I was on the bus returning from Bethlehem, lost in another world listening to music and gazing out of the window as the steel Behemoth made its precarious way through the winding, narrow streets of Beit Jala. I was looking for my favorite piece of graffiti; scrawled with an unsteady hand in black spray paint – SUCK MY DICK! It never failed to make me snicker when I saw it – proof that there is some cultural universality.
I’d been reflecting on how nice it had been not dealing with the presence of soldiers while in Bethlehem, my body had begun to relax after time spent in Al-Kahlil (Hebron) and to a lesser extent Al Quds (Jerusalem). It was then, of course, that the bus came to a full stop at the checkpoint near Gilo and two soldiers entered the bus. The first was a short curvaceous female with beautiful curling black hair and green eyes who couldn’t have been more than 19 years old. She stood erect at the front, next to the driver, allowing her partner to move past her. He was as thin as a reed, his closely cropped red hair and blue eyes clashing with his olive drab uniform. He glanced at my passport while I sized him up in an effort to determine his threat level then continued on to the back of the bus. Despite the assault rifle dangling at his hip, I didn’t think too much of him.
…But when an IOF soldier catches a Palestinian woman by surprise it doesn’t matter what his size is, the effect is still the same…
Without a word he yanked the woman up by free arm – the other holding her baby – and smashed her face against the window. As blood began to trickle from her nose I felt every scrap of courage leave my body, anchoring me to the hard plastic seat. The woman’s mother sprang from her seat, screaming hysterically at the solider whose only response was to shove her back in her seat. Amidst the screaming of woman, mother and child the solider dragged her off the bus, the night just beyond the windows swallowing her up as the bus doors closed with a swoosh and we began to move again. I clapped my hand over my mouth fighting the urge to vomit, disgusted with the soldier’s brutality but more so with my own inaction.
What has made me the most uncomfortable since I’ve returned has been the reaction of my peers. I’d been prepared to hear that I was foolish, reckless even, to venture to Palestine for the reasons I did. In fact, I had hid my trip from all but my immediate circle of friends and family primarily because I didn’t want to hear them attempt to talk me out of it. I wasn’t, however, prepared to hear people tell me that I was a good person “for what I did” or that I was brave. The confusion and uncomfortability with these statements are twofold; What did I do? I went to be a witness (and to witness) and to come back to the states to share my experiences. I helped no one in any marked or tangible way, and I feel that to be called such is insulting to my friends who either must or choose to live in these conditions. Second, I don’t feel brave – as the above story emphasizes.
During my time I found myself confronted with situations that made my stomach drop in fear. More often than not I had my team(s) behind me – people I could trust to stick with me and, more importantly, knew where I was and who to contact if something should have happened. When on my own and confronted with the very real situation – that should something happen – no one would know where I was and I’d have no help at my disposal, my courage melted away and was replaced with fear that caused me to freeze. Some might want to call this “prudence,” but I assure you – it was cowardice.
I wanted to share this story because I think it’s important to stress that I’m no paragon of mercy and altruism. I’m just as fucked up and selfish as the next person, the only difference being that I’m aware of that and try to compensate for it. My strength and courage is drawn from my teams – other activists who are passionate about what’s going on – and the implicit trust that we have each other’s backs.
Further, I think it’s crucial – as activists – to understand that cowardice is a reality. Fear will steal across you, and you will freeze – it WILL happen. You’re going to beat yourself to hell about it – like I’ve done since that day on the bus- but both of us need to remind ourselves that we are not perfect. We are not saviors – nor should we intend to be, as it’s oppressive – it’s impossible to be on point all the time. Sometimes we’re tired, burnt out, sick, scared or just.. CAN’T RIGHT NOW. It’s ok .. it’s ok to be all of these things, so long as we’re continuing to make steps forward to better our witness/action.
In the words of my mentor- Be kind to yourself.