Amos Libby is an American volunteering as an English teacher at a school in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. Shortly after he arrived there, the region exploded into chaos both figuratively and literally after Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, three teenage Israeli settlers, were kidnapped while hitchhiking. Two and a half weeks later, their lifeless bodies were found. Shortly afterward, Mohammad Abu Khieder, an Arab teenager, was found dead. He had been burned alive in retribution for the death of the Israeli teenagers.
Libby, who is fluent in Arabic and teaches Arabic music at Bates and Bowdoin Colleges, reports that the Israel Defense Force responded to the kidnapping by besieging neighborhoods and villages in the West Bank. Palestinians were displaced and killed in the process. The fallout of the siege, and the death of Abu Khieder, has been intense and Libby says that there has been talk of this sparking the third intifada.
I spoke with Libby by Skype about what his time in the territories has been like since he arrived in early June.
NOTE: Libby writes updates on his time in the West Bank on his Facebook feed. You can keep up with those updates here.
“THIS HAS EXACERBATED THE CRISIS EVEN MORE. THAT IS OBVIOUS FROM THE GROUND HERE.”
I know it is a lot, but can you recap what has happened in the region since you arrived early June?
I arrived on June 9th. I don’t remember the specific date, but only several days after I arrived, three settlers were kidnapped at the Gush Etzion junction, which is a few kilometers from Hebron. Hebron is the city I have been teaching at. The junction is even closer to Beit Ummar, which is the village I have been living in. Once that happened, the Israel Defense Force, the IDF, launched a major offensive operation against the West Bank, which they called Brother’s Keeper. The military presence in the West Bank increased dramatically and with that presence, which Israel said was here to find the three kids, they inserted several thousand soldiers into this region.
This region is a very small area, and they began nightly incursions into Halhul specifically, which is a village next to Beit Ummar, then into Beit Ummar, and also into Hebron City itself. They were essentially targeting all Hamas members and were extensively looking for the kids. The quality of life here changed dramatically once that happened. When the army is present, the people here tend to fight back. The army is present all the time, but that increase was huge and there was a feeling of antipathy because of the volatile nature of having three kids disappear. The context in which this happened is that the kids were hitchhiking, the details of which you can find in many news stories, but they were all residents of an illegal settlement of Kfar Etzion, which is not far from here. Since that happened, the situation has gotten worse. The settler attacks on individuals, groups and villages have increased and I have been myself caught in the middle of several violent confrontations since I got here.
I want to get to that in a minute, but it strikes me that targeting Hamas can be problematic, as there are military and non military wings of the party.
In Halhul and Beit Ummar there is a strong Hamas presence, but that does not mean that there are armed militants. This is not the military wing of Hamas. The people that are being targeted are essentially bureaucrats. And there is also no official state structure here so when they are attacking Hamas members… and that’s just what they are saying they are doing, but from what I have seen, they are attacking people. But when they say that they are attacking Hamas members, they are going into homes, indiscriminately entering many homes and neighborhoods, usually in the middle of the night, and raiding and sometimes destroying buildings and terrorizing people. They are looking for people who belong to a political party. This is the West Bank, it isn’t a sovereign nation state where you can go to a political office or a military base and go after individuals that belong to a party that you are targeting. When you target them, you target municipalities, individuals and families. Those are the people that suffer.
What I have seen to be problematic is that those who are suffering are young people, children, and people who were in no way involved in the kidnap of these kids. They haven’t proven that Hamas was involved in the kidnapping. Everyone in the West Bank was terrorized during the quote search for these kids and it felt much more like a punitive measure, like a collective punishment or retribution more than anything else. You can’t target these people without targeting the entire community. That is the nature of this place. To me that’s why this approach seems problematic.
Can you talk a bit about the death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, which happened not long after the missing Israeli’s bodies were discovered?
He was 16 years old. They poured gasoline down his throat and they set him on fire. This was a revenge attack for the deaths of these three boys. A group of fanatic Israelis in Jerusalem attacked and killed him. The fallout from that has been a great deal of anger and the sense that the Israeli government cannot control its own people, and cannot control vigilante justice like this. When they came looking for whoever had taken the three Israeli boys from the settlement, they besieged, literally besieged the entire Hebron area. They closed the roads and multiple people died. 5 children were killed during that time. They besieged the towns, demolished homes, and destroyed businesses.
After the killing of this Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, the Palestinians asked, “Well, why aren’t they besieging West Jerusalem, where this happened. Why aren’t they destroying the homes of the suspects?” The two suspects that they arrested in the kidnap of those three boys, they demolished the family’s homes of those two suspects. First of all, they are suspects and the IDF demolished the homes of the their families. Imagine if someone killed somebody in New York City and the NYPD destroyed that person’s family’s house. That wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else in the world.
After the gruesome killing of this kid, the fall out has been escalation and a great deal of anger. At night, air raid sirens have been going off. Gaza is launching a huge barrage of rockets and some have been hitting settlements in this area. The effect has been escalation and what some are calling the beginning of a third Intifada. The response to his killing is not even close to being commensurate with what happened to the Palestinian community in the West Bank after the disappearance of these three boys and that is very obvious to everyone. It is a tragedy what happened to those three kids. I can’t imagine being their families and no one deserves that, but the result of that has just been more violence. It has exacerbated the crisis even more. That is obvious from the ground here.
“THEY POINTED THE GUN IN MY FACE AND KICKED THE CAR.”
You said earlier that you have found yourself in the middle of violent skirmishes?
Approximately a week ago, a day after the boys’ bodies had been found, I traveled with the the head of my host family just about one kilometer away from here to a village to visit one of his relatives for tea and sweets. It was around 11 pm; it is Ramadan right now so night time is very active. On the way there, we stopped on the side of the road and the host father was telling me the names of all of the surrounding villages. It felt really peaceful. I asked him if there were any soldiers around and he said no, at this point there weren’t. We went and visited the family and spent about an hour there before driving back the same way. We rounded a corner and immediately came across two armored personnel carriers and three soldiers that were in the road. We almost drove into them because it was a blind curve and we didn’t see them. They sprinted up to the car with their M-16 rifles pointed directly at our faces and one of them kicked the passenger side door and stuck the muzzle of the rifle in my face. I put my hands up and put them out the window. In Arabic, they told us to turn around. My host father said that we just wanted to go home and they said nothing. They pointed the gun in his face and kicked the car again. We turned around, went up a side street, turned the lights off, hid the car and walked down to the intersection and waited.
What happened then was a massive street battle between what I estimate to be between about 150 and 200 young people between the ages of 12 and 25. They were throwing rocks, using slingshots and throwing what looked like Molotov cocktails. The soldiers were firing back with concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and we heard later that they had also been using live ammunition. This battle had continued to surge for a couple of hours. We couldn’t go down the road the other way because there was a similar clash happening down the same road, which we could hear but we couldn’t see. We were hemmed in on both sides by these really violent confrontations. It was a really long couple hours.
Eventually the armored personal carriers moved about 100 meters away from the intersection and the host father said to me in Arabic to hurry and get in the car. We jumped in the car, kept the lights off, and we sped through the massive confrontation. A couple other cars had joined us. The street was strewn with tear gas containers and spent concussion grenades. All of the people that were involved in the fight, the Palestinians, saw that it was Palestinians in the cars and parted to let us through. We sped over all of this debris—I couldn’t believe that the car actually made it—and we turned the corner that took us to the road to the village and made our way back home.
That is the most recent conflict that I have been caught in here, but the explosions come nightly, particularly out here in the villages. That was the most recent occasion in which I was stuck out here at night. It is not the first time I had a gun pointed in my face in Palestine but it was the scariest because these soldiers were really on edge and we didn’t see each other before encountering each other. We came really close to being fired upon.
“SIMPLY FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A HUMAN BEING WHO CARES ABOUT OTHER HUMAN BEINGS, TO KNOW THAT PEOPLE HERE HAVE TO LIVE THIS WAY EVERY DAY IS A HUGE BURDEN TO BEAR.”
When I talk to people who spend time in the Territories, they always—understandably—feel inclined to say how they are holding up in the context of how people around them ultimately have to live. Without doing that, can you tell me how you are doing?
I came here because I wanted to experience the reality of this place so that I could speak about it from a position of experience. And I also want to do what I can at this school to help teach English to some really, really, really special young people so that they can do whatever it is they feel they want to do with those skills. English language skills are really necessary in the marketplace for jobs, but also to tell their own stories of what is happening here.
I try to focus on why I am here, but to be honest, it is a huge load to carry. When you see a group of 30 or 40 young men between 15 and 20 years old unarmed and marching toward an extremely well armed, state-funded army fearlessly, it is heartbreaking. I am doing alright, but is extraordinarily sad and an almost impossible to understand situation. I am doing the work that I came to do and I am experiencing a lot of joy. The people here are incredibly resilient and hospitable.
But I am starting to get pretty frayed by it to be honest. It is so asymmetrical. I go from feeling immensely comfortable and proud of my students, or something great happens with my host family, and then the situation can turn very quickly. That emotional up and down is exhausting. Simply from the perspective of a human being who cares about other human beings, to know that people here, like you said, have to live this way every day—and have lived this way for several generations and presumably will continue to do so—is a huge burden to bear. While I am trying to remain effective and trying to share as much as I can because that is one of the reasons I came, it is really stressful. It feels shitty to say that because I know everyone around me can’t leave. They don’t have a passport and so they can’t leave like I can. But nevertheless, it is a huge burden to witness this because once you witness it, you can’t un-witness it.
You talked earlier about groups of young people fearlessly facing the IDF, a state-funded army. Can you talk a bit about why they are fearless?
The daily humiliation that Palestinian people experience when simply trying to travel from place to place is something that you can’t believe is allowed to occur until you see it.
Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is only 40 minutes away from here and many, many, many of the men I have met here have never been allowed to go there. It is the third holiest place in Islam, it is in their back yard, and Israel has never allowed them to go. A few nights ago, an uncle of a friend of the host family died because he suffered a heart attack. The Israelis had closed the road between here and a suitable hospital and they would not allow him to travel to the hospital and he died. He may have survived had he gotten treatment.
People live with seeing their parents humiliated and their fathers emasculated. They see Israelis portrayed as victims and then given an international platform. Any human injury or death is a travesty and should be condemned as such, Palestinians know that they are routinely portrayed as terrorists while the deaths of many of their young people are regularly reported as statistics or not reported on at all. They see no freedom, no opportunities for employment, and no ability to even travel to the next city. If you live with that long enough, it feels like there is a sense rooted in the question, “What is left other than what is rooted in your dignity?” And you’re willing to not be afraid, and you are willing to fight?
The fight is very uneven, but when you ask me why they would do that, I think it is about three generations of seeing their people humiliated and being invisible on the world stage. My students tell me this all the time. They know that people don’t realize what is happening here. They know that the world does not know that there is an apartheid state where many roads and towns are Jewish only and that their lands are encroached on every day by illegal settlers. I have seen armed settlers in this region. They are fanatics and they follow a fundamentalist ideology, which is really scary. They routinely commit acts of violence and terrorism against Palestinian people in this region.
If you combine all of those things together, I think it is not difficult to see how young people would gravitate toward resistance as a means of retaining their identities, their dignity and their humanity when there doesn’t seem to be any other way to do that. It has been proven to them, and these are their words to me, that no other means is effective. And this means hasn’t been particularly effective either, but one person said to me that they would rather get shot in the chest than in the back so they won’t run away.
“THE CHILDREN I WORK WITH WANT FOR US TO KNOW THE REALITY AND TRUTH OF WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE.”
In all of this, have you been able to find time for your music?
I have. I have preformed for the entire student body at my school. I will be playing at a charity event in Hebron the day after tomorrow. I have been able to play the oud (note: a pear-shaped stringed instrument) with my host family every night. The night before the first day of Ramadan, we went into one of the fields near the village and sat outside. I played a small concert for them. The music has been the key that opens the door to the culture here. I do speak Arabic fluently and I have learned the musical system. I know a lot of the songs from this region. I have found a lot of time within this chaos to play music.
The first thing that disappears with occupation is arts, music and poetry. Anyone who knows anything about Arabic culture knows that these three things are essential to this culture. I was playing on the balcony a week ago and a neighbor kid came up and said that he had never seen an oud live before. He had heard one, but he had never seen it. This region is one of the cradles of this kind of music and he had to hear it from an American guy visiting the area. He asked me to play something sweet because he loved anything that sounded sweet. That was a particularly heartbreaking moment for me, but I did, I played for him. I have opportunities to play every day, and I was playing right before you called me.
Is there anything that you haven’t had the opportunity to discuss yet?
The only thing I would like to say is on behalf of all of my students here, all of the young people I have worked with, the only thing that they have asked is that people listen. They want for people to do real research on what is happening here, for people to search for the truth of the reality of life in Palestine under occupation. Look at the Palestinian voice as a human voice, not as the voice of a terrorist. I haven’t met a single terrorist here and I haven’t been afraid of a single person here. Nobody here is anti-American, I haven’t heard one anti-American comment. People separate us from our politics very easily. They know that not all of us agree with our politicians and politics, they know that we are not in charge. They ask that we try to look at them the same way. All they want is for us to know the reality and the truth of what’s happening here.