The tale of an Israeli smile

“Do you know what the best thing about tonight is?”. I answered honestly, “No”. The soldier pushes his helmet back up his forehead with the butt his gun and says, “I get to drive these British Land Rovers”. I am not sure how to respond to this and so I sheepishly smile back. My coy response does not deters the soldier, who I later find out is called John, from continuing. “The Palestinians are really suffering you know”. I sensed an old IDF trick coming on, luring lefty NGO types into a false sense of security so I volunteered, “so are the Israelis”. John’s response was telling, “Are you crazy man? You really think the Israelis are suffering in comparison to the Palestinians?”

By this point I will admit that a certain degree of surrealism had been entrenched into the proceedings. I had been called by a local Palestinian at around 1:00 in the morning. He said that the IDF were in his house and they going to arrest his brothers and I should come quickly. As I turned the corner to his house I was met by at least 3 jeeps and an unknown number of soldiers. At first I negotiated a compromise about where my colleague and I could stand to monitor the proceedings. A few minutes later though one of the soldiers beckoned me over and at first started to interrogate me before letting himself slip into casual conversation.

Ignoring the growing sense of irony I pushed on with John, “A lot of Israelis are living in fear, they feel scared all the time, it is not good to live your life in fear”. The IDF soldier, now the voice of rationality in this increasingly bizarre conversation chirped back, “I know that but this fear cannot justify what we are doing here in the West Bank”. I trailed off, “No…of course not”. John was either a master at using reverse psychology or he was an Israeli soldier who was genuinely concerned about the Palestinians.

In the following 5 minutes we talked about the London bombings and how this had fuelled a growing suspicion of Muslim communities in London and what steps could be taken to breakdown this divide. I talked about multi faith projects I have been involved in and he listened with genuine interest. Our conversation meandered easily through politics and religion. After a while I tried to steer the conversation back to the reality in which we found ourselves.

As casually as one can ask an occupying soldier I said, “so, what are you guys up to this evening?”. I was meant to be getting answers to why they were terrorising a community in the middle of night for no apparent reason. Instead I sounded like I was flirting. I clarified, “what are you’re…ummm…objectives?”. The soldier laughed, smiled and said, “We are here for security, I think you know what that means”. I smiled and nodded as if this sort of response comes up all the time and I knew exactly what he meant. Of course I didn’t really know but I guessed this either meant they were there for no reason at all, or there was some super secret army reason for them being there that he couldn’t let on about. I suspected the former.

I glanced around and watched a collection of silhouettes on the roof tops. Men looking on to try and see what the IDF were doing. John caught my glances and reassured me, “they are just curious, there is nothing to be afraid of”. My colleague was stood 20 yards back nervously trying to work out what on earth I could be still talking about after 10 minutes or so of conversation. I knew it was time to draw this surreal conversation to a close. To do this, you would ordinarily ask a closed question like, “Is there anything else?” (a standard way to close what was meant to be an interrogation). On this night though I pushed my thumb into the palm of my hand and said, “I am really sorry, I don’t want to appear to be rude or anything, but if I stay and chat to you here for too long everyone will want to know what I was talking to the soldier about. It might cause some problems tomorrow. I hope you understand”. I was apologising to an occupying soldier for having to break off our nice little midnight chat. Once again, a big smile spreads across John’s face and he beams, “of course, I hear the Israelis have got a bit of bad reputation around these parts”.

As I walked back to my colleague, I felt two completely contradictory emotions. I could feel the cold metal being aimed at my back as I walked away, soldiers poised with suspicion ready to strike at any moment. The cold harsh reality of occupation – soldiers storming houses in the middle of night, interrogating, harassing and intimidating. Then, in complete contrast to this I felt John’s warmth. In my mind’s eye I saw his smile and could hear his soft laughter. Within a few minutes John had shown me a sign a hope and optimism that I know will stay with for days to come.

What will stay with the villagers however is another night time incursion, another family traumatised by interrogation. Mothers and fathers terrified at the prospect of their sons being arrested. Young men having another sleepless night living under the constant threat of arrest. They know too well that being a young male is enough to have you dragged from your house in the middle of the night with no explanation. This will stay with them for longer than just a few days, this will be with the for the rest of their lives.

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7 Comments

Filed under Human rights, Middle East, War

7 responses to “The tale of an Israeli smile

  1. That was really interesting. I imagine you on the corner of the shop across the street. I both hope and I don’t hope that I will have the chance of experiencing the same. Thanks!

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  2. christiarts

    Steve, great blog. I suspect this conversation was so weird because the soldier did not expect you to talk with him as a human being. You were willing to attempt to engage on another level in the face of the weapons and in the middle of the night. I’d be interested to read the soldier’s impression of the same conversation, I can imagine him wondering why this NGO guy is talking to him even though he is the enemy! I think a lot of these soldiers wonder what they are doing out there in the West Bank. Nice work and thanks for your peace witness.
    Chris, EA

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  3. Jenna

    Another great piece Steve, please don’t start flirting with soldiers……..beautifully written and defiantly captures the attention of the readers.

    big love xx

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  4. anyawhiteside

    Brilliant blog -well done Steve

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  5. Liz

    Steve What a great blog – really gets to the heart of how there are just no winners in this terrible situation, but also dialogue can sometimes happen when you approach people as humans rather than as symbols of oppression. Good stuff.
    Liz

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  6. Martin Whiteside

    Hi Steve
    Excellent, It is important to try to understand the human side of an inhumn situation. Keep going and stay safe.
    Martin

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  7. Another top notch blog. Perhaps unsurprising that “John” was friendly, where “IDF Soldier #194225” would be suspicious and hostile. Let’s be fair, it’s rarely the grunts on the ground’s fault. Would it be true to suggest that they were so vague about their objectives because they simply weren’t told – just that “you need to go and grab this bloke, for security reasons”? Given this fascinating insight, and given that you are out there nominally as an impartial third party, is there a chance you can get yourself interrogated more often, so as to see whether this is a general trend among the young IDF grunts, or whether you met a particularly human one?

    Not that I’m trying to get you killed, you understand. Not much anyway.

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