Sunday, May 6, 2012

Israel Surprise

     It is a long time since I first visited Israel- December, 1967 to be exact. If that year doesn't strike a bell, I will remind you that it was the year of the Six Day War in which Israel won control of what was then the "Occupied Territories." That territory has since become part of what is expected to be the independent nation of Palestine or, alternatively, Judaea and Samaria by the religious settlers who hope to maintain control of the land. Whatever the case may be, another part of the conquest was the occupation of Gaza, a piece of land nobody seemed to want very much. When I arrived on vacation from teaching in Rome the year of my visit, I rented a car and my family and I began to travel through the war-torn countryside past disabled tanks, pitted roadways and bombed out military sites. The Arabs were subdued so visitors could go just about anywhere they wanted. It was post-victory, pre-political antagonism time. Except for the occasional but brief interruptions of roadblocks (brief unless one was Arab that is) it was possible to drive into parts of what was once Jordanian or Syrian or Egyptian controlled locales. We got to visit Hebron and Jericho, for example, inadvisable places for Americans to visit today. We got to explore the remains of East Jerusalem after the long Arab occupation. We even drove into the former Syrian hills where so many shells had been fired from its gun emplacements.

      What would happen next, we wondered. I remember well a conversation I had with a group of folks in a kibbutz. They were full of victory and proud they had been able to fend off so many forces of course. Their answer to the conquered land issue: We will just sit on the land for a while, make a deal toward permanent peace and get rid of it after a couple of years. How far off target that prediction turned out to be! But spirits were high at the time and anything seemed possible. I wonder what the people who participated in those conversations might think some 45 years later were they still here and able to ponder the aftermath of the conquest.

      I guess we shared some of that delusion as my wife, my infant daughter and my young son explored the country. There were Israeli troops just about everywhere so there was an aura of stability and safety most of the places we went. That is except for Gaza. We roamed around independently to all corners of the little nation and even decided to drive into the sliver of land recently taken from Egypt. We motored into Gaza City, parked our car, took out the stroller for our infant daughter and started our leisurely walk down the main street. We did have to fend off a plethora of youngsters with rags who offered to wipe down our car. As we strolled along, we became increasingly aware of how distant and hostile the inhabitants seemed to be toward us. Slowly we felt people encroaching on our space and eventually we felt threatened. That was one of the few times in my travels that I sensed imminent danger. My wife and I decided to return to the car which we did quite hurriedly, keeping our children close and shutting out distractions. We got in, revved up, and moved out as quickly as possible.

     It is amazing to me as I recount this experience that I could have been so politically naive and foolhardy in my travels, especially with my children at my side. I tend to discount risks and travel without very much worry but Gaza was simply not the place to be. Residents there were angry, humiliated and hopeless. And we were visiting. I learned a good bit from that incident and have never again intruded into desperate places where people wanted to and deserved to be left alone and where I might be perceived as the enemy. When I am in areas laden with political anger and resentment against government, I disappear into the setting or I simply avoid it altogether. I have since had many opportunities to melt into the background of scenes that unfolded around me. Memories of my Israel experience sometimes lead me toward more caution than I might exercise otherwise. The Gaza visit was 1967 but it occurred only yesterday in my mind.

West Bank, 1967, Occupied Territories, Israel

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