Why I met the man who tried to kill me

Arthur Nelson writes: On 26 May 2009, I had finished an interview at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City and was taking photographs outside for a book I was writing about Palestinian identity. Visitors to the Strip were few and far between then, especially after the kidnap of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston by Palestinian militants in 2007. I’d worked with Alan at the BBC World Service, and after his abduction I put off going to Gaza for as long as I could. But after his release, and then Israel’s bombing campaign and invasion the following winter, I needed to return. Mental health groups were reporting an epidemic of post-traumatic stress sweeping the Strip that no book about Palestinian identity could ignore.

That day as I crouched, snapping away, a finger tapped my back. I turned and hauled myself up to see a young, trim-bearded man in a red bandanna, smiling from ear to ear. He looked so pleased to see me that I automatically smiled back and said, “Ahlan wa sahlan” (“Greetings”). But the man, whom I will call Khalid, seemed in a trance. Still smiling, he held up a long, red-and-white-handled dagger. Then he unsheathed the blade, raised it above his head and plunged it towards my chest. A split-second of dissonance between the smile and the dagger broke with a jolt as I spun around and sprinted off down the street, yelling for help.

Palestinians are famously welcoming to foreign visitors, sometimes embarrassingly so. But this time, as if in a nightmare, everyone I passed on the street seemed to ripple towards the walls, which were high, ringed with barbed wire and had no doors. In my initial dash, I had got about 10 yards on Khalid, but he was younger than me, determined, and inexorably catching up. After 200 metres, I stopped at a road junction, unable to run farther without exhausting myself beyond any hope of self-defence.

As I shouted and pleaded for help from frightened-looking strangers, a bearded man peeped out from behind a doorway and frantically ushered me into a security compound. From inside, a Hamas policeman in a black uniform barged past me, the door swung shut behind him and two gunshots exploded deafeningly on the street outside. More officers spilled out after him, one offering me his pistol as he went – I declined – and Khalid was quickly overpowered and arrested.

Despite my lack of physical injury, I didn’t sleep well after the attack. Death seemed to be everywhere and I would jump at the sound of a banged door. It felt as if someone had turned up the contrast and colour on the outside world. I feared that Khalid was an al-Qaida-style jihadist, but friends said he had been taken to a psychiatric hospital. So I carried on interviewing psychiatrists, taxi drivers and tunnel engineers, but tried to stay off the streets and began varying my daily routines.

The rumour that Khalid had been released began a week after the attack. Gaza’s Hamas government often let Salafist offenders go, to assuage national-religious sentiments among its members, to convince them it was not going soft on the Islam agenda and to prevent more radical challenges to their authority. But if that also meant that Khalid wasn’t mentally ill, my environment was suddenly more dangerous.

A Gazan journalist I knew went to the psychiatric hospital to inquire about Khalid’s case for a possible story. She was berated by the clinic’s director for her lack of Islamic dress and questioned as to why she was helping a non-Muslim. Khalid had already been freed. For a few days after that, I carried a pair of scissors in my back pocket, in case of another attack. They would not have helped much, but I felt an acute sense of vulnerability.

Hamas had an interest in protecting internationals, and its officers had saved my life. But there was an unpredictable element in the mix. The interior minister, Fathi Hamad, knew that I was Jewish from a disastrous interview the year before, which he had used instead to interrogate me about my motives for not converting to Islam. The cops who arrested Khalid also knew I was Jewish. My statement after the attack had been a straightforward affair, until the translating officer was asked to read my full name from my passport. A long pause followed his recitation of my second name, Isaac. “What?” the chief officer queried, and asked for my name to be repeated. The translator did so, using “Yitzhak” – a Hebraised version of Isaac. A longer and much more uncomfortable silence followed, before the officer asked for my address in Gaza. Shortly after that, two Hamas secret policemen took up a permanent presence in a car outside my apartment. It had never been much of a reassurance, but with Khalid’s release it began to feel sinister.

When the border crossing at Erez reopened a few days later, I made a beeline for the exit, my interviews unfinished, never expecting to return. But the question of who Khalid was, and what circumstances led him to the UN building that day, stayed with me. It was a bit like walking out of a paranoid Hollywood thriller before the end. My political sympathies were definitively with the Palestinians, but the murder in Gaza of the pro-Palestinian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in April 2011 – apparently by would-be jihadists – demonstrated that this was no guarantee of safety. Khalid’s smiling face was a blank canvas on to which I could project orientalist fears. But I did not want to live like that. And if Khalid was not a Salafi jihadist, I did not need to. So I launched my own inquiry. [Continue reading…]

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