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The cost of fear: a night on the West Bank

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Poster for an Israeli rally on behalf of the settler teens missing in the West Bank

Poster for an Israeli rally on behalf of the settler teens missing in the West Bank

Alice Rothchild shared this diary entry with friends from American Jews for a Just Peace and allowed us to run it. We will be publishing other observations from Rothchild in days to come.

I have been thinking a lot about collective punishment and military force and the cost of fear. I am not going to reveal the identity and details of individuals in this story out of respect for their privacy and safety, but several asked me to write about recent events in their village.  Let’s just say Bani Nayim is a large Muslim village of 20,000, east of the city of Hebron, a region known for large stone quarries and miles of vineyards. I have been visiting an extended family where most everyone is well educated, teachers, businessmen, doctors, people with degrees in education who cannot find employment and “jump the wall” to find work in Israel or to get visas to do graduate work in the US, or do online PhD programs in Islamic religion and Quranic studies.  Families tend to be large, babies tend to be loved and plentiful; it seems that everyone we meet is related. Their idea of a good time is sitting on a balcony with each other at sunset, drinking Turkish coffee, eating sweets, talking (we have some really serious discussions about politics and medicine and health),  and smoking Nargila. The main issue with the view (besides the stone quarry) is the Israeli military base in the distance and the spy balloon (I thought it was a kite) that hangs above the hills over the fanatically racist Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The houses I visit are beautiful, meandering, white stone Arab homes surrounded by patches of olive, almond, lemon, fig and apple trees, gardens with water starved flowers and aromatic bushes like lavender and something called cologne (I think) that just bursts with aromatic perfume when the sun sets.  The love of the land and its bounty is palpable. Far from the center of town, there is a larger field with a greenhouse, (where I see rows of happy Mlokhyya (Jew’s mallow) that gets concocted into this great green soup with rice, and a field of wheat; much has been passed through the generations.

The living rooms of these houses have big screen TVs and often some totally discordant American cowboy movie with Arabic subtitles or an overly dramatic soap opera from Saudi Arabia playing in the background. It is stunningly hot and periodically someone talks about the four feet of snow that fell last winter and paralyzed the village. The land is hilly with single homes here and there; throw in some goat herds and minarets and if you keep looking you can see the Dead Sea and the purple hills of Jordan.  It is all pretty spectacular.

This is the kind of family that warmly welcomes me into their home, the mother has prepared a ginormous meal of extraordinarily good food which is made of rice and chicken and stuffed grape leaves and stuffed zucchini, and yoghurt and spices to die for; everyone is behaving as if I have not eaten in days.

We retire to a living room filled with stuffed chairs and stuffed people, and after more sitting and smiling and Sprite and Coca Cola, I take out my Origami directions and 100 sheets of colored paper. Shortly thereafter there is a whole collection of family members of all ages and all levels of education, making boxes and struggling over cranes and helping the kids get the creases right. This goes on for an hour and there is so much laughter and good fun; it is just a simple pleasure and feels so good in some primordial, mostly nonverbal human way.

My host then suggests that the family watch my documentary on the Nakba, Voices Across the Divide, and I wonder how will that play, a documentary produced by a secular Jewish woman for a US audience sharing the Palestinian story in a room full of devout Muslims, (is this chutzpah or foolishness?)  And so we talk and talk and I say, they have to be honest with me. Everyone wants to see it and so they invite over more relatives and soon everyone is glued to the TV and we are not watching Bonanza.

I am a bit freaked out since they keep talking and I can’t tell if this is good or bad, but it turns out this is a totally talkative enmeshed family and they are just having a big group experience; they recognize the two college girls holding the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction sign towards the end of the film and of course the village of Beit Ummar over the hill; they are debating the different family names, who knew?  When the documentary ends, I hold my breath, and then the father speaks and says the film is an excellent portrayal of the Palestinian experience and then everyone chimes in and we have this amazing discussion about all of their stories and the making of the film and the American Jewish community and Zionism, and Islam, etc, etc.  As you may imagine, this is a pretty stunning, cross-cultural experience, and I am so relieved; I feel embraced and welcomed despite my clear differentness. (I am given a bed in a room by myself and the entire family sleeps on long cushions on the floor in the living room). Perhaps I need more tea and how about some nuts?

So why am I telling you this story?  When you hear a news report, these are the “they,” the “Muslim other,” the “Palestinian militants near Hebron,” the faceless families that are being terrorized by Israeli soldiers every night since the three boys, (or settlers, or soldiers, or who knows what or all of the above) disappeared.  The day after the disappearance (I will call it a kidnapping when I know that is what it was and, FYI, I am not asking Netanyahu for the real story), The Islamic Center and School for Boys next door, was ransacked by the Israeli soldiers and the imam was detained for a few hours and then released.  Years past, his two brothers were “martyred.” One was in a militant group and died in a gun fight when the house was crushed with him in it and the other was killed as “collateral damage.”

After our movie night and the sunset over Kiryat Arba, as we prepare for bed, I am informed that the Israeli Defense Forces have attacked the town, they are at all the entries and have started going house to house. The village has a Facebook page which is suddenly the focus of everyone’s attention.  Someone reports that three to four buses of fully armed soldiers are walking through the town, some take control of one house and put a sniper on the roof. TV news is talking about an IDF attack on Rafah, the southern border of Gaza. The electricity flickers on and off, why? The family is anxiously awake until the middle of the night, tracking the soldiers on Facebook and on a local radio program. The father finally goes to the mosque to pray when the muezzin calls at 4 am (yes I am awake dissecting every sound), and then he comes home and goes to sleep.  I learn that like many Palestinian men, he has been arrested twice and was in administrative detention for two months and released without any charges.  He has obvious reasons to be anxious; he is a Palestinian male while Muslim, which is an arrest category in itself. No arrests are made here during the night, but everyone’s nerves are a bit shattered and no one sleeps well. The youngest son is curled across his mattress and is in a deep stupor.  I wonder how this all impacts him and his sense of safety, his parents’ ability to protect him.  The press is reporting hundreds of arrests, many more injured (collateral damage?) and a steady number of killings. Hamas members (including legislators) are clearly targeted.

We pass one of the big “Bring Back Our Boys” signs, (it hits me that this is supposed to resonate with the violent kidnapping of girls in Nigeria).  I try to imagine a society where that slogan would mean all of our boys, not only the three snatched last week, but the thousands of mostly boys and young men lost in Israeli detention centers without parents or lawyers or the legal and human rights protections of any decent society.  And then there are all those boys who have lost their humanity, breaking into houses night after night, terrorizing families, turning into frightened, dehumanized monsters.  And I realize, we need to bring them back as well.

Alice Rothchild

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker who has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1997. She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years. Until her retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely, is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion, and Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine. She directed a documentary film, Voices Across the Divide and is active in Jewish Voice for Peace. Follow her at @alicerothchild

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13 Responses

  1. just on June 29, 2014, 3:41 pm

    Thank you Alice. Your writing is spellbinding for me.


    I know firsthand of the hospitality of even the poorest Palestinian– are you similarly welcomed by the average Israeli?

    • joemowrey on June 29, 2014, 6:25 pm


      You have made such an excellent point. In my travels in the West Bank, it was rare for me to receive anything but gracious smiles and overwhelming generosity. At worst, I might be ignored at times, as anyone on a busy street might be by passersby intent on their own errands and thoughts. From the taxi drivers to the merchants to even strangers passing by I always felt welcome and safe. At times, it was difficult to imagine these were people who have been crushed by a brutal and unrelenting occupation for generations. Friends of mine who are Jewish (and in most cases very Jewish looking) and have traveled in the West Bank have reported the same experience as mine.

      In Israel, where admittedly I spent very little time, I was lucky to get even an occasional glance or a smile from strangers. In stores and on buses, I always felt unwelcome as if I was being excluded. . When people did bother to interact with me, it was usually with a brusqueness bordering on rude dislike. The overall atmosphere struck me as one of anger and arrogance. I generally felt like I was the “other,” and a lesser other at that. At first I was taken aback. Then it dawned on me that I am clearly not Jewish looking (Irish looking as a clover leaf) and though obviously I can’t know for sure, I assume this was the reason for the hostility. I was experiencing racism first hand, being disliked because of my ethnicity, or lack there of in this case.

      Very sad.

      • Elisabeth on June 30, 2014, 7:45 am

        To Alice and Joe and Just together,

        I felt as if I was there when I read this. I just wanted to read on and on, and I will look forward to read more of you.

        I have not been to Israel or Palestine myself but my mother has several times, and her descriptions agree: In Palestinian busses you are offered to eat and drink everything that the others have brought with them and people like to talk to you. In Israel, people are not very kind, and you easily get into arguments.

        But am not sure this was directed to my mother (or to you Joe) because you are not Jewish. From what I have heard from Israeli’s this is average behaviour in Israel, and Jewish Israelis suffer from it too and complain about it as well. (And do it, otherwise the problem would not exist.)

        Which begs an interesting question: Why? America is a country of immigrants too and as a European I have always been impressed with the courteousness and politeness of Americans. ( I lived there, I am not talking about American tourists visiting Amsterdam.)

      • just on June 30, 2014, 8:48 am

        Thanks for that joemowrey.

        It’s very interesting to contrast who people say they are with how they behave or act.

  2. Justpassingby on June 29, 2014, 5:57 pm

    Expose the racism in Israel.
    3 boys gone while, well how many? 7’000 palestinians are in israeli jail.

  3. a blah chick on June 29, 2014, 6:01 pm

    These women remind of the black southerners I grew up with, where you never sent anyone away without a meal, no matter how little you had in your cupboard.

    Concerning the kidnapping jamboree that happened tonight. I heard there were “thousands” there. Any Mondos about who can give a review?

  4. Kay24 on June 29, 2014, 6:10 pm

    So many decent Palestinians like this great family, but no one cares for them, and for the suffering they endure year after year. It is a shame that the zionist media has been able to make many Americans feel all Palestinians are “terrorists” and dangerous.
    The violence they have to face from the occupiers, and the kids who are kidnapped and killed, are all the result of the occupier “defending” itself. Bull.
    A great insight to life under a brutal occupation, and a people who are just like us to have to endure it.

  5. just on June 29, 2014, 6:31 pm

    “GAZA STRIP (Ma’an) — The “Miles of Smiles 28″ aid convoy arrived in Gaza Strip on Sunday through Rafah crossing, a Palestinian official said.

    Alaa al-Din al-Batta, deputy director of the governmental convoy-welcoming committee, told Ma’an that the convoy included 18 people from European and Arab countries.”

  6. annie on June 29, 2014, 8:21 pm

    thank you so much Alice. it’s so bittersweet. such beauty and generosity mixed with so much tension. i really do not know what i would do if i was a palestinian living in this environment since i get claustrophobic. i can’t imagine getting used to it. and yet the home life is so wonderful. i know this since i was there and treated with the same warmth. i just want this to be over so much, this brutal occupation.

    and here is the trailer of ‘Voices Across the Divide’ if anyone wishes to watch it.

    • Citizen on June 30, 2014, 6:41 am

      I guess that’s about as far as Rudoren can go, walking the tight rope, avoiding the gross asymmetry?

    • just on June 30, 2014, 8:33 am

      “After West Bank Kidnapping”…

      I almost stopped there, but I read the article.

      I was surprised to read: “They had no idea he had never arrived.” How did they not know?

      There is too much to unpack in the article, but the mention of ‘purple’ made my brain go to this:

      ““Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.”
      ― Alice Walker, The Color Purple ”

      Thanks Taxi.

      I hope the missing teens do get home. I am sorry that Mohammed won’t be able to.

  7. RebuildingAll on June 30, 2014, 8:49 am

    Alice, thank you so much for writing, for being there, and telling their story with care. This is Donna from Rebuilding Alliance. When I asked one of our founding board members, Ghassan Abdullah, how to help resolve this latest crisis, he replied, “I suppose by telling the story, as Edward Said suggests.” That is what you are doing.

    I’ve learned that Congressional staffers will make calls to the State Department and the Israeli Embassy, privately, in response to constituent requests for intervention especially when small, specific actions are requested. Based on what you are seeing, what specific action would you request?

    Lastly, somehow I am somehow receiving the COGAT (Israeli Civil Administration) monthly announcements. They sent a respectful message describing Ramadan prayers and noting an easing of checkpoints stating, “All Palestinian men aged 50 or older, and women aged 40 or older may visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Israel without a permit on Fridays during the month of Ramadan.” At the bottom of the message, there is an asterisk without comment, “The policies above do not apply to Hebron residents”, a city of 250,000 people.

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