I reached checkpoint 300 at 7:00 AM sharp. My rehearsal was not until nine o’clock, but I allowed extra time in case the soldiers decide to pull over the rickety minibus that takes me from the other side of 300 to the Damascus Gate. I had reason to expect such extra “security”, where I have seen Palestinians carted away for some irregularity in their “permission” to be in their own country: The previous afternoon I’d taken a short cut through Jerusalem’s Old City and found myself in the midst of a particularly aggressive onslaught by Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Checkpoint 300 separates occupied Bethlehem from occupied East Jerusalem — in other words, Israeli checkpoint 300 separates Palestine from Palestine. Before even reaching the entrance to its long human cattle-way, I knew something was wrong.
“Closed,” a man sitting on the sidewalk sipping coffee told me. “Checkpoint closed.” I moved closer and gazed at the packed mass of people, most of them men trying to get to work, overflowing out the entrance. Beethoven’s ninth symphony would have to do without me this morning.
This last symphony of the revolutionary composer is iconic of freedom, of liberation, of peace. If Beethoven were to observe the military occupation now blocking me from rehearsing his radical fourth movement — whose text celebrates how “what custom has sternly divided, all men shall become brothers” — he’d conclude that we’ve learned nothing in these two centuries.
Then the news came. Our closed checkpoint was the aftermath of a previous rehearsal, an Israeli rehearsal, now concluded. Downbeat had been four hours earlier: 3:00 AM.
In 1949, about 3,400 of the roughly 800,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed by the Israeli militias the year before were given shelter in tents in what became the Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. The refugees would (obviously) be returning home very soon — the moment hostilities cease.
That was seventy years ago. For seven decades, they and their descendants have had the absolute right to return home. But for seven decades they have been blocked by Israel from doing so because they are the wrong ethnicity; and for seven decades the “international community” has rewarded Israel for the crime. Dismal tents have long since given way to dismal concrete.
Israel’s military has however found the camp to be an ideal rehearsal venue. It comes fully equipped: multiple entrances, winding alleyways, hills, hiding spots, observation points, endless things to blow up, and a large supply of expendable human beings. And during one such “rehearsal” a few hours earlier, as I was making coffee a few kilometers to the north, the soldiers murdered fifteen-year-old Arkan Thaer Mezher. My own rehearsal, the one about liberation and brother(/sister)hood, was collateral damage.
(Read Yumna Patel’s excellent Mondoweiss report, which is based on a eye-witness account: Israeli forces kill 15-year-old Palestinian in refugee camp raid.)
As described by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), “undercover units dressed like Palestinian civilians” infiltrated the camp, after which “Israeli forces backed by 8 military vehicles moved into the camp from all its entrances … the Israeli soldiers raided and topped roofs of dozens of houses and buildings, raided many shops after blowing up their doors and damaged their contents.”
Far more important than rehearsing Beethoven, I went to the camp. Its streets were quiet, save for a brief thunder of Israeli fighter jets overhead. A covered area had been erected in front, inside of which men and boys sat on plastic chairs. I peered in discreetly, trying not to look rude, but this did not last long. A couple of men saw me and motioned me to come in. Welcome, they said in English and Arabic. Welcome. Do you know why we are here? they asked. “Arkan,” I replied. Yes. Please, sit down. You are welcome. A young man handed me a cup of Arabic coffee, and pointed out Arkan’s father. He was seated facing a banner with his son’s photo. I watched as he rose to greet and hug two men who had just arrived.
“It was there at the entrance,” a man next to me said, pointing through the tent opening to the entrance of the camp. “They killed him there. Not inside the camp. At the end of the invasion.” Another man translated for a third: “We don’t understand, Israel took our homes, our land, our trees. They have everything now. So why do they still need to attack us?” There was “nothing happening” at the camp — no “terror” (resistance) as the Israelis claimed. Dheisheh, they said, served as “practice” for the IDF. Rehearsals.
A boy, perhaps a year or two younger than Arkan, heard there was a man in the tent who spoke English. He wanted to practice. My name? Tom. I asked him his. What do I do? In terrible Arabic, I told him that I play violin. “I play drums!” he replied. I mentioned an acquaintance of mine from Dheisheh who played oud. He was too young to know him, but the men nodded. Ahmad. Then the boy got very quiet. He pointed to the photo of Arkan that hung from the tent wall and started shaking his head. He was my friend, was all he said now.
Two older bearded men on concrete steps motioned me to join them. They said little but I stayed there for some time, humbled by their dignity and humanity despite injustice upon injustice heaped upon them. When I left, I thanked those around me and said good-bye to the drummer boy.
I exited the tent into the sunlight, thinking about everything I had heard. What struck me most was not what they had said — what struck me was what they had not said.
They live as non-people because of Israel, live in depredation because of Israel, live with little hope because of Israel, and live in unremitting fear of the next Israeli “rehearsal”. Their young son’s life was just cut short by Israel — and he is far from the first and, they know, will not be the last. Yet not once did any of them use the word “Jews”. The soldiers attacked and killed Arkan. Israel murdered Arkan. The IDF shot Arkan dead. The Zionists came again last night and killed him. Not once did anyone say “the Jews” killed Arkan.
This, in stark contrast to the core tactic of Zionism and the Israeli state, which is to deny any distinction between the ethno-nationalist political ideology and its nation-state — and Jews. Israel’s propagandists are determined to make this organic oneness between Jews and Israel accepted law, so determined that they are wreaking havoc on other country’s domestic politics to do so. In the UK, for example, Israeli front organizations are fighting to force legal recognition of the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, whose specific purpose is make Jews one and the same with the Israeli state. The reason is obvious: condemnation of Israel or Zionism would then legally equal condemnation of Jews as a people — i.e., any attempt to expose Israeli crimes would be anti-Semitic.
If we allow the Israeli state this abuse against Jews, then, indeed, it was not Israel that murdered Arkan, it was not the IDF that murdered Arkan, it was not the Zionists that murdered him. If we accept Israel at its word, it was the Jews.
When in 2014 Pope Francis made a brief visit to Dheisheh, many in the camp hoped it would bring attention to their own situation, as well as the wider injustice of Palestinian refugees. But posterity’s news and iconic image of the visit to Dheisheh was not of the camp at all. It was of the pope touching the “wall” (actually the vehicle gate in the wall) a few kilometers north of the camp.
When that massive papal gate came into sight as I reached Bethlehem, it was accompanied by the stench of burning rubber. Protests from Aida Camp — another favored IDF rehearsal venue — were beginning.