There are two things I am not: 1. An avid blogger, and 2. An expert on the current conflict in the Middle East. All I care to present here is an account of my experience, mostly for the selfish reason of mental processing, but also serve a nice dish of perspective to the folks at home, because contrary to popular belief, the most important thing in the world right now is not the presence of Christmas music on the radio.
This past weekend was the most terrifying of my life. I can only say that because unlike the people who live in this region, I have never been exposed to war at this level. My main concerns at home are making sure I finish school to achieve my dreams, or what I’m going to have for dinner later on. These things are still in my thoughts (Can’t wait for my pasta with eggplant later on!), but believe me when I say that at the forefront now is quite literally whether or not I will have to leave school in the next few days because Israel will no longer be a safe place.
Rewind a bit; to give you brief background information, Israel is currently in day six of Operation Pillar of Defense, at first an offensive against Hamas leaders who live in Gaza, and now a daily exchange of Rocket fire between the IDF and Hamas militants. For the first time in twenty years, rockets have been fired and aimed at Tel Aviv; the people who live closer to Gaza have been in an out of bomb shelters for days.
Up in my little bubble in the north, some friends (Nora, Marion and Kate) and I decided that we would head to Jerusalem for the weekend. For those of you who talk to me regularly, you know that this is a big deal; I have struggled a bit with whether or not I want to be here, so spending the weekend out of Haifa was a change from the past six weeks. We were aware of the situation in the south, but to us danger from rockets in Jerusalem was almost as ridiculous as pink elephants or grass turning purple.
In my past experience in Jerusalem, I was captivated by how several cultures and religions all convene in one small area and (for the most part) respect the sanctity of this holy place. Unfortunately, the Jerusalem of this weekend was different from my past experience; the tension in the air was palpable. This Jerusalem felt different; protests, some violent, were going on in the city against the attack on Gaza. If you are unfamiliar with the geography of the area, East Jerusalem is heavily populated with Palestinians and the old city, depending on which map or person you consult, is technically part of the West Bank. Naturally, Palestinian people, many of whom have family who live in Gaza, were upset.
With our reassurances of safety in mind, we decided to do sightseeing anyway and headed to the Western Wall at sundown on Shabbat (the Jewish holy day, Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown); This is truly a magical sight to see as all Jews, from IDF soldiers to ultraorthodox Jews sing, dance and pray, united in praise of God, just like they have been doing for thousands of years. My friends and I observed for a while, and then we decided to head across the plaza, snap a few more photos and head to Bethlehem where we were to stay the night with a friend of Nora’s. As we walked across to the exit, we heard a noise, something that I originally thought was cannons that signal the start of Shabbat every week. As people started running towards the buildings and Kate grabbed my hand, I realized this was not a drill; these were air raid sirens and something was coming towards us. As we ran, I heard explosions in the distance. Ironically enough, my friends and I had not even two minutes before been talking about how Hamas would never aim rockets at Jerusalem; not only would they be risking hitting the West Bank (their own people), but surely there was dignity and respect for this, the holiest of places. The four of us, still holding onto each other’s sweaty palms huddled in a tunnel leading to a museum of the wall, crammed in with about fifty people in ten feet of space, and waited. After about ten minutes we walked out and people were still panicking; it was time to get the hell out of Yerushalyim. At the exit of the plaza, we got stuck again; hundreds of people were stuffed into a tiny space and we found some Canadians who spoke English and found out that a rocket had been fired towards Jerusalem. Luckily for us it had landed 6 miles south of where we were. Either way, the most terrifying thing about this experience was having no idea what was happening, and it was a relief to know something about what was going on.
As a disclaimer for the next part of my story, I think that spending time in the West Bank was not an experience I regret, but it is not something I wish to repeat anytime soon. Both Nora and Marian had spent extensive time there, as for myself, it was not something that I would be able to get used to right away.
We arrived in Bethlehem and were greeted by Nora’s friend Usama, who works at a center for peace in the town. He brought us to his parents house, by far the most hospitable people I have ever met. We were worried though; according to Usama, there were riots at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The violence had escalated between the IDF and the Palestinians, and rubber bullets and tear gas had been used against the crowd. Naturally though, as is the Israeli (and, apparently, Palestinian way) Usama was not worried. However my friend Kate, who, over the last five hours, had become my “safety buddy”, and I knew right away that we wanted to go back to school the next morning. We attempted to relax; because of the conflict the checkpoint had closed and we had to sit tight for a while. We ate a wonderful meal of Maqloubeh and went to bed.
In the morning, Usama’s mother (I regret to inform you I didn’t learn her name) made us a veritable feast. Baba Ghannouj, homemade apricot and orange jelly, homemade tehina, falafel, warm pita fresh from the bakery, homemade cheeses, (tons of goat cheese!) and fruits galore. (my first kumquat in years! brought me back to a simpler time with George and Ruth – quite a nice feeling after being uncomfortable for so long!) We were force fed delicious food for a good two hours.
Following breakfast, Usama’s mother told us about her life. Forced into marriage when she was just seventeen years old, she has been a housewife all her life. Following her wedding ceremony, she cried for ten days straight as she begged to go home. When she was growing up, this was reality for girls. She and her husband, after thirty years of marriage, have grown into a comfortable rhythm though, and seem like they are used to each other. She quietly passed him falafel while he patiently listened to her story. Now, she is an active member of the Arab women’s center; just this past month, they have succeeded in electing one of the first women to the local Bethlehem government, something of a rarity in an area like this. Unfortunately they almost immediately had to work on getting the government to recognize her election.
The plight of the people in this region makes my heart break. They live in constant chaos; over the last fifty years many of them have been uprooted from their homes and forced to leave; the family I met here cannot leave the area without permission, and still the Israeli government has the right to not allow them to get out, even if its for medical reasons. I love Israel and everything it stands for; I cannot even express how courageous I think these people are, constantly defending their own existence as a people. But I just think that if there is anything I have learned from this is that we must not forget our own humanity. There is something intrinsic that links us as people, something that should unify us instead of dividing us. The people making the big decisions, Hamas, the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority need to take a step back and think about their people, not their politics. I realize this is an optimist’s view, and my voice cannot stop mortars and bullets. But there is validity in what I’m saying; for ordinary people, my friends and family, both here and abroad, we need to find what that thread that connects us, before we let our differences destroy us.
Back here in Haifa, things are normal. In fact, if I didn’t check the news daily or talk with my friends, I would have no idea about the destruction in the south. School is proceeding like usual, and last night, to cheer myself up, my friend Lauren and I made chicken nuggets and French fries for a little taste of home. My one regret from this weekend is that it took an (almost) near death experience to heighten my awareness of this situation. Had this not changed my life, I would be like everyone at home, moaning about Christmas songs on the radio. I wish I could go back to that life, but for now “Isreality” is my reality right now.
For those of you at home, this was an extraordinary circumstance I was placed in this weekend, and I am not planning on putting myself in these circumstances again, nor am I planning on becoming a political activist. I am remaining cautious here in Haifa, but with more consciousness than I have ever had before. I will try to keep you updated, whether it be via blog, email or Facebook
In peace and solidarity with all humanity,