On one of our first nights in the Paradise hotel in Bethlehem, I sped through dinner because my old friends Imad and Anan were waiting for me in the lobby. Over the ten years since we’d met, we managed to remain in contact online, but the last time I saw them was when we were all just beginning high school. Anan and Imad were my introduction to the so called “conflict” in the holy land. Anan slept on my top bunk during his visit, and I spent more than a week with the two of them in Old Lyme, East Lyme, and New York City. The trip was spent hanging out and doing fun summer activities. Political issues were secondary. They were only present when they shouldered their way in.
The first time this happened was when a group of us were playing croquet in our backyard. Anan, Imad, and I were particularly thrilled by this game, though probably less by the strategy and precision and more by the prospect of getting to whack opponent’s balls into distant hedges with giant mallets. It was 9 or 10pm, and my parents left the car running, angled into the backyard with headlights on so we could continue a game that had been interrupted a few hours prior by some scheduled group activity. It was a few days after July 4th, and for some reason backyard festivities in my beach town trail Independence day for about a month. Being used to it, I didn’t even jump at the “pop - pop- BANG” of a neighbor’s fireworks, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Anan and Imad drop their clubs and hit the ground. Loud noises meant something different in the holy land during the second intifada.
I don’t know if it was before or after this that I learned why Imad had a scar over his eye, but neither story is complete in my memory without the other. A few years prior to his visit to the US, when he was around 12 years old, he had been standing on his deck. A soldier shouted at him and then fired a shot that grazed his head and struck the wall of his home. I think what I had the hardest time understanding was how the two of us were so similar in the face of such wildly different life experiences.
Last week in the Bethlehem hotel, I rushed out and sat in the bar area across from Anan and Imad, seeing them for the first time in ten years. Imad still has the scar over his eye but has grown about a foot, graduated with a degree in computer science, and has a fiancé. Anan now had a stubbly beard, black framed glasses similar to my own, and is preparing to graduate Birzeit University with a degree in civil engineering in May. We started catching up on things we’d left to the side in conversations online. For about five minutes we talked about Anan’s college, Imad’s fiancé, and my photography. Then my tongue started to go numb as tear gas seeped into the lobby. Politics were forcing their way into our relationship again.
I felt that I had to see what was happening, and Anan and Imad wouldn’t let me go alone. Three streets away, just a mile from the church that stands on the site of Jesus’s birth, a handful of children from a refugee camp had started throwing rocks at a guard tower that is part of the “Separation Wall.” I had to leave Anan and Imad around the corner - having their faces seen or photographed near the protest would have been dangerous for them.
I rounded the corner and came face to face with two other photographers, one a woman with an Italian accent, the other an American man with his nose and mouth covered by a keffiyeh to protect from the oppressive teargas. We were about 20 feet from six fully armored and armed Israeli military personnel. When the rocks started, the soldiers had raised what amounts to a giant garage door in the wall and came out firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Just yards from me, I watched as a soldier with an m16 rifle knelt and fired rubber bullets at a dozen kids a few hundred yards down the street. Flanking him were two soldiers with m16s trained on the kids, ready but not firing. I was close enough to see that the spare magazines taped to their guns were filled with real bullets. The young protesters were looking down the barrels of loaded military rifles.
I asked the Italian woman if they’d fire on me if I crossed to the other side to photograph kids. She said “probably, no. Sometimes they don’t like us, but tonight it’s fine.”
I walked past the soldiers towards the children, uncomfortably conscious that the tear gas grenade launcher and rifles were no longer aimed away from me. As I imagined the weapons with live ammo trained on my back, a sharp “bang” shot actual fear into my heart for the first time. Then the tear gas cannister flew past me and I reaffirmed “I am not their target.” Ahead of me two tires burned in the road while a few guys about my age stoked them, and past that were kids in their pre-teens. Everyone I trained the camera on gestured wildly that I stop. Without common language, I couldn’t communicate that I wasn’t an Israeli information gatherer. Finally by gesturing that they should cover their faces to protect their identities, I was able to capture some photos.
The thought that I’d arrived too late wasn’t true. In fact, even though I left after the soldiers walked back to their side of the gate, the real action was still coming. In the early morning hours after the protest, Israeli soldiers illegally entered Bethlehem, took two of those protesters from their homes, and brought them into Israel for military incarceration and trial. Following news in the area, within the week I read that there were several other raids including one where an unnamed female Italian photographer was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. This all happened on the Palestinian side of the wall, in an area supposedly under Palestinian authority.
Before my visit, the issue was complex in my mind. After the visit, all I could think about were the kids taken from their homes by soldiers from another country, one they have no electoral representation in. I thought about how Anan and Imad have to apply to go to their Christian holy places in Jerusalem, and how they need Israeli permission to enter or leave their country even to go somewhere other than Israel. Anan and his father were stopped from leaving the last time they tried to come to the US to sell olive wood carvings. They were not given a reason and there is no avenue of recourse. Anan’s father’s business is now entirely mail-order.
Calling Palestine a prison is no longer a metaphor. It has the wall, it has the guard towers. I had to ask Israelis permission to enter, and at any time they can ban me just by citing “security.” In the name of security, there is no democracy. There is no freedom of assembly, free speech, freedom of the press, or the right to own property.
During the trip, there was a lot of criticism that the Tree of Life was biased, and that it wasn’t showing both sides. I truly hope we can get to the point where this is a two-sided issue. But it’s not. There is no bias in showing human rights abuses. We have no responsibility to elevate the voice of the government that prosecutes millions for the crimes of a few thousand.
Unfortunately, it is not yet time for peace talks. We can’t go to Israel, a country whose military is funded by us, and ask Palestinians to come to the table. We can’t use their basic rights as a bargaining chip, and pretend that it’s fair to ask them to give up anything to get them back. That’s not a negotiation, that’s blackmail. It’s our responsibility to end the occupation so that two independent nations can start an authentic discussion.