The Middle East conflict: No doubt you have heard this phrase at least a thousand and one times, and so have I. The conflict, as you probably heard over a thousand times too, is the result of settlements. And now that rockets are flying over Israel, I’ve decided to go to the settlements to check them out.
Elon Moreh, one of the leading settlements, is in what they call Shomron. I make a date with a famed settler, Benny Katzover, the man who actually founded the place.
Benny is a soft-spoken man. “Netanyahu is a brilliant politician,” he says, “but as a leader he is a man full of fears.”
Nablus, Elon Moreh’s neighbor, is one of the most important cities in Jewish history, Benny tells me. Here, he recites from the Bible, is where the Lord appeared unto Abraham and promised him, “Unto thy seed I will give this land.”
As Benny talks, a unit of the Israeli Army passes by. Their job is to make sure no one is crossing into Israel either from Nablus or from Arab villages that are a stone’s throw away from us.
Among the soldiers are Itai, a Jew from Tel Aviv, and Mohammed, a Bedouin from the Galilee.
Itai tells me that he’s a “leftist,” and that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank to the pre-1967 borders. “If the poor Palestinians were not under occupation,” he tells me, “they would be developing their poor country and be busy with making money, not with fighting Jews.”
“How do you know they are poor?” I ask.
“Have you been to their cities?”
“Well, they have beautiful cities.”
“But you can’t compare theirs to Israel. Israel is much nicer!”
“Not true. Palestine is much nicer than Israel.”
“How do you know?”
“I travel there often.”
“Who are you?”
“A German journalist.”
Itai offers me a few chocolate cookies. We eat as we talk.
“Do you think there will be peace if Israel withdraws?” I begin to say.
“The Arabs want peace,” he says. “We have no peace because of our leaders, but the people want peace.”
“Should we ask Mohammed for his opinion?” I ask. “He’s an Arab and he knows more than you and me aboutwhat Arabs think.”
“Mohammed, what do you think?”
“Look at the Arabs living inside Israel, in Jaffa, Akko or Haifa,” says Mohammed. “They want all the Jews out. The Jews gave them a name, ‘Arab Israelis,’ but they call themselves ‘Palestinians.’ If the Israeli Army withdraws to the pre-’48 borders, they will be happy.”
“Pre-1948? Are you talking about Germany and Poland?” I ask.
“Exactly. The Palestinians, and the Arab states, say they speak in the name of the Quran. They don’t. I’m a Muslim and I say to you: What they say in the name of the Quran is false. The Quran doesn’t say anywhere ‘Kill Jews.’”
Itai, who now regrets that Mohammed has been invited to share his views on this topic, starts an argument with him. It is quite funny to watch, but at this moment I’m more interested in rockets, none of which seems to fall here.
Another soldier joins the conversation. “Rockets don’t fall here,” he says. “If you want to see rockets, you better get out of here and go to the pre-1967 areas, inside the Green Line. That’s where rockets fall.”
If I were Hamas I’d throw rockets here, but I’m not Hamas and so I head to the southern city of Ashkelon.
I stop by a strip of stores next to a local mall, where I see a bunch of people and one big camera, obviously waiting for rockets to fall nearby. Rockets falling by a mall, as every TV viewer knows, make for great visuals.
They have just arrived from New York, one of them tells me, and the TV station they’re working for is CBS. With them is a lady who speaks English with an accent and Hebrew without. She appears to be a “fixer,” a local person who foreign journalists hire to take them around.
The TV reporters wait and wait and wait, but nothing happens and soon their faces start taking the shape of neurotic Upper East Side types.
The fixer, trying to make them feel that they are actually witnessing something important, points to the Lubavitcher hasids around who nudge passersby to wear the tefillin. She explains that the tefillin ritual is related to the rockets, since religious people believe that tefillin can push rockets away. The journalists don’t get excited; they have seen these types in New York, where no rockets come to visit.
“Let’s eat,” one of them finally says.
There is a great restaurant in town, the fixer says, and the crew packs up and leaves.
A short ride from the mall, at the beach of Ashkelon, a BBC team is standing ready for some action. Nothing happens there either and they pass the time looking at the ocean waves.
I ask them why they are at the beach and not at the battlefield.
“Are you crazy? Even Al Jazeera doesn’t go there,” a man tells me in Hebrew.
I go to visit a local family. It is Friday Night and the family sits at the table. The husband makes the Kiddush, the wife shares the challahs with everybody, some people sing some songs and everybody gets busy eating the Sabbath food: fish, chicken, meat, followed by Coke Zero and Johnnie Walker Black Label.
A conversation follows about beautiful sights in distant lands and then, just before the cakes and cookies are to be served, which for me are the most precious Sabbath items, a siren louder than God’s voice in Mt. Sinai is heard.
“We have only 15 seconds!” my hosts tell me as they jump out and run to a secured room inside their house, a shelter somewhere behind the kitchen. “And you must come with us.” I look at them, at this sad image of people running for their life, and stare at my phone. Lately, Hamas has been flooding Israeli cells with special text messages, in which it brags of its success in forcing Israelis to “hide in shelters like mice.”
These Jews run to shelters; their parents and grandparents ran in fear to Treblinka. It seems as if Jews are forever running for dear life.
I follow them to a windowless anti-rocket room with no air and no windows that every new home in Israel must have, and I feel as though I am in a grave. They stand close to each other, like a group of mice indeed, hanging on to life as hard as they can.
Minutes later, still alive, they go back to the table.
It’s now time for the rugelach and various cakes, for hot or iced tea — but another siren is heard.
They run again.
I walk outside.
“Boom!” an explosion is heard the moment I exit the house. The rocket fell somewhere, but I can’t tell where.
Not far from me is a man, who talks on his cell while I eavesdrop. I don’t know who this man is talking to, but soon I learn what has happened: A rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome, an anti-missile missile.
The man hangs up, looks me in the eye and says: “You didn’t hear a thing. Is it clear?”
Clear as day.
Honestly, in addition to hearing I have reading problems as well. The operation in Gaza is called in Hebrew Tsuk Eitan, which means Mighty Cliff. For one reason or another, which probably only God and this man understand, the Israelis opted to translate it, “Protective Edge.”
From where I stand, with sirens going on and on, both names sound misleading.
The next day, I drive to a hill overlooking Gaza, the closest that I can find next to Hamas positions.
Some days earlier, a CNN journalist on a hill in Sderot, where residents were watching the fire display in Gaza, tweeted that they were “scum.” As a result, many Israelis now keep their distance from reporters, and the ones here act as if they and I were not of the same species.
No CNN here, no CBS and no BBC. But the bombs are here, and they go on and on and on. Ahead of me is a cloud of smoke, another one, and another one and another one. Multiple explosions and bombs, of different decibels and tunes, make for one frightening orchestra.
One of the strange souls here finally approaches me. “Who are you?” he asks.
“I’m from Germany,” I say.
He looks at his fellow souls and tells them: “Don’t talk to him. He is one of those.”
“Yetsiah,” meaning “exit,” or “outgoing,” the souls yell at a sight of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and all, as if on cue, take out their cells to learn where the rockets fell.
They have special apps, these souls, and they know in a minute where the rockets landed.
“Be good to us,” says one of the younger souls who approaches me, almost begging.
“Protective Edge” is better than “Mighty Cliff,” I think.
But there’s not much time to think here.
In the sky, on the Israeli side to my back, an army helicopter flies into view and shoots missiles, then flies away.
Ahead of me, in Gaza, I see a new cloud of smoke, the result of the air attack, and immediately other explosives follow, now by IDF soldiers inside Gaza. “Everything must be totally coordinated here, air and ground, or else we’ll be dead,” one of the natives here explains to me.
Smart Israelis, I can tell. Not all of them Jews, by the way. One of the highest IDF commanders in Gaza at present is a Druze by the name of Rasan Alian, commander of the elite Golani Brigade.
Of course, Hamas is not made of idiots either, and they have their own inventions to brag of. One of their most brilliant ideas is hidden deep in the belly of the earth: an amazing maze of tunnels under both Gaza and Israel. Now and then Hamas fighters crawl out from beneath the earth, like dead people springing to life out of cemeteries, in chase of Jews, soldiers or not. They act like ghosts, only these ghosts carry weapons that can kill many and no Iron Dome can stop them.
This new reality unnerves the Israelis, and they resort to humor.
“The Palestinians finally got what they want,” a man tells me, as another rocket “exits.” “A Hamas rocket reached the cemetery. Eight hundred people are confirmed dead.”
I drive to the hill in Sderot, which is basically another hill facing Gaza.
Dudu, part of a group of people spending the day here with cases of ice, sandwiches and vodka, approaches me.
“Are you a journalist?”
“I want to tell you that I’m very sad. Most of the people in Gaza are innocent people.”
“How do you know?”
“I used to live in Gaza, in Nitsanit, and when I was a kid, before the whole mess between them and us started, we used to visit one another and eat with each other. They are good people, most of them, and I hope that they won’t get hurt today.”
“What will happen if Israel loses, if the Israeli army is defeated?”
“This will never happen!”
“Let’s imagine it did,” I say.
“What are you trying to —”
“Let’s say there’s no army between you and them and the good and innocent people of Gaza can come here anytime they want. What do you think will then happen?”
“What do you mean?”
“The good people — I’m not talking about Hamas, I’m talking about civilians — walk in here. What do you think they will do here?”
“They just come in?”
“Yeah. Will they say, ‘Hallo, how you doin’, Dudu,’ and offer you some cold watermelons or will they come in with knives and slaughter you, rape your wife and cut the throats of your kids?”
He looks at me. This is a question he never heard a journalist asking. He seems to doubt if he heard my question right. I repeat my question, and he responds: “Slaughter me. Rape my wife. And bury my children alive.”
“The good people? The ones you —”
“Didn’t you just say that —”
“Forget what I said. Want some vodka?”
Hours pass, Rasan Alian is injured and evacuated, many Palestinians die in battle, and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) is asking for a ceasefire.
I know some of the UNRWA people personally. Months before this round of hostilities started, they were busy congratulating people who called for a Jew-free Middle East. But nobody dares speak badly of UNRWA.
War reporters, those who are supposed to join the forces in battlefields, don’t exist in this conflict. Members of the foreign media here do not speak either of the languages spoken herein and have no clue what’s going on. Reporters in Gaza, as I’ve already heard, are often stationed in hospitals to video the dead and the injured and are routinely guided by UNRWA and Hamas. Reporters in Israel, on the other hand, are busy criticizing Israel from posh desks in expensive hotels.
From what I see while driving as close to the border as possible, Israel is advancing very slowly into Gaza, almost hesitating. Either the soldiers on the ground are not well motivated or their prime minister is indeed a man full of fears.
I need a rest from this mess. The safest place in the Middle East these days, seems to me, is Elon Moreh. Perhaps I should go there.
Tuvia Tenenbom is in Israel working on a book, tentatively titled, “Alone Among Jews.”