*This article was originally published in Rolling Stone – Middle East Edition
MARCO SEGEV HAD TROUBLE sleeping. For months, the image of coming face-to-face with the man in the hole, clutching an AK-47, haunted his dreams. He would wake up drenched in cold sweat, shivering violently, yet unable to move for minutes on end.
Eventually, though – and in the most unlikely places – this former soldier discovered how to rid himself of his recurring nightmare through dialogue and, ultimately, transformation.
Segev grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Tel Aviv that was largely populated by Sephardic Jews who had made their way over from other parts of the Middle East, as well as Turkey and Spain, and who found themselves near the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic ladder. He speaks disdainfully of the area where he was raised; a place where, he says, “racism and fascism are celebrated.”
In school and among friends Segev kept his contrary opinions – largely inherited from his parents – muted, for fear of being ostracized. It was a skill he would continue to utilize throughout his life, balancing acceptance in Israel’s highly politicized society with his need to act on the morals instilled by his mother and father.
“I was raised in a very lefty household. My father was always making it clear to me what is good and what is bad in this region,” he says. “So as a kid I was not raised hating the Arabs or anything like that, like many families here in Israel are.”
Segev has placed himself in the middle of a conflict that is one of the most bitter and entrenched in the world. He is a Jew who is siding with Arabs against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. For this, he is considered a traitor by the majority of the Israeli public. His large extended family, including his siblings, are far more centrist than his parents and they remain unaware of his current activities. Marco Segev is not his real name.
WE TALK OVER BOWLS OF HUMMUS and mutabbal – dishes both Palestinians and Israelis call their own – in Segev’s small Tel Aviv apartment. He shows me pictures of his family, including one of his parents taking a young Marco and his two sisters to a rally against the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late Eighties. Above his bed hangs a photo of the olive groves of Bil’in at nighttime, their leaves shimmering in the artificial glow of an Israeli lightening flare.
Over the past five years, Bil’in – a small Palestinian village of nearly 2,000 people, which has seen over 60 per cent of its land confiscated for Jewish settlements and the construction of Israel’s separation barrier – has become a crucible of the non-violent resistance movement against Israeli occupation. Palestinians and Israelis have joined together in the struggle, and Segev has spent the last few years becoming progressively more involved in this campaign. Against the broader current of Israeli society, which is moving steadily to the right, Segev’s own transformation sheds light on a peace movement that has been shattered over the past decade – as the left-wing of Israeli politics collapsed into apathy and indecision – and only its most ardent advocates are raising their voices in a country whose official stance is that it has no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.
In his teens, Segev had no real interest in politics. He was focused on more universal teenage themes. But at the age of 15, Segev was a witness to – and near victim of – a suicide bombing. He was traveling to early-morning rowing practice at school when the bus behind his exploded, killing one and injuring several others. He remembers the terrifying surrealism of seeing people running through the street bleeding, his surroundings changing so drastically in an instant.
The experience would influence his decision to enter the army. Military service is officially compulsory for Israeli citizens, but as a promising athlete Segev could potentially have avoided a combat position in order to pursue further training. He chose not to.
“I was a bit more mad [after the bombing],” he says. “Maybe I saw the army as my mission – to be the savior. I don’t know what I was thinking. At that age, you’re just the dumbest.”
As a soldier, Segev’s unit was responsible for combat missions that included raids on Palestinian towns and the arrest of guerilla fighters in cities throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These adrenaline-inducing operations allowed him to bury his misgivings and focus on the tasks in hand.
“I didn’t feel so bad,” he says. “If you present it as an act of war – let’s say two soldiers fighting, or two armies fighting – then it is different. Basically, I understood why we were doing it.”
Despite the moral ambivalence often permitted by combat, certain orders struck him as unjust even when he was carrying them out. He began to see that many of his missions served only a political purpose, not a tactical or strategic one.
“When you go conquer a hill, most of the time it’s because a politician wants you to. That’s the first thing that started bothering me,” Segev says, referring to Israel’s settlement enterprise in the occupied territories. He explains that he and four comrades were once sent to guard two families who had taken a hill to the south of Hebron. “They decided they wanted to live there, so the army wants to secure them and they sent us,” he says. “It felt stupid, like I was there for nothing.”
More than anything, however, it was his dealings with Palestinian children that left an indelible impression on Segev and caused him to question the Israeli military’s purpose in the occupied territories. He describes the procedure of arrests: waking families up in the middle of the night and forcing them out onto the street while their homes are searched (which often means ransacked, he adds).“It’s four in the morning, and you’ve taken the kids and the old people out of the house. You’re standing there with your rifle and your face is painted black. Then you look at the kids. That’s when it really clicks, that maybe something here is not kosher,” Segev says. “The way they look at you, their eyes wide open. They have no idea what’s going on – whether it’s a movie or reality.”
AFTER COMPLETING HIS military service in 2006, Segev traveled back and forth between Israel and the U.S. for a couple of years, spending some time working as a counselor at a summer camp in Massachusetts. He remembers the period as relaxing, a time to chill after three long years in the army. In 2008, he enrolled in the Political Science program at Haifa University, known for its diverse and integrated student body, consisting of both Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens.
It was at university that Segev was first introduced to Palestinians without the formalities, and symbolism, of a military uniform. In and out of the classroom he found himself engaged in discussions about politics and society, and about Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“This is how things started building: sitting around chatting,” he says. “It seemed meaningless back then, but our talks were very profound and they really shaped my opinion about the conflict.”
Segev compares his thought process at the time to a cup of Turkish coffee. When you enter the army, he says, the coffee becomes mixed, and there is no objective way of looking at what you are doing. But over time the loose coffee grounds settle and things become clear.
It was as things were becoming clearer during his time at university that his nightmares began. “It was always the same dream about the same incident I had, always at the same hour. And always in the same way,” Segev says. “You wake up at six and you are shivering and you know that you are awake and you know you had a nightmare but you can’t move. At least for a minute until everything gets loose. But it’s very frightening.”
The incident that plagued him occurred in 2004, while on a mission in the Palestinian city of Tulkarem. Segev’s platoon was sent to arrest a guerilla fighter from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and had tracked him to a single city block. For two days, they searched without sleep for the fighter. Eventually, they entered a house and discovered a hole in the wall. It was stuffed with rubbish, shoes, and other odds and ends that obstructed any clear path inside. As he began to dig out the clutter, Segev discovered that the hole went deep – “maybe five meters inside.” He began crawling into the black tunnel. Suddenly, he found himself less than a meter away from the man they were looking for, who was armed with a Kalashnikov rifle. This moment – frozen in time – when the two men stared into each other’s faces in the near total darkness, is the one that haunted Segev’s dreams.
As his prey scrambled to take aim in the cramped refuge, Segev scurried backwards out of the hole. Both men began to exchange fire. For six hours, Segev’s platoon unloaded their machine guns and grenades into different rooms of the house, while a labyrinth of tunnels enabled the Palestinian fighter to outmaneuver them. Finally the house was demolished with dynamite while the fighter was still inside. Incredibly, he was still alive when they dragged him out, but died before he reached the hospital.The man was Segev’s Ghost of Christmas Past. Memories of their deadly game of hide and seek would prompt Segev to seek out, and make amends for, the history he had tried to bury. He began to revisit places where he had once served in the West Bank.“I don’t know if I was looking for closure. Maybe,” he says. “I was scared at first because it was the first time I had been in the West Bank without an entourage of armed people. When you go in with guns, you feel much more comfortable.”
HE BEGAN HIS JOURNEY in Bil’in, which was then gaining notoriety as a focal point of non-violent resistance in the occupied territories. Segev began to talk to the people in the streets and get involved in their activities. He met other like-minded Israelis, who were altering the nature of Israel’s own peace movement by moving away from the distant streets of Tel Aviv to join Palestinians in defense of their own communities.
“They’re not supporting from their house, or sitting in front of the TV saying, ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ They are going [where they are needed]. That was the appeal for me,” Segev says. “They’re working with Palestinians. That is the first step I think that any group needs to take, they need to stay on after the demonstrations and spend time with them and communicate with them. Make lots of friends, build a social network. I think that is the proper way to cooperate: First be friends, then fight together.”
Nowadays, Segev travels to places like Nabi Saleh, a small village to the northwest of Ramallah and a current hotspot of the resistance movement. Regular protests have been taking place here since late 2009, when the village’s natural spring, a mainstay of its inhabitants’ livelihood, was taken over by the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish – with the help of the Israeli army.
One Friday I attend a Nabi Saleh protest with Segev and his compatriots. Tall, with a handsome face grown slightly heavyset under a mop of dark brown hair, he wears aviator sunglasses and wraps the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck. Sitting under the shade of a large mulberry tree in the center of town, Segev is at ease, laughing and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes with the locals and exchanging stories and phone numbers in a mix of English, Arabic and Hebrew. As afternoon prayers come to an end, villagers and activists – foreign and Palestinian, young and old – gather in the main square and begin their collective march down to the expropriated spring on a nearby hill. Israeli military jeeps are already prepared; waiting patiently in the valley below, ready to disperse the peaceful protesters with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and “sound bombs.”
As soon as the protesters are in range, waving their flags and banners, the first volley of tear gas canisters blots the cobalt-blue sky. The caustic smoke is suffocating, burning the eyes and throat so badly that you quickly become disoriented. The urge is to do anything to get away from it. But the seasoned demonstrators do not shy away for long and are soon pressing on again.
Eventually the demonstrators are corralled into the village’s main street. Here they are confronted by a wall of fully armed soldiers. They chant and sing songs, sometimes sitting in a circle on the pavement. The Israelis among them admonish the soldiers in Hebrew. The soldiers respond with steely faces and occasional rounds of tear gas. Three of the Israeli activists are arrested and put into military vehicles. In the end the army brings in the “skunk truck,” which sprays putrid-smelling liquid at fleeing protesters, into the street and onto the houses.
“Welcome to the occupation,” says Segev, with a smile.
We find refuge in the home of one of the village’s families. They offer us onions to soothe the effects of the tear gas. Their young children mop the rancid blue-green liquid up off the floor.
The situation in Nabi Saleh is not, as Israel’s PR machine tries to paint it, an army facing off against a resistance force. It is an advanced military bullying families who are trying to prevent their land from being taken out from under them. But there is a new culture of resistance forming and the Israeli authorities appear unprepared to handle it without further harming their already tarnished global image.
The Israeli contingent among the activists gives the movement a greater chance of success. They muddy the looking glass through which the soldiers view the Palestinian population, and can assuage the level of violence employed against them. The Israeli activists are often attacked and arrested by the soldiers – Segev says he has been arrested more times than he can count – but, unlike the Palestinians, the Israelis rarely face any serious charges or jail time.
In a statement recently given to an Israeli military court during his trial for “incitement,” “organizing unauthorized processions” and “solicitation to stone throwing,” Bassem Tamimi, the father of the non-violent resistance movement in Nabi Saleh, had this to say about the Israelis who join them in their struggle:
“These demonstrations that I organize have had a positive influence over my beliefs; they have allowed me to see people from the other side who believe in peace and share my struggle for freedom. Those freedom fighters have [freed their mind] from the Occupation and put their hands in ours in peaceful demonstrations against our common enemy, the Occupation. They have become friends, sisters and brothers. We fight together for a better future for our children and theirs.”
Segev himself is still trying to clarify his role in the solidarity movement and its effectiveness in his own mind. And how it has changed him. “The more active you are, and the more you see occupation, the more you remember what happened in the army, for instance,” he says. “As a soldier you do not see the occupation. But as a civilian, when you go back to those places, even in your head, you understand what occupation really is. To see a refugee camp or to see [the Palestinians] locked up in cities or villages and [unable to leave].”
Segev isn’t optimistic about the prospects for an end to occupation in the near future. Nor does he think that Israeli soldiers will easily be persuaded to lay down their guns. He knows from experience that a soldier lacks perspective and objectivity.
“When I see soldiers I understand. It is impossible to tell a soldier, ‘Lay down your weapon.’ It will never happen,” he says. “So the best hope I have for those people is that when they are released from the army they will understand what they did. It’s the only way.”
Segev’s younger brother is now serving his first year in the army. Although Marco could not dissuade him from entering – refusing to serve is tantamount to social suicide in Israel – he has offered himself up as a confidant to discuss any moral misgivings his brother may have in the course of his military duties. It’s the closest he has come to allowing his life as an activist to cross over into his personal life. If his two worlds collide, he says, he will be excluded from everything he knows. For now, it’s a sacrifice he is not prepared to make.
It’s Segev’s great hope that, someday, his double life will no longer be necessary; that the physical and psychological barriers erected by Israelis and Palestinians will begin to melt away. He imagines going to Nablus for his morning coffee and hosting his Palestinian friends at his home near the beach in Tel Aviv.
“Maybe I am dreaming but I would really like to see one state, one flag, one name, one anthem, a government united – Palestinians and Jews. Not promoting their own interests, but promoting life, promoting peace, all the advantages. I think its doable, I think its reachable,” he says. “Probably it is far away but it is there.”