At 6am last Wednesday morning, my cell phone rang. It was Haj Sami: "Morgan, there are many soldiers in the village, I want you to take a picture!"
In my hazy state, I stumbled around the Guest House, finding the nearest pair of pants and brushing my hair. Like most girls I don't like to go out looking like a slob, but there's another reason here. If I look like a hippie or an anarchist or God forbid, throw on a kuffiyeh, my protection is gone. Those images have already been stamped. It was almost too much to think about at 6am, I doubted I looked like a terrorist sympathizer anyway. Whatever that means.
I grabbed my phone and camera and headed outside and toward the main street. My friend Mohammad, who runs the sewing cooperative above the kindergarten, saw me and immediately started explaining that the soldiers had been sleeping in the street when he drove to work in the morning. I walked around the mosque and sure enough, there were three army jeeps, full of soldiers. They were all konked out. A few of them stirred as I walked past them with my camera flipped open. I was afraid to point it in their faces.
Then Haj Sami called. He told me to go further down the road, because there were more soldiers by his sister's house. Alright. I started to walk down the hill. The air was frigid and I couldn't hear anything but goats and roosters--a typical morning in Al Aqaba. This was an hour that I rarely saw, unless I stayed up until dawn on my computer. It felt surreal. I didn't know what to expect. Then I realized what Haj Sami was talking about. A few hundred meters down, there was a big rumbling mass of green uniform. It looked like about 200 soldiers in full gear, shuffling around.
Shit, shit, shit. What do I do now? Do I just go up to them? I didn't feel like I had any choice, I had to to find out what they were going to do.
I assumed it was a demolition. It had happened twice last year--the soldiers came at dawn to stand guard while the bulldozers made work of two houses, two animal shelters, and two main roads (which were re-paved then bulldozed again).
I could see they were all starting to walk towards me, so I flipped my camera open and walked in their direction. They noticed me, undoubtedly, but they kept walking. No one told me to put my camera away. What a strange sight for them to see, a blonde girl on the street of an Arab village at 6:30am. And what a strange sight they were-with their helmets and poofy mesh hats...some of them were wearing face masks, some of them had antennas sticking out of their backpacks.
I paused in the middle of their crowd and leaned against the retaining wall. I was waiting for something, and sure enough it came.
"Are you with the EU?" one soldier asked me in an American accent.
"No. I'm here by myself."
Another soldier asked me, in an American accent, what I was doing here.
"There's a campaign to save the kindergarten from demolition, so I came here to teach. Now I'm making a website."
I told them I was from Seattle. The first soldier told me he was from LA. I told him there was a soldier from Tayasir checkpoint from LA. He asked me who. I told him his name was Jason. He thought for a moment...no, he didn't know him.
Then he asked me, "so like, which side are you on? I mean, it's kinda obvious..."
I don't remember what I said, something about just liking the village. Looking back on this whole experience I could've been more eloquent and really, firm. I was pissed off, but I found the dialogue intriguing.
I asked the soldier what they were doing here. He said, "training." I asked him if he realized their presence was really provocative, and he said, "yeah, sure, but we need to be ready."
I asked him if they considered this village a hostile place (which is laughable). He told me, "look, here's the deal. If an Arab wanders into Jerusalem, nothing happens. If I wander in Hebron and say, hey I'm a Jew..."
"In that outfit?"
"No, not in this outfit. Look.....see......in 2001 (actually it was 2000), two Israelis got lost and ended up in Ramallah. They had their eyes gauged out, and they called their wives, and they were skinning them..."
"Oh my god, that was during the intifada."
"Yeah, yeah, just hear me out..."
"I know the story...how does that justify you scaring these kids every day?"
"We don't scare them intentionally..."
"Look," said the other American. "If there was no checkpoint over there, eventually someone would take a truck full of explosives and then a restaurant would get blown up and everyone would be like, whoaaaa."
"Ok...." I was too tired for this. "Well, we have Jewish visitors here all the time, even Israelis."
"Yeah, but those are generally activists."
"No they're not, they're just regular citizens, from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv..."
"Yeah, but those people are generally against the state."
They started to move on. "ok, have fun teaching."
I asked them if they were demolishing anything today. They scoffed, "we don't demolish anything...in fact, it's like the other way around."
...I didn't follow up on that.
Haj Sami called me again. "Morgan! There are soldiers near the demolished road!" Alright. I kept walking down the hill, towards the entrance of the village. I saw soldiers climbing around the hill above some of the village houses. I filmed them and more soldiers walking up the hills towards me. This must have made for 300 soldiers total. In a few minutes they were all around me, sitting on the retaining walls, resting with their backpacks, talking amongst themselves and glancing at me. One of the soldiers was swinging a loaf of white bread, asking, "lehem?" Bread, anyone? I only knew the word because of Bethlehem, which is "house of bread" in Hebrew.
I asked some soldiers, "midaber anglit? Speak English? One of them said, "yeah." I asked him if they're leaving soon. He looked impatient. "You do your job, we'll do ours." They moved on. I filmed the soldiers walking past two village girls in backpacks, and I filmed them walking out of the village, toward the valley, toward the rising sun. It was a strangely beautiful shot. I wished it was a movie and not real life. Sudki the sixth grader waved at me from his house, and I waved him over, "t3al, come!" There's nothing to be afraid of. He ran to me and I let him take my camera and film the line of soldiers walking down the farm road, which was illegal. I whistled the tune to "Bridge over River Kwai." I wondered if any of them heard me, or knew what it was. They were so young.
I walked with Sudki up the hill. I was running on three hours of sleep, but going back to bed wasn't an option. I had to cut the film and help Haj Sami with the report, and that would probably take all day. When I got into the office, Haj Sami was waiting for me, and the reporter Hakam from Tubas showed up after ten minutes. I uploaded all the footage on my laptop and and screened it for them. Ribhi, the village engineer who works in the office, translated one of their comments, laughing, "if you were Arab, you would have been dead!" At various parts, like the soldiers and the female students, Hakam would say "thahab!" and it took me a minute to remember, from my visit to the jewelry store in Tubas, that thahab meant gold. My footage was gold. That was a nice feeling.
I spent the rest of the day editing Haj Sami's report on the intrusion, and musing over the whole experience. I'd been carrying this angry feeling with me all morning, I was angry for the people who wanted to pray but were too afraid to approach the mosque, I was angry for the children who puffed up their chests and told me they weren't afraid, and I was angry at the officers who chose to send their soldiers through the village, like there were no humans there, like this was a video game. I knew the soldiers were tired, and I knew they felt it was part of their patriotic duty. I just despaired at the gap between us. I hoped someday I could reach them and tell them I was serious. Israelis are welcome here.
Haj Sami was thinking the same thing. This is the letter he wrote, translated into English. Now it's being translated into Hebrew:
Dear People of Israel,
I am the mayor of Al Aqaba, a small peaceful Palestinian Village in the Jordan Valley, in the West Bank Area C. I write to you in Hebrew, learned over the years I spent in an Israeli hospital. I am writing to tell you about your army’s training in our village last week. I hope you will feel reassured by my message and help, as so many of you helped over 10 years ago, to assure the future of our village.
On the morning of Wednesday February 22, 2012, the biting cold greeted us before dawn as we headed to morning prayers. To our surprise, Israeli occupation forces in three jeeps and military vehicles were parked in front of the main door of our mosque in our Village of Al Aqaba. We were afraid to approach, and their unanticipated presence caused a twenty-minute delay of the adhan, the Islamic prayer faithfully recited five times a day.
We hoped that the military vehicles would move — but no. As we walked past the military jeeps to attend the dawn prayers, we were surprised to find the jeeps running and the soldiers inside in a very deep sleep. Even after the call to prayer, they remained asleep. They must have been very tired. As we departed the mosque in the morning light — workers, famers, and students starting our day — we were stunned to see hundreds of soldiers, laying down and sleeping throughout our village, on our roads and in our fields, some right next to our homes.
Although the sleeping soldiers were a rare sight for the village to behold, we decided not to disrupt the soldiers and prevented any harm or disruption to the soldiers while they slept. But it was such a curious sight and we did not know what the work of the soldiers would be when they woke up, so I asked friends to quietly film. Here is our teacher’s film, Israeli Army in Al Aqaba 2-22-12
The soldiers’ presence in our village raised a lot of fear and anxiety, especially given our history and the 2001 Israeli High Court decision that prevents soldiers from using our village for training exercises. Later many of Aqaba’s villagers found themselves wondering, ‘Where else could soldiers have parked, camped, and slept peacefully, safely watched over by Palestinian villagers? And why, if they trust us enough to sleep here among us, why do they still want to destroy our village?”
The Israeli Army has issued demolition orders against more than 90% of our village. Within a month of Israeli Brigadier General Moti Almoz’ December meeting with the Governor of Tubas and with me here in Al Aqaba Village, 29 more demolition orders were issued.
Because international organizations can call the Israeli Army, I asked Rebuilding Alliance, an American organization that is raising funds to help us rebuild our homes, to call them. An Israeli Army contact denied the soldiers were even in the village and again warned Rebuilding Alliance that any new homes in Al Aqaba will be destroyed. They said American towns would do the same as they — but, as Rebuilding Alliance replied, “American town councils create town plans, issue building permits, and inspect new structures. That’s what Al Aqaba is doing in its town, on its own land, land to which they hold clear title.”
The people of the village of Al Aqaba have been bearing the pain of life under occupation and theft of property since the 1967 war. As a result of the military maneuvers conducted with live ammunition by the Israeli army and settlers, the agriculture has been impacted greatly by the destruction of our citizens’ crops, growing isolation of the citizens from outside resources, home and road demolitions, and the denial of essential services to our small village, particularly safe, clean drinking water and the right to build our homes – basic human rights that every human being is entitled to.
Last year Occupation Forces twice destroyed our Peace Road, the road our school bus uses to get the children to school. Additionally, seven families were made homeless by destruction of their modest homes, and their goats had to sleep in the cold too when their stables were destroyed. These senseless acts of destruction especially frighten our children.
People of Israel, we are not a threat to you. We are your neighbors. Please recognize Al Aqaba’s town plans. Help us build a secondary school and a rehabilitation hospital. Come visit us and stay in our guest house.
We ask your help and we welcome you.
Haj Sami Sadeq Sbaih
Mayor of Al Aqaba Village
Near Tubas, Jordan Valley, West Bank, Palestine