Dispatch from Jerusalem #1

(Jacob Greenwald)–I wrote this about a bit ago, the day that the subway station near Sheikh Jarrah was hit by a car.

I first know that something’s up when I see people staring out the windows of the international school. As I look out, several more are grouping around the guardrail outside. All eyes are on Issawiya, the village neighboring the settlement/suburb that we live in (and which the Hebrew University is adjacent to). French Hill. I try to follow the gaze of the other students, and see a cluster of youths from a couple of kilometers away. I then walk to class.

In the classroom, there’s a debate about whether or not to look as well. Our teacher is a nice Jewish woman, who is disconnected from the plight of the city’s Arab inhabitants in the same way that white liberals are disconnected from racial profiling, so we think that we can get out of it. I am not down with this. Invariably, watching protests is much closer to “watching voyeuristically as people get tear-gassed/shot at with rubber bullets” than “standing in solidarity” with really anything. Instead, we all sit down, and wait for class to start.

It’s at that moment that I hear something’s up in the city. Actually, a couple of things. Apparently, there was a serious incident at al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount. People are talking about casualties, but they don’t have any reliable numbers. The teacher chimes in about an official from the waqf (the Islamic legal entity, based in Jordan, that runs the site) being arrested for stockpiling ammunition. But what exactly is ammunition? In the videos I see later, the protestors are shooting fireworks at the police. But firearm ammunition? I don’t know, English is not her first language (though obviously her fluency beats out mine in Arabic and Hebrew), and there’s no way to check yet. In addition, another car drove into another train station, wounding 10-14, and killing one person.

After class, I call my friend (who wishes to be identified from here on out as “an unnamed Arab source”), and ask how he’s doing. He complains that I haven’t called him recently–which is true–and tells me that it’s another friend’s birthday. I do an hour of work memorizing a dialogue in a coffee shop with someone in my Hebrew class, before meeting up with my “source.” When I ask him what’s going on, he reiterates a version of the events I’ve heard about during the day. He tells me that his girlfriend was standing at the bus stop near Hadassah hospital, and the tear gas from Issawiya (a good 1.5 km away) was affecting her pretty badly. The “source” does tutoring for a while, and then we head to our friend’s party.

As we walk close to our friends dorm, my “source” has me breathe deeply through my nose. We are 2 km away from Issawiya, and it seems like things have calmed down (judging by the frequency of the fireworks). But my throat feels tingly, off in a way. There is so much tear gas in the air, that even from this distance, it’s still apparent that it’s being used.

When we get in, people are setting up for the party; it’s a surprise. Bags of chips are being opened and poured out onto plates. The cake is taken out of the fridge. There’s a quick conversation about where it was bought.

“Shuafat.” Shuafat is a neighborhood, formerly a refugee camp, that has been host to a significant amount of the tensions plaguing the city recently. In order to get the cake, the bakery owner went to French hill to deliver it. There are soldiers posted outside of the neighborhood, and it’s hard for people who don’t live there to get in. I look at my friend, and ask him how Shuafat is, in light of all that’s going on. “Hell,” is his one word response.

After that, my friend pulls out his computer, and we watch security camera footage of the day’s events. The first video shows a van driving along the train tracks at the light rail stop in Sheikh Jarrah. The video shows three policemen being hit, including one who is dragged beneath the front bumper of the car: the day’s fatality. I know the area fairly well, passing it often. There’s also a bar across the street and a couple of houses that I go to sometimes. It’s surreal to recognize the area in this context.

The birthday boy arrives, but (supposedly) I ruin the surprise by speaking audibly before he gets in. We cut the cake, eat some, talk, laugh. My friend points out that, including me, there are four different ethno-religious groups in the room (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Druze). He then spends a good ten minutes complaining about the pain in his back. We can still hear some things that are going on in Issawiya, but everyone is consciously ignoring them. We’re having fun. Then, something that sounds really explosive is heard. I turn to my friend.

“What the fuck was that?”

“You know the trucks in Five Broken Cameras that can fire 20 gas canisters off of the back of the truck? It’s one of those.” The sound of the teargas truck continues for five more minutes. In that time, the party breaks up, and we walk over to my friend’s dorm. He needs to pick up tobacco, and a couple of us from the party decide to go along with him. As we walk outside, my eyes start to burn, and my nose feels funny again. I start sneezing, a lot. A couple of people in the group giggle at my misfortune. We pass a basketball court near the dorms, and a combination of low temperatures and a lot of residual teargas gives the illuminating lights a halo effect.

Our destination is a 24 hour supermarket and bakery–a surprisingly common thing throughout Arab neighborhoods and towns in Israel–down the hill from the dorms, in a middle-class Arab neighborhood called Wadi al-Joz. When I was seventeen, you could tell where the neighborhood began, because that is where the road repairs stopped. These days it’s gotten a lot better, because businessmen in the town paid for the road repairs; not the state. The roads are now not pot-holed, and there is a sizable sidewalk. There are even trees planted along it. Halfway down the hill, we find a carful of young men arguing with municipal and border (magav) police. The modifications on the car they are in are illegal. The magav men eye us suspiciously as we pass, clips locked in their AR-15s.

We get inside the supermarket, and my friend stops, and listens to a conversation behind the till. He gives me a I know something that you don’t/You won’t believe me when you hear this look, one he commonly shoots me when we’re out in town. We buy a couple of things, pay, and wait outside for the rest of the group, who should be taking their time. Once we get outside, after opening our drinks, my friend explains the look he gave me: the men behind the counter were talking about what happened today as well. The man responsible for the car attack was in, a bit before he drove into the stop. He was buying groceries for his family. My friend theorizes that he had been listening to the news about al-Aqsa, and something within him broke, explaining the turn in events today.

As we’re talking, I keep repeatedly looking up the hill, where the police and the young men were arguing before. There are now more police vehicles there, and a line of cars in front of the roundabout at the entrance to the area. A police car is parked in front of it, blocking traffic. Then, the car moves, circling the roundabout. About ten cars get through, before the police car completes the circle, and again blocks traffic. I ask what’s going on.

“Oh, that?” gestures my friend to the unfolding scene, “they’re just having fun.” Finally, the rest of the group comes out of the supermarket, and we make our way back up the hill. Traffic has finally been allowed to clear, but there is now a line of 20 men against a wall. Getting their I.D.’s checked. I asked my friend what this is about, and he repeats “they’re just having fun.” We make it up the hill, and I say goodnight to my friends, before heading to my own room. My night ends around 2 AM, when my sinuses clear, and what feels like a wall of teargassed-laced mucus slides down the back of my throat.

In the weeks since that happened, things have only gotten worse. A rash of stabbings has broken out. The police shot a man in the town of Kfar Qana, and there were large protests in the north. Just the other day, there was a large fight between Muslims and Druze in the town of Abu Sinan over Muslim students wearing keffiyehs to school; around 40 people were injured. And tonight, as I’m writing this, a guy was stabbed on the street with a screwdriver in an area that I frequent. Currently, when I ask my friend “when is the intifada coming?” I now get “[I have] no idea,” as a response. We’re no longer on the precipice. We’re tumbling, and as we roll, we’re only picking up speed.