I have been thinking a lot about collective punishment and military force and the cost of fear. I am not going to reveal the identity and details of individuals in this story out of respect for their privacy and safety, but several asked me to write about recent events in their village. Let’s just say Bani Nayim is a large Muslim village of twenty thousand, east of the city of Hebron, a region known for large stone quarries and miles of vineyards. I have been visiting an extended family where most everyone is well educated, teachers, businessmen, doctors, people with degrees in education who cannot find employment and “jump the wall” to find work in Israel or to get visas to do graduate work in the United States, or do online PhD programs in Islamic religion and Quranic studies. Families tend to be large, babies tend to be loved and plentiful; it seems that everyone we meet is related. Their idea of a good time is sitting on a balcony with each other at sunset, drinking Turkish coffee, eating sweets, talking (we have some really serious discussions about politics and medicine and health), and smoking nargila. The main issue with the view (besides the stone quarry), is the Israeli military base in the distance and the spy balloon (I thought it was a kite), that hangs above the hills over the fanatically racist Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba.
The houses I visit are beautiful, meandering, white stone Arab homes surrounded by patches of olive, almond, lemon, fig, and apple trees, gardens with water starved flowers and aromatic bushes like lavender and something called cologne (I think), that just bursts with aromatic perfume when the sun sets. The love of the land and its bounty is palpable. Far from the center of town, there is a larger field with a greenhouse (where I see rows of happy mulokhiya (Jew’s mallow) that gets concocted into this great green soup with rice, and a field of wheat; much has been passed down through the generations.
The living rooms of these houses have big-screen TVs and often some totally discordant American cowboy movie with Arabic subtitles or an overly dramatic soap opera from Saudi Arabia playing in the background. It is stunningly hot and periodically someone talks about the four feet of snow that fell last winter and paralyzed the village. The land is hilly with single homes here and there; throw in some goat herds and minarets and if you keep looking you can see the Dead Sea and the purple hills of Jordan. It is all pretty spectacular.
This is the kind of family that warmly welcomes me into their home, the mother has prepared a ginormous meal of extraordinarily good food which is made of rice and chicken and stuffed grape leaves and stuffed zucchini, and yogurt and spices to die for; everyone is behaving as if I have not eaten in days.
We retire to a living room filled with stuffed chairs and stuffed people, and after more sitting and smiling and Sprite and Coca Cola, I take out my origami directions and a hundred sheets of colored paper. Shortly thereafter, there is a whole collection of family members of all ages and all levels of education making boxes and struggling over cranes and helping the kids get the creases right.
This goes on for an hour and there is so much laughter and good fun; it is just a simple pleasure and feels so good in some primordial, mostly nonverbal human way.
My host then suggests that the family watch my documentary on the Nakba, Voices Across the Divide, and I wonder how that will play, a documentary produced by a secular Jewish woman for a US audience sharing the Palestinian story in a room full of devout Muslims (is this chutzpah or foolishness?) And so we talk and talk and I say they have to be honest with me. Everyone wants to see it and so they invite over more relatives and soon everyone is glued to the TV and we are not watching Bonanza.
I am a bit freaked out since they keep talking and I can’t tell if this is good or bad, but it turns out this is a totally talkative enmeshed family and they are just having a big group experience; they recognize the two college girls holding the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions sign towards the end of the film and of course the village of Beit Ummar over the hill; they are debating the different family names, who knew? When the documentary ends, I hold my breath, and then the father speaks and says the film is an excellent portrayal of the Palestinian experience and then everyone chimes in and we have this amazing discussion about all of their stories and the making of the film and the American Jewish community and Zionism, and Islam, etc., etc. As you may imagine, this is a pretty stunning, cross-cultural experience and I am so relieved; I feel embraced and welcomed despite my clear differentness. (I am given a bed in a room by myself and the entire family sleeps on long cushions on the floor in the living room.) Perhaps I need more tea and how about some nuts?
So why am I telling you this story? When you hear a news report, these are the “they,” the “Muslim other,” the “Palestinian militants near Hebron,” the faceless families that are being terrorized by Israeli soldiers every night since the three boys (or settlers, or soldiers, or who knows what or all of the above) disappeared.
The day after the disappearance (I will call it a kidnapping when I know that is what it was and, FYI, I am not asking Netanyahu for the real story), The Islamic Center and School for Boys next door was ransacked by the Israeli soldiers and the imam was detained for a few hours and then released. Years ago, his two brothers were “martyred”; one was in a militant group and died in a gun fight when the house was crushed with him in it and the other was killed as “collateral damage.”
After our movie night and the sunset over Kiryat Arba, as we prepare for bed, I am informed that the Israeli Defense Forces have attacked the town, they are at all the entries and have started going house to house. The village has a Facebook page which is suddenly the focus of everyone’s attention. Someone reports that three to four buses of fully armed soldiers are walking through the town, some take control of one house and put a sniper on the roof. TV news is talking about an IDF attack on Rafah, the southern border of Gaza. The electricity flickers on and off, why? The family is anxiously awake until the middle of the night, tracking the soldiers on Facebook and on a local radio program. The father finally goes to the mosque to pray when the muezzin calls at four a.m. (yes I am awake dissecting every sound), and then he comes home and goes to sleep. I learn that like many Palestinian men, he has been arrested twice and was in administrative detention for two months and released without any charges. He has obvious reasons to be anxious; he is a Palestinian male while Muslim, which is an arrest category in itself. No arrests are made here during the night, but everyone’s nerves are a bit shattered and no one sleeps well. The youngest son is curled across his mattress and is in a deep stupor. I wonder how this all impacts him and his sense of safety, his belief in his parents’ ability to protect him. The press is reporting hundreds of arrests, many more injured (collateral damage?), and a steady number of killings. Hamas members (including legislators) are clearly targeted.
Earlier, we passed one of the big “Bring Back Our Boys” signs; it hits me that this is supposed to resonate with the violent kidnapping of girls in Nigeria. I try to imagine a society where that slogan would mean all of our boys, not only the three snatched last week but the thousands of mostly boys and young men lost in Israeli detention centers without parents or lawyers or the legal and human rights protections of any decent society. And then there are all those boys who have lost their humanity, breaking into houses night after night, terrorizing families, turning into frightened, dehumanized monsters. And I realize, we need to bring them back as well.