Monday, April 18, 2011

One Night in Bil'in

On the 2nd of January, I was sitting in the Popular Committee office, Facebooking and hanging out with Hamdi and one of his brothers, when one of them got a phone call. Someone who had been keeping watch had noticed Israeli military jeeps coming into a nearby village.

What I heard was, “The army is coming.”

My first thought was, this is a night raid. My second thought was, this has something to do with Jawaher’s death. Jawaher was Hamdi's cousin, she had died a few days before from the tear gas at the weekly demonstration.

I knew a little about night raids. I’d watched the videos that our friend Haitham had taken; they usually involved the military declaring someone’s house a “closed military zone” and arresting someone inside for throwing rocks at a demonstration, or incitement, or something. In a lot of the videos there were international activists trying to get through the soldiers to help the family inside. There would be some arguing, some pushing, some gun-pointing. I didn’t know where I saw myself in this chain of events. Maybe I would watch from a distance, or maybe I would be one of those internationals who stood up to the soldiers.

A week earlier, I wouldn’t have dared put myself in that situation. Since then I’d been to three demonstrations, gotten yelled at, pushed around, gassed and sound bombed. I was so mad after that sound bomb landed next to me that I locked eyes with the offending soldier and mouthed a well-meant “f*#k you.” That was the angriest I’ve ever felt.

So things had changed in the last week. I wanted to show the soldiers I wasn’t afraid of them. And tell them how cowardly it was to follow orders without thinking. And how stupid they looked in those little mesh camo hats. Seriously. Overkill.

I followed Hamdi and his brother out of the office, and we started across the village towards Hamdi’s house. I didn’t know what their system was. I didn’t even know there was a look-out system, but seeing as we were the only ones out, I assumed these guys were it, and we were going to find out if the army was coming into Bil’in.

I was wearing three layers, but it still took me a minute to realize why I was shaking uncontrollably. I tried not to think about the soldiers and instead tried to listen to the guys talking and laughing. Once we were settled in Hamdi’s room, Khamis got out his argheelah and started smoking, and Haitham soon joined us with his camera. They would follow the soldiers and videotape the raid as they had done many times before. Hamdi brought us pita bread and avocado mixed with olive oil and salt for dipping. I usually eat anything put in front of me, but I felt strangely queasy as I tried to force down bits of pita. It must have been obvious, because Haitham stopped his conversation and asked me if I was afraid. I lied and said no, it was just new for me. Hamdi told me if the soldiers came, they would go and I could stay here. I told him I wanted to come with. “Walla?” Hamdi said, incredulous. I knew I’d have to fight a little harder if I meant to go. We forgot about it for a while.

We talked about filmmaking, Haitham’s new camera, traveling, the drama between Khamis, the girl he wanted to marry, and her disapproving father, known affectionately to the family as “Doctor Donkey.” I sang the only Arabic song I knew (Ana Ayesh by Amr Diab) for the thousandth time, for Haitham’s camera. We hung out, three Palestinians and one American, and it was in those moments that they made me laugh and forget my nerves that I fell more in love with Bil’in. What could I, with my American passport and freedom to come and go from Palestine as I pleased, understand about life under occupation? I couldn’t eat, sing or crack jokes without shaking in anticipation of the raid. So how did the children feel when their doors were broken down by armed soldiers? How did the mothers feel when their boys were bound and taken to the back of an army jeep? How did the fathers feel when their houses were invaded without their consent, and they could do nothing about it?

As it happened, the soldiers didn’t come to Bil’in that night.

It’s been three months, and I just learned from Haitham’s Facebook post that Khamis’ house was raided last night. Khamis owns the house where internationals stay, where I stayed for four days. Haitham’s video shows the soldiers poking around cabinets and under the sink where I brushed my teeth.

For those familiar with the IDF’s attempts to undermine non-violent demonstration in the West Bank, this image isn’t anything new. This desperate attempt to paint the demonstrations as inherently violent, hate-fueled and semi-militaristic has sanctioned practices like offering families with sick children medical care in exchange for information, and making young boys sign statements in Hebrew that implicate the organizers of the demonstrations. Of course they think the internationals are hiding something in their quarters. But when I think of how my experience in that house strays from the IDF perception, it almost makes me laugh. Almost.

That was where I smoked argheelah with Hamdi and his brothers and cousins on New Years Eve, learned about their boyhood days in Bil’in, then stayed awake most of the night battling mosquitoes. That was where I woke up to the news that Hamdi’s cousin Jawaher had died from tear gas inhalation, before I joined the funeral procession and witnessed the village in mourning. For three days I packed and unpacked my bags, because every time I tried to catch a taxi to Ramallah, someone would invite me into their house for lunch or tea or coffee, and the idea of leaving became less and less possible…and desirable. I would always come back to that house. One night I sang We Are the World to Hamdi’s little cousins Batool and Falasteen, while he took care of Haitham and made him ginger tea to combat the flu. I lived in that house for four days, and I knew when I saw Haitham’s picture of a soldier coming out of the side door that I finally had to tell this story, which is just the story of a foreigner on the edge of Bil’in’s story. In some way, as a guest of that house I too feel traced, invaded, implicated, and I don’t think that anticipation will ever cease to make me queasy.