Amos Libby's five weeks in the heart of the conflict

Play oud in the West Bank
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  July 23, 2014

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EMERGENT PERSPECTIVE Okbari’s Amos Libby returns from teaching in wartorn Palestine

On June 12, three days after Maine musician Amos Libby arrived for his five-week volunteer stint in Palestine’s West Bank, three Israeli teens were kidnapped, setting off what has become the most violent clash between Hamas and the Israeli government since the Second Intifada, which ran from 2000 through 2005.

Libby was just settling in with a host family in Beit Ummar, a village of 16,000. It was about 12 kilometers northwest of Hebron, where he was teaching English in a three-classroom school, run by a small local non-profit that brings in foreign volunteers to teach students of all ages.
Suddenly, Libby found himself in the thick of rapidly heightening tension. Israeli defense forces began arresting former Hamas prisoners by raiding homes all around him, blowing in front doors and drilling holes in the roofs of homes that usually house three generations. Clashes broke out on the streets around him at night. Defense forces multiplied.

That tension burst when the three teens were found dead in a field in Halhul, the next town over, on June 30.

Things escalated again on July 2, when three Israeli teens, according to Israeli prosecutors, grabbed a West Bank Palestinian teen for revenge, taking him to a wooded area of Jerusalem, pouring gasoline down his throat, and setting him aflame.

Then came the rockets from Hamas. The Israeli fighter jets dropping bombs on civilian-filled areas. Air-raid sirens and more clashes in the streets at night.

Finally, Libby’s stint was up, and he left Palestine to fly back to the United States just a couple days before the ground invasion of Gaza began, arriving home last Wednesday, three days before I interviewed him on Saturday at that cute new Coffee by Design coffee bar down in Bayside.

Would he have gone if he had known what would go down?

“Absolutely,” he says, “I had every opportunity to leave and I didn’t. Even when I saw the rockets going overhead. Actually, (Israeli) immigration asked me at the airport why I didn’t leave when I could have and I said it was because I felt safe. They told me I was nuts.”

I told him it seemed kind of nuts to me, too.

“But on the ground it doesn’t feel like that,” Libby says. “It didn’t feel as insane as it might look from the outside. It just felt like life.”

The family he was staying with (Libby purposely didn’t give me their name, as he’s worried about drawing attention to them) had a member who had been in an Israeli prison for being outside after curfew, and now can never leave the province again. The town they live in contains a 40-foot gun tower that guards the entrance to Highway 60. They’re used to having soldiers around and being in the shadow of automatic weapons.

When you want to go somewhere that involves a trip down that central artery, Libby says, you tell the cabbie, “Take me to the tower.” He says the words first in Arabic, seemingly out of habit.

Libby speaks Arabic well, having studied with the Middlebury language school in Oakland, California, and having made a study of Arabic arts and culture since he was entranced by the Arabic script on an Egyptian pop-music CD in a now-shuttered music shop down on Fore Street, when he was 14 years old, a teenager from Windham.

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