer, volunteer emergency coordinator, and gifted mediator and visionary for Shuafat—would be murdered in broad daylight in the street fourteen days after I departed, while he and a hundred other volunteers worked together to pave a road.
But before that happened, the day I left Shuafat camp, I was buoyed by my stay there. I felt seized by a kind of crazy hope, an optimism I’d drafted off Baha and off my experience staying with him and his wife, Hiba, and their young daughters, who had snuck into my room to wake me up the morning I left as if I were a familiar, someone who already belonged among them. It was a Sunday, my final day in the region. Unlike everyone else in that refugee camp, I could simply leave. I walked through its checkpoint and hailed a taxi to return to Sheikh Jarrah.
I’d seen the Dead Sea from the roof of a building in the refugee camp, and upon arriving at my hotel I asked the BtS people, who were hanging around the lobby as members of the delegation departed, if someone could take me. A young testifier from a super-religious family, a girl with auburn ringlets and olive skin and freckles, volunteered.
It was a beautiful day. We drank wine on the beach and then floated in the water, facing Jordan. She told me that she felt like her religion had been stolen from her, and used to subjugate other people—for property and nationalism. At the same time, her religion was what she knew of as goodness. “It is everything good that I know,” she said. I felt deeply for this girl, and for her willingness to think bravely about something that shakes the foundations of her life. For a person like that to reject or even to question Zionism destabilizes everything.
We put mud on our bodies and lay in the sand and waited for it to dry. She told me I reminded her of Sarah Silverman, probably because I’m not crushed by the same duties as a repentant IDF soldier, and so I can be light and irreverent—like a girl-comedian. Her testimony meant she had to stay in a safe house and that her family might be in danger. BtS testifiers risk their lives to do so. Also, they can never work in Israel again. They become pariahs. We splashed back into the sea to wash off the mud and then drove back to the hotel.
The next morning, I left.