It was the first code red siren we had heard in our community. The noise caught all of us by surprise. I hurried back to our house to make sure everyone was okay as the wail of the siren penetrated the stillness of the evening. Our youngest children had just fallen asleep and when I entered the house; my wife was with all five of our children in the boys’ room, which was not built to withstand a missile hit. One boy was crying, and another, who had been woken up by the siren, was laughing.
“Itai, stop laughing, it isn’t funny,” someone said.
But I encouraged his laughter. After all, this was his way of coping.
The siren quieted and we waited the ten obligatory minutes until the chance of being hit by any fallen shrapnel subsided. My wife put the kids to sleep again and life began to return to normal.
That siren changed our lives. Maale Hever, our community of 69 families, which lies just south of Hevron, is so isolated that none of us had ever considered it a possible target. Hevron itself has only 80,000 Arabs and so the idea of wasting rockets in our direction seemed preposterous. I had boasted many times that we were the safest place in Israel.
My wife and I had moved to Maale Hever seven years ago. We wanted an idealistic environment – one with a small community where everyone feels part of a larger family. We fell in love with the community on our first visit, and even though we knew we were moving to an “isolated settlement” deep in the heart of what the World considers “occupied territory,” the surrounding hills, the view of the Dead Sea Valley and the closeness of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron - which is the second holiest site to the Jewish people - drew us in. The community quickly became our permanent home.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” One of our family members asked us shortly after the move. We assured them there was no need to worry and explained that the local rabble-rousers had not caused trouble in a long time.
“But the drive, it goes through some of the worse areas.”
It was true, South of Gush Etzion, where highway 60 winds through the Arab villages of El Aroub, Beit Omar and Halhoul, was nothing to joke about. Rock attacks abound and depending on the mood of the Arab street, it can be very unsafe to drive through. Still, we had felt confident in our decision and quickly grew accustomed to our new home.
“Have you heard about the three boys that were kidnapped?” My wife had asked me as I walked back from some errands in nearby Kiryat Arba/Hevron nearly a month before we heard our first siren. “What are you talking about?” I replied. The news had a gag order, but our community’s email list was ripe with information since one of the kidnap victims had attended Shavei Hevron yeshiva deep in the heart of ancient Hevron, where many of our community’s residents currently taught. Sure enough, the gag order was lifted shortly before Shabbat and all of Israel began 18 days of searching, hoping and pulling together.
Israel and the Jewish people have had their fair share of tragedies and during the Oslo Accords - a peace process that never worked out well - over 1,000 Israelis had been killed. Somehow these three boys were different. Something deep in the soul of the country had finally broken, and with it, the belief that peace could ever be established with a society that not only could commit such an egregious crime, but could then openly encourage its citizens to support their misdeed.
In the 18 days following the boys being found dead near Halhoul, the national psyche seemed to finally leave Oslo behind for good. The rockets that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others were firing during the years after we pulled every Jew from Gaza only served to physically solidify the transition away from the peace process.
“I want Israel to rule over us again,” Monir said, his Arabic accent smoothing the words. I had been between jobs at this time and was working with my neighbor's Arab construction workers on a few projects. Monir lived in South Hevron and was the manager of the Arabs on the work site. He built only for Jews and even built synagogues, a project that had been banned by many sheiks. Monir opened up to me on breaks and we often discussed religion and politics.
“Why do you want our army to rule?” I inquired.
“Because we know you won’t steal our money the way the Palestinian Authority does. In the days before Oslo we could travel where we wanted to. Work where we wanted to. It was better then.”
I had heard this sentiment before and many local Arabs continue to utter these words privately for fear of being killed by Abbas’ Fatah, which is funded by American tax money.
A few years after this conversation, a state department official visited our community to learn more about how the settlers viewed the situation. I challenged him about allying with Fatah. “Why do you support thugs who steal money from innocent Arabs?” I asked.
He gave no answer, nor could he. I had realized long before that when Western powers interject themselves into local conflicts they have no connection with, more harm than good is caused. By admitting this to me, he would have no reason for being in Israel or holding his position.
“I don’t think we should go to the U.S. now,” I said to my wife. We had been planning a trip to visit family and our tickets were for that Sunday, which was four days after our community heard its first siren. “How can we go when we are at war?”
“I am torn,” she responded. “Maybe you’re right.”
At the end, we decided to leave, hoping the burgeoning war would end and our neighbors that had been called up to the reserves would return home. Our Shabbat before the trip seemed to be passing quietly. We were awaiting the end, when we could check the news and see what had happened, which cities were hit and what the Israel Defense Forces was doing. After all, Hamas had been pounding Tel Aviv, Rishon LeZion, and even as far North as Zichron Yaakov, just days before. We still considered our only siren to be a fluke, a missile aimed for Be'er Sheva that went off course.
We were wrong. Another siren blasted through the Shabbat sky. We woke the children that were sleeping, grabbed the dog and ran into the room that we had prepared after the last siren. This siren seemed to continue without stopping and within the noise, we heard booms close by. “What about Leah? We need to find Leah,” my wife screamed. Our daughter was at Bnei Akiva, her youth group.
“She’ll be fine,” I responded.
We waited the allotted time, then left the room and put the kids to sleep. Our daughter returned home after Shabbat. That night we finished packing, still wondering about our trip. There was no cancelling this close to departure. The next morning we drove out of our community and headed to the airport. Would there be missiles falling on us? Would our flight leave on time?
We thought about a lot of things as we drove down to Beit Shemesh and up Route 1 to the airport. My wife and I knew it was just a trip and that we could follow the news in America, but we also knew that our home and our country was being attacked. Both of us wanted to just get through the trip so we could return and reconnect with our large extended family we call Israel.
People often ask me if I believe there will be peace between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I never know what to say. I used to think it was possible. That in many ways it was about going local and working at the ground up instead of working through the politicians, but now I believe the root of the conflict is not whether or not Palestinians have a state. It is far more basic than that. When the world agrees to my right as a Jew to live in my house in my ancestral homeland regardless of political boundaries (instead of insisting that my house be razed because I am Jewish) and the Arabs realize that Jews are in the Middle East to stay and that they can no longer afford to waste resources on trying to drive us into the sea. Then and only then will there be a chance at peace.
David Mark lives in Israel, South of Hevron with his wife and five kids. He is the founder and CEO of FlockMiner and SERPIntelligence and serves as a member of his local community council tasked with Arab-Jewish relations in the surrounding area.