Ask any prisoner what he dreamt about behind bars, and he'll answer: the sea. Now they were here, thousands of the trapped, rejoicing in their freedom.
I thought perhaps I was hallucinating: An Israeli lifeguard was yelling through the megaphone in Arabic, fearing for the safety of the bathers from Jenin and advising them to drink lots of water. Municipal inspectors in their orange shirts were sweeping the beach, probably the first time in history that Jews have cleaned up after Arabs.
It was a sea of Arabs on the seashore of the first Hebrew city, with nary a Border Policeman, riot policeman, Shin Bet agent or special forces troops in sight.
There were teens who asked where the Galilee was, and could they reach it on foot − they wanted to see their ancestral village, long since destroyed.
The elderly among them couldn't believe their eyes: There were public faucets with freely flowing water. Middle-aged men who had built Israel, renovated its homes and cleaned its streets were returning to it after they hadn't been here for decades. Women looked in wonder at the first bikini they'd ever seen, while any number of kids were seeing the sea for the first time, even though they live only an hour's drive away.
Ask any prisoner what he dreamt about behind bars, and he'll answer: the sea. Now they were here, thousands of the trapped, rejoicing in their freedom. It's been a while since I've seen such a happy-looking beach.
It was hard to believe my eyes; I was excited to the point of tears. I wandered along the beaches for hours, meeting Palestinians who were happier than I'd seen them in years. Families from Jenin to Hebron, who set up their tents, grilled meat, ran freely along the shore, went into the choppy water with their clothes on and never stopped taking pictures, so they'd have a memento. It was some human spectacle.
To make sure this wasn't some sort of summer delusion, I contacted the coordinator of government activity in the territories to ascertain what this was all about. The COGAT spokesman said that in honor of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, Israel had issued 130,000 entrance permits to residents of the territories. I didn't believe him, and asked him to check again; maybe that was a typo. Nope, no typo.
Quietly, presumably to avoid confronting the yelps of the right, the gates of heaven were opened to tens of thousands of Palestinians as they hadn't been opened for years. That may have been a red flag flying over the lifeguards' hut, but a white flag of hope (forgive the flowery words) was flying for a moment on the shore at Charles Clore Park.
So what Ilana Hammerman and the brave, determined women of the Civil Disobedience group have been doing for a while, with the State of Israel condemning them and even trying to prosecute them, the occupation regime did itself on this holiday. You have to give those officials a lot of credit, even if it was just a temporary gesture.
Israelis who came to the beach also couldn't believe their eyes: there they were, Palestinians as real people. Not illegal laborers and not terrorists. They were just people who were enjoying the waves as they hit their bodies, the kabob fresh off the grill, building castles in the sand, the ice pop on the beach while sweating in the hot sun, just like them. Their bodies were white; only their forearms were tanned − that's how people look when they come to the beach for the first time in their lives.
And guess what? This rare spectacle went on for several days this week, and nothing happened, other than the momentary happiness of these people. They left their cities and villages in the morning, gripping the entry permits that Israel had deigned to give them, and after a couple of hours they were in Tel Aviv. And the sky did not fall in.
It's true that they didn't dare approach the city's northern beaches; apparently someone told them that those were permitted "only to Jews." But still, it was like the End of Days.
So has the future arrived? The sign at the beach exit says "see you again." Will we see them again? One of them, a resident of Akraba, near Nablus, asked me, "Why only once a year? Can't it be twice?"
Tomorrow they will return to their depressing reality, to their lives of occupation and unemployment behind the roadblocks, and nothing will remain of their day at the Tel Aviv beach except a sweet, fading dream.
So really, why can't it happen twice a year? In fact, why not every day, damn it?
* * *
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