“If I got the chance, I would kill him.”
Mahameed spoke quite matter-of-factly. We were sitting on a small wall, enjoying a lovely view of the big wall. Twilight was descending, and the sun’s dying rays lingered on the watchtower to our left. Looking out from its window, facing us, was a soldier.
“He’s about your age,” I said quietly.
“That doesn’t matter to them. Sometimes they come into camp and take boys who are eleven, twelve. They arrest them in the night. They do not care about the age.”
Mahameed is a seventeen-year-old boy living in a refugee camp near Hebron. I looked at him with a kind of awkward sympathy. Life in the camp provides a thorough education in occupation’s brutality; he experiences from the inside the things I witness from the outside, but can never fully know. I am cushioned from the reality by my passport and my plane ticket. If I wanted to, I could be out of here tomorrow. If I chose to, I could cut the queue at the machsom by using the passage marked ‘Tourist/Humanitarian Lane’, bypassing the tightly packed crowd of Palestinians who have been wedged behind bars for hours. I have only ever done that once (and won’t ever do it again – Palestinians reading this, please forgive me) but I know that the option is there. Because I’m not Palestinian. I might be living under occupation, but I’m not occupied. And so I feel uneasy when I meet Palestinians who advocate violence against the army, because how can I tell them about how they can and can’t resist?
I wasn’t a pacifist before I came here. My gradual rejection of the idea of a just war came through the influence of my Palestinian colleagues at the centre, for whom non-violence is more of a way of life than a political strategy. During one women’s group meeting that I attended, we talked about a quotation from Martin Luther King: “It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence. The choice is between non-violence and non-existence.” I sat silently and listened as women who were to become close friends described how they saw violence as a corrosive that eats away at their dignity. Eventually one woman burst out, “But how do we take this to our neighbours, the people who do believe in violence as resistance, who voted Hamas?” One of the suggestions that the other women gave was just to listen.
“I didn’t mean to suggest that he’s innocent,” I said to Mahameed, my gaze returning to the watchtower. “I was just wondering if you see him as anything like you. After all, if you had been brought up in Israel as a Jewish kid, you would be due to start your military service next year.”
“No,” Mahameed spoke definitely. “I wouldn’t go.”
“Can you be sure about that? If you had never seen your camp, if you had been raised in some Israeli town…”
He smiled slightly. “I still wouldn’t go. I am sure.”
I waited for him to continue. He was quiet for a few seconds. Then, “There are people in Israel who do not go to the army.”
“They are good. I know about them even though I’ve never seen them. If I lived in Israel I would hear about them, yes? So I would be one of them too. I would not go.”
It’s not that easy, I wanted to say, but I stopped myself. I am in no position to be telling him what’s easy and what isn’t.
Mahameed continued, “They come to our school and sit in the playground, to provoke us. They want the boys to come out and throw stones, then they can shoot the tear gas. Sometimes they shoot it into the school through the windows. The teachers try to keep us in the classroom even when there is gas. They don’t want trouble. But as soon as we see the soldiers on the football ground, we chase them.”
I had a sudden memory of what a soldier in Hebron once told me. “We’re so fucking bored. It’s pointless being here.” I asked Mahameed, “Why do you think they act like that?”
Mahameed shrugged. “They like to harm us and to confuse us. They come to the camp and play football with the small children. On another day they go to the school with tear gas. They try to look good, but inside they aren’t.”
“Some of them have told me that they get very bored and stressed in Hebron. Do you think it could just be that they’re looking for something to do?”
Mahameed looked blank, so I repeated the question in Arabic. He stared down at his feet for a long time. He seemed to be considering it, and I did not want to rush him. We sat silently on the wall. It was growing dark; the soldier’s face was no longer visible. Now we could only see his shadow.
Several minutes later, “Supposing you could kill that guy in the tower, why would you do it? What good would it do?”
“It would make the soldiers afraid from us,” he said.
“Mahameed, I think they’re already afraid of you.”
“Yes. I know. Sometimes in camp, if there are just a few of them and many of us, they run away. They don’t like it. We need to get them away. When they are afraid, they leave us alone.”
“Is that what you want the most from them? To leave you alone?”
“Do they frighten you?”
“No,” vehemently. “They can’t make me be like that. Listen to me. You must never be afraid from them. If they get you afraid, they will make you into a spier for them. You have to be brave, to keep looking at them straight in their faces, then they will know that they can’t get you. Even if they put you in the prison, they can’t get you. Then they leave you alone.”
“You wouldn’t want to kill that dude if he was leaving you alone instead of standing there staring at us?”
Mahameed looked at me, laughed slightly, and held out his hand. “I promise you I won’t hurt the soldiers.”
We shook on that. “No stones?” I asked, mock-severely. He grinned. “Just small ones.”
I wanted to know his opinion on Israelis who aren’t currently in the army. I did not expect it to be favourable, as pretty much everyone has served in the military at some point. My expectation must have been apparent to Mahameed, because he said emphatically, “No, it is just the soldiers I hate. The others are OK. We can be friends with them. I have ten or twelve Israeli friends.”
“But most people serve,” I pointed out.
“They are OK,” Mahameed repeated. I was beginning to notice that he had a tendency to compartmentalise people: to him soldiers are a species all of their own. Once an Israeli hangs up military uniform, the years he or she spent in that uniform vanish; the ex-soldier becomes just another person. I have witnessed this tendency in many people here. The process of splitting is the only way to make sense of somebody who is playing football with your little brother one minute and tear-gassing you the next. It’s also a bulwark against hatred, albeit a malformed one. Mahameed is angry, and with good reason; but in his own way he is trying not to let the anger become indiscriminate.
“There is an Israeli woman living near us,” he told me. “She is married to a Palestinian man. She has two sons. She wants them to be in the IDF.”
“I do not know why,” he said, looking as perplexed as I felt. This must have shaken up his mental filing system. It had certainly shaken up mine. No doubt attempting to restore some kind of order to his brain, he added, “She is a Muslim woman, but maybe she is only saying this and really she is bad.”
Privately I suspected that it wasn’t as simple as that, but I let it be. “Your friends in Israel, are they your age?” I asked him.
“Mostly. Some are younger by one or two years.”
“Will they be in the army?”
“Yes. I tell them to be kind.”
“You don’t tell them to refuse?”
“No. I think they should go the army but be kind.”
This didn’t seem to fit with what he had been saying earlier. I pressed him on this, but I don’t think he understood what I was asking. He just kept repeating, “They need to act kindly.”
“How did you meet them?” I asked curiously. “Did they come to Hebron?”
“No, they are never in Hebron.” He laughed at the thought.
“Oh, so you had a permit to go to Jerusalem?”
Mahameed grinned. “No permit. I climb over the fence. You can sneak past the soldiers. Sometimes we even climb the wall. I met my friends with the Facebook. It’s good for that. I tell them, when they are in the army, keep away from the camp. But after, if they ever come back, we can play football.”