Released August 22, 2001
The Wisdom Fund, P. O. Box 2723, Arlington, VA 22202
Website: -- Press Contact: Enver Masud

Who Are These People, My People?

by Rebecca Elswit

I think that I am emerging unscathed (physically, of course, emotionally, perhaps not) from what was the hardest afternoon of my life.

I am writing what I see. And if it seems imbalanced, well, that is because the conflict is imbalanced. The Palestinians are an occupied people, and they are fighting a resistance against one of the strongest (and well funded) armies in the world. I will not become an apologist for Israel to make my thoughts, feelings, but most importantly, my observations, palatable for others (you all back in the States) where the status quo is not neutral, but pro-Israeli. I can't write about both sides with equal parts criticism and condemnation and sympathy and empathy because the sides are not equal. Yes, I think that it is stupid for Palestinian snipers to fire from residential areas, which they do, but I do not think that it justifies the collective punishment that is imposed upon them. And obviously, (I hate that I even have to write this,) I condemn suicide bombings. Israel is a powerful occupier. There is a great imbalance of power, and I would say, of pain. I am appealing to the humanity in all of you. And I do not think that humanity, and that human rights, are political.

Feel free, please, to believe politically in whatever you wish. But human rights should be universal, that is not to be denied to any people, to any individual, nor to be dismissed as a political position. Except that they are being denied here. I criticize Arafat, too, and the Palestinian leadership. But for me, it is much more interesting to share the stories of people I have met, people I know, people who have touched me. You know about the governments anyway from the mainstream press.

So today is the day of fast, 9th of Ab. I was hungry. It was hot. Everyone was anticipating a big Balagan at the Western Wall/ Haram al Sharif area. I missed a lot of it, apparently. But I saw enough. I missed the Palestinians throwing stones from above down at the Western Wall (Stefan, a journalist, told me that it was total about 30 stones) and I missed the stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber coated bullets that followed (one man was shot in the eye, one man was shot in the head). But I arrived later (not to be a photographer or journalist, mind you, but to pray at the Wall). But then I heard a few explosions (stun grenades, I think) and some shots. I do not know what the police and army say had provoked them. Then I saw Palestinians being "escorted" to police vehicles. There were a few kids (between the ages of 10 and 15) and then, later, some slightly older men. The police vehicles are conveniently located at the plaza at the Wall, that is, the Palestinians had to pass through a crowd (hostile) of Jews. I was taking pictures. I doubt if they will come out; everyone was shoving to get close. Journalists with cameras, police pushing them away, Jews (many of them apparently American) screaming "death to the Arabs". I saw a boy collapse on the way down from Al-Aqsa. I saw the soldiers drag him to his feet so they could put him in a police van. When they got to the Plaza, saw the blood coming from his mouth, from the back of his neck. He did not need a ride in a paddy wagon, he needed a freakin' ambulance!! But he was shoved into the back of the van, violently.

I saw fear in another boy's eyes like I have never seen fear before. Pure terror: eyes wide, mouth open, screaming. He was skinny, and tan, and had brown hair and black eyes, and he was young, and he was afraid, and when I saw him, I started to sob.

They kept coming; I am not sure of the number of people who were actually arrested-I did not keep count, and this afternoon was one of the longest I have lived. And some were limping, and many were already bleeding. And the police or soldiers or whatever were brutal: pushing them into the vans, like they were dolls or toys. To animals they would have been more gentle.

The Jewish people were screaming: death to the Arabs, death to the Arabs. In these peoples' faces as they were being dragged to police vehicles. In their faces. The soldiers tried to serve as a barrier, but they were not entirely successful. Some guy kicked one of the Palestinians in the gut as he was escorted away.

Then they brought another kid. And they were twisting his arm (I don't know who 'they' is, the police or the army, everything is blurry), and they were twisting it and twisting it and he was screaming and they were twisting and then it broke. And it was like behind his back, up by the opposite side of his neck. And he stopped screaming. And I started. I screamed what the hell are you doing, like, really really loudly. I did not mean to scream. It just came out. And then they pushed me away and yelled at me to get out of the area. I calmed down a bit, and then a religious guy said to me, baruch hashem, ken?, which is like, thank God, yeah? And I just looked at him and said in Hebrew 'they are also people' and then he yelled, she thinks they are also people. And a bunch of people stood around me yelling about how I could think that, and death to the Arabs, and some other stuff that I didn't understand.

When I walked away, a religious woman came up to me, and asked if I was going to write about this (she thought I was a reporter, because reporters and extremists are the only people crazy enough to stay for something like this. Yes, I said. Tell the truth, she said. I will write what I see, I said. What did you see, she asked? I saw the police break a boy's arm, I said. Maybe he was the one who killed my son five years ago, she said. Maybe he was the one throwing rocks this morning. I am so sorry about your son, I said. I am so very sorry. But you will not write about him, you will write about the police, who are here to protect us from those animals, she said. I am sorry about your son, I said.

Part of me thought that I would be able to take it, be able to watch violence in action-hey, I grew up in the States, and we had a television. But it is different when it is in front of your eyes. When you can see real fear, when you are almost close enough to reach out to someone and say, it will be ok. Even if it won't. When the cop cars were full they did not leave right away (I don't know why). I blew them a kiss before I turned my back on them and walked away. It is so easy for me to turn my back, to go back to my world of academics and ice cream. But people here-Palestinians and Israelis- cannot. I am lucky. Some people are not so lucky. Nichola is 5. He has one arm because the other one was blown off on May 6th by a tank shell. He was outside his house when they started shelling Beit Jala, ostensibly because people had fired from Beit Jala onto Gilo, which is called a neighborhood of Jerusalem. It has been annexed. But it was taken in 1967 from the residents of Beit Jala, who had their orchards there. See, the thing is, Nichola's house is nowhere near Gilo. And shelling the whole town is not necessarily going to get the snipers. But what it will do is create anger against Israel and more pain and more extremism and more resistance. Nichola asks his great aunt (whom I stayed with for a few days as part of an action) every day, auntie, when is my new arm coming? The doctors at Haddasah said they would bring me a new arm. Where is my new arm? Maybe tomorrow they will bring it? Someone brought Nichola some bubbles when he was in the hospital (for a month), and he loved them. And he wanted to play with them again, but then he could not open the cap, with only one arm. He tried to use his teeth, but he couldn't use his teeth-the plastic was too hard. Finally he stopped in frustration, and did not respond to the people who volunteered to open it for him. He did not want it because he couldn't do it himself. When I hung out with him and his family yesterday, he opened some things by himself, using his teeth and his one good hand, his right hand. But he was a lefty, which makes things even more difficult. I have seen so many people who seem defeated, who seem beaten, who are oozing despair, that I wanted to share Nichola with you because he has strength and hope, even though his future has been drastically altered.

"Who are these people, my people?" It hurts me so much to see this sort of brutality. And so then I went to pray. I went to the hotel, the wall, and I stood and I pressed my face against the hot stone and I felt emptiness and pain. And I wonder how anyone can willingly, knowingly, break another's bones and not react, and I wonder how Jewish people can do it. Have we not learned anything? And I said the mourner's Kaddish, because it is a day of mourning and a life of mourning, and I mourn for all death and destruction and I mourn for the separation of Jewish people from Jewish values-like compassion, and justice. I wonder if it would have been easier for me to see someone, not a Jew, screaming such hatred at another. Maybe.

Fatin lives in Beit Jala. I had dinner with her the other night and she asked me why I was there, why I was participating in this action (a group of internationals staying in the homes of people whose homes have been shelled). And I started to explain to her, and one of the first things I said was, I am Jewish. And she was surprised, and said, so really, why are you here. And I said, I don't care if you are Jewish Christian Muslim Buddhist Hindu or Zoroastrian. I don't care if you are Palestinian Israeli American Mongolian or French. I care that you are a human being. She grabbed my face and kissed me spontaneously on the cheek. That, she said, is because you are Jewish. Then she kissed my other cheek. That, she said, is because you are human. And then I started to cry (it is very common these days).

I am ok. For those who worry that I am not having any fun, you should know that I took Friday 'off' and went to Tel Aviv, slept on the beach, and went swimming at 7 am before coming back to tour refugee camps.

Peace, and justice, and so much love,
Rebecca, who lives with the world in her heart.

Copyright © 2001 Rebecca Elswit -- a young American Jew who lived in Israel and Palestine this summer.
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