Saturday, June 16, 2007

One of the people who might stop this madness

June 7

Left: Aaron. He looks much younger with his beret...

Israeli soldiers shot a 70-something-year-old man in the head this morning between midnight and 1 am; his name was Yehia al-Jabari. He was brought to al-Ahli. His ER report says (they’re written in English) “patient arrived dead, no breathing, heart beat or pulses” with a “big laceration with cratering of the head” at the occipital bone. He arrived “post head gunshot by ISRAELI SOLDIER” (their capitals). Dr. Harb was the physician in the ER at the time, he told me saw Yehia when he came in and that his cranium was crushed when the bullet shattered his maxillary bone, traveled through his brain and exited through his occipital bone.

Yehia’s wife, a woman of about 60 named Fatima al-Jabari, was also shot in the head; by some miracle she survived and is in the ICU right now. The head shot was to the frontal bone; the bullet lodged in her brain and had to be extracted in surgery.

I went to see Fatima in the ICU. Her file says she was brought to the ER “with spontaneous breathing”, was taken immediately for surgery after a brain CT showed “multiple metallic foreign bodies” (the shattered bullet) and pieces of her shattered skull lodged deep in her brain. She also has shrapnel wounds to her face, chest, abdomen and limbs; from what the shrapnel came I can’t tell (a grenade, broken glass, maybe something else).

The bullet entered through her temporal bone and lodged in her brain, causing severe intracranial hemorrhage. A craniotomy was done to remove those “foreign bodies” along with fragments of her shattered temporal bone, to evacuate the intracranial hematoma and to insert a drain in the frontal horn of her left lateral ventricle. Her post-op CT scan shows at least two bullet fragments the neurosurgeon couldn’t get to, but no further hemorrhage. Nobody in the ICU said they thought she’d survive, and that if she did she’d be severely crippled for the rest of her life.

After leaving al-Ahli I went to meet Afaf at PARC where she works. Musa was showing an American playwright named Aaron Davidman around Hebron, I think they got in touch through B’tselem. We had planned yesterday to go to a restaurant; I didn’t know why at the time (eating out is quite expensive), but it must have been because Aaron was coming. Aaron turned out to be a very interesting person to speak with.

Aaron was in Israel and Palestine doing “research” for a play he’s writing about the different narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict and how those narratives have been used/abused by leaders, people, etc. (sorry if I’m getting the details wrong, Aaron; l’art, ce n’est pas ma forte…). Aaron is 39 years old but doesn’t look it; he’s married and has a little girl named Zoe. His picture is above. He’s a very serious and intelligent person, and open minded in a way very few people are. I was genuinely impressed by him in a way I haven’t been by anyone in a long time.

Since Aaron was here to learn about different peoples’ perspectives dinner turned into a discussion on political and historical perspective. He said he had just been in Nazareth where he met a Palestinian Israeli who has opened a small Holocaust museum, with the goal of teaching Palestinians about what the Nazis did to the Jews. Aaron said this person has the idea that “Palestinians need to understand that for Jews the Holocaust is 90% of what goes on up here”, pointing to his head. This Palestinian, Aaron told us, thinks this will help Palestinians “understand” Israelis. He got the idea for this museum from a story, true or not is irrelevant, that on Holocaust Remembrance Day some Israeli soldiers came to demolish a man’s house in the West Bank. Then the country observed its two minutes of silence for the victims of the Nazi genocide, and so the soldiers, who were just about to start bulldozing the man’s house, stopped and stood silent. And then “this man realized how to stop the Israeli army!” Aaron said. “He told them he knows and understands what they went through in the Holocaust.” And the soldiers left.

(Note that I sincerely doubt this story is true; if someone can prove me wrong I’d be quite happy.)

Aaron then asked Musa and Afaf what they thought about this idea that Palestinians need to understand the Holocaust.

Musa said he knows that many Palestinians reject the historical fact of the Holocaust. Certainly this is true; I don’t know exact numbers, but I’d certainly expect them to be high. “This is a mistake on the part of the Palestinians, I think,” he said. “Many people don’t want to accept that this could have happened, because, uh…” Musa stuttered, looking for words.

“Because it’s hard to think that the person oppressing you right now could have been himself oppressed in the past”, I said. Musa agreed. The point is fairly obvious, of course; Soviet Jewry probably had no interest in hearing stories, true as they were, about how Russia was physically destroyed by Germany twice in the first part of the 20th century, and Timorese probably have no interest in hearing about Indonesian hardships under imperial Chinese and Dutch rule. It’s hard to see someone as a human being whose mother could have been murdered when he has his boot on your neck.

I also told Aaron I don’t think the Holocaust has the slightest thing to do with Israeli policy, except to be used as a scare tactic to whip the population into a war frenzy at this or that moment and to get them to accept the general militarization of their society, with the consequent loss of social welfare they used to enjoy.

Aaron responded to Musa and me by asking, “But don’t you think that, with a crime of this magnitude, it was so huge, nothing like it had ever been done in history…” (I cringed; I hate it when people say things like that. Who decides if it’s worse to die in the cargo hold of a slave ship or by being shot in the head in your home or in a gas chamber?) “…maybe you don’t agree, but certainly Jews think so. So don’t you think it’s important for Palestinians to understand that?”

Musa translated for Afaf, who also took objection to the characterization of the Holocaust as somehow being “worse” than other injustices (note: not that it was “better”, she and I rejected the ranking of suffering in its totality). Musa translated what she said: “But the situation is different here than in the Holocaust. What they [the Nazis] did to the Jews was done over a short period of time, but what has happened to the Palestinians has occurred over more than sixty years.” Aaron said he’d never thought of that, it was an interesting way to think of it.

Musa then added his own personal story. “When I grew up in Fawwar [the refugee camp across the street] it was eighteen of us in one small room: my mother, my father, and all of my brothers and sisters. You couldn’t believe it. I was always a very good student in school, but really, I don’t ever remember reading for more than five minutes. We used to do our homework with little lamps, of gas. [“Kerosene lamps?” Asked Aaron.] Yes, kerosene lamps. Until I was eighteen [when he moved out of the camp to start university], I never slept alone, not once even. And really, you should meet the people who grew up in the camps and still live there.”

Musa was gesturing wildly at this point; it must be incredibly frustrating to try to explain such things in a foreign language. He knocked a cup of water over on accident, interrupting the conversation and giving it an even more uncomfortable and pitiful tone than it had before.

“But really,” he continued, “you should see these people. They don’t laugh, they don’t cry, they don’t smile. They don’t enjoy anything, you can see in their eyes they are dead, inside. So I think it’s difficult to say one thing is worse than the other.

“And also, the difference is that the Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust.” When Musa said this I was genuinely worried Aaron was going to disagree; it has recently become a mantra in “pro”-Israel circles that the Palestinians’ British-appointed leader fled to Germany during WW II (which he did) and then convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews (which he quite obviously did not). But fortunately Aaron is a more serious person than that.

“But,” Musa continued, “Israel has never accepted responsibility for the Nakba.” (“Nakba” is an Arabic word for “catastrophe” or “disaster”, it’s how Arabs refer to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israeli Army when Israel was founded in Palestine in 1948.) Aaron agreed with that as well; again, a serious person, for once.

Aaron took notes on the conversation while we had it; my recall is from memory so if our accounts differ his is almost certainly the correct one.

Musa and Afaf invited Aaron to stay at their place. He was hesitant at first because he had to be back in Jerusalem the next morning, but Musa convinced him. It was his first (and I suspect only) night in the West Bank.

When we came home Musa, Aaron and I sat outside while Aaron rolled us cigarettes of some really mild tobacco he’d brought from Berkley. Musa and Afaf decided to take a nap for a while. Aaron and I talked about Palestinian and Israeli treatment of women and homosexuals, and the role religion plays in both societies. We were sitting and staring at the sniper tower and I told Aaron the story of Islam, the little boy who was murdered by the Israelis, and how clearly it affected Musa even today.

We went inside and Aaron got out an add-on to his iPod that allows him to record conversations, I think it was called an iTalk, or something like that. We talked about what goes on in this place, what the underlying motivators are for the occupation, for American support of Israel, for Jewish American support of Israel, what the occupation is doing to Israeli society, what it’s doing to Palestinian society, the influence of the “pro”-Israel lobby in the US, and I’m sure many more topics I can’t recall. He also asked me about how I came to be interested in the conflict. I always think that’s a funny question, I don’t understand why anybody cares.

I think we were talking about Hamas and its previous offers to recognize Israel in return for an end to the occupation when Musa came back in. I told Aaron that despite common knowledge Hamas has been far more forthcoming in agreeing to recognize Israel than Israel has ever been in agreeing to recognize the Palestinians’ rights in the occupied territories. He said frankly and honestly that his understanding of the diplomatic history is the exact opposite and asked me to send him evidence of what I was saying. I was delighted to hear someone say something like that: I’m so used people just insisting that they’re right despite the evidence, even when they admit they’re not familiar with the evidence.

I think Musa came in at this point, and Aaron asked him what he thought of the peace process.

“Oslo destroyed everything,” said Musa. “Before Oslo, the Intifada was very successful. But Fatah, the PLO, Arafat, they wanted the power. And so Israel found them, and they brought them here, and they gave them the power. And they brought the corruption; there is so much corruption now.” I told Aaron that the purpose of the Oslo Accords was to use the PLO to stop the First Intifada (an almost 100% nonviolent uprising that Israel was unable to destroy by force), which had become a disaster for Israel. Israel and the US brought the PLO in from Tunis and negotiated the Oslo Accords with them, convenient since these negotiators had never lived in the West Bank or Gaza and so had no concept of the problems caused by the occupation, the settlements, etc.

What they ended up with was, unsurprisingly, a document that allowed Israel to continue its occupation and colonization of the occupied territories while the PLO, in exchange for promises of international aid and vague promises of a state, agreed to work with Israel and the CIA to destroy any opposition to the Oslo Accords (which means, essentially, any opposition to the occupation).

I can’t remember if I asked or if Aaron asked Musa if he thought Hamas was less corrupt than Fatah, but one of us asked. He said it’s not a matter of less corruption or more corruption, but of corruption of a different kind.

Again, it is entirely to Aaron’s credit that he listened to all of this seriously and openly, even taking notes at some points and asking probing and intelligent questions while always remaining cognizant of the fact that he’s talking to both a victim and an active agent of his own destiny. I think by the end of the night I'd given that poor guy a list of six or seven books to read, and he wrote every single one down for reference later. I don’t know if it would be appropriate to say that he’s within the mainstream of Jewish American opinion and open mindedness on these issues, but if he is, then this conflict might improve sooner than I allow myself to hope it will.