“How is it that they show up whenever you’re here?” I asked Nadav in considerable irritation.
I had opened the front door to find that a blue metal barrier and two occupation soldiers had sprung up like mushrooms overnight. (Sadly not the edible kind.) They were blocking the mouth of our street. The wall surrounds us and the only way to get into Bethlehem lay past them. And I was going to have to walk past them with an illegal Israeli, which is not the ideal accessory to have about your person when confronted with an unexpected military roadblock.
“I don’t know,” Nadav said meekly. “Maybe they know about me.”
“They don’t, and if either of them asks, you are a British tourist named Eric. Don’t show them ID. Follow me.”
This is Area A, a place officially outside military jurisdiction, from which Israeli citizens are barred by Israeli law. The army likes to put in an appearance from time to time in what it refers to as ‘demonstration of presence’, presumably in case the wall and the watchtowers and the checkpoints aren’t an adequate enough reminder. They must think that this neighbourhood is suffering from collective amnesia. As Nadav and I approached the barrier, one soldier held out his hand for my passport. “Boker tov. Le’an atem holkhim?”
I was rattled. He knows Israelis don’t come here, and why would tourists understand Hebrew? I concealed my unease behind a smile of non-comprehension, and ignoring his outstretched hand, began to edge my way round the barrier. “Good morning to you!”
He switched to English. “Where are you going?”
“To church,” I said firmly, mentally adding, To pray for you and your comrade here to clear out and lead a better life than you are now.
“The one by the checkpoint.”
He thought about this for a moment, then nodded and gave us permission to pass with a sharp jerk of the thumb. The other soldier said nothing, but stared after us as we left. Ahead, I could see cars slowly backing up and turning around as they realised that the street was blocked. I knew that elsewhere in the West Bank on this same morning there would be people who couldn’t go to work, get to school. Fortunately the positioning of this particular roadblock wasn’t too inconvenient; there is another way round that is quite short.
“It’s not as bad as Hebron,” Nadav commented, once we were out of earshot.
“No. Thank goodness.”
We had gone to Hebron the day before. I wanted to visit the Women in Hebron embroidery co-operative to find some birthday presents for friends in England and to ask the women there a few questions for a paper I’m writing on women’s responses to militarism. The Old City was all shades of mud and rain. (Nadav, in sandals and a T-shirt, turned an interesting shade of hypothermic blue within two minutes of leaving the house.) Near the bus station, carts selling falafel, fries, and corn on the cob emitted clouds of warm steam into the damp air. Aggressive yellow taxis came barreling down the street, scattering pedestrians. There were the usual stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables, adding a splash of colour to the day, and the vendors with their clamour giving a cheerful texture to the winter air. But as we went deeper into the Old City the colours faded into the drab greens and creams of rusting window shutters, and the market was entirely without sound except for the drip-drip-drip of rainwater from the awnings. Then we came to a square, and there was olive green and khaki everywhere. How many of them? I couldn’t count and I couldn’t tell what they were doing, just standing motionless in the square like that, line after line of them, clutching their guns and staring at a near-empty street.
“That always intimidates me,” I muttered once we had gone by, half to Nadav, half to myself. “When they stand there like that, not doing anything. I feel like a salmon swimming past a barracuda shoal.”
“Don’t worry. They intimidate me as well.”
I was surprised. “What for?”
“Well, look at them!”
“But you were one of them. Why should you be afraid of what you were?”
“I was never one of them like that.”
The WiH store was open. Laila was the only member of the co-operative there, and she was busily making jewellery, but as soon as we appeared she fished under her table for a kettle and sent a passing teenage boy off with instructions to make us some tea. I eyed the kettle nervously as it left. Nadav doesn’t drink tea or coffee. Nor does he eat hummus. Nor does he consume anything else that Palestinians like to serve. This causes far more problems for him than his Israeli-ness. When he came to my workplace last year, my boss was just about able to get past the fact that I had brought an off-duty soldier into her office. She could not get past his refusal to eat or drink anything. Their hesitant conversation was punctuated by the occasional strained exclamation from her: “You’re not drinking!” In the end I grabbed his cup while her back was turned and downed the contents in a diplomatic effort to salvage the situation. I hoped I was not going to have to do the same here. I glared at him and tried to telegraph with my eyebrows, You will drink your tea.
“Nawal is not here today,” Laila told us, “only me, but I can answer your questions.” Settling herself more comfortably in her chair, gave us the history of the co-operative.
It began with her sister Nawal needing a way to support her family and maintain her own financial independence, before evolving into a means of cultural resistance. “Culture is resistance. We have to keep the culture alive.” Nawal began to sell embroidery that she had made in her free time. “At first Nawal was selling it in the street, but then one day some policemen of the PA came and saw her, and they said, ‘Why don’t you get a shop?’. So they got us the shop. It was easy to get the shop at this time because it was the Intifada and the whole market was closed. No people were coming here to work. It was a hard time. But she made the shop and then other women came to work with her.”
Nawal and Laila are the only female shop owners in the Old City. In an interview she gave last year, Nawal explained the problems that come with their status: “Many times we faced hostility, me and Laila, we are suffering a lot. Every day, especially from men and from women also. From Palestinians, I’m sorry to say but this is always the case, because we are the only women here. First, the young shebab [youth], and men especially if they see internationals with us…”
Now the pair and their enterprise seem to have acquired a few allies amongst the youth. The teenage boy Laila had sent off for our tea returned with brimming plastic cups, setting them down carefully next to a basket overflowing with wallets that were all embroidered with, Men can do something. Women can do anything. “And men can do anything,” the boy said indignantly when he saw where my gaze was. Laila smiled indulgently and swatted him away. Then another teenager came down the alleyway, half-jogging, half-shuffling. The jog suggested that something urgent was happening, the shuffle that he was too much of a teenager to bother with it. “Mustawtinin,” he said to Laila. Monosyllabic like so many adolescents. He took some tea.
Laila looked at me. “Now they come,” she said.
Each Saturday the settlers and their supporters take a tour of the Old City, conducted under heavy IDF guard, designed to help strengthen the sense of Jewish connection to the place. I have seen these tours before. The worst I have witnessed personally was a soldier using his rifle to prod a little girl out of his path. But worse happens. One ex-soldier, testifying with Breaking the Silence, described such a tour:
That morning, a fairly big group arrived in Hebron, around 15 people or so, of Jews from France…They were in a good mood, really having a great time, and I spent my entire shift following this gang around and trying to keep them from destroying the town. In other words, this is what they were busy doing for hours. They just wandered around, picked up every stone they saw, and started throwing them in Arabs’ windows, and overturning whatever they came across…And there’s no horror story here, they didn’t catch some Arab and kill him or anything like that, but what bothered me about this story is that along came a gang of people from France…maybe someone told them that there’s a place in the world where you can just, I don’t know…that a Jew can take all of his rage out on the Arab people, and simply do anything, do whatever he wants. To come to a Palestinian town, and do what ever he wants, and the soldiers will always be there to back him up. Because that was actually my job.
Laila and Nawal have experienced hostility from settlers. Nawal was spat on. “They spat on her face and tried to destroy her stuff. Took the embroidery, threw it in the street.” One of them was presented with a large photograph of Baruch Goldstein, the man who killed twenty-eight Palestinians in Ibrahimi Mosque, and informed, “This is your king.” The alleyway was filled with the sound of dozens of tramping feet. All of a sudden I was aware of just how exposed the shop is. There is no glass and no door; it’s just an alcove opening right on to that narrow street. Laila leaned back and folded her hands in her lap, her lips moving. Then the first soldier appeared. He took up his position right next to Laila, his gun barrel inches from her head. Shepherded by more soldiers, the settlers and their visitors began to pass. Another soldier moved along to take the place of the first. Then a third. And a fourth. It was as if they were running a relay race in slow-motion, only the baton was a rifle. The settlers must not be left exposed to any violence that might erupt from the Women in Hebron co-operative shop. Perhaps they thought that Laila might leap out and attempt to strangle someone with a skein of thread. The fifth soldier’s weapon brushed against her cheek.
“Why do you put your gun in my face?” she enquired in indignant English, attempting and failing to push herself further back. (There was no room.) “Do you want to aggress to me?”
Silence from him. The settlers continued to file by. Some of them looked at us. I caught the gaze of a young girl, no more than ten. She had on a bubblegum-pink coat. It seemed out of place against the backdrop of khaki.
“Move your gun from my face!”
“Hey, hey, stop shouting.” The officer had arrived, taking the position of the soldier. He moved with the easy insolent grace of a panther. “Everything’s going to be OK,” he said soothingly to Laila, in the manner of a parent to a fractious child. His own gun was again millimetres from her nose.
“I am not shouting, I am having a conversation.”
I don’t know how long it took for them to pass. It can’t have been more than a few minutes, but it felt like an hour. Nadav was standing next to me, staring at them. I wondered at the time why he was doing that (forgetting that this was the first time in his life he had seen this, and he was probably a bit shocked). Didn’t he realise that staring might antagonise the army? That he might draw attention to himself? Sit down and look at the floor! I told him telepathically. He didn’t. But then they were gone and we could once again hear only the rain.
“Do they scare you when they do that?” I asked Laila. “The soldiers?”
“No. It is good that they are here. Otherwise those settlers would eat us,” and she laughed ruefully, hugging her shawl round her body.
“You should not be afraid from them,” one of the teenagers reassured me. “They are like dogs.”
“We are Arabs. God is with us,” the other added.
“God is with everyone,” I said quietly. The boy shrugged.
“You could tell from their faces which of them don’t want to be here and which of them are loving it,” Nadav said suddenly. “That first guy who came, he hates it here, but that officer – “
“They all want to be here!” one of the teenagers exclaimed. “All of them! This is how they are! This is what they do!”
Silence. Sound of rain. Then, “I’d like to buy one of these,” Nadav said, touching a stack of kuffiyehs in a rainbow of colours.