“I lost my dad two years ago.” My usually bubbly friend Hannah’s voice is expressionless. Her words sound scripted, as if she’s a mediocre actress who’s performed a role one too many times. “He was driving home from prayers one day in East Jerusalem. There were some riots going on in the streets. People were throwing stones at the police, and a couple of them hit the windshield of my fathers’ car. He swerved, and around the corner was a group of policemen. They started shooting in his direction. As bullets began flying everywhere, my father fled. The police chased him and shot him in the back. He fell to the ground. Moments later, an Israeli soldier shot him point blank in the head.”
Hannah is Palestinian. She is beautiful, blonde, green-eyed, and my good friend. Her father was a man who loved his wife and three daughters, who made his living importing massage chairs from Switzerland. He was labelled a terrorist by Israeli media. Hearing Hannah’s story was a turning point for me, a trigger that radically changed my perspective on the place I live in. Up until then, my experience had taught me that when it came to war and peace, things were largely black and white.
I was raised in Boston in the shadow of 9/11. I grew up in a nation traumatized by Islamic terrorism, and my six year old mind wasn’t yet fine-tuned enough to comprehend that Al Qaeda didn’t represent most Arabs. I knew the Middle East ran rampant with extremists, Arabic made me cringe, and seeing a woman in a hijab made my heart race. My fear was intensified by the knowledge that I was Jewish and my parents were Israeli, two things which all the bad guys in the Middle East hated even more than America.
I moved to Israel in August, 2008, when my parents decided to relocate to a Moshav next to Ashdod in order to be closer to our family. In December of that year, rockets began raining down around our home in what would later be known as the first Gaza War. School was cancelled and we were house-bound for three weeks, running to the bomb shelter several times a day whenever that dreaded siren started sounding. We’d cower in the shelter, count the booms that meant missiles had fallen and pray they’d missed their targets. When New Year’s Eve came around, my friends and I wanted a midnight kiss. That year, besides the usual challenge of getting another 13 year old to even want to kiss you, there was the additional challenge of getting from house to house, knowing a rocket could fall on you at any moment. Everybody had their own way of dealing with the situation. I remember my grandfather telling me that “when I hear the sirens I don’t run to the shelter – I leave it up to fate. No terrorist is worth leaving my cup of coffee for”. He stayed true to his words even after a rocket demolished his Kibbutz’s dining hall, meters away from his house.
As I went through high school my horizons expanded. I met people, like Hannah, who exposed me to different sides of the conflict I was living in. I began to understand the complexity of my experiences, and of the people around me. Most of all, I realized that a story can be told by any one of the characters in the book.
In the aftermath of their personal tragedy, Hannah and her mother joined The Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization run by bereaved families from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They work to prevent further loss by promoting dialogue, reconciliation, and peace. My step-grandfather, who lost his son, is also a member. The PCFF runs an Israeli-Palestinian youth camp, where I met Hannah.
All too often, when reading or listening to the news, I’m reminded of my friend from camp. Reports of vehicular terror attacks aren’t scarce in Israeli media. In recent years, I’ve found myself numerous times hearing a newscasters’ voice give a variation on the following message:
“Car-ramming attack reported in East Jerusalem. Two soldiers were hit and sustained light injuries. There were no casualties. The terrorist was shot on the spot.”
Nowadays, the words echo in my ears, lingering there for a bit too long. Meanwhile, the people around me exclaim “Good for the IDF!” “See? That’s why we need a wall,” and “Oh, those goddamn Arabs.”
I listen, silently, wishing I knew what to believe.