Snow in Jerusalem

Nathan W. Toronto

June 15, 2021

I used to think that snow in Jerusalem was odd, but it has snowed here every winter since peace broke out. At least some call it peace. I call it barely suppressed violence, but it is the closest thing to peace the city has known in recent memory.

There is a State of Palestine, with its capital in the eastern portion of the city, and there are no more suicide bombs or rockets terrorizing the Israelis. There are still knifings and other such attacks, and many people are still fixed on hatred, but the so-called peace has held. For four winters it has held.

Some say that there is a connection between the snow and the peace, that God sent it as punishment. All I know is that I have to walk through it every winter to get to work.

The hill from the Silwan neighborhood, where I used to live, to the Old City—al-baldeh al-qadeemeh—is steep. The snow makes it slippery. The sandstone-paved approach to bab al-magharibeh, the closest gate into al-baldeh, can be treacherous if the snow melts in the Jerusalem sun then freezes overnight.

If the snow has brought peace, it is not a divine punishment. It is much more personal than that.

* * *

I cannot say why we have peace, only why I no longer care for the war. For four years, I have gone to my police job every day, done what they told me, and collected my paycheck. They mostly pay me on time. I do not like dealing with the snow, just like I do not care for Jerusalem-crazed tourists or the Israeli Jews that disrespect me because I am Arab.

I never asked to be a part of the Joint Border Police in al-baldeh, but the politicians signed the peace deal, and they agreed that there would be a Joint Border Police. I speak passable English, and I am registered as a Christian, so I was told that if I wanted to keep a government job in Palestine, I had to work in the JBP.

It is not always helpful to be a Christian in Palestine.

All communication in the JBP is in English. They say that this makes it easier for Palestinians and Israelis to cooperate, but after four years of working with the Israelis, in English, I do not believe that speaking in English makes it easier. But I don’t care, as long as I can provide for my wife and children.

In the fifth year after peace, I got a new Israeli partner, Avi ben Shlomo. He is an annoyance, like the snow, that I tolerate. He probably shot at some relative of mine during the last intifada. Maybe he was even the one who shot my cousin in the leg in ar-Ram. My cousin spent a week in Hadasseh Hospital, and still walks with a limp. My partner is about the right age to have done his army service then, and he mentioned once that he served in the West Bank. He calls it Judea and Samaria.

The similarity in our names is a cruel irony. I am Ibrahim. He is Avraham. To avoid thinking about how we have the same name, he calls me Abu Sami, since my eldest son is Sami. I call him Avi, but only to his face and to my superiors. Depending on the Palestinians with whom I am speaking, I call him “my Israeli partner” or “my co-worker” or—if it is someone who might have a connection to Hamas—“the Jews.” I do not hate him—I am a Christian, so I hate no one—but I do find it difficult to tolerate him.

* * *

One morning, in the fifth year after peace, I trudged up the hill to bab al-magharibeh. I made it all the way up the hill and through the gate into al-baldeh, and stood in the security line to enter the plaza beneath al-Aqsa Mosque, the place the Israeli Jews call ha-kotel. The wait was long, and after I got through, in my haste to get to work, I slipped on the icy sandstone.

Embarrassed, I picked myself up, brushed the mud off my wet rump, and hurried across the plaza, more careful now about my footing. I headed to my assigned station in the Armenian Quarter. I heard snickers from black-clad Jews on the way. I do not understand much Hebrew, but it’s easy to tell when people make fun of you.

The snickering did not stop when I got to work. Hamzeh, a Palestinian from Ramallah, and Abdullah, an Israeli Arab, were the only other Arabs I worked with, and neither of them had arrived at the station yet.

The three Jewish police officers at the station broke into broad smiles when I passed by. I could tell that Yitzhak fought to keep down a laugh. “What happen to you, Abu Sami?”

Yitzhak was a peacenik, and I knew he intended no malice, so I ignored him.

Yo’av, though, he rarely had a kind word for us Arabs. He nodded in my direction and smirked. “The snow is wet, no?”

Avi, my partner, shook his head and kept smiling, which made my blood rise. Hamzeh and Abdullah arrived just at that moment. They did not smile. They saw my serious face. Then Yitzhak and Yo’av stopped smiling, and Avi began to cast nervous looks from them to us and back. Thick tension filled the air, like bedouin coffee poured into tiny porcelain cups, full of stickiness and steam.

Would Hamzeh and Abdullah think the Israelis were harassing me? This would create problems for all of us, so I forced myself to chuckle a little bit. At that, the other five began laughing, all a little uneasy. I sighed with relief. No need to endanger my job over some wet pants.

After the laughter died down and the moment passed, Yitzhak gave a fake smile and asked in his optimistic, peacenik voice, “Who is in charge this week?”

We all gathered around the schedule on the wall. I shivered a bit from the cold. Yo’av looked at the schedule and said, in his harsh voice, “Abu Sami this week.”

Hamzeh put his hands on his hips and asked, in his English learned in an UNRWA school in Am’ari Camp, “When will this silly rule end, with Arab and Jew change to be in charge each week?”

“It depends,” Abdullah said, “on whether one can bear to have the other in charge all the time.”

Yo’av turned a cold eye on Abdullah, his disdain for the Israeli Arab plain. “Or if the Arabs can bear to have the Jews in charge?”

Hamzeh moved closer to Abdullah. His eyebrow curled up in challenge. “Jews in charge all times.”

Another uncomfortable silence filled the station. Would we ever tire of this tension?

Yo’av’s nostrils flared. He was always quickest to anger. Until the peace, his family had lived in a settlement outside Ariel, which is now in Palestine. He says there are probably Arabs living in his house now.

I glared at Hamzeh. He returned my glare at first, but then his face softened. “I’m sorry,” he said, and sighed. “My brother hit by car last night, and it having Israeli plates. They did not find responsible one.”

“I hope he will be all right,” said Yitzhak, a hand on Hamzeh’s shoulder.

I breathed easy again, even though there was much left unsaid. The driver of the car could have been a hamsawi—a Hamas terrorist—posing as an Israeli, getting at Hamzeh’s family for his work. It could have been a radical Israeli settler, trying to create havoc between Palestinians and Israelis. The fact of the matter was that Hamzeh’s family might never find justice, but we couldn’t worry about that in the JBP.

We had a rule to help avoid tension: no one should say anything accusatory. This was not a JBP rule, this was our rule, among the six of us. Hamzeh broke it and, thankfully, he retracted his comment before it was too late. This rule did more to help Jews and Arabs cooperate than the silly rule that said we should always speak English.

Before we went on patrol, Avi motioned me into the back room. The other four had already left.

What now?

When we got to the back room, to my great surprise he held up a pair of his clean, dry pants. “They probably do not fit, but they are dry.”

I gave him a questioning glance, and he continued, “I have a spare uniform here, just in case.” Avi lived in the Armenian Quarter, so it was never any trouble for him to take bundles to and from home, since he didn’t have to go through a checkpoint. His family had probably long ago displaced some non-Jewish family in order to live in al-baldeh, but I tried not to think about it. Given the circumstances, I wasn’t in a position to express my annoyance.

“Why you do this?” I asked. My surprise was genuine. I did not think that my Israeli partner cared about my well being.

He laughed a little, “My friends will laugh at me because my station commander wet his pants.”

I kicked myself. How silly of me to think he actually cared.

We went out on patrol. A chill stood on the winter air.

* * *

Later that week, I returned the so-called favor, but without meaning to. It began snowing again, and we stood watch at Damascus Gate, looking for suspicious people going in or out. Yo’av and Hamzeh were stationed on the battlements above the gate, looking at those leaving, and Avi and I stood just outside the dog-leg in the Gate, our eyes scanning those flowing into al-baldeh from the steps cascading down from Sultan Suleiman Street.

Our two Jewish-Arab partner teams had been switching posts all day, and the light from the setting sun, purple behind gray clouds, began to recede from the plaza between New Gate and Damascus Gate.

A wrinkled old man hobbled up to us with the patient determination that marks the aged in this part of the world. His knowing gaze fixed on Avi, and it spoke volumes. He could tell that I was an Arab and my partner was a Jew, even though we were both dressed in identical uniforms and body armor and carried identical weapons.

He sneered at Avi, sixty-five years of wizened venom in his eyes. “Qird yahudi.”

I could tell that Avi did not understand the Arabic: “Jewish monkey.” Still, Avi heard the hatred in the old man’s voice. Avi’s face grew red, and anger brewed in his eyes. He blew threatening clouds of steam towards the old man.

Then the old man spat in Avi’s face. Instinctively, I reached out to grasp Avi’s arm, knowing that this old man wanted only to provoke a disproportionate reaction. I also did not want to see this old man, who probably enjoyed great respect among his friends and family, mishandled by an Israeli Jew. “No, Avi. No.”

Avi’s head whipped around, his glare on me. Steaming spit dripped down his cheek. I took my own handkerchief from my pocket and offered it to him.

“He wants you hit him,” I said.

Maybe it was because I was in command that week, or because the man was old and mostly harmless, or because we had learned over and over again in our training that violence in cases like this was not useful. But Avi did not hit the man, or shove him, but I was sure he wanted to. I would have wanted to.

Avi shouted something at the man in fast Hebrew, right in the old man’s face. I decided then and there not to note the incident in the day’s report. The old man stood there, that determined hatred on his face.

People stopped, tourists, merchants, and beggars. A crowd formed. The tension rose, so I put my arm in front of Avi, my back to the old man, breaking the space between them. A vein on Avi’s neck stood out, prominent.

“No, Avi,” I said.

Behind the anger in Avi’s eyes, I saw fear. How must it have been for Avi, a lone Jew at the main entrance to the Muslim Quarter, with none but a Christian Arab to rely on for support? I scanned the crowd of onlookers. There were probably people there who would do Avi harm, in the right circumstances.

I did not worry for Avi’s safety, because the cameras had good sight lines here, but I couldn’t let Avi escalate the situation. I did not want his fear to do violence that would only serve those who wanted this peace to fail. This would only make life worse for people like me, for my family.

I kept my arm in front of him, my eyes on him, as calm as I could force myself to be. My other hand, the one on my weapon, trembled violently.

Then I heard a crack, and sharp pain seared through my arm. I whirled to find the source.

The old man had brought his cane down on the middle of my forearm, his undeterred hatred now fixed on me. “’Amil,” he said. The calm in his voice stood in odd contrast to the fire in his eyes. “Collaborator.”

Me, a collaborator? The insult “collaborator” was reserved for the lowest of the low in Palestinian society, those who sold out family and friends to the Zionists. Collaborators were dragged out into the street and shot, their bodies hung in prominent places to deter any who were contemplating a similar plan. It was even illegal in Palestine to pass information to the Israeli government, even though this law was rarely enforced officially. I myself fought the Zionists in my youth. No, I could not be a collaborator.

My temper got the better of me. I screamed at the man, in Arabic, and forgot all deference to his years. I stabbed my finger into my own chest. “Who organized the Silwan boys to throw stones at the Zionist soldiers during the intifada? Me! When Zionist tanks rolled into Nablus, who helped organize the march to al-baldeh? Me! Who went to an Israeli prison for demonstrating against the occupation? Me! And you accuse me of being a collaborator? Impossible!”

Then, as suddenly as the man approached, he turned and hobbled off, leaning on his cane. He managed the steps to Sultan Suleiman Street with that same determination.

The crowd’s interest waned and they dispersed, leaving Avi and me to stand there, half-stunned from anger and bewilderment. I rubbed my arm, and he breathed deeply.

As if the episode had been a dream, I returned to my post at the opposite side of the archway from Avi. Silent, we waited for the final change of guard before going home for the day. I would also have to forget to put my shouting in Arabic in the report.

At least my arm did not feel broken.

* * *

A few days later, I got a taste of what my Israeli partner might have felt that day. He and I manned the checkpoint halfway up the ramp leading from the Jewish kotel plaza to al-Aqsa Mosque. Wet snow slumped to the ground. We had to watch our footing in the slush that settled on the sandstone pavement. I was alone at the metal detector after my partner went to huddle with the x-ray technician over a bag check. Yitzhak, the Israeli peacenik who had volunteered—volunteered!—for the JBP, and Hamzeh, the Muslim from the West Bank, checked documents ten meters farther down the ramp.

I did not see the Haredi Jew before it was too late. I never found out why the guards at the ramp entrance let a Jew onto al-Aqsa without telling us. The Haredim rarely went to al-Aqsa. Haredim used to be forbidden from al-Aqsa. Their presence taunted the Muslim Arabs, but they had as much right as the Muslims to be there, and there were JBP officers posted every thirty or forty meters on al-Aqsa itself, so their security was not as pressing a concern as it used to be.

The Haredi rushed at me, his huge fur hat set snug on his head and his black overcoat swirling about him. Instinctively, I gripped my M-4 carbine tighter as he approached. I tried to bring it up, but I was too tense and too slow. The alarm on the metal detector went off and a glint of metal flashed from his swishing overcoat.

I tried to step out of the way, but I slipped on the slick stone walkway. I was fortunate, for my body fell as the knife came up, and the knife nicked my shoulder instead of plunging into my gut.

Luckily, Avi was more aware than me. As the knife whooshed past by my flailing body, Avi’s Tazer popped. The attacker fell, and I felt the burn of the wound in my shoulder. Still, it was better than being poked in the gut. I pressed my glove to my shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief.

After some investigation, we eventually found out that the Haredi wasn’t a Haredi at all, but one of the radical settler Jews. I wasn’t sure if he knew Yo’av or not, but I didn’t want to know, because that might make me suspicious of Yo’av, and suspicions in the Joint Border Police lead to discord, and discord created problems.

I’m not sure why Avi saved my life, since I’d always thought he was as indifferent towards me as I was towards him. Perhaps I was wrong.

* * *

Near the end of that winter, I realized that peace was here to stay. How much the snow made this so, I could not decide. It was probably a coincidence. One thing is for certain: the connection between Avi and me became stronger.

One Friday afternoon, about five centimeters of snow sat on the ground. Our whole squad—Yitzhak, Avi, Yo’av, Abdullah, Hamzeh, and I—were on riot duty outside the Franciscan Bible School, second stop on the Via Dolorosa, just inside St. Stephen’s Gate. The Friday khutba, or sermon, was about to end at al-Aqsa, and we wanted to make sure that those leaving al-Aqsa by way of the Martyrs’ Cemetery exited through St. Stephen’s Gate instead of coming back into al-baldeh to make trouble.

Males aged 13 to 60 were not allowed onto al-Aqsa during Friday prayers, but they still congregated at the Martyrs’ Cemetery. We didn’t want any trouble, so we six JBP officers stood outside the Franciscan Bible School.

We were not sure how long the khutba would last, and the conversation between us turned odd.

“You know what they say about the snow?” asked Abdullah, the Israeli Arab, in his perfect English.

No one answered, because we all knew Abdullah would answer the question for us. He always did when he had that quirky grin on his face. “Aliens altered the atmosphere to make it snow.”

Out of politeness we said nothing, because he said it in a way that made you think he might actually believe it.

“God is punish us for fight,” said Hamzeh.

I interpreted this as code for: “God is punishing the Jews for starting it all.” But Hamzeh couldn’t say that to us; it would have broken our rule against accusatory speech.

“You’re both wrong,” said Yitzhak, in his usual Israeli way: practical and blunt. “It’s a Zionist cloud seeding experiment gone wrong, back when they thought Israel might lose access to the West Bank aquifer.”

Some people in Palestine, like the hamsawis, thought that Israel still occupied Palestinian land, but a great many more would believe Yitzhak’s story about Zionist cloud seeding.

“I heard it was conspiracy of the Arabs,” said Yo’av, mocking Arabs that believed in wild conspiracy theories. We ignored his comment, too.

After a short silence, my partner, Avi, chuckled. “I heard the snow came because it got cold.”

We all laughed. Avi and I shared a smile, which was new, and reassuring.

The sound of Muslim worshippers leaving al-Aqsa made us grow alert. If the crowds were chanting, we had to be ready for trouble. If the sound was just a disorganized murmur, our job would be easy.

Chanting pulsed from around the corner, down by St. Anne’s Church. I pulled my visor down over my face and drew up my riot shield. The six of us, standing abreast, did not even fill the street underneath the remains of Herod’s Antonia Fortress. Straight ahead of us was St. Stephen’s Gate. The alcove behind us and to our left held the entrance to the Franciscan Bible School, and about twenty meters in front of us the street opened into the Martyrs’ Cemetery. The chanting mass came from there, maybe one hundred and fifty of them. With a sickening feeling I realized that they were organized.

Their numbers were small compared to what they might have been in the years before peace, but an organized crowd was formidable against our small patrol. I had organized such crowds to throw stones at the Zionist occupiers during the intifada, so I knew the signs. Figures darted in and out of the crowd, carrying messages or rushing to some errand. A single voice screeched above the rest, leading the chant. Other voices shouted with grim determination, trying to mask themselves in the chanting, but I knew better.

“Be ready,” I yelled to the other five JBP officers.

Yo’av called for back-up over the radio.

The chanters threw only regular snowballs at first, but then they put stones inside. When we raised our shields to protect our heads, they aimed for our feet and legs. All the while, the mass of stone throwers slowly drew closer. We took a few steps back, uncertain, until another squad of six policemen came up behind us.

The pop-pop-pop of rubber bullets sounded behind us, and then a third patrol arrived.

The crowd of chanters did not disperse, but kept marching towards us, in time to the chant.

We couldn’t use tear gas because of the close quarters made by the old fortress overhead. They kept on coming, and our two forces met in front of the entryway to the Franciscan Bible School. The door set into the shallow alcove was shut tight.

We pushed back and beat at the chanters with our clubs. I thought for a moment that we would disperse them, but they found some inner reserve and held. I glanced at Avi. Our faces resolute, we held our own against a larger mass of people, this despite the stones that they threw at us.

Then Avi went down beside me. A stone-thrower got lucky. Our riot gear had few openings big enough for a stone to do much damage, much less knock a man down. But Avi went down, and he did so at the worst possible time: right as the crowd surged against us.

He and I anchored the left flank, so he fell into the Franciscan School’s alcove. We pushed back, but the crowd surged again. If I did not jump into the alcove while I still could, the crowd would get him when they pushed us past the alcove. Who knows what they might do to a helpless Israeli Jew who was part of the hated JBP?

I had no great love for Avi. At that moment, all I heard in my mind was the pop of his Tazer, that day on the ramp to al-Aqsa. I jumped into the alcove. Had it not been in the heat of the moment, I might have thought of my family first and not jumped in. Avi would probably be dead today, with his blood on my conscience, had I not. I would probably be dead, too.

I pulled Avi as close to the door of the Franciscan Bible School as I could. The chanters surged past us, cutting Avi and me off from the other JBP officers. Two men with knives squeezed into the alcove, but the shock on their faces said that they did not expect to find me there.

I clubbed one man on the head and dropped him in a heap, then slammed my shield into the face of the other. I looked for more of them to come into the alcove, but all of the others—not two meters away from us—were busy keeping the other officers at bay. The policemen were losing, too, so Avi’s and my situation quickly became desperate.

I could have used my sidearm to try and shoot our way out of the crowd, but I only had ten rounds, and it would have created more attention for us than we needed. Other would-be killers would soon push their way through the tightly-packed crowd to get to us.

The only escape was into the Franciscan Bible School, but why should the nuns open the door with a riot going on outside? I banged on the door, and got only echoes in return, even though I knew there was always—always—someone just inside the door.

I banged again, but this time I shouted at the nuns in Arabic to open the door. My sense of urgency spiked when I saw the crowd start to jostle, to open the way for others to get into the alcove, probably more knife-wielding attackers. They would be ready for me this time.

The panic simmered around my eyes. I thought of the Lord’s Prayer. I yelled it at the top of my lungs, in Arabic, hoping the nuns would have pity on us.

At “forgive us our debts,” the bolt clanked free, so I skipped “forgive our debtors” and shoved our two bodies inside. None too soon, because a ferocious pounding followed the bolt driving home again.

For once, it was helpful to be a Christian in Palestine.

* * *

That winter, I passed from the ranks of those who thought the peace would fail to those who wanted it to succeed. This wasn’t a conflict between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish tribes, or even between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. This was about living. And snow.

I was a stone-thrower once, but I also saved an Israeli Jew from harm at the hands of a Palestinian mob. An old Arab man and a Settler Jew both attacked me, and an Israeli Jew gave me his trousers and probably saved my life when he did not have to. I’m in too deep to go back to war now, especially after what happened the night after the Franciscan Bible School riot.

I got home from work to find our car packed to the brim with luggage and our front room stuffed with our possessions, mounded up in great piles. My wife handed me a brick, around which was tied a note that called me ’amil and said that we had two days to leave our home for good.

My face paled when I saw how the note was fastened to the brick, held on by a green strip of cloth with white lettering that read, La illaha illa allah, wa Muhammad rusul allah”—“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s prophet.” The hamsawis were coming for me and my family.

Later that night, with everyone huddled in bed, I heard a knock at the door. I answered it. Hamas never bothered to knock.

I was surprised to find Avi standing there, a worried look on his face. “You must come now,” he said, his voice low and urgent. “The terrorists are coming tonight, not after two days. They put two days on the note to make sure that you and your family would be here, still preparing to leave.”

A darkened JBP jeep waited behind him, the engine running. I roused my wife and children and urged them into the jeep, with no choice but to trust my Israeli partner, even though my wife grumbled at me in Arabic about it.

We were not three blocks from our house when a massive explosion shook the ground. The Jeep skipped on the road as the concussion waves hit, and car alarms pierced the night air.

We sped away. Sirens wailed on their way to the scene. My wife just stared straight ahead, and my children whimpered in the back seat. But we were alive.

* * *

I can’t go back to that neighborhood now, because people know me and because the Hamas car bomb that destroyed our house also damaged many houses on our street. My neighbor’s daughter had her legs crushed under a slab of concrete, and she will have to walk with crutches for the rest of her life.

I will never be accepted into that neighborhood again. I brought too much disruption, too much pain. I still live in an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, but I can’t tell you where. I still work in the JBP, but I’ve changed my name to protect my family.

I never would have thrown my lot in with this crazy peace plan if I had known it would end up like this. I blame the snow. I just wanted to mind my own business and take care of my family and stay out of politics, but one simple slip in the Jerusalem snow led me to support the peace.

Am I sure the peace will hold? No. But if this peace comes crashing down then I have much more to lose now than I did before. Maybe there is a link between the snow and the peace, but it’s not the one people usually think of.

Nathan W. Toronto is a data strategist and scholar of civil-military relations. He is the author of How Militaries Learn: Human Capital, Military Education, and Battlefield Effectiveness and Rise of Ahrik, a military science fiction novel.