Saturday, July 12, 2014

Priveleged to Flee the Chaos - Kidnappings, Murder, Missiles from Hebron to All Israel

Tuesday, July 8th at 7pm I was walking through a park in Tel Aviv, Israel when a missile siren went off. Several people in the park waved me over to the bomb shelter.
People poured down the steps saying how this had been the first alarm in over a year. We were in Tel Aviv. Missiles almost never got this far north. One of the last ones in said that he had seen the missile intercepted in the distance. Thank God for the Iron Dome - the Israeli defense system for just such attacks as this. As we waited for the all clear people were talking about how afraid they were. Some had made Aliya, Jewish return to Israel, in the past year and said they'd not been afraid for their lives in this country before. A woman who grew up in Israel said, "Screw this country and this government" as she bit at her fingernails. Another curses Hamas. I attempted to calm a friend, who as it turned out was excited by the adrenaline rushing through her system.

The bus ride home was forever long. While the buses usually had no music playing the radio was turned on and the a reported spoke in a rushed Hebrew.

I got back to the hostel and asked some my roommates that night if they knew what had happened. "Three missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome." They told me.

Things were escalating fast.

Hebron, June 29 - Microcosm of a Conflict about to Bleed into the Rest of Israel

I remembered back to Sunday, June 29th, when things had calmed down after some unrest. But even then the Israeli-Palestinian tension was still palpable.

Three Jewish teens had been kidnapped 18 days before from the very city I stood in that hot day at the end of June. Hebron - one of the most hotly contested cities in the West Bank. Touring the city with first a Palestinian guide then a Jewish in the respective sectors of the city to which they had access according to international law. In one of the narrow streets of the Palestinian sector a market had chicken wire stretched across the top to catch the trash that Jewish residents would throw out their windows. Eggs, newspapers, plastic bags. Above the trash an Israeli watchtowers can be seen.

Because the sector was close to an Israeli checkpoint most of the stores below had gone out of business.

We entered homes with two bedrooms and four children with far less food on the table than needed. The apartment below had been completely trashed.

The guide described to us how difficult it was to leave the West Bank. He had been accepted to an American university to study law, but he couldn't even get a travel permit to go to Israeli held Jerusalem to get the visa to leave Israel.

Entire streets were blocked from access to the Palestinians after a suicide bomb had gone off in a open street. When asked what would happen if the guide were to go into the street he said, "I would get shot by the IDF."

After the kidnappings the Palestinian tour guide, actively working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was completely unable to leave the city of Hebron.  

We were handed over to the Jewish tour guide under the watch of fully armed Israeli Defense Force soldiers.

The Jewish tour guide lead us through the Jewish sectors, where an excavation site with four thousand year old steps sat directly adjacent to a new Jewish building and a Palestinian home entirely opposed to the presence of the other. The building permit was only given after a Jewish man had been killed in a riot in his front yard.

We were lead into a grove of olive trees - a traditional symbol of peace for Jews. During the olive harvest Jews and Palestinians fight one another for the Olives, each claiming, "These are Jewish olives!" "These are Palestinian olives."

A center for the Youth Against Settlements sat int he middle of this grove in the Jewish sector. Graffiti advertising the YAS' views had been painted over with white by Jews.

Two weeks when Jews built a bonfire in the grove according to the traditional celebration of Lag B'Omer Palestinians told international reporters that they were trying to burn down the thousand year old olive trees. Actual damage included a few singed branches on one tree.

After several incidents of Palestinian violence culminating in a suicide bombing, killing a newlywed couple expecting their first child over a kilometer of a market street was completely closed down by the Israeli Defense force. It was simply not possible for them to keep Jewish citizens safe in the area anymore. Now the area looks like a ghost town, with broken windows and empty shops.

All the time we walked the streets of Hebron, an Israeli Defense Force surveillance blimp scouted Hebron for intelligence on the whereabouts of the three kidnapped teenagers.

One of the teens had attended the Hebron Yeshiva (a Jewish school for men to study the Torah and Talmud). All was still quiet in the new building, though prayer meetings were still held on his behalf in the courtyard in the front.

Jews refuse to move out of Hebron despite the violent tension because they consider themselves indigenous to the area. And after a 4000 year presence in the city until the 1929 massacre of Jews, you can see their point. Palestinians saw the Jewish settlers who dared to move back to Hebron in the 1980's as impinging on their land, but Jews saw it as coming home.

June 30th

The bodies of the three kidnapped teenagers were found in Palestinian owned land near Hebron.

Prime Minister Netanyahu vows tough response.

Jewish settlers attack Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank.

July 2nd

A Palestinian teenager is burnt alive by Jewish settlers in retaliation for murder of the three abducted teens.

July 7th

Eighty-five rockets sent into southern Israel from Gaza. Hamas takes responsibility.

9:30 pm Tuesday, July 8th

I kept telling myself it would be alright. The missiles are only in southern Israel. I'll go nowhere near there, I'll be safe. Maybe I'll stay away from Jerusalem, too many protests. I assured my mother, my friends, my family I would be fine. No need to worry. The girls in my dorm brush off the incidents from 7pm.

But that was before the missiles were aimed at Tel Aviv. My city. They never aim at Tel Aviv.

Sitting in my dorm room with a few other Americans, we heard a blast in the background. One girl looked out the window and could see nothing in the dark. Another checked Haaretz, an English-language Israeli news site. More missiles had been intercepted on their way to Tel Aviv at 9:48pm. Ten minutes before.

That's it. I'm getting the hell out.

I search for flights out of Israel the next day and am able to book out a flight at 11:30pm.

Relief. This was the only way I would be able to sleep that night - knowing this would be my last night in Israel.

Wednesday, July 9th

After a quick dip in the beach I return to a missile siren going off. The entire hostel is woken up at 8:30am to crowd into the bomb shelter. After 10 minutes we are told the missiles had been intercepted by the iron dome.

My roommates in the dorm room begin to look for flights out.

I meet with a deacon at a local Lutheran church in Tel Aviv. We have to move our meeting back a few hours - the leaders in her church have to get together to discuss what course of action to take should the situation continue to deteriorate. Should the Danish minister and Finnish deacon be urged by their home countries to return.

While I wait to meet with her and after, I sit with two other Americans. We check Haaretz for live updates every ten minutes and check the locations of the rocket targets on google maps. Tracking how close they are. Tracking how far north they get.

At 7:30pm I finally can leave for the airport. I can finally flee back to the states. I never thought I would flee a war. I never thought I would count missiles. I never thought I'd personally be threatened by Palestinian terrorism.

At 8:30pm I stand in line for pre-check in security.

I am questioned by not one, not two, but three highly trained security agents. Asking me what cities I'd gone to, if I'd been to Jordan or Egypt, why I'd been in Israel, the name of the hotel I'd stayed in.

I am later pulled aside for a full search at post check-in security. They take everything out of my bags and test them for explosives. They make me stand in body search machine then pat down my ankles, have them show them my belt line. The agent is on the phone with someone as she has be turn, checks me, turn, checks me.

Finally I'm cleared and allowed to head to my flight.

All I wanted to do was to leave Israel as soon as I could. I was a frightened student, that's all. I just wanted out.

But getting out wasn't an option for those security guards. My frightened 24 hours were their daily existence in their home.

Days later I think of my friends in Israel, the ones who can't just move their flights up a couple days to leave. The ones who can't leave at all. The Palestinians who can't even leave their towns. The dozens of casualties in the Gaza strip.

How privileged am I that I can escape a war zone with as little effort as it takes to click through a few screens on the internet? How priveleged am I to live in a country where such acts of terror would be unthinkable, unprecedented. I show a US passport and I navigate easily through checkpoints neither Jews nor Palestinians can cross. I can enter countries without a visa when others wait months, even years to enter mine - if they can come at all.

How privileged am I to only bear witness to this conflict - a passive observer. To fear for my life only in an indirect and statistically unlikely way. To say that I came to Israel to do research. Not to come back to the only homeland my people have ever had, only to be terrorized by those who reside in the land. Not to be barricaded into my own town, unable to leave because of a incident with three teenagers.

How privileged am I to be safe, free, alive at this very moment.