Unwrapping the Palestinian flag

The world we live in today is not the one I grew up in, but in many ways, it has not changed.

As a child the IRA would plant bombs in rubbish bins, so rubbish bins disappeared in public places. However, we did not really live in fear of terrorists attacks. They were for many of us an annoying wound on the arm, which would occasionally open and bleed.

Although the atrocities like the Warrington bomb, or the Chelsea Barracks nail bomb shocked us as a nation we did not really change our way of life, and we did not see ourselves as a country constantly under attack.

Other countries, other people lived in fear, survived constant attacks, and lived through civil war on a daily basis. Countries like Israel.

I first travelled there in the days when I still thought it was shocking to realise how easy it was for a desperate man to take control of a bus and drive it down a ravine, as easily as a shepherd boy leading goats down the valley. How easy it was to take 16 lives in the blink of the eye without a bomb, without a knife, but with the same searing hatred of a suicide bomber.

Living in Israel was a compete revelation to someone from a country like England. In the first few months the outbreak of what was to become known as the Intifada began and we watched from the side-lines how a nation coped with constant conflict, where two groups of people cannot be reconciled, cannot live together in peace.

I have, over the last 30 years re- visited the country many times and nothing has changed. In the light of Trumps incendiary claim that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The violence continues. A photo of a dozen armed IDF soldiers surrounding one unarmed Palestinian youth took me back to the days where young girls would be shot and killed for throwing stones at settlers, at how a nations over reactions have de humanised one group of people, how life for many is cheap.

On one trip two years ago, I travelled to Israel and stayed in Haifa a city in the north. I was planning to do research for the sequel to my novel Jewish Days Arab Nights. Although there were outbreaks of violence down in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I did not think this was unusual. Palestinians lived under curfews and brutality from the Zionists and would rise up and retaliate when they could.

One day whilst watching a news report about the wave of stabbings occurring in Jerusalem, I decided to forgo the plans to go into that city for the day and instead to take the train from Haifa to the old crusader city of Accra.

When I first arrived in Israel in 1987 there was not a train route up the coast from Haifa to the Old Crusader City, my last trip had been by bus, so I was looking forward to the coastal train ride.

It was a day like any other, soldiers going or coming from their shifts climbed on with the bags and their guns casually hanging over their shoulders or placed between their feet. This was always something that shocked me, the casual way soldiers carried their guns in public, the same we in England would carry an umbrella in case of rain.

As the carriage doors closed and the train pulled away, one of the young soldier girls sat in an empty seat opposite me. She was a skinny pale blonde girl, and she mainly stuck out because of her paleness. How she had avoided the Israeli, sun I could only assume was by hiding in a dark dungeon somewhere.

The soldier girl unzipped a bag and began to apply her makeup. At first, I merely glanced out the corner of my eye, but it was when the girl began to apply the vibrant red lipstick, that I started to feel uneasy.

She was making herself glamorous for a days’ work in the army. To do what? Was she one of those girls who would be playing spot and shoot? A disturbing way of killing people by computer, like a game, but unlike a computer game someone was often killed and did not get back up for level two.

It was a job given to the girl conscripts, and they ultimately just pressed a joystick and killed whomever they thought was suspicious, even an innocent man digging up potatoes in a field.

Her face once complete was pretty and the rosebud lips where of course begging to be kissed by some young male conscript. The girl glanced at herself in her small mirror a look of disdain creeping across her face. Her final touch was a beauty spot she applied with a pencil. She was complete, dressed to kill.

I felt I had to look away. Uncomfortable at the contrast of ideas going round my head, a heavily vamped up girl and killing innocent people.

The girl who sat next to me had a parcel on her lap. As the train moved further away from Haifa station, she began to un- wrap the package. I could see it was a piece of material.

Firstly, I saw the green, then the black and the white and then I saw the smaller red triangle. The girl was un-wrapping a Palestinian flag.

I frowned at the little red triangle in the middle of the stripes, remembering something. The red flag like a warning at a beach or a danger, danger of drowning.

I heard someone shout, thought I heard the word, “Saboteur. Saboteur!”

Then I saw the gun held out at arm’s length, aimed towards me, no, not me, the girl with the flag. I froze; I did not crouch down like the rest of the passengers. I just stared at the site of the gun, something I now realise I had never seen aimed at me before.

The boys’ hands were shaking but I had no time for my brain to compute that, because a noise exploded in the carriage and I felt something fly past my face, butterflies wings on fire I thought. The girl next to me screamed and held her hands to her ears, the soldier with the rose bud lips crouched further down on the floor. Trying to crawl under the seat. A smell like a November 5th firework pervaded the air. Hanging like an accusation in the confined space of the train carriage.

The bullet hit the side of the window frame and ricochet up to the luggage rack above. People were pointing at the girl, then to the fabric, and then to the soldier. They spoke in Hebrew but I guessed what they were saying. The soldier had shot at her because of the flag.

Someone had pulled the emergency cord. I sat and watched the aftermath unfold, saw how quickly the passengers went from panicking back to stoic resolution, how we all just sat and waited.

Someone spoke to me holding out a hand. I mumbled, “Lo Ivrit. Lo Ivrit.”

“Are you OK Madam? Are you Ok?”

I stared unable to comprehend her words even in English. Finally, I managed to exhale and say, “Yes. I am fine. Really I am fine.”

How terribly British I would think later back in my apartment. How terribly British. To say, “Yes I am fine. Thank you. I am fine.” Just been bloody shot at but I am fine!

Part of the Palestinian flag was draped across my legs and the young soldier across from me who I had watch put her war paint on earlier. She who had been the first to hit the ground, the edge of the flag covered on of her shoulders like a shawl.

There had actually been very little panic considering the situation a group of people experienced. Fortunately only one bullet had been fired, the gunman had been quickly subdued, by his – what would you call them? Colleagues? Friends? I don’t know what you would call them. Where they from the same platoon? I did not know and would never know.

The train was driven back to Haifa station, and by then an army of police had descended and where waiting to take the “terrorist” away. Except of course it was quickly made apparent there was no terrorist, just a young girl un- wrapping the Palestinian flag and a young boy who had misread the situation.

That was all he was, a boy, who had been given a gun by a faceless Government official in the name of national security and he thought that made him a man. Now he was standing there shaking and sobbing, a wild look on his face. The girl who unfolded the Palestinian flag stood calmly watching. Her lips closed as if she knew that whatever she said would be wrong, misinterpreted or would make the situation worse.

One of the police officers spoke to me in English. I told him what I knew. What I had seen. I told him how shocked I was that a soldier could just open fire in a public place like a terrorist.

He shrugged his shoulder and said, “These things happen. This is Israel. This is the life. She shouldn’t have waved the Palestinian flag.”

“She didn’t.” I corrected him. “She merely unwrapped it.”

Once again, the officer shrugged. I was used to the tough Israel way of speaking, but his indifference still unnerved me a little bit. “As you obviously are not hurt I will get someone to take you back to your apartment. Where are you staying?”

I knew there would be no further communication from the Haifa police. That was that, nobody had died nobody was hurt. What will happen if I was to suffer from PTSD? I almost asked and then thought better of it.

“I can walk thank you.” I coldly replied. “I am staying across the road.”

I was literally a four , maybe five-minute walk away. From where I was standing, I could see the date palm trees that lined the small street where my apartment balcony looked down on.

I walked back through the army of police cars and vans that were slowly preparing to depart, now that they knew nothing more was required of them.

Why did she unwrap the flag I wondered? Was it a gift that she did not realise the importance of until it was too late? On the other hand, had she played a clever psychological gambit? Not an act of violence but an act of defiance? Defiance thinly veiled in a flag.

As I walked, back to my apartment the sun was now at its zenith. I could feel the heat burning my skin. Just a five-minute walk and Israel was leaving its mark on me.

What of course was less apparent at the time but would stay with me longer then the suntan on my face was one young girl’s innocent or not so innocent act of unwrapping the Palestinian flag on a train  from Haifa to Accra.

I lay down on the bed my head was banging and I felt a faint burning on the side of my cheek. When I washed my face later that evening, my cheek was stinging; looking in the mirror, I could see a very fine line, a burn mark. It was a sobering thought to realise how close the bullet had been to my face.

That evening I switched the TV on for the news. There was no mention of the incident on the train in Haifa. There had been stabbings, shootings and riots across Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Scenes of Palestinian youths being surrounded and kicked down onto their knees by armed Israeli soldiers. In one incident, a youth had stabbed two Israelis before being shot dead by armed police. I recognised Jaffa Gate and remembered my first walk through in to the old city back in 1987. Three days later the uprising called the Intifada began.

No nothing had changed. The world we live in now is just the same as the one that I grew up in. It is not the world. The people in it need to change.

For many months after I returned home, my hearing was badly affected by the incident, speaking on phones in my job as a credit controller became challenging. I was constantly straining to hear a voice down the line that would have previously been very clear. However, I remained silent about it. I felt I had no right to complain for I had gone to the terrorist capital of the world, Israel/Palestine. Now of course with the wave of terrorist attacks we live with here it is apparent we do not need to travel far to be affected by random acts of violence or even perhaps the innocuous action of unwrapping a flag on a train.

I would never know what happened to the girl or to the soldier. I trawled through many newspapers and internet news sites, nothing, there was no mention of the incident on the train again. Until now.

In the light of recent events with Trump, I see the Palestinian flag on the news, and on Facebook, and I am can see the little red triangle, in the middle, like a warning to swimmers at sea. Danger.

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