December 8, 2012
I have an incredible story to tell you. In any circumstances, it’s difficult to believe. Under these circumstances, almost impossible.
Bear with me…
Early last week, I was sitting as usual at our local Arcaffé, one of Israel’s café chains, this one located at the Ramat Aviv mall, considered to be the best and most successful one of it’s kind in Israel. I mention that, as it is frequented by the nouveau-riche, yuppies, CD- and DG-sunglass-clad post-Botox females and black t-shirted males.
Yet it is also well-populated by Israeli Arabs. Many of them are students at the nearby Tel Aviv University.
Yes, they are noticed. And the more trouble we have with our Arab neighbours, the more we notice that the Israeli Arabs feel quite ‘at home’ here, despite the ongoing crises. We are more frustrated at the outside world which continues to criticise us, despite our more-than-politically-correct policy towards the Israeli Arabs.
So these 5 Arab students come in and take the table next to me. One of them is quite obviously from overseas, and they keep breaking into English (from Arabic…they usually speak perfect Hebrew, but unsurprisingly speak Arabic amongst themselves).
I cannot help overhearing some of their conversation, and am shocked to learn that they have family in Gaza who have lost 2 young daughters in the recent conflict. I hear the sadness in their voices, mixed with bitterness, perhaps confusion.
You know me. I can’t resist ‘getting closer’. During a convenient pause, I somehow make myself acquainted. English only, of course. Let the full truth come out slowly. Yes, I’m Jewish, but actually knew very little about that when I was brought up. Married an Israeli, came to live here in ’84 etc. Yes, had daughters in the army. Sorry to hear about your relatives…
I said what I felt; what did I have to lose? It got them talking, and it all started coming out. We agreed on so much, for we were just ‘tip-toeing’ around the subject. 2 of them, brother and sister, had truly lost their little cousins to Israeli bombing. 2 kids aged 3 and 7. It was ‘easy’ to find comments on which we all agreed…
I suddenly realised that they were in a better contact with their Gazan relatives than email or telephone. “Wait a minute”, I interrupted. “You meet? How?”
Glances were thrown at each other at the table. Reddening faces. Absolute embarrassment at the escape of what was obviously a secret. I am not sure what face I put on, but it was the most ‘trustworthy’ I could manage. The atmosphere appeared to relax a little.
There was some shrugging of shoulders, plus a couple of furtive glances around. “We meet every few weeks”. “Where?” “On the border”. “Wait a minute…like the ‘Good Fence’ on the Lebanon border, were the Druzim families call to each other, or Hezbollah fires rockets?”
“Something like that”….
I wasn’t giving up. What they were saying was fascinating, but no way was it possible to ‘chat across the border’ with Gaza.
I told them that I write ‘Letter from Israel’. Been doing it for some years; trying to get the true story through. It’s a fruitless task, because the World doesn’t want to listen.
I told them that for years, I’ve been frustrated not at the lack of knowledge about Israel/Middle East/Palestinians – it’s absolutely normal to know little about events in other parts of the World. No, my gripe was the avalanche of criticism thrown at Israel, based on this lack of knowledge and how the media paints the picture here.
I even gently open the subject of anti-Semitism.
By now, 2 of the Arabs were asking for the bill; they did not want to hear any more of this. They were still polite, still trying to keep the atmosphere ‘calm’. But they had heard enough. I was losing them.
“Here, let me show you some of the letters”. I had my computer with me. I opened the folder. They saw the list of over 200 letters. I opened a couple – almost at random. (I do give them titles, and there are some letters that are too pro-Israel or anti-Palestine for them to swallow).
“I want to meet your family in Gaza”, I blurted out. “I want to hear their side of the story”. They all reacted negatively.
“We all complain of unfair media coverage – on both sides. Let’s put together a joint story”.
They were looking at each other….I had them.
“You make the arrangements. I’ll do whatever’s necessary”.
We exchanged contact details. No promises were made, but I was seriously interested – and determined.
Some days ago, the call came. Tonight, they said. No electronics: no camera, no phone, no recording equipment.
I dropped whatever plans I had.
Now, what to tell Aviva. If to tell Aviva….I could not. This was irresponsible to the highest degree. But I have survived until now by making decisions, with or without advice from those around me. (The fact that I am writing this letter means that something went right).
Monday. Two of them picked me up at 5. Dusk and rush hour. It took us 50 minutes just to get out of the Tel Aviv traffic. We continued down #4, past Holon, Yavne, Ashdod and then Ashkelon – all places that have been recipients of Gaza’s rockets.
We circumvent the Erez area, where the main official crossing is located from Israel into northern Gaza.
Near……, we stop. We walk. We reach a house. We are welcomed by Israelis. (I really cannot give more details – nor shall I). We descend into their bunker – all Israeli houses have bunkers. shelters. We have torches, bottles of water etc., I presume they have other stuff, but they make sure I do not.
The 3 of us enter a bathroom, and then a cupboard. This opens up into a corridor. At the end, another door. Through that, and we are in a tunnel. Our torches pick up reflectors. Otherwise, there would be total blackness. We start walking. And walking…..(I ask them about air, and they whisper that there are ventilator tubes every few meters, cutting through to the surface above).
On and on….I lost count of time.
I must admit that the adrenaline was beginning to run out. I am a type that will go ‘for most things’. But apprehension was coming over me. So I was especially relieved to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And movement. And voices.
My new-found friends were welcomed warmly by their relatives, who had obviously been expecting us. A man of about 40. Warm, sad eyes. Obviously the father of the 2 lost girls.
Two other men. One OK; the other I was immediately concerned about. He was carrying a machine-gun in his hands. He never stopped frowning.
We went through a door and out into some kind of storage room. From there into a warehouse, and then into some kind of office. Chairs and table were waiting for us. Coffee and some baklawa (sweet oriental cakes).
“We cannot go outside. You understand….”, the father said, in very good English. An educated man. We shook hands. Manir was his name. I was not introduced to the others.
The 2nd man kept nodding or shaking his head, mumbling words of approval or disapproval. The 3rd man just frowned. Happily, he stood the gun against a chair in the far corner of the room. I didn’t like that gun.
My 2 newly-acquired Israeli friends introduced me and told the man (obviously repeating themselves) why I was there. Then they sat and listened.
I had to say something. “Let me start by saying that I am truly sorry at your loss”.
Do you blame us?
They were Israeli rockets.
You know that’s too simple an answer.
I have to blame someone/something.
I agree, but it’s not that simple.
We are such a poor country; such a tiny piece of land. Why do you need to oppress us?
Is that what you think?
When did you last look at a map of the Middle East? Your words could be our words. In 1948, it wasn’t only a few Palestinians who attacked the newborn state of Israel. It was 7 Arab countries.
But you don’t belong here.
Is that what they tell you?
It’s the truth.
You read the same biblical stories; you know how long the Jews have been here…
And we are just poor refugees…
You did not invent the word refugees (I was patting his arm – body language, even body contact, is a very important part of conversations in this region).
Why are you still refugees? Why are the Palestinians in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon not settled; not given decent new lives? Why is UNRWA the UN’s oldest-agency? In fact, why did you leave?
How could we stay, when you were destroying our people?
You may call the 1948 War a ‘nachba’ (catastrophe), but it was in some ways far more of a nachba for the Jews.
But you have a country.
You had the same opportunities we had. You were also given a country.
Half a million Arabs did stay in Israel, I added. And now they have become 1.3 million, most of them living in peace and prosperity. They have passports, are officially and legally full members of Israeli society. They vote, they have their own members of parliament. Some of our top people, including high court judges, are Arabs. You know this. You have Israeli family.
Manir was silent for a few moments. Nodding.
But you make our lives miserable.
You voted democractically for a government that wants to destroy Israel. What do you expect?
Why don’t you offer us peace?
I’m sorry? Which media have you been ignoring?
You kill our children.
Do you really believe that Israel targets such innocents as your children? They were the victims of this horrible mess.
I continued….We were being killed by suicide bombers from the West Bank and Gaza. We built a protective fence, and now the killing has practically stopped. When was a Palestinian last killed by what is commonly known as a terrorist?
Israelis are all terrorists!
Do you really mean that?
I don’t know any more. Someone is to blame for what happened to my family.
If you ask that question with an open mind, then we are on our way to peace.
Again Manir was silent. 2-3 minutes. I took some coffee from the still-warm fenjan. Great coffee….
He took out his wallet and extracted a crumpled photo of 2 little girls.
He started to say something. Then choked. Then he grabbed my hands. “They must not die in vain”.
“It’s got to start somewhere”
“What can I do?”
He was still holding my hands. The question was serious. Here was a man who had reached the bottom, but still thought as a decent human being.
For a few moments, I had the feeling I was at a turning point in this little but tragic part of history. I imagined that my response could be the first step in the still so long road to peace.
I held his hands tighter..
“Get permission to visit me. Come sit with my family. Meet my 2 daughters. My home is your home. Come in peace”.
We hugged. He seemed to looking very deep into my eyes. He nodded.
He gave me a bottle of water, walked me to the tunnel.
I was taken home.
[This whole text is pure fiction. No such meeting/s took place, no matter how much I may wish for it. This does not reflect a change of my views – only perhaps a message to the readers of ‘Letter from Israel’ that parameters change, and that time is running out…]
The excellent cartoon at the beginning is by my friend, Stefan Bremner-Morris.
Stefan is very humble, but I am sure that, if you offer enough, original copies are available.