ONE BATTLE, TWO PERSPECTIVES, PART TWO

This (Part Two) is the interview with an Israeli solder who took part in the 2006 war in South Lebanon. It is an excerpt from Tragedy in South Lebanon.

                Our unit was ordered into South Lebanon. I’m not supposed to talk about my feelings because an Israeli Defense Forces soldier is tough and is supposed to always be battle ready. But this time when I crossed the Lebanese border my heart sank into my stomach. I lost my best friend to one of Hezbollah’s roadside bombs in 2000 shortly before we withdrew and the last thing I ever wanted to do was return to this rugged, rocky death trap of a country, where Hezbollah fighters knew every shrub and rock formation and could have been hiding anywhere. And if rumors were correct, they now had some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the world. Alright, I’ll say it: I felt like I was walking to my death.

There were other unsettling things too about this particular war which added to my anxiety. Rumors abounded about reserve units being sent to the front without proper training. These were the guys who were supposed to back us up. And there’s another thing that didn’t bode well with a lot of us. Our Air Force had already spent two weeks carpet bombing the south without much success. What the hell were we supposed to be able to accomplish?

So there I was marching toward Bint Jbeil, a small village less than three miles from the Israeli border. From a distance it looked like a lovely place surrounded by wildflowers even in the heat of summer. In some other life I might have been walking to a neighbor’s garden party.

We were some minutes behind an advance patrol up ahead. We were approaching the outskirts of the village when we heard shots and explosions. It was obvious our soldiers up ahead were taking hits but there was nothing we could do. I ran inside a building and up to the second floor to try to locate the source of fire. Hezbollah had eyes everywhere. They were watching our every move and like idiots we walked right into their trap. I didn’t have time to sneak a look outside when a missile hit the house. In the momentary stillness after the explosion, I could hear our radio operator on the ground floor calling in our location and asking for help. I was relieved but before I could cross the room to the stairs a second missile exploded within feet of where I was standing. The blast knocked me up against the wall. My chest and arm got sprayed with shrapnel. I was momentarily blinded by a bright light before the room filled with smoke. I had difficulty breathing. I wanted to cough but when I tried I felt excruciating pain across my chest. And when I saw the gaping holes in my arm I almost passed out. I learned later that the metal shards had broken multiple bones in each arm. The medic in our unit tended to my wounds as best he could and taped up my arms. In the meantime we learned that the helicopter couldn’t get in close enough to evacuate us so we had to find a way to get closer to the border. I’m not sure how my buddies managed. All I remember is leaning on two strong shoulders. I was told repeatedly to keep my feet moving until we got to a point where we could safely board the helicopter back to Haifa.

All these months later do I regret having gone into Lebanon? Of course not! I love my country and we needed to fight this conflict to secure our northern border. But where are we as a nation now that the war has ended; are we more secure? Did we achieve our goal of destroying Hezbollah? I am young and don’t want to spend my whole life preparing for and fighting wars. In Israel we have a war mentality. We never seem to talk peace. It is as if saying that word is being disloyal to the State. I’m ready to live in peace with my neighbor. I think Hezbollah would do the same given the choice. Why aren’t our leaders willing to take the leap?

As I said earlier, I am no stranger to Lebanon but this time around Hezbollah was using a broad range of anti-tank missiles. Back in the ‘80s, when I last encountered them, they were a militia. Now, they are a full-fledged army trained and equipped by Iran. But then, we’re equipped by the US so what’s the difference. In this war they drew us in like bees to honey and then pounded us almost to death. In the end, it was their territory they are defending. We would have done the same if someone had invaded our country and tried to take our land.

This book is available for purchase here.

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ONE BATTLE, TWO PERSPECTIVES, PART ONE

This interview, taken from Tragedy in South Lebanon, is with a Hezbollah fighter 

I am from Bint Jbeil, a village three miles north of the Israeli border. According to my grandfather our hilltop village overlooking northern Israel was established by the Phoenicians thousands of years ago when they migrated from Jbeil (Byblos), north of what is today Beirut. Bint Jbeil, by the way, means “Daughters of Byblos.” And did you know that the word “Bible” comes from Byblos?

Bint Jbeil is called the capital of Hezbollah. It is unfair, in my opinion, to refer to it as a Hezbollah stronghold, as if this was a crime, without fully understanding why and how all of South Lebanon, and Bint Jbeil in particular, became a place of resistance. For twenty years we lived under Israeli occupation, that is to say, Israeli occupation of Lebanese land, approximately fifteen percent of Lebanon.

I remember the exact moment I decided to join the resistance movement. I was fifteen years old. The year was 1985. My father was herding his cows when Israeli troops entered Bint Jbeil. They came into his field and shot him in the head without any provocation. He was not even carrying a gun. He was simply in his village on his own land in South Lebanon, tending his cows.

Because I was young and agile I was one of several young men assigned to observe Israeli troop movement. I did nothing else. Wherever they were I found a way to sneak up close enough to watch and mentally record everything they did. When they arose in the morning; what they ate for breakfast; where they carried out their patrols; how many soldiers participated and in which direction they traveled. I vividly remember one particular mission. It was a challenge because I had to carry it out alone. At the same time I felt privileged to be asked to undertake such a difficult task. It was crucial at this particular moment in time that we know everything the Israelis were doing and when and where they were doing it. I stood in a cold stream south of the village, hidden in brush, not moving, for three days. When it was safe to move so as to report what I had observed, I couldn’t walk. My feet were frostbitten from the freezing water so I crawled back to the village to give my report. I was in terrible pain but I didn’t care. I was willing to die if necessary to rid my village of Israeli soldiers. My strength came from the brave people of Bint Jbeil who abhorred injustice. It was not something any of them practiced toward their neighbors and they believed that no one should act unjustly toward them. But more than anything they held a deep moral certainly of what was fair and right.

I will never forget the battle of Bint Jbeil. When the Israeli troops entered they probably assumed they were entering a deserted village because there was no visible sign of life. We watched the soldiers enter the village. We knew ahead of time from which direction they would be entering. As I said before, one of our greatest strengths was that we knew everything about them and they seemingly knew so little about us. When they came into the empty marketplace we ambushed them from three sides. I was in no position to know how many people were left in the village when the battle began but I can tell you that before it ended many of them suddenly appeared with their machine guns and rifles and began firing on the soldiers. They were mad. The previous two days Israeli war planes had destroyed much of their village. They fought to defend what was left and were prepared to die if necessary. This energy created a powerful force, one that eventually drove Israeli troops from our village and the whole of South Lebanon.

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TUWANI

I was privileged to visit the village of Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills. It is a place one never forgets. However, Tuwani is not unique. You will find many such villages described in my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides.

Tuwani is a village in the southern hills of Hebron in the West Bank. It has a population of some 175 people, most of whom are either shepherds or farmers, who live in cave-like structures. Their village is important because it not only has the only school for the region, serving some 100 children, but it also has the only medical clinic and grocery store. The village had a mosque but it was bulldozed by the Israeli Army. The home of the mayor was also bulldozed and the school has a demolition order hanging over its head. The village has no water, electric power or telephone lines. An oil generator provides electricity for the houses four hours a night and their only water supply comes from two wells outside the village.

Surrounding Tuwani on either side are two illegal Israeli settlements whose extremist residents belong to the national-religious movement. One of the most dramatic consequences of the settlement expansion in this region, particularly from an outpost of settlers located some 500 meters from Tuwani, is the risk children must take to get to and from school, a risk caused by settler violence.

Alex was part of the Christian Peace Maker Team whose members stand with Palestinians and Israeli peace groups engaged in nonviolent opposition to Israeli military occupation. Since 2004 Christian Peace Maker Teams have escorted Palestinian school children to and from school in Tuwani. Alex’s mission each day was to accompany grade school children from the neighboring villages some two to three kilometers away to Tuwani and to safeguard them from settler attacks. Despite the ever-present threat of harassment, of being pelted with stones and chains, the children were eager to learn and happy to attend school. On the side of their small school-house they painted a mural depicting happy images and smiling faces.

“When I see these children so intent on learning, so willing to risk their lives each day, my sense of despair eases slightly,” said Alex, who had been attacked and severely beaten a number of times.

The city of Hebron is a half hour north of Tuwani. Tariq was our host during our two-day stay there. His father had died eight years ago but because he was buried in a part of town now off-limits to Palestinians Tariq was denied permission to visit his father’s grave. When he told us this, we collectively said, “We will escort you past the Israeli soldiers so that you can visit your father’s grave.” As internationals we knew the soldiers would not dare stop us. We marched up a deserted street of boarded up Palestinian stores, all 13 of us, past heavily armed Israeli troops and slipped under the barbed wire surrounding the cemetery. Tariq, accompanied by three of the men in our group, knelt beside his father’s grave and paid his respects. After he had prayed, we retreated en mass down the deserted street back to our bus.

I came away from my two-week stay in Israel/Palestine with more questions than answers. In the case of the Palestinians how does a popular upswing of democratic thinking ever take hold against a backdrop of such a brutal Israeli occupation? In America how does the majority regain its voice and convert a “clash of civilizations” mindset into an urgently needed “dialogue of civilizations” so as to resolve this festering crisis?

I also came away humbled in the realization that I have much to learn about patience, fortitude, forgiveness and hope if I ever aspire to walk in the footsteps of the Palestinians, most of whom practice nonviolent resistance, who have learned from the likes of the great civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis, that hatred is too heavy a burden to carry.

This book is available for purchase here.

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My Lover City

My family and I lived in Beirut from 1969 to 1984 when we left because of the civil war. In this passage from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I am making my first trip back to my lover-city/

1992 was the first year post-war I could safely return to Beirut. In route I had passed through Rome; one of my favorite places there is the Coliseum. I was struck by the odd similarity of ruins in both places. The buildings in Beirut had nowhere near the grandeur or size of the Coliseum, but there was a resemblance in the way they had been stripped bare of everything on the outside so that only the concrete skeletons remained.

In the midst of such desolation, I was surprised at how well Nature had resisted the war. Yellow sunflowers grew where Martyr’s Square and the ancient souks had once stood, where Cleopatra had strolled; where women had haggled over gold and bronze objects and merchants had traded their pottery and precious purple dyes to Persians, Babylonians and Greeks.  Fuchsia bougainvillea and purple wisteria crept up the walls of shelled-out buildings. Despite broken water mains, smoldering mounds of garbage and the charred remains of cars, trees were blooming, their green leaves lush; their canopies shading tired, bullet-riddled facades from the summer sun.

War-damaged buildings were being demolished to make way for a multibillion dollar redevelopment project, and archaeologists had been given six months to study Beirut’s ancient history. Buried beneath Martyr’s Square in the city center, they discovered an eight-thousand-year-old Phoenician city, proving conclusively that Beirut was Phoenician. It was called Berytus at the time and was home to the Roman Empire’s most important law school until it was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 551 CE.  In 1969 and newly arrived, I was fascinated by a place that had so many names. I used to sit on the balcony, look out over the city and recite them: ‘Beryte,’ ‘Beyrouth,’ ‘Beirut.’  It was as though I had all the names of a new lover rolling around in my mouth. Ultimately my affair with this city affected my judgment in totally irrational ways and as in any unhealthy relationship, I let myself be fooled. However mad, the lover-city was clever, too. It enticed me back each time I thought to escape. A credible rumor or a visit from some foreign diplomat lulled me back in the false hope that the horrors would stop. It was only after I became acclimated into the habit of war, when the daily skirmishes stretched into week-long battles, that I was hooked. All logic deserted me and I abandoned any notion of leaving my lover-city.

When the archaeologists had finished excavating the site, I watched bulldozers tear down buildings and dump trucks haul off mountains of masonry and rock. Somewhere in that desolation, buried deep beneath the rubble, lay the spirit of Beirut, my former lover. And it was fitting that I should be there to see it laid to rest alongside its distinguished forefathers.

This book is available for purchase here.

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BASSAM AND RAMI

The two men highlighted in this blog should have been enemies. Instead they formed Combatants for Peace. I address the hideous effects of suicide bombers in my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides.

Bassam Aramin is co-founder of Combatants for Peace, a movement started jointly by Palestinians and Israelis who have participated in the cycle of violence: Palestinians as part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom and Israelis as soldiers in the Israeli Army. The group started with four former Palestinian fighters and seven Israeli soldiers. Today they number 400.

Bassam is also the father of slain ten-year old Abir, who died instantly when an Israeli soldier fired a rubber bullet into the back of her head. She was a block from her home, laughing and talking with her sister and two friends, her hand inside her book bag about to retrieve some candy to share with her friends, when she fell to the ground.

After the death of his daughter, Bassam, a former Palestinian fighter, made the decision to seek justice rather than revenge.

“One Israeli soldier killed my daughter,” he said. “Four hundred Israeli soldiers came to her funeral and planted a garden in her name.”

Rami Elhanan is the father of Smadar Elhanan, who was killed in a September 1997 Jerusalem suicide bombing. She was sixteen years old. Rami is Bassam’s co-founder in Combatants for Peace. In April of this year, Rami and Bassam were invited to Warsaw to attend the Polish premier of a new documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their organization.

“I was excited,” said Rami. “I knew that together we would be able to convey a message of hope to people who, for the most part, had not the faintest idea about the conflict. I knew that by virtue of our shared grief, people would listen to us—perhaps even talk about peace. In my naivety, I completely forgot that Palestinians can’t just get up and travel wherever they please, like free men. And despite a barrage of phone calls and urgent pleas on the departure date, Bassam never received his visa to travel.

That was why Rami found himself the following evening on the stage of the Polish National Theatre, together with two ambassadors, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, and an empty chair. The film began with heartbreaking stories of unbearable human anguish, without political demands, without attempts to quantify suffering, just stories of bereaved families, both Israeli and Palestinian, reaching out to each other, a hug, a compassionate smile, a profound understanding, a bud of hope.

The Israeli Ambassador, after the filming, stood up from his chair, furious. “There is no comparing the pain of someone who was hurt by terror,” he said, “with that of someone who was hurt as a result of others acting in self-defense.” He then walked off the stage. Embarrassed, Rami stood up.

“I am Bassam Aramin,” he said. “I am here to represent the missing character, this brave and noble combatant for peace. That Palestinians are missing from nearly every international forum about the conflict, because they are not issued travel documents, is a source of embarrassment. This absent bereaved father, this ex-prisoner who chose the path of reconciliation and peace, is a powerful voice against the claim that we Israelis have no partner to talk peace with, yet he and others like him are repeatedly silenced.”

This book is available for purchase here.

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HATRED IS TOO HEAVY A BURDEN TO CARRY

On the anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, I am reminded of a day in April 2008 when I was about to co-lead my first delegation to Israel-Palestine. My first trip to Israel/Palestine took place in March 2002 and it was from that trip that I documented the unheard voices which I recount in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides.

I had the privilege of hearing Representative John Lewis, leader of the Black Caucus in the US Congress. During his interview at the Washington Cathedral, Congressman Lewis was asked how, in the face of the violence and persecution he suffered during the civil rights movement, he was able to practice non-violent resistance.

“For me, non-violent resistance was never a technique I pulled out of my pocket when I needed it,” he said. “Rather, it is a deeply held belief I have adopted as a way of life because I realized long ago that hatred is too heavy a burden to carry.”

Everywhere I traveled, whether I was in Israel proper or the occupied West Bank, I saw John Lewis. I saw him in the Palestinians who were obliged to walk through checkpoints on a daily basis to get to work or school. I saw John Lewis in every Palestinian who had been thrown off his land, had his house demolished and his three hundred year old olive trees uprooted to make room for illegal Israeli settlements. I saw him in the faces of the Palestinian people who maintained their dignity, their humanity and more importantly their sense of humor in the face of daily humiliations.

When I went through the Qalandia checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem from Ramallah in the West Bank, I encountered an angry Israeli soldier. When she demanded my papers in the harshest manner possible, and refused to understand that it was the metal in my knees that made the alarm go off, my first instinct was to respond to her crassness by screaming back at her. I quickly realized that those Palestinians around me simply shrugged off such treatment. Outside the checkpoint terminal I asked one woman how she managed to stay so calm. “It is very simple,” she replied. “No matter how badly the Israeli soldiers treat us, they will never be able to defeat us. Knowing that gives me my strength.”

Sderot is an economically depressed immigrant town that borders on the Gaza Strip. Until a recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, its residents lived in fear of  Qassam rockets coming down on their homes from Gaza. Frustrated because their government refused to negotiate with Hamas, the people of Sderot decided a citizen initiative was needed because they and their counterparts in Gaza shared a commonality of challenges that desperately needed to be addressed. Both communities lived in fear; both suffered economically. They faced bleak futures and their children were traumatized. The Sderot residents I spoke with acknowledged the presumptuousness of such a grandiose plan but felt they had no other choice.

“It’s up to us to make things work if we want to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbors,”  said Erik, the leader of the group. He remembered a time when he and his Palestinian friends from Gaza swam together in the sea, when they played soccer and carried on as best friends. He wanted these same happy memories for his children.

Erik and his neighbors were from all political persuasions. It was unlikely in normal times that they would have ever spoken or acted with one voice. But act they did! To counter the shrinking food supplies in Gaza, they organized a convoy of huge dump trucks. Filled with food supplies, the trucks backed up to the wall on the Sderot side of Gaza. On the other side, the Gaza residents did the same thing. A conveyor belt was then used to transfer grain and rice from one side of the wall to the other.

“Anything is possible, said Erik, “when people are willing to work together to end the suffering and stabilize their lives.”

In the words of John Lewis, hatred is too heavy a burden to carry. A lesson we can all learn.

This book is available for purchase here.

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HOW CRUEL WAR

In this excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War I pause to take a good hard look at myself in the mirror. I am horrified by what I see.

One morning I looked in the mirror and saw a line of while along my scalp. I didn’t know what it was. I pulled my hair back off my forehead, certain it was just poor lighting. I leaned closer to the mirror and looked again. My hair had gone white at the roots. I used my fingers to part other sections; the white was everywhere. It was as if someone had injected me with a potion that turned me into an old woman overnight. I pulled down the toilet cover and sat. When my tears tried and my chest stopped heaving I stood up again and stared at the woman in the mirror. I had been too busy hiding from bombs, caring for my family and hardly sleeping at night to pay attention to how I looked. I washed my face and brushed my teeth each day, and may or may not have applied lipstick, but the last thing I had time to do was study myself in the mirror. Nor did I wonder when I ran a comb through my hair what my roots were doing because it was not important. But now I was quite distraught. I had lost weight, too, and the first place it showed was in my face. My cheeks had shrunk into hollow pits and I no longer looked thirty-three. I looked forty, fifty, maybe older.

How cruelly war tramples your self-esteem.

I was reluctant to leave the peacefulness of Ghazir and return to Beirut. Despite the bombings, Parliament had managed to convene to elect a new President, but people were openly pessimistic about the chances for a long-term truce. This scared me. For the first time I considered the possibility of leaving. I can still remember the shame I felt. My husband, Michel, had called me ‘the woman with the nerves of steel.’ Foolishly I thought I would disappoint him if I admitted I could no longer tolerate the war. But was that just a convenient excuse? Deep down didn’t I really think I would be failing myself if I abandoned my destructive lover, Beirut?

The city I loved, the place I called home was vastly altered. The discos and night clubs were shut. My favorite landmarks—the historic mansions and ancient souks—had crumbled under heavy shelling. Gardens of hibiscus, bougainvillea and cypress with their old thick stubby trunks, lay abandoned. Open spaces had become garbage dumps. Miles of sandy white beaches had been turned into shanty towns for the city’s new homeless. Balconies which had once been dressed in layers of pink geraniums were transformed into distorted metal forms protruding from gaping holes. In my dreams they recurred as the shrieking mouths of blinded captives nailed into concrete, dying from starvation and neglect.

On our street the buildings were pockmarked from shrapnel and bullets; the awnings on the shops torn and tattered and broken windows lay in disrepair. There was a severe shortage of water and electricity. Noisy generators hummed across the city in place of the shelling and black electric wires were strung haphazardly across streets and alleyways.

When I saw all this I wondered if I would ever dance again with my tantalizing lover, Beirut.

This book is available for purchase here.

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