Four years ago, photojournalist Mati Milstein was documenting weekly clashes in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. Every Friday, villagers gathered to protest the takeover of their spring by the nearby Israeli settlement, Halamish. Every Friday, IDF soldiers entered the village and scattered the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. The villagers would hurl stones, the soldiers would run them down and arrest them, and the media would get the grim show it came for.
On one particular Friday, a few soldiers made the tactical error of pursuing the protesters up a steep hillside. A group of villagers standing at the summit began raining stones down on them. “There was nothing the soldiers could do,” Milstein recalls. “They were just standing there, getting hit by all these rocks. They tried to run away, to shield themselves, but it was made difficult by the terrain.”
Milstein knew these soldiers. They had been posted in the area for months, and used to chat with him about the goings on. They served in the same army unit he, until recently, belonged to.
He was also familiar with the villagers. He knew who they were and what they were fighting for, and identified with their cause. After photographing them week after week getting beaten to the ground, he could understand why they were all cheering now — but the cheers made the scene feel twisted, surreal.
Milstein remembers the moment when, overwhelmed, he stopped snapping pictures and let the camera dangle at his side.
“I felt like I was identifying with both — with all of the people involved,” he recalls. “Until this day, every time I look at those pictures, the question is still very sharp. What is right in this situation? What’s just? And what side am I supposed to be on?”
Raised in an insular Jewish community in New Mexico, Milstein, 39, grew up thinking the world was a largely Jewish place. When his consistent failure to learn Hebrew got him booted from a Jewish school and sent instead to a racially and religiously mixed Quaker school, it was a revelation.
“There were so many different kids, from different places and backgrounds,” he notes. “It made everything so much more interesting.”
He went on to study history at a Canadian university, selected specifically for having almost no Jews. “I wanted to see what it felt like to be a minority,” he explains.
After history, Milstein’s second-biggest passion was documenting it. Once he graduated, he decided to make a career of his photography hobby and sent his portfolio to the Israel-Sun photo agency in Tel Aviv, where he was accepted to a paid internship.
Ironically, his wish to feel like a minority was fulfilled more in the Jewish state of Israel than anywhere else. With his American mentality and the same Hebrew that got him kicked out of Jewish school, he felt very much the stranger; but he actually liked the feeling. Liked it so much, in fact, that after a year in the country he decided to dive even deeper down the rabbit hole, and join the army.
“To me, as an American Jew, the Israeli soldier was always like a superhero figure,” he explains. “It’s an experience I wanted to have … among other reasons, to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Turns out, he was actually good at it. In November, 1999, at age 24, he joined the Nachal Brigade. He completed basic training with honors and was named his company’s outstanding soldier. Afterwards, his commanders, all younger than him, treated him with respect; his unit members gradually became his closest and most loyal friends.
Things turned a shade darker when, in late 2000, his unit was assigned to north Gaza to guard the Erez border crossing. These were the last few quiet months before the second intifada, and at the time there were no violent incidents. Just a quiet, ominous tension, aggravated by the lack of sleep, the heat and the flies, and the dark glares from Palestinians passing through. “At the time I knew there was such a thing as a Palestinian, but my political awareness didn’t go much further than that,” he explains. “So it was very interesting for me to try to talk with people, and to experience the range of emotions that my efforts to interact seemed to elicit — mostly hostility, but not only.”
One early morning shift, for example, he fell asleep standing up, and a Palestinian worker passing through gently woke him, so he wouldn’t get into trouble with his commander.
He also had some memorable interactions with the Palestinian guards. Some Israeli guard posts stood directly opposite Palestinian police posts, and sometimes at night they’d hang out. “We’d talk about very normal things, like food, or women, or stuff like ‘Wow, your weapon is so much lighter than mine,’ ” says Milstein. It was mostly small talk, but the casualness itself was fascinating: “It was bizarre, to be talking like that with the enemy force.”
But for the most part, what he felt from the Palestinians was hate. “I have never before been in a situation where it was clear to me that people hated me,” Milstein notes. “They hated me just for where I was standing and what I was wearing … and at that time, I couldn’t understand why.”
After the army, Milstein remained in Israel to work as a reporter and photojournalist. His articles were published in English publications, including the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. His photographs, focusing on clashes in the territories, were published in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Haaretz and National Geographic, among others. His book, “My New Middle East: Inside the Israeli Conundrum” (Gaon Press), describing his experiences as a combatant and photojournalist in Israel, came out in 2012. For one month a year, he would return to the territories as a reservist.
In 2009, while shooting the weekly protests in and around Nabi Saleh, he began to cautiously befriend some of the Palestinian reporters covering the same events. Like before, he felt an urge to learn what things were like on the minority’s side. “It was like a new world — a whole parallel universe — suddenly came into view,” he says.
He met a Palestinian TV journalist, who invited him to tour her hometown, Ramallah. It was his first time inside the notorious city, and he was horrified; but they spent the day strolling in the sun and talking about their lives. “It was the very first time I’ve had a normal day with a Palestinian. It sounds stupid,” he remarks, “but that fact alone had a huge impact on me.”
Later he was invited to a colleague’s village wedding. To get there, he and a group of other Israeli guests had to sneak past an army blockade, which, because of the sudden increase in traffic, began turning all the guests back.
New friendships begot more new friendships, and as he began to move more in Palestinian circles, he was taken aback by how impossible it was to simply meet. No matter what they wanted to do — a movie, a birthday party — soldiers with guns were blocking the way.
That could be me, he would remind himself. What would my friends think if one day it was I searching their car?
By 2012, Milstein’s Facebook page showed as many Arabic names as Israeli ones. His loyalties may have been shifting, imperceptibly, for some time; but his new world truly collided with the old when a close friend invited him to a family dinner in Nablus. After the meal, passing by the neighborhood workshops, he suddenly realized that he had been in this place before.
“I was there in 2009, as a reservist,” he says quietly, “but at night. We broke into these workshops to search for weapons.” He remembered patrolling the area, shining flashlights into people’s houses, including the one in which they just had dinner.
When Milstein told his friend “I’ve been here,” no further explanation was required. For a minute or two they both sat staring silently ahead; then they resumed the conversation they were having about some book, and never spoke about that moment again.
In the end, says Milstein, it became very difficult to lead a normal life in Israel. He had his good friends in Israel, and his good friends in the Palestinian territory, and it was hard to negotiate the divide between them. Too often it seemed that both societies were based on denouncing each other.
Today, Milstein lives with his Israeli girlfriend in New York. They plan to return to Israel once she completes her master’s degree, a return Milstein both yearns for and fears. “I left some wonderful people behind, people I love and miss and really want to see again,” he says. “Here there’s no one. But it’s easier this way.”