“That soldier is me
By Aya Kaniuk
It had been some years before I met him. F. and three other youngsters like him, 16.5-19 years-old at the time, sitting at the foot of the wall that was being constructed just then, and thinking about how they’d topple the Israeli regime.
They were all born in Qalandiya refugee camp.
One idea was to throw grenades at the checkpoint. But they didn’t know how to make grenades. The second idea was to prepare lots of Molotov cocktails and hurl them with a slingshot instead of stones. But then R. said that the fire would go out immediately and it wasn’t worth it. Another idea was to place explosives inside tires and then roll them at the soldiers going off on their usual hunting sprees around the camp. But they didn’t know how to prepare explosives either, nor was there anyone who could teach them.
Finally they decided to blast the Apartheid wall. They concluded that in the near future they should learn how to prepare some serious explosives. After they’ll learn how, they’d prepare a large quantity, and place the first ‘installment’ right where they were sitting. They marked the spot with some large stones which they dragged over there together.
And after placing the explosives, they told each other, the wall would blow up, and that’s how everyone would know that Palestinians don’t remain silent.
And after discussing their far-reaching plans they went home. And actually forgot about it all. Because they didn’t really know what to do or how. And they were young and happy in spite of it all.
Two months later soldiers came in the night and picked up F., who was
17.5 years-old at the time.
I was asleep, he told me, and then heard this loud boom because they broke down the door. And I was terribly scared. There were yells for everyone go get into one room. M. and R. had not been born yet. I was barefoot, he went on. We were all barefoot. Only Mom wore slippers. There were ten soldiers, I think. One of them spoke Arabic but was no Arab. And then he yelled for us to bring him all our IDs. And only Mom and Dad and I had IDs. E. didn’t have one although he had already turned 16, the rest were little. Dad handed him the IDs.
Then they called out my name, F. And Mom yelled “No!” and ran and hung on to the soldier. My dad chased and held her and said to the soldier, “Don’t kill her!” because just half-a-year earlier Umm Bilal jumped at the soldier who took her son and the soldier gave her a blow and she had a stroke and died.
And the soldier laughed. I remember him laughing because they had black paint on their faces so when he laughed his teeth were so white.
F. was tried for attempting to blow up Qalandiya Checkpoint. And was sentenced to three years in Damoun Prison. The rest of the boys got similar sentences.
It was difficult but not terrible, he said when I asked him. It’s only hard in the interrogations, he added. They beat you up and harass you, and so… But in prison it wasn’t so bad. The food isn’t that good. And not enough. And I had no money for the canteen. And I learned Hebrew, and English too. Because the older guys there gave us lessons.
But the most difficult thing was not seeing his family, he said. His mother received a visitor’s permit twice in that whole period of time, and his father didn’t get one at all, nor his brother E. Only his two little sisters H. and S. who came every few months.
A year before he was scheduled for release, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. And F. became restless and quarreled all the time. At first he was placed in isolation for two weeks and even there he would pace and yell all the time, so he was brought in for a talk with the Shabak captain who would come to the jail. He’s called Captain Aiman but that’s not his name, F. said. Nor is he Arab.
The captain told him he could get out even the next day and be with his dad, because he’s a good guy who got in trouble and the captain knows it. F. said nothing and waited because he already knew there are no free handouts there, so he was given a cigarette and took it, and coffee, and then the captain said: There’s a lot of trouble at the checkpoint, not good kids like yourselves who only got in trouble. I only need someone to tell me who sends them. They’re poor kids, believe me, they come to me and say they don’t want to be like that. They’re only told to go to the checkpoint and throw stones.
And I told him I don’t care about all of that, and I’ll stay in jail, I don’t want this, and I don’t need anything, and I’m not a ‘jasus” (spy, collaborator).
And then he said, but you’re sitting here because of a jasus.
And I said, yes, and you want me to end up like that jasus will end up after people find out who it was?
And he said, that jasus is your brother.
And I got up and tried to hit him and the two guys who were in that room with him grabbed me and beat me up until I passed out.
And I remembered how his little brother went to the checkpoint and said, I came to kill a Jew, and I understood it all.
That he had tried to come away clean. It was his way of expressing regret for what he’d done. For what he’d been pushed to do. And because of that he wanted no help in court. No relief. And he kept saying he wants to end up in jail “to be with my brother and kill whoever got him in prison”.
And F. says that afterwards he was in a bad way. He kept quiet a lot. And was sad. And when he went home he wasn’t glad. And then one day he suddenly realized that he had to forgive him, forgive his brother. And he did. And got up. And looked for work and began to help at home and planned to go study medicine in Russia because at that time they were still giving Palestinians scholarships, and we also met a little later.
On that day there was a demonstration at Qalandiya. I think it had some theme. It was lately. A Nakbah Day demonstration or right after Mahmoud Abbas declared a state, or the Day of Rage, anyway not too long ago. But it happens so often there. And they’re not really demonstrations in the usual sense.. On one side stand the Occupation soldiers with their helmets and guns and cocky callousness and love of war. On the other side they are faced with children and boys and stones from Qalandiya refugee camp and nameless anger and radiant youth.
And so soldiers shoot and children and boys from the camp throw stones. For years now. And if for some reason the boys stop throwing stones, the soldier shoot to arouse them. And they do. And the soldiers shoot some more. Aiming directly. Close range. Because they may and can. And with the years this is how they have been killed, one by one – 14-year old Omar Matar, 12.5 year-old Ahmad Abu Latifa, the brothers Samer and Yassar Kusba… and all the others. Because this is Occupation.
And then I saw two little brothers of his. M. and A. And A., who is a really tiny child stood with a stone he could hardly grip in his little hands. And I was a bit worried because they were really small and it is so dangerous, but I kept still, for what could I say to them. And isn’t it their right to resist evil in their own way, and this is their toddlers’ way.
But there was one really difficult moment in which a much older man than the boys came out of his house, one of the houses along the alley above the main road heading out from the checkpoint towards Ramallah. He began walking towards the main road, slowly, his back to the soldiers standing in a row with their guns pointed, right next to the home of Fatma and Sami Asad. I was saying to myself that the soldiers must be looking with their binoculars and seeing him coming out of that house, that he doesn’t belong to the group demonstrating, that he is not in this even for them, who see any resistance to the Occupation as a crime, and that he’s not young – when the bullet hit his back. And like in the movies, his body shook a bit, he kept walking another step or two, rocking, his eyes sinking into themselves, his legs toppling like cards, and he collapsed and fell. Red crescent medics ran to him and picked him up. The siren of the ambulance speeding towards Ramallah blasted the sky for a moment.
And I have no idea what happened to him.
I phoned F. because even if his little brothers have a right to take out their just anger at uninhibited Occupation soldiers, still it was so dangerous that I couldn’t help it. He said he was coming and actually did right away, several moments later.
And the soldier were sniping mercilessly, at everyone. And he found them, his brothers, and said to them, come on boys, and they smiled at their big, strong and successful brother. And they immediately left the demonstration and joined him. All four of us got away from the teargas and the gunfire, and walked up the hill towards the road to Ramallah until we were real far from it all, and sat down on a low wall by the roadside.
And first I spoke. About those soldiers. About their being like cattle. To go and do whatever they’re told and shelter behind big empty words like “defense” and “sacrifice” and “duty”, when all that motivates them is a lust for togetherness, and firing guns no matter at whom, and because that’s what is the accepted norm and socially lucrative, nothing else.
That they don’t see humans. Only faceless symbols. And that I wish they’d all go to prison, I told F. Every single one of them. And I spoke of their mothers who collaborate. That it is a cliché of love, not love itself – to stand by as their son goes to the army. And not only going off to hurt another people just because it is ‘other’, but to risk his own self.
And after speaking constantly for a while, we fell silent. And while we were silent he sent one of the kids to get us something to drink and falafel. And then he said to me:
Aya, just so you know, those Israeli soldiers whom you badmouth so much, they are me.
That soldier is me, too. And I raised my face in wonder.
When I threw stones at soldiers, wasn’t I like that? Battle-happy, no matter what for? Out for the action, because it was the popular thing to do, and the norm, and what everyone did?
But those soldiers hold guns. They maintain the checkpoint that prevents your family from having a life. Over land that was taken by force from your relatives. And they represent and enforce a policy of theft and transfer, and state terrorism. They are not everyman. They do not represent justice.
It’s all true, you’re right, he said after some thought. It’s true, they’re unjust, I am more in the right. Because I’m acting in self-defense, and they’re on the offense. But still I think that when I was throwing stones at soldiers, I threw because that was what we all did then, and it was fun and risky.
And I think that this soldier too does what he’s doing especially when it’s what everyone does, and because it’s fun and risky. And he would have done good things too and opposed the bad things, if that was what everyone around him would have done.
It’s only by chance that he was sent out to serve the Occupation.
Okay, I say, but still it’s not the same thing, fighting your assailant and fighting someone you assault. You don’t really think it’s the same thing, soldiers and non-soldiers?
And he said, sure there’s a difference. Like I said, it’s different as far as what is right is concerned. There’s the occupier and the occupied. They’re not right, and we are. That’s obvious. It’s not a war of equals. These are people who came to us, we didn’t come to them. From the beginning they’re telling us, not here, this is not yours, and they kill and chase and shoot and take our lives and our health and our work and land and justice. And we have a right to resist this, and it’s our right.
And gunfire and throwing stones are not the same thing, either.
But the human being, he’s little. This one’s little and so is that one. Only in a history test they say Wehrmacht serving the Nazis is bad, and the attack of the Allies on Dresden is good. This soldier is good and that one, bad. This one serves justice and that one serves
injustice. But if I look at it from the human being’s point of view, I think that this is the soldier serving the norms of his time, and that one is the soldier serving the norms of his time.
But, F., I insisted, perhaps the motivation to be a soldier serving the State is similar under all regimes, and it’s not because the regime is this kind and not another that the youngster is attracted to the battlefield, and would be attracted to any battle at all, even for a less wrongful ideology. But when you were throwing stones it wasn’t the same thing. It’s not army. It’s spontaneous resistance to those who stamp their boots into your life, not so?
And F. said, I’m not sure you’re right, Aya. I thought about this a lot in jail, too. And I tell you this. It’s not easy to tell you but I say this from my heart. Would I not have gone out to throw stones if we were less right and they were less criminal? I’m not so sure… I don’t know… This is stupid, and that is stupid. This one’s small, and that’s one too. It’s the same thing. It’s similar. From the human point of view, as the little person, not the State, it’s the same. It’s similar. Very similar.
In the background we kept hearing gunfire and ambulances, and the teargas, although distant, reached us and once in a while we had to stop talking and wait until our lungs and throats cleared. And I was looking at F. and thinking how mature and amazing he is. And how he speak to me in Hebrew and in English and uses my languages with this fluency he’d achieved in his three years in jail, and I still can’t speak enough Arabic to converse with him, and thought this is terrible, really terrible, although that’s really another matter.
And I’ll tell you another thing, F. stepped into my thoughts. That soldier doesn’t even hate the guy whose blood he’ll be shedding. That’s how you say it, no? Shedding blood. Beautiful words. He kills because his buddies do it and he can. Because it’s allowed, it’s legal. And it’s considered doing good. And everyone does it. And everyone’s happy. And happy with him. But that’s not because he hates. He doesn’t kill out of hatred. Perhaps after he kills, he hates. But he doesn’t kill out of hatred. He kills because he likes to kill, and he likes to be with his buddies.
But the child throwing stones doesn’t throw them at just anyone, I insisted. Not at me. Only at the soldier. At the settlers. At whoever came along and took his life. And the soldier shoots people who have done nothing to him. Only because they’re Palestinians. And that’s racism.
And he said, that’s true, a little racism, but only a little. I agree with you that there really is more racism in your society than in ours. But still most of what those soldier do to us is not because of racism I think but more because of their buddies. The fun. What they learn in school. Because it’s considered really worthwhile. And gives one respect.
And I said, but F., would you throw stones at anyone or just at soldiers?
He chuckled and said, did you notice how you contain me, how you understand and justify me? And what about them, the Israeli soldiers? You don’t understand them. Why do you understand me, no matter what, and not them?
It’s like you’re taking a side, but the opposite one. Because you’re saying any Palestinian is right, and any Israeli is guilty. That’s racism too, a bit, isn’t it?
And I thought how he, from this place of his, could look and contain all that breadth, the breadth that I don’t possess, and see the humanity that is in every person, whoever that person may be, whatever that person might do. But then again I thought this is his privilege, to contain whoever harasses him and attacks him and robs him, I don’t have that privilege. I who do not belong to the victimized people at this point in history.
For me only judgment remains. And so I do. In every cell of my body. Judging those young Occupation soldiers with all their ringing meanness and their callousness and their mothers who do not prostrate themselves on the road to keep them from going, and the teachers who nurture in them the will to carry out this injustice and this malignant normality with which normal people do what everyone does because that is what everyone does no matter what.
And I said, that’s right. I have a side. But it’s not the way you explain my side. I mean, my side does not come from belonging anywhere. And it’s true that my side is not axiomatically and automatically, the Jewish Israeli people, really not. But nor is it the Palestinian people just because it is Palestinian. It’s not about nation or race or gender or ethnic belonging. It’s about who’s the victim.
At this point in history you are the victim.
Palestinians, at this point in history they are the victim. Not the Jewish Israeli people.
So that’s my side. The victim’s side.
He thought about it for a moment, and then smiled and said, so I’m glad it’s like this, and affectionately touched the head of one of his little brothers. We ate and drank in silence for another while and from afar, the clouds of teargas and the bullets which both of us forgot about, and about the potential casualties and the loss all dripped into everything like drops of sadness.
Translated by Tal Haran.“