A wrong turn in Israel

Here is a story for you.  I’m not entirely sure if it’s the best one to tell you, but it’s the  first one that comes to mind whenever I think of Halloween or Israel.

It was October 31, 2004 — Halloween — and I found myself in Lud, Israel.  Lud is a terrible, desperate place. I’ve sometimes heard Palestinians from the Gaza Strip refer to it as “hell.” There are sections of the city where the houses are constructed of stapled aluminum siding and dried mud. The more civilized sections are fortresses. Most of the residents live in giant concrete blocks. The city elite (cops, politicians, and drug dealers) live in walled mansions. Lud’s dealers pioneered “ATM drugs”: the junkie walks up to a tiny slit in the wall of his or her dealer’s mansion, deposits some shekels, and out pops their heroin.

I had just returned from the north, visiting Nazareth, Akka, and Haifa, and other places.  I saw the minarets of Qalqiyah and Tulkarem peeking out over the top edge of the notorious Separation Wall and tendrils of black smoke from burning tires licking the blue sky.  I visited a small village called Kufr Manda, a poor farming community of Palestinians that had lost two of their sons in protests and whose hearts I would later break.  And I drank coffee with Bedouins — it had been brewed for three days and had the sharp texture of fine red wine.

On the return journey by train I was aiming for Ramle, near Lud, but overshot and ended up in Beer Sheva, deep in the south.  Israel’s a small country; such things can happen.  Several hours later, deep into the night and even deeper in the Negev desert, I sat with two security guards in the railway terminal of Beer Sheva. One guard was a newly immigrated Russian; the other, a second-generation Sepharadi. They had just finished their mandatory military service. They both served in Gaza, protecting the Israeli settlements there.

“I once saw a terrorist with a rocket,” the Russian said. “I shot him.”

“I ran over an Arab with my tank,” the Sepharadi said. “I don’t know if he was a terrorist.”

They both grinned with a savage joy. The Russian was twenty-four; the Sepharadi, twenty-one.

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