Since you ask: the girl who got mixed up in the demonstration today, the one who arrived late, is called Sandra, and she’s from Los Angeles. She came here as a civil rights volunteer, an activist. There was no other reason for her to come—she wasn’t a tourist or an immigrant or part of an exchange system. Her parents, she said, were Zionists—fundraising there and holidays here, as she put it—so, of course, she had to take the opposite line. She said she’d swallowed all the Zionist propaganda until she got to college and started reading the papers and hanging out with people who knew the truth about the occupation.
It was a mistake to let her into our group. It’s difficult to keep people out when they want to help—there aren’t many volunteers these days—but I still think we didn’t need her. She could have gone to a demonstration in town, or gone back home to the States to wave banners against wars somewhere else. In a focussed group like ours, we need people who know the background, who understand the issues and who’ve lived with them for years, not someone who got involved with us on a kind of moral safari.
If you knew the damage she did today…. I wasn’t impressed by the tantrum, either, all part of the act. The village guy came off worse than she did, believe me—poor fellow—and we can’t ever go back there now. If this episode gets known it could make us notorious, let alone what it does to the people we’re trying to help. Let’s hope it gets forgotten as quickly as possible. So leave that shot out of the film, all right? Though I’m sure she’d be pleased if you left it in. Thanks. All right, I’ll explain. What Sandra really wanted, I think, was a good story to take back to her friends at college, about how she joined this group fighting apartheid and went out with them to back up the Palestinians who were resisting the occupation. It was all about her, not about us and what we were trying to do. At first we liked her. She had a lot of energy and she said she’d taught herself some Arabic and as there was only one other person in the group who knew the language we suggested she might join us. We thought she’d be useful when we went to the military courts.
Someone had told her that we’d adopted this village and wrote reports we sent to the army. Sometimes our lawyers took cases to the Supreme Court, though we couldn’t do that too often. But when we asked her to make notes on our visits she always made excuses—she didn’t know Hebrew, she didn’t have any legal background, and so on.
She was really looking for a piece of the action. Not to go along to big demonstrations, where she’d be anonymous, but to take part in confrontations with the soldiers, something to make her look like a heroine. But we didn’t see that at the time. At first she was useful, because she’d wangled an American press card somehow and waved it at the lazier soldiers at the road blocks. But after a while she began to get on our nerves. We were born and brought up here, we don’t hate the country, just the occupation and what it’s doing to us. For Sandra everything was black and white. Israel’s corrupt to the bone, every soldier a murderer, that kind of thing. What she didn’t understand was what a shambles the occupation could be. So she was surprised that the soldiers at the checkpoints sometimes let us through easily, like today, though we weren’t really supposed to cross the line—all those warning signs. And sometimes we split up and travelled in Arab taxis with Jerusalem number plates, by side roads, and met up with the villagers on the other side. She thought that was really brave. But the army doesn’t mess with Israelis, and even if we get arrested they let us go quickly. Nothing we do is heroic. Big disappointment for Sandra. We ought to have seen straight away that she was a liability. Look, our job is to get facts: where the boundaries of the village were, which land was cut in two by the Wall, which crops weren’t harvested or bulldozed, where settlers had taken their land and so on. Our reports get read and if we’re lucky someone takes notice. Considering how few of us there are, we get a lot of attention—people like you make that possible. Not that we really make an impact. But the main thing is that the army and the Shabak know we’re here watching. Sets limits. Sandra got in our way. She was too emotional, and she prompted the villagers to tell her stories we didn’t think were true but had no way of checking: a child taken hostage by the army until his father, who was hiding somewhere, gave himself up, or a woman who maintained she was given a body search by a male soldier at a checkpoint. Sometimes she even put words into the villagers’ mouths, like asking to see what damage the soldiers had done to a house looking for suspects, where no one had suggested there was damage. We wanted evidence, not complaints the army could just wave aside as rumour. We took notes and videoed, and then we checked maps and documents with our lawyers. That sometimes got results; Sandra’s bleeding heart wasn’t going to get any.
She wasn’t much help in the local military court, either. In theory the courts are open to the public, but it didn’t work like that. After all, they’re inside army compounds, you can’t just wander in. They wouldn’t let you in with your cameras. We’ve a letter authorising us to enter, but it takes time for the soldier on the gate to take it to an officer, and we’re often late arriving in the courtroom—it’s a small room in a big hut, actually. We have to show our identity cards, and of course Sandra only had her passport, and the guards didn’t like that: foreign ‘activists’, trouble makers. In the end they’d let us in, but Sandra still went on complaining loudly about oppression and censorship. Inside there was no room for more than a handful of people, and sometimes we felt bad that we were let in, and a prisoner’s family was left outside. That didn’t occur to Sandra, of course, she wanted to sit as near as possible, even if it meant elbowing a prisoner’s mother or wife aside. Most of the prisoners on trial—village people—were there for petty reasons: for trying to cross the Wall to get to their fields, or taking part in demonstrations against the occupation. They were usually remanded in custody by the judge (lawyers doing reserve duty, most of them) unless the family stumped up bail. Which they very often did, because they needed the man’s earnings. When Sandra asked why they were letting someone go, we explained, and she sniffed and said it was obviously a good way of making money for the army. It turned out that she didn’t know Arabic, either. Just a few words. She couldn’t make head or tail of what the Palestinian defence lawyers were saying when they spoke to the prisoner. The prisoners hardly ever said anything, but if they did Sandra would either pretend she couldn’t hear or she’d say ‘it was something about having hit someone’ and we wouldn’t be much wiser. Even the lazy army interpreter was better.
The army prosecutors and the Palestinian defence lawyers got on quite well (Sandra muttered something about collaborators) as long as the offences were trivial; they’d all been through it a hundred times before. But Sandra wanted a full account. So we ended up having to translate the Hebrew proceedings for Sandra, rather than Sandra translating the Arabic for us. She was especially interested when there was a more serious offence—someone who’d hidden a gun, or had relations with Hamas. In those cases the prosecutor and the judge got in a huddle, so no one could hear. When the defence lawyer asked for more details, they told him they were classified and the trial was adjourned for another few weeks until the Shabak produced the evidence, which only the judge was going to see anyway. You can imagine what Sandra made of that.
Sometimes the defence lawyer was an Israeli. I remember on one of Sandra’s visits it was a woman who liked making dramatic speeches, saying that the trial was a farce, that the prisoners were part of a legitimate political movement, and so on; it didn’t help the prisoner and impressed no one. Except for Sandra, of course. When we translated for her, she stared at the lawyer with shining eyes and it was as much as we could do to stop her applauding. For a long time we put up with all this, because after all not everyone wants to run the risk of getting tear gassed, especially older people who have spare time but can’t run fast, and when you’ve been once or twice its the same thing over and over again.
What you saw. Village kids with Palestinian flags,and people videoing the cranes and the bulldozers and the settlements going up on the other side. Then a couple of the kids start throwing stones, or a group of young men gets through the gate in the fence and then the tear gassing starts, or stink bombs. Once, recently—not in the village we go to, but somewhere much better known—a gas canister hit a young protester in the chest, and killed him.
So demonstrating isn’t without risks, and no one in our group wanted to hear a word against Sandra after what happened about a month ago. A soldier fired a tear gas canister and instead of exploding it bounced. Most people ducked or ran, but Sandra just picked up the canister and threw it back. It fell short of the soldiers, of course (she couldn’t throw it very far) but they were angry and the villagers jeered and cheered. She’d burned her hands because the metal canister was hot, and the villagers made a fuss of her and put leben on her hands and bandaged them up. I was the only one who wasn’t impressed, to me it was just acting. But what really got us arguing with one another was what she proposed about a month ago. She said she’d heard that what she called ‘the real action’ took place when we weren’t there—at night. The soldiers would arrive in the middle of the night and bang on doors looking for someone. Nine times out of ten the man they were looking for wasn’t at home, and it wasn’t a coincidence. Someone probably heard them coming and he skedaddled, but it frightened the kids when the soldiers came storming in (they were on edge too because there was just the outside chance that someone might be waiting for them) and sometimes they ordered everyone out, or turned the house upside down. We’d heard about that, of course, but we hadn’t actually seen it for ourselves. Sandra had a point. The men they did find usually were released after a week or so, they hardly ever found a real suspect, someone with blood on their hands, but the main idea, I think, was to alarm the villagers and put a stop to the demonstrations. Of course, it didn’t.
But Sandra learned that a group like ours had stayed in another village overnight once to see what was happening, and she wanted us to do the same. Well. Everyone felt uncomfortable. We couldn’t deny that we ought to be there when the raids took place, but most of us started wondering how that would play at home, whether families would object. Only Boaz, a student from an Arabicspeaking Iraqi family said he’d go too. Me? I just thought it was pointless. The raids didn’t happen very often in our village, and we might just have sat there waiting. A friend fills in for me in the lab; we’ve switched schedules so on the days I come here, I work in the evening, but he’s getting restive already and if I want more changes that will be an excuse for him to say: enough.
Sandra’s suggestion put us all on the spot, and that annoyed everyone, except for Boaz, because he wanted to make an impression on her. Maybe I should mention her appearance. You’ve only seen her from a distance, with dirt on her face, but actually she’s very striking looking. Alright, beautiful, I suppose. It affects people, and situations, doesn’t it? Not irrelevant. No use pretending otherwise. This whole mess would have been avoided if she’d been plain.
Anyway, Sandra and Boaz started going there at night a couple of times a week. The mukhtar put them up but I don’t think they got much sleep. They fancied themselves as watchmen. She didn’t turn up as regularly on our visits as she had done before, now that she had a special mission, in her view. Which, frankly, was no loss. But when she did come with us she started saying that we didn’t really know anything about the people we were trying to help, and that we ought to get closer to them, as she was doing. I remember one of her lectures in particular.
‘Little birds’, she said. ‘Do you realize that they still keep little birds in cages? They feed them on all kinds of seeds, not commercial stuff. The mukhtar has a canary. That’s special’.
‘At first I thought they should let them out, but then I thought: it’s all part of their lifestyle, we don’t have the right to interfere’. ‘We don’t’ agreed Boaz.
‘What’s your point, Sandra?’ I asked. ‘Like we keep them cooped up in cages too, don’t we?’ she said. ‘Those wire fences. Did you know that they couldn’t get their relations together for the mukhtar’s daughter’s wedding last week’ She glared at us as if we were responsible. ‘There was an incident on the road from Ramallah, so the army slapped a curfew on the whole area. That’s the sort of thing we ought to be reporting, not just the raids and the tear gas.’
We all looked at one another. Everyone expected me to shut her up. So I tried to. ‘Sandra, we have to concentrate on specific abuses’, I said. ‘Everyone knows the occupation interferes with their lives. It’s inevitable. You don’t know why there was a curfew last week; they might have been looking for a terrorist. There are such people you know.’
‘I don’t believe this!’ said Sandra, pretending to be surprised. ‘Are you actually defending the army?’
‘Are you saying that there’s no danger at all from terrorists?’ someone shot back. ‘What you call terrorists they call resistance fighters’ said Sandra.
‘Is that what they’re saying in the village?’ someone asked.
‘I don’t believe this!’ said Sandra again. ‘Are you trying to make me into an informer?’ Now we all were getting angry but she insisted: ‘They’re all good people, trying to get on with their lives. Take Fuad the mukhtar’s son: he’s studying computer sciences in Ramallah and half the time he’s late for his lessons.’
‘Why not?’ said Sandra. ‘That’s just what I mean! You see them all as simple farmers we have to protect, but some of the younger generation want lives just like ours.’
‘Not exactly’ said Boaz. ‘The clan still counts’. He gave her an angry look, and she opened her mouth to say something, and then didn’t say it. I wondered at the time why she didn’t answer him while she was about it, and thought maybe because they were the two young people in the group and the rest of us were much older and too sedate for her. It turned out to be for a different reason. It was bad enough that Sandra distracted us from the main job we had to do. Now we had to cope with the tensions between her and Boaz. He was obviously besotted with her, always at her side, following her around and trying to protect her when the demonstrations got nasty. She didn’t seem to notice, or if she did she brushed him away. I want to explain something else. Apart from those two young ones, we in the group have family lives, not private lives, if you see what I mean. None of us meet outside the group, we’re too busy, it isn’t a social gathering. We came together accidentally because we wanted to do something apart from reading the papers and moaning about the occupation, or saying politics didn’t interest us and we just wanted to get on with our lives. What went on (or didn’t) between Sandra and Boaz was unimportant, but it started to be annoying when it involved us, or rather me. Boaz was a student in my faculty and I suppose he thought of me as someone with authority.
Boaz came to the lab one evening and asked if he could have a word with me privately. I said only fifteen minutes as I had to get home, so we sat down, and I looked at my watch. ‘I’m worried about Sandra’ he blurted out.
‘She’s seeing Fuad in Ramallah’. ‘Well, there’s no law against it’ I said, trying to make a joke of it, though I knew quite well that it wasn’t funny. He looked reproachful. ‘Anyway, how do you know?’
Boaz reddened. It was clear that he’d been following Sandra, but he couldn’t admit it, so he ignored the question. ‘ It might not be such a good idea for her to wander around by herself, we’re not exactly popular there’.
‘Look, Boaz. Sandra’s American, not Israeli, and she’s got a press card. She can take very good care of herself and Ramallah’s a modern town; people there are actually more polite than in Tel Aviv. Apart from the fact that I’m not her father!’ (As if, I thought, fathers would have any clout where Sandra was concerned.)
But something else was clearly disturbing Boaz, and I knew he would not say what it was. ‘Fuad’s all right. I don’t think it’s our business’ I said.
‘I’m not saying he isn’t, he’s educated, like us, but his family isn’t.’
‘They might not like it’.
‘That’s his problem’.
Silence. Boaz obviously wanted me to intervene, but how? He must have realised that talking to Sandra was quite impossible.To warn her off a young man because he was Palestinian? There were Jewish women married to Arabs in Israel, after all, if that was the idea, though a West Bank Palestinian was a different matter, and I wasn’t sure marriage was on the cards, for Sandra anyway. As to speaking to Fuad, that was out of the question. We hardly knew him. He was one of the more militant youths in the village, a natural leader I thought, and not too keen on the rest of us, either. So why he had appealed to Sandra was no mystery, apart from the fact that he was exceptionally good looking too, and spoke quite fluent English. I still wasn’t quite sure whether or not to believe Boaz. I tried a different tack. ‘Isn’t it possible that she’s trying to find out more about students in Ramallah, their problems? Or maybe he wants to go to the States for further study and wanted her advice. Why not?’
‘I saw them kissing. I think there’s a place they go’.
So Boaz had been following them, and who knew where? I didn’t think that they could have been kissing in the main streets of Ramallah. ‘And he probably does want to go to the States.
She might get him a visa’.
I felt I should stop him there and then. ‘Look, Boaz. It’s not your business what they’re up to. I can’t interfere and don’t want to anyway, nor can you. Leave them alone.’
‘You’ll see’ he replied angrily. ‘There’ll be trouble’. And before I could reply, he stormed out. You can imagine that by this time I was furious with Sandra. Our task was difficult enough without a love triangle (if it was one) and, although I hadn’t said so to Boaz, I thought there would be trouble too. I’d had talks with Fuad’s father, the mukhtar, myself, and I knew he wasn’t happy with what we were doing in his village, or with the demos his son was organising. He thought the village was attracting too much attention and sooner or later they’d have to pay for it when we weren’t around. He kept telling me that all they wanted was peace and quiet and that now many of the road blocks had been removed more men would find work in Ramallah or Jenin and that the youngsters didn’t want to harvest olives any more, they had more ambitious plans. I didn’t tell the others about what Boaz had said because I knew that they would start staring at Sandra and Fuad and the villagers would notice. I tried to be discreet, but I couldn’t help noticing the way the two of them avoided contact, not even looking at one another, in the village. I don’t know what Boaz had seen when they stayed over in the village (perhaps that was when it had all begun) but in any case those visits ended, Sandra saying that there hadn’t been a single raid while they were there and it was just a waste of time.
But now Boaz had suddenly got very friendly with the mukhtar. He stopped joining the crowd at the fence, he stopped videoing, he took the village women’s embroidery to Jerusalem to sell for them, and he even went with the mukhtar and his wife when they visited their daughter in another village which was in trouble with the army because of Hamas supporters there. I didn’t know what to think about this. Was he trying to impress Sandra? Or had he, I wondered, made contact with the Shabak? So that they’d keep an eye on Fuad when he was in Ramallah? Was Boaz gathering information about what went on in the district? It was an awful thought, which gave me some sleepless nights, but I decided it was nonsense: if that were really the case and Sandra found out, she’d never speak to him again.
What you saw today wasn’t an ordinary protest demonstration. You have to understand that. When I said you could come along with us today to film in the village, I hadn’t the faintest idea of what was going to happen. I thought there might be trouble because of the settlers’ building on another tract of land which was still being argued about in the courts. But that wasn’t the reason for the rioting today. Do you remember I had a call on my mobile when we were on our way? That was Boaz. He said we shouldn’t bother to come today because there wouldn’t be any demonstration, there was going to be a family celebration of some kind and all the village would be there. He’d been invited as a friend of the family—that was how he put it—but we needn’t come. I tried to explain that it wasn’t just our group, that you’d be coming along too, and he didn’t answer (there was some kind of interference) and then he said alright, but there would be nothing to film except for the celebration. What actually happened was this: the family celebrating was the mukhtar’s family, and what you saw was Fuad’s engagement to a girl from a nearby village. I didn’t realise that, of course, with all the people milling about and the food being served. And you were off filming everything and I couldn’t explain to you what was going on, but you must have seen the photographs being taken of the fianceÅLs. I didn’t recognise Fuad at first, because he was wearing a suit and a keffiya rather than a shirt and slacks, and he didn’t look his usual brash self but rather sheepish, hand in hand with the girl, who looked shy. There were a couple of soldiers on the watchtower on the wall behind the fence, and they were looking on, laughing. Maybe it was a relief for them to see a crowd busy with something else than protests. I looked around for Boaz, who was talking to the mukhtar, and then I realised that he had known all the time what the celebration was about, and why he didn’t want us to be there, but it was too late. You didn’t know the story, and as far as you were concerned the celebration was a bonus—scenes from village life, right?—and maybe the serious stuff would come later. Which it did, when Sandra finally turned up; her taxi driver had trouble at a checkpoint. When Fuad saw Sandra he pulled his hand away from his fianceÅLe, muttered something to his father and went indoors. I tried to say something to Sandra but she was following him. Boaz saw what was happening and tried to head her off but she was too quick for him. No one else understood what was going on.
Then Fuad came round on the other side of the house and Sandra was with him now. They were obviously quarrelling and people were starting to take notice, the mukhtar was frowning and the fianceÅLes family were asking questions. Sandra was shouting and Fuad was trying to quieten her, looking around nervously. The mukhtar was beckoning to him and you were taking shots of the soldiers on the watchtower.
Then it happened, what you saw, just as you turned around, how Sandra swung her arm back (I suddenly remembered her picking up that gas canister) and slapped Fuad’s face (did you get the whole thing?), first with the flat of her hand and then with the back of it. Wham! I’d never actually seen a woman hit a man, except in a film. The soldiers who saw it obviously didn’t understand what was going on. Sandra started the riot, no one else. But when people closed in on her, looking angry, one of the soldiers got the idea that we Israelis were under attack, and the others came running through the gate firing into the air. It must have just seemed a muddle to you, those kids who’d been cramming themselves with food calling to one another and running towards the fence; the young men and Fuad, still in his best, running after them and the stones flying. The people who hurried back to cars and drove off were the fianceÅLes family. Then the tear gas barrage started and rubber bullets too, and all because Fuad had been assaulted by one of our people, a woman to add insult to injury. You got your film, though you didn’t realise why the mukhtar was waving his fists at us and Sandra was coughing and crying from rage as much as tear gas. You couldn’t understand why we had to leave so fast, surely we were used to this kind of thing…I hope the rubber bullets and the stones didn’t do too much damage to the camera.
Alright. Do us a favour. You can just say in the commentary that it was a family celebration that turned into a violent demonstration when soldiers intervened. Tensions always run high around Ramadan. The worst of it is that we can’t go back to the village again. They’ve declared it a closed military zone. In any case, I don’t think they ever want to see us again. But one thing Sandra did for the villagers was to make them more visible. As Boaz says, they have computers and iPods now and they can share their stories with the world. Just look at their website. So maybe she did some good after all.
Naomi Shepherd is a British/Israeli journalist, historian and author. Her biography of Wilfrid Israel won the Wingate Prize and was translated into German and Hebrew. Her first collection of stories on Israeli themes, ‘Ashes’, was published in 2001. She has written many other books on Israeli and Palestinian history’. Resident for many years in Jerusalem—partly described in her memoir ‘Alarms and Excursions’—she now lives in London.