Not too long ago, my friend and I snuck onto a beach reserved for the residents of a moshav 10 minutes south of Haifa. The idea that we were infiltrating (at least in someone’s view) a Jewish settlement to sunbathe didn’t burden me. I don’t believe a beach can be “private property.” Besides, after a year in pandemic-stricken New York, there was nothing on my mind but the Mediterranean.
The day was turning orange and a little less humid, offering up one of those rare drives when you ignore your phone to pay attention to the passing topography, stunning and sometimes foreign. I wanted to spray-paint a footnote on the trunk of every invasive tree, citing the destroyed villages those trees were planted to conceal. Instead, the Egyptian music blasting on the radio hypnotized us both. I could almost forget that two hours from here, the world was ablaze.
One hundred and fifty-two kilometers from Haifa, my neighborhood in Jerusalem had become a “flash point,” as Western publications called it, where we, with our fireworks and plastic chairs, “clashed” with helpless Zionist settlers. Never mind that said settlers walked around our street with rifles. Never mind that Sheikh Jarrah was a war zone confined inside the barricades the military had erected along its edges.
Spectacular violence and resistance had been the status quo for months—a chaos of cameras and stones and overfamiliar batons. Week after week, protesters were bloodied, then devoured by the Israeli prison system. Occupation officers threw gas canisters and stun grenades into our front yards, and the brave among us would kick them back like soccer balls.
During that time, I developed a slight tremble in my hands, of which I was ashamed. My mother promptly noticed and exaggerated it, then begged me to leave—“to go to Ramallah” and come back in a few days. I admit I didn’t need much persuasion. One can take only so many sound bombs before they become insufferable.
So I decided to go to the beach—one in a gated moshav, no less.
A moshav is a type of Zionist settlement that emerged during the British colonization of Palestine; the first one, Nahalal, was built in 1921 in Marj Ibn Amir, in the north of Palestine. Moshavim are similar to kibbutzim in the sense that they are agricultural communities. The difference is that settlers in a moshav own farms individually as well as the products of those farms, while those in a kibbutz produce crops communally. The reality, however, is that most moshavim and kibbutzim today rely on Palestinian labor.
As we drove through the metal gate of the settlement, I sounded out the Hebrew word on a street sign. “Danger,” my friend translated. Then another sign, in English, that read: “NO BEACH ACCESS.” We gave each other knowing looks, as if to say we knew the sign was a lie, and moved on.
We were welcomed by hundreds of banana trees towering inside massive greenhouses, or “shade nests,” as I later learned to call them. Then a rainbow flag, a blond woman in tie-dye, and palm-draped houses reminiscent of Floridian suburbia. My friend turned to me: “Liberal Zionists, they got some of the best lands in the country.”
Colors in the moshav were a little bit brighter than in Sheikh Jarrah. The sidewalks were well-kept, and the concrete looked like it hadn’t yet set. I imagined that problems here were a breeze to solve—no nine-meter-high concrete walls fracturing families, no trigger-happy cops. There were no batons here, no one boiling with rage or sleeping in their shoes in case settlers attacked. Yes, some had to run to a bomb shelter when Hezbollah “rained rockets” across the border in 2006. But for the most part, the settlers here were barefoot and carefree.
I couldn’t stop comparing their lives and ours, the colonizers and the colonized. I thought of my house, once famous for its garden, where newlyweds took pictures, my late aunt liked to boast; it was now “wallowing in the mire,” as Fanon put it. Our fruit trees, repeatedly showered by “skunk” cannon trucks, made the analogy all the more pungent.
Then I looked at their homes, engulfed in a serenity of sorts, surrounded by jasmine bushes and sea daffodils. Children biking under a sky never polluted with white phosphorus. A dog park, a horse stable, and not an eviction notice in sight. All a short walk from the water. Yes, I knew all the reasons for this serenity, the brutal ways they had secured this land, and I could explain to the ignorant precisely the kinds of exploitation necessary to achieve the life they live at the moshav. But suddenly, all those words dragged their miserable syllables behind them and disappeared. I stood in the sunlight, giving this settler town a lustful look.
Getting to the beach was no easy feat. The concrete stopped at some point, forcing the car to wrestle the rutty dirt road, barely visible under a blanket of wildflowers and tall grass. It was mazelike, leading to a narrow tunnel under some railroad tracks. We arrived a few minutes later and parked next to the only other car there.
Once I saw the sea, it was, at the risk of hyperbole, possibly the best sight I’d ever seen. No adjective can describe it. The beach was vaster than vast, and the moshav owned all of it, or at least they believed they did. I thought to myself: Of course they stole it—who wouldn’t want to steal this shard of paradise?
My head went to the occupied West Bank, where many Palestinian elders will meet their coffins before they ever meet the coast. Unlike my blue ID, their green IDs don’t permit them to exit the West Bank. (Weeks after this trip, another friend at another beach took a break from swimming to describe witnessing one of his friends’ first encounters with the Mediterranean after three decades of living). I often think about how painful beach trips were for my paternal grandmother, Rifqa. She couldn’t wait to get home—unable to confront what was once hers.
My grandmother moved to Haifa from Jerusalem after marrying my grandfather, Said, in the early 1930s. They owned a successful restaurant on the Haifa Port and a sizable house not far from it. “An enviable life,” she often told me. Enviable until the 1948 Nakba, when the Zionists dispossessed almost all of Haifa’s Palestinian population. My grandfather was among the many men and boys imprisoned by the Haganah, one of the Zionist militias that later formed the Israeli military. He was released after nine months to find himself a refugee without a dime to his name.
My grandmother never let us forget all of their stolen glory. She’d spend her nights bitterly reminiscing about all that she’d lost. Who could blame her? She went from an “enviable life” to a daily serving of lentil porridge. Even I am resentful when I think about the comfortable life I could have lived. If it weren’t for the Nakba, I could’ve had it all: the beachfront views, the peace of mind, the classist attitude.
Haifa today isn’t what it used to be. It is a world entirely different from mine in Jerusalem, to say nothing of the glamorous one my grandmother grieved. Israeli rule in Haifa has meant that the Palestinians who weren’t successfully removed have lived a life of persecution, wrestling with colonial violence and national erasure. And those who were forced to flee? Staring out at the sea, I wondered where they ended up. Are they in a refugee camp in Beirut, telling their grandchildren stories of balconies overlooking the Mediterranean? Can they smell the sea from their homes in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank, behind dozens of military barriers? Do they refuse to leave Jerusalem for fear of confronting what had become of their home? Or are they confined in the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip? How many states can exist inside one state?
We found a place to sit on the pale sand. I wanted, for the few hours I was there, to avoid any news about my neighborhood. Seeing distressing images of your loved ones on the Internet is an experience no one can get used to. Or seeing videos of soldiers ransacking your home while you’re away—you feel not only helpless but selfish for not being there. Not to mention how many times the news of the killing of a Palestinian is interrupted by the martyrdom of another. So I decided not to check my phone. A hostile feeling of guilt snuck up on me regardless, but I managed to momentarily shoo it away with the occasional joke and lukewarm drink.
For hours, my friend and I talked about God knows what. We exchanged writing and, when the wind permitted, rolled cigarettes for each other. As time passed, more Israelis began to show up—they all seemed to know one another. Some swam, others sunbathed. A few men rode by on their horses. A group of women were doing yoga a couple hundred meters away from us, and to their right were some parachute surfers. All the while, Sheikh Jarrah was burning in the distance.
The scene reminded me of the time, a week before, when my friends and I were getting tear-gassed at a protest in Jerusalem and saw two men in neon tracksuits jogging on the opposite end of the street. I knew they were foreigners because no Palestinian runs in Jerusalem unless they’re asking to be stopped and frisked. They took a moment to raise their eyebrows before continuing on their way, headphones still in. We were again in different states—meters from each other.
I got up for a swim, disrupting the burrowing ghost crabs as I stomped toward the water. The Mediterranean was warm and inviting, sometimes too inviting. Its waves broke against my body with a pulling sensation, a sort of eager embrace. My mother has often warned me that the sea is treacherous. And indeed, I quickly retreated to our spot when a couple of sharp stings on my leg declared the beginning of jellyfish season—a nuisance that almost consoled me, the light rain on this settler parade.
My friend was gazing to his left when I got back. “That’s where the mass grave is,” he told me, pointing to what had been the village of Al-Tantura in the foggy distance, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. “Radwa Ashour wrote about that massacre in her book Al-Tanturiah.”
“My grandmother told me about it when I was young,” I replied, “but no one cares until an Israeli tells the story.” (I was more prescient than I realized: This past December, an Israeli documentary called Tantura made its US debut, garnering generally positive reviews as a “damning exposé” in which ex-soldiers debuted “chilling revelations” about the birth of the Zionist state that had never before been uttered, apparently.)
Now and then, a beachgoer would ask us who we were and what we wanted. Sometimes they explicitly asked if we were “Arabs.” My friend responded to them, sometimes telling the truth in perfect Hebrew, sometimes a fictional anecdote in which we were Italian exchange students. Whether their questions were paranoid or simply curious was irrelevant and uninteresting to me. Not once did I look away from the horizon; I was at the beach, and only temporarily.
We left shortly after sunset. I was eager to return to my neighborhood but embarrassed by the salty scent that lingered on my clothes. On our drive back to Jerusalem, I checked my phone to read through the news. A headline from Arab48 read: “Arrests in a ‘Security Operation’ South of Haifa for Alleged ‘Terror Activities.’” Israeli police had detained a few Palestinian men at the moshav’s entrance approximately an hour before we left it. We were lucky we weren’t terrorists that day.