Sharing a cup and sharing a story

As we tear down Highway 1 to Ben-Gurion International, the plastic cup that Jalal hands me is both flimsy and scorching. Somehow, his brother is brewing coffee in the backseat for everyone in the car. I struggle not to spill as the cup wilts in my hand. Barbed wire flies by my window as we drive alongside Israel’s ‘Security Fence’ or ‘Apartheid Wall’ depending on your politics. Taking advantage of the scenery, I ignite a brief fraternal argument over the appropriate name for the barrier. A few hours ago I didn’t know either of these men, but after spending the past six weeks at a news agency in the West Bank I’ve learned that in this place one can make fast friends so long as coffee or tea is provided.

One of the first people I shared a cup with was a protester in Bethlehem. I arrived in Palestine just as it joined the ‘Arab Spring’—the wave of youth-driven, democratic uprisings that began in Tunisia and is now blistering Syria. It is now referred to as the March 15 movement, to commemorate the first day of demonstrations. Rather than calling for the abdication of a dictator as in Egypt or Libya, the youth of Palestine demanded reconciliation between the secular Fatah party, which controls the West Bank and the recognized government, and the rogue Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

The young protester who treated me to a mug of Turkish syrup voiced his desperation in between sips: “This split between Hamas and Fatah has held back our struggle for a Palestinian state more than any Israeli policy could hope to do.” Having arrived at the movement’s beginning, I suppose it was only fitting that I left as its demands were finally reached. A few hours after I touched down at Heathrow, the two parties signed a unity deal in Cairo. Netanyahu is fuming, and my friends in Manara Square are celebrating.

Shopping for ceramics with a friend in Hebron, we ended up having tea with the shop’s owner, a man named Munir. Hebron is a city in the southern West Bank that provides the most extreme example of the volatile Israeli-Arab dynamic. The city has been partitioned into H1, governed by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, inhabited by a small group of settlers and fully occupied by Israeli forces.

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Shuffling around the streets of H2 I’m sure that my friend and I underwent the same bewilderment as any visitors to Hebron. It is known as the ‘sterile zone’, a euphemism that fails, since it fully conveys the numbness of H2. The barricaded shops, the abandoned schools, and the glares of the settlers—some all too happy to finger the triggers on their chunky firearms—briefly placed us somewhere other than planet Earth. Eight hundred illegal residents have turned this section of town—population 30,000—into an urban husk.

In the middle of our tea break, a fight breaks out in front of Munir’s shop, between some young settlers and a Palestinian boy. Within seconds an IDF jeep rattles into view and the tussle is over. “That one, with the pink hat,” croaked Munir as he pointed, “he is around here often. He causes trouble.” With that he lowered his hand and went back to stirring his tea in silence.
Halfway through my stay, actor and director Juliano Mer Khamis was murdered outside of his home in Jenin. I had hoped to have a coffee with Juliano before I left. Having seen his film Arna’s Children a few days after arriving in Palestine, I made a plan to visit the destitute refugee camp in Jenin where he ran a theatre and drama school for Palestinian kids. Instead I ended up writing up a report of his assassination. On the evening of April 4 a masked gunman stepped in front of Juliano’s car, a few feet away from his home, and opened fire. While the wave of reports on his murder subsequently referred to him as ‘Arab-Israeli’ – his mother was Jewish and his father Palestinian – Juliano once stressed that he was “one hundred percent Israeli, one hundred percent Arab.” Far be it from me to ignore his specification.

Juliano was much loved in Jenin, where he erected a professional-grade theatre with all the trimmings for youths that knew only the poverty, violence and boredom of the refugee camp. But at the same time, among the godly and the literal-minded he was deeply hated for his productions at the Freedom Theatre, many of which empowered Palestinians children to reject religious and societal subjugation as well as Israeli occupation. In a recent interview, he candidly and humorously predicted his own assassination. He announced that he would die from a bullet fired by someone “very angry that we are here in Jenin,” then with a theatrical scowl and a forbidding voice, “to corrupt the youth of the Islam!” Though the investigation of his murder is not yet closed, that is most likely exactly what happened.

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Not content with the demise of only one innocent activist, a little more than a week later a Salafist group in Gaza kidnapped and hanged Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni in an abandoned house in Gaza City. The group in question was considerably to the right of Hamas and among other things demanded that the government release its co-religionists from prison. By the time the police in Gaza reached Vittorio’s body, however, it had been lifeless.
A few days after Arrigoni’s death I attended a vigil at Bethlehem’s unity tent. There were calls for perseverance and there were calls for blood. There were tears for both Vittorio and for Juliano, from those that knew them and those who did not. A colleague of mine delivered a eulogy in short bursts, as another speaker translated her words across the circle of mourners. I scribbled them on the back of a magazine for a story on the event due later that night.

Soon a doctor in the crowd, a native of Palestine who spoke to us all in English, ended his own tribute to Vittorio with a crackling voice as he began to talk about the recent murder of his friend Juliano. He suddenly spoke very slowly, and the candle in his hands started to quiver: “We will continue to do our best, to end all the violence here…to win ourselves a normal life,” until his features withered and he began to sob, “so we can finally stop things like this, from happening anymore.” With the doctor in tears, most everyone around me began to weep. He had touched the nerve not only of Vittorio’s death, or Juliano’s, but the entire tragedy of Palestine in all of its confusion and violence.

At that moment I nudged my friend and fellow intern Carlos, who raised his eyebrows and shook his head, before nodding in the direction of a coffee stand nearby. I nodded in turn and we started toward the cart. We had a lot to discuss.