In September 2000 my friend Shanee and I were driving north in her VW van to a music festival. By this time of year the whole of Israel is dying for a drop of rain and a random spark can set everything alight. September is also one of the hottest months of the year and the van had already become like an oven.
The old Arab hitchhiker standing by the side of the road seemed to be suffering form the heat also. With his turban, beard and baggy white trousers and shirt he was an incongruous sight. Nowadays most people in Israel are too cautious to pick up anyone up and an Arab hitchhiker seemed even less plausible.
“Shall we take him?” Shanee asked, her heart struggling with her reason.
“Well if we don’t know one else will.” There was no way I could say no to a hitchhiker having covered some 20,000km around the world by thumb.
We pulled over and our guest jumped in, perspiring heavily. He didn’t seem in the least bit surprised that we had stopped for him. He didn’t understand Hebrew and at Shanee’s faltering Arabic he told us he wanted to go to Jenin. One of the largest Palestinian towns.
We arrived at the turning to Jenin and Shanee grew apprehensive.
“Shall we take him in?” She asked uncertainly. By the light in her eyes I could see she wanted to but was afraid to make the decision by herself. I was so used to passing through Muslim and Arab countries that I couldn’t see the problem and in we went.
The Israeli guard at the checkpoint looked at us strangely but waved us through without any questions. Jenin lay a good 5km from the main road and as we drived along Israel seemed to fade away. The cars that passed bore white number plates instead of the Israeli yellow and the signs and billboards were now in Arabic. The skin of those working in the fields was darker and everything seemed a little more rundown.
“It’s like entering a foreign country.” Shanee whispered. In the back seat our new friend kept his silence as though he thought it quite normal for Israeli hippies to be driving him home.
We arrived at a roundabout in town and let him out beside a café where kebab roasted on hot coals. Some young guys hanging out on the street noticed our VW van and we began to attract some stares that weren’t exactly hostile but a little more than just curious. Shanee kept her cool. She pulled a u-turn in a parking lot and a minute later we were rolling out of Jenin.
That was all there was to it but it felt a though 20 kilos of pressure lifted off as we drove away. It was the first time Shanee had ever entered Palestinian territory and she couldn’t wait to tell her friends.
We went to our festival and on the first night a five minute shower of rain sent cheers of exultation up and down the valley where we were camped. It was a festival of peace and love but it ended uneasily as we learnt that many of the roads to the south were impassable. Youths from Jenin and other villages were pelting passing cars with rocks and incendiaries from overhead bridges.
Ariel Sharon, man widely held by the Arab world to be a war criminal, had set foot in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a place sacred both to Jews and Muslims. A spark had jumped out of the fire and now the entire country was ablaze.
The outbreak of the Inifada in October 2000 was a strange time to be in Israel. In the early days of the situation everyone had a look on their faces like their alarm clocks had just gone off at 5am. It was time to wake up to what was going on and no one quite wanted to face that reality.
The troubles hadn’t affected the country as a whole yet but it was on its was and everyone knew it. Army call-up papers were arriving and everyone had a friend or a relative who was in the army. 18 year-old soldiers were facing raging mobs pelting them with stones and they freaked out. The Palestinian death toll rose sharply and the media was having a field day.
If there was one thing I learned in Israel it was not to talk politics and not express a strong opinion on anything connected to the ‘situation’. Not just because the average Israeli will bite your head off the moment you open your mouth but also because the situation is incredibly complex. You can’t get an understanding of a civil war by reading a newspaper. I had a friend who worked as a tour guide in Jerusalem and he told me he saw a Spanish film crew who couldn’t find any news to report that day; they approached a bunch of young Arab guys and cut a deal with them. A moment later the cameras were rolling and the youths were throwing stones and yelling slogans.
To understand a situation like this you have to know the people and the reality they experience. It’s not good enough to slap down a political or religious template on top of the situation and form an opinion. Most people have no idea what’s going on between the Israelis and Palestinians because they have no idea who either side is.
On that score of course, the average Israeli or Palestinian doesn’t know shit either. Both sides fed propaganda from as soon as they can read and they feel that the argument is bound up with their own survival before they can think about it for themselves. They also have precious little understanding of each other due to the divides of language, culture and economy. Most Israelis would rather just ignore the existence of the Arabs and many of the latter would rather see the Israelis fall into the sea than get to know them.
My politics swayed me to the side of the Palestinians but it was easier for me to identify with the Israelis with whose culture I had much more in common. Whatever the government policies the blame didn’t fall on any individual. I could get pissed with the orthodox black hats who believed Israel had been given to the Jews by God but not with the average Israeli who just happened to live there. You’re not guilty by being born in a place.
The outbreak of violence was like a slap in the face to the Israeli left wing peace makers. Now that negotiations for a Palestinian state had broken down into violence the nationalist could yell ‘See? They just want to throw us into the sea – you can’t talk to these people.’ This was the first generation that had been willing to give land for peace and now they were going to war anyway.
It was hard for the Israelis to see the big picture in any case. Their perspectives on the whole situation were mixed up with how it affected them personally. Everyone lost two or three years of their lives to military service and each time a soldier died it was someone’s son, brother or boyfriend. The war meant a recession and the loss of jobs and a return of fear to everyday life. Things were much harder for the Palestinians of course but the Israeli media doesn’t report that kind of thing.
Many were resigned to the trouble.
“We’ve said everything we have to say and they’ve said everything they have to sat and that’s it.” I was often told.
So not many were surprised when the intifada broke out again. They were just a little out of practice. In the first couple of weeks people planned their journeys carefully and tuned into every TV and new broadcast. You could feel the tension like electricity in the air like ozone before a storm. You could read the fear in people’s faces in the street and by their expressions you knew if something had happened long before you heard about it.
Then there was the day that two off-duty Israeli soldiers somehow strayed into Palestinian territory. They were arrested by the Palestinian police and taken to jail but were soon lowered down through the windows to the mob that had assembled below. They were literally torn to pieces. The action was filmed and broadcast on Israeli TV and there was hardly a dry eye in the country.
Of course, the subsequent suicide bombings put this incident into the shade but it marked the beginning. Explosions on buses and nightclubs brought the war to the cities but few could understand what might drive someone to blow themselves up in protest. No one even wanted to think about it. They turned off their TV’s and radios and got on with making their daily bread.
From the relative security of the West our lives are a piece of cake. We look at conflict zones around the world and wonder how it’s possible to live amid such bloodshed and violence. Yet humans adapt to most things and, as bad as the situation gets, life goes on. The more bloody and desperate things become the greater is the need for a faith that life must go on.