Ramallah Diary: J-School Student Drops In Uninvited

I hadn’t been to Israel since my grandmother’s death eight years ago. Oslo was rollicking along; Gaza and Ramallah were boomtowns. Backfires from trucks received only the mildest flinch. But when a hernia forced me to take a leave of absence from Columbia Journalism School a month ago, and I spent my days watching the relentless clashes on TV, I became homesick for my peeps. When I recovered, I left New York and went: without a plan, without an assignment, without a hotel and, most neglectfully, without a flack jacket. I did have a hastily purchased air ticket, 40 rolls of film, a picture of my wife and baby and one piece of advice: go to the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem.

I arrived on Saturday, April 20. It was Israel in springtime: green Israel, Israel with wildflowers. The taxi drove through Jerusalem forest. I checked into the Mount Zion hotel, overlooking the Old City. Many Israeli reservists were billeted there. They had beer guts and old Galil rifles. The soldiers took over the espresso machine from the barman and smoked cigarettes around a grand piano being played by a reservist with an M16 slung across his back. A short while later, I took a taxi to the American Colony.

The American Colony’s atmosphere is hushed, confidential. The walls have stone solidity; the staff has an erect deference. There is a cellar bar where you feel like an extra in Casablanca . There is a dining room where one can have cold avocado soup and carpaccio.

It was Shabbat, but the Israelis had set up a special government press office to accommodate the parachuting press core. I filled out an application for a press card. The woman receiving it asked for press identification. In January, when Columbia handed out our press cards, we were told they were useless and, at best, could get us a discount at the Met. She took it without comment. Ten minutes later, I got the press card.

An advertisement for body armor was posted at the exit. “Get your body armor here. The light blue kind like you see on CNN and NBC. Israeli made and only the best.” I called the number and met the man a few hours later at the Tel Aviv bus station. “Hurry up,” he said. “This place is a target for suicide bombers.” We went to his car in the garage. “You have two choices,” he told me. “The cheaper one has no groin or neck protection.” The expensive one had brand-new polymer plates, a reflective banner that read “PRESS” and a cell-phone holder. The cell-phone holder sold me. I returned to Jerusalem $1,300 poorer.

Early the next morning, I saw a photojournalist and a female reporter in the lobby of the hotel. They said they were going to Ramallah. The Israelis had started the pullout at midnight. I went with them. It was 10 miles by taxi. Israel is small; one can go from carpaccio to the front line in minutes.

When we arrived in Ramallah, the Israelis were finishing their withdrawal. Within an hour, the streets were filled with people who had not been outdoors for 24 days. People were sticking their fingers in bullet holes and pulling reporters into their shops to point out damage. The street was lined with martyr posters. These were the first I had seen. They decorated almost every storefront. Teen Beat for terrorists.

The next morning, I slept in. When I woke, I turned on CNN: Reports of mass graves were coming out of the Jenin refugee camp; an investigating doctor stepped on a mine. I decided to go. After haggling on the phone with taxi drivers, I left around 1 p.m. Since the Israelis had pulled out, I felt no need for body armor. I was wrong. The checkpoints were closed. We stopped at Salem, a small hillside town, miles above Jenin. A man approached the taxi. “You are too late,” he said. “It is much too dangerous to go now. It takes an hour and a half to get to Jenin by foot. There are tanks and snipers ringing Jenin. By the time you get back, it will be sunset.” I told him I would go anyway. He said that I would have to hire one of the local boys who knew the Israeli positions.

My guide’s name was Farid-16, tall and thin. He didn’t speak English. We descended the hillside. We passed through orchards of trees, wild grass and thin ravines. I focused on loping Farid. If I lost Farid, I was fucked.

There’s a strange permanence to Jenin’s refugee camp. There is an absence of tents, of lean-tos; there are no sandbags of grain being handed out to people with distended bellies. The residents are classified as refugees because the camp was established in 1953, to house Palestinians fleeing the 1948 war. Until the Israelis came a month ago, 13,000 people lived in permanent homes along the camp’s narrow alleyways. Another 27,000 lived in Jenin proper. The Israelis say that 23 suicide bombers emerged from the alleyways. Once the Israelis came, Palestinian snipers were denied cover by armored bulldozers. Perhaps a 10th of the camp had been leveled. It is a clearly defined area the size of a football field.

I crawled into collapsed homes, climbed ladders and pissed into a second-floor toilet that clung to a pipe. Then I heard rifle shots coming from a tributary alley. I ran up the alley and saw a large group of men hoisting a writhing body. I ran toward them, taking pictures. People grabbed my arms and shouted, “No pictures! No pictures!” I pushed their arms away and pressed the shutter release of my Contax. The injured man reached out toward me, his eyes brightly white in the shadows of the alley. When people started yelling, “He shoot you! He shoot you,” I paid more attention. 60 feet away a thin man walked toward me, a black revolver dangling from his hand. I ran and hid in an adjacent house.

At first, my guides told me that it was a domestic dispute. Then they said that the Israelis shot him. I didn’t believe them. There were no Israelis in the camp, and the shots came from the alley. An hour later, I was told that the man was shot because he was a suspected collaborator: “The men said he help the jaish [Israeli army].”

The next day, I read the papers in a German Colony café. There was no mention of the collaborator being shot, so I called the Jerusalem Post . They wanted the picture on the front page. I spent the morning writing an article. That night, I had a Sambuca with a Middle East correspondent from The Wall Street Journal . He said, “It would be a shame for you to go to Gaza and not meet with Hamas leaders,” and handed me a phone number.

In the morning, I took a taxi to Gaza. During Oslo, the Erez checkpoint was lousy with cars. But when I crossed, it was deserted. Soldiers manned heavy machine guns. Concrete barriers stood in a silent phalanx. A soldier called out to me, but it took a while to find the voice behind the metal slit of the bunker. “Why didn’t you show me your pass?” he yelled. I walked across 100 yards of no man’s land. Chunks of concrete got caught in the wheels of my suitcase. A Palestinian taxi raced toward me and skidded to a halt. The driver yelled for me to hurry. He drove me another 100 yards to the Palestinian checkpoint and demanded danger pay. We were waved past a guard shack and the driver jumped out to lift a wooden drawbar.

We drove on through the Jabalia refugee camp. It was preparing for invasion. Men with guns wandered the street in black, in gray camouflage, in drab olive. The buildings were made of bare concrete blocks. It was much like Jabalia, except that like beach property everywhere, the houses grew smaller as they became more proximate to the sea. I thought that if I lived here, I’d be pissed, too.

Then I heard shooting and donned my body armor. My sensorium tingled. All at once, the taxi was surrounded by men with guns, surrounded by children, surrounded by a chanting throng. We had driven into a martyr’s funeral. I jumped out of the car and started taking pictures. The driver stood outside his taxi, an island surrounded by a purl of people. The procession carried three teenage boys on stretchers. They had been shot while trying to sneak explosives into a Jewish settlement. A man in grief led the way. Small children made victory signs with their fingers and smiled for the camera.

The next morning, I had breakfast with other journalists on a large patio overlooking the sea. Experienced journalists indulged my neophytic questions. Palestinian hotties gossiped around hookahs, but a man told me that “Gaza was the hardest place in the world to get laid.” I spent the late afternoon walking through Gaza City and the evening preparing for an interview with Hamas spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab.

The next day, Mr. Shanab spoke to me in the living room of his home. Two banks of florescent lights lit the double-height room. Maps of Israel and Gaza lined the walls. He wore a gray suit jacket and pants of a different hue. Shanab, 50, was born in a Gaza refugee camp but received a master’s degree in engineering from Colorado State University. We were joined by Mr. Shanab’s son, Hamza, 18, who said that he was proud that his father was a Hamas leader, but “tries not to brag about it” at school.

I wondered if they knew I was Jewish. A January 1988 Hamas leaflet stated that “Jews are brothers of apes, assassins of the prophets, bloodsuckers, warmongers … only Islam can break the Jews and destroy their dreams.” But Mr. Shanab put me at ease. Broad-faced and gentle in demeanor, he said that “Hamas has nothing against Jews. We tolerate all religions, but when it comes to Israelis, it’s political.”

Mr. Shanab held a demitasse of Turkish coffee between thumb and forefinger while announcing that Hamas would go along with the Saudi peace plan. He said that if Israel agrees to the Saudi plan, which contemplates Israel returning to pre-1967 borders, Hamas will “cease all military activities.” He said that the majority of Palestinians, like the majority of Israelis, want peace.

On the way back to the hotel, I had my interpreter translate martyr posters. Once there, I emptied my phone card trying to sell the Shanab interview. When the San Francisco Chronicle bought it, I figured it was time to go home. “One week in-country” had a nice round ring to it.

I was tired. I wanted to go back to the American Colony Hotel. I wanted the bartender to offer up my usual. I wondered if the little cliques in the bar would notice my war gristle, remark on my jaunty stride or dish out a little encomium. I wanted the photojournalists to envy the fresh dings to my Contax and notice the scuff on my armor. But I didn’t return. I wanted to get back to New York City because I missed my wife and knew that she would offer up my usual.