“Four days in Ramallah through the lens of dehumanization” – remembering Anthony Shadid

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr
NY Times correspondent Shadid
Anthony Shadid

I didn’t know Anthony Shadid personally, but I respected his writing. His last story for the NYT, on militias running amok in Libya, was perhaps the best one I’d read about the country’s internal conflict since it began in 2011. It reminded readers – well, those few who care to recall Libya – that “interventions” do not end when the last bomber flies back to base, whether we’re claiming “mission accomplished” in the name of neoconservatism or the “responsibility to protect.”

His dispatches from Iraq stand out as some of the greatest condemnations of our criminal behavior towards the Iraqi people, criminal behavior that so far almost no one, not those who used their uniforms as cover to murder, rape and torture Iraqis, nor the officials who misled us into the war, nor the liars in the mainstream media and intelligence community who presented falsehood as fact, have been held accountable for. But as much as Iraq disillusioned him, the “Arab Spring” gave him hope that yes, democracy could come forth after the Occupation of Iraq in spite of American bayonets and decades of craven pandering by Washington to dictators of the secular and Islamist varieties.

Shadid’s Iraq stories reminded us of the human cost of war. Shadid was an astute observer, a quality that is becoming all too rare today.

Shadid also saw the Second Intifada up close (and took a bullet to the shoulder for it, though that wouldn’t be last scrape with violence in his line of work; last year he and his colleagues were arrested by the Libyan authorities – their local driver died of injuries from the abuse meted out to them). He described the conflict as one where “to a miserable degree, civilians are combatant.”

His loss is made all the more tragic by the fact that just when the world needs good, honest reporting from Syria as the country spirals into a civil between the Syrian regime and a growing insurgency – another war where “to a miserable degree, civilians are combatants” – he is not there to deliver it. just republished Shadid’s four day account of his journey through the West Bank in the spring of 2002, where he observed firsthand the despair, desperation and hatred on both sides of that conflict, whose only lasting results have been to add to the body count on both sides and enable the settlement enterprise to proceed apace.

It’s worth quoting it at length; there’s no better way to mark Shadid’s career than letting his words speak for him:

A lot can be learned about the pain and punishment wrought by the Israeli-Palestinian war by looking at the arms with which it is fought.

When I first visited the Middle East in 1988 as a student journalist spending a summer in Jerusalem, I landed in the middle of the intifadah, the Arabic name for the Palestinian uprising that had begun a year earlier. The weapons of choice then for Palestinian youths were rocks, slingshots, and, as the conflict wore on, Molotov cocktails. They were little match for the rubber bullets – and sometimes lethal alternatives – employed by Israeli soldiers drafted for duty in the territories they occupied.

When I returned in March, the constellation of those arms had changed. Still underway was an uprising that Palestinians saw as a fight for independence. But the pitch of that battle bore little resemblance to its predecessors. Skirmishes with stones and slingshots had been replaced by guerrilla operations against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, by ambushes of Jewish settlers seen by Palestinians as colonists, and by suicide bombs inside Israel wreaking civilian carnage that was the definition of indiscriminate.

The force of the Israeli response was still disproportionate but far more destructive – Merkava tanks, helicopter gunships, even US-made F-16s, whose fire had made for indelible footage in a Muslim world that sees the war as millennial.

And again arms told the story of the conflict. In 1988, it was the arms of young men that were most remarkable. Throwing rocks can be a rigorous regimen, and along with frequent tragedy came the youthful exuberance of doing something mischievous.

In March, I interviewed Palestinian men of that same generation under the stone porticos of Bethlehem’s labyrinthine Old City. They were older, angrier, and far less exuberant. They dressed in black. And they bore scars. One of the men refused to shake my hand, hiding his arm under his jacket. He was concealing a missing hand and forearm blown off three months earlier by an M-16 rifle that was booby-trapped by Israeli operatives.

This was a far dirtier war.

There was little room for shades of gray. On one side was Israel, a country with overwhelming US support, seized by militancy and desire for revenge over the drumbeat of suicide bombings. On the other side was a vastly outgunned Palestinian people who were in the bleakest, most forlorn mood since the 1967 war began their occupation.

During two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring, I registered traces of that dirty war. But it took four days in Ramallah to grasp it.


The hourly news bulletins on Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV network, spoke to the new war I was covering. Friday, March 29, was my first full day in Ramallah. Before dawn, columns of Israeli tanks, bulldozers, and soldiers rumbled into the hub of a nascent Palestinian state. Along deserted, fog-shrouded streets, the armor headed straight for Yasser Arafat’s headquarters, a hilltop compound known as Moqata’a. But in scenes soon repeated across the West Bank, the city bore the brunt of the invasion.

Electricity was cut, and staccato bursts of gunfire rolled over the olive trees along rocky hills. Tanks parked at intersections, and the roads were plowed with their treads. Palestinian fighters, with blank faces eloquently expressing their fear, huddled at street corners in mismatched camouflage. They awaited a fight they knew they would lose.

The most pitched battle erupted at Arafat’s headquarters, as a bulldozer smashed a hole in the wall of the compound, which sprawls over a city block. Israeli soldiers poured in, forcing Arafat to retreat to a windowless room in a three-story building.

In a daylong saga that occasionally turned surreal, the scene inside was played out hour by hour on Arabic satellite channels like Al-Jazeera. Aides said that Arafat was praying and reading the Koran. At other times, he was said to be giving commands to his fighters. Palestinian television aired a picture showing Arafat seated next to a guard, with a pistol on the table in front of him.

At the start of its broadcasts, Al-Jazeera aired a line that Arafat had delivered earlier in the day. “They want me either a prisoner, in exile, or dead, but I tell them I want to be a martyr,” the 72-year-old Palestinian leader said. Then, with an Arabic flourish, he repeated the word. “A martyr, a martyr, a martyr,” he said.

Those words did not reflect the 1993 Oslo accords that promised to end a half-century of conflict, nor his handshake with the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a White House ceremony presided over by President Bill Clinton. The message recalled Beirut in 1982, when Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defense minister, sent Israeli forces across the northern border in a misguided attempt to destroy Arafat’s headquarters in Beirut and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s state within a state in southern Lebanon.

It was an analogy with which neither side was uncomfortable. Then, as now, Sharon was after “terrorist infrastructure” and could wield the force of one of the world’s mightiest armies to try to eliminate it. Then, as now, Palestinians in overwhelming numbers endorsed armed struggle as the surest path to national liberation, despite the almost cartoonish odds they faced.

My first morning in Ramallah was a throwback. The tanks, the destruction, the irreversible message of invasion that I watched from a hotel window – this was history revisited, like an earlier era of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its arrival obliterated the nuances that had sprung up under Oslo inside both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Both accuse the other of declaring the war that March 29 brought, but neither disagreed that war had begun.

How had it reached that point?

The suicide bombings – a tactic first brought to the region by communists in Lebanon, then picked up with deadly effect by Islamists in the Palestinian territories – had, as Sharon and other Israeli leaders pointed out, transformed their society.

In the week before leaving for Ramallah, I had driven to northern Israel to cover a crowded bus torn apart by a Palestinian with bombs strapped to his body. the next day, I saw the scene repeated in Jerusalem, followed by the horrific carnage of the bombing of a passover seder in the coastal town of netanya.

The bloodshed had a way of blurring the specifics of each tragedy. As a reporter, how many ways can you describe bodies hurled through windows, twisted metal forged by the detonation, and the bomber’s blood splashed across a building’s facade? The very monotony of the attacks made them so horrifying. The less novel they seemed, the more vividly they touched lives that had long been isolated from the brunt of the conflict.

In covering these bombings, it struck me how little distinguished the discourse of both Palestinians and Israelis. Both were dominated by anger, and the anger was dangerous. It fed off a feeling of vulnerability, a thirst for vengeance, and a conviction that no one understands their pain. That discourse of war has laid bare the chauvinism that courses through both societies, and in sentiments alone, both mirror the other in their militancy. It was militancy that I heard after the bombings.

“There is no life with Arabs,” said David Baruch, a hairdresser whose shop is a few minutes from the attack in Jerusalem. “We cannot live with them, and they cannot live with us. We have to throw them out. This is our country. It is a Jewish country.”

“We want war, we want war,” Haim Mizrahi, another Israeli, told me a few minutes later outside his store, which is down the street from the bombing. “It’s war, and we want war.”

That sentiment is the mainstream, for Israelis and Palestinians.

Khalil Shikaki, whose Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research tracks public opinion, has measured Palestinians’ loss of faith in negotiations and subsequent hardening of attitudes during the uprising. If suicide bombings had driven Israelis to the edge, Palestinians have grievances as deeply felt and longer-standing, all of which revolve around the occupation and a fading prospect for its end.

Even before Israel’s reoccupation of Palestinian cities in March and April, nearly nine in 10 Palestinians endorsed violence, including suicide bombings, to oppose it. That contrasted with the two-thirds of Palestinians who had endorsed the peace envisioned by the Oslo agreement when it was signed in September 1993.

Israelis, in turn, welcomed, even demanded, the invasion of Ramallah that in time was repeated in other Palestinian cities. Those demands reached a pitch after the suicide bomber tore apart more than two dozen Israelis in Netanya.

On Friday, hours after that invasion began, I walked near my hotel, trying to interview the scattered Palestinian fighters. The gunfire was too intense. This was not the kind of protest with tear gas so familiar nearly 15 years ago. It was tanks and armored personnel carriers, and the trail they left in Ramallah felt arbitrary – stones of once tidy walls spilling into the street, cars crushed under tank treads, streetlights strewn across intersections to make room for the bulky tanks to negotiate their turns.

A colleague and I ran down the street, groping for the path where we heard fewer shots. We randomly chose a house and knocked on the metal door, rain gathering in a puddle on the porch. With remarkable hospitality, Farida Qaria welcomed us in. She served us Arabic coffee as we huddled with her family around a gas stove to keep warm.

Amid the international outcry over the invasion and Arafat’s imprisonment, amid the calls for a cease-fire and a return to negotiations, Farida’s daughter, Dalia, offered an opinion widely shared in Ramallah that morning. War had begun, and it was a different war. “There is no peace with Jews,” the 22-year-old Christian told me, more matter of fact than angry. “With Sharon, there is no peace.” She paused, then began again. “This war will not end. I don’t think it will ever end.”


The Abu Gharbiyyah family didn’t stay inside Friday, and I heard their story on my second day in Ramallah.

Before dawn, as the invasion began, Murad awoke with his 20-year-old wife and 5-month-old baby and decided to leave town. They never made it. Israeli snipers shot at their gray Renault, killing his wife instantly. Murad was shot twice, and blood poured from his back and shoulder. He grabbed his infant son, fell out of the car, and tried to crawl across the rain-soaked street. He managed only a few yards before he collapsed. His baby tumbled from his arms. As Murad lay unconscious, the infant’s cries punctuated the gunfire that sounded like a jackhammer.

The firing stopped for a moment, and a neighbor ran outside to get the baby. Murad remained in the street. Brothers Amr and Omar Zaloum, who lived nearby, and their cousin Mohammed Zaloum approached Murad, sprawled beside his Renault. “We went to try to help and they started shooting,” 17-year-old Omar told me from his hospital bed.

All three were shot – Amr in his right thigh, right hand, and back, Omar twice in his right forearm, and Mohammed in his abdomen. They lay for hours in the street with Murad waiting for help. It was not until 1 p.m. that ambulances made it past Israeli combatants and took them to the hospital.

When I asked an Israeli military spokesman about the shootings, he did not know of the specific incident. But he assumed they were caught in the crossfire of “fighting terrorism.” “We have no intention of hurting innocent civilians,” the spokesman said. “We’re only looking for terrorists and their infrastructure.”

The four men were listed as wounded – a category that attracts less attention than the dead but whose tally may be no less tragic. Their injuries spoke to a sad fact of the Israeli-Palestinian war: When the conflict is measured in its broad est terms – the suicide bombings in Israel on the one hand, the curfews, the blockades around Palestinian towns, and the grinding details of occupation on the other – civilians are the preeminent target of a conflict that is disproportionately fought in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Both sides have created cultures that make excuses for that fact. In a corollary to the sense that no one understands their pain, both sides dismiss criticism as naive. That goes for the Palestinians’ acceptance of suicide bombings. It goes for the Israelis’ practice of collective punishment that touches virtually every Palestinian life.

The suicide bombing phenomenon particularly struck me – not necessarily for its violence but in how widespread the culture that celebrated it had become. In 1996, I visited the Gaza Strip as a reporter for the Associated Press. It is among the world’s bleakest places. The maze of alleys gives off an oppressive feeling of confinement, suffocation, and seclusion. Those very traits speak to the Palestinian existence, be it under blockade in the West Bank or in refugee camps that stretch to Lebanon and beyond.

In the fetid streets, where poverty mixes explosively with desperation, I found a youth culture of bravado that reminded me of the grittiest side of urban America. It was, I thought then, “gangsta Islam,” in which guns stood as a symbol of resistance and violence was exalted.

During that visit, at a Hamas rally, thousands of young men watched as activists reenacted the kidnapping in 1994 of an Israeli soldier who was later killed in a rescue attempt. In the skit, men disguised as Orthodox Jews and speaking Hebrew with heavy Arabic accents picked up the soldier, Sergeant Nachson Wax man. The crowd cheered when it heard his name. It went wild when the actor portraying him was beaten or cried out for his mother in Hebrew. I doubted they really thought it was funny. In a conflict that had become so personal, so colored by vengeance, I got the sense they felt the only way to get back at Israelis they blamed for their plight was to hurt them emotionally. The sentiment is the refrain of the powerless: Because we hurt, they should hurt, too. And it was a sentiment I now heard voiced not only by Islamists organizing in Gaza but by a broad cross section of Palestinians. That sentiment is new in its breadth and conviction, and it is a vivid window on the anger that grips Palestinian society.

In the West Bank today, there’s a sense that Israel has crossed red lines by sending F-16 fighters against Palestinian cities and by deploying US-built Apache helicopters against fighters armed with rifles. In the mismatch of power, Palestinians in overwhelming numbers see suicide bombings as the one means at their disposal to respond with pain equivalent to what Israelis deliver. The kaleidoscope of graffiti puts it another way: “They have nuclear bombs, we have human bombs.”

The threats of both sides are potentially indiscriminate, and both hold a key to the conflict: To a miserable degree, civilians are combatants. And Palestinians don’t play the game alone.

Debates rage over civilian deaths from Israel’s military operations in the West Bank – were civilians avoided or was their safety disregarded? But there is little question that the less lethal measures of Israel’s crackdown single out civilians. In the 20 months of the uprising, checkpoints imposed around the 3.5 million Palestinians have nearly tripled. They have turned the territories into dozens of besieged cantons, and barred the overwhelming majority of Palestinians from leaving the places where they live.

By any name, it is collective punishment, a variation of which was replayed in the morning of my second day in Ramallah after I left the hospital. Palestinians under curfew peeked out of their doors to complain about dwindling stocks of food or how their water was running out. No one had prepared for a long siege, and no one expected the Israelis to stay. The curfew imposed on them was yet another act in the long-running drama of occupation: power exercised as arbitrarily as the victims it claimed.

“Israel is not fighting the Palestinian authority,” Salah Totah, a 33-year-old Palestinian-American told me, coming out of his door as he saw me walking down a street that was cloaked in silence. “It’s fighting the Palestinian people. They call us the terrorists. But if we’re the terrorists, it was the Israelis who taught us.”

The word “terrorism” has only lately infected the American discourse, inaugurated by September 11. But it has long played prominently in the official pronouncements of the Israeli government – and Palestinians cringe at its use. To them, anyone opposed to Israeli policy becomes a terrorist, and Israeli officials, to their own disservice, make few distinctions in employing the word. Palestinians have their own semantics: Suicide bombings become “operations,” a chillingly neutral term picked up by Arab media.

The linguistic games serve to shield the identity of targets – civilians humiliated by the occupation and slain in its operations are caught in the web of fighting terrorism; Israeli civilians killed in suicide bombings become faceless casualties of the resistance.

The words wash away distinctions. They become a cover and an impetus for waging a war that cares little for contrasts between combatants and noncombatants. The vendettas they inspire become both personal and blind.

Omar Jayouse, a 43-year-old father of three whom I met the second day, was a bit player in the intransigence. Soon after dawn, the soldiers had taken over his home, deeming as strategic its location near Arafat’s headquarters. Their dialogue was an insight into how voracious the conflict had become.

“Are you teaching your kids to kill Israelis?” soldiers asked Jayouse, director of Educational Network, a local teacher-training group funded in part by Save the Children-USA. “Do you hate Israel? Do you like Sharon?”

When he asked what they were doing in his home, they reminded him of the bombing in Netanya. They accused him of raising his children to be bombers. They blamed him for their presence. “The soldiers told me, `We are here because of you,’ ” he recalled. “They want to teach us a lesson. They want us to know that we are not safe.”


I awoke on Sunday with the feelings that grip any reporter covering a breaking story: What have I missed, where should I go, and what’s the best angle for tomorrow’s story? My mood was bleak. I had seen more blood in two days than I had seen in 10 years as a reporter at home and in the Middle East. The images of a day earlier were still racing through my head. They were the snapshots of war: bodies disfigured by the geometry of death, the unreal look of a lifeless face, the horror of jelled blood next to a skull emptied by the blast of a gunshot.

Those images were of five Palestinian policemen who were killed in a gun battle that had lasted more than an hour. The men were holed up in the third floor of a building that housed the Cairo-Amman bank, fleeing advancing Israeli troops. Hours later, I saw them lying in pools of blood, their bodies slumped together against the walls of a small room. One of the men was probably in his 60s, the others were middle-aged or older. Three had been shot in the head at close range – one of them had two bullet wounds to the back of his skull. Blood and bullet holes about 3 feet off the floor lined the walls behind them, the height of someone kneeling. Three paramedics dragged the stiff bodies into an elevator and then loaded them onto an ambulance. They were disgusted by the work and angry at what they thought was murder. “They were shot point-blank,” said Mohammed Awad, a paramedic with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. “This is an execution.”

The Israeli military reacted angrily to the charges. A spokesman told me later that the policemen were killed in an intense exchange of fire at close range. He said two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the gun battle. “It wasn’t an execution,” the spokesman said. “If they hadn’t opened fire, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Whatever the circumstance, the scene chilled me. It was not the deaths themselves in which I saw tragedy. There was too much of that already. Neither was it the possibility that the men had been executed. It was instead something far more banal. Lying in his own blood, one of the policemen had his eyes open, as though he had watched his own passing. The soiled and bloodied black-and-white kaffiyeh that served as his funeral shroud seemed so dismissive. His procession was to be dragged by his boots into an ambulance. His death was wretched, and his face, which reminded me of my grandfather’s, was familiar. For a moment, the union of those two brought humanity to his killing and overwhelmed me. For that brief moment, I saw humanity amid a conflict that thrived on dehumanizing its victims.

I don’t know the truth of the events in the bank building. I suspect we never will. The policemen’s deaths did not compete with the toll of suicide bombs or the carnage of Jenin. They are sure to be overshadowed by the bloodshed ahead. In hindsight, their deaths were no more than portent, foreshadowing what was to come.

I had no car, so that morning I walked with my Palestinian colleague, Said al-Ghazali, across a city shrouded by siege. We went to Ramallah Hospital, witnessing a standoff that seemed a microcosm of my time so far. Soldiers were determined to search for suspects they thought might be hiding inside. Doctors were determined to block their entry, deeming the hospital off-limits. We covered that scene, then moved on. We talked with residents and tried to engage soldiers. We walked to Arafat’s compound.

And then I was shot. It happened in the afternoon, as Said and I were walking back to my hotel through an area that had been in complete control of the Israeli military for days. We both wore flak jackets, and we both had “TV” written prominently with red tape on our backs. We walked in the middle of the street to avoid suspicion. I believe the single bullet was fired by an Israeli soldier, though I never saw him. I believe he thought I was Palestinian. The slug entered my left shoulder, blasted off part of my vertebrae, then exited my right shoulder. Twelve pieces of shrapnel were left in me.

My head filled with the anarchy of emotions and impulses that crisis brings. The lack of rules that drew the boundaries around this conflict struck me as I lay in the street. It was a dirty war, and I was another victim. I was another line crossed – a noncombatant dragged into a conflict not of my making.

I was treated by an Israeli medic, then taken on a stretcher to a Palestinian hospital across the street. I kept asking whether the bullet had hit my spine. “No, no, your spine is OK,” the Palestinian doctor told me. They finished the X-rays, then took me to a recovery room. As I sat on the bed, I heard soldiers enter the facility. Within minutes, two soldiers with guns drawn barged into my room, shouting at me in Hebrew. “Back off,” I yelled angrily. “I’m an American journalist.” They answered in English: “Get your hands up.” I limply lifted my hands, my shoulders immobile from bandages.

In the rest of the hospital, the war went on. Soldiers shouted as they went room to room. Doctors and staff were corralled in an office. Patients lay alone in their beds. Outside my door, soldiers lined up suspects along the hallway, young Palestinian men whose wrists were bound by plastic handcuffs, their heads leaning against the wall. Doctors loudly protested the violation, and in the end, all were released.

Later in the evening, I talked with the Israeli officer in charge. I told him I believed an Israeli soldier had shot me. He answered calmly, even warmly. “If we shot you, I apologize on behalf of the army,” he said. “But” – he shrugged his shoulders – “you know you were in a war zone.” That made sense to me on my third day in Ramallah. I was in the zone of a very nasty conflict, one with few rules and one with even fewer boundaries. My shooting was as telling as the scene that followed in the hospital – no one, not doctors, nor journalists, was off-limits. As in Israel, with the carnage that suicide bombings claimed, victims were indiscriminate.

After midnight, I was wheeled into a room on the floor below. There was another bed next to me. In it lay Carlos Handal, a Palestinian cameraman for Nile TV, who had been shot in the neck by Israeli soldiers on the first day of the invasion. Al-Jazeera was on the television overhead. The station was still in the mode of reporting a war, recapping breathlessly the day’s events. The newscaster mentioned my wounding that day and referred to Handal’s earlier shooting. We watched without saying a word.


I awoke to a day of negotiations that would make any Levantine proud. The Globe’s Middle East bureau chief, Charles A. Radin, was on the telephone, speaking with the army and with colleagues and others offering aid. We were trying to persuade soldiers to escort me and my colleague, Said, to the checkpoint at the edge of town. From there, Said would go home, and I would go to a hospital in Jerusalem. The calls were hectic, the signals changing. At one point, the US consulate asked me if I would go alone. I said no, feeling somewhat embarrassed at being inflexible but knowing that Said could be stranded for weeks if I didn’t insist that he accompany me. An hour or so later, a few more calls behind us, we had our OK from the Israeli military.

I was leaving, a departure tinged with guilt. One doctor, I thought, was insulted, angry that I had turned down his care for the Israeli alternative. A woman drove home the injustice of the situation. Doctors had removed her son’s appendix a week earlier. The Israeli invasion followed, and they were stranded. She asked me to help. “What can I do?” I said meekly from my bed. Without anger, she offered words that have stuck with me. “You can leave,” she said. “We can’t. We have to stay here.”

I was loaded into a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance, and Said jumped into the front seat. We drove to Ramallah’s main intersection, Minara Square, where we were to pick up our escort to the checkpoint. But contrary to our agreement with the army, the officer there refused to allow Said to accompany me. In a mix of exasperation and anger, we chose to go back to the Palestinian hospital. Then, in a mix of exasperation and impatience, we decided to head for the checkpoint on our own in the ambulance.

The wrongheadedness of some decisions unfolds over time, as misfortune follows misfortune. Regret creeps up on you. This was not that kind of decision. I knew immediately this was a bad idea. We tore through Ramallah’s deserted streets, all the while expecting a roadblock, a warning shot, or an order blared from a loudspeaker. We heard nothing, our luck misleading. As I gripped the sides of the stretcher, the driver shouted to me: “We made it, Mr. Shadid. We’re almost out. We’re almost there.”

A few moments later, gunfire erupted. I could hear the bullets ricochet off the pavement, but all I could see was blue sky through the ambulance’s back window. The driver threw the car in reverse. We thought they were shooting at us, though we learned later the target was probably stone-throwing youths. The ambulance sped into a nearby refugee camp, and we hid in its claustrophobic alleys of concrete and cinder block, looking for another exit from Ramallah. With the unanimity that fear brings, we all agreed our cat-and-mouse game looked suspicious, and the driver sped again to the main street.

Palestinians tried to get us to stop and take on a boy who had just been shot in the head. The driver refused. “I’m already carrying somebody,” he said. “He’s a foreigner.” The word made me feel both ashamed and relieved. I was part of the conflict by choice, a voyeur who could choose to be invisible. More important, I was more than a number, more than a vendetta. I was an individual.

The Israeli-Palestinian war is often seen through the lens of one side or the other. Israelis, in more numbers than ever before, see the conflict through the lens of terrorism. They feel a nation besieged by the lurking threat of suicide bombings that has disrupted lives. The chill of danger has brought home a conflict from which cities like Tel Aviv and Netanya were distanced psychologically, albeit not geographically. A threat so sinister warrants, even justifies, a response that crosses lines.

Palestinians see that same conflict through the lens of occupation. While Israelis may fear walking their streets, Palestinians point out that they cannot even enter theirs. The curfews, the checkpoints, the overwhelming superiority of arms Israel wields, have produced the humiliation of occupation that is stretching into a second generation. Their uprising is a war for independence, a fight for statehood. They say that their critics chastise them without having endured the subjugation they know all too well.

I saw my four days in Ramallah through the lens of dehumanization, the deprivation of humanity that this war inspires. Civilians are combatants in a conflict that has qualitatively changed from the intifadah I first covered. Stones have given way to suicide bombs, rubber bullets to tanks and helicopter gunships. The escalation is possible in part because neither side comprehends the other’s pain. Vendettas, an intensely personal quest for vengeance, only deepen. Because the conflict pits two sides of disproportionate force, that pain is disproportionate, and far many more Palestinians have died. But a lens that blurs distinctions ensures that the pain will endure.

Being neither Israeli nor Palestinian was my ticket home. Radin had managed to get the Israeli military on the phone, and we, in turn, called them. We kept them on the line as we crept toward the checkpoint, yard by yard. I watched the sky, desperately searching for a tank’s turret or the camouflage netting of a checkpoint. I knew that the army I blamed for my shooting a day ago would ensure my passage now.

“We’re there, we’re there, Mr. Shadid,” the driver cried out. He brought the ambulance to a stop, and the doors swung open. Soldiers with rifles searched under the cot next to me and looked in my hastily packed bags. Then they took my stretcher out of the vehicle emblazoned with a crescent and put me in an ambulance marked with the Star of David.

I had crossed a border, both physical and ideological. We drove over the hilly roads of Jerusalem, past cedar trees and pines, past billboards in Hebrew and tony shopping centers. In 15 minutes, I was inside Israel’s best hospital.

Said remained behind, at the checkpoint.

As he had approached, a soldier trained a gun on him. Another soldier told him he had orders not to let Said pass. “Go back home,” one shouted.

Said stayed at the checkpoint for two hours, waiting with others. Without my presence, he was just another Palestinian negotiating yet another checkpoint in a land full of them. He had no name; his ethnicity was his identity. That was this war’s verdict.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

RE: “When I first visited the Middle East in 1988…I landed in the middle of the intifadah… The weapons of choice then for Palestinian youths were rocks, slingshots, and, as the conflict wore on, Molotov cocktails… When I returned in March, the constellation of those arms had changed… Skirmishes with stones and slingshots had been replaced by guerrilla operations against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, by ambushes of Jewish settlers seen by… Read more »

“On the other side was a vastly outgunned Palestinian people who were in the bleakest, most forlorn mood since the 1967 war began their occupation” They didn’t know how much worse it would get. They didn’t know in 2002 that the Zonists would bomb Gaza with white phosphorous. They didn’t know there would be a humanitarian crisis in Gaza run by Israeli soldiers. They didn’t know Sharon was just the start. That the leftists would… Read more »

I still cannot believe this. Shadid was irreplaceable. No one can fill his shoes.