Those who have nothing they’re willing to die for are not fit to live.
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
To give you a flavor of the life of one innocent abroad, a close call—for me and more vitally the Palestinians who experience this regularly.
The hour was late, the staff from the American Friends Service Committee and I were all tired, night was coming, we’d eaten very little all day. We’d passed 5 checkpoints on our way to Jenin and did not look forward to returning by that same route. We’d observed in the morning long lines of cars on their way south, which would have been our direction when returning. So we decided to drive thru Nablus, visit someone, have dinner, and return to Ramallah by an alternative route that would have minimum checkpoints. Part way there–a roadblock. Taxis waiting on the northern, Jenin side. We saw a few people walking over the earth mounds out of Nablus. We decided that Fida, Tahija and I would walk in while Thuqan drove around to meet us on the southern edge of Nablus. This would make possible a leisurely visit for at least 3 of us in Nablus.
Vehicles blocked by earth mounds
We soon discovered that this mound was only one of many, a series, stretching for at least 1 km, some 6 of them, dirt and stones heaped up, the road ditched. Fida had trouble walking up and down the mounds because she was recovering from a recent car accident and limped shakily. After 3 ascents we heard a gunshot, it echoed thru the canyon. The wadi scene was beautiful, the shot perplexing, we had no idea where it originated, where it was directed, and what it meant. Maybe hunters. We continued walking.
Then we heard shouting from high up in the hills, spotted 2 people, perhaps soldiers. Fida wasn’t sure what their message was. But she shouted in return, surprising Tahija and myself, in English, “I have a broken leg, I was in a car accident”–as if this might persuade soldiers to show some mercy. Instead: another shot. We ducked behind dirt mounds. We inched our way back and retreated, not sure the shot was fired at us or to warn us. Later Fida suggested they had shouted, “Go back or we will shoot you.” We chuckled about her choice of response–a broken leg, please have mercy.
Tahija & Fida
Later, discussing this with Neta Golan, co-founder of the International Solitary Movement, she confirmed a suspicion I had: “You are lucky, some soldiers would simply shoot and not shout. No one in the whole world would notice.”
Discussing why the blocks and why the firing later with Thuqan whom we’d phoned to meet us–it was now nearly dark and I suggested in jest that maybe if we waited another 30 minutes we could walk under the noses of the soldiers, forgetting they might have had night vision equipment–we came to the following interpretation: the Israelis had created the blocks after a martyrdom bombing in Tel Aviv, stationed the soldiers, and sealed Nablus completely. Why Nablus when the bomber came from Jenin? Short-term punishment, recognized universally as collective punishment and illegal under international law. And long-term strategy to decimate the industrial and commercial center of Nablus. The 3 of us were mere blips on the radar screen. Nothing personal, you understand, just caught by circumstance.
While riding back to Ramallah I asked Tahija more about her years in Sarajevo–born and raised there, a Muslim, living thru the 3 year siege of the war. “For years after the siege had ended,” she told us, “I’d hit the ground when hearing loud and sharp sounds. Duck and cover. I’m over that now, and perhaps stronger for the experience. I can travel as I’m doing now (she just returned from 2 days in Gaza visiting AFSC programs), my husband worries about me, but I’m not afraid. Perhaps facing death does this to a person, makes me more able to take the big risk.”
I mentioned my pilgrimage experience in Cambodia in 1995 during the last days of the Khmer Rouge, hearing artillery fire each morning and evening, walking a narrow path thru the minefields. With an outcome similar to hers: I was strengthened by the experience of surviving fear, not immobilized by it. But I wondered aloud, what would I do now if coming under direct fire again? How might I have responded if in Jenin camp during the Israeli invasion of 2002? Will I be willing to enter Gaza next spring (2013) with the Israelis constantly attacking? As Art Gish from the Christian Peacemakers Teams said to me, free to die, free to live.