The author in Israel in 2011
In the summer of 2011, as a 20-year-old working for a Palestinian news agency, I went to see one of the famous protests at the small village of Bil’in. These demonstrations, which continue today, are held every Friday against the euphemistically named “security fence” that Israel began building across the Palestinian Territories in 2002, supposedly to protect its citizens from terrorism. That “fence” is now a 25-foot tall concrete wall that has expropriated huge swaths of Palestinian land, and Palestinians and their allies have been holding weekly marches from Bil’in to the barrier since 2005; over the years both villagers and soldiers have been seriously injured, and two Palestinians have been killed.
So on the day in question I marched into the hills with the locals and international activists, right up to the wall itself, where Israeli soldiers were waiting. Before long, some kid landed a stone on the roof of an army jeep. Within seconds it was a violent scene, another Friday of clashes and arrests, most of them invisible in the mist of tear gas.
Most Western visitors to Israel and Palestine—conflict junkies, more often than not—get their fill at these demonstrations and learn a bit about occupation, resistance movements, and so on. My own education in the dynamics of power was far more personal, and it occurred at the hands of two very different men in two very different circumstances.
A 2006 protest against the barrier in Bil’in. Photo via Flickr user michael loadenthal
By the afternoon the action in Bil’in was winding down: The children and the elderly were being carried back to the village to shower off the gas, while a few dedicated young men continued to antagonize the remaining soldiers back at the wall. I smelled of sweat and chloride and needed a taxi to Ramallah, about ten miles to the east. And right there was a cabbie, a scruffy, skinny middle-aged man with thinning hair. He leaned on the hood of his shuttle and told me he was headed to Ramallah. I moved to get into the backseat, but he blurted, “No, the front, the front’s good.” I shrugged and sat in front.
From the start this guy was chatty, even though his English was as bad as my Arabic. But after the usual small talk, his questions took a turn:
“You Muslim, or Christian?”
“Christian,” I replied, for the sake of simplicity.
“Ah, Christian. So, so...” His English at a dead end, he went into Arabic, waving his hands around. I simply didn’t follow. Was he about to start proselytizing? Was he trying to figure out my politics, whether I was pro-Hamas? We continued to talk past each other as the cab emerged from the green hills outside the village into a barren stretch of open highway.
Suddenly I got a sinking feeling as one of his gestures became clear to me: He was moving his hand like a pair of scissors. Snipping. Ah, Christ, I realized. He’s asking whether I’m circumcised.
I’m old-fashioned; this wasn’t a topic I was interested in discussing with my cabbie. I shifted in my seat and looked out my window, hoping he’d drop the subject, but he kept at it, even after I stuck my headphones in to drown him out. I still didn’t understand why he was asking—then he held up his hand, as if to say, "Hold on a sec."
With one hand on the steering wheel, he brought the other down to free his cock from his pants. In disbelief, with nowhere to move, I stared straight ahead. Suddenly his right hand settled on my leg. I recoiled and shoved it off, but it returned, with a tighter grip. As long seconds passed I looked around, ahead, out my window. Mile after mile of indistinguishable dirt was going by. I realized that I didn’t have fucking clue where we were. Was this even the route I took to get to Bil’in the day before?
Suddenly his hand was behind my neck. I felt him start to pull my head toward him, lower, into his seat. I walloped his neck with a closed fist; he grunted and flipped his head to the side.
The cab had been going around 80 miles per hour, but we were rapidly slowing down, as my attacker was having trouble multitasking. By then, I had fully accepted that my driver was trying to rape me, but I also had to worry about whether our struggle would run the van off the road. I shouted for him to pull over, but he was beyond caring about what I wanted. He tried to calm me down and reached for my shoulder again. "NO!” I barked.
My fears multiplied: Are the doors locked? Am I going to be trapped in this car? Does he have a knife in a compartment somewhere? I glanced ahead through the windshield and saw a rest stop in the distance, a speck in the endless orange landscape.
In a moment of clarity, I realized I had only one option: I grabbed the handle of the door and pushed it open. The wind hit my face—we must have been going 25 or 30 miles per hour. The cabbie hollered as I clenched my bag tight and leapt out of the van.
I’m not sure how many times I rolled after I hit the dirt, but when I finally came to a stop, I lay there for what seemed like ten minutes, head buzzing. I stumbled to my feet and saw the van in the distance—it was turning back, heading my way.
I sprinted toward the rest stop, the cab in pursuit, its open passenger door still flailing. Wheezing my way within sight of the building, I spotted three figures standing out front: young men, all in suits, one in a wheelchair.
“Need a cab! Cab to Ramallah!” I shouted. The tallest guy nodded, confused but obliging, and pulled out his phone. I turn around to see the van rattle past us, down the highway, back whence it came.
It was only then that I felt gashes on my arms and legs from my fall. I waited for my ride, hands on my knees, alternatively breathing deeply and laughing hysterically.
Graffiti on a wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories. Photo by the author
Two weeks later, over the border at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, I was lying to a steely-eyed security officer who was my last barrier before I could fly back home to London. I gave him the same line I always did when visiting the region: I’d been in Tel Aviv with my Jewish girlfriend the entire time, with no visits to those Palestinian territories, thank you very much. No dice—my interrogator sniffed me out, and after some tense questioning he sent me into a cell where I met his associate, a pale, round-faced inspector, ready to give me a cavity search.
Immediately I began to feel a familiar nausea. I’d gone through a strip search at Ben-Gurion before, and this was not that. He very quickly went beyond the acceptable boundaries, and with some horror I realized I was once again trapped in a confined space with a predator. This one had me all to himself for about 20 minutes. First a brush between my legs here or there as he patted down my waist and groin, then a barely disguised stroke. Then came longer, deliberate grips.
I made a kind of discovery that day about two kinds of harassment—you could call it the difference between harassing “down” and harassing “up.” I don’t forgive either man for what he did, but the cab driver was a random, desperate guy who had power only because I was briefly trapped in his car; the inspector, regardless of his pay grade or rank, groped me with the authority of the state behind him.
This wasn’t just a sequel to my nightmare taxi ride—it was a sequel to the protest I covered at Bil’in, an echo of the routine security measures that add a level of danger and paranoia to anyone living under an occupation: the checkpoints, the night raids, the curfews. It was a glimpse into the ugliest side of one individual, and the ugliest side of a system that empowered him.
Unlike in the cab, I didn’t fight back. It would have been useless—my plane was leaving in a matter of minutes, and the harassment was subtle enough that security would claim I was simply overreacting to a thorough search. There was nowhere to jump this time. They had my phone, my laptop; they were in charge. I remembered stories from friends of nine-hour detentions, of endless interrogations. So I closed my eyes and remained silent until I was allowed to go home.
Sitting on the plane, I felt the same shiver of relief that I did standing in front of the rest stop outside Ramallah. But this time I didn’t laugh. I just took deep breaths.
Brendan James is the front page editor at Talking Points Memo and is aware that death approaches.