Eliaz Cohen

  

Eliaz Cohen, poet, member of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion

Settler kid

I cannot imagine a better place to grow up in than a new settlement: a small close-knit community, close to nature and the contours and curves of the land.   One grows up in a sort of whirlwind, where every action taken is regarded with great pathos: "This is the first time after 2000 years of exile."  From age seven I grew up in the settlement of Elkana in western Samaria. 

I was born in 1972 in Petah Tikva to a religious-Zionist family that was pluralistic and open.  My maternal grandfather was the commander of the religious squadron of the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary organization active in the time of the British mandate, and which later became the IDF), and my paternal grandfather was an Irgun (the Jewish underground military movement) fighter.  My father grew up in a revisionist home and internalized the worldview that we, the Jews, are the masters of the land and must be generous and fair towards the Arabs. 

In Elkana we were taught Arabic in order to be familiar with the vernacular of the region.  The teacher they had brought for us was named Ali Yihya, an Israeli Arab from Kafr Qara (who later became Israel's ambassador to Greece) and he became a significant persona in our lives. 

Not before long we found holes in the fence surrounding the settlement, and, together with children from the neighboring villages, Maskha and Bidya, we expanded them.  These were the days prior to the First Intifada.  We were curious children, on both sides, and very quickly a connection was formed.    We did not feel any tension or animosity in the air.  We would meet them near the fountain, and also come visit them during olive picking season.  On the Sabbath we would walk all the way to the oil-presses in the villages, but did not visit each other's homes. 

In 1981 a grenade was thrown on the road going up towards Elkana, near the village of Azzun Atma, and suddenly the weight of conflict lay heavy on the idyllic state that had prevailed.  I remember my father going out to nocturnal meetings, and recall talks of fortifying and distancing the fence.  We were warned not to go on hikes without an adult escort carrying a weapon.  After the grenade was thrown, they took away our teacher of Arabic, Ali. 

When the First Intifada broke out there weren't any riots in our area.  There weren't any check-points and curfews back then.  Arab workers came to work in the settlement, but it was clear that we had to be more alert.  The prevailing motto was "Honor him and suspect him".  I remember the feeling of betrayal when Isa, our tiler, was arrested after being suspected of security offences. 

 

Soldier and egg seller face to face

After high school I learned for a year and a half in a Hesder Yeshiva (program combining Talmudic studies with military service) and then I was recruited into the Armored Corps.  I hardly had to cope with the challenge of the Intifada because most of the time I was in training sessions or posted at the borders.  On those few occasions when it did happen, it was very difficult for me.  On the eve of Passover 1993, when Rabin's government was in office, a closure was imposed on the entire Judea and Samaria in wake of big terror attacks that had begun a short time beforehand.  I found myself at a check point close to the Green Line, near Elkana, controlling other people, some of whom I knew: people who had been my neighbors from childhood, i.e. from the villages surrounding Elkana.  I found it hard to have to decide who would be allowed to pass and who wouldn't, and whenever I could, I would turn a blind eye and let them pass.  I felt it was my personal mission.  However, the commanders of the check point were from another unit and very stringent. 

One young man from Azzun, whose face I recognized from my childhood, sold eggs and vegetables at a stand his family had always had at the side of the road.  Now, because of the check point, he had become a "security hazard" and was demanded to move back fifty meters, thus losing his entire livelihood because people did not want to stop twice - once at the stand and once at the check point.  During my shifts he would come closer, until, one time, the check point commander caught him, turned over his stand, arrested him and handcuffed him. 

It was a very hot and dry day.  The commander said to me: "Now you are going to watch over him.  And I want you to suck him dry.  He gets no water and no anything.  Let him learn his lesson, until the police come and take him."  When the check point commander left, I gave him water, of course.  I tried loosening the handcuffs but wasn't able to.  My younger brother came on his bike from Elkana to visit me.  He also knew this young man and asked what it was all about.  The crushed eggs still lay on the road.

My brother jumped on his bike and went home to get a pocket knife in order to free the young man.  While he was busy with it, the check point commander arrived.  Our good lad managed to get away, while we had to listen to screams, which were comprised of a blend of names to the effect of "You leftist-settlers-maniacs you..."  He wanted to put me on trial but, luckily for me, his unit was transferred to another location and so I was spared. 

I never viewed the Palestinians as "walking-bombs".  I felt that the treatment they were getting was arbitrary, and I always knew that even if the actions of the IDF were justified from a security point of view, they still did not warrant treating anybody with disrespect.  Even much later, as a soldier in reserve duty in the Jordan Valley, I let through whoever I could.  Once a bus filled with school girls from Hebron, on the way to the Sea of Galilee, arrived at the check point.  We had an order not to let them through.  Of course I did. 

During my last reserve duty, in the summer of 2009, I wanted to leave as much of an impact as possible.  As a poet, I know to what extent language, and even the music thereof, can have an impact.  So I took the military police's conversation manual, and I expanded the vocabulary, thus creating a new manual for the check point, which uses the polite form rather than the imperative.  With the help of this new conversation-manual, I gave the young soldiers and the border patrol folks a training session on "humane check point conduct".  The main point I was trying to convey was to be friendly and remember one was talking to people on their way to work.  The commanders of the region attested to the fact that it was one of the quietest periods in the region. 

 

One homeland for two nations

The writing that has always been a part of me burst forth when I was in the army, where I took my first steps in the world of literature and poetry.  After my compulsory service, I went back to the Yeshiva and later learned social work.  I married Efrat, a Jerusalemite from a religious-Zionist home.  After we were married we moved to Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, where our four children were born.  They are, in fact, third-generation settlers. 

Already in the initial stages of my writing, alongside themes like love, family, nature and God, the "conflict" became more and more present, both in its mythical and realistic form.  In some of my poems I refer to the images of Isaac and Ismail, the two brothers who are, in fact, both our forefathers as well as those of our neighbors; and the lost brotherhood that once prevailed in the tent of the common father, Abraham, and the longing for it - all of which may be somehow interwoven into my own childhood in Samaria. 

What I recall from my childhood experience, when I was still learning Arabic with Ali Yihya, is that Arabic and Hebrew are true "sister-languages".  I think that for the two nations to come closer together, it might be best to begin with learning the other's language and culture.  Perhaps if every Israeli knew Arabic and every Palestinian learned Hebrew, it would be the key to creating a chance for co-existence in this land.  In 2006 I won the Prime Minister's Prize in poetry.  With the money I received I paid for Arabic lessons in the Jewish-Arabic Center for Peace in Givat Haviva.  However, in order to conduct a serious conversation, and definitely in order to read Mahmoud Darwish in the source language - my Arabic still has much room for improvement. 

The Second Intifada was an intolerable period of time.   People started getting killed on the roads, and we would drive in the middle of the night with no headlights so as not to be a target for snipers.  Above us, the IDF and snipers from Beit Jala exchanged fire.  One of the breaking points for me was when we were informed that Tzachi Sasson, from the neighboring Kibbutz, Rosh Tzurim, was killed.  Tzachi was a young father like me.  I said to my wife Efrat that I was not sure we would remain in Kfar Etzion.  We have a responsibility to our children.  I do not wish to leave them orphaned.  Efrat said that one does not leave one's home so quickly, and suggested that if things got worse we would work on the Kibbutz and travel less.  One does not leave a home, she said, even when things are tough. 

I don't buy the story told us, nor do I buy the story the Palestinians tell themselves.  Every side views itself as the victim in this conflict.  It elicits from us the emotional readiness to act violently and to bear the price of more victims.  Maybe I have selective hearing, but I hear the frustrated voices and the pain on both sides.  In the peak of the Intifada I was still ready to hear of Arab mothers who were hiding their children in closets in Beit Jala and El-Khadar so that the Hamas would not kidnap them for demonstrations in which they could get killed.

It is quite clear to me that the current situation cannot be allowed to go on.  We cannot keep controlling them.  The philosophy I've been advocating for the past few years is "One homeland for two nations".  This land is our homeland, but is their homeland to the same extent.  It sounds naïve, I know, but I also know it is possible to co-exist, and from childhood I haven known how broad and unpopulated this land really is.  There is yet room for millions more, Jews and Palestinians. 

The idea of segregation and division is catastrophic.  It would be a catastrophe both on the human level - deepening the mutual demonization of the "one-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence" - as well as on an economic-security-existential level, for both nations.  Even if an independent Palestinian state is established inside the tiny borders proposed, it would still be based on a model comprised of a strong side and a weak side, and which would eventually explode. 

 

The border of tolerance

I am the second generation to suffer from loss.  I am named after my uncle Eliezer who was killed in the Battle of the Mitla Pass.  For years I found it difficult to connect to the activity of The Parents Circle Families Forum.  There is no way I am willing to accept the comparison that is made there, on occasion, between victims of terrorism and terrorists who were killed. 

But one day I said to myself that there might be an opportunity out there to listen and get closer to the other side, and maybe to even create some empathy.  So I joined the narratives workshop, and at the very first session there was already great chemistry between myself and the mayor of Beit Ummar, Nasri Sabarna.  At some point he said to me:  "You live with too much fear.  In Alon Shvut, for example, they killed two young lads from our village for the only reason that they entered the settlement."  I said to him that it was impossible that such a dramatic event took place in the settlement next to us without my knowing.  Nasri insisted, and suddenly the penny dropped.  He was talking about the two terrorists who had entered my settlement!!!  The two men had broken through the fence and had entered the Yeshiva High School.  They had managed to injure three of the people there with knives, and thank God there were youth counselors there with weapons who managed to kill the two before they murdered anyone.

After good chemistry had been formed between us, I didn't know how to challenge Nasri with these facts.  After all, how could I "respect a narrative" when it was so completely detached from reality?  When we met again I said to him: "Do you remember how I was surprised by what you told me?  I later recalled what had happened.  You know, those lads weren't innocent shepherds.  They had come with weapons.  They had come to kill."

It was then that a true inquiry between us began.  Yes, said Nasri, but why did they have to kill two young boys?  They could have been paralyzed and arrested.  I answered that it was only a natural response for an event which was underway.  Yes, continued Nasri, but why did they have to abuse the bodies?  Cannot be, I answered, I know the youth counselors who were there, and they are gentle souls.  But when I checked it out later, I found out that while the event was going on - a matter of mere seconds - one of the bodies, amidst all the chaos, might have been harmed, a "dead checking" of sorts. 

Both from meetings we have held in the past three years between settlers and Palestinians, under the umbrella of "Yerushalom" and "Land of Peace", of which I was one of the founders, and especially from the very strong, moving and painful encounters I have experienced in the narratives workshops of the forum - I understand now that neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the full story.  I came out of those meetings even more determined to maintain the ties, with Nasri personally, and with other Palestinians in the region as well.  I am also a partner in other, completely different, forums like the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank), where I represent my kibbutz, Kfar Etzion.  There, as well as in other places, some people accuse me of "strengthening the enemy".  Others tell me:  "You are naïve.  At the end you will end up hanging, like in 1929."  Fortunately, especially among the youth, more and more people wish to discover the human face on the either side; they no longer even proclaim to want to "solve the conflict", but simply want to come and meet the neighbor, and feel his pain and his dreams. 

 

 
 

 

 The Barrier Crasher

                                  

  For Ali Yichya, my teacher

 on being appointed ambassador to Athens

 

At this dusky hour, at the foot of Mount Gilboa

when I am dressed in drab against my will

to join the guards of the roadblock

(the Jalama border crossing, at times a roadblock, at times

            a road ascending from the Afula Valley to the Dotan Valley

     and to the road of the mountain and the fathers)

at this hour I think of you Ali Yichya

     how you came all warm and paunchy rolling to us,

little settler-children of Sabia and Thamania in the land of waking Samaria,

     the dancing gutturals

     of the language of Hada'd.

 

At this dusky hour your people are returning, Ali, the people that are in the fields

and I stand in their way, with all the security checks

and those gutturals that came then to our little mouths

Return searching for a tongue.

 

At this dusky hour almost anything is possible

     when my heart sings Arabic and goes out to the woman

     whose onions have spilled out of her sack all over the place

and how in her proud silence she collects them whispering

     one of the songs

that you taught us Ali Yichya from Kafar Kara in the virgin Elkana

 which is being built

[and I didn't know that you and your village have roots in our hills

that your ancestral mound which was deserted on an el-juma day

miten snin ago (they found in the mound a pot of meat and bones left on the coals)

near enough to be seen by us] 

 

at this dusky hour I see you Ali Yichya

     carrying the prayer shawl flag

in the heights where the Greek gods of the Acropolis dwell

     and how in an excited-Arab-soul all my cuts are healed

          in the one soul

 

here at the roadblock silence descends now

     and only the gold skin-of-gathered-onions still broadcasts a smell

         that song and the smell

     of the embarrassment of the woman and the soldier standing over her

          (meaning me)

and ana mushtak- lak ya sid Ali

 

At this dusky hour, at the foot of Mount Gilboa

     Soon the day will fall on its sword

And a cobalt blue evening will rise

            With no moon.

From pretty Jenin and her daughters once again will curl skyward

     The allahu akhbar in the wonderful mak'am

     And I will send fingers of a Hebrew Priest

            To my loved ones who are in the mountains

                 And to you as well

 

 * Eliaz Cohen participated in the film group. The group was filmed during the workshop for "TWO SIDED STORY" by Tor Ben Mayor.

* Upper photo by Uri Leshem

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