Memoir of an Atrocity

Posted on August 18, 2010


On October 12, 2000, I watched two Israelis killed by a mob in Ramallah.

I’m not sure why I’ve never written about this before. When I was working on my failed novel, I did include a fictionalized account of the event. But, as I, said, that’s a failed novel. And I was never quite sure whether I felt comfortable fictionalizing it, or which parts were best fictionalized. Part of the reason I haven’t written about it is because I’m wary of the way it can be used to portray Palestinians (and Muslims/Arabs) in general. It’s good to be as honest as possible, but when the public discourse is so full of mendacity on an issue, there’s hardly a point in introducing something unflattering into the collective focus. Fictionalizing it would have borne some of the same risks, unless I’d completely removed it from its context, which I didn’t want to do.

There’s also the threat, made at the time, by the Israeli government, that they would “find everyone” who’d been at the place where this event took place and bring them to “justice”. On the one hand, that’s obvious propaganda, meant to evoke memories of the crusading Mossad and their adventures in capturing Holocaust perpetrators. On the other hand, I have enough problems.

Don’t ask me why I feel the need to write about it now. Perhaps because I’ve been in several conversations lately that posit some kind of pitchfork mobbing as a solution to the stagnation currently afflicting attempts to re-jigger our two party oligarchy. Maybe this can inform that conversation. Or maybe I just want to get it off my chest after a decade.

First, some context. Between September 30 and October 12, 2000, something like one hundred Palestinians had been killed in Israeli attacks. The  territories were sealed off, and to add insult to injury,  the loathsome regime of Yassir Arafat had ordered closures of all businesses. But I want to make it clear that it wasn’t just these things responsible for what happened on October 12, 2000. There was also a great deal of anger at the Palestinian Authority and at Israel. In general, people seemed to blame them both nearly equally for the lack of advances in the so-called peace process. It was easy for me to dismiss this “peace process” cynically as a charade. But for Palestinians encircled by closures, still haunted by the Israeli military and watching their land subsumed bit by bit as a natural and directed consequence of the Oslo Process, it was a crushing decade of disillusionment. While those people, like me, who could participate in the artificial Oslo economy of NGO’s lived it up in places like Ramallah, the average Palestinian saw their prospects for work, for a decent future, dwindling in a diminishing horizon that had once promised more than just the right to wave a Palestinian flag.  On the day of this incident, a local family was burying one of its sons, who had been killed by Israeli fire a few days earlier.

It was into this context that two Israeli soldiers wearing civilian clothing and driving a civilian car somehow got off the main Israeli highway and crashed the funeral procession. The odds of this happening by strict accident are staggeringly low. Israeli only highways are just that—for Israelis only. There is no exit or entrance into Palestinian areas, for this very reason. These highways lead to settlements and army bases, or army bases housed in settlements. They don’t go to Area A cities like Ramallah—sole Palestinian Authority security control—for obvious reasons. Some people suggest that the pair were undercover Israeli black baggers. Several such kidnappings had been caught on tape. But if that was the case, then, they were the B team on shrooms.

In any case, this is how they ended up in the police station. Despite what you are led to believe about the Palestinian Authority, it is quite simply and always looking out for the best interests of Israel and Israelis. That is their number one job. Job number two is the harassment of Palestinian citizens. Job number three is the provision of state services. Job number four is negotiating a just end to the conflict. There’s not a lot of time left over for three and four. Palestinian Authority security forces had found the Israeli soldiers and, for their own protection, housed them in a police station on the main drag. PA security had to do that, because the funeral procession the Israelis had managed to intersect with would have probably killed them right then and there for reasons I’ve already explained.

This is where I come into the story. By October 2000, I was really fed up with Palestine. It had been a blast for most of the Summer. I’d danced at the underground discos, I’d drunk beer at the speakeasies; and yeah, that was a a lot of fun. I’d had the amazing experience of reconnecting with relatives, of hearing the stories, of sitting on ancestral land, standing in the center of the stone hut where my father was born. I mean, he really was born there, right in this odd little stone structure. That had been worth the price of admission all by itself. But when the Second Intifada started, my pretty little world of ethnic self-integration collapsed around me. There would be no more discos. For a while, and for the next two years or so intermittently, the road to my family’s home was unsafe, and my cousins worried about Israeli settler/snipers.

Most of all, it was depressing. Between the dozens of deaths a week, the endless plumes of black smoke from the burning tires, the closures and the PA mandated shut down, there was nothing to do but contemplate my feelings of guilt. Endless waves of guilt. And shame for who I was, for being an American, for not having been—like my peers—the graduate of various cumulative years of Israeli detention. Spending the first week or so throwing stones at soldiers, bearing my eyeballs and limbs to collect my just desserts (though, I never go so much as a scratch) did nothing to alleviate it. Some Western friends on the sidelines told me that I looked as if I was asking the Israelis to kill me. I laughed at them then, but in the ensuing years, I’ve come to think that that’s exactly what I was doing. Out of nothing more than slavish guilt, I stayed there and worked, doing the only thing I could offer, writing English language bullshit and PR. I stayed in the way a rueful child cares for their drunk parent—shame, guilt, bitterness ruled my life.

That day, I was coming into the main drag in a taxi and was stopped by a panicked Palestinian Security officer. There was a growing, noisy human mass at the police station, but still a pretty modest crowd. I remember one older lady who looked like a refrigerator in those big smocks the women-folk wear there, cursing at one of the PA security, moving her hands up and down with a visible force–as if there was a moral weight she was picking up and smashing him over the head with.

I ran into some friends a few minutes later, and they filled me in on some of the details. The crowd ballooned quickly, and before I knew it had closed in around me, and I was at the center of it, just a few feet away from the gate of the police station. Knowing what I knew, I have to be honest, I was worried about making eye contact with others in the crowd. There were some pretty angry folks there. My Arabic was awful. People had so often assumed that I was an Israeli because of my unconventional appearance, that I actually had to show my passport regularly at the clashes, in between picking up rocks to throw at Israeli soldiers. So I looked straight ahead, at the police station, because it was the safest way to avoid eye contact and conversation with my fellow “mobsters”.

In a sense, then, I had no choice but to watch what happened.

First, came the little obnoxious kid from Amari refugee camp, who sold gum on Irsal street. He climbed up on the low wall, and stood there addressing the crowd, swirling a Palestinian flag, yelling, “yahla, yahla”. Soon a few men took the challenge, and they made their way over the wall, past Palestinian security who pretended not to see them as they climbed. And after they made it over the wall, they scaled the building, using the trees to get inside open windows.

The rest happens in the window of the room where the soldiers were being kept. In my mind, it’s like a puppet show. One of the killers breaks the glass, pulling out a large shard. I know I can’t possibly be remembering this right, but in my head I see it as in the shape of Palestine. And the way I remember it, the way I add the details that  couldn’t see in the darkness beyond the window, I see him the killer in my mind’s eye plunging the shard into the Israeli’s flesh, the glass cutting into his palms as he thrusts the small end of the Palestine-shard again and again into the man’s body. Somehow, at some point, one of the Israelis makes his way to the window. He’s red, like a dipped apple, from head to toe. He beseeches the crowd, his hands pleading, and then he’s sucked back in. And a few minutes later, his carcass is tossed out the window like a bag of laundry, falling into the police station patio. I assume he was dead by that point. I hope for his sake that he was.

There was gunfire then. One of the PA security firing into the air. The crowd tried to move in a dozen directions at once. There was panic, and that was even scarier than anything that had come before. Panic is contagious; that’s one adage that’s definitely true. It’s contagious because you assume that the woman screaming next to you may be aware of something you haven’t noticed yet, and that the guy running in the opposite direction behind her, might have seen something else that she and you haven’t. And when you’re in a military occupation, in the middle of a mob, right after a murder, where various people have guns and every one is frightened; well, that’s never good news. I remember, picking a direction, running, following a young woman wearing a hijab for lack of a better idea.

Dealing with what I saw was more difficult for me than I wanted it to be. Everything was closed the next day still, but I ran into a friend of mine–I’ll call him K, just for safety’s sake. He said something that I would hear repeated again and again throughout the next two or so years, especially after 911. “We’ve lost our humanity”, he said. It wasn’t an apology, but a bitter recrimination that I understood all too well by the time I left that place.

For the next week or so, I had horrible dreams, where blood splashed across the white walls of my room. When I woke up, the image was often still there on the wall for a second or two, before it faded into the white plaster, littered with the corpses of the many mosquitoes I had smashed against it over the months. Eventually, I stopped having those dreams. But I feel as if I lost a huge amount of myself in the process; something like a data dump. There were, after that, memories I could no longer access with the same clarity, some things that felt as if they happened to somebody else, pieces of myself I never managed to get back. It’s hard to explain. As if there was an excision of something gangrenous, and they took out some of the good stuff as well.

A few years ago, I was looking up the incident, to see how it was beginning to enter the historical record, if at all, and I found some video that I had never seen. A friend of mine had been down the street when it happened, and he had told me later that there had been some men parading down the street with the guts of the Israelis in their hands. In the video, I saw one of those men, happily holding up a bloody remnant of one of the Israelis. He was someone that I knew from around town, a very beautiful young man with striking grey eyes, dark skin and brown hair who always wore a leather jacket and walked with a cane. Certainly, one of the coolest dudes I’d ever seen, but also a real sweetheart, who had an easy laugh and always insisted on buying me coffee.

In all that time, it had never even occurred to me that he had been on Irsal street on that day. I had never asked him, he had never told me. I still don’t know what to think about that. Once I opened up his memory for re-inspection, then I had to begin asking myself about everything and everyone I had ever known. Not just there, but in San Leandro, in New Orleans, in New York.

This is what a mob is: not faceless strangers that disappear back into the city when the violence is done. But neighbors and the people we know from the everyday, freed from the dream of order and consequences, given license to convert their pain into atrocity.

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