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Occupying Time: Israeli Soldiers and Palestinian Youths

Israeli Soldiers and Palestinian Youths

by ANNIE C. HIGGINS

Nicole Gaouette recently presented a view of soldiers seeking healing after serving time in the occupied Palestinian territories [Where Israeli soldiers go to heal, The Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 2002]. On very rare occasions, they make attempts to begin the healing while they are on site with Palestinians, as happened in Jenin last month, November 2002.

“I am not going to shoot them; I didn’t come here to shoot children,” the earnest young soldier with sensitive eyes told me, as a crowd of schoolchildren temporarily stopped throwing stones. However, his colleague, a sniper poised in the window of the house the Army had occupied, had just shot one child and positioned his M16 rifle for another.

The first soldier had joined a highly unusual spontaneous coming-together a few days earlier on this site across from Jenin Refugee Camp: with the accompaniment of international volunteers, soldiers and children unclutched guns and stones, and engaged in dialogue. The children listened to statements like the one above from individual soldiers who do not want to perpetrate violence against civilians. The soldiers listened to the children tell why they were reacting against the Army’s presence. One bashful boy showed a picture of his little brother whom the Army killed during the April invasion. He spoke softly of how they made his mother bleed to death by preventing ambulances from reaching her after they shot her. During the conversation, some of the children and soldiers shook hands.

Now, a few days later, they were shaking hands again, as they felt this particular soldier was a friend. He asked me plaintively why some of them were still throwing stones. I said it was a reaction to the continual violence of the occupation, not to his individual outreach. I asked the children, all of whom were under twelve, if they would like to be in school. The resounding response was, “YES!” The Army’s tank-enforced curfew had already prevented them from as many school days as they had attended since the start of the year. The window sniper began shooting again but the children left the friendly soldier alone, turned away, and responded excitedly to my idea of meeting together to perform story-telling later in the day. We did not know that the Army’s activities would obstruct this little window of creativity.

I had encountered these soldiers a few days earlier when they chased boys across a field near the same occupied house, bringing them to the wall encircling the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Safely inside the wall, I had been making a phonecall when a shout punctuated the evening calm. “Don’t shoot!” cried out a tall international, jumping onto a bench to grasp the boy caught in the iron spikes at the top. Another boy had successfully scaled the wall, but his companion was caught in a soldier’s grip, pulling his shoulder out of joint. I dashed over, accompanied by ambulance workers, and a jangle of words spilled over the wall where the boy was balancing precariously.

One soldier was a human bomb. It seemed that his white rage alone could destroy all within his range, including himself. “Don’t touch him or I’ll shoot!” he exploded. The international spoke reassuringly, urging him to hold his fire. The dialoging soldier provided some balance, but implored the international to let him have just five minutes with the boy to teach him a lesson. “I want to make him an example to show the boys that we can catch them. I won’t hurt him. I just want to give an example.” The international took this up, and reminded him of another kind of example, when the boys and soldiers had been talking together a few days before. “Yes, I was there, but today they are throwing stones again. I won’t hurt him. I just want to show him and his friends them we can catch them.”

The human bomb had a different idea and cocked his rifle to shoot. The ambulance worker said he would talk with the boy. A range of emotions formed a tempestuous symphony: one soldier’s violent rage, another soldier’s heartfelt desire for benign punishment, the third soldier’s silent confusion, and the calmness of those fighting for the boy’s safety. The boy, seeking refuge, leaned back onto the international and both fell six feet to the ground with a solid thud. I kept my eye on the soldiers, and moments later was surprised to see man and boy standing up without harm. Later the man confided that, considering the fall, he felt it was a miracle that he got up at all.

Now the sniper was threatening that he would shoot the ambulance, where the workers had placed the boy to transport him to the hospital for treatment. With a little more coaxing, the tempest subsided and the soldiers backed off as the ambulance closed its doors with the boy safely inside. That evening, we saw the boy at the hospital, and the international who saved him greeted him warmly with wishes of peace and health. The boy stared at him and hardly responded. He was not ungrateful, just shaken up over the incident. I saw him several weeks later with his arm still bandaged, and he was exuberant with thanks for the tall, kind man.

I feel profoundly privileged to have witnessed these transformations of enmity into dialogue, sparks of hope that go unreported but that are working changes in hearts.

At the same time, I cannot ignore the fact that the Israeli Army has continued to kill children at an unprecedented rate. Since the time of these hopeful dialogues, the Army has killed sixteen minors in the West Bank and Gaza, three of them from Jenin.

They killed ten-year-old Muhammad Bilalo on the same day they killed the UN’s Iain Hook, November 22. They killed Ibrahim Sa`di on November 16, and Mu`tazz `Awde on December 2. They continue to wound children at their homes, mosques, and schools, including the boy who spoke shyly with the soldiers about losing his mother and brother.

Where do soldiers go for healing? Imagine that the soldiers seeking healing would refrain from shooting civilians, save the two thousand dollars for trauma treatment, and donate it to a creative arts program for children in the areas where their Army has planted violence.

Soldiers and children have already demonstrated a capacity for dialogue. This pattern has only to be practiced.

Annie Higgins teaches arabic in Chicago.