Preoccupied Territories

I am awakened by gunfire. Through plastic sheeting that covers the window, the sky shows murky black. For a moment I think I must have been dreaming, but after some seconds I hear another series of shots. They are coming from the street, directly below.

What advice did I hear about gunfire? Get down flat on the floor. I am already on the floor, on a foam mattress. I can smell carpet fibers, mildew, cardamom, dust. I listen. Some moments pass, then another shot, farther down the street. Retreating. Another, farther yet. After a minute, nothing more. I hear my own breathing.

The house is silent. I wonder if anyone else is awake, or if they've learned to sleep through this sort of thing by now. Then I hear the muffled voice of Ibrahim in the next room. As quietly as I can, I dress. I put on my shoes too, thinking we all may need to leave in a hurry.

When I open the door, Ibrahim looks around at me. He's sitting on the bed, cell phone to his ear. His young brothers are still asleep under blankets on their floor mats; his four sisters and mother are in the other room, also asleep. The only light is the green glow from his phone, illuminating the right side of his face.

Fifteen, handsome and sullen, at least in my presence, he would surely in another life spend his days playing hoop, dating girls. Instead he calls around to friends and neighbors in the middle of the night for news of how great the danger is this time. As a Palestinian Muslim, he can no longer live a normal life. He attends high school only on noncurfew days; he devises strategies to stay clear of soldiers.

"Are you scared?" he asks now in English, hanging up the phone. These are the first words he's spoken to me since I arrived at his house several days earlier. "I don't know," I say. "Are you?"

"I don't know," he answers, and we laugh uneasily.

In truth, I'm not that scared. The soldiers outside are Israeli, and I'm an American, a Jew. I speak Hebrew. I don't believe they would shoot me. For Ibrahim, it is different. He knows what gunfire means in the middle of the night. We stand together in the dark until it seems reasonable to assume the soldiers aren't coming for him. He decides to return to bed. I go toward my room. "Don't sleep up against the wall," he says.

It probably needs to be said explicitly: I love Israel. I want with every fiber of my body and mind for it to continue to exist as a state. And I know that in the Middle East, nothing is simple. It's easy to look at the overwhelming oppression of the Palestinians by Israel today and see it as an inexplicable wrong. But there is also context to be considered.

Before I came to Nablus, I spent a few days in Tel Aviv. I found myself veering away from passing buses, always thinking twice, deciding against breakfast in a pleasant outdoor cafe. I felt gratitude, even reverence, for the security guards who unsmilingly opened my purse at the entrances of Dizengoff Center. To be an Israeli these days is to be always afraid and furious. Furious about having to be so afraid.

In that context, the Israeli reaction to the Palestinians is understandable. It is a product of fear and anger. But as a country born to address a gargantuan wrong, Israel has an overwhelming responsibility to behave righteously. After spending a month in the West Bank refugee camp of Balata near the city of Nablus, I can't see much that is righteous in Israel's actions. More pragmatically, they are counterproductive.

Some 20,000 people live in Balata camp, in a square mile of cement apartment blocks built so close together you have to turn sideways to walk through many of its alleyways. In many homes you see gaping holes in walls between apartments left by Israeli soldiers who found it safer to get from one home to another by blasting through walls rather than going back out on the street. Sheets and blankets have been hung to cover the holes, but neighbors can still smell the meals and hear the conversations of their neighbors.

Daily life in the camps is exhausting. One day, leaving a checkpoint, I share a cab with Awad, a 40-year-old floor maintenance contractor and father of three who, like me, was trying to get back to Balata camp from Ramallah. The trip should take an hour: It takes us six. One checkpoint is relatively quick, half an hour, but others are said to be slower, so the cab goes far out of the way to avoid them.

At an impassable roadblock, we leave the cab behind. For a while we hitch a ride on a donkey cart going our way. Later, a passing truck lets us ride in the back. Then another cab. By the time we get to the hills near Nablus, it is dark, after curfew. No taxi is willing to risk going to Balata. So we walk the last mile, avoiding open roads and not talking, so as not to call attention to ourselves. "At home, we hike for fun," I whisper, and we both laugh. When we finally get to Balata, Awad takes me to his home to meet his family. His three young children throw themselves at him, grabbing his legs. "Daddy's home! Alive! Not arrested!"

Education, which used to be a ladder out of poverty for bright and ambitious Palestinians, is now an endurance test. At a Nablus checkpoint, where I serve one day as a monitor for the International Solidarity Movement, I meet Dina and a group of other female students, all of whom wear head coverings and long coats, on their way to classes at An Najah University in Nablus. They have been waiting to pass, along with 34 Palestinian men, since 7 a.m. Now, at 11, they are late for classes. Three of them have exams. The papers of all those waiting were collected at the beginning of the day, but since then no one has been allowed through. There is no explanation other than that the soldiers must "check them."

The commanding soldier, Ariel, recognizes me. For the last few weeks, I've been coming to observe checkpoints like this one. Today it is raining. I ask him whether there is a way to provide shelter for the people waiting. He tells me not to worry about "these people." But I do worry. We wait together until 6 that evening, when the soldiers agree to let everyone pass through. But it's too late. Most of those waiting return home.

Everyone has a story of what the Israelis have done. Halima, a single mother of 10, says that when soldiers searched her house they took her life savings of 1,000 shekels ($207). She had been saving in hopes of someday being able to send at least one of her children to university. Her once-tidy and pretty home is filled with the reminders of the intrusion: directional arrows spray painted on the wall, a Jewish star, broken windows, splintered doors, tank shell holes in the walls.

The soldiers aren't happy to be here as occupiers, but the ones I speak with all believe their presence is important: We are trying to stop people who are a danger to Israel, they say.

I believe them. I understand their urge to clamp down in order to feel more secure. But after spending time in the occupied territories I don't believe that clamping down will make things more secure. The measures being taken to ensure Israel's security in relation to the West Bank -- whether it's building fences, digging trenches, piling up roadblocks, arming checkpoints, erecting gates, bulldozing and blowing up homes, destroying groves and farms, firing tanks and automatic rifles into crowds, arresting people without charge, conducting "targeted killings" -- only fuel Palestinian despair.

My friend Dahoud, 27, used to work as a suit salesman in Tel Aviv. For the last two years of curfews and checkpoints he's been stuck in Nablus, taking whatever odd jobs he can find. Now he delivers tanks of propane to offices. He makes 30 shekels ($6.25) a day. He is married, has two children. He used to have three. Six months ago his 1 1/2-year-old son was shot to death by a sniper while playing outside the house. "I don't hate the Israelis," he tells me. "I don't hate anybody. But this life is not living."

Dahoud is a peace-loving man. He's not going to be a suicide bomber. But despair easily turns into rage, and when it does there is no fence high enough for the kind of security Israel longs for -- and deserves.


Lynn Cohen is a Los Angeles writer.

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