“Wait for us at that junction,” I told my colleague from Ramallah, “it’s perfect – the Israeli guide will hand them over and the group isn’t left alone”.
“No way – it’s the most dangerous place in the entire West Bank!” What was he talking about? Dangerous? Of course – for Israelis!
A few months before the coronavirus shut the world, I was working with a group of US students. Like many political tourists, they would visit for 10 days and leave thoroughly confused by our conflict. The group was pro-Israel overall, but wanted to spend a day with a PA guide exploring area A while staying off the beaten path of Bethlehem and Jericho.
Mahmoud is a go-to guy for this – he has fluent American English (learnt from TV and radio) and a willingness to tell what he sees as hard truths about the conflict, including his own leaders.
The group’s day would start in a small village near Gush Etzion making the Gush Etzion junction the logical hand over point.
According to the BBC, in 2016 Daniel Hanson, a British-Israeli security officer for nearby communities said of the Gush Etzion Junction: “Every stone, every flag, every bus stop – has seen a terror attack”. Indeed, a quick google search brings up numerous tales of bloodshed – stabbings, shootings, car-ramming attacks, and the IDF neutralizing the perpetrators. One junction over is where Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Sha’er and Naftali Frenkel were kidnapped in 2014. A short distance from the junction stands a memorial to Ezra Schwartz, an American student gunned down by terrorists in 2015.
Mahmoud knows of the danger, but it’s dangerous for Israelis. So why his fear? Why insist it is “the most dangerous place in the West Bank”?
Some Israelis might suggest he is a propagandist, but to what end? He and I have known each other for many years. He is not going to change my views and he knows it. Nobody else was listening to our conversation, nor would they hear him at all, if he refused the work.
My frustration grew – “it’s not dangerous for you – it’s dangerous for Palestinians who attack Israelis.” He was stunned – genuinely stunned. “Josh, you’re not that naive! The soldiers – they shoot Palestinians and then throw a knife next to them!”
Mahmoud could not be moved. He was more than willing to take the job for less money as long as we avoided that junction. To him, it really was a matter of life and death. Mahmoud is no extremist. He works with Israelis, he talks to Israelis, he opposes BDS, and he is an ardent supporter of the two-state solution. This was not him trying to mislead.
The truth, hammered home by this interaction, is that we and the Palestinians live in two parallel realities. If we heard their nightly news we would likely think of the film preface “inspired by true events” – a real but very tenuous connection to reality. They would likely think the same of our media. Sadly, if we can’t agree on basic facts of what’s happening now, it’s hard to see how ordinary people can reconcile.
Who is responsible for that? Obviously, at the end of the day, I don’t believe that soldiers are shooting and planting knives. I blame incitement by the Palestinian Authority. But to Mahmoud and I as ordinary people, that really doesn’t matter. We cannot move forward as people, because we fundamentally disagree about what we are moving forward from in the here and now.
Mahmoud and I arranged another drop-off point and the tourists returned afterwards, apparently having heard the other universe’s reality about car-ramming attacks. “Josh, when a Palestinian driver loses control on a wet road, do the Israelis really shoot”?