In the summer of 2015, I was transferred from “Mogadiscio” to the “Palestinian Territories, Occupied” by the UN Security Ministry. At that time, United Nations reassignment letters followed the International Civil Service Commission’s drafting manual, hence the outdated spelling and reference to long-ignored international law resolutions.
I had done good work in Mogadishu, Somalia, and this was an intimidatingly larger task that included security oversight for East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the organization’s oldest peacekeeping mission – the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO).
Mogadishu was my second deployment away from the family – in UN parlance, a deployment where spouses and dependents cannot attend the duty station – and both were great for my career, but not so much for my marriage. After three years on the ferry between Somalia and Kenya (four weeks in, one week out), my wife Iryna and I were looking forward to a more stable family situation in Jerusalem.
We found an apartment in the North Talpiot district, within walking distance of the UNTSO headquarters. The apartment’s modern façade did little to disguise the poor workmanship (from loose doorknobs to bizarrely inaccessible light switches) of a hastily constructed building.
But the location is unbeatable. Nestled between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods on the Haas Promenade and close enough to the Old City to experience firsthand how Jerusalem’s earthly realities conflict with its heavenly mysticism. Revered by the three Abrahamic faiths, the capital of two warring tribes, and a unique archaeological curiosity without an indisputable stone, it’s hard not to wax lyrical about a neighborhood that somehow exists in both heaven and earth. On a clear day, the view from our apartment stretched from the golden domes of Al Aqsa to Jordan – eerie in its brilliance.
After a few weeks, our Kenyan mutt Sunny joined us in Jerusalem and we began dragging our ten-year-old daughter and four-year-old son on long walks along the promenade. Despite the name, the Haas Promenade is a place that neither side can completely claim as their own. A park where we were just as likely to encounter a Palestinian family having a picnic as an Israeli youth group having a field day. However, Sunny – with her Rottweiler build and Labrador attitude – caught the kids’ attention, and I got grins with enthusiastic greetings in Hebrew and Arabic.
But the same faces that smiled in our direction despised each other as if national injuries had been inflicted yesterday. Our expatriate bubble may have protected us from the city’s injustice, but it didn’t cover it up. During our 15 months in Jerusalem, the call of the muezzin faded into the background of our days, while the hiss of tear gas canisters brought the worst of the nights to the forefront.
We experienced many bad nights this fall.
I was expecting some. My Palestinian national staff – trained to predict clashes like bad weather – warned me that the Jewish fall holiday period was tense throughout.
Still, the spate of knife attacks on Israeli police and settlers in the fall of 2015—dubbed the “knife intifada” by the Facebook generation—caught everyone by surprise. Due to their uncoordinated nature, there were an average of three such “lone wolf” attacks per day in the second half of 2015 – mostly carried out by young Palestinian men who do not belong to any political or religious faction.
During this ten-month break in the decades-long occupation, it occasionally happened that one of the attackers fatally wounded a policeman or settler with a brilliant first blow. Then the Palestinian was shot. Throughout the office, my co-workers referred to the attacks as “suicide stabbings.”
In preparation for my weekly briefings to the UN security management team, I read reports detailing the attacks and asked my staff for details. I started to recognize the guy behind the knife attacks.
The guy who could explain the exact combination of fuel, saltpeter, and machine oil for the best Molotov cocktail; the guy who knew the inside of room #4 Russian terrain– a British Mandate-era prison now used for harsh interrogations of Palestinians by Israeli forces – better than their school library; the guy whose hearts ran out of room for fear and so led a life full of near-death experiences: stoning armored personnel carriers, fucking, and smoking hashish on weekends. The kind of Palestinian boys who tended not to live long.
Most of the stabbings remained under suspicion – the Israeli government rarely released CCTV footage of the incidents – but in each case a Palestinian was shot, often in circumstances that amounted to a summary execution. The Israeli security forces’ increased patrols through the Haas Promenade did not give me a feeling of security.
Shortly after Sukkot, my sister-in-law came to visit. On the evening of Natascha’s arrival, we took her for a walk on the rain-soaked promenade.
A squad of Israeli border guards approached us on the lawn in full combat readiness, and Sunny—who had come to view the promenade as her backyard—reacted aggressively.
The leading policeman took a stuttering step and slipped into the grass. His buddies laughed.
The policeman raised his rifle from his butt and spoke to me in English.
“I’ll shoot your dog.”
“Calm down, son.” Sunny sat next to my foot and lifted the red stripe between her ears.
Then my daughter burst into tears and the police officer lowered his gun.
He was a handsome young man with thick, dark hair and thoughtful eyes that reflected genuine shame when they met mine. He was tired, frustrated, and might have lost friends to the attacks that had little more than academic interest to me.
I’ve been thinking about this young man a lot lately. I imagine thousands like him – vengeful, tired and afraid – entering Gaza City.
A densely populated open-air prison where urban warfare resembles the worst in Fallujah and the city of Hue, only exacerbated by an elaborate network of tunnels. The type of combat in which troops spread out into pockets, often without the supervision of an officer or non-commissioned officer. Situations in which only the thinnest threads of humanity hold young men back from horror. For troops bent on revenge, civilians replace the enemy.
I don’t want to pretend to be unbiased, but I want to be clear: a ground invasion of Gaza does not make the State of Israel any safer. Quite the opposite.
When a powerful community subjugates a powerless one, terrible things come to light.