Between Despair and Hope in Jericho

As we drove into Jericho, the bright red sign warned us that entry into Area A is forbidden for Israeli citizens. Our tour leader asked us who was nervous. I sheepishly raised my hand. At that moment, we were passing the army base at the entrance to the city where we used to visit Danna, our adopted “lone soldier” daughter, who served in the COGAT unit (Coordination of government Activities in the Territories). My mind filled with the scenes that she’d described to us during operation Protective Edge. Night after night the local residents surrounded the base throwing Molotov Cocktails and screaming Allah Akbar. With the border police and combat soldiers holding off the crowd, Danna would put on her helmet and lock herself in her barracks. Was I uneasy about entering Jericho… absolutely.

I was touring Jericho with Tiyul-Rihla-Trip, an organization that brings groups of Palestinians and Israelis to sites of historical and cultural importance for both sides. Their tours provide opportunities for participants to learn about each other while exploring the land that we share.

My anxiety was mixed with excitement for the day. We were starting at the ancient Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue, and I was asked to guide the group there. In addition to explanations about the synagogue’s unique mosaic, I decided to include the history of its special status since the Oslo Accords. Prime Minister Rabin had intended a complete Israeli withdrawal from Jericho in the initial stages of the “Gaza and Jericho First” initiative. Chanan Porat, who had set up a Yeshiva in the synagogue, demanded that Jews be granted access to the site after the pullout. Rabin ultimately conceded, and there has continued to be a Jewish presence to greater or lesser degrees in the synagogue to this day.

Given Chanan Porat’s central role in the Jewish presence in the territories in general, I thought it would be appropriate to share his personal history to this crowd for whom the conflict over this land is so relevant. I shared with the group the story of the founding of Porat’s home — Kibbutz Kefar Etzion, its surrender to the Jordanian legion on the eve of the founding of the state, and the massacre of its inhabitants that ensued. One of the participants, Sayyida (I have changed the names to protect the privacy of the participants), a middle aged woman from Hebron dressed in traditional Arab garb interrupted me and said, “I don’t believe that there was any such massacre!”

Gathering myself, I rephrased, “My understanding based on extensive reading on the subject is that there was a massacre at Kefar Etzion, but apparently there are some who doubt this.” From there I went on with the rest of the presentation.

As we were leaving the site, I approached Sayyida and asked her why she denied the massacre. She responded that killing under those circumstances is forbidden by Islamic law. I was dumbfounded. Granting her that Islamic law would forbid such bloody behavior, I asked, “Don’t Muslims break the law at times? I know that Jews don’t always live up to our own laws.”

She didn’t really back down. I tried another tactic. “Hadn’t there been a massacre of Jews in Chevron?”

This she was willing to admit but only after emphasizing that many Jews had been saved by their Arab neighbors.

I was familiar with huge gaps in understanding like this that seem to make real dialogue with Palestinians impossible. I know that for many years, I was ignorant of the Arab and Palestinian perspective. I have tried through reading and experiences like Tiyul-Rihla to expand my perspective. Yet I have found by and large, resistance on the Palestinian side to reciprocating that exercise.

For example, on a previous Tiyul-Rihla trip, Munin, a twenty something from Nablus, shared with me his experience at Israeli check points. He described how they took his ID and then proceeded to ask him his name, his birthdate etc. He was exasperated by this exercise — wasn’t all the information that they were asking him for on the ID card? He concluded that the only purpose for this interrogation was to humiliate and mock him.

After telling Munin that I could understand his frustration, I asked him to use his imagination and try to formulate another explanation. He couldn’t come up with one, so I offered mine. Perhaps his Israeli interrogators were trying to see if there was any hesitation or anxiety when he answered the questions that might indicate that he was trying to pass himself off as someone other than himself. There are after all Palestinians who do try to hurt Israelis; the security services may have been trying to make sure he wasn’t one of them.Munin couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that there was any logic or reason behind it.

So settling into my seat on the bus, I chalked up Sayyida’s response to the story of Kefar Etzion as another instance of Palestinian rejection of any sympathetic element in the Israeli perspective.

To my surprise, Sayyida turned to me and said, “you mentioned that you read about the massacre. Where did you read about it? I like to read and be informed. Where can I find this story.”

The question took me aback. My first response was, where haven’t I read about it? It’s in every book I have read that records the history of the period. I encountered the story on visits to Kefar Etzion itself. I’ve heard the stories of the evacuated children who become orphans. I’ve visited the mass grave of the victims on Mt. Herzl. How could anyone who has even scratched the surface of our conflict be unaware of this blood bath? And yet, here before me was an Arab woman sincerely asking me where she could read about this story.

I didn’t want to give her a Zionist or Jewish source that she could easily dismiss. I racked my brain and fortunately the perfect book came to mind. I said to her, “you should read O Jerusalem. It’s an accounting of the war written by a French and an American journalist who try to portray both sides.”

Throughout the day, Sayyida asked me a few times to repeat the title. I eventually wrote it down for her. We exchanged business cards and I told her if for whatever reason she couldn’t acquire the book, she should email me and I would ship her a copy. Was this a first step towards the reciprocal curiosity that I had been missing?

A little later in the day, Sayyida and I were sitting with Musa, a young man from Jericho. He asked my why I moved from the States to Israel. I told him that Israel was my home. He looked exasperated by my response. He told me that Judaism was a religion and not a nationality and so there was no Jewish national home here. Furthermore, Jews came and expelled the local Palestinians.

I told him that the Jews were prepared to share the land. The Yishuv had accepted the Partition Plan in 1947 and it was the Arab side that had rejected it.

He responded that the partition plan was unfair and granted a disproportional amount of land to the Jewish minority in Palestine. I had a lot to say about this but decided to pose a question instead. “Do you believe that if the offer was fair, the Arab world would have accepted it?”

Musa’s hesitation and silence betrayed his uncertainty, but Sayyida readily admitted that the answer was no. I was impressed by Sayidda’s honesty and wondered about Musa’s silence.

After breaking the Ramadan fast, we proceeded into downtown Jericho. Up until this point we hadn’t been in public areas with the general population. We had only been at tourists sites or the restaurant complex where we ate. I was very nervous to walk the streets of Jericho where I knew there were people who hated me and wished the worst for me. My concerns were not alleviated when we received our briefing for the visit — no speaking Hebrew in the streets, we were to stay in groups, and each group had to have at least one Palestinian.

I got off the bus and looked for a Palestinian with whom I felt comfortable. I spotted Munin who was walking with two others and asked to join them. He was glad to include me.

At a certain point we began a conversation with some locals in English. They asked us where we were from. When one of our participants, Michal, responded “Tel Aviv,” Munin grabbed my arm and said, “we’ve got to get out of here.”

He pulled us aside and told us the importance of not presenting ourselves as Israeli. Michal refused to accept the danger. She insisted that she was sure that everyone in town would be happy to see that a Tel Avivian wanted to visit their city. She continued to flaunt the protocol, using Hebrew and mentioning Tel Aviv here and there as we wandered the streets. Munin did his best to keep us moving and out of trouble. Both his concern for our safety and the danger he was protecting us from were palpable. It was hard to tell who was more scared — Munin or me?

We made it back to the bus safely. Just before boarding, Musa came up to me and sent me off with a warm handshake and big smile. As we drove out of the city I reflected on a day of contradictions and tensions. Musa, who had denied me my homeland, gave me the warmest send off back to my home. Munin, who couldn’t imagine any reason for questioning Palestinians at check points, recognized the lethal threat to an Israeli in Palestinian territory, and was vigilant in protecting me.

Sayyida, who rejected outright the possibility of a Moslem massacre against Jews, requested material to research that very same massacre. While I can’t say that the visit left me optimistic, it did give me a glimmer hope. As we passed Danna’s army base on the way out, I breathed a sigh of relief to be back on secure ground. Yet I look forward to returning to my conversations with Munin and Musa. I can’t wait to hear Sayyida’s thoughts on O Jerusalem. They might not have come tumbling down, but some walls were cracked in Jericho for me on this visit…

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide, educator, and translator.