The spinal chord of a nation

 

“I’m in a fight for my life – not for their death. I want to live, of course, but I don’t want another life lost, be it Jewish or Arab or Christian”.

 

Eyal Gelman and I are the same the age, but I feel oddly young and naïve, sitting at his desk in the Kiryat Arba security office. I’m there to meet him in his role as a security officer in one of the most dangerous areas in Israel, but also because he has been personally affected by the terror most of us only read about or catch snippets of on the 8’ocklock news.

 

2 weeks before I got there, Eyal’s brother Eliav was catching a bus back from his military base when he was attacked by a Palestinian man, 26-year-old Mamduh Amro, at the Gush Etzion junction. While fighting off his attacker who was wielding a knife, Eliav was shot by an errand bullet from the weapon of an IDF officer who had arrived at the scene, and a few hours later he was pronounced dead at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Eliav was the father of two, a deeply religious man and a decorated soldier, who had lived his entire life in and around Kiryat Arba, and his was the 29th death from Palestinian terror in 2016.

 

 

“My brother always said that people like us have to do more so that other people may be able to live normal lives, and I truly believe that. Heroism does not necessarily mean to do extraordinary things, it just means you do more”.

 

His brother is not the only person Eyal Gelman has lost in recent years. Gelman’s brother-in-law was Benaya Sarel, an IDF soldier killed during the 2014 Gaza war who was also from Kiryat Arba, and I ask Eyal the question that has brought me there to begin with – how do you stay and raise your family in a place where death is your door at any given time?

 

“Bereavement is the spinal chord of our nation, Annika, and just because I am hurting it does not mean I am wrong or that I should allow the hurt to change who I am or what I do”.

 

And more share his sentiment, it seems, as Kiryat Arba has been growing steadily in the past 20 years, along with other settlements in Judea and Samaria. Since 1993 and the Oslo accord, the settlement population has grown from 100.000 to 430,000, and at this point the waiting list for housing in both Kiryat Arba and the nearby Hebron is permanently full, and I ask Eyal what he thinks the draw is to come here, despite the constant waves of terror?

 

“People want more, they want to feel connected, and here the life is built on connectivity. We are not about the immediate satisfaction or the selfish, but a bigger picture that spans 3000 years. And that is also why we are not disheartened, because our perspective is longer than most, we see our victories through history and feel confident about our future in our ancient homeland. And it’s not merely a religious issue – 35% of those who live here are secular- it is about fighting for something larger than yourself”.

 

As we walk out of the simple office structure Eyal greets a white-bearded man sitting on a bench outside. The man has a friendly face and a loud laugh and when we’re introduced I realize he is Shalom Sarel, Eliav Gelman’s father in law and the father of Benaya Sarel, the soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza war. I sit with him for a moment, overlooking Hebron and the land that we both love and so many have died for, and I ask him how he got here and why he’s decided to stay.

 

“I came here as a newlywed, looking for a cheap house, because my wife and I couldn’t afford a place in the city. Many years and 8 children later I am in love, and I could never live anywhere else. It was a practical choice at the time, but a few months later we found ourselves on the frontline of the 1st intifada, and from then on, every time I leave the house I know I can be the victim of terror. It is a daily reality here, ever since”.

 

Shalom Zarel speaks perfect English and he smiles with his entire face, gesturing lively as he points out the houses of his family and friends. Kiryat Arba may be a war-zone in the news, but to Shalom, Eyal and the others living here, it is a tight-knit neighborhood and it is home. And to me, an outsider, it looks weirdly normal. Perfect rows of houses and well-kept gardens, plenty of playgrounds with monkey bars and colorful swings. It’s noisy, but not from gunshots or war, but the laughter and conflicts to be found wherever children meet to hammer out the details of an intricate game.

 

 

As we head for the car I say my goodbyes and I thank Shalom for living here, doing what most cannot stomach, but he laughs at me and shakes at head.

“You don’t get it, Annika. On Yom Kippur in 1941, Nazis murdered my great grandfather. Today I live here, in Kiryat Arba, with 8 children who have all contributed greatly to the Jewish state. This is not a sacrifice – it’s a privilege”.

 

The road between Hebron and Jerusalem is as treacherous as it is beautiful. Passing the infamous Al-Arroub camp, known to be a home for terrorists and then coming up on the hill overlooking Gush Etzion, the sun coloring the nearby valleys in deep pink and purple. Every bus stop here is fortified with concrete and hidden behind barriers, a way to create a normal-style life in the era of car-rammings and “spontaneous” stabbing attacks. As we re-enter Jerusalem I feel myself exhaling, ever so slightly, feeling as if I have visited a different world just 20 minutes away. But we don’t stop long, as we are headed to Samaria – the heart and midriff of Israel – to see more of the spinal chord that runs through this land.

 

“Would you like to see her room”?

 

Adva Biton is a beautiful woman, wearing a grey sheath dress, black high heels and a colorful jacket as she greets us in her house in Yakir, a village high in the Samarian Mountains. Last year, Adva’s 4-year old daughter Adele died as a result of a terror attack. Adele was critically hurt in a terror attack two years earlier, on March 14, 2013 near the town of Ariel when a truck driver suddenly hit the brakes after stones hurled by Palestinians struck his vehicle. The car behind him, carrying Adele, her two sisters and their mother Adva Biton, lost control and collided with the truck, wedging their car under the truck. The two other sisters, Avigail and Naama – aged four and five – sustained moderate injuries.

 

“There was an ambulance nurse there, an Arab man with the calmest voice, he took care of us. He carried Adele out of the car and saved the life of her sisters. He is my hero, and we still speak, he came to the funeral and he calls us every now and then and asks how we are”.

 

Adva tells me about Adele, about all that this little girl gave to the world in the short time she was in it, and how her life and death has helped others and changed the lives of many she never even knew. Tears start rolling down her cheek as she retells details. Her favorite game, the dress she wore that day, the party they were on their way home from. I’m fighting back my own sadness and anxiety, digging my nails into my palm as not to cry, however her words kill me I feel I don’t have the right to break down or break whatever professional barrier I’ve built. I have two children at home; one not much older than Adele, and to even imagine that loss or that heartbreak is to stand on the edge of a bottomless pit.

 

 

My train of thought is interrupted by a neighbor walking in unannounced, carrying a bag of groceries and gifts for the Purim holiday, and Adva, now 5 months pregnant, carefully gets out of her chair to greet her guest. We all chat for a while and I ask them both what I had asked Eyal, how do you stay here and raise your children, living in the heartland of this conflict?

 

“I wonder how they live in other places, how they survive grief and catastrophe in places where no one knows their neighbors”. Adva turns to her guest and says “look at this – it happens every day- people bring food and comfort and care for us here, because we are family and we have all chosen to be here, we are all in it together”.

 

For a period of a year and a half, Adele was hospitalized in various institutions, the attack having left her severely disabled and only partially conscious. Her parents Adva and Rafi immersed themselves in a battle they hoped would return Adele to life, Adva leaving her job as a doctor of medical chemistry to spend her days nursing Adele. In the middle of this battle, the family welcomed a new baby, a few weeks after the birth, Adele succumb to her injures and died, at the age of 4.

 

From the Oslo Accords in 1993 until September 2000 – nearly 300 Israelis were killed in terror attacks, and another 1,100 were murdered during the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (Sept. 2000 – Dec. 2005). Since December 2005, Palestinian terrorist attacks have claimed at least another 203 Israeli lives and injured three times as many.

 

According to data compiled by the Israeli Shin Bet Security Agency, 2015 was the deadliest year for terrorism since 2008. Twenty-eight people were killed in terror attacks in Israel during 2015: two foreigners, one Palestinian, three members of Israeli security services, and twenty-two civilians. So far, 34 people have been killed in terror attacks in Israel in 2016, and according to a report on terrorism published by the Israel Ministry of foreign affairs earlier this year, there have been 156 stabbing attacks (including 76 attempted attacks), 98 shootings, 46 vehicular (ramming) attacks and one vehicle (bus) bombing. These terrorist attacks are part of the Palestinian Authority’s strategy of “popular resistance” adopted by the PA and Fatah at the Sixth Fatah conference in August 2009. After every attack, spokespersons from Fatah and Hamas have issued statements describing the attacks as “heroic actions” and “the natural response to Israel’s crimes”.

 

On our way back, we stop for dinner in Tapuach, a small Samarian settlement with approximately 1,200 inhabitants, about 40 minutes North of Jerusalem. The modest restaurant opened just a few weeks ago, serving simple food grown on the premises, and the owners run a 2nd hand clothes shop out of an adjacent room. The girl serving us our food is no older than 15, she does not speak English but smiles at me, shyly, as she puts overflowing bowls and plates on our table. An older woman is standing in the doorway, watching us, and she doesn’t smile yet I feel that she is friendly. Her face is sad, her long hair tied and meticulously covered and she seems very protective of the young girl by my side.

 

“Her name is Raaya”.

 

My friend sees me watching her, and nods in the woman’s direction.

 

“Raaya’s sister and brother were murdered in a terrorist attack at the Tapuach Junction 13 years ago, leaving 6 children orphaned, including a 2-month old baby. Rayya dropped everything and moved with her husband and 8 children from the Galil to Tapuach to raise her sister’s children as her own”.

 

 

It’s everywhere – the sadness and the tragedy and the stories of insurmountable human loss, and suddenly I feel I need some air. Outside there is perfect spring air, pink flowers and hills for days, and I see why this place inspired songs and prayer and the hopeful dreams of my ancestors. In the distance I see Tapuach Junction, one of the most dangerous places in Israel, but right here I feel safe and calm and at home like few times before.

 

“I just love the air up here”.

 

Rayya is next to me now, watching the view as the sun slowly sets.

 

“I love the air up here, it’s the tension in it that I can’t stand”.

 

These people, my people, are so often dehumanized in the media simply based on where they live. But regardless of geography or where your political alliances lie, their lives need to matter, their loved ones have the right to be mourned and remembered as more than “settlers” on the 10th page of a newspaper or a meme in a media-feed.

 

The Palestinian Authority is waging a war, without uniforms or tanks, but with plenty of soldiers acting on orders from their leaders. Incitement leads to murder and murder leads to shattered families and broken homes, and the more we dehumanize their victims the more effective this warfare will be, taking more lives and causing more hurt.

When I sit down to write this piece my phone vibrates and I see a newsflash, saying that there has been another death. On June 30th, 13-year old Israeli girl Hallel Yaffa Ariel was stabbed to death in her bed at her home in Kiryat Arba, by 19-year old Palestinian Mohammad Tarayreh, who had broken into the family’s house. The attacker was from a nearby village, and climbed the fence into Kiryat Arba before breaking into Ariel’s home and locking himself inside, where she was alone. After the murder of Hallel Yaffa, her killer was hailed as a hero by Hamas and candy was passed out in the streets of Gaza as part of their celebration of the martyred terrorist.

 

Hallel leaves a devastated family behind, a life cut short and a story untold, as Adele, Eliav, Benaya and the hundred of other’s murdered by terrorists in Israel in the past years. These are stories that deserve to be told, faces that deserve to be known and human heartbreak that deserves its place in history. Not because of politics, nor geography, but because Jewish lives should matter, too.
CATEGORY: Israel, Jewish Life

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein

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