Torn Between Desires
If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. - E.B. White
Today was one of those days. A day where my mind, body, and soul crossed the emotional spectrum. A day where kindness and more kindness was offered to me and my teammates. A day where our hearts were wrenched open to make room for more people, more sorrow. A day with so many reasons to appreciate the world and so many reasons to want to change it.
Both our morning and afternoon school runs were punctuated with teargas. In the morning Israeli forces fired six rounds all at once. To escape the fumes, we ducked down a path between houses. Then the wind took a turn and all of a sudden we couldn’t open our eyes, our noses were running, and we had to spit out the excess saliva. Women in the houses on either side, also affected by the gas, called through their open window to tell us how to leave the area without walking back into the teargas. We had to wait until we could open our eyes. Once we could, we climbed over a rocky barrier and made our way through their property and to a side street from which we could observe what was going on. We could smell the gas there, but it had dissipated enough that we could approach the main street where the soldiers were.
Two principals and a teacher were out, ushering on the straggling boys, some of whom were stone-throwers, others curious observers. One of the principals comes out often and generally does this task with humor and patience, but this morning his nerves seemed frayed. Mind you, the boys he shepherds are not from the school he leads. And yet, many days, he is the one gently and most effectively urging them to the safer (but not always safe) haven of school. Finally, most of the boys moved on.
One of the last little boys hanging around I first remember seeing on Thanksgiving Day. Today he had a bandage on his cheek near his ear. The first morning I noticed him was a horrible morning when soldiers were particularly violent. Along with the teargas, they ambushed two children and used skunk water and rubber bullets. That morning some soldiers were stationed on a Palestinian roof up a hill from the checkpoint. Boys yelled at the soldiers high above them. The kind principal was out that morning too, putting his arm around boys, “Yalla, habibi, yalla,” Go on, dear one, go. Most left, except this little boy. When I looked to where the crowd had been gathered, he was standing all alone, looking up at the soldiers with a smile on his face, waving. I looked up to see their response. I couldn’t see their faces, but they were waving back.
As we walked back to our apartment, a white-haired butcher stopped us as he does most days, and gave us each a piece of hard candy. Today I learned that when his father was alive, he left work each day and went to the hospital to visit people and give them candy. This man now carries on his father’s legacy.
The self-righteous are guilty of history’s greatest cruelties. Most evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good. – Reinhold Neibuhr
At the checkpoint in the afternoon, we were in the middle of giving a briefing to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN officials about our situation as human rights defenders and about what we witness each day. As I was speaking, a border policeman came out from the checkpoint, looking ready shoot some teargas at the children, who were gathered but not throwing stones, behind us. Our briefing was cut short as the officials quickly got into their UN vehicles and drove off. We remained and observed the cat and mouse game between the well-stocked soldiers and the boys. Some boys did throw stones after the soldier came out. Two more soldiers joined the first. And they fired six rounds teargas in fewer seconds.
We ducked into a shop. The elderly shopkeeper served us tea while we waited for the fumes to dissipate. We left the shop and went back out to monitor what was happening.
Five minutes after the six rounds, Israeli forces fired five more rounds of teargas.
And then four more.
We went down a side street. There were a few boys on the street, small boys, throwing stones towards the street with the soldiers. The soldiers had already passed this side street. As they did so, one knelt and aimed, but didn’t shoot.
We expected the soldiers to come back for the small stone-throwers. As we discussed where to go if this happened, some painters opened the door for us to come into the building where they were working. We accepted their invitation. Outside the little ones continued throwing little stones. As the soldiers passed the street on their way back towards the checkpoint, one threw a stun grenade that landed a few meters from our building. Since we saw them throw it, we got the door closed before it went off, so the boom wasn’t quite so jarring. The soldiers continued their retreat. We left the building and continued down the street away from where the action had been..
We made a loop with our route, coming up behind where other boys were still gathered. Some curious boys greeted us in English. We obligingly replied.
As we watched the crowd in front of us, another shopkeeper came out to the street with tea and date maamoul, a sweet, for us.
We saw more teargas clouds down the street.
A truck with a baby camel in the back was parked near us. One of my teammates is very uncomfortable around most animals. But camels, she likes. “They are always smiling. See, without even trying, the camel is smiling.” I’m not sure about smiling, but the camel seemed un-phased by the chaos going on behind him.
Eventually we went back home. I worked on social media posts, trying to effectively convey the all-too-common not-really-news news of the day.
Late in the afternoon we left the office to meet a friend. We were waiting in front of the building where we were to meet him and a man from inside opened the door. “Come in,” he urged. We declined the offer, but he insisted. There were two chairs and a couch in the small dingy foyer. The couch was tucked under the low ceiling below the staircase. Again, upon our now host’s urging, we sat down. He went up the stairs and came back with a space heater to put at our feet. He again disappeared and came back to offer us coffee. We declined. A few minutes later, he came back with coffee for us. We each drank it from little china cups.
We dare not give in to the sirens of cowardice and greed and hate and fear. Ours is to strive to heal wounds, to lift the despairing all around us. Ours is to join with God in striving to create beauty where there is ugliness, peace where there is hostility, freedom where there is oppression, new life where there are dead ends. - Ted Loder
Our friend picked us up and we went to a tent adorned with a large banner with pictures of faces, writing in Arabic and the English words, “We Need Our Children.”
It was a solidarity tent for families whose loved one Israeli forces have killed and kept the bodies. The Israeli government has killed forty people in the Hebron district since the beginning of October and still has nineteen of the bodies in their custody.
Gathered around a fire in the middle of the tent, drinking Arabic coffee, we learned about the group of men we sat with.
The families organized to work together for the return of their children’s bodies. In the solidarity tent where we sat, they gather and keep vigil together. When I asked what message they would like us to share with our networks, it was this simple message, the message written on the banner:
We need our children.
They have been trying to negotiate with the Israeli government for the bodies, but have been unsuccessful thus far. The government offered to return five of the bodies with the stipulations that they would be returned a night and that only a certain number of people could attend the funerals. The families stood together and said that they wanted all the bodies returned and that Israel did not get to decide how many people could mourn the deaths.
A father was present whose daughter was killed and Israel did release the body to the family. He continues to keep vigil and support those who haven’t been able to formally grieve their loss.
He talked about his 3-year-old daughter who asks him when she goes near the checkpoint where Israeli forces killed his daughter, “Will they kill us like they killed my sister?”
What parent should have to answer that question, especially when a truthful answer can only be “maybe”?
What 3-year-old deserves to bear that burden of that fear?
The men in the tent talked about the night raids of their homes, the threat of home demolitions, their wives crying uncontrollably, the nightmares of their children.
Each new death has meant group membership grows. Families grieving supporting new families grieving. It was an honor to sit with them briefly, to hear their stories and to answer their questions. Until the bodies are returned, my most sincere hope for the group is that its circle of solidarity grows, but that its membership does not.
We left the tent, hearts heavy.
Sometimes it is hard to know how to hold all that we meet in a day. The chaos and the pain, the generosity and open-heartedness, the anger, the love. It is nearly time for me to sleep and I am still torn between my desire to improve the world and my desire to enjoy every beautiful thing about it.
I think I must do both.