On a Saturday morning in July I travelled to the South Hebron Hills with a group of Israeli and international activists. Around midday we arrived at a Palestinian area called Bani Naim, near an outpost of the Israeli settlement Pnei Hever. Elderly men with kefiyas and canes were climbing the unpaved road along with younger Palestinians to gather in front of the outpost. The Palestinians who owned the field below had brought a tractor to plough their land as an act of protest against the further expansion of the Israeli settlement. Two children reached up to attach a Palestinian flag to a metal pole. Within moments the Israeli army arrived.
‘Ze shetach tsva’i sagur,’ the commanding officer announced over a loudspeaker before the armoured jeep came to a halt. (‘This is a closed military zone.’) He was already shouting as he stepped out. ‘You have ten minutes to leave this area. Ten minutes.’
I was recording with my phone. An Israeli activist with a video camera asked to see the military order and the officer showed it to him, a piece of paper flapping illegibly in the wind. The officer then took the activist firmly by the arm, said he was arresting him, and pushed him off towards a group of soldiers.
‘You’re all hypocrites!’ One of the soldiers yelled at the activist with the video camera. ‘When I go every day to protect the kids in At-Tuwani – why don't you film me then?’
At-Tuwani is another Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills near an Israeli settlement and outpost called Ma’on. Palestinian children need protection when they walk to school because the settlers throw stones and curse at them.
‘Who are you protecting them from?’ the activists asked.
‘What does it matter who I’m protecting them from?’ the soldier replied.
The officer came back to stop the soldier talking and get the activist with the video camera into the jeep. Then he stormed down the hill after the other protesters: ‘Three minutes!’ he shouted.
‘What you’re doing is excessive,’ I said in Hebrew as the activist was locked in the vehicle. ‘Not even five minutes have passed.’
When the commander came back up the hill and saw me still recording, he said: ‘You knew about the timing, so you’re coming with me.’ Ten minutes had not yet passed.
He grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me in the direction of the jeep. ‘No,’ I said. ‘What did I do? No. You’re hurting me.’
‘I don’t care,’ he said.
Two other soldiers grabbed me by the waist and shoulders to restrain me. One of them had told me under his breath a few minutes earlier that I could say anything I wanted to the officer, I just couldn’t touch anything or anyone. Now he said he didn’t understand why I had been arrested. By 12:45 p.m. there were seven of us in the back of the jeep on the way to a police station: two Israelis, two Palestinians, one Norwegian, one other American and me.
I was born in Israel but grew up in New York, and I have dual citizenship. I grew up speaking Hebrew and English at home with secular Israeli parents, but never studied Hebrew at school, so I can understand the phrase ‘shetach tsva’i sagur’ but would need a dictionary to make sense of a page-long military order. I came to Israel this summer to improve my reading knowledge of Hebrew for my doctoral research on documentary film and collective organising in Israel and Palestine in the mid-20th century. I also came to get a better sense of some of the Israeli and Palestinian groups who are working to improve conditions here.
It has taken me years to look straight on at what Israel has become, to take in the difference between the way I experience the place now and the way I experienced it as a child brought here every year to visit my grandparents, to swim in the Mediterranean beneath a hot sun, to eat cucumbers that tasted of something.
At the police station there were three chairs in the corridor. The rest of us sat on the concrete floor. As long as we were in military custody the soldiers had to stay with us, so they sat on the floor down the hall, getting up every so often to escort one of us to the bathroom. Eventually we were allowed to talk to a lawyer on the phone. One of the Palestinians, Badee, said he had been arrested at least fifteen times. If we hadn’t been there, he told me, they would have been treated differently, handcuffed and chained up.
Over the course of the afternoon, each of us was questioned separately and then fingerprinted. The police officer who interrogated me was called Eyal. They all had names. Some of them had wedding rings. Some of them had braces on their teeth.
Eyal read out to me in Hebrew the crimes I’d been arrested for. I was suspected of being in a closed military zone, of interfering with an arrest and with the commanding officer’s ability to do his job, and of resisting arrest myself. Eyal reminded me that I had the right to remain silent.
He showed me the footage that one of the soldiers had taken of my arrest and noted that I kept appearing in the frame, even after I had been told I was in a closed military zone. ‘But he’d said ten minutes,’ I said, off the record. I didn’t know the law well enough to argue. The statements Eyal read to me seemed to be written in deliberately abstruse language; I asked him to read them more slowly and to explain words I didn’t understand. He noticed that my voice was shaking and my eyes were wet.
As the interview came to a close, I asked him if he liked his work. Very much so, he said. He helped Palestinians as well as Israelis; over the course of the afternoon, a Palestinian grocer had joined us in the hallway with his brother to report on a settler who had pulled a knife on someone in his shop the previous evening.
We were at the station for six hours. The police chief gathered us together to explain the terms of our release: the Palestinians and Israelis couldn’t come to the South Hebron Hills for 15 days; the Norwegian and the American couldn’t return to the West Bank for 15 days. I had given the army my Israeli passport because the Israeli activists told me I’d get better treatment that way; with an American passport, there was the risk of being deported. Everyone, not least the soldiers, was glad to be done.
When we were waiting to leave, the soldier who’d said he didn’t understand why I was arrested told us that he was an American from California who had moved to Israel several years earlier. ‘I’m part of a system,’ he said. ‘So you’re on our side,’ one of the activists said, and the soldier didn’t demur. He made sure we knew his full name and said to look for him on Facebook.
One of the Israeli activists I spoke to afterwards said the protest had been a small victory: the Palestinians had managed to plough their entire field before they were forced to leave.