"I guess it's every man for himself"

A Jewish American student recounts being stuck in the West Bank just as the bombing began.

Published October 16, 2000 1:01PM (EDT)

"Yeah. It's no problem at all, it's all hype," Larry said, trying to convince me, when I called him Wednesday evening, that it was safe to travel from my relatively safe abode in Jerusalem to Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. I hadn't been back in two weeks, because the area's unrest had been deemed too dangerous to navigate.

"In fact, I can meet you at Damascus Gate if you're worried," he added.

"No, I think I'll be all right," I replied, and hung up the phone.

"So there you go," I thought to myself, "back to school tomorrow morning." Larry, a classmate of mine, confirmed that getting from Jerusalem to class was no longer a problem. Things were finally returning to normal.

And I was grateful. As of Thursday morning, I once again considered myself a student at Bir Zeit, the Harvard of the Palestinian Authority. Though I'm Jewish, and have lived in Jerusalem off and on for close to two years, this year I decided to explore a "new" part of Israel -- Palestinian society.

I enjoyed telling Jews, whether Americans or Israelis, that I was studying at Bir Zeit. The look on their faces when I told them was always amusing, especially after I'd heard some of them spew for half an hour about how Arabs were all terrorists. But my decision to study in the P.A. rather than in Israel was rooted in something deeper than the shock value or being counterintuitive. I was interested in pursuing a career in education, specifically the education that needs to take place between Jews and Arabs. This experience, I hoped, would help me begin to understand the "other side of the coin."

After that Thursday, I'm not sure that I ever will.

8:37 a.m., Oct. 12

I begin my usual trek to class, leaving my Muslim Quarter pad in the Old City of Jerusalem for Damascus Gate, walking across Sultan Suleiman Street and hopping into a "service taxi" -- kind of a cross between a bus and a cab. Though it seems a bit strange that the taxi takes longer to fill up than usual (10 minutes instead of two), I'm grateful that we leave after only a relatively short wait. Palestinian service taxis, like many modes of communal travel in the developing world, wait until the entire taxi is filled to the brim before departing. The concept of a set departure time is unknown in the region, especially on this side of the Green Line.

Things have been tense, but my 85-cent, 30-minute ride goes without a hitch. About 40 minutes later, I arrive in the West Bank town of Ramallah, walk across the bustling city's main traffic circle, Al-Manara, and head over to the taxis that go to the university. I hop in a cab, I pay my 60 cents and off we go to BZU.

10:01 a.m.

Arabic class starts as usual. I say "Hi" to many of the international students from my program, whom I haven't seen in two weeks, and I breathe a sigh of relief that the region is back to normal. Most of my classmates -- needless to say, almost all of them non-Jews -- live either in the town of Bir Zeit, where the university is located, or in Ramallah.

11:17 a.m.

Two coordinators from the international students program enter the class to tell us, "Three soldiers were just killed in Ramallah. Class is canceled. Everyone go home. The university is closed."

As a precaution, I scribble down the phone number of two Norwegian classmates who live in Bir Zeit, Meryam and Nor, and then rush off to the taxi stand, hoping to grab a quick ride to Ramallah and then back to "Al-Quds," or "Uds," as most Palestinians call Jerusalem.

Although part of me feels it's a gamble to go back through Ramallah to get home, if something actually happened to some Israeli soldiers, my gut tells me, Israel will not retaliate until the rumors are confirmed. I also quickly surmise that when push comes to shove I'm safer in Israel than in the West Bank.

I find Larry along the way, and ask him if he's going back to Jerusalem. Caught in his own world as much as I'm caught up in mine, he tells me he isn't sure and walks away from me abruptly.

"I guess it's every man for himself," I think, and pick up my pace, continuing my race to the taxi stand.

11:32 a.m.

As I wait for taxis going to Ramallah along with 400 other BZU students, 99 percent of whom are Palestinian, I realize I might not be sleeping in Jerusalem that night.

A cab pulls up right next to me, and a student cuts in front of me to ask the driver about the situation. After the two finish talking, the cab quickly rushes off. I ask the student, in my half-assed Arabic, what the driver said, hoping that he'll answer in English. He does, and I get much more than I bargained for.

After telling me that the cabbie said no taxis are going into Ramallah, he proceeds to give me a lecture about how Americans don't understand what is truly happening in the region. He opens his briefcase, eager to show me his Arabic newspaper that has photos of high-impact explosive bullets, apparently used on some of the Palestinian demonstrators during the past few weeks.

As I nod to each of his claims, deciding this is not the time or place to defend my people or the nation of Israel, I realize he is truly interested in pleading his case to me.

But after five minutes of listening to him call Israeli soldiers "the scum of the earth," who only see Palestinian Arabs as "dogs, the lowest of the animals in the animal kingdom," it's clear to me that he is dehumanizing Israelis exactly in the way he accuses them of dehumanizing him and his people.

Normally I'd talk to this guy for hours, trying to understand his point of view and maybe even offer another way of looking at things. But right now I don't have time for this. Getting to Jerusalem seems impossible, so I decide to look for my Norwegian friends and stay with them for the day, and maybe the night.

I say goodbye as politely as I can and rush off.

11:56 a.m.

Although I don't find Meryam and Nor, I run into some other students from my class, and glom onto the group like a sucker fish to a whale.

It's weird. I've only talked with these guys a few times -- Dan from Toronto, Mark from Minnesota -- but I realize that I have no other choice. Although they seem like pretty cool guys, you never imagine that your last few minutes on this earth might be spent with complete strangers.

Anyway, we hop in a taxi to Bir Zeit, and within minutes of arriving at their home I'm sitting back, sipping tea with them, watching Israeli news. Living like true students abroad, Dan and Mark declined to pay for cable, choosing to pass on watching much television.

Unfortunately, such idealism has its downside in the age of CNN. So their television, probably made sometime before my Grampie was born, picks up one station, two on a "good day." I attempt to make out what the Israeli newscasters are saying, having studied Hebrew for many years in high school and college. I figure out that something has indeed happened to some Israeli soldiers at the Palestinian Authority's police headquarters in Ramallah.

12:12 p.m.

Dan gets a call from the Canadian representative to the Palestinian Authority, located in Ramallah, who tells him that the Canadians are evacuating the West Bank. He offers Dan a spot in a convoy leaving at 3:30 p.m., but Dan declines. I start to get even more nervous than I was before.

I promptly call the American Consulate in East Jerusalem and reach Chris, some guy who works there. I tell Chris that I'm stuck in Bir Zeit and want to know if my country can help me get out. Chris proceeds to tell me that I'm shit out of luck and that I should "stay put."

I wonder to myself how, unlike Canada, the most powerful country on the planet is unable to get me out of the West Bank.

12:49 p.m.

It turns out that Meryam and Nor live downstairs from Dan and Mark. They come upstairs after speaking with the Norwegian representative to the P.A., who tells them that arrangements have been made for them to leave with the Canadian convoy -- if they can get to Ramallah.

At this point, as far as I can tell, the violence has been limited to the mob murders of the Israeli soldiers, but knowing what I do about this region, I suspect the Israeli Defense Forces may soon respond, at which point I will be stuck in the West Bank for who knows how long.

I call the American Consulate again, and ask Chris to call the Canadians and give them permission to take me along on the convoy.

He tells me that he's pretty busy, but will try if he can. (Thanks for the concern, Chris.)

1:45 p.m.

I decide to go with Meryam and Nor to Ramallah. I can't imagine the Canadians will turn me away, and I plan on reciting my family's history: My mom and grandparents were originally Canadian; Grampie served with the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II; his little brother lost his life as a tail gunner for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Meryam and Nor frantically pack up some of their things and we walk to the middle of Bir Zeit, hoping to catch a taxi to Ramallah. As soon as we find one, the driver tells us that Israel is bombing Ramallah.

I'm stunned. We haven't heard a thing about this -- no news, no sounds.

Meryam wigs out and she and Nor decide to stay put.

I tell them goodbye and proceed to go with my cabbie -- along with two other Palestinians in their 20s who incongruously seem to be along just for the ride -- into town.

I have a quick conversation with myself in which I conclude the following: In these events, A) rumors must spread like wildfire, and B) I haven't heard any bombs. Hell, if Israel was bombing the next town over, wouldn't I hear it? I go with my gut and off we go.

Along the way we stop three times to check with cabdrivers going in the opposite direction (i.e., back to Bir Zeit) about what's going on in Ramallah. My cabbie then decides that he's not going to Ramallah after all, so I switch to a second cab right behind us.

We're about three minutes from the edge of Ramallah when the driver stops a cab coming toward us and asks for an update; he tells us we can't get to Ramallah. I decide to call it a day and return to Bir Zeit.

2:03 p.m.

I am quickly driven back to Bir Zeit, where I find Meryam and Nor -- along with Dan, Mark and half a dozen other international students -- standing in the middle of town. I tell them what happened and they tell me to join them at Inga's house. Inga, one of the Americans in charge of our program, also lives in town. We arrive at her house and find 10 other students waiting there as well.

2:59 p.m.

I call my brother in America to give him the phone number of where I am and tell him that I'm all right. I can't reach him, so I leave a message. I also tell him to call Mom and Dad and let them know what's up. Knowing the standard response in times of violence -- like cutting off electricity to certain Palestinian cities -- I turn off my cellphone, hoping to save what little battery power I have left in case of an emergency. It's a mix of millennial high tech and ancient survival instincts.

3:42 p.m.

Inga's porch has a bird's-eye view of Ramallah, far enough away that we don't feel any reverberations from the bombing when it begins.

Along with the other students, I watch Israeli Defense Force helicopters fly repeatedly over Ramallah, and assume they're getting ready to attack the city. For the next few hours, we watch two IDF helicopters bomb Ramallah.

Each chopper drops three or four bombs before flying away and returning 10 minutes later.

From our vantage point the helicopters are about the size of those green plastic Army toys you played with as a kid. And the bombs, which seem to drop in slow motion, are about the size of the nail on my pinkie.

I observe Palestinian families watching the attack from their porches and rooftops, wondering how people can live in such conditions and knowing that I will never fully understand this conflict because this is not my life -- I can leave any time I want. Just not right now, unfortunately.

4:31 p.m.

In the midst of the bombing, I look down on the street and see 10 or so Palestinian males with machine guns. They come out of a building about five houses from ours, walk down the slope from the road and hide in the bushes, for what purpose I don't know.

I ask a Palestinian student from Bir Zeit who is hanging out with us, Mohammed, what they're doing. He tells me that they are called the "Shbab," part of the P.A.'s Fatah party, and are protecting the village. I go back inside the house and try to process what's going on.

5:20 p.m.

Meryam and Nor tell me that their Norwegian representative is coming to pick them up and ask me if I want to come with them. "Yes!" I say, knowing that while there is some danger in leaving this house -- probably the safest house in the area (in my mind at least) because it is full of students from all over the world -- the West Bank will soon be closed off for an indeterminate amount of time.

And even though Yasser Arafat let out a number of Hamas and Islamic jihad prisoners from P.A. jails in the last week and I know their targets will be areas in Israel and not those controlled by the P.A., I'll still feel safer under Israeli control.

5:43 p.m.

The Norwegian representative, in his late 30s, arrives at the house with an aide, a Palestinian named Issa who has lived most of his life in Kuwait. I thank them for the lift and hop in the back seat, along with Meryam, Nor and another Norwegian student who has decided to flee.

Issa, who's driving, tells us that the car is bulletproof and that we will be taking roads that don't go through Ramallah at all, although they do go toward Nablus for a bit. Nablus is where much violence has occurred in the past week, but no matter: We are focused purely on the immediate events.

6:07 p.m.

The Norwegian representative is concerned that we might get held up at a checkpoint because of me, the lone American. He wants to tell the people at the checkpoint that the car is a diplomatic car evacuating Norwegians from the area, but my presence kind of messes up that plan.

For this reason, Issa decides to take a shortcut through a small Palestinian village north of Jerusalem called Hizma (the actual name, I looked it up). As soon as we make the right turn into this town -- if one can even call it a town, it's so small -- we are stopped by a makeshift roadblock set up by 20 or so Palestinian teenagers, each holding rocks the size of softballs.

After a long 10 seconds, Issa gets out of his car and talks to the apparent leader of the gang, a kid wearing a sky cap that reveals only his angry eyes. We wait in the car quietly as the teenagers swarm around the car.

Issa says that we aren't Israeli Jews but are Norwegians.

They let us pass.

Two minutes later we go through a checkpoint without even having to stop. So much for checkpoints, even in these circumstances. We finally arrive in the Sheik Jarrah area of East Jerusalem.

6:42 p.m.

I am dropped off in the Meah Shaarim district of West Jerusalem. I quickly buy a sandwich, realizing I haven't eaten all day. I then walk toward Ben Yehudah Street, the center of town, and watch as Israelis go through the motions of business as usual.

Modern Israelis don't know what it's like to be stuck in Bir Zeit, wanting to get home to Ramallah and be with one's family, yet knowing that in Ramallah one might die. They don't know what it's like to be bombed by their next-door neighbor without the ability to retaliate in kind, to do anything other than watch or join the makeshift violence (which for the most part consists just of throwing rocks at an army they have no chance of defeating).

And Palestinians don't know what it's like to always fear that the bus one gets on might be one's last, knowing Arab terrorists plan to bomb central areas of the town in an attempt to kill civilians. They don't know what it's like to not even be able to go to school in the morning without fearing that the trash can you touch in the schoolyard might be filled with enough explosives to send nails sprawling in a 20-foot radius, killing not only you but every kid you grew up with.

But whether they identify themselves as Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs, they live in this situation and they cannot or will not move away. Some Israelis have left over the years, but many more stay than leave; though Israelis may be able to emigrate to other countries, many cannot sever emotional or psychological ties to their homeland. As for the Palestinians, they have absolutely no choice at all. They are stuck here because most simply don't have the means to leave. Winning the green card lottery is a long shot.

Now, as CNN reports that Israel has sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, I am grateful to only one entity: the Norwegian government. Because of it, I have escaped the violence that has only just begun in Ramallah. And though a representative from the American Consulate calls me on my cellphone to tell me that the consulate is attempting to get permission from the Israeli government for American citizens to pass through their checkpoints, I merely respond that I'm already in West Jerusalem. Saying "Thank you" for her call would have been a bit too insincere.

By Aaron Tapper

Aaron Tapper is a graduate student in religious studies studying in California.

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