LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
24 June 2004
Dan and I picked up a girl named Yael on our way to
the Red Sea city of Eilat last Wednesday. When we
stopped for dinner, I asked her where she was from in
Israel. She said her dad was in the Israeli Air
Force, and they moved around a lot, so she wasn't
really from anywhere. She said she was moving to
Australia soon if her paperwork came through.
She said her boyfriend was a free-diving world record
holder, and as such he might be able to get a special
visa to live in Australia. I asked why she wanted to
move, and she said, "I want to live anywhere but
"Why? What don't you like about Israel?"
She rolled her eyes. "The people. And the
government. They tax us and tax us, and we get
nothing in return. We are supposed to have free
health care, we pay taxes, and my boyfriend has
special insurance, but one day he was bit by a
scorpion fish and had to go to the hospital. They
wouldn't pay for it! They said he could have gone to
a clinic and filled out paperwork, but he didn't. He
didn't have time. He would have died. So they didn't
pay for it. It's typical." She shook her head. "And
they tax us for everything."
Later I asked her if she had ever visited any of the
countries around Israel, and she said, "No! One time
we got a flight with a Jordanian airline because it
was cheaper, and they flew over Jordan, and we were so
scared! What if they had to land? What would happen
I thought, you'd probably get invited to dinner at
someone's house and be offered tea until you couldn't
take it anymore. That's generally what happened to
"What do you think would happen?" I asked.
She said, "I don't know, but one time an Israeli guy
went to Egypt, and he was attacked."
"You're afraid of Jordan because one guy got attacked
"You don't understand! They really hate us, I think."
I thought of the Israelis who visited my village in
the West Bank last fall. Those who came with an open
mind and without a gun were welcomed warmly. I
thought about how kindly I'd been treated, as an
individual with my own opinions, in all of the Arab
countries I visited even with the occupations of Iraq
and Palestine in full swing, both generously funded by
my tax dollars.
We reached Eilat late at night, and in the morning I
found a nice spot under an umbrella near the beach.
Dan got his Rescue Diver certification while I slept
off my jet lag, read novels, and snorkeled. I read
Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake and got a good start on
Eilat was kind of Sinai Lite. There were the
dessicated mountains that changed colors from misty
purple at sunrise, hazy blue at mid-morning,
grey-brown at midday, and bright coral in the evening.
There was the sapphire sea, the warm dry air, and the
clear blue sky.
But there were no Bedouin offering spliffs and stories
(at a nominal fee), no Bedouin-style reefside cafes,
no Turkish coffee or desert sage (maramiya) tea. They
had an Imax, a large aquarium complex, and NesCafe.
The water, because of all the cities, was duller and
dirtier and much less full of life and color than the
shores of Ras Abu Gallum. But it was still a nice
place to sit and read and think.
I looked across the sea at Aqaba, Jordan, and thought
how only sixty-odd years ago, the only thing here was
this small white city nestled in the ancient mountains
between the baby blue sky and the dark blue sea. I
watched Lawrence of Arabia before I left the States.
It's set during World War I, about the time Europe
took over colonial duties in the Middle East from the
Turks. Sykes-Picot and all that. I looked north
toward Amman, where I learned some of the hardest
lessons I hope to learn with some of the kindest
people I hope to meet. I can't wait to go back.
I woke up early the next morning and found a Haaretz
Magazine (Israel's mainstream leftish news source)
lying around, opened to the following article:
During 14 months of service [with the Israeli
Defence Force] in Hebron, Yehuda Shaul could not bear
the moral erosion he saw in himself and his comrades.
Now the ultra-Orthodox 21 year-old has organized an
exhibit of soldiers' photographs to bring the reality
of the Territories home. Many soldiers willingly
offered their testimonies.
He said, and I agree, "I think that what we're doing
here transcends politics. It's beyond politics. It's
a true and honest look at reality."
I talked to an Israeli girl who moved here a few years
ago about the situation in the Territories. She said,
"Look, if it were a matter of righteousness, I would
renounce my Israeli citizenship, and that's it." But
if she did, she would be shipped back to the country
she came from, and everything she's done for the past
few years would come to nothing.
When we got back to Dan's apartment in Hod HaSharon,
an Israeli industrial town near Kfar Sava, I looked
down out of a window and saw some children in a
playground. Every one of the little boys had a little
skull cap on. I don't know a huge amount about Jewish
history, but I don't know another time when all these
kids could run around in skull caps in a school and be
the clear majority and power, not just in their
neighborhood but in the whole nation of which they
were a part. That was nothing if not an achievement,
and I felt a stirring of sympathy for the pre-1948
Jewish people who honestly didn't want to hurt anyone
but just wanted a place to call their own and be
unafraid in. Of course people were hurt, quite a lot,
and continue to be hurt, so that complicates
Some of you wondered if the French guy got through
immigration, and I have no reason to think he did not.
The border guards didn't seem to have any interest in
keeping us out unless we said something really stupid.
Actually the French guy was being belligerent the
whole time and they still just wanted to get him
processed and get him through. It was his bad luck to
be surprised and affronted by it. Shaul said in the
above article, "A lot of things are done just to
demonstrate a presence, to show that the IDF is
everywhere at all times." Sounds about right.
The next day I called my friend Ammar, the Palestinian
from Jayyous who goes to university in Jenin. All his
textbooks are in English, and he knows it well, but
he's more comfortable speaking Russian. He studied in
Rostov a year and a half.
The reception was bad, so it took a minute before I
could spit out some half-Arabic half-Russian greetings
and he could understand. I said, "Eto Bamila! Ili
Bamella... ili Pamella... ti pomnish menya?"
My name is pronounced differently in English and
Russian, and two different ways in Arabic, and I'd
forgotten which one he knew me as. I asked if he
He said in Russian, "Of course. I recognized your
He's still in Jenin at school and doesn't know when
he'll be back in Jayyous. I told him I'd be in
Ramallah for six months or so, and maybe in that time
I could visit Jenin because I wanted to see it anyway.
He said regretfully he was actually in a town near
Jenin, not Jenin itself. I thought, but didn't say,
that I couldn't care less about Jenin. I want to see
whatever town he's in.
I only caught a bit of Israeli TV news twice while
I've been here, and both times they were gravely
discussing, in round-table fashion, the causes and
consequences of dog attacks on children in Israel.
They showed a picture of a sad little Israeli boy with
dog teeth marks on his legs. I think we really should
make a more serious and sustained and honest effort to
create a just and lasting peace with the domestic
canines of the Middle East.
I'm still in Israel working on a tribute to a friend
and getting things squared away for going to Ramallah.
I sent my resume to The Palestinian National
Initiative and will set up an
interview in Ramallah this weekend.
Here's a biography
of Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, one of the
founders of the PNI.