My wife and I have paid eight shekels each to ride in this old, dust-colored minibus from Ramallah to Ras Karkar, a small Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank. There’s going to be a protest today when the men return from the 5 p.m. prayers. Crammed into my camera bag is a napkin with the name “Hamza” scribbled on it, right above a phone number that starts with +972. This is the man who our friend Yousef told us to call when we arrive in the village. An old Fairuz ballad crackles from the radio as our minibus honks and lurches onto the road, winding past the gleaming settlements that loom atop the hills.
Close your eyes, and forget what you know about recent political history, and it would be easy to imagine a world in which Palestine was among the world’s most popular honeymoon destinations. A gorgeous Mediterranean coastline, stunning desert sandscapes, ancient bazaars with bright colors and spicy aromas floating through the narrow stone passageways — Palestine has all these things and more, at least in theory. The problem is that, in practice, Palestine also has a foreign military force occupying the vast majority of its land, making it much less attractive as a romantic getaway for your average newlyweds.
There are exceptions to every rule, however, and I am a travel masochist, while my former fiancée is not overly fond of beaches. Thus, a few weeks after our wedding we found ourselves standing outside a candy shop in the center of Ramallah, trying to catch a few wisps of wifi to call our friend Abdullah. He’d promised to come pick us up, though he was running late as usual.
Abdullah had been our host eight months earlier, when we’d made our first trip to the West Bank. When I’d told him of our plan to return for our honeymoon, he’d written back, lol bro are you crazy? Eventually, after he failed to dissuade us from coming, he insisted that we stay with him. He’d just moved into a new place, he said, and he had a couple of spare rooms. I told him it sounded like he was moving up in the world.
All photographs by Nick Slater
When Abdullah arrived in a taxi, though, the first thing I noticed was how exhausted he looked. On the ride back to his house, he told us about the long hours he’d been working for his new software startup, and the endless piles of paperwork he had to slog through every day when he went home. “Man, I’m tired,” he said, lighting a cigarette as we turned down a street lined with armed soldiers in red berets. “Damn fucking tired.”
All the windows were rolled up tight, and smoke soon filled the car.
His new place was modern and spacious, made of sand-colored stone with a roofed terrace. The neighbors on the left had two European sedans. The neighbors on the right were a herd of goats, grazing in a rocky field under the gaze of an elderly shepherd. Across the highway stood an Israeli military outpost that had been expanded into a civilian settlement, still surrounded by high gray walls and jagged strips of barbed wire.
Abdullah paid the cab fare and carried our bags inside, ignoring the volume and vulgarity of my protests. He gave us cold beers from his fridge and told us about his pending business deal. With one hand he chopped the vegetables for dinner, with the other he tapped out a non-stop stream of text messages. Our friends Ameer and Momen were on their way. Soon we’d have the whole crew together again, just like old times.
Let me tell you, dear reader, that it was a joyous moment when they arrived. Abdullah set the table with hummus, labeneh, fresh-baked pita, and his own specialty of grilled chicken and peppers. We drank too much Jameson and smoked too many joints. We even watched a Rick and Morty episode on Abdullah’s new smart T.V. For a moment we recaptured the magic of our first night together, and I remembered something Ameer had said back then: “We are the smallest gods.”
But there was a new weariness in my friends’ faces. They seemed older, sadder, more preoccupied. They checked their phones more often, and more urgently. They fell asleep in their chairs. A lot had happened in the last eight months. Living in Palestine is much harder than visiting it for your honeymoon.
A single narrow path connects the village of Ras Karkar with the road that leads to the rest of the world. An Israeli military jeep is parked at the turnoff point, its long radio antennae flicking like whips under the blazing mid-afternoon sun. Olive trees glimmer on a nearby hill — these are the groves that are doomed to be destroyed. Unless today’s protests are successful (and, in all likelihood, even if they are) these family fields will be buried under the concrete of an illegal Israeli settlement, one that will likely be filled with Americans lured by cheap healthcare and heavily subsidized costs of living.
The village itself is composed of thin strips of buildings that cling to the hillside, and the minibus belches black smoke as we make our ascent. Suddenly the driver slams on the brakes. “Ras Karkar?” My wife and I look at the couple next to us, who smile and point out the window. The man tries to explain, in what is clearly very basic Arabic, something that I am completely unable to understand. His wife sees my confusion and just says, “Ras Karkar, OK.” We tell her “shukran”, and wave goodbye as the minibus putters back down the hill, leaving us to seek shade in the shadows of the empty-looking houses.
My friends in Ramallah and the villagers of Ras Karkar are both trapped in open-air prisons. But they suffer in different ways, and at the hands of different captors. To understand why, it helps to know a little about the local geography.
The occupied West Bank is divided into three zones: Areas A, B, and C. In theory, Area A is under the full control of the Palestinians, Area C is under the full control of the Israelis, and Area B is under “joint control.” In practice, Israel has such an overwhelming edge in terms of money, firepower, and surveillance technology that it controls the entirety of the West Bank. Even if its heavily armed soldiers aren’t physically present in a given area, their presence is always felt, like a nest of wasps buzzing above a picnic. However, they’re not the only threat that intrudes on the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
In Ramallah, which is in Area A, people like my friends are mistreated not only by the Israelis themselves, but also by their proxies in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Here, people are perhaps a bit less likely to have their homes demolished by an armored military bulldozer sent under the orders of a vengeful colonel than a regular civilian bulldozer dispatched by a bored zoning official.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule, like when the Israeli military invaded Ramallah to punish the PA’s administrators for keeping too loose a hand on their subjects. For the most part, though, these administrators are allowed to create petty fiefdoms to enrich themselves, so long as they keep their fellow Palestinians under control.
One of their favorite techniques is bureaucratic obfuscation. To give you one example, my friend Abdullah had originally intended for his new home to be an office until a PA official changed his mind about its zoning classification (forcing Abdullah to take a second lease on a different building, which was owned by the official’s cousin).
Another common method of the PA’s social control is flat-out theft. Mr. Zarhan Jaghad, the owner of the Dar Zahran heritage museum in Ramallah, has been trying to keep Palestinian officials from seizing his family’s farm for years. “All this evil is possible because of the occupation,” he says. “But we can’t ignore the corruption in the PA. They want us to trade our history for some small economic benefits. They want us to forget our villages and olive trees. They want us to be software programmers who eat fast food. Look at this city: All they build is bars, five-star hotels. Fine, I don’t mind. But that’s not the Palestine I love.”
Palestinian officials have long dodged accusations that Ramallah is a glorified Potemkin village meant to make people dream more about starting their own prosperous startup and less about an independent Palestine. Viewed from the perspective of Palestinians like Mr. Zarhan, much of the “progress” represented by Ramallah’s burgeoning tech scene and Western-style nightlife signifies a betrayal of higher goals — a campaign to make Palestinians relinquish their dreams of an independent capital in East Jerusalem that includes the holy mosque of Al-Aqsa, and instead content themselves with more coding jobs and dance clubs under de facto Israeli rule.
These scraps of neoliberal prosperity are the most that the Israeli military government and their puppet administrators in the Palestinian Authority are willing to grant the 57,000 inhabitants of Ramallah. Under exceptional circumstances (and at exceptional costs) it may be possible to build a mildly prosperous future for oneself, but loftier aspirations are strongly discouraged.
Here’s a good place to remind you that Ramallah is located in Area A, the part that’s ostensibly under full Palestinian control.
In Area C, which comprises more than 60 percent of the West Bank, the Israelis feel no need to respect even the pretense of Palestinian rights. For years, the Israeli government has carried out a methodical plan to empty Area C of all its Palestinian inhabitants. Here the Palestinians can’t build at all: no homes, no schools, no hospitals, no businesses. Between 2009 and 2013, more than 2,000 applications were submitted to the Israeli authorities. 34 were approved. Since then, things have gotten even worse. In 2014, only one Palestinian building permit was granted.
The next year, there was zero.
Almost one-fifth of Ras Karkar’s land has been deemed to fall within the boundaries of Area C. This land, which contains some of the area’s most fertile olive groves, is keeping the village alive. If it’s destroyed, the farmers who lose their trees can’t start driving for Uber or freelancing at a graphic design firm. They will have to leave their family homes, or starve.
A boy’s head pokes out of the second-story window of a small stone house. His eyes widen under a mop of dark curly hair — he looks to be about 10 years old. Seconds later he’s scampered out the door, and is shaking my hand with grave civility, though it’s clear he’s trying very hard not to laugh at my wife and I, who are both literally dripping with sweat. The boy’s skinny little arms and legs poke out of an oversized FC Barcelona jersey. He asks me something in Arabic that I can’t understand, so I give him a thumbs-up and say, “Messi … Barcelona!” He grins (he’s missing at least three teeth, which is not uncommon for a 10-year-old) and lets loose another rapid-fire burst of Arabic. This time I catch the word “España,” and again I make friendly noises back at him.
The boy in the Barça shirt leads us up a path lined with small houses, all of which seem empty. Soon we’ve attracted some of his friends. They snicker when they see the tattoos poking out of my sleeve. When one of them notices that I’m also sweaty as hell, he calls for his little brother, who comes running with an icy liter of water in an old Coke bottle. The gang of boys are giddy and mischievous, but they keep a respectful distance from my wife and politely decline all my attempts to give them candy.
We’ve almost reached the top of the hill before the boy suddenly darts over to a house and bangs on its door with his tiny fist, shouting a word I assume is the owner’s name. When a man emerges, groggy and confused by the boy’s rapid chatter, I show him the napkin with Hamza’s phone number. He nods and punches the numbers into his old Nokia, handing it to me with princely delicacy. When Hamza answers, his voice is crackly and garbled. “Hello, I’m so sorry,” he says, “I can’t meet you today. Don’t worry — my friend will help you. Wait there, I will send a car.”
My wife and I didn’t visit any villages the first time we went to Palestine. We did see the refugee camps of Bethlehem and the tourist traps of Jericho and the Mexican restaurants of Ramallah. But we didn’t go anywhere like Ras Karkar, and that left a glaring blind spot in our understanding of Palestinian life.
After that trip, I wrote a story about the inspiring and infuriating experiences we’d shared with the Palestinians who opened their hearts and homes to us. It was full of scenes where we smoked hash, argued about Bitcoin, and drove fast while listening to Bon Iver. Looking back, there’s a lot I’d change about it.
I told that story the way I did because I wanted to show people in the West who were vaguely aware of Palestine — but had never thought much about the place, beyond what they heard on the news — that Palestinians were complex, fully-formed human beings just like them (and yes, in a perfect world there would be no need to plea for such a bare-minimum amount of empathy). At the time, I thought that rhetorical strategy seemed best because human beings generally have more sympathy for people who they consider to be similar to themselves. While there were obvious problems with my approach, I thought it would be the most effective way to help readers imagine Palestinians as “people just like us.”
But now I think I spent too many words suggesting that we should have empathy for Palestinians because they’re surprisingly westernized, and not enough words suggesting that we should have empathy for Palestinians regardless of whether they speak English or wear Yankees hats or roll excellent spliffs.
My error was pointed out by Ty Joplin, an Arabic-speaking American journalist based in Jordan, who criticized the piece for “falling into the same general lines of humanist thinking that over-emphasize aesthetic similarities to prove someone’s humanity,” which “implicitly excludes those who do not share those similarities.” He also thought that my dependence on local translators, who had certain ideas of what a foreign visitor would find interesting, might have limited my exposure to more conservative parts of Palestinian culture, though he conceded “it’s basically impossible to get around that if you don’t live there and speak Arabic.”
He was right on all accounts. I don’t know if it’s impossible for a westerner to fully understand what it’s like to be Palestinian, but I do know that it’s far beyond my ability. The life experience of the average Palestinian is just far too different for me to fully comprehend.
For 70 years, Palestinians have lived under the military occupation of a foreign power that considers them subhuman and speaks openly about its plans for mass expulsion and/or murder. David Ben-Gurion, the George Washington of the Israeli state, thought all Arabs were animals, saying, “We view them like donkeys.” Former prime minister Levi Eshkhol, who oversaw Israel’s annexations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War of 1967, hoped that “precisely because of the suffocation and imprisonment there, maybe the Arabs will move,” and mused that “perhaps if we don’t give them enough water they won’t have a choice.” The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gleefully taunts his captive Palestinian subjects with promises of genocide: “There is no place for the weak. The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive.”
Only the most craven, milk-blooded New York Times columnist could listen to seven decades of such naked threats and continue to give the benefit of the doubt to the people who make them. Think of how quickly (and with such little evidence) the American public was convinced that Saddam Hussein threatened our entire way of life. We went on to slaughter more than half a million human beings because of that spurious gossip. What acts of vengeance might we have unleashed if there had been nearly a century’s worth of proof?
Israel’s state-run propaganda efforts, known as hasbara, have spent years trying to portray the country as a gay-friendly tech paradise full of foodies, feminists, and plucky pop stars (if you’d like to lend a hand, there are generous benefits for “cultural ambassadors” through entities like Hasbara Fellowships, the REALITY Initiative, and the ever-popular Birthright). However, as the late Israeli ambassador Yohanan Meroz once warned, some things are not “hasbarable.” No matter how empowering the new Gal Gadot blockbuster might be, it’s hard to believe that the nation that cloaks itself in her accomplishments is really a safe haven for women when it also snatches female Palestinian medics and journalists from their beds in the middle of the night.
The occupation’s breathtakingly cynical attempts to brand itself as a hip, enlightened defender of Western values— see: the IDF’s sassy tweets about Mean Girls — should make it evident why some Palestinians might prefer to reject those “values” altogether. If the army that demolished your house and imprisoned your relatives also claimed to be “the most moral army in the world” because it prevented an “ecological catastrophe” caused by some burning tires, it would be understandable if you were unimpressed by the papier-mâché progressivism whose main purpose seems to be hiding the ugliness of the Israeli war machine.
This is a long-winded way of saying that, when my wife and I arrived in Ras Karkar, I would not have been surprised if some villager had seen us, decided that our expensive electronics and colorful tattoos were the embodiment of all the West’s injustice and depravity, and told us to go fuck ourselves. I certainly wouldn’t have blamed them.
As George Orwell once said, “You cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat.”
In the shady courtyard of the village’s mosque, as we sit and wait for the protest to begin, I do something stupid. A boy asks me where I’m from and I say, “España,” because it’s easier than explaining I’m an American (a country he has good reason to hate) who lives in Andorra (a country he has probably never heard of). I’ve used this line a hundred times in Palestine, and I’ve never met anyone who had A) any problems with España or B) the ability to determine that I’m not actually Spanish. So when the boy shouts “España!” and whips out his phone to make a call, I have no idea what’s coming next.
Moments later, a handsome young man shows up and hands us two bottles of orange juice. “Hola chicos, ¡bienvenidos a Ras Karkar! ¿Cómo están?” It turns out that he’s a doctor who recently returned from studying medicine in Cuba. For the next half hour we chat in Spanish about his travels abroad and his reasons for coming back. “No sé como explicartelo,” says the doctor. He tells me that Palestinians have a connection to their land that westerners struggle to understand. A pickup truck, its bed loaded with dozens of olive tree saplings, rumbles to a stop in front of the mosque, and he goes to help the boys unload the plants. “Eso es mi Palestina,” says the doctor before he walks away.
The villagers plan to plant these saplings as an act of symbolic defiance on the ground that Israel is threatening to seize. The message is simple: The villagers of Ras Karkar have roots in these hills, ones that won’t be destroyed by bullets or bulldozers. But there’s a problem. Only around 20 men have showed up for the protest, not nearly enough to challenge the Israeli soldiers on their own. After a quick discussion, they decide to go join the protest of a neighboring village. The men pile into a couple of cars, their heads and arms sticking out the windows, fierce dabke music blasting out a call for revolution. Someone asks us if we want a ride, and we squeeze into the back seat.
If you’re a westerner who’s sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, as I am, it’s easy to hold a romantic view of “Palestine” or “the Palestinian people.” Part of the reason is because the Israeli occupation is so nakedly cruel and sadistic that empathy can soon turn into pity, and attributing saint-like qualities to all Palestinians seems like the least you can do.
However, as Saul Alinsky once said, “The fact that people are poor or discriminated against doesn’t necessarily endow them with any special qualities of justice, nobility, charity, or compassion.” Palestine is not a nation of saints. It’s undeniable that significant parts of society hold regressive views on women’s rights, or that popular opinion about LGBTQ communities can be just as bad. Common views on sex, gender roles, and marriage can be downright regressive*, as Israel’s hasbara machine is happy to remind us.
*It would be uncouth, of course, to mention that if you trained a similarly critical eye on Israeli society, there would be no shortage of stories you could write about its rampant misogyny, its legally-enshrined racism against the country’s minorities, or its police brutality against Jews of color.
The point is not that Palestinians are angels and Israelis are demons —there are fine people on both sides, as a famous anti-Semitic Islamophobe once said— but only that a person’s worthiness of basic human rights should not be dependent on the dominant views of the society in which they live. Despite the hideous crimes of the Israeli government, no Israeli schoolchildren deserve to be blown up on their way to school. Despite the conservative nature of much of Palestinian society, no Palestinian deserves to be tortured, raped, exiled, humiliated, robbed, beaten, or murdered by Israeli forces.
All Palestinians, whether they are cosmopolitan young go-getters like my friends in Ramallah or tradition-loving homebodies like the doctor in Ras Karkar, deserve to live their lives with basic dignity and respect. Both of these are denied to them at the present moment. They are human beings —yes, like you and me— who are suffering, and there is no way to justify the cold, meticulous atrocities that are being committed against them.
From the top of the hill, teargas billows into a cloudless blue sky. Pop-pop-pop — this is the sound of the grenade launchers, their canisters soaring in parabolic arches, hissing as they release poisonous serpentine fumes that chase them to the ground. Men flee from beneath them, scampering down the rocky slope. We get out of the car and the air already tastes foul.
We begin to climb the hill, which is steep and covered in small, slippery stones. Smoke from the grenades makes the world seem fuzzy. The higher we go, the harder it gets to breathe. Cries of Allahu Akhbar! ring out from the summit, and as always it’s a surprise how much less frightening the phrase sounds without frantic TV music playing in the background. Even a non-Arabic speaker can understand what the men shouting it mean: “I hope things will be OK somehow.”
But things are not OK when we reach the top. The Israeli soldiers have split into two squads, and they’re both advancing. A hail of bullets, which have been covered by a bit of rubber to indemnify Israeli leaders against future war crimes charges, spit from their rifles. The man just to my left clutches his shoulder and falls to the ground. I hold my camera behind my back and snap photos blindly as I dash behind an olive tree.
A small group of journalists, standing off to the side, is in the path of the advancing Israeli troops. They are quickly dispersed by a flurry of tear gas grenades, fleeing back down the hill. As they run past us, one of them vomits. A concussion grenade explodes nearby us, and my organs rattle inside my rib cage. The journalist vomits again. My wife pulls out an onion, smashes it against a rock, and hands it to him.
He shakes his head, wiping his mouth with a sleeve. ”Onions only worked in the first intifada,” he says, with an accent that sounds oddly Midwestern. “Then they got smart, made new stuff.”
“The new stuff” is working. Men and boys are running back down the hill, trapped between the slow-moving pincers of the Israeli troops. Covered in body armor and armed with weapons usually seen on the battlefield, they overwhelm the Palestinian villagers with sheer firepower. A few scrawny boys, scarves wrapped tight around their mouths to keep out the worst of the tear gas, half-heartedly launch a few small stones in the direction of the troops. None of the stones lands within 20 feet of a soldier.
And then I start laughing, because for fuck’s sake, what if one actually hit a guy? Just imagine that a four-ounce stone, traveling at roughly the speed of a slo-pitch softball toss, managed to hit an Israeli soldier square in the forehead? Well, if he weren’t wearing a helmet, then perhaps that could leave a small bump!
But of course, all the Israeli soldiers are wearing helmets, and none of their personal safeties are remotely threatened at any point during the protest. They have guns, unlike their counterparts, and chemical weapons and armored cars. They have been trained to kill people with their bare hands, and to view Palestinians as subhumans. One phone call, and they could have the entire village blown up by missiles.
The only real reason they don’t make that call is because it would not be hasbarable if someone found out about it. Someone like us, anyway—someone who isn’t Palestinian, someone whose credibility isn’t impaired due to Arabness. There’s always a chance that some English-speaking westerner might be around to create a PR nightmare. That’s why we’re here, running around like idiots with a camera and a bag full of useless onions, hoping that just by being present we might somehow keep a Palestinian family from losing their loved one.
In all likelihood, it wouldn’t matter. Being a white foreigner didn’t save Kristin Foss, who was shot in the stomach while attending a protest, and it certainly didn’t save Rachel Corrie, who was literally run over by a bulldozer in broad daylight in front of multiple eyewitnesses. It does make a twisted kind of sense. If the Israeli hasbara machine can erase the existence of millions of Palestinians, then covering up the demise of a few nosy westerners is little more than something to keep the intern busy.
The soldiers don’t care who their bullets hit. They’re simply doing their jobs, laying down suppressing fire from multiple angles, forcing the Palestinian villagers into their desired zones like dolphins chasing fish into a ball. I imagine they will all get excellent marks on their performance reviews, especially the son of a bitch who fires the tear gas canister that ricochets off a rock and goes whistling past my wife’s head at 100 miles per hour.
Now we too start running down the hill. Unlike the boys who kick up clouds of dust ahead of us, stopping now and then to make rude gestures at the soldiers, we make no pretense of bravery. Tumbling down the rocks, we race toward … well, we’re not quite sure what, since we have no ride back to Ramallah, but the soldiers are firing more and more tear gas.
When we reach the bottom of the hill, a small convoy of cars is pulling out of a clearing. Each one is loaded down with at least eight men. Some roll past us in silence, while others burst with a chorus of “hello!” as they head back to their villages.
Suddenly, we’re surrounded by a pack of teenagers. Instinctually, we start walking behind the cars, trying to keep up — nobody likes being surrounded by teenagers. Some of them are wearing masks, some of them have hard eyes. They are village boys, and none of them speak much English.
But they try. They ask us, “Where from?” They tussle for the right to take the first selfies with us. They whistle at my tattoos (whether in admiration or astonishment that anyone could be so stupid, I’m not sure), and they ask us, “You Islam?” When we pretend not to understand, they clasp their hands together and point to the sky, saying, “Allah?”
When we smile the most nervous smiles of our entire lives, they laugh and drop the subject.
Night has fallen by the time we reach the road. Millions of stars sparkle above the desert, illuminating the thin ribbon of asphalt that leads back to Ramallah. We stand there for five minutes before the first car goes by. “Wen taxi?” I ask one of the boys. He is absolutely correct to look at me like I’m the world’s dumbest idiot — of course there are no taxis out here.
There is the occasional handyman’s van, however, and when one of them wheezes around the corner, the boys begin to leap up and down, shouting and waving their arms. The driver rolls down his windows and five boys begin shouting at once (I catch the word “Ramallah” again and again). Whatever they say appears to work, and the driver opens the door for us. One of the boys asks us for a selfie before we drive away.
We set off down the road, past the settlements that loom atop the hills. I want to tell the handyman how grateful we are, but sadly he speaks “only” Arabic and Hebrew and I can speak neither, so all I can say is shukran over and over until he pulls into a gas station, points at a parked taxi, and says, “Ramallah.” We exit the old vehicle and enter the new one, borne along by the goodwill of Palestinian strangers.
The taxi driver, as it turns out, does speak English. He’s from a village just outside Ramallah, and this is his last run of the night. When he gets home, he’s looking forward to a big meal. “If I late, wife very angry,” he says, chuckling as he looks into the rear-view mirror. “And you, marry?” We say yes, and I can’t resist pointing at my former fiancée and saying, “My wife!”
A smile comes over the taxi driver’s face, and he pulls out his phone. “My wife,” he says, showing us a picture of a woman in a dark hijab. We tell him that she’s very beautiful. He flips to another picture. This one is of a different woman. “And my two wife,” says the taxi driver.
For a moment, we don’t know how to respond. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. I mumble something about hoping they are happy, which I’m fairly certain the taxi driver doesn’t understand. But before long we’re back at Abdullah’s house, safe and free and soon-to-be drunk. As we get out of the taxi, the driver says, “Welcome to Palestine.”
This article was originally published in the January – February issue of Current Affairs.
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