When rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Tel Aviv for the first time since 1991, I was studying at an army preparatory program in one of the city’s southernmost neighborhoods. The program closed indefinitely for the war—which would last a month—and I decided to join one of my friends who lived further to the north, outside of the range of fire.
Right after I stepped onto the train, the siren went off. The train, which had only just started to move, stopped abruptly. An announcement came on over the speaker system:
“There is a code red alarm in the city of Tel Aviv. Please close the blinds and get on the floor.”
In a flutter of panicked arms, the people on the train reached for the blinds. No one dropped to the floor except for the people who had been standing in the aisles. We waited, I can’t remember for how long, until the train began to move again. Cell phone service was down; there were too many people frantically trying to call friends and families in the area. I managed to get through to my friends who had stayed behind at the commune where we were living. They said they heard the explosion from our apartment.
At a party held across the highway from a collectivized farm, music blared across the park where we stood, part of a crowd of tens of young faces illuminated by strobe lights and flickering colored orbs. “Set the world on fire,” the lyrics screamed. The DJ’s rumbling remixes rang out into the open field, competing with the occasional fighter jet’s roar over- head. So as the rockets fell, we danced.
“Welcome,” declared a young man who had found out I was visiting from America. “Now is not such a good time to be here, but we will party and forget about all the bad things happening.”
But it is hard to forget about the war while attending a going-away part for three young men the day before their sched- uled draft date. The dubstep bass-drops sounded too much like war machines churning, the repetitive beats of techno too much like the pace of marching feet.
The future soldiers’ friends thrust them into the middle of the dancing crowd and draped garbage bags over their bodies, still pulsating in rhythm with the blaring house music. The young man that had greeted me now stood to my left. “Now this is something you will never see in America, my brother,” he shouted, slapping me on the back.
As camera flashes and cell phone lights illuminated the center of the dance floor, the future draftees’ friends began to shave their comrades’ heads. The partiers cheered and ululated. Locks of dark hair fell onto the grass, stomped and kicked under the manic dancers’ feet. And like an ancient tribal society, we saw our soldiers off.
Bethlehem, The West Bank
It is winter in Bethlehem, when the snow melts on the tan stone of the crumbling buildings. It is too bright to be this cold. Buses rush by through the slush, their faded purplish blue writing an unintelligible blur. Today, the shop-owners that give away free coffee in dangerously thin plastic cups to would-be patrons feel especially generous. The city center is deserted. It should be bustling with Christian tourists at this time of year, but the brief war in November scared them from visiting. I can’t read any of the peeling posters glued to the city walls, but I recognize some of the symbols. There is a spray-painted outline of what looks like a rocket—cartoonish, out-of-proportion, and fading.
An army jeep—a reminder of the occupation—slowly prowls down a hill a short distance away. Its drivers must be around my age, fulfilling the military service their country requires of them. If we were to meet, they might tell me I shouldn’t be here, that it is dangerous for someone like me to be walking around a place like this. Or they might call me a traitor, a leftist—a word that has become an epithet in what some call the Middle East’s only democracy. They would certainly be wrong about the former, but they are right about the latter.