Editors note: Names have been changed to protect the safety of the people of At-Tuwani.
When I returned home after three years working in Palestine, people told me that I was brave. I wished they would stop.
In Palestine, I wasn’t brave so much as confused. The Israeli military occupation of Palestine is baffling. Palestinian homes are demolished for not having building permits, even though it is well known that the Israeli army refuses to issue permits. Pregnant Palestinian women deliver their babies at checkpoints within sight of the hospital, because Israeli soldiers won’t let them pass. Once, as we waited at a checkpoint, a Palestinian friend of mine called the West Bank “Absurdistine.” I laughed until tears leaked from my eyes, because it was so true and so sad.
My job was to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance in a small village called At-Tuwani. Faced with regular violence from Israeli soldiers and settlers, the leaders of the village developed a simple, brilliant strategy. We foreigners accompanied them while they grazed their sheep, harvested their fields, or walked to school. We accompanied them during the pedestrian tasks that put them at risk of attack or arrest. We carried video cameras in hopes of capturing footage of the injustice they faced. Our presence did sometimes deter violence, but there was only one problem. In the end, I had no more control over the situation than anyone else. I was only a white American with a video camera. I was useful because my arrest or death was more likely to make international headlines.
It’s a confusing thing, to run towards people who want to hurt or kill you. When the army brought bulldozers to demolish the mosque, I received a phone call from a neighbor and rushed to the village, where people were gathering to protest.
I feared of the sound of my cell phone, but I always answered it on the first ring.
After about two years, my capacity to assess danger wavered. Once, I woke up early to accompany a Palestinian shepherd from a nearby village. I trudged toward his house, grumbling to myself about how much I’d rather be in bed. Then, about 50 feet ahead of me, I saw it: a lion. It was medium-sized, with a golden coat and a fluffy mane. It stood in the center of my path.
I knew what to do if I saw an Israeli soldier or a settler. In fact, I knew what to do if I saw a variety of dangerous animals. My friend Ahmed told me that if I approached a hyena, I should make myself as big as possible. My neighbor Nadir said to throw rocks to keep a pack of wild dogs at bay. I learned from Khalil’s wife, Jumana, that if I saw a snake I should stand still and yell until a young man came lugging a big stick and beat that snake lifeless, after which I would say shukran, which means thank you. I did not know what to do if I saw a lion. I didn’t know there were lions in the West Bank.
I have learned that you can think very quickly when facing an angry soldier, a heavily armed settler, or a lion. “Well,” I thought, “If there were a soldier standing here, I wouldn’t stop. So I guess I’m going to walk straight toward this lion.” Then, I realized that the lion was nothing more than a large dog. He was brown, with mangy fur. See, I wasn’t brave. I was confused.
The morning after I faced down an imaginary lion, my phone rang at 7AM.
“Good morning,” said Ahmed. I could hear the grumble of bad news in his low voice. “Where are you?” he asked.
I looked down. I was still wearing my purple long underwear. Seven is late in At-Tuwani. I was probably the only person in the village who wasn’t dressed yet.“I’m at home,” I said.
“Why?” Ahmed demanded. “Yalla, you should be here. Yehosaphat Tor is in the village.”
It’s strange to know the name of a person who would like to kill you or your loved ones, but everyone in the village knew Yehosaphat Tor well. He was one of the founders of the Israeli settlement next to At-Tuwani. We learned from his interviews with Israeli media outlets that he believed that God gave Palestine to Jewish people, so he decided to move to a nearby hill, build a settlement, and try to drive out his new Palestinian neighbors. Over the years, we learned to stay out of the reach of his long arms. It was Yehosaphat Tor who smashed the camera out of one of my colleague’s hands and beat him in the head with it. If he was here, something bad was about to happen.
I pulled jeans over my pajamas, zipped up my coat, covered my bedhead with a hat, and ran out the door.
Yehosaphat Tor strode through the center of the village, flanked by Israeli soldiers. He walked straight into the sheep pen next to my neighbor’s house. Is he looking for something? I wondered.
I overheard my neighbor Khalil arguing with a soldier. “If he thinks we’ve stolen one of his sheep, bring the police and conduct a normal search,” he said. “Does the rule of law mean anything to Israel?”
“Yeah,” I joined in. I repeated Khalil’s argument in Arabic, but in my own simplified style. “Fi qanoon fil Israel?” Are there laws in Israel?
Khalil turned and laughed at me. I realized that I sounded like a petulant child. “What?” I said. “I’m angry too!”
Over the next few minutes, my blustering bravery vanished. More than a dozen settlers entered the village, followed by another jeep of Israeli soldiers. The soldiers took their places between my neighbors and the group of settlers, as though they were protecting them from us. The settlers were armed with guns and grins. Before coming to Palestine, I thought that hatred looked angry, but I have learned that usually it smiles. A smile can have sharpened corners and flash like a knife.
None of my Palestinian neighbors were smiling. They watched while the settlers picked up large stones from the ground, laughing all the while. I could tell that Nadir believed that they were about to hurl those stones, because he started to negotiate with a soldier.
“We’ll go back into our houses if they leave,” he implored. The soldier stared right through him, not bothering to respond.
One of my neighbors snapped, “Gullihum Allahu Akbar.” Tell them, Alluhu Akbar. Alluhu Akbar is a prayer, my very favorite one. It means “God is greater.” God is greater: greater than this mess, than the occupation, than Yehosaphat Tor. God is greater than the settlers who poisoned the village well, greater than the soldiers who tortured Ahmed, and greater than me, and my fear and shame. Shame really was what I felt, because I was supposed to be there to support this movement, but all I could think was shit. Something was about to happen and I wished that everyone would just go home.
Settlers started to throw stones at Khalil’s wife, Jumana, and his sisters, Leila and Safa. The women didn’t flinch. As the stones flew at them, they cracked jokes. When soldiers threatened to arrest them, Leila yelled that they could take her whole family to jail if they wanted.
The soldiers raised their assault rifles from their hips and pointed them out at chest height. But they didn’t point them at the rock-throwing settlers. No, the guns were pointed at Jumana, Safa, Leila. They were pointed at Khalil, Nadir, and Ahmed. At me.
I heard shouting, and swiveled my camera toward the cries. A soldier drew back his fist and punched one of my neighbors in the face. It was like we were on the set of a Clint Eastwood movie, not beside Khalil’s house and the shop where I bought tomatoes and chocolate wafers. I saw that it was Mohammed, the quietest, least imposing man in the village. His nose was bleeding. I remembered the time I found him standing in a field of charred wheat. His crops had been burned down by settlers. Back then, his shoulders were slumped forward, the saddest look on his face. He looked the same now.
A soldier pointed his gun toward me. Then he fired. The boom hurt my ears. Suddenly, my bladder clenched and released. I waited for urine to stain my pants, but I was so dehydrated that nothing came out. I looked around and wondered why no one was shot. As my brain began to catch up, I realized that the soldier had fired a sound bomb, intended to render me stunned.
I knew they would start firing tear gas next and that if they did, it could be deadly. I wouldn’t be able to breath in the acid air and it would be easy, too easy, for the casing to ricochet and hurt someone. As the soldier reached for the canister velcroed to his chest, I stepped in front of him.
I started yelling in English. “Don’t do it. There are women and children here. Don’t shoot that!” That’s what you do. That’s what you yell. It’s not heroic; it’s human.
I wanted to continue screaming, “Don’t shoot, because there are men here too. Because next to me is standing Abu Niem, and he is 70 and I don’t want him to get hurt. Don’t kill the women, the children, the fathers, or the young men. Don’t shoot me either.”
The soldier lowered his gun. I don’t know why. Some sort of moment ended. The settlers must have sensed it too, because they began to withdraw. Soon, the army followed them. I stood there, still alive, with dry pants only by luck. Allahu akbar.
A journalist carrying a microphone and camera stepped in front of me. Someone must have called the media earlier. “Can we interview you?” he asked.
“In Arabic?” I yelped.
“No, no,” he reassured me. “English.” He handed the microphone to Nadir. The journalist said, “Look at him, and explain what happened.”
I locked eyes with Nadir, who spoke little English, and I told him in my native language everything that we had both seen that morning. I was used to speaking to him in Arabic and it took concentration to look into his eyes and say words I knew he couldn’t understand. I still remember the expression on his face, tender and sad. I ended the interview as quickly as possible so he wouldn’t see me cry.
I still find the Israeli military occupation of Palestine confusing. When my friends and family ask me about my experiences, I can explain Israeli military regulations, court cases, and weaponry. I am practiced at telling stories about the violence my Palestinian friends endure. I think I have helped my loved ones to understand the impact of Israel’s military occupation, even if my own heart can’t comprehend it.
What I can’t make my friends and family understand is this: it wasn’t bravery that led me to stand besides my Palestinian friends in front of Israeli soldiers. I am not an exceptional person. I did the same things that Palestinians do every day. In doing so, I risked far less than they do, but I did it for the same reasons. I did it out of love.
Joy Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Lunch Ticket, Chicago Literati, Racialicious, and in other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. Joy believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net.