The Enemy is the Machine: A Letter from Israel

by rthieme on June 12, 2004

The Enemy is the Machine: A Letter from Israel

by Richard Thieme

In a world frightened of both terror and warnings about terror, what is the worst danger?  To live with fear or not to live at all?

And if we dare to live, should we fear most an explosion or the loss of our humanity?  If we save the world but lose our souls … what have we gained?

The morning I left the United States for Israel to keynote Microsoft Israel’s Tech Ed conference, I received email from a friend who works in intelligence. The State Department had just issued a bulletin, he said,  advising Americans not to go to Israel. The bulletin included kidnapping as a danger in addition to being blown up.

My anxiety spiking, I called the State Department and battled through bureaucrats until I reached the person who wrote the bulletin. Is this warning based on new information?.

“No,” she said. “There’s nothing new.”

“Then why did you add kidnapping to the list of things to fear?”

“We have to cover our butts. They’re kidnapping in Iraq so maybe they’ll kidnap in Israel too. This way, no one can say they weren’t warned.”

Warned about something there is little reason to expect will happen.

So when I am asked by the person who greets me at Ben Gurion airport, “Are you afraid to be in Israel?” I say, “No, I am afraid to read about Israel, not be in Israel.”

The farther one gets from a situation, whatever it is, the more distortion, the greater the fear. Being on the ground in Israel clarifies the real and the exaggerated danger. But paradoxically, the closer one gets to the real, the less clear other things become because Palestinians and Israelis see such different realities. But even those contradictory realities, reflected through those who live at the edges, resolve into a kind of clarity – the clarity of a vision informed by conscience.

I felt reasonably safe in Tel Aviv and Eilat, a resort on the Red Sea. I was prudent, of course. In cafes I kept barriers between myself and the door, sat so I could watch the approach. Mostly, though, I felt safe because I was inside the country, inside a stream of vital life that is the street in Tel Aviv, with young soldiers plentiful. Many colleagues at the conference had pistols tucked into their waistbands. I knew the odds strongly favored nothing happening, and nothing did.

Still, some armed guards caught my attention – three at a preschool, for example. Toddlers on the playground and mothers on benches behind guards is a statement – but of what? How do we translate the language of Israel, much less of life in the occupied territories, into American English? Do we speak first of danger or of fear? And if fear, then fear of what?

I could only answer those questions with help. I needed to talk with people who live closer to the edge because danger is greatest at the perimeter. At the checkpoints, bombers often explode when they can’t get any further, killing soldiers and bystanders. While Palestinian bombers die at the perimeter, however, and beyond, in the territories scoured by Israeli fighters, Israelis who guard the perimeter risk something else – they risk becoming part of the Machine.

The Machine is the system, any system, that is fueled by fear and dedicated to survival at any price. Once we’re captured by the Machine, every Palestinian is a potential terrorist and – to Palestinians – every Israeli is a potential destroyer. We are willing to oppress, humiliate, and kill the uniform of the Enemy, forgetting the human inside. We lose our capacity for empathy and compassion. Then danger is no longer part of life, causing fear. Life itself becomes dangerous and turns into fear.

Israel is obsessed with borders, understandably so. Wars have been waged on behalf of “rational borders” but today the borders are anything but rational. The wall along the West Bank wriggles like a snake on a bad trip, a symbol of the failure to find a saner way. The wall proclaims an impotence of political will. It is a monument to those on both sides who profit from chaos and do everything they can to keep it going.

Lia Nirgad is a writer. Her recently published book (in Hebrew, she is still looking for an English publisher), “Winter at Qalandiya,” reflects on her experiences at the Qalandiya and A-Ram checkpoints in the West Bank. She is part of Machsom Watch (machsom means barrier in Hebrew) whose members do daily watches at checkpoints with the blessing of the Israeli Defense Force. Their intention is to document and report what happens there, but their mission is also to humanize the process. They are the conscience of Israel, speaking relentlessly into the ears of the soldiers, and the reactions of soldiers at checkpoints are those of any frightened person to the voice of his or her conscience, ranging from anger and defensiveness to engaging in dialogue to doing the right thing.

That’s the story in Tel Aviv, too, forty-five miles from the West Bank. In Israel, far is near. Everybody lives at the edge.

“People have been brought to a point where their whole existence is based on ignoring what is going on around them,” Nirgad said. “Israeli existence is now defined by not seeing what is happening half an hour away from your house.”

When Lia first began going to the checkpoints, she often sobbed for hours after returning home. “Seeing the day to day harassment experienced by Palestinians, even though I knew about it and everyone I know knows about it, just standing there for hours and seeing person after person after person, the babies and the women and the old people, it’s like a Chinese water torture because they just keep coming. This goes on all the time, it’s not a one time thing during a crisis, it’s a constant reality.”

But after a while, desensitization began to protect her, too. “Coming back to this whole other reality and living on Ben Gurion [an affluent tree-lined part of Tel Aviv], even I find it less hard to come back now. The other day I was out having something to eat after the checkpoint and realized that this whole adjustment has become easier for me as well. Thinking about the soldiers, all of whom have defense mechanisms, I don’t know when this whole thing will start haunting them.”

Haunting as well, she implies, all Israelis, including herself.

The Machine assimilates frightened young soldiers, numbing their consciences, dulling their senses. The Machine is neither Israeli nor Palestinian. The moral high ground is only captured at a comfortable distance, talking in the seminar room or over a drink. In addition, cultures do matter – one can not easily imagine any of the Arab countries surrounding Israel to tolerate something like Machsom Watch, much less women speaking up in public.

The eyes of those who watch begin to blur when they see the complexities of the situation.

”At the checkpoint, if there is an officer or soldier who is easier on people, he gets in trouble with his peers,” Lia said. “He is ridiculed or the subject of anger. If they did not let someone through and then the officer does, he is going against their instructions so authority is undermined and now the Palestinians know they can talk to the officers, so they say, if you let one through, it leads to a mess.”

Might such laxity lead to exploitation by bombers?

“Yes,” she said. “It has been exploited. A few months ago there was an explosion at a checkpoint near Gaza. A woman pleaded not to go through the metal detector because she had some kind of problem and nine soldiers were killed. This is why we’re not there only to do humanitarian relief. We have to change the political situation, we can not solve the checkpoint situation locally, because there is no solution. We have to go for a wholesale political shift which many do not want to discuss. The little differences we make produce little satisfactions, but there is also a sense of something bigger, hundreds of women and other groups working so that this whole mechanism can be if not derailed absolutely, disturbed. We can disturb the work of the occupation mechanism.”

Nirgad left off writing a novel to write about the checkpoint experience and is now appearing on Israeli talk shows. “People have to keep a sense of urgency because the most devastating thing happening here is how desperate people have become. If you can keep a sense that you can do something, it has tremendous value.”

Nirgad works hard, she said,  “not to do away with this tension, the tension between these contradictory facts, feelings, it’s all there and you have to try to understand it. At the checkpoints, besides trying to help Palestinians and talking or fighting with soldiers, I was trying to understand what was going on from their perspective. If you honestly try to understand what’s happening and not give clear cut answers, it helps people open up.”

Nirgad went through a process of confronting her own demonization, not of Palestinians, but of Israeli soldiers. “After a few weeks I was getting more and more angry standing there and realized that if I expected the soldiers to recognize the humanity of the Palestinians I would have to work on myself first and see the humanity of the soldiers.”

A similar process was described by Derek Ehrhardt, 29, an American nurse with the Johns Hopkins University Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies in the School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Ehrhardt gravitated toward disenfranchised groups, compelled by “the incongruence between our resources and the disconnect in my own culture, with its focus on materialistic values. I wanted to do what I perceive as real work which led me to work in Gaza on nutrition and public health.”

The incongruence was still confronting Ehrhardt on a recent visit to his parents in Columbus, Ohio, with the difficulty in translating his experience in Gaza into terms that can be understood by people “who think who wins American Idol matters.”

“How do you explain to somebody what it’s like? A well-educated friend said, the Palestinians have to crack down on terror. Fine, I agree with that, but try to tell that to my Palestinians friends who have seen the leaders who tried to stand up get destroyed. It is too complex even to start answering,  too hard to provide information much less change someone’s perception.”

That sense of unreality, once upon a time, attended his experience in Gaza.

“The first time I went into Gaza an Israeli tank was shelling a town. Just past the checkpoint, tires were burning, crowds milling about, it was a bad time to be going to Gaza but I did not have a reference point. I saw bulldozers destroying olive fields and Hamas fighters in green headbands and black masks crossing the road and heading toward the attackers. It seemed … strange. Unreal.

“Now that I have processed the experience and have been there for eighteen months, it is less unreal, less exciting … and more sad.”

That sadness is a result of experiencing the Machine. “At first, I went through reactionary anger at the soldiers just as Lia did, so I tried to take a systems approach. What are the objectives of the Israeli government, I asked, both hidden and overt? What objectives are implicit in their actions, not their words? Above all, who is caught up in the system?

“I saw that the soldiers too are caught up in the system. At the checkpoints, you get to know people, and sometimes their faces show the awfulness of the situation. I vacillate between looking at the soldiers and what causes them to act the way they act – but come back to, it’s still wrong. You can look at the system but the individual action is still wrong.

“I know it more from the Gaza side. That’s where I live and work. I befriended a couple of families and stay with them. A friend from Ramallah, a woman, had the same look of fear and helplessness when F16s were flying over as the children. When she saw Israeli soldiers with guns surrounding her house because there’s a mosque out front, she thinks, where do I turn? In America, if you’re white, you can go to the police. We feel there’s a system protecting us. But when you have no back-up system you respond differently.

“In Gaza, there is no back-up system. Conservative religion has become the law, much more than it used to be. You rely on family and friends. That’s all you have.”

Ehrhardt feels less free than Nirgad to try to influence soldiers he has come to know. “Lia can do that,” he said, “because she can’t be deported. I can. They deport internationals frequently so I have to be more careful.

“I have had soldiers ask, aren’t you scared to go into Nablus? They say they will kill Americans, you know that, right? They’re just trying to keep me from being killed. I understand that.

“And …” he hesitates. “I have a hard time reconciling that I am part of the system, too. Are we making a difference or am I being used to pacify people? so we can say we’re doing something?”

That same ambiguity pervades his thoughts on a political solution. “I don’t know if it’s a one or two state solution,” he said. “A lot of Palestinians I know do not want to live in Palestine because of the benefits Israel provides. Still, on a daily basis, I do not see a country that wants peace. I see a country that wants a perpetual insidious conflict that allows them to slowly take more resources in the form of land. And on the other side … well, it’s a human thing, not an Israeli or Palestinian thing merely.”

Among such insidious complexity, what are the sources of hope? Nirgad found hope in her conviction that those opposed to occupation are finding a voice. Ehrhardt “finds hope in the perseverance of the Palestinian people I have come to know.  I don’t understand. If I lived as they do, I would despair. Not knowing, not understanding, that is my hope.”

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