A Zionist among Palestinians, by Hillel Bardin
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A Zionist among Palestinians, by Hillel Bardin

Hillel Bardin, a confirmed Zionist, was a reservist in the Israeli army during the first intifada when he met Palestinians arrested by his unit. He learned that they supported peace with Israel and the then-taboo proposal for a two-state solution. Bardin began to organize dialogues between Arabs and Israelis in West Bank villages, towns, and refugee camps.

Jericho I

I was home on leave the morning when the mock funeral procession for Abu Jihad took place. When I returned to the base in Jericho in the afternoon (less than an hour’s drive from my home in Jerusalem), I saw a row of Palestinian men sitting on the ground, waiting to be interrogated by the Shabak (the general security services). One of them was thin and short and looked, even from the distance, like a girl. This was the frail Wajiha. My commander, Shammai, told me that my job would be to guard her. Perhaps he picked me for this task because I was the oldest soldier in the unit. I was fifty-two, and even though compulsory reserve duty ended at age forty-five, I would volunteer each year to continue serving with my unit, for about a month a year. Perhaps he picked me because he knew that I was not filled with hatred for Arabs.

I had no idea how a male soldier guards a Palestinian woman while respecting her modesty, her honor, and her good name. It seemed to me that propriety required our being clearly visible, so I set up two folding chairs in the middle of the soldiers’ yard, and there we sat. I had my battle gear, M-16 assault rifle, seven magazines with twenty-nine bullets each, and two full canteens. And Wajiha, looking so little and tired and miserable, was resigned to her fate. I spoke to her a bit in English, but she barely responded. I couldn’t tell if she didn’t know the language, or if she didn’t want to talk with her captors and occupiers. I asked her whether she wanted something to eat. She declined, saying it was Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down. I asked whether she wanted to drink, but she said that too was forbidden. I was surprised that such a modern-looking young woman, wearing jeans and lipstick and with her face unveiled, observed the religious laws. My big fear was that she would need to go to the bathroom, and that I would have to clear the large soldiers’ latrine to give her privacy. But apparently Ramadan helped me out here, and she never asked to go. As the sun began to set and the desert heat changed to coolness, I told her to wait a minute and I would bring her something warm to wear. I felt relaxed that she would not run away. Under my bunk I found my civilian windbreaker, and then, realizing that she might be on her way to jail, added a Hemingway novel to give her something to read. She accepted the windbreaker, putting it on against the evening chill. She took the book too, although I wasn’t sure if it would be of any use to her.

There is no place to lock up women in Jericho. After the Shabak interrogated Wajiha, they sent her home and told her to wait there until the police came to get her. She was not guarded. At about midnight the police van arrived from Jerusalem. The police blindfolded her and tied her to a bar in the van so she couldn’t escape. In this way they transported her to the infamous Russian Compound jail in Jerusalem.

The men who were arrested were all put into a large barred lock-up room in the army camp, with wall-to-wall mattresses. Each evening, their wives or mothers would come to the base with home-cooked food for the men to break their day-long fast. While it must have been against regulations, our commander, Shammai, let them eat their own food, after checking to see that there were no concealed weapons. Shammai enjoyed chatting with the women, especially with Wajiha’s sister Yusra, who was the leader of the women and spoke the best English. Her husband Sa’ed was called “the singer” by the soldiers, for he played and sang Arabic music professionally. Another prisoner was called “the photographer.” He would probably be punished more severely, because he had stood on a roof and photographed the riot. The soldiers from my unit spent a lot of time talking about the prisoners, the only Palestinians with whom we had any real contact. One of our radio men, Itzik, would bring them their food from the army kitchen. When he talked just with us, he would regularly curse all Arabs, but because his family had immigrated to Israel from an Arab country, he would chat with the prisoners in their own language. He was their favorite soldier….

When I completed my reserve duty (after Sa’ed’s release) I decided to find Sa’ed and Yusra, hoping that they might explain to me how they understood the intifada.

….I went into town and asked a Palestinian standing out in the street how to get to Sa’ed’s home. The Palestinian man invited me in for coffee, but I told him that all I wanted was directions. He said that his brother would drive me, it would be better, but first I should have a cup of Arab coffee. I said that I knew it was Ramadan and I didn’t want to drink while he was fasting, but he insisted, and so I drank the coffee while he looked after me, and his brother got dressed and pulled his car out of a little garage. They continued to insist that it was best for him to drive me, and that anyway Sa’ed was the man’s wife’s cousin. So I rode with the brother to find Sa’ed and Yusra.

In the car, after a couple of minutes of driving, the brother said to me meaningfully, “You must know that I am a soldier also, like you.” I had no idea what he was leading up to. The brother continued, “I am not just a soldier, I am an officer. Frequently I drive to Tel Aviv or to Gaza to meet my contacts in the Shabak. We are working together, you and I, for the same purpose.” I was shocked. I was being driven to Sa’ed’s house by a collaborator. If people knew that he was a collaborator, I would not be trusted. If they did not know, I had to be sure to do nothing to blow his cover, since he was working with our security forces. What a terrible circumstance! But before I could consider my plight, we were at Sa’ed’s house. The driver led me in, and he and Sa’ed gave each other hugs and cheek-to-cheek kisses, in the Arab way. They exchanged pleasantries in Arabic, and then the driver excused himself and I was alone with Sa’ed and Yusra

“I’ve come because I wanted to talk with you, but I can understand if you don’t want to talk to an Israeli, and a soldier at that. I’ll leave if you wish.” Sa’ed invited me in with the Arabic welcome, “Ahalan w’-sahalan.” We sat down and began to talk, and then Yusra came in with a small cup of coffee. “I know that it’s Ramadan,” I said, “and I don’t want to drink if you are fasting.” “It’s all right,” Sa’ed replied. “I am Muslim, so I will not drink. But you aren’t, and you are my guest in my house, so I would be pleased to see you drinking.”

I said that it was a shame that we were always fighting each other, and wondered if they thought there was hope for a better future. Sa’ed began to talk, while Yusra sat and listened. Sa’ed said that what the Palestinians wanted was a state next to Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and not to destroy Israel. He spoke at length and in such a moderate way that I was amazed. From the Israeli press I had understood that the intifada was a new method for achieving the Arabs’ age-old goal of throwing us into the sea. Yet Sa’ed was obviously one of the rare Arab moderates with whom we could really make peace.

We talked for a while and I enjoyed the unexpected experience of meeting an Arab with moderate political views. Everything he said seemed acceptable to me, unbelievably so. Finally, in all fairness, I had to say to him, “Sa’ed, everything I hear from you pleases me, but you should be careful about saying it so openly, for your neighbors might hear you and your life would be in danger.” “Not at all,” he rejoined. “This is what they believe as well.” Yusra agreed with him. “What we all want is our own state next to Israel,” she affirmed. This all seemed impossible to me, and I wondered if they were carrying on some pretense or if, indeed, something was going on in this intifada that I was just not grasping.

“If that’s really so, what if I bring a group of my friends and neighbors from Jerusalem? Would you be willing to bring some of your neighbors together so that we can hear what people are really thinking here?” They agreed immediately. Within a couple of days I had ten willing Israelis, and so I called Yusra to set up the meeting. We drove to Sa’ed’s and parked our cars in his yard. They closed the gate so that an army patrol would not notice the cars.

Inside were about a dozen Palestinians. They introduced themselves and gave us a bit of background about themselves. Several were farmers, some were students. Most appeared to be in their twenties. There were about as many women as men, modern-looking in tight jeans and casual tops. Only after Jericho became autonomous did I learn that one of them, Abdul Karim, was a top leader in Arafat’s Fatah Party in Jericho, and that Sa’ed was the son of the former mayor. People talked freely and openly. The lack of any hostility was remarkable, considering that these people were living under our very harsh occupation. And what we really heard from them was the same theme that I had heard from Sa’ed and Yusra, namely that neither these Palestinians nor their community, which they knew so well, were trying to throw us into the sea, but that the goal of the intifada was to replace the occupation with a Palestinian state in the occupied areas, that would live in peace with Israel.

The atmosphere in the dialogue was unmistakably positive, here in the heat of the intifada. It was remarkable to hear these Palestinian supporters of the uprising telling us so clearly that their goal was peace with us. And it was remarkable for us to see how we, as Israelis, could be sitting in Palestinian homes without concern for our security.

Before the next dialogue, I suggested to Yusra that instead of having the whole dialogue in their homes, perhaps we could walk about a bit in the streets and talk to people who just happened to pass by. Our Palestinian hosts took us from home to home in another neighborhood, and we spoke briefly with each family. In the street I also saw a teenage boy sitting lazily on a bicycle, watching us. I suggested to our hosts that we speak to him, but they said that he was a collaborator, and that he was hanging around to tell the Shabak which houses we entered.

We next came to a small, one-room hut. The walls were white-washed, and there was a simple metal bed in one corner–the only furniture in the room. On the bed lay an ancient, withered, bone-thin dark-brown man in a white jalabiyye (an ankle-length shirt that traditional men still wear), which looked almost like a shroud. It was hard to tell if he was still alive or dead. One of our hosts crouched down next to him and said very softly, “There is a group of Israelis here, who want to talk with us about peace.”

The old man pulled himself together, and very slowly stood up from the bed. He looked like Mahatma Gandhi, only taller and more dignified. Slowly he walked over to me, put his arms around me, and kissed me. “Where have you been?” he asked us. “We have been waiting so long.”

Copyright © 2012 by Hillel Bardin. From the book A ZIONIST AMONG PALESTINIANS: A memoir by Hillel Bardin published by Indiana University Press.  Reprinted with permission.

(Photo: Judy Katz-Charny)
(Photo: Judy Katz-Charny)

HILLEL BARDIN Hillel Bardin is an Israeli Zionist who has been working since 1985 to improve Jewish-Arab relations. While serving in the army he became friends with some Palestinian arrestees, which led him to start dialogue groups in many cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank. He was instrumental in founding a party in the Jerusalem Municipal Council supporting Palestinian rights, and went to Tunis to talk with Yassir Arafat in the hopes that Palestinians would run for the municipal council and vote in the upcoming elections. As a reserve soldier in Ramallah during the first intifada, he tried to encourage local residents to forego stone-throwing in exchange for being allowed to demonstrate non-violently, for which he was sent to prison. He worked for many years trying to achieve full implementation of the right to free public education for Jerusalem’s Palestinian children.

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