They came in to the hotel, lead by a man who appeared very much as a rabbi, but with a handgun. They came in groups and all had guns. They couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. Baby faced and exhausted, they marched up the stairs in drab olive uniforms. Boys, some girls. Their presence was daunting– the sight of IDF soldiers in the arab-dominated East Jerusalem was jolting enough, their automatic weapons only added to the intimidation.
They sat around me, some still in uniform, others in plain white t-shirts, gym shorts and flip flops. They had family in America, most from New York. They asked what we were doing here, and why we were staying in an Arab neighborhood. I paused, slightly jarred by the phrasing of the question, and one of my peers answered. She told them the truth– that we were studying geopolitical conflict, and I watched as they shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They wanted to know why we went to the West Bank, as if the mere attempt to reach out to the “other” was useless. I saw where this was going, and (somewhat abruptly, I’ll admit) cut in. I told them all about Israel’s water problem, and how it was influencing the region around them. I told them we’ve come to study what people are doing to influence policy, and examine the effects of current policy on the low-income population, which includes Palestinians. To this, I received a bunch of blank stares as a response. We have a water crisis? they asked. End of discussion.
The conversation quickly shifted to things i have little knowledge of (and quite frankly, little interest in). Guns, military strategy, training, branches of the army. As the conversation drew on, their rhetoric became more relaxed, and they began making comments about the neighborhood in which our hotel is situated, their opinions of Palestinians and their disregard for the arabic language. The comments were a bit too graphic to repeat, and I was extremely uncomfortable, not knowing what to do or say. Part of me wanted to fight them, knock them out and steal their guns. Part of me wanted to hold up a mirror, repeat the words back to them so maybe they could hear them more clearly and see their blind hatred. But I was frozen silent, not knowing how to proceed in the face of such indoctrinated hate.
After a while, I politely excused myself after a while and went to see my professor. They look like scared little boys with big guns, I told him, but they are heartless. He said, I wish you could follow them tomorrow and see what they do.
We sat and talked a while about what I had heard. For a war that people so often point to as having religious motivation, there is no God here. There was no God in their words and deeds. They wore kippahs on their heads, silver stars around their necks and wouldn’t look at a computer after midnight on a Friday. I could not balance the symbols of a beautiful peaceful religion with these words and instruments of hatred. This imbalance occurs on both directions of the conflict, and it never fails to catch me off guard.(That very morning, symbols of Islam- a religion I respect so much- juxtaposed with words of revenge jolted me into similar sadness). Earlier that day we had visited the Tomb of Abraham, and all I could think about is that we are fighting our brothers. Family is killing family. Perhaps when Jesus wept while over looking the city of Jerusalem, mere steps from where we were sitting, one of those tears was for the future of this land, for what he knew it would become.
There was a knock at the door. An IDF soldier I was talking to had figured out where I was, and wanted to talk some more. For fear he would attempt to enter the room where my professor and I were talking (thus making a very uncomfortable encounter between an IDF soldier and a Palestinian environmental/conflict researcher), I quickly shut the door and suggested we move to the lobby. As we walked to the lobby, he asked for more details about the water conflict. I referenced article 40 of the Oslo accords, told him about the Dead Sea crisis and the impending security problems a lack of water in this region could trigger. I continued for a while, hoping that if I kept talking he would become bored and decide to go elsewhere. The fact that our personal views on the conflict were at extreme odds did not help my nerves.
But then he did something that changed the game entirely. He interrupted my ramblings. He looked at me directly and said, slightly urgently “What can we do to fix the situation?” And he actually sounded concerned. Honestly, I don’t know why this shocked me so much. I had merely assumed he wouldn’t have an interest in the details. Why should he care anyway? It’s affecting the Arab nations the most right now. The Palestinians are the ones who have no clean water (or water at all) right now. But there it was: The humanity. There he was, finally, not a soldier, not a Zionist, but just another kid. Just like some boy who could’ve grown up next door to me. In some messed up alternate universe, he could’ve been me. If it wasn’t for the gun slung around his shoulder, I would’ve forgotten who I was talking to.
I told him about the options that are in the research stage right now. I explained the pros and cons of each proposal, and then laughed uncomfortably and said “I’m not here to solve this. Only your government can do that. I’m just an outsider.” After a moment of silence, he said “You really care about this, don’t you? ” I nodded, looking away uncomfortably “I hope you come back and help us sort this out. We could use some help.”