Dispatch from Jerusalem

My arrival in Jerusalem four days ago coincided with a wave of attacks and and violent clashes in Israel and Palestine. People have been shot and killed. Soldiers, teenagers, and elderly women have been stabbed – some with a screwdriver, another with a vegetable peeler. A pregnant woman died alongside her four year-old daughter. Rockets were fired. Stones thrown. Security fences breached. Victims lay bleeding while jeering spectators looked apathetically on. In Jerusalem, a mob of far-right Israeli activists chanted “Death to Arabs” and went in search of Palestinians to attack. Israeli police stopped them before they could enter the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

I find it difficult to describe all of this as an outsider. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a foreign language film halfway through. I don’t know the plot. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the heroes or villains. I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time in my hotel room, where I am now, obsessively checking the news to figure out what happened, and where, and whether anyone has any idea what will happen next. No one seems to.

I did make a trip to the Old City to meet an old friend. One of the many constants in Jerusalem is that you can always find Ali Jiddah sitting at the café inside Damascus Gate. When I first met him back in 1999, before his diabetes diminished him, Jaffa Gate was his preferred haunt. He used to pace back and forth around the square in his leather jacket, prayer beads in his hand and an “official” tour guide ID around his neck that he freely admitted was fake.

When he was a teenager, Jiddah was active in the PFLP. He spent 17 years in Israeli prisons after detonating a bomb outside an Israeli hospital. He became a tour guide after his release and has been giving politically-charged tours of Jerusalem for decades. Because of his health-problems and limited mobility, Jiddah gives fewer tours these days. But he remains ever-willing to talk politics from his perch at the café. I visit him there every time I am in town. I’m not sure he remembers me, but he always pretends to.

I asked Jiddah about the current wave of violence. “It is the Third Intifada,” he said. “I predicted this six months ago.” This conflict will be unique, he said, because it will involve Palestinians unaffiliated with any particular militant group. They won’t be motivated by politics, but by issues of “personal dignity,” he said. And unlike previous struggles, right-wing settlers will play a major role as combatants.

Jiddah is not optimistic. But then again, he never is.

In the midst of all of this, I feel strange writing stories about Gazan poets and short-story writers. I’m unsure if the situation lends itself to something so comparatively lightweight. And yet here I am. I have a shiny new press pass from the Israeli Government Press Office, a visa from Hamas, an apartment waiting for me in Gaza City, and a long list of Gazans I want to meet and write about.

But I am going to wait a couple of more days before crossing that checkpoint. I don’t feel ready to leave this hotel room just yet.

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