Gangnam Style, Hebron style

I saw some surreal things when I was working as a human rights observer in the Palestinian city of Hebron last summer. But a video which surfaced on YouTube this week showing two Israeli soldiers – that is, soldiers from the Israeli army who for more than four decades have occupied Hebron and the rest of the West Bank – wandering into a Palestinian wedding and start dancing with the crowd is far beyond anything I witnessed with my own eyes.

Here is the clip:

The video shows two Israeli soldiers entering the marquee  – they were on patrol, but were apparently drawn in after hearing the sound of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’  – and start dancing with the revelers. And not just kind of dancing. By the end of the clip, one soldier is sitting on the shoulders of a Palestinian man, grooving around and waving his gun in the air like it’s a toy made of hollow plastic. In those moments, the tip of his gun – which carries live rounds – swings aimlessly between the heads of those dancing.

The raucous crowd – all men – seem to welcome the soldiers. And for a few seconds, they’re all just young men, pumped on testosterone, dancing to a pop song. (And not just any pop song; the pop song whose ability to bring us all together for a moment of shared silliness has racked it up YouTube hits getting on for a quarter of the planet.)

Even if you factor in – as you absolutely must – the principle dynamic operating here, which is that these young Israeli soldiers wield outrageous power over these young Palestinian men – it’s still a glinting moment of shared… I don’t know, shared something.

And that’s the tempting thing to say about this video: that it shows how, beneath it all, our common humanity runs deeper than whatever divides us – and that even amid the infinite complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations, a simple pop song can tap into that. Or perhaps it would be were it not for the fact that the entire Israeli patrol got suspended after the video emerged, as the Israeli website +972 mag reported.

I have no place speculating what this surreal episode says about bored young Israeli soldiers, about Palestinians living under occupation, about the prospect of co-existence, or anything else for that matter. It’s profoundly beyond the boundaries of my knowledge and experience.

All I can say is this: having monitored these young Israeli soldiers every day for three months, having seen them humiliate Palestinian men, women and children at checkpoints, having seen them mockingly make the Islamic call to prayer through their loudspeakers during Ramadan, and knowing that they shot dead the cousin of our translator a few months after we left; and meanwhile having chatted with some of these soldiers and heard them say they hate what they do and can’t wait to finish their national service and go study literature or philosophy, or train to be a social worker, or go traveling – anything but follow these insane orders to suppress an entire population; having heard some of them say that the occupation “sucks” but what can they do about it, and others say they had relatives killed by Palestinian suicide bombers during the Second Intifada – all I can say for certain is that beneath the instantly recognisable sounds of Gangnam Style beats a darker and far more enduring rhythm of mistrust and grievance and suffering which everyone in Hebron – whether Israeli teenagers with machine guns bussed in from Tel Aviv, or proud elderly Palestinian Hebronite men who have watched their city suffocate since the sixties – is shaped by in ways I can’t imagine.

So I could offer up some ridiculous theory about how Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians will finally crumble as social media unites both peoples around innocent memes like Gangnam Style. In fact, I really do hope that is what happens. But I suspect the reality is that it’s going to take much, much more than that to bring peace and justice to Hebron.

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