We have been asked to write about our experience with Israeli soldiers. This entry is too long and incomplete. I apologize for both. There is so much to say about our feelings and thoughts on the military presence here, and yet I struggle to put words together.
Taken from a journal entry: On our way to the Wailing Wall we came to where there were soldiers and we had to walk through a metal detector. All the white people in our group walked through without a soldier blinking an eye, no requests for any kind of identification. But immediately they stopped and pulled aside our Palestinian friend, George*. Some of the most blatant racial profiling I’ve ever seen, and I’m from the U.S. The soldier asked George for his ID, and he told them he forgot it at home.** Another friend with us, George’s sister (who has the Jerusalem ID), told the soldiers, “Look at my ID. He’s my brother.” They would not listen. I confronted the soldier and asked him why he would not let my friend through. After a few minutes of trying and failing to get a satisfactory answer, I could see George was nervous and anxious to leave, so we left.
[*No real names used.]
[**George had not forgotten his ID at home. Some time ago an Israeli soldier took his ID away. Because they can do that whenever they want. They are still fighting in the courts to get his Jerusalem ID back, but until then he has a temporary visa that restricts his movement more than his previous ID. The Wailing Wall is one of the places he is not allowed to go. This is all “for security reasons,” of course.]
We tried to go through a different way. Again they denied him entrance. I held my hands together in front of me to try to contain my anger. After asking George if it was okay with him, I again asked the soldier why. I got little response from him, mostly repeating, “he cannot go through.” He told us George could get through if we went a different way (we later found out that the way he referred to did not go to the Wailing Wall). Finally I said, You won’t let Palestinians go through?
An almost imperceptible nod.
So it’s segregated.
You keep people separated and restrict where they can go, a segregated society. People
here don’t have equal rights. That’s good to know.
As we all turned to leave, Grant said loudly, “So this isn’t a free country.”
Why did this feel so familiar? Oh yes, signs on water fountains in the U.S. marked “white” and “colored.” A familiar story.
A few days later our group went to Hebron. We came to a small checkpoint and our Palestinian friend, Yusif,* was stopped by the soldiers. Yusif had told us that he’d gotten through this checkpoint several times in the past, but some days they don’t let him through. I walked up to one of the soldiers who had a kind face (who I later learned was only 19, three years younger than me). I asked why he would not let my friend through.
He’s Muslim. Only Jews and Christians are allowed in this part, and only Muslims and Christians in that part over there.
He’s Christian. His family has been Christian much longer than mine has.***
No, he’s Christian.
So you’ll let Christians and Jews through, except Palestinian Christians.
Do your superiors tell you which days to let Palestinians through and which days not to, or is that a personal decision?
Hannah and I stayed back with a few others who decided not to go through without Yusif. We continued to talk with the soldiers while we waited for the others to return. Most of our conversation was with two soldiers: Ithtar, the 19-year-old that I first talked with who was kind and respectful, listening to our questions and trying to answer them as best he could with his limited English; and Amos, a 21-year-old who was rude, arrogant, and nearly constantly interrupting us.
[***Many Palestinian families have been Christians since the first Christians. My
German ancestors can’t quite top that.]
Some highlights of our conversation: Amos told us to visit Canada Park. I asked him if he was aware that it was on top of a demolished Palestinian village. He asked me, “where do you learn this bullshit?” He asked me where I was staying in Israel. “Oh, I’m actually staying in Palestine, in Bethlehem.” “Bethlehem is in Israel.” He claimed all the land as Israel’s. Amos and Ithtar would not believe me when I told them that Palestinians regularly get their water shut off by Israel, even when I told them I was living there and experiencing it myself. They simply could not believe this to be true. Neither soldier would admit that Israel could do any wrong. All this intermixed with “normal” talk: What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been in the army?
I was not going to convince Amos of anything, nor would he be convincing me. I think my desire was not to change his mind, but to clearly state that this system was a racist and apartheid system, and that it was wrong. Yusif could not say these things because of the serious risk he would be taking as a Palestinian confronting an Israeli soldier. In this situation, he had no voice. I, as a white, US American, could confront these soldiers and name the oppression with far less risk.
Ithtar and I, on the other hand, found some points we could agree on. Perhaps the most important was that we agreed it is very sad when people kill innocent people. We even came to agree that it didn’t matter who the innocent person was, it was always sad. When it was time to leave, I reached out to shake Ithtar’s hand, and he accepted. I genuinely thanked him for talking with us.
These are just two stories of my experiences with soldiers. Other experiences of our group include soldiers keeping our host aunt, uncle, and cousin from going to their house when they were bringing our cousin home from the airport at 3am, getting yelled at for random things such as getting near a gate that closed a street off to Palestinians or being on a rooftop, waving our US passports at them at checkpoints, seeing the soldier in the guard tower beside Wi’am, and simply walking by them seemingly everywhere when in East Jerusalem, Hebron, or Israel.
I have felt little fear in confronting these boys with M-16s. This is not because I am brave. It is because I am aware of my white privilege, backed even further by a US passport. I know that the risk of me suffering any consequences such as being arrested, put in jail, interrogated, or beaten is drastically reduced simply because of the color of my skin. All of the white internationals in Palestine/Israel are aware of this. That is why we show up at protests, and some have even put themselves in front of active bulldozers. We can do and say things that would be out of the question for most Palestinians. I have more rights in the land that belongs to my Palestinian friends than they do. The first time I walked through a checkpoint by simply waving my US passport and watched Palestinians around me get stopped and held up, I felt literally sick to my stomach, absolutely dripping with privilege. It’s disgusting. My own country is no different. They just make less effort at hiding it here.
Talking with the soldiers was both frustrating and helpful. It was frustrating to hear them say things that so easily fit into an ideology that oppresses Palestinians. It was discouraging to learn what a skewed and hole-filled history of the conflict the soldiers have received. It was disheartening to hear how little they knew of the daily experience of Palestinians, and their perception that Palestinians wanted to kill them. The same Palestinians who have so warmly welcomed us into their homes and shown us endless kindness and hospitality. On the helpful side of things, talking with soldiers face to face forced me to recognize their humanity. These young men and women have been put in a horrific situation in which they are trained and ordered to restrict their capacity to empathize, reduce human beings (women and men, young and old) to “the enemy,” fear what they do not know, and treat other people in ways they could not have imaged only a year before. Many experience chronic sleep loss and severe psychological distress. These soldiers have families. Somewhere, most of these young men and women have brothers and sisters; they have parents who love them and worry about them just as my parents worry about me. Some day, many of them will have children. And the Palestinians they face also have families. They have brothers and sisters, parents and children.
While talking with Hannah about the cruelty of the conflict we see around us, she observed the reality that in this situation “humanity turns on itself.” We do not only turn on each other, for turning on each other is turning on one’s own self. Almost hidden amongst the crowded graffiti on the apartheid wall, someone has painted a Palestinian flag with lyrics from Over the Rhine written over top it: “There is something to be said for tenacity. I’ll hold on to you if you hold on to me.” We are all connected. Essentially we are each other. Though at times we forget.