It was cold when I landed in Tel Aviv; by the time I made it to Jerusalem, it was snowing. As he picked his way through dense traffic, Munir, my driver-turned-guide-turned-friend, said it was the coldest weather and the first snow he knew of in over a decade. It was the perfect preamble to the most important travel of my life.
The wonders and horrors I saw during my time in Israel and Palestine are too numerous to speak of in their entirety. Horrible injustice flanked by amazing resilience was the theme- no matter whether I was in the Holocaust Museum or a Palestinian refugee camp; no matter whether I was speaking with an Israeli settler or Yasser Arafat’s former bodyguard. In a trip full of once in a lifetime experiences, sights, and interviews, a single moment was so chilling and ethereal that I still relive it in dreams.
South of Jerusalem, outside of Bethlehem (or Beit Jala) sits Aida refugee camp. It is famously photographed due to its proximity to the separation wall and the large, corrugated steel key hung above its gate- a symbol of the refugees hope to return home. I approached the camp by foot- picking my way along the crest of a hill while looking at the graffiti on the separation wall. Cameras followed the small cluster of people with whom I traveled. Soldiers undoubtedly stared down from behind the one-way, bulletproof glass of the towers. I was used to that by this point. At one point I took a sharp turn around a seemingly random extension of the wall. A shrine or a seized house or a water source was likely on the other side. When I began to wind through a cemetery which held the generations who had lived and died in Aida, the sky was gray against the orange sandstone, and a mix of snow and rain was falling. A call to prayer began to play over a loudspeaker inside the camp; it washed over us in an odd harmony as it echoed back and forth between the speaker, the tombs, and the separation wall. People inside the camp quickly took their leave for prayer.
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur. Most of our team was silent for the better part of the afternoon and evening- despite a hearty meal and a much-needed beer. I remember the camp, the children, more interviews, and the Israeli military boarding our transportation for what felt like the twentieth time, but I most clearly remember that moment in the cemetery. I think and hope I always will.