Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict
It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were: “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”
I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.
To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.
Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.
Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.
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Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.
The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.
The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.
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