Hawara Checkpoint, Palestine.
Underneath his green helmet, his eyes are clear and large and blue and when he tells me about seeing his little brother blown up by a suicide bomber, he does not look at me. “I’m so sorry,” I say, and I mean it.
“Oh yeah, I bet you are.”
We have been at his checkpoint all morning, negotiating and pleading with him and his fellow soldiers to allow sick people, pregnant women and young children to pass through the long line of Palestinians waiting to leave Nablus, a wait that is averaging two hours today. We are annoying to him. He knows why we are here, what we stand for.
“No, I mean it, I’m so sorry, my heart is broken for you.” I say it and I mean it and my eyes are filling with tears thinking about my little sisters, how much I love them, what it would be like to see someone kill them. My eyes fill with tears as I think about what I would (want to) do to someone who blew up my little sister.
He is surprised a little, to see me cry for him and he says, “I know this is a terrible solution”–he gestures toward the checkpoint where a hundred Palestinians are packed like so much cattle into narrow gangways, waiting their turn to have their IDs checked, their bags searched, their shirts lifted, their pockets patted. Some of them do this every day. They have been waiting two hours today. It is very hot. There is another checkpoint 2 miles down the road.
“I know this is not the solution,” he says again.
“This is not making you safer,” I say. “99% of the people that come through here are not interested in hurting you, but when you treat them like this everyday, you make them want to hurt you.”
“I know. I know the conditions are terrible. I know they are frustrated. I know people should not live like this. But what else can we do? Last month we caught 5 people with bomb packs.”
I am doubtful of this–it seems highly unlikely that a self-martyr would try to just walk through Hawara checkpoint, notorious for its thorough and extravagant security procedures, its unbending and merciless soldiers. There are many other checkpoints out of the city that are easier to pass through, not to mention the path over the mountains. But it doesn’t matter–he is expressing to me that although he realizes that innocent people are suffering, he doesn’t care because he believes this checkpoint keeps him and his people from suffering.
It is hard to argue with this. It is hard to argue about suffering with a Jewish person. I cannot reason with his heart, so I try to reason with his head.
I tell him that the bombings are reactionary, not an offensive. The profile of a self-martyr is very similar to a grassroots activist in the USA–college educated, middle class upbringing, promising future, interest in social justice and politics. I tell him about a girl whose family I met, a college girl who was engaged to be married in a couple months, a girl who went into a supermarket in Tel Aviv and blew herself up. Her family had no idea she was going to do this. Why would she want to do this? I think about it all the time. What would make me do that?
The longer I live in Palestine, and get a taste of what it’s like to be Palestinian, the more I understand. When you are Palestinian, you know no one has respect for your life, and you start to lose it yourself. You see soldiers kill people and imprison people without any explanation given, without any repercussions.
You know they could do this to you and your family at any moment.
You know they could come destroy your house at any time, because you know a lot of innocent people this has happened to.
You see them building a wall in your country, and you see them illegally confiscating land from your friends and neighbors in order to do it.
You see them putting up checkpoints inside your country, not on their borders but inside your country, and they tell you when you can and can’t leave.
You see that the world is OK with this, because no one seems to be stopping it, and it has been happening for 50 years.
You see that all people from Israel are obligated to serve as soldiers, and you see a chance to not only take out a few of these potential or past soldiers who are committing these crimes against you and your people, you also think that if you do this, maybe the world will pay attention to what’s happening to your home.
You see that there is not much of a life for you or your children anyway.
You think that maybe this is the best thing you can do for your people. Maybe you are wrong, but you cannot keep living like this. You cannot bear the thought of always living like this.
The soldier is quiet. I have been talking a long time. He is listening to me. He is uncomfortable. I keep talking.
I tell him I don’t condone suicide bombings. I think it’s horrible. But I understand it. I don’t think it’s any less horrible than shooting missiles at people, blowing up hospitals, or forcing almost a million civilians to flee their homes. I think suicide bombings happen because of the Occupation. I don’t think the Occupation is happening because of suicide bombings. I think if the Occupation ended, the bombings would stop, because Palestinians would have hope. They would have something to live for. I think if the Palestinians were given the right to a peaceful and just existence by Israel, Israel would be rewarded with peace by Palestine. You cannot oppress people and expect them not to resist. If you use violence to oppress people, they will use violence to resist it.
My president told me that attacking and occupying Iraq would keep me safer. He was wrong. It made people hate me more, it made more people want to hurt me, because I have killed thousands of innocent people in the name of my personal safety. I don’t know what should’ve been done after September 11th. I don’t know what should’ve been done after the Holocaust, after any of the tragedies of our time. I do know that what we do, what the United States and Israel has done, just perpetuates the evil that causes these tragedies to happen.
I don’t think that my president is occupying Iraq because he is concerned for my safety; I don’t think Olmert is occupying Palestine because he is concerned for the Israelis’ safety. I think there are larger things at work, men fighting over money and power and land, and we are all victims of it. We are told that we need to be afraid of each other. We are told that people are trying to kill us–our whole lives we are told this. The Arabs, the Russians, the Japanese, the Native Americans–who is trying to kill us, who the enemy is–it changes every few years. People wanting to kill you is scary, so when someone tells us they can keep us safe, we believe it, and we do whatever they ask us. I tell this soldier that he is a victim of it, too, that he is being used, that his real enemy is not the Palestinians, but rather the men at the top who wage war for profit. I ask him what would happen if we all stopped being afraid of each other. If we all saw each other as brothers instead of distant strangers (thank you, Tupac).
He looks at me a long long time. I am starting to cry again, because I’ve just told him everything inside my heart and his face is still as hard as stone. I’m embarrassed and I leave. I look back and he is still looking at me.
MAGAN WILES is an actress who teaches Theater of the Oppressed to young people through the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in Saint Louis, Missouri. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org