The typical summer afternoon on Haifa's beach in Northern Israel seemed to be going just fine. Over the years, the beach had hardly changed. Haifa, the mountain city, is also a beach town and the southern portion of its Mediterranean coast is traditionally open all the way down south, for at least 10 kilometres. Although some development has been permitted, it is still basically an open beach for all to enjoy.
On that particular day, kids were flying kites, young men were engaged in the traditional game of “matkot”, a very Israeli pass-time were two players hit a rubber ball back and forth between them with wooden rackets and no purpose but to keep the ball in motion, in the air. People were bathing in the sea, enjoying the waves, and the lifeguard had little to do but to watch the horizon. Some municipal inspectors were doing their rounds, looking around, ready to admonish anyone throwing a wrapper on the ground and as general security.
Being a mixed city, with a large Israeli-Arab population, it is quite natural to hear Arabic spoken among the crowd on the beach. That was the case on this particular afternoon. A family had found a place under one of the thatched structures designed to protect you from the sun. I was sitting nearby. The family looked interesting. A mother and a father, not young. Some teenagers, some children. Another woman, probably an aunt. Bit by bit, as their conversation trickled, I pieced the picture. And I also saw the book one of the younger women had brought: a novel in Italian. I smiled to myself when I saw the title of the novel: “The Lost Land”.
Everything became clear: Palestinians living in Italy had come to visit their family in Haifa. An Israeli could probably notice their ethnicity, but their attire was generally western. The young men had thigh-long bathing trunks and some of the young women wore one-piece suits with something thrown over their shoulders. It also could have been a traditional Jewish family of Mediterranean origins.
And then I saw her. Not the sort of figure you'd expect on the beach, not even in Haifa. A young woman, no more than 30 years old, holding a digital camera and taking pictures of the beach, walking slowly, pointing her camera at the general view... In traditional Islamic clothes. A long gown, long sleeves, her head completely covered with the appropriate head-dress, the hijab, her socked feet shuffling in pair of closed pumps and she was carrying a leather hand-bag, quite ordinary. You could see only her face and the palms of her hands. She was walking peacefully and kept taking pictures.
I followed her with my eyes, bemused at the sight. Then, another part of my mind became mildly alert, and I played the “security officer” game. She could be a scout for Hamas or the Islamic Jihad. She could be collecting information for a suicide bombing. She could be a suicide bomber herself. And still, who would send a woman dressed like that to scout? So she can only be a suicide bomber herself. But why dress like that and cut her chances of succeeding, calling attention to herself in her Islamic attire? I looked at the Arab family just besides me. Clearly, this very observant woman had nothing to do with them. So are we all to be victims together? I reminded myself that this has happened in Haifa. An Arab restaurant was destroyed by a suicide bomber. No, in fact two restaurants, the second being on the same beach, 2 kilometres to the north, a place I have known all my life. And in both cases, Israeli Arabs were killed along with Jews. And still, I felt strangely relaxed. A forced myself back to the game: “Most people surviving a bombing tell of a strange silence...” I was trying myself, checking to see whether I would stir somehow.
And then it happened. As the woman was walking in the sand, hindered by the hem of her dress, she was approached by the two municipal inspectors, each with his sophisticated walkie-talkie and cellphone. I saw them speaking to her. She reached for her bag, sticking her hand into it, shuffling as women do in overloaded handbags. Out came an ID card. Blue. Israeli. Like mine. “All is well”, said the security officer in my mind.
She continued taking photos and I took a walk, to learn more. The inspectors were sitting on a low wall, looking at the paved walk. They were speaking, in Arabic. Working for the Haifa Municipality as unarmed security men. “She's from here”, said on of them. “Yeah, married and moved”, said the other. “She used to come here as a kid, go figure”.