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This is Beirut

Well, it had to happen. I’m out of fresh material from the Middle East until I go back and get more. Iran is next on the list…if the mullahs will let me in. It will be a while before I know one way or the other.

In the meantime, I have more than a thousand digital pictures that no one has seen yet. Here are 30 of them. All were taken in, of, and above Beirut, Lebanon, my favorite city in the Middle East by far.

Lebanon Shore from Balloon.jpg

Mount Sannine rises above the Mediterranean and Beirut’s northern suburbs. Photo taken from a hot air balloon over downtown.

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I saw this lovely view of the Mediterranean every single day from the balcony of my apartment above the American University of Beirut.

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And I saw this lovely view every night. I doubt I’ll ever have such a view again from my house.

Solidere from Balloon 1.jpg

Downtown Beirut from the air.

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Downtown Beirut from the air.

Martyrs Square from Balloon.jpg

The top of the Green Line that divided East and West Beirut during the civil war. That big empty space you see was the part of downtown that didn’t survive. Martyr’s Square is down there. When a million Lebanese demonstrated against Syrian occupation last year, that’s where they did it. They filled the whole space. Then they overflowed it.

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Solidere, downtown Beirut.

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Solidere, downtown Beirut.

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Solidere, downtown Beirut.

Grand Cafe Beirut Night.JPG

Solidere, downtown Beirut.

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View from an Italian restaurant, downtown Beirut.

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Lots of new construction next to the restored downtown.

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East Beirut from the air.

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A street in Achrafieh, East Beirut.

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A street in Achrafieh, East Beirut.

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Cemetery, East Beirut.

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Claudia’s, Achrafieh, East Beirut.

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A gangster-themed trattoria, Gemmayze, East Beirut.

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Off Monot Street, Achrafieh, East Beirut.

De Prague.jpg

A bohemian bar named De Prague, Hamra, West Beirut.

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Fishing off the Corniche, West Beirut.

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New construction, West Beirut.

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Lots of people I know were surprised to hear Beirut has Starbucks. (Lebanon isn’t Afghanistan, okay?) There are three Starbucks coffeeshops in Beirut. This one is on the shore of the Mediterranean in Rouche, West Beirut.

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My old neighborhood of Hamra, West Beirut.

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An AiZone advertisement riffs on the Independence 05 movement.

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A war-shattered Holiday Inn.

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A war-shattered Holiday Inn.

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War damage along the old Green Line. One of my neighbors in Oregon used to live near this building. His old house no longer exists. He does not know which militia destroyed it.

How Beautiful the Middle East…Could Be

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down” – Robert Frost

Lebanese blogger Perpetual Refugee wrote the following in Israeli

blogger Lisa Goldman’s comments section.

I can image the drive up to Beirut from Tel Aviv. You’d of course take the scenic route. The Mediterranean always on your left hand side. I would assume you’d leave in the morning, the sun already having risen in the east. It would be sunny. It usually is. As you drive north past Haifa, the terrain starts to roll. The hills become mountains. Acre. Nahariyya. Then the border. The Lebanese customs officer smiles and being Lebanese, starts to chat you up. He’ll impress you with a

‘Bokaltov’ followed by ‘Bienvenue a Liban’. You enter without any problems. Your Israeli passport stamped. Your license plates remain as they are. And you drive. The signs are now in Arabic and French. You already feel the difference, and yet, you’re comfortable. It still feels good, comfortable. You get excited as you pass the ancient city of Tyre. You feel the urge to stop and see what Alexander the Great found so fascinating about the city. But you don’t. You’ll be back. Further north, you reach Saida (Sidon). It’s stunning, a bit more Islamic in feel. Again, you want to stop but not today. Today you have a date with Beirut. And you’ll fall in love.

Perpetual Refugee is in Israel now even though his government absolutely forbids him to go there. This should be required reading. Especially if you’re Lebanese.

The Other Side of the Green Line

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RAMALLAH – I rode in an Israeli taxi with Palestinian journalist Sufian Taha from the American Colony Hotel to the Qalandia checkpoint on the road to Ramallah, capital of nascent Palestine, in the hills of the West Bank over Jerusalem. We had to take a taxi, and we had to switch to a Palestinian taxi after we reached the other side. “You do not want to drive in the West Bank with Israeli plates on your car,” he said.

In the northern suburbs of Jerusalem you can see both sides of the Green Line at the same time. The West Bank is right there. Everything is piled on top of everything else.

“That’s an Arab neighborhood on the left side of the street,” Sufian said. “Israelis live on the right side. They live so close, but they hate each other. They are like cousins fighting over their grandfather’s inheritance.”

Then we hit the wall.

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“Here the wall divides two Arab neighborhoods from each other,” he said.

“Why did they build it right here?” I said.

“I don’t know why they are doing it here,” he said.

Rocky hills, typical of the Mediterranean, rolled toward the horizon. Arab settlements clustered here, Jewish settlements clustered there, and the wall crazily cut through everything like a snake lost in the grass. It was impossible to intuit the logic just by looking at it.

It took maybe five minutes to reach Qalandia from Jerusalem.

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It was time to get out and walk. I could see the skyline of Ramallah just past the checkpoint.

Ramallah Skyline from Qalandia.jpg

“How long is this going to take?” I said to Sufian.

“Sometimes it takes minutes,” he said. “Sometimes it takes hours. It depends on the security situation and how crowded it is.”

This time the checkpoint took only minutes. The line was mercifully short. And the Israeli Defense Forces soldier waved both Sufian and me through in a matter of seconds without asking questions.

My experience at the checkpoint was breezy and pleasant. But it is a hideous thing that looks like a militarized gateway to a Third World disaster. Welcome to Palestine.

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We walked past some ramshackle shops blasting Arabic pop music too loud on bad speakers and hopped into a group servis mini-van taxi. There were ten other people inside, six men and four fashionably dressed young women with hijabs over their hair. I was the only non-Palestinian. No one seemed to pay any attention to me.

Two minutes later we were in downtown Ramallah.

“We get out here,” Sufian said and paid the driver my fare.

I stepped out into a surprisingly pleasant urban environment.

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Ramallah Square.jpg

“No offense, Sufian, but this city is a lot nicer than I expected,” I said.

“Ramallah is beautiful,” he said with pride.

I didn’t think it was beautiful, exactly, but it did not look even remotely like the Third World war zone it’s reputed to be. I noticed no visible poverty once we left the squalor around the checkpoint. I was, however, warned by Israelis that Ramallah and Bethlehem are much nicer than the rest of the West Bank and need to be judged accordingly.

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“Do you want to meet some people now?” Sufian said.

When he had earlier asked what I wanted to do in Ramallah I told him I wanted to meet Palestinians opposed to Hamas. I already knew what Hamas had to say. They get all the attention in the newspapers now. There is no point in going all the way to the West Bank just so I could publish more of the same predictable bombastic slogans. I had no idea what their opponents were thinking now, and it seemed more worth my time to meet some of them. Sufian himself was a good start.

“Let’s walk around a bit first,” I said. “I want to see what Ramallah is like.”

So we walked.

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There is no more political propaganda on display in Ramallah than there is in Israel. This surprised me after several visits to Lebanon’s Hezbollahland where portraits of “martyrs” and tyrants are literally everywhere.

Hezbollah is moderate and civilized compared with Hamas. So I expected even more visible evidence of derangement in the Hamas government’s capital. But there are at least 100 times as many psychotic billboards and posters in Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon as there are in Ramallah.

Ramallah is also in much better physical condition than the parts of Lebanon ruled by Hezbollah, even though Ramallah has experienced war a lot more recently. In fact, Ramallah is in better condition than any Shia region of Lebanon whether it’s ruled by Hezbollah or not. The only Sunni part of Lebanon that looks nicer than Ramallah is West Beirut.

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The Palestinian capital is no longer occupied by the Israelis. I didn’t see any Palestinian policemen either. Nor did I see any Hamas or Fatah milita men. I am so accustomed to seeing men with guns in the Middle East – in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey – that Ramallah looked weirdly disarmed by comparison. At least it did on the day I was there. (There are lots of guns in Palestine. I am only talking about how Ramallah looked on the surface.)

I’ve experienced this over and over again everywhere I’ve gone in the Middle East (except wretched Turkish Kurdistan): places that are supposedly awful and dangerous are, up close, seemingly normal places full of normal people doing normal things.

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I don’t want to make too much of Ramallah’s apparent normalcy. It is the Hamas government’s capital. And the city is a golden cage. It’s a reasonably pleasant enough place. But it’s surrounded by far worse Palestinian places and off-limits Israeli places.

“The economy here looks a lot better than I expected,” I said to Sufian.

“It was pretty good until Hamas was elected,” he said. “But look in the stores. Notice there are no people in them. The only things people are buying are food and cigarettes. Only the basics. They are afraid to spend money if they have it.”

Store Window Ramallah.jpg

The streets were vibrant, though. The city seemed cultured. There were plenty of women around, which is something always worth noting in Muslim cities. Some are overwhelmingly male dominated. Ramallah is not so much.

I sensed no hostility whatsoever, and it’s not because I fit in.

“People here must think I’m Israeli,” I said to Sufian.

“No,” he said. “The way you look, the way you walk, you are obviously an American.”

I didn’t know about that. In any case, there are a lot of American Jews living in Israel. I sensed Sufian said it to make me feel better. But I didn’t feel bad in the first place. I felt perfectly fine. The only thing that worried me while walking around Ramallah is that I felt too relaxed, that the city looked more at peace with itself and the world than it really is.

Sufian took me to a cafe and bought me a gigantic glass of freshly squeezed juice. We sat at a square wooden table. I sipped my juice through a straw while flipping to a blank page in my notebook.

“Who did you vote for in the election?” I said.

“I didn’t vote,” he said. “There was no one worth voting for. Our parties are terrible.”

I would have said I know the feeling, but Good Lord. Whining about the Democrats and the Republicans to a guy who is stuck with the likes of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and Hamas would just sound pathetic.

“What do you think about the prospects for peace now that Hamas won?” I said.

“The Israelis have an opportunity,” he said. “A piece of the puzzle was missing before. Permanent peace must have the signature of the Islamists. Now the Israelis can get it.”

The Israelis can get it if the Islamists will give it, and if they will give it sincerely. That doesn’t look even remotely likely any time soon. I asked Yossi Klein Halevi if it was even possible to be optimistic under the circumstances. He said “I’m optimistic that we might be able to solve this after the next war.” That’s about as hopeful as it gets.

Sufian had a point, even so. If Yasser Arafat had signed a peace treaty for sovereignty with Ehud Barak in 2000, Hamas would have ignored it and continued waging jihad for all of historic “Palestine from the river to the sea,” which includes Haifa and Tel Aviv as well as Hebron and Nablus.

Sufian is a Palestinian, not an Israeli Arab. But he has an Israeli residency permit, and he lives in Jerusalem.

“When there is a Palestinian state,” I said, “where you would rather live? In Israel or in Palestine?”

“I don’t care which side I live on,” he said, “as long as I can travel wherever I want.”

I groaned about how tired I was of this conflict that never ends.

“It will be good for everyone when Israel is accepted as part of this region,” he said. “The other countries will get some of Israel’s technology. Everyone will benefit from more money and tourism.”

“What do you think about the intifada?” I said.

“The intifada was about the different political parties trying to earn popularity,” he said. “Hamas was only at two percent in the 1990s. Now they’re popular. Israelis benefited from the intifada, too. They got the wall and the borders they wanted. Hamas is fashionable right now. In five years they won’t be. Many many people voted for them as revenge against Fatah. They are clean. Fatah is a mafia. They are from the 1930s.”

“Was Fatah better or worse than Hamas?” I said.

“They were 1 percent right and 99 percent wrong,” he said. “Arafat was 100 percent pure evil. He was like a messiah to us when he was abroad. When he came here we learned the truth.”

“You live in Jerusalem,” I said. “What do you think about Israelis?”

“I have Israeli friends,” he said. “I tell them things that I don’t tell some of my Arab friends. It depends on the person, not the nationality.”

We sipped our juice.

“I think Americans don’t like Palestinians much,” he said.

“Look,” I said. “Americans don’t like Hamas. Americans don’t like terrorism. It really is that simple. Americans don’t have a problem with people like you just because you’re Palestinian.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think you are the exception.”

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m typical. As far as politics goes, I’m a middle-of-the-road average American.” But I couldn’t convince him. He is certain most Americans don’t like him just for who he is and where he was born.

It was time to move. Sufian wasn’t the only Palestinian I wanted to talk to.

We walked around the corner and stepped into a fashionable young women’s clothing store owned by Named Saleh Jad Allah, a pre-maturely graying 50 year-old man with a warm smile. Posters of gorgeous French models lined the walls. There were no customers inside his store.

Named didn’t ask why Sufian and I stopped in. He just gave me a cup of Turkish coffee and a cigarette and he asked us to sit. We went through the usual Arab formalities. Where are you from, welcome to Palestine, etc. Our chitchat was punctuated by long silences that were not at all uncomfortable. Arabs relax in conversation with strangers more easily than Westerners do. You don’t have to always be talking. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit there and peaceably enjoy your coffee or tea with other people. (This is doubly true when you’re hanging out with a crazy person.)

I did want to interview him, though, assuming Sufian was right that he did not care much for Hamas. So I took out my notebook.

“What’s it like now that Hamas is in power?”

“Ramallah is nice, but business is not good,” he said. “It is zero. There is no money.”

“Who did you vote for?” I said.

“I voted for Fatah,” he said. “I’m not affiliated with them. They are just a good party to run things. I don’t think Hamas is ready for power. In some things I agree with Fatah, in some things I don’t. Even though they are corrupt, at least we had money. People are boycotting Hamas so now we are poor. We anticipate things will eventually get better, but we don’t have time.”

“Do you worry about Hamas making trouble for you?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I sell fashionable clothes. I’m not an expert on what Hamas wants, but they say they will not interfere with the life of the people. We will see.”

Lisa Goldman told me about a Palestinian town that had elected Hamas in the second-most recent election. (I do not recall the town’s name, and I did not write it down.) According to Lisa, Hamas micromanaged the town according to heavy-handed Islamist dogma. So in the most recent election the people of that town threw the thugs out and voted for secular Fatah instead. If Hamas knows what’s good for them (a dubious proposition, to be sure) they’ll keep their religious totalitarian impulses in check now that they’ve won.

“Should Hamas negotiate with the Israelis?” I said to Named.

“Ultimately they will go through the path of negotiation,” he said. “They will be strict at first because of the street, but they will loosen up.”

“What has changed since Hamas came to power?” I said.

“Business,” he said. “The economy dropped down dramatically. Without industry they cannot boost the economy. We import everything from China. We support Chinese workers. We need our own industry.”

“Did the intifada help or hurt the Palestinian cause?” I said.

“Both intifadas were created by the Israelis,” he said. “They fed it and benefited from it. It was very bad for us. Daily life changed. Roadblocks. Factories closed down. Officials lost their respect among us. They lie all the time and won’t help us.”

“Why did the intifada end?” I said.

“People lost the juice,” he said. “And there is no financial support.”

“How long will the war last?” I said.

“The Jews don’t want peace,” he said. “They want to kick us to Jordan. Some say the substitute country is Jordan. I was told by a friend of mine who works for the CIA that Jerusalem will be emptied of all young Palestinians. Only old people will remain.”

Who told you that?” I said.

“I can’t tell you his name,” he said. “He works for the CIA.”

I couldn’t tell if he was making up nonsense or if he actually believed what he said.

“What do you think Arafat’s legacy will be?” I said. “How will he be remembered by the Palestinian people?”

“People used to love Yasser Arafat,” he said. “But those who were not financially supported by him did not trust his policy. Some idolized him. Others criticized him. He will be remembered as a symbolic hero but with no dimension to him.”

“Do you feel safe criticizing Hamas?” I said.

“Now you can say,” he said. “Maybe later on you cannot criticize him.”

*

What surprised me most about the relative dearth of political propaganda on display in Ramallah was the near-total absence of Yasser Arafat’s portrait anywhere. I saw only two faded posters on a single wall

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I also only saw one poster of Sheik Yassin, the “spiritual leader” of Hamas who was assassinated by the IDF in March 2004. I found him twisted and hanging from a gutter.

Yassin Poster Ramallah.jpg

Portraits of the relatively benign Mahmoud Abbas were more common though those, too, were rare. I found this one on the side of one of Fatah’s office buildings. (UPDATE: Nevermind, that isn’t Abbas. He just looks a lot like him.)

Abbas Poster Ramallah.jpg

Hezbollah has turned their little corner of Lebanon into a gigantic outdoor museum for their psychotic propaganda. But Hamas doesn’t seem to be interested. Here is the only violent poster I saw in all of Ramallah.

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Sufian took me to the Palestinian Legislative Council when parliament was in session. Two armed guards stopped us at the top of the driveway. Sufian talked our way past them in just a few seconds. Once past the guards were we able to walk right in and sit down.

I found a seat in the back, flipped open my notebook, and snapped two quick pictures.

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Not one minute later everyone abruptly stood up. Most headed straight for the door. I came in literally at the last minute. Which was perfect.

A few parliamentarians gathered their things and lingered in small groups. I recognized some of them instantly – Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat.

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I walked toward Erekat and snapped a quick photo of the now-famous picture of Marwan Barghouti, former leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, being led away in handcuffs by the IDF for the murder of Israeli civilians. A Fatah member of parliament kept it displayed on the long table in front of his seat.

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Erekat is one of the more honorable politicians in the Palestinian Authority. He was certainly more worth talking to than some of the fanatical bearded Hamas goons lurking around who seemed to deliberately avoid making eye contact with me. So I buttonholed him and asked for an interview.

“I can give you five minutes,” he said. “But you’ll first have to wait. I need to meet someone first.”

So I sat down with Qays Abdul Karim Abu Laila of the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The DFLPers have a crackpot ideology, but to their credit they insist Palestinians should only fight Israeli soldiers, and that Palestinians should only fight Israeli soldiers in Palestine. Israeli civilians are to be left alone. The DFLP won a whopping 3 percent of the vote.

“Did people vote for Hamas because they want to keep fighting Israelis?” I said.

“Not more than 20 percent voted for Hamas because they refuse to negotiate,” he said. “A majority of Palestinians, at least 80 percent, support a 1967 border solution.”

I thought you’d have to be a sucker to believe that. And as Lisa Goldman and Allison Kaplan Sommer told me, Israeli voters base their foreign policy opinions on the premise Don’t Be a Sucker.

Still. Two months ago the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reported that:

75% say that Hamas should engage Israel in peace negotiations. 64% identify themselves as supporters of the peace process and only 14% say they are opposed to the peace process. 53% want the newly elected authority to implement the Road Map and 49% want it to collect arms from the armed factions while 21% do not want it to interfere in the arms of the factions and 27% say the PA should enact laws that allow the factions to keep their arms.

Popular Palestinian opinion is crazily contradictory and all over the place. Here’s a poll from a year ago that shows support for Hamas increased at the same time support for suicide-bombing declined. In just the last three years the overwhelming majority of Palestinians supported suicide-bombing at some times and at other times overwhelmingly opposed suicide-bombing. Oddly enough, Palestinian support for terrorism against Israelis was higher when Hamas was out of power than it is now. At least according to PCPSR’s ongoing polls.

“Why did Fatah lose the election then?” I asked Abu Laila.

“Monopoly of power, corruption, and chaos were motives for many,” he said. “Hamas seemed the most competent alternative. Only 13 percent voted for their program. 50 percent or more voted against corruption.”

“Why did the intifada end?” I said.

Boy did he not like that question. He jerked his head backward and opened his eyes wide without blinking. I had the feeling no one had ever asked him that before. He seemed to have no idea what to say.

Finally he managed something.

“There was fatigue after four years of continuous confrontation with the Israeli occupation,” he said. “People want to breathe. The continuous struggle against the wall shows that the intifada as a mass movement is still going, even if relaxed.”

“Did the intifada help or hurt the Palestinian cause?” I said.

“Without the intifada,” he said, “there would be no international consensus about the need for a two-state solution.

So much for the DFLP’s opposition to terrorism against civilians inside Israel.

And I called bullshit. Every country in the world, aside from some of the rejectionist Islamic states, supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long before the second intifada broke out. I reminded him of what he knew perfectly well already, that Bill Clinton spent years trying to get Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to agree to a deal.

“It was obvious that Clinton’s negotiations were not official,” he said. “It was only an attempt to bridge the two parties. It wasn’t until Bush supported a Palestinian state in 2002 that it became the US official policy.”

It’s true that George W. Bush said the words “Palestinian” and “state” together in the same publicly uttered sentence before Bill Clinton did. But Abu Laila had to know that was a full-of-crap answer, that Bill Clinton was perfectly serious when he spent years trying to get the Palestinians a state of their own.

“Are you glad Ariel Sharon, due to his stroke, is no longer prime minister?” I said.

“No,” he said. “I’m not glad. I don’t celebrate the unfortunate illness of any human being. His absence will cause long-term changes in Israel’s image and attitudes. Olmert will have to cope with those realities.”

“Was he better or worse than you thought he would be when he was first elected?” I said.

“Sharon was worse than expected,” he said. “He based his policy on the military option instead of engagement.” He expected something else?

“Do you feel the Arab countries have betrayed the Palestinians?” I said. “They are treated like animals in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I wouldn’t say Arab governments are innocent. They are not doing what they should do. It is below the capacities that they have. Still, Israelis are the main enemy and the main source of suffering.”

“But Palestinians are treated worse by Lebanese than they are by Israelis,” I said. “Do you know about the conditions in refugee camps like Ein El Helwe?”

“They are not treated worse in Lebanon,” he said. “That is not possible.”

I blinked at him.

“I have seen these places myself,” I said. “The conditions there are vastly worse than they are here in Ramallah. It’s impossible to even compare them.”

“Here a pregnant woman cannot get to a hospital because of the checkpoints,” he said.

It’s possible the Palestinians in the West Bank have no idea how bad the refugee camps in other countries really are. Or they are so consumed with their own problems that they just don’t care. I do not know.

I’ll say this, though: Those refugee camps in Lebanon have been there for more than 50 years. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon are not allowed to live anywhere else unless they are Christian. (They aren’t really “camps,” by the way. They are urban, and they are sub-Dickensian slums.) And until last year, vehicles entering the camps were searched by the Lebanese army. Building materials were confiscated. The Lebanese didn’t want the Palestinians to get, you know, the wrong idea. If you want to know what those places are like, just imagine the worst slums you’ve ever seen. Then subtract all the modern building materials. Unspeakable doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Last year I interviewed Mohammad Afif. He sits on Hezbollah’s Political Bureau. I haven’t mentioned this until now because he has almost nothing to say but Hezbollah cliches. But he did say one interesting thing as a pre-emptive rebuttal to Abu Laila.

He told me I should visit Sabra and Chatilla and see how Palestinians in Lebanon live. I told him I already had, that it was clear to me that Palestinians are treated worse by Lebanese than they are by Israelis. He was stunned that I dared say that to him. But he quickly composed himself and said “Yes, you are right. I am sorry about that.”

Congregating in PLC.jpg

I did get to talk to Saeb Erekat briefly before he left the building. Sufian told me Palestinians nicknamed him The Penguin. Why? Because he looks a lot like one.

“Why did Hamas win?” I said.

“Two things,” he said. “Our mistakes and Israeli unilateralism.” He spoke quickly and confidently in perfect crisp English. He didn’t sound so much like he had rehearsed his answers (although he probably had), but more like a man who was sure he was right and believed what he said.

“What are you in Fatah going to do now that you’ve lost?” I said. “How will you win the next election?”

“We’re rebuilding from scratch,” he said. “We need soul searching, reform, and new faces. This movement has had the same faces for 41 years. We need change. And we’re willing to take responsibility.”

“Why did the intifada end?” I said. The question didn’t phase him like it did Abu Laila.

“I don’t know,” he said. “And I don’t care. I’m just glad it’s over. Hopefully it ended out of an understanding that it was bad. I condemned every single attack.”

“What do you think was the biggest Palestinian mistake since the Oslo peace process began?” I said.

“We were unsuccessful in terms of transparency and accountability,” he said. “We could have done it. But we failed. That’s why Hamas won. We should have been tough on people who abused their offices.”

“What was the biggest Israeli mistake since Oslo?” I said.

“The motto of No Sacred Dates,” he said. “Each time they had a date-based obligation, they didn’t do it. They kept building settlements.”

“Why is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank such a big problem for Palestinians?” I said. “Would you rather the Israelis stay?”

“The problem with unilateralism is the outcome of it,” he said. “The Israelis will get everything they want without negotiation.” Palestinians should have thought of that, then, before electing people who say negotiation is treason. “The net result will be more bloodshed. We all know the outcome will be a two-state solution.”

“Yes,” I said. “Everyone knows there will be two states in the end. So why is it taking so long?”

“I founded the Palestinian peace camp in 1979,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“I am against suicide bombing morally, not politically,” he said.

“How many Palestinians agree with you about that?” I said.

“Few,” he said. “Very few.” He said this inside the Palestinian Legislative Council within earshot of his colleagues, many of whom speak English and could hear him perfectly well. “We have to keep working,” he said and gently put his hand on my shoulder. “It is difficult in this environment.”

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. I would do this for free if I could. But I can’t. Thank you all so much for your help so far.

Piercing the Wall of Silence

I know it’s taking me way too long to write my dispatch from the West Bank. Sorry about that. I will post it shortly, I promise.

In the meantime, check out this blog from a Lebanese who calls himself The Perpetual Refugee. He is in Israel now, which is treasonous. But he’s there anyway. And he met my Israeli friend Lisa Goldman. He wrote about meeting her here, and she wrote about meeting him here.

Arabs and Israelis are talking to and linking each other in the blogosphere despite the reactionary laws against this kind of fraternizing behavior. (Israel has no such dumb laws.) Now they’re even meeting each other as friends in the real world.

My friend and former guest-blogger Lebanon.Profile recently discovered the Israeli blogosphere and wrote an amazing post on one of his blogs about what that was like. Don’t miss it.

You might, conceivably, read something like these blog entries in the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz. But you will not read anything like them in Beirut’s Daily Star. I love Lebanon dearly, I hate having to say this, and, hey, the Daily Star published one of my articles once. But unfortunately, that’s how it is.

UPDATE: Lebanon.Profile, my Lebanese friend in Beirut, writes:

Not knowing about “them” is the worst crime we can commit. It invalidates them as humans, as if they don’t even matter. They are Stalin’s faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil blood suckers whom it is righteous to kill.

Meanwhile, a knee-jerk academic in Britain refuses to read anything written by an Israeli. It burns! It burns us!

Look Who’s Googling Osama

I’m working on a long piece about the Palestinian West Bank that will include lots of photos and interviews with Palestinian civilians and politicians. In the meantime I don’t want to let this space get stale. So I’ll leave you with this to chew on for now.

Yesterday the Egyptian Sandmonkey introduced me to Google Trends. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind on this one.) Turns out, for those of you who don’t know, you can use Google Trends to track search phrases over time. It even includes nifty graphs that show you which citites and countries the searches originate from.

Here’s an example that Sandmonkey thought was funny. These are the top ten countries where Google searches for “man boy sex” come from.

Top Region One.bmp

It would be so easy to misinterpret data like this. Nevertheless, when I showed Sandmonkey (who is Egyptian and lives in Cairo) who Googles “Osama,” he said “Oh man. Man oh man.”

Top Regions Two.bmp

Can anyone think of a benign explanation for this? Egypt is overwhelmingly the most Islamist place I’ve ever been, and I can’t think of a benign explanation that takes that into account. No other Muslim country even appears on the chart, not even Saudi Arabia.

Whatever the explanation, Google Trends is addictive. Once you start, it’s impossible to stop. Some of the results are insanely counterintuitive. Like this one.

The Palestinians of 1948

JAFFA and JERUSALEM – There are more Arabs in Israel than there are in Beirut. One Israeli in five is an Arab. They aren’t Israeli Jews. Nor are they the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. They were born and raised in Israel. They carry Israeli passports. They have full rights of citizenship. They vote in Israeli elections, and they field their own candidates in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. They don’t clamor for a state of their own, nor do most of them wish to join a Palestinian state once it is born. They hardly – ever – have anything to do with the terrorism campaigns waged by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, Islamic Jihad, or Hamas. They are the lucky ones who were not driven out, who did not flee to the wretched refugee camps of Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria during the Naqba – the creation of Israel – the “catastrophe.” They are Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians of 1948. And they are almost completely invisible and forgotten outside of Israel.

I wish I could tell you that Israeli Jews and Arabs have created a groovy urban Middle East melting pot culture like the Lebanese have. But I’d be fantasizing or lying. It’s not that they hate each other. But they do seem to fear each other. The sense I got from talking to various people is that many Jews are afraid the Arabs might hurt them, and most Arabs do their best to keep their heads down and steer as wide of politics and the conflict as possible.

Nevertheless, here is a picture of modern Israel: a mosque minaret rises in front of a Jewish hotel on the Tel Aviv beach.

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There is a huge difference between Media Israel and the Israel that actually exists in the world. Israeli Arabs are written straight out of the manichean ethnic clashistan narrative.

I went to the Arab city of Jaffa hoping to find a few who would be willing to sit down and talk. The only trouble is I went there on Saturday, the Jewish religious holiday, when almost all the stores were closed and there were hardly any people out and about. (Muslims in Israel close up shop on the Jewish sabbath, just as Muslims in Lebanon close up shop on the Christian sabbath.)

Jaffa is attached to Tel Aviv like a Siamese twin. The two cities really are one. Tel Aviv began as a Jewish neighborhood of Jaffa almost 100 years ago, nearly a half-century before Israel even existed. It is perhaps sadly fitting, though, that Tel Aviv and Jaffa retain their own respective names. There isn’t much mixing of Arabs and Jews here. You can walk from downtown Tel Aviv to downtown Jaffa in twenty minutes, but the cities are worlds apart.

Every Israeli I asked admitted that anti-Arab racism is a very real problem, that Arabs have a hard time renting apartments in Tel Aviv even though discrimination is against the law. That does not, however, mean that Jaffa is some kind of a ghetto. It isn’t. It’s a lovely place, actually, one of the finest Arab cities I’ve seen.

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I saw no evidence that Israeli Arabs are poorer than Jews. It’s hard to visually compare the economics of a modern city with an ancient one. But I can visually compare the economics of Jaffa with other old Arab cities I’ve been to. Jaffa rivals or beats every one of them.

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One outdoor café near the Visitor’s Center was open even on Saturday afternoon. I ordered a 7-UP from two young Arab men with dreadlocks working the counter. They looked like crosses between hippies and surfer dudes. They smiled warmly when I said a few words to them in Arabic with an American accent.

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At least one spoke fluent English. I asked if either would be willing to sit down with me for a few minutes and be interviewed. Both visibly cringed. The very idea was clearly dreadful to them. One immediately vanished into the back. The other gave me a fake smile and shrugged his shoulders.

“I have no politics,” he said. “And he has no English.” But I knew his co-worker spoke English. He understood exactly what I said and he got all twitchy about it.

Were they shy? Were they afraid that because I’m American I might be hostile? Did they just want a low profile in Israel so they could stay out of potential trouble? I do not know.

I wanted to hear what Israeli Arabs had to say for themselves. In the meantime, though, I would have to rely on what Israeli Jews said about them.

Allison Kaplan Sommer introduced me to a friend of hers who moved to Israel from South Africa because he could not stomach the wretched apartheid regime. I can’t print his name because he’s a wire agency reporter who is forever banned from having opinions.

“There is discrimination here,” he said. “You’d have to be a fool to say there wasn’t. But it’s not entrenched in law or ideology. There is no law that says the Israeli Arab or Muslim is a second-class citizen. It’s true that they suffer social discrimination. But it isn’t legal.”

I couldn’t resist the following question: “What do you think about the accusation in the West that Israel is an apartheid state?” I said.

“It makes smoke come out of my ears!” he said. “The only way the analogy holds truth is within the context of a one-state Israeli solution. But the Israeli mainstream has reconciled itself to a Palestinian state…The Israeli government recently voted for an Affirmative Action program for Israeli Arabs in the civil service. This would have been unthinkable in South Africa.”

This guy isn’t one to put up with apartheid. He was repeatedly arrested in his native South Africa for demonstrating against the racist policies of the then-white government. He proudly wears the scars on his arm where unleashed government Dobermans bit him in 1977.

“I knew from the age of ten that I could not stay in South Africa,” he said. “I disliked it intensely. It was easy to move to Israel because it’s an immigrant country. People who move here get lots of assistance.”

Benjamin Kerstein also acknowledged racism is a real problem in Israel. “There is racism here,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the most disgusting racism you can imagine. But it’s important to realize it’s not institutionalized.”

Yossi Klein Halevi, the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Republic, met with me in his office at the Shalem Center.

“How can someone be an Israeli-Palestinian?” he said. “It’s an impossible identity.”

Halevi Book Cover.JPG

“It’s true that Israeli Arabs have more freedom than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East,” he added. “But it’s not enough. We need real co-existence in a single society. I want an Arab Israeli to feel part of Israel.”

I headed back to Jerusalem’s old city during the day when the market was open and other people were out. It looked like a completely different place than it did when I went there at night.

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I met an Israeli Arab named Samir while shopping for a necklace and a pair of earrings for my wife. He asked for a ridiculous amount of money for the jewelry and, without really meaning to, I actually laughed at him.

“Come on,” I said. “I can pay far less for this stuff in Beirut where I’ve been living. And Lebanon is expensive.”

I offered him one-eighth his asking amount, though I knew I would end up paying a lot more than that.

“Please sit down,” he said. Perfect, I thought. The Arab social ritual was about to begin. He knew we would both be there for a while. And it was only polite – and also more pleasant – to talk about something other than money. “Would you like some tea?” he said.

“Please,” I said. “Of course. Thank you so much.”

As long as you aren’t dealing with Hezbollah psychopaths, Semtex-strapped “martyrs,” or Al Qaeda head-choppers, Arabs really are the most pleasant people you can find anywhere. There’s nothing quite like going to a place where you can regularly and reliably pull up a chair (or a space on a carpet) with total strangers and share coffee, tea, cigarettes, and conversation while basking in the glow of instant warm friendship. Arab hospitality alone is reason enough to visit the Middle East instead of Europe on your next holiday.

I sort of understand why Israelis fear Arabs. Yasser Arafat, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etcetera ad nauseum, are murderous maniacs. And they get all the attention. At the same time I’m completely baffled. You are not going to run into those types while hanging out with regular folks in the Jerusalem market.

“Would you like a cigarette?” I said to Samir.

“No, thank you,” he said as he handed me an ashtray. We sipped from our glasses of tea.“I don’t smoke. And I don’t drink anymore, either. I have only one vice. Can you guess what it is?”

I had an idea. But I didn’t want to offend him. So I hinted at my guess with a question.

“Are you married?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “But I can’t sleep with only one woman. One just isn’t enough.”

“I thought you might say that,” I said. “That’s why I asked if you were married.”

“My wife will throw me out if she catches me,” he said.

“Be careful, man,” I said.

“I don’t do it here,” he said. “Only when I am traveling somewhere else.”

We talked about travel. And then we talked about politics.

“What’s it like for you as an Israeli Arab when Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other?” I said.

“We don’t get involved,” he said. He then placed the tips of his index fingers on his cheekbones just below his eyes. “We watch.”

“When there is, eventually, a two-state solution, do you want to live on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side?”

“The Israeli side!” he said instantly and emphatically as if there were no other possible answer. “None of us want anything to do with the Palestinian Authority. They are corrupt. They are impossible. They are not straight. No one can deal with those people.”

“Are the Israelis straight?” I said.

“No!” he said. “But they are better. Which side would you rather live on?” he asked rhetorically. “Should I prefer Arafat and Hamas just because I’m an Arab?”

He asked me what I thought about Israeli-Palestinian politics. I told him I didn’t know anymore, which is true. During the Oslo “peace process” years I was staunchly on the Palestinian side. Every time a suicide bomber blew up himself and others during the intifada, and every time I saw Palestinians cheerleading the gruesome attacks, and every time I saw polls of Palestinians that showed the majority didn’t want a two-state solution but the complete destruction of Israel, I felt my sympathy for the Palestinian cause bleed away. Eventually there wasn’t much left.

It was easy to be pro-Palestinian when terrorism was relatively rare and when most said they merely wanted their own sovereign country. And it was easy to be pro-Israeli during the horrific waves of suicide operations against innocents in the early 2000s.

Things are different now. The intifada mostly is over. Brutal Israeli crackdowns mostly are over. Palestinians and Israelis are each locked in their own quiet holding patterns, cautiously waiting to see what the other side will do next. It’s hard to have strong opinions when not much is happening.

“I like how you think,” Samir said. “Do you not have any money? I will help you. I will give you the necklace and the earrings if you don’t have any money.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But I have money. I might buy them. Just not for your asking price.”

He laughed. “I know,” he said. “I ask high. If a German comes in here he’ll pay whatever I ask. You wouldn’t believe it. You Americans are not so easy.”

I noticed lots of Christian jewelry for sale. I wasn’t sure if I had accidentally wandered from the Muslim Quarter into the Christian Quarter. It’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.

“Are you a Christian?” I said.

“No,” he said. “I am a Muslim. But I sell Christian things. And I sell Jewish things. Why not? I don’t care what is your religion.”

Samir also sold items with fused religious imagery, like this one:

Jewish Hand of Fatima.jpg

That’s the Hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. And that’s a Jewish menora in the center of it.

For all the conflict and the hate and the bullshit, Israel may be the only place in the world where you can buy something that is Jewish and Islamic at the same time. If you do go there and buy something like that, chances are an Arab will be the person who sells it to you.

Israelis are not what I would call friends with the Palestinians of 1948. But they aren’t enemies either, though they once were. Making peace with the Palestinians of 1967 will not be easy, to say the least, especially when Hamas is the government in Ramallah. But there’s nothing eternal about Arabness and Jewishness that makes it forever impossible.

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. Your donations today make tomorrow’s dispatches possible. Thank you all so much for your help so far.

UPDATE: I have been corrected in the comments. Turns out the Hand of Fatima is only the Islamic name for this symbol. It is older than Islam, and both religions have incorporated it.

City of Light, City of Dread

TEL AVIV AND JERUSALEM — Tel Aviv is the perfect bohemian city: secular, cultured, youthful, compact, hip, and ideally situated on the shore of the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv Coast.jpg

It is the opposite of spectacular and glitzy. This city has not been to finishing school. It’s worn around the edges, slightly seedy in the corners, and refreshingly not as Western or California-like as expected.

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Tel Aviv has been described as the Miami of the Middle East, which it sort of is. But only for one street along the beach.

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The rest of the city is Beirut with Jews and (slightly) fewer machine guns.

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Restaurants, art galleries, cafes, and bookstores dominate the core of the city. There are some old folks around, but for the most part it has been colonized by young urbanites.

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It’s Greenwich Village on the beach. But it’s Greenwich Village on the beach in the Middle East. Beirut may be similar, but there’s nowhere else in the world exactly like it. Benjamin Kerstein in Beersheva told me about a picture he once had of a guy wearing a long-haired blonde wig and a pink tutu with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. “That’s Tel Aviv,” he said.

The city is 97 years old. It’s not only young for the Middle East, it’s young for the world.

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There aren’t many old buildings around, but there are a few. Some really leapt out at me. This one below could easily have been in Beirut.

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I have no nostalgia, if that is the word, for the Ottoman Empire. But it’s still sad to see physical evidence that Israel and Lebanon were recently (more recently than the founding of young Tel Aviv) more or less part of the same “country,” to use the word loosely. You could drive from Beirut to Tel Aviv in four hours if the border were open. But today the two cities might as well be on opposite sides of the moon.

Only a naif would believe that the peoples of the Levant — who today think of themselves as Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese — all felt like they belonged to one happy empire under the rule of the Ottomans. They didn’t. It just seems worse somehow now. The Israeli-Lebanese border is as inviolable as the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. (At least Lebanese and Israelis can go around it. No one is being kept in.)

The freshly constructed wall between the Israelis and Palestinians isn’t inviolable, but it’s yet another hideous wall of partition. Tiny formerly-Ottoman countries are still being sliced into even tinier countries and statelets based, more or less, on ethnic identity. It happened in Cyprus. In happened in Yugoslavia. It almost happened in Lebanon. It might happen soon in Iraq, and it already has happened informally in Iraqi Kurdistan. And it’s happening in Israel and Palestine now. While Europe moves to integrate its parts into a peaceful multinational federation, the Middle East still hasn’t finished breaking apart.

From the center of Jerusalem you can see the wall that divides Israel from what will someday — faster, please — officially be known as Palestine. Part of Jerusalem itself is on the other side of the 1967 Green Line which divided Israel from what was then Jordan.

West Bank Wall from Jerusalem.jpg

Tel Aviv is cool. Tel Aviv is fun. Jerusalem isn’t fun. There is too much Reality in Jerusalem for it to be fun.

The city is ground zero in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were far more suicide-bombings there during the intifada than in Tel Aviv. This is partly due to Jerusalem’s proximity to the West Bank. It’s just an easier target. But it’s also more contested than Tel Aviv. Liberal and moderate Palestinians who don’t wish to destroy Israel still want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future sovereign Palestinian state.

But most Arabs who live there now don’t want to belong to a Palestinian state. They prefer, for the most part, to remain Israeli.

Jerusalem is stressful and unnervingly borderless, even with the wall up and in place. Some Israelis feel an existential dread in that city. “Jerusalem is a terrifying place to spend a lot of time in,” Benjamin Kerstein said over coffee. “There is so much tortured history and conflict.” He told me the city would be twice as intense for me if I could read the sometimes bloodcurdling Arabic and Hebrew graffiti.

I felt plenty of tension, though, partly because Benjamin put me in the mood to feel it, but also because the conflict is so much a part of what the place is.

I met Noga, a friend of a friend, for dinner. We sat at an outdoor table in front of the restaurant. She told me there were thirteen active terror alerts at that moment. Thirteen suicide-bombers were thought to be heading toward Jerusalem. Only two had so far been caught.

I swallowed hard and then did my best to blow it off. I’m more likely to be killed in a car crash, I thought. Which was true. No one exploded themselves in the city that night. But threats of that sort hang over the place all the time.

One of the restaurants and one of the cafés I visited had earlier been destroyed by suicide bombers and later rebuilt. These were just two places I went at random, and I just happened to discover later by chance that they had been blown up during the intifada.

I didn’t get to spend much time in the city — or in the country for that matter — but I did get to wander around a little bit.

Jaffa Street is one of the main arteries through Jerusalem outside the old city. Even this relatively newer part of town is much older than Tel Aviv.

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Pedestrian-only streets branch off Jaffa and make for a European-like section of town packed with shopping and outdoor cafes.

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The city is lovely and golden at night. This part of town feels at peace with itself.

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The old city doesn’t so much. It, too, is lovely. But it also is eerie.

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From a distance it looked impossibly ancient, like it must have back in the days of the Crusaders or even earlier.

Old City Wall Night.jpg

Hardly anyone was out walking around even at 10:00 at night. The old city is a day place. At night it is almost completely abandoned. Occasionally I did see other people. They always seemed slightly shifty to me, as I must have to them. Even today people are occasionally stabbed to death inside the old city walls during the night. The intifada takes many forms.

Jerusalem Old City Night.jpg

I walked the ancient streets lined with the closed shutters of shops. The merchants had all gone home. Tourists were back in their hotel rooms or at restaurants and bars in modern Jerusalem. The old city was left to itself. It was mostly just me, the bricks, the stones, and some ghosts.

The narrow passages, the stone walls, the stairs that twist around corners…these places are thousands of years old, older than Christianity. Jerusalem makes most places in Europe seem spanking new like Los Angeles or Vancouver by comparison.

I couldn’t tell you when and where I crossed the Green Line when I walked to the old city. It is unmarked by signs let alone an actual green line painted over the streets and the sidewalks. The old city is on the other side. It technically is not in Israel proper. It’s in East Jerusalem. Jordan ruled it in 1967. The Palestinians claim it today. Israel flatly refuses to hand it over to them.

What country is this place in? It is claimed and counterclaimed. Most of the world recognizes Jerusalem’s old city as belonging to no one in particular. During the day when the streets are packed with shopkeepers and tourists, questions like this are far away. But at night when no one’s around, being in a twice-claimed neighborhood with so very much beauty and history and tension feels totally crazy. There will be a lot more violence there in the future, for sure. You can’t stop it any more than you can stop an earthquake gearing up to explode from two tectonic plates that slowly but inexorably push against one another.

You could, I suppose, visit Israel and ignore all of this. You can loll on the beach in Tel Aviv and shop in the markets inside the walls of Jerusalem. You could visit the Dead Sea, the lovely Arab city of Jaffa, and wherever else you might want to go, blissfully tuning out all the history and trauma and pain. But frankly I do not see how.

If you head down to the Negev Desert — at least if you take the road I took — you’ll drive right past wretched, oppressive, unhinged, brutalized Gaza. You could try to pretend it isn’t there and keep your eyes fixed straight ahead. But good luck with that. If you have even a flicker of sympathy for Palestinian people, driving past Gaza will make you shudder.

It’s easier to ignore all these problems in Tel Aviv. Somehow it just feels apart. Even the graffiti and public messages are upbeat.

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Jerusalem, though, is full of feel-bad graffiti and public messages.

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Israel is a great country. And Jerusalem is a great city despite the conflict, the uber-controversial politics, the terrorism, and the anxious history bearing down on the place. I want to go back. Life is lived more intensely there than it is other places, just as it is in Beirut.

But Israel is a haunted country. It is not where you want to go to relax.

Israel is a country where, once a year, a loud siren sounds across the land. Everything and everyone stops. Anyone driving a car presses the brake, unlatches their seatbelt, and steps out into the road. Everyone stands there — the entire country at once — and collectively remembers the Holocaust.

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Photo Copyright Lisa Goldman

“There is the Israel of the day and the Israel of the night,” Benjamin Kerstein told me. “During the day we’re living the good life on the Mediterranean. At night this is a country of nightmares.”

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. Your donations today make tomorrow’s dispatches possible. Coming soon: reports and photos from the West Bank, plus interviews with those who lost the Palestinian election to Hamas.

Back Soon

Sorry for disappearing with no notice. My wife and I went to the beach on a very long weekend for our anniversary. We sort of got cheated on our last one (due to work and life) so we’re making up for it this year. I’ll be back in a few days…

Correction

I need to post a correction. I would have done so as an update to the original post, but I didn’t realize I erred until it was too late. So I’m putting it right here at the top of the main page where it won’t be buried.

I quoted Lisa Goldman:

I have Palestinian friends who say things I don’t like at all. They say they want to destroy Israel, that it has no right to exist.

Except that’s not what she said. She and I were hanging out socially in a bar. I was not formally interviewing her, as I formally interviewed these guys. So I wrote down a few key things she said after I got back to my hotel room.

What she actually said is that (some of) her Palestinian friends wish Israel would disappear, not that they want to destroy it.

The distinction seems subtle. The first version is active, the second is passive. That seemingly subtle distinction, though, puts her friends dramatically at odds with Hamas. She explained it to me in an email:

I told you that I have Palestinian friends who are angry at Israel, who wish it would disappear (and we all wish things in our hearts, while knowing they won’t happen; I’m sure lots of Israelis wish the Palestinians would just disappear, too) and who long for a one-state solution. Sometimes they say ignorant things against Israel, and once a Palestinian cameraman told me that he wished I could express some empathy for the suicide bombers (I couldn’t). That does not mean he supports the suicide bombers. He doesn’t, and he told me so explicitly. I do not have any Palestinian friends who wish actively for Israel’s destruction. All of them condemn the suicide bombers. They might not like that Israel exists, but they have come to terms with its existence. What they want is an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Oh, and when I told you that those friends love me, I also told you that I love them. ;) These are friends who call me to express sympathy when there’s a suicide bombing in Israel, or who have gone to a lot of trouble to help me get interviews with Palestinian politicians. They never let me pay for my meals when I meet them at cafes in Ramallah, they take time off work to drive me around and introduce me to people and they invite me freely into their homes. They are almost all journalists.

On the other hand, I have met and spoke to Hamas activists – which is a very weird experience, especially because they know I’m Israeli and they speak to me in Hebrew. I mean, they’re supposed to want to destroy me, but they are always courteous – even hospitable. That’s the cognitive dissonance that makes me differentiate between rhetoric and reality. I don’t trust Hamas, of course, and they are not my friends. I never forget about the suicide bombings for which they are responsible. But I know some of those people. I know it’s weird, but I do. And so do lots of other Israeli journalists, by the way.

She got piled on in my comments section, surely in part because I misquoted her. I apologize to everyone.

Lisa is a friend, so I’m doubly sorry and hereby apologize to her twice.

On the Rim of a Volcano

This is the second of a two-part series about the rising tension and danger on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Don’t miss Part One: Everything Could Explode at Any Moment.

NORTHERN ISRAEL — Lisa and I followed Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Zvika Golan as he led us in his jeep to the kibbutz of Malkiya right on the Lebanese-Israeli border, within immediate striking distance of Hezbollah’s rockets and bombs.

Zvika pulled off to the side of the road and pointed out a UN base just over the fence on the Lebanese side. He yelled something at the UN soldiers in Hindi. They waved and hollered back at him in Hindi. By happy coincidence, both Zvika and the peacekeepers are from India. Theirs is, perhaps, the only verbal communication that ever crosses that fence.

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Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

At Malkiya we met Eitan Oren, an Israeli Kurd from Eastern Turkey. He gave Lisa and me a quick tour of the place which was unremarkable in almost every way. It looked, to my eyes anyway, like just another small town only with fewer roads and more foot paths connecting the buildings.

“It’s dying here,” Eitan said. “Socialism is out. Capitalism is in. The ideology collapsed. I was never a socialist. I don’t belong in the concrete jungle of Tel Aviv. I’m a nature boy. I belong here.”

Here, though, was right on the rim of a volcano. Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon was right there. And, as Zvika kept telling Lisa and me, the border was gearing up to explode.

The four of us got into Eitan’s pickup so he could take us on a brief driving tour.

“Since our withdrawal, the enemy – Hizb Allah – is on the fence,” he said. “See that post on the mountain?”

Hezbollah Post on Hill.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“They are watching us right now,” Eitan said. “You are safe, though.”

“Don’t believe what he says,” Zvika said and laughed darkly. “You are not particularly safe right now.”

Zvika stripped off his officer’s clothes so he would look more like a civilian. He did that, I think, to protect Eitan, Lisa, and me, not himself.

Eitan pulled off the main road and into his peach orchard next to the fence.

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Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“Lots of drug fields right across the border right here,” he said. Hezbollah uses the drug money to purchase weapons to use against Israel. “Across the border are mostly Shia. We used to have a great relationship with them.”

It’s sort of true, up to a point. Yasser Arafat and the PLO had their own state-within-a-state in Lebanon during the 1970s. They used it as a base to carry out terrorist operations against Israel. In 1982, during the Lebanese civil war, Israel invaded – in effect becoming yet another militia in the ridiculous conflict – to put a stop to it once and for all. The PLO was driven out of Lebanon and into Tunisia. But the Israelis had a little side project going on at the same time. They tried to prop up the hard-right presidency of Bashir Gemayel, which turned into an utterly misguided disaster for everyone…particularly for the freshly elected Gemayel, who was assassinated by – who else? – Syrian intelligence agents.

The Shia of South Lebanon hailed the Israelis, for a while, as a liberation army that freed them from the PLO. The honeymoon didn’t last long, though. Israel stayed far too long, frequently treated the Shia with contempt, and monkeyed around with Lebanon’s internal politics just as much as the Syrians did.

“Nasrallah is a bright guy,” Eitan said, referring to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. “I wish his energy were directed toward something good. But Hezbollah has been infected by Iran.”

“What do you think of ordinary people on the other side?” I said.

“Every day I wave at Lebanese people,” he said.

“Do they ever wave back?” I said.

“Not usually, no,” he said. “They are cold. A few are friendly, though.”

“Do you know why most of them are cold?” I said. It’s unclear how much Israelis know about why things are the way they are inside Lebanon. He already knew I had been living in Beirut, and he could tell by the tone of my voice that I knew the answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Why?”

“Because waving hello to an Israeli is treason,” I said.

He looked startled and more than a little disturbed.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “Some wave hello to me anyway. Do you know why?” I didn’t. “Because they are my friends. They know me. We used to work together when the border was open.”

Of course. The border was open until 2000 when Ehud Barak withdrew the Israeli forces from their anti-Hezbollah “security belt” in South Lebanon. Lebanese crossed the border every day through Fatima’s Gate to work in Israel. Some of them worked with Eitan. Even now they risk being punished for treason so they can wave hi.

“Come with me, my friends,” Eitan said. “ I want to show you something.”

Lisa, Zvika, and I got into his pickup and drove for another few minutes along the fence.

We got out at an elevated clearing. I grabbed my notebook and camera.

Eitan and His Map.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Eitan pulled out a hand-drawn map that showed Northern Israel and the Upper Galilee region of South Lebanon. His map referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” linguistic code that gave him away as a right-wing Zionist. (UPDATE: several people in the comments are contesting this. Maybe I’m wrong here? Perhaps “Judea and Samaria” is more common in Israel than in the U.S.)

“Look at this” Eitan said. “It’s the old British customs building.”

Destroyed English Gate.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“Look over there,” he said and pointed into Lebanon. “You see that destroyed building just on the other side of the fence? That’s the old French customs house. It, too, was used when the Lebanese-Israeli border was open. Hezbollah blew it away. Nasrallah wanted to make sure there was no contact at all between our two peoples.”

Lisa and Eitan 1.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Destroyed French Gate.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

It’s a lot easier to hate people when you don’t know them personally, when you can’t work together, when you can’t hang out and talk, when you can’t wave hello. The vitriolic and eliminationist propaganda from Iran and Hezbollah is instantly proven abject and stupid upon contact with average Israelis. An open border and a free exchange of thoughts and ideas is Hezbollah’s worst nightmare.

“What do you want to see happen here, Eitan?” I said.

“I wish we could have peace and an open border,” he said. “Like a normal country. Like it is between Oregon and California. Right now we call the Lebanese enemies. But they are not really enemies. I know them. Some are my friends. The only enemy is Hezbollah.”

Eitan and Zvika leaned against the front of the truck. Eitan said it was a mistake for Israel to withdraw from South Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is the only Arab army to ever defeat us,” he said.

Zvika patiently shook his head. “They didn’t defeat us,” he said.

Eitan and Zvika.JPG

Photo copyright Lisa Goldman

They got into a minor, and civil, argument about it. The officer thought it was wise to withdraw the armed forces. The civilian did not. The officer insisted Hezbollah did not defeat Israel. The civilian insisted Hezbollah did. The officer feared Hezbollah. The civilian did not, and even seemed to respect Hassan Nasrallah as well as average civilians on the other side of the border. The officer’s point of view made sense. Eitan’s was a bundle of unworked-out contradictions.

Israelis cannot reach out in friendship and sit on South Lebanese people with tanks at the same time. Not after all that bloody history. There’s something else, too, something Eitan had not seemed to consider. The only reason Hezbollah has lost its popularity in Lebanon is because Israel has withdrawn its armed forces. Lebanese don’t like Israelis occupying their land any more than they like Syrians occupying their land.

Eitan took us back to Malkiya and showed us the community day care and nursery. He explained that they built the nursery in the center of the kibbutz where the children are surrounded by protective adults, just as a baby in the womb is protected by the body of its mother.

Stairs led down a passageway under the childrens’ playground to an entombed concrete bomb shelter. I wondered how on the earth responsible adults could raise infants mere feet from murderous enemies. But I didn’t want to ask. The question is too implicitly critical, and I liked Eitan. I wasn’t about to tell him what he should do with his life, how he should raise his children.

He seemed to sense my unease, though, and explained that it would be a catastrophe for Israel if the northern part of the country were left abandoned and darkened.

Lebanese on the other side of the fence feel the same way. They have no idea that Israel has no intention of re-occupying South Lebanon. They feel like they’re on the rim of a volcano, too, and they feel safer because of Hezbollah.

Eitan and His Daughter.JPG

Photo copyright Lisa Goldman

“Here’s my little girl,” Eitan said and hoisted her proudly in front of Lisa’s camera. “Do you think she looks Kurdish?” I did not think she did. Her mother is European.

Lisa and I stopped at the grocery store on our way out and bought snacks. We had another stop to make along the border before heading back to Tel Aviv. Eitan came with us. When I pulled some cash out of my pocket, Eitan told me to put it away. “We don’t use money here,” he said. “This is a community!” As if that explained everything. This from a right-wing Zionist who boasted that he was no socialist.

We said our goodbyes to Eitan and Zvika, got back in the rental car, and headed up the road toward Metulla and al-Ghajar.

Metulla is the closest Israeli town to Lebanese territory. It literally is built right up to the fence. A Lebanese kid could throw a baseball onto an Israeli’s back porch.

Lisa and I wanted to see Fatima’s Gate, the old border crossing that was closed six years ago. Israelis call that stretch of the border The Good Fence. Furious Arab tourists like to go there and throw rocks toward civilian homes in Metulla.

The Good Fence.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lisa told me that several times groups of Israelis drove up to Fatima’s Gate and peacefully confronted the rock throwers.

“We don’t hate you,” the Israelis said. It never did any good. Arabs who go out of their way to throw rocks can’t be easily dissuaded by niceness. And besides, being friendly with Israelis is treason.

The road to Fatima’s Gate was closed on that day. IDF soldiers told us we weren’t allowed beyond a gate that shuttered the road.

Stop Border in Front of You.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

So we drove on to al-Ghajar, which is a very strange place. All the residents are Alawite Arabs. One side of the village is in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The other side is in Lebanon. The residents on the Lebanese side wish they lived in Israeli-occupied Syria instead of Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon. The Israeli side is perfectly pleasant and prosperous. The Lebanese side is absolutely Third World, neglected as it is by Hezbollah as well as by the Lebanese government.

This is the place where Hezbollah launched its most recent November invasion. Lisa told me she saw Arab women screaming on the television news, demanding the Israelis beef up the security of their town and better protect them from Iran’s proxy killers.

Lisa is a journalist, and we both wanted to interview some of these people. But it didn’t look promising. Anyone driving into al-Ghajar had to navigate a slalom-like obstacle course of concrete blocks just to get to the checkpoint.

Entrance to Ghajar.JPG

Photo copyright Lisa Goldman

The soldiers at the checkpoint turned us back for our own protection. They were waiting for an attack. Everything could explode at any moment.

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“Everything Could Explode at Any Moment”

NORTHERN ISRAEL – Last year I drove down from Beirut into Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon along the border with Israel. Aside from Hezbollah’s other miniature state-within-a-state in the suburbs south of Beirut, the border region is the craziest place in the country.

The Lebanese government doesn’t control it and cannot police it. The army is not allowed to go down there. Soldiers I’ve talked to refer to the southern-most checkpoint before the Hezbollah-occupied zone as “the border.” Psychotic road-side propaganda shows severed heads, explosions from suicide-bombs, and murderous tyrants from Iran and Syria.

Border Poster.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Severed Head.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lisa Goldman and I decided to drive up there and take a look from the Israeli side.

“I should warn you,” I said in the car. “Something is wrong on the border. Something bad is going to happen.”

“Why do you say that?” she said.

I told her what I knew, what had recently happened when I tried to visit the border again from the Lebanese side just two weeks before.

*

My British friend Andrew flew out to Beirut from Washington. He wanted to visit the border. I wanted to go back to the border. So we rented a car and drove down to Saida where foreigners are required to get permission from the Lebanese army before being allowed beyond the last official checkpoint.

We found our way to the office of the ranking military intelligence officer.

“What is your nationality?” he said.

“He’s British,” I said, referring to Andrew. “And I’m American.”

The officer clasped his hands loudly together. “You are not going down there today,” he said.

“Why not?” I said.

He made an I-don’t-know face that was terrifically, intentionally, and even comically insincere.

“Is it for security reasons?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “You can go,” he said to Andrew. “But you,” he said, meaning me, “can’t go anywhere near the border right now.”

“Why not?” I said. “What’s going on?”

He laughed.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You can tell me. Who am I going to tell?” (Har har.)

He shook his head. “No,” he said. He was deadly serious about keeping me away from that border.

“Are you worried I will do something?” I said. “Or are you worried something will happen to me?”

“Something might happen to you,” he said.

“Is it Hezbollah? The Israelis? What?”

He made his goofy what-do-I-know face once again. “I am sorry,” he said. “It’s too dangerous. You aren’t going.”

*

That was all I could get out of the Lebanese army. The Israeli army was a little more willing to talk.

Lisa and I met Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Zvika Golan at a base in the north near the border. He told us to follow him in his jeep as he drove to a lookout point next to an IDF watch tower that opened up over Lebanon.

Israeli Border Post.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lebanon from Israel.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“You aren’t safe here right now,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “The Lebanese army wouldn’t let me anywhere near the border two weeks ago. What’s going on?”

“Hezbollah is planning an operation,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said.

“We know,” he said and nodded.

I knew he was right. The Lebanese intelligence officer more or less told me the same thing. He didn’t say the threat was from Hezbollah, but he didn’t have to.

“What do you think about all this?” I said.

“We really want the Lebanese army on this border,” he said.

Lebanon and Israel technically have been at war for many decades. But Israel and Lebanon have never actually fought any battles. Israel has been involved in plenty of fighting in Lebanon, but none of it ever involved the Lebanese army or government. Neither side has ever actually fired on the other. Neither side wants to. All Israel’s Lebanon battles were waged against the PLO and Hezbollah.

“Are you in contact with the Lebanese government?” I said.

“We pass messages to the Lebanese army through the UN,” he said.

“How well are they received?” I said.

“Oh, they’re received very well,” he said. “The only problem is the Lebanese army can’t act against Hezbollah.”

He introduced me to a young bearded lieutenant in the IDF (left, below) on border patrol duty.

IDF Lieutenant and Spokesman.jpg

Photo copyright Lisa Goldman

“I have worked on the Jordanian and Egyptian borders,” he said. “This is the worst. The strangest feeling here is that the other side is a no-man’s land. There is no authority that you’re working against. It is extremely out of the ordinary to see any Lebanese police or army. Only Hezbollah is armed.”

“What do you see when you look at Lebanon?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I see poverty and difficult circumstances,” he said. “I see poor farmers who work hard. After so many years of war, the last thing they probably want is more war.”

“Do you know what you’re looking at when you look into the towns?” I said.

“We track movement on the other side,” he said. “I can tell you exactly what each of those buildings are for.”

Lebanese Village from Israel.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“What about people?” I said. “Can you tell who belongs to Hezbollah and who just happens to live there?”

“99 percent of the time I know who I’m looking at by their face,” he said. Hezbollah will love learning that if they’re still reading my blog.

The lieutenant was easily ten years younger than me. But he was so ground down from world-weariness he sounded like a man 30 years older who hadn’t slept for three days.

“Any minute now something huge could break out,” he said. “I am afraid to go home and leave my soldiers. When Hezbollah decides to do something, they do it. And they’re pretty good at it.”

“What do you think they’ll do next?” I said.

“I have no idea,” he said. “They could do anything. Kidnapping. Sniper.”

“How do you feel about that?” I said.

“Well,” he said. “You get pretty cynical about it after a while.”

“Do you think they’re watching us?” Lisa said.

“They are watching you right at this second,” the lieutenant said. “You are definitely being photographed. It’s possible you’re being watched through a sniper rifle.”

To say I felt naked and exposed at that moment would be a real understatement. I felt like my skin was invisible, that psychopaths were boring holes with their eyes straight to the core of my being. At the same time, I knew they did not see me as a person. They saw me as a potential massacre target.

I know Hezbollah wouldn’t hurt me in Lebanon, even though they did call me on my cell phone and threaten me with physical violence. All bets are off while standing next to IDF soldiers in Israel, though. Whoever was watching me surely dehumanized me as a Jew (even though I’m a non-religious “Christian”) who belonged to the little Satanic fit-for-destruction Zionist Entity.

I wouldn’t say I felt scared. But I certainly didn’t feel comfortable. The earth seemed slightly tilted. Lebanon feels unhinged and psychotic from the Israeli side of the line. At least it did on that day. I kept having to remind myself that the country I love and lived in is not at all represented by the nutcases with guns in the hills who like to pick off Jews on the border.

Lebanon at a Tilt.jpg

Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“How dangerous is it here, really?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I say this to my guys every morning: Everything could explode at any moment. Just after I said it this morning a bus load of pensioners showed up on a field trip. An old woman brought us some food. It’s crazy. They shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“What’s happening here is very unusual,” Zvika, the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman, said. But he wouldn’t tell me what, exactly, was so unusual. Shortly after I left the country, a story broke in the Daily Telegraph that explained it.

Iran has moved into South Lebanon. Intelligence agents are helping Hezbollah construct watch towers fitted with one-way bullet-proof windows right next to Israeli army positions.

Here’s what one officer said:

This is now Iran’s front line with Israel. The Iranians are using Hizbollah to spy on us so that they can collect information for future attacks. And there is very little we can do about it.

More powerful weapons, including missiles with a range of 30 miles, are also being brought in.

I asked Zvika about the last time Hezbollah and Israel got into a hot war.

“It was last November,” he said. “Hezbollah invaded the village of Ghajar in white jeeps that looked like they belonged to the UN. We bombed their positions with air strikes. After a while, the Lebanese army asked us to stop. So we stopped right away.”

“Why did you stop?” I said. “You stopped just because the Lebanese army asked you to stop?”

He looked surprised by my question.

“Of course we stopped because they asked,” he said. “We have very good relations with them. We’re working with them and trying to help make them relevant.”

Lebanon never admits anything like this in public.

The rhetoric that comes out of Beirut in Arabic rarely has anything to do with reality. The Lebanese government regularly affirms its “brotherhood” with Syria, its former murderous master that still knocks off elected officials and journalists. Undying loyalty to the Palestinian cause is constantly trumpeted, even while Lebanon treats its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees worse than neglected zoo animals. Arab Nationalism is another regular theme, even though Arab Nationalism is more dead in Lebanon than in any other country around.

“The UN says Hezbollah started the last fight,” I said to the lieutenant. “Do you ever start any fights?”

“They always initiate,” he said. “We never do. I want to go home. I want to read the newspaper and get more than three hours of sleep every night. We have no business here.”

“Are you scared?” I said.

“I am scared,” he said. “As an officer I want my men to be scared.”

“Are they?” I said.

“Not enough,” he said. “Not enough.”

Read Part Two

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“You Just Can’t Believe Anyone Hates You That Much”

TEL AVIV – After living in an Arab country for nearly six months, arriving in Israel came like a shock.

It startled me from the air. Whoa, I thought, as I looked out the window of the plane over the suburbs of Tel Aviv. If the border were open I could drive down there in a short couple of hours from my Beirut apartment. But this place looked nothing like Lebanon. My Lebanese friend Hassan calls Israel Disneyland. I thought about that and laughed when I watched it roll by from above.

Trim houses sprawled in Western-style suburban rows like white versions of little green Monopoly board pieces. Red-tiled roofs somehow looked more Southern California than Mediterranean. Swimming pools sparkled in sunlight. I felt that I had been whisked to the other side of the planet in no time.

The airport shocked me as well, although it probably wouldn’t shock you. There were more straight lines and right angles than I was used to. There were more women, children, and families around than I had seen for some time. Obvious tourists from places like suburban Kansas City were everywhere.

Arab countries have a certain feel. They’re masculine, relaxed, worn around the edges, and slightly shady in a Sicilian mobster sort of way. Arabs are wonderfully and disarmingly charming. Israel felt brisk, modern, shiny, and confident. It looked rich, powerful, and explicitly Jewish. I knew I had been away from home a long time when being around Arabs and Muslims felt comfortably normal and Jews seemed exotic.

First impression are just that, though. They tend to be crazily out of whack and subject to almost instant revision. Israel, I would soon find out, is a lot more like the Arab and Muslim countries than it appears at first glance. It’s not at all a little fragment of the West that is somehow weirdly displaced and on the wrong continent. It’s Middle Eastern to the core, and it has more in common with Lebanon than anywhere else I have been. The politics and the history are different, of course. But once I got settled in Tel Aviv I didn’t feel like I had ventured far from Beirut at all.

Lisa Goldman kindly welcomed me to the country and met me for drinks in a dark, smoky, and slightly bohemian bar on my first night. We talked, as everyone does, about The Conflict.

Lisa.jpg

Because I’m an idiot who can’t remember to take enough pictures of people, I pulled this one of Lisa off her own Web site.

Lisa is a journalist who has been writing for the Guardian lately. She moved from Canada to Israel years ago when Ehud Barak was prime minister. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians looked imminent. Israel was on the threshold – finally – of becoming an accepted and normal country in the Middle East. It was the perfect time to relocate, a time of optimism and hope. A cruel three weeks later that dream was violently put to its death. The second intifada exploded. Israel was at war.

“It was so traumatizing,” she said. “And everybody blamed us. I don’t think I will ever get over it.”

Last year she wrote a six-part series on her blog called How Lisa Came to Israel. It’s riveting and terrifying to read. She must turn that material into a book. Do yourself a favor. Set aside some time and read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six. If you’re a literary agent, send her an email.

“I was near 11 or 12 suicide attacks during the intifada,” she said. “But that’s nothing. I know people in Jerusalem who were near 40 or 50.”

She kept going to restaurants, cafes, and bars even while bombs exploded somewhere almost every day. She even chose to sit right next to the front windows, the least safe place in any establishment.

“The staff kept asking me if I was sure I wanted to sit there,” she said. “I did.”

“I didn’t want to visit Israel then,” I said.

“Hardly anyone did,” she said. “The thing is, though, even when the intifada was at its peak you were far more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than by the bombers.”

She’s right about that. Most supposedly dangerous countries in the Middle East are considerably safer than they appear from far away. The region is not one never-ending explosion. Even so, suicide bomb operations are far more terrifying and traumatizing than car crashes. They’re murderous. They’re malevolent. They’re on purpose.

“It’s especially disturbing when you know what those bombs do to the human body,” she said.

“Do I want to know?” I said. I was not sure I did.

She shrugged and raised her eyebrows.

“Okay,” I said. “Just tell me.”

“Arms and legs go flying in every direction,” she said. “Heads pop off like champagne corks. You just can’t believe anyone hates you that much.”

*

Sometimes the Middle East feels like it’s drowning in bigotry, hate, and stupidity. But hate is not the only human emotion in that part of the world, even between Arabs and Jews.

Lisa is a liberal. Not the Bush-hating idiot variety, but the kind of brave person who continues to believe in the world no matter what kind of hell it throws at her. She spends a lot of time in the West Bank and Gaza even though the people who live in those places just replaced Yasser Arafat’s Fatah regime with Hamas.

“I have Palestinian friends who say things I don’t like at all,” she said. “They say they want to destroy Israel, that it has no right to exist.”

“How can you be friends with people like that?” I said.

“Because I know the difference between rhetoric and reality,” she said.

“Threats from the West Bank aren’t just rhetoric,” I said. “How many suicide bombings did you say you’ve seen?”

“These people will never hurt me,” she said. “They are my friends. They love me. And when I say love, I do not mean that lightly.”

I thought about that, and I thought about why someone might want to reach out and forge such seemingly-impossible friendships with people who declare themselves enemies. There’s a lot more behind it than a yearning for peace and the standard liberal can’t-we-all-just-get-along point of view. It strikes me, partly, as an emotional survival technique. I, for one, would not be able to tolerate living in Israel if I did not have Palestinian friends who could balance out the restless hate from some of the others. (I’d also like to have them as friends for the usual reasons, of course.)

“How can they be friends with you?” I said.

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” she said.

I hadn’t been in Israel for even one day and I already knew I would leave with more questions than I had when I got there. I think I understand Lisa, though she might disagree. I don’t even think I understand her Palestinian friends. (I did not get a chance to meet them. I have work to do when I go back.)

“Hamas propaganda requires dehumanization,” she said. “When you meet someone face to face you become a real person. Then they can’t hurt you.”

But some of them can. The worst of them do. It takes a special kind of moral, emotional, and physical bravery to venture regularly into the West Bank and Gaza – as an Israeli civilian – and forge meaningful lasting friendships with people who say they want to destroy you. Lisa does it. I like to think I would, too, if I were Israeli. But I honestly don’t know if I could, not if I lived through the terror and rage of the intifada as she did. That’s one reason I wanted to meet her.

Know Hope.jpg

One of the most common spray-painted slogans in Tel Aviv says Know Hope. I don’t know who wrote it or why. Does it even matter? Israel is a stressful angst-inducing place. Not compared with Baghdad, for sure, but definitely compared with Egypt, Lebanon, and Northern Iraq. I felt better every time I saw it painted on walls. Know Hope. Those two simple words are so much more poignant in a place like Israel where the current (relative) lack of violence is almost certainly only a lull. Actual peace is well on the other side of the horizon.

Know Hope 2.jpg

Know Hope 3.jpg

Hope is precious and hard in Israel now. Hamas is taking over the reins of power in Palestine. The old Fatah regime was hideously corrupt and destructive. Some Palestinians, I am sure, voted for Hamas as a protest against Arafatism. Even so, terrorists officially rule the West Bank and Gaza with the consent of the governed.

And yet – and yet – the Israelis voted in a center-left government as a response. For a while there Israel wanted a man in power who was just a big fist. Until the second intifada broke out, Ariel Sharon – the Butcher of Beirut – was considered marginal and extreme by Israelis as well as by almost everyone else in the world. Yet they swung hard to the right and picked him to lead.

I wouldn’t say Israel has since swung hard to the left. But the Labor Party did receive one and a half times as many votes as Likud in the general election last month. Wielding a big fist no longer seems necessary whether it actually was in the first place or not. The intifada is more or less over. Brutal Israeli crackdowns in the territories are likewise more or less over. That may not be enough to feel hope, but it’s something.

Seeing Israel and Palestine for myself as they really are makes me slightly more hopeful than I was before I got there. The standard narrative of the conflict is a cartoon. Upon closer inspection, it’s a lot more complicated. And it’s a lot more interesting, too.

It may look like a never-ending and unresolvable death struggle with Arabs and Palestinians on one side, Israelis and Jews on the other. But people like Lisa and her Palestinian friends can’t be crudely reduced to that level. And we’re talking here about Palestinians who say they do want to destroy Israel, not just the liberals and the moderates who say they don’t.

Then there are those – and they’re almost completely ignored by the media – who defy these categories completely.

The Druze serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. And the Druze are as Arab as anyone else in the region. The biggest problem the Israeli government has with Druze members of the IDF is not that they are not loyal. The biggest problem is that they are consistently the most roguish and brutal toward Palestinians. They speak Arabic as their first language. Palestinians say they are traitors.

Bedouin also serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. The skills they learn as desert wanderers make them the perfect trackers.

Don’t assume the only reason Bedouin work with the Israelis is because they are loyal to the state they happen to live in, as may (or may not) be the case with the Druze. The tight relationship between Israeli Jews and Bedouin Arabs crosses international borders.

Lisa told me the Bedouin in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula speak Hebrew.

“Why?” I said. “Did they learn it during the occupation?” Israel seized the Sinai from Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967 and gave it back when Anwar Sadat agreed to a peace treaty.

“No,” she said. “They wanted to learn Hebrew so they can talk to us when we go down and visit.”

“When you go down there and visit?” I did not know what she was talking about.

“Last year 200,000 Israelis visited the Bedouin during Passover,” she said.

“Two hundred thousand,” I said. “On just one day?”

“You didn’t know about this?” she said.

“No,” I said. Before I went to the Middle East I had no idea Israeli Jews had any kind of genuinely friendly relations with Arabs in any country except right-wing Lebanese Maronites. And a significant number of Maronites say they aren’t even Arabs at all.

“The Bedouin roll our joints for us,” she said. “They sell us hashish. Israeli women like to go topless.”

“You go topless in front of the Bedouin?” I said. “Isn’t that offensive?” Bedouin are arguably the most conservative people in the entire Middle East.

“It doesn’t bother them,” she said. “They understand that our cultures are different. They don’t impose their values on us. And I never once saw a Bedouin man with wandering eyes.”

It made sense once I thought about it. Bedouin may be Egyptian Arabs, but they are completely isolated from Hosni Mubarak’s deranged state-run media. They could not care less about the politics of the so-called Arab-Israeli conflict. No one ever told them they are supposed to hate Jews. When politics can be pitched over the side, Israeli Jews and at least some Arab Muslims have a natural affinity for one another and they get along great.

“They are our brothers,” she said.

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. I’d like to do a lot more traveling and writing in the future, and your donations today make tomorrow’s dispatches possible. Thanks so much for your help so far.

Thank You

I’m still working on my first piece from Israel. Before I finish and post it I want to publicly thank Allison Kaplan Sommer and Lisa Goldman in Tel Aviv for helping me out more than any reasonable person could have expected — especially considering that neither had ever met me. Both welcomed me to the country in person, helped me meet other people, set me up with fixers, and even made hotel reservations for me.

I also want to say thank you so much to everyone who donates travel expenses via Pay Pal. It has been decided: If the mullahs let me in, I am going to Iran as quickly as possible.

An Experiment in Journalism

I went to the Middle East for six months so I could expand my freelance writing portfolio. But I found, after a few months, there may be a better way forward than publishing disconnected dispatches here and there for low pay.

The mainstream media is an industry in decline. The audience shrinks every year. Profits circle the drain. Budgets for foreign bureaus and correspondents have been gutted stem to stern. Most journalists are paid pitifully low salaries even in good times, and freelancers are paid even worse. Striving to become a part of all that may not be the brightest idea if there’s another option.

And it looks like there might be.

I decided to try a little experiment. Instead of lining up an assignment from an editor to cover Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, I struck out on my own without asking permission from anyone. Almost all my material was posted directly to this Web site. I wanted to see if the amount of money I can raise from readers competes with the industry’s going rate.

It does.

I raised more money from you to cover Iraqi Kurdistan than I’ve made covering any other country on paid assignments. I also had a lot more fun publishing my own material here instead of somewhere else. It is so much nicer to have the freedom to write whatever I want without any oversight, without any rules or restrictions, without any word limits, and without any delays. (The LA Weekly sat on my Libya story for more than a year. Four months after publishing it, they still owe me money.)

That doesn’t mean your generous Pay Pal donations have made me rich all of a sudden. I don’t have enough blog traffic for that. And saying www.michaeltotten.com pays better than freelance assignments isn’t saying a lot. But I did raise enough to go to Iraq and pay the bills during the time I was away. That’s all I need.

My experiment was therefore a success. I can go to Northern Iraq working for you and have a better experience than if I went there for somebody else.

Not many journalists go to Northern Iraq, though. So here’s what I don’t know: Were you willing to pay me because I went where few others go? Or can I do this again in a different location? I need to know how economically viable this emerging model of journalism really is.

Over the next two weeks or so we’ll find out.

After I left Northern Iraq for the second time, and before I returned to my home in the United States where I am now, I gathered more material in Israel and Palestine. I didn’t tell you I was going to do that. I didn’t ask a single editor for an assignment. I just went. That material will begin appearing here shortly.

More foreign correspondents live in Jerusalem than perhaps any other city on Earth. Are you willing to pay for independent coverage from there as well as from neglected places like Iraqi Kurdistan?

If so, I won’t have to wait for green lights from editors before buying plane tickets and heading off on assignments. You can read a lot more of the kind of thing you’ve been reading here lately if you’re willing and able to cover expenses. We can cut the industry out of these operations entirely. I would do this for love and for free if I could. But I’m not independently wealthy, so I just can’t.

If writing about Israel and Palestine on the blog proves to be profitable, here’s what I’m thinking of next:

I want to go to Iran and “embed” myself, so to speak, with the student movement that struggles against the Khomeini regime.

I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in Israel and Palestine as I would have liked, and I intend to go back. (I now know Palestinians who can get me safely into and out of Gaza, Hebron, and Jenin.)

I have been in contact with dissidents opposed to Assad’s Baath Party both inside and outside of Syria. It may be time to pay them a visit if the embassy in Washington (there isn’t one in Beirut) will grant me a visa.

I can secure protection and safe passage in Kabul and in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. Nothing is stopping me from going except that I do not have an assignment.

I speak some Spanish, I know Latin America well, and it’s about time I went to Cuba and, perhaps, Venezuela.

If at all possible I’d like to go to North Korea, as well.

What I need to know before I can do any of this is if you’re willing to “hire” me to write about places other than Northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Can I turn this blog into a job? Or was I lucky just this one time?

Working for you in Northern Iraq was the best job I ever had. If you want unfiltered, unplugged, and unedited foreign correspondence from other places as well, hit the Pay Pal button and I’ll provide you with lots of it for a long time.

Instapundit Interview

Yesterday I was interviewed on the Glenn and Helen show over at Instapundit. You can listen to the mp3 version of the show here, or you can get the podcast for Itunes here.

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