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A Month-and-a-Half in Israel and Palestine

A Rubber Bullet to the Head

by DIEGO FILIU

Palestine, Israel. One of the longest conflicts in history. One of the most mediatized ones as well. And surely one of the most complex to solve.

This conflict, I had studied it, even before being admitted to a Middle-East-focused BA degree at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and Columbia University. But this summer, I decided to go on the ground to better understand it, to live closer to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

My stay spanned from June the 21th to August the 5th. I quickly understand that, in Palestine but also in Israel, the conflict is everywhere. And even more so in these times of the Israeli offensive against the Gaza strip. This new chapter of a confrontation that has gone on for several generations is certainly not the last. It is tragic, like all wars are. It affects civilians first, like all “modern” wars.

I hence have no choice: I have to understand, to sense this conflict, beyond academics. I aspire to be more conscious of the sufferings, the hatreds and the hopes of each party.

The war, everywhere

The war, I repeat it, is everywhere. Even in “peace” time, as I landed in Israel before the beginning of the operation Protective Edge. Even on welcome signs, the military jets of Tsahal stand next to childish smiles.

Even on Tel Aviv’s seaside. The city first appears to me as a bubble, outside of  time. And then, on the shore, pops up a museum in the honor of the Irgun, the most extreme of all Zionist organizations, which authored among others the 1946 bombing against the King David hotel. And, as soon as one goes off the beach, Tel Aviv is full of young people in uniform, Uzis on their shoulders, carelessly fiddling with their phones with one hand while holding their gun’s loader with the other. War, again and always.

Israel integrated war to its daily life. Notwithstanding, the country has other passions –such as football. And, even when it is Iran that plays, spectators rush to the giant beach screens. A surrealistic scene, in which a crowd with kippa stares at the players of a country considered by Israel as an “existential threat”.

This strikes me fairly early; Israel and Palestine are countries of fragments. The atmosphere can change altogether, in a few seconds. Depending on the street, the part of the city you are in, the town itself, the moment of the day, and even the day of the week.

This is even truer in Acre, “Akka” in Arabic and “Akko” in Hebrew. Its old town is a Palestinian stronghold in the north of Israel. There, I encountered a bunch of happy Arab  oldies, seated in circle around a bottle of whisky, while the local islamists put up a sign, right on the top of their head, proclaiming that “the key to knowledge is the fear of God”.

In the historical souk, I came face to face with a group of young American Jews, of approximately my age. I quickly realized that they were under guard, as two men, weapons at their belts, hands on the trigger, end up the procession. Akko/Akka has been an Israeli city since 1948…

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The House of Abraham, Jerusalem

It thus appears extremely difficult to me to apprehend Palestine or Israel in their globality. I reduce my ambitions to understand, and to learn from the fragments of life in which I am immerged. This is all the more striking and enlightening.

I am now engaged in a summer internship at the House of Abraham, whose mission is to host, since 1964, the Christian pilgrims in Ras al-Amoud, in the eastern and Arab sector of Jerusalem. The holy city, on to which Ras el-Amoud offers an astonishing view, is a beautiful kaleidoscope of communities and peoples.

The geographical distance between them is minuscule; the emotional distance that tears them apart is immense. Three worlds of  incredible beauty, but three hermetical worlds.

And two camps, Jews and Arabs, which live alongside each other without really knowing each other. The only Jews most of the Arabs have ever seen are the militaries who occupy them, and the settlers who expropriate them. On a similar note, the majority of Jews only see the Hamas “terrorists” on their TV screen. Illustration: the rooftops of Jerusalem.

I am stunned by my route to the top of the Jerusalem old town’s walls. Indeed, the houses’ roofs are impressively informative with regards to the tensions among peoples. Above the Jewish colonies, kindergartens. Guarded by several military men, their fingers on their triggers, the settlers’ kids are able to grow without ever interacting with Arab kids, who play in the streets a few meters down. And above Arab houses, countless water tanks. I am told that water cuts by the Israelis are a common occurrence in the Arab quarters. Tensions of Jerusalem.

Hebron: one prophet, two peoples. Impasse

This partition of occupied Palestine is even more striking in Hebron. It is in this town that the current crisis started, with the kidnapping of three young settlers, one June 12th.

It is in this town that the tensions are higher, in this beginning of July, shortly after the discovery of the bodies of the three young murdered teenagers. Israeli soldiers are patrolling everywhere in the Arab old town, and do not hesitate in breaking into people’s homes.

But Jews and Arabs also face off against each other through the walls of the city. Indeed, while the Jewish settlers raid the Arab neighborhoods to cover its walls with Magen David (David stars), the Palestinians overlay their walls with stencils proudly proclaiming “This is Palestine”. War of weapons, war of images. Definitely a war of attrition.

The gap between the two peoples is even deeper in the Tombs of the Patriarchs, in the very center of Hebron. Today, the monument hosts two distinct places of worship, one synagogue and one mosque. And the two populations can both access to the tomb of Abraham, through one window for each. But stupor: the windows are separated by a thick fence. And at its bottom, numerous projectiles are accumulating. The conflict rots each single part of the protagonists’ lives, and even the holy places cannot make peoples forget it. One prophet, two peoples. Impasse.

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The crucial importance of Jerusalem

During my visits in the West Bank, I got a sense of the crucial importance of Jerusalem for the inhabitants. The holy city is nevertheless barred to many dwellers of this “autonomous” territory, because of Israeli constraints.

From Hebron to Bethlehem, from Jericho to Ramallah, all the Palestinians I talked to asked me to pray on their behalf in Al-Aqsa, the third holy place in Islam. One can then better understand the anger of Arabs when, barred from entering the mosque by Tsahal soldiers, they begin to throw stones towards the occupying army. Stones to which the military answer with stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets: a real bullet, but covered by a layer of rubber.

I was present during the Friday protests, very common in Ras el-Amoud, where I live, because the local mosque is the next best alternative in case of restrictions of access to Al-Aqsa. This is were the barred worshippers often defy the Israeli army. These face-offs tend to remain limited, even after the savage murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian, burnt alive by Jewish extremists, on July the 2d in East Jerusalem.

However, the showdown is taken to a wholly different level on the night of July the 24th , the Night of Destiny for Muslims (the most important in the entire Ramadan month of fasting) –and the 16th day of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

This 24 of July, after the evening prayer, numerous stun grenades were shot by the Israeli forces, which came with full force in Ras el-Amoud in order to bar the access to the old city of Jerusalem. The Israeli answer to stone throwers is immediate, terrible, of a dreadful disproportion.

To Arab stones, the military men answer with lightning grenades, generating bursts as impressive as those of the most beautiful fireworks. But these explosions are directed towards the Palestinians. Without any form of distinction. From children to oldsters, they are all taken as targets. Tsahal even goes as far as throwing projectiles within the mosque itself, triggering panicked crowd movements.

Very close to the House of Abraham, and completely stunned by the violence of the face off, I take cover behind a car. I had the bad idea to stand up for a second, in order to monitor the degree of advancement of the Israeli positions on the crossroad. Bad choice.

Vieille ville

A Rubber-coated Bullet Between the Eyes

An instant after that, I hear myself screaming my pain. Hit in the forehead by a rubber-coated bullet, just above the eyes. My white t-shirt was already red from the blood. In fact, my ears were the first to react. I heard an atrocious whistle, which seared my eardrums before nailing me on the ground.

And then, as in a dream, I felt myself taken off the ground by two Palestinians who surrounded me behind a car. It was almost unreal. A scene that I had only seen before, through media screens, in Homs or in Gaza. And yet no, it is in Jerusalem. And the screaming wounded, covered of his own blood, is me. I do not even dare to imagine what would have happened if I had been left alone behind this car, without anyone to take me to cover. I found myself on the neighbors’ terrace, sprayed with cold water and surrounded by shadows. With prayers and incessant questions, they preventing me from fainting. And called the ambulances.

We waited a long time for the arrival of the ambulance. And not surprisingly: the Israeli troops did not reduce the intensity of fire for a single instant, barring the health professionals –very visible with their fluorescent vests–from carrying out their mission. As soon as the ambulance man arrived, everything went very fast. A thread was sewn in my forehead, with no other source of light than mobile phones. The ambulance man took me off the ground, and we were back into the street.

Here, everything gets blurred. We crossed the esplanade adjacent to the mosque, within a few meters of the special forces that had just hit me. We went through the compact mass of protesters. I heard the ambulance man screaming in Arabic at the protestors, telling them to stay calm until the wounded were taken away from what truly resembles a front line. We were only a few meters from the ambulance, protected by the Palestinian crowd from the men in black – the Special Forces.

It was at this precise instant that, at our left, a man fell to the ground. Shot in the back of the head, while we was running towards Ras el-Amoud, in opposite direction from the Israeli forces. The doubt is not permitted anymore: Tsahal is aiming for heads, with no distinction between those standing and those fleeing.

Vendredi ordiniare à Ras al Amoud

A calvary of several dozens minutes

His comrades instantly lifted the wounded man. Quickly shoveled in the ambulance. Ambulance into which the med threw himself, and me at his trade. And then we started a long drive. Way too long. As the Israelis barred the road going directly to the hospital, we were forced into a long detour to reach the closest medical facility, on the Mount of Olives. The sufferings of the wounded, laying next me, were unbearable. The man shouted to God for help, cried, struggled on his stretcher. He had been struck twice: at the back of his head, and in the stomach. It was a calvary, of several dozens minutes.

Finally arrived, the med pushed me towards the entrance. In the hospital, it was chaos. Already countless injured, many of them with head injuries, have poured into the small hospital , even though this Night of Destiny has just started. I was laying on a stretcher, in a room in which several people joined me with each new minute. My injury was cleaned, disinfected. My skull was sewn again, of four stiches this time. Overtaken by the pain and the weariness, I started to sink.

It was at this moment that I heard shouts. Atrocious shouts. Of an incredible intensity. A 10 year-old kid, injured during the showdown, screamed his pain. The nurses have a hard time trying to reassure him, to comfort him. He too received several stiches. “In the name of God” repeated the doctors. And yet no, the prayers of the child turned into awful wailings. He finally went quiet, overwhelmed by painkillers.

I spent the rest of my stay with a bandage around my skull, thus becoming better aware of the way the Israeli police commonly treats those suspected of having participated in Palestinian protests. Arrested numerous times, questioned again and again, I start to understand the daily hell of living in an occupied country.

But this wound also opened doors for me, the doors of the Palestinians. They tell me of their sufferings, their frustrations, and their hatred for the occupation. I could blacken dozens of pages with their harrowing stories of individual and collective humiliations. These people live the occupation in the depth of their flesh, day after day, children as adults.

Israel is scared

I nevertheless decided to pursue my dialogue with the Israelis, in Jerusalem as well as in Tel Aviv. I discover the deep anxiety of the Israeli population.

Under heavy and constant media campaign about the war,  always within minutes of a bomb shelter, the Israelis genuinely feel threatened. And the fact that Hamas rockets have only killed two Israeli civilians, while Palestinian deaths are now counted by the hundreds, does not appear to matter to them. No, Israel is scared.

On the Palestinian side, each rocket that falls on Israel is a deliverance. I was in the old city of Jerusalem when three rockets hit the western and Israeli part of town. I will forever remember the clamor that spurred from the Arab crowd at this instant. Even the most moderate kept repeating that the rockets have become the only way to make the voice of Palestinians heard, facing an inflexible Israel and a passive international community. I was profoundly shocked.

Nonetheless, my trip was not only a string of disenchantment – far from being so. I attempted to shed light on the reality of the conflict, well aware that this would be a testing ambition. But moments of grace, of contemplation and of peace also made up my stay.

Such as the fragile instant when, in front of a giant screen in Jerusalem’s Old Town, Israeli soldiers mingled with Arab spectators to enjoy, together, a World Cup Game, forgetting for a brief instant their hatreds and fears.

Then there was an encounter on the night bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. An Israeli lady advised me not to go in West Jerusalem with the t-shirt I was wearing that day, displaying the word peace written in Arabic and in Hebrew. I asked whether this was due to the bilingual scripture, while the extremists of each camp prefer to write peace in their own way, in their own language only.

And yet no, it was the core concept of peace that would have angered extremists from the Western side. I was speechless, realizing at the same time what guts it took to be a pacifist in Israel.

Presse Ras al-Amoud

“We are mice”

I recall my dialogue with Samir, a Palestinian friend. While he was taking me to the hospital, to donate our blood to the victims of Gaza, we went through several streets in which the smell was absolutely unbearable.

Samir explained to me that this was due to the product which Tsahal sprays on protesters, a mixture of wastewater and chemicals. This allows the military to spot suspect Palestinians, as the smell persists for days despite the efforts. “We are mice,” he told me, smiling. Laboratory mice for the Israeli army, but with an imperturbable smile.

This laugh, this face radiant with strength and life, this is what I want to remember from this trip. This resilience, this friendship despite the sufferings, this is the Palestine I lived in all summer long. I do not return weakened, overwhelmed by the oppression that I saw, and even experienced in my flesh. I return grown up, full of hope.

Dawn will rise on Palestine. And that will be the best news for Israel.

Diego Filiu is 18 years old and a student at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and Columbia University. 

All photos by Diego Filiu.