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September journey part 20: To walk away from Omelas

Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian territories through a month of trial. And today: almost arrested again, this time for reporting to the police station as told.

Morning has broken. turning on the computer I find that the incredible Charlotte Gremmen translated another portion of this travelogue into Dutch. She does this fully pro bono, without having ever met me. I’m dying to go through her work and discern familiar lines, but have no time. This is the morning of my police interrogation.

At Tel Aviv’s rainy central bus station I board a sherut to Jerusalem. From there, a subsidized bus carries me to the large settlement of Qiryat Arba. Where the powers that be will accuse me of venturing into the forbidden Area A.

Not exactly the same scene as on yesterday's bus to Nablus.

Being entirely engulfed by Area A itself, Qiryat Arba seems to be a bit of a protruder in its own right. It is home to the gravesite of Baruch Godlstein, who assasinated over 30 Palestinians in 1993, shooting them in the back while they prayed in the Mosque at the Cave of the Ancestors. Goldstein was killed on the spot by members of the congragation who survived. On his grave, situated in the Meir Kahane park, he is discribed as a rightous man who died for the sake of the people of Israel. I’m a member of the people of Israel, guess I should be grateful.

The first word on the gravestone actually beatifies Goldstein as "saint."

Rather than a coherent town, Qiryat Arba it is a chain of small suburban communities, tied together by a road. On either side of this road are Palestinian lands and residences. The roads are fenced and the only way the villagers may cross the road is to go into central Hebron and from there head to a town located on the other side, thus overtaking the entire Qiryat Arba complex.

This process may take hours, but soon the problem will be gone. Settler trailers are spilling from the road into the countryside. Their well-known neighborly behaviour, described in Part 9 of this journey as seen from within Hebron itself, may soon force the villagers to relocate.

Honey, a new family just moved in next door, lets go bring them a plate of baklava.

When will I at last feel forced to relocate? The situation in Qiryat Arba is already too offensive to bear, and I am in part responsible for it, by paying taxes and by not crying out loudly enough.

Last night, over a beer in Ramallah, Ruthie and I were talking about our favorite science fiction stories. I mentioned “The ones who walk away from Omelas” by Ursula k. Le Guin. In the city of Omelas, happiness and prosperity are overwhelming, but there’s a condition: One mentally disabled child must remain held in one of its basements in a state of constant terror. The city’s residents learn of the secret as they come of age. Most of them learn to accept it, very few leave. The story ends with an image of those leaving making their way over the hills to lands of lesser joy and affluence. To the best of my memory, the option of freeing the kid isn’t discussed.

For myself, choosing to leave now would prove unwise, since I am suspected of a criminal offense and would be dodging the law. Later it may prove difficult, since a criminal record is an obstacle in obtaining immigrant visas. Seems that I have no choice but to stay the course.

The police station turns out not to be situated in Qiryat Arba at all, but in a small settlement within the boundaries of Hebron proper. To get into the settlement from the path I picked, one must know the combination for the lock.

I tried 1929, the year of the Hebron massacre, which is central to the ethos of local settlers. Didn't work.

I ask a few soldiers walking across the fence how I may get in. They tell me to surround the settlement and approach it from the west, where a small gate with an intercom will lead me directly into the station itself. I do as told, walking over stone walls and through barren fields.

For people who like fences, this part of the world must be paradise.

The far gate is protected by huge slabs of concrete and brier patches of barbed wire. I have reached the approach to the station from Hebron’s Israeli controlled H2 sector. For over 20,000 Palestinians, this is the only police station to which they can turn in case of trouble, such as settler harassment, and it’s not welcoming.

It’s not very welcoming to your truly either. “I got him,” I hear the soldier at the gate saying on the radio, “The guy with the camera, he’s approaching.”

Say what? He confiscates my ID card and calls a police force to come over and handle me. I’m suspected of having taken photos of the fortress itself.

When the police arrive from within the station, they let me know that the ground on which I’m standing is designated Area A. By coming to the police station, I’ve committed again the offence that got me here in the first place. I insist that soldiers sent me over and finally convince the cops. they let me into the station, where the detectives interrogate me, photograph me and take my fingerprints. My line of defence: I’m a journalist. Their reply: All journalists must coordinate their movements with the IDF. I may or may not expect a trial, depending on the mood of the officer who will go over my case.

On the whole, themembers of the force are certainly pleasant, but the whole experience brings me down and when I’m released once more into Qiryat Arba, I’m too distraught to deal with it, pleasant though it is.

Central Qiryat Arba looks exactly like Jerusalem's French Hill, where I grew up. See Part 3 of the journey.

A car bearing a speaker drives around, inviting people for a rally in honor of “a father and son who were murdered in cold blood”. At one point the driver-announcer notices a friend at a bus stop and adds “Did you hear that, Jacky?” Two girls standing nearby choke with laughter. They too know Jacky. if Qiryat Arba has anything going for it, it is its sense of cummunity.

I check with Ruthie what the deal is and learn that the locals suspects a car crash to have been the result of stone throwing. They believe the police are silencing the cause of death in order to prevent an outbreak of violence and will gather in the afternoon to cry rage at the cops. I’ll skip on the event, thanks very much.

Taking my seat on a Jerusalem-bound bus, I find myself next to an interesting figure. He is a kippa-wearing religious Jew in his late 20s or early 30s, and his facial features speak of unusual roots somewhere in south-east Asia. The man is reluctant to talk, but another passenger, who appears to be of a similar background, explains that they are both members of “Bnei Menashe,” a community which converted to Judaism and immigrated from the Indian-Burmese borderlands.

“How does it feel to move into such surroundings,” I gesture at the many fences surrounding us, “So full of violence and tension.”

“Moving anywhere is difficult, and there’s tension everywhere,” says the man, whose name is Elin. “Often much worse, look at Libya.”

“Yeah, but here for example, you can’t walk freely on the hillsides. That’s a little unusual, isn’t it?”

“Why?” says Elin, “The hillsides are ours.” He points to a group of cabins scattered on one of the rocky slopes, clearly an illegal settler outpost: “People live wherever they want.”

They do indeed, and though the law that won me a criminal record applies to the settlers too, a certain laxness is registered where they are concerned. Removal of such cabins is rare and accompanied by much violence, which the police prefers to avoid.

Leaving Jerusalem during rush hour is a nightmare that makes the interrogation look like a dip in the Jacuzzi. I do make it finally and dinner cheers me up a bit. We are celebrating Ruthie’s birthday with her family at a marvelous North Tel Aviv Italian restaurant named “Mel and Michelle,”

The Tulip winery, situated near Haifa, employs mentally handicapped individuals, who make great wine.

But the strain on my nerves was too great, not only that of the interrogation, but that of the extra hour spent in Qiryat Arba and the four hour schlep home. I end up being unjustly impatient with the birthday girl after dinner. Tomorrow we must both go somewhere relaxing.

That somewhere ends up being the sea-side area of the city of Herzliya, known as Herzliya Pituach. It is situated about 15 kilometers north of Tel Aviv and a similar distance from the Green Line. Herzliya Pituach is by far Israel’s most affluent neighborhood. Most embassies and diplomat’s residences are located here, among lovely tree-lined streets.

President Ben-Tzvi Street, Herzliyah Pituach.

Herzliya Pituach’s downtown is the heart of Israel’s high-tech industry, a backbone of the country’s economy.

This is the Israel many visiting businesspeople see.

The rest of it is a celebration of flight of fancy architecture, but most of these creations are invisible behind tall walls. Ruthie and I cruise for a bit looking for a good-looking villa to immortalize for this blog and finally give up and sit for lunch at a nice bistro named Sebastian.

Sebastian, bustling at lunchtime.

Hertzeliya Pituach shares something with Qiryat Arba. Both of them are places that should have experienced change due to the month’s events. This town, Israel’s big safe box, should have been effected by the tent protests. Qiryat Arba should have been affected by the Palestinian statehood bid. So far, no change is registered in either. I’m beginning to worry that this project will end like a season of “The Wire,” in which both police and criminals return to their routine as though nothing happened. Is this the big lesson? That life is tragically rigid? That would be a hasty conclusion to make before I spoke to anyone here. We pay the bill, Ruthie heads to work and I make my way to a cigar lounge. As the French say: Noblesse oblige.

The San Cristobal principe. Yael picked it as though she knew me.

Habanos is fixed into the wall of one of the high-tech office buildings. Inside the humidor room I find one of my favorite Cuban brands, Robaina, but indulging in that would be far too expensive for me at this point in my continued state of unemployment. Yael, the manager, gives me a discount on a slender San Cristobal Principe. It is an excellent cigar.

There’s a bunch of relaxed men in fine attire sitting outside and smoking peacefully, but I find Yael to be the truly interesting figure here. She’s a single mother in her early forties, a photographer who gave up on her art to run this place. She says the clientele is avidly opposed to the tenters. “They say that the cafes in Tel Aviv are all full, and that means the protesters are spoiled brats. I tell them, look at me, I’m middle class and I struggle to make ends meet. They tell me I’m different, I’m an exception.”

She really is different, but not in this sense. Yael takes great interest in my tales of Nablus and Hebron, and while she thinks I’m insane to have gone there, clearly sees the journey’s point. She supports anything that might promote change, including the spread of information. She refuses to be another character in The Wire. “I’m afraid,” she tells me, “I have a 7 year-old and I’m afraid for him.”

“How do you mean? Are you afraid that he would suffer from violence or that he would live a life of ceaseless tension, like we do?”

“Both. I’m simply afraid and I had this thought already in the maternity ward, as soon as he was born. Can you imagine?”

I can. Herzliya Pituach may not be surrounded by fences and its streets may not be thundering with talk of cold blooded murder, but if there is an Israeli Omelas, it is here. I take a puff on what’s left of my cigar sip my macchiato and dream once more of making an escape.

Click here for more of the September journey

Thanks for reading and taking part in the adventure. If any of you would like to pitch in for my travel and food, please do so using the “donate” button at the top of this page. Please be sure and specify that you are contributing to Yuval’s September Journey. I’m deeply grateful to those who already donated. Thank you so much! This trip would have been impossible if not for you.

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Illustrations: Eran Mendel