Let me just start out with a few notes that are needed to understand what I’m about to write. First of all, this is my attempt at writing a paper for the semester long cross-cultural I’ve been doing (you did know that, right?). So that might impact what I address, we’ll see how by the end. Second, I’ve only been here in the West Bank and Israel for about two months, so I’m no expert. However, as an American, I have had the unique opportunity to live with, meet, and know both Palestinians in the West Bank and individuals in Israel proper. Thirdly, I’m going to start each section with a quote from people we’ve met along the way, just because.
“The land is our mother…”
As an outsider looking in, this conflict can seem strange if you don’t understand the role land plays in the lives of both Palestinians and Jews. As a American citizen living with a relatively recent family history of immigration to the U.S. and several relocations throughout the country in my own lifetime… I don’t have the same kind of attachment to land that either of these people groups do. I don’t even have the same type of attachment to my nationality. Let’s be clear here. I am glad I am an American. The mere fact that I was born as an American citizen gives me opportunities and privileges that are greater than I can comprehend sometimes, but I’m not always proud to be American. I am often disappointed in the truths about American society that become American stereotypes in other places, and get frustrated in the polarization of the country that I myself help continue. I am not connected to my national identity in the same way and struggle to fully understand the connection the people here have between who they are as individuals, as people groups, and the land itself. One person we spoke to said “Your families immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and Switzerland. Don’t you think ‘my family is from Germany’ or ‘my family is from Switzerland’ and want to go home, back to that land and connect to your history in that way?” She asked it as a rhetorical question, as if to say “we all just want the same thing,” but if we had answered her question, we would have had to say that no, we don’t think about land, family, and self being connected like that at all. That was when I realized that in order to understand the conflict, I would have to look at land very differently.
The most startling difference between my own understanding of connection to land, and the connections seen here in Israel-Palestine is time. Think about it, the United States is less than 300 years old. People here are arguing about who was here “first” and they’re looking back thousands of years. Thousands. The people I met in Beit Sahour trace their family line back to the shepherds who saw the angels and went to see baby Jesus in the nearby Bethlehem. People who claim to have converted from Judaism to Christianity two thousand years ago, and have been living on the land continuously since then, and who knows how long before then. On the other hand, Jews look back to the time of Abraham. That’s almost four thousand years. After Joshua brought the Israelites back into the “promised land” about three thousand years ago they stayed in the land except for those times they were exiled to Babylon, Assyria, and then after the 2nd revolt in the 2nd century of the common era when they were banned and spread out across the earth until the late 1800’s- early 1900’s when Zionism and persecution brought them flooding back. That is a deep connection to land.
Today both sides point to histories of persecution, both to long histories of connection to the land, and both to the contributions they have given to the area as justification for their actions and/or perceptions towards the other… But neither have the complete story. Each side has misconceptions about the other side that make it difficult to create productive dialogue. Each side has barriers to understanding, barriers to communication, barriers to change.
“They’re not settlements, they’re communities”
Settlements, or communities rather, are highly controversial by some Israelis and Palestinians alike. As communities developed outside of the 1967 Green-line, within the West Bank, they are considered by many as illegal under international law. There are some, however, who claim that because the Palestinians didn’t declare independence in the short span of time between when Britain ended sovereignty and the beginning of the 1948 war, they have no legal “right” to the land and Israel can therefore do whatever they want. This difference in understanding the legal “right” to the land is one of the most basic roots of the conflict itself. After all, if the very basis of one’s argument is considered invalid by the person with whom you are in discussion with, then you don’t have any foundation with which to create dialogue.
In addition to the frustration felt by the “taking over of Palestinian land,” many Palestinians feel that the locations taken over are systematically pulling Palestine apart. You see, within the West Bank, there are different zones. These zones range from Zone A, where Palestinian Authority (PLO) is in control and the IDF doesn’t have any direct control to Zone C, where PLO is not present and basic things like building permits must be approved by the Israeli government. Unfortunately, most building permits are not approved which has created population dense city centers and illegal building projects that are then destroyed because of the lack of permit. In Nablus, for example, there is a population of about 300,000 people, while in a neighboring settlement of similar acreage, there is a population of 2,500. These zones are not, however, just three chunks of the West Bank. They are a patchwork puzzle of small bits and pieces each with its own level of zoning. Zone A is only about 20% of the land and if you’re looking at a map it looks like little islands in a “sea of Zone C.” When talking about any future solution, it is then critical that one considers the fact that these settlement communities are in Zone C, and including them in Israel in the case of a two-state solution would make this division between the different parts of Palestine a permanent struggle. The ability of Palestinians to find any cohesiveness of governance, without the continuity that including Zone C in their territory would create, would be near to impossible.
Yet another problem seen regarding the presence of settlements is the way in which their residents move into the area and relate to their Arab neighbors. However there is a spectrum of ways in which this is seen. At Efrat, where we spent a Shabbat weekend, there was a history of buying that property pre-1948, and they live at relative peace with the neighboring Arab village. On the other side of the spectrum are the settlers in Hebron. The settlement of Hebron is occurring daily where people are making camp, and then building houses on top of the already occupied Palestinian homes. The Palestinians have no way of keeping them from building there and despite this type of settlement being illegal according to Israeli law, they will receive no repercussions but rather they will receive aid from the government after breaking this law. The struggle in Hebron is amplified by the fact that in addition to moving into the community forcefully, they also treat their new Palestinian neighbors with disrespect and hostility. Palestinian residents had to place a net above the suq (marketplace) because the people who had moved in above them will throw trash, rocks, bleach, and sometimes even urinate down onto people trying to buy and sell in the market. If in the streets a small Israeli child were to spit onto a Palestinian walking past them, the Palestinian must ignore it, because to ask the child to stop would be used as reason to arrest the Palestinian. In trying to express why Palestinians are upset at the presence of settlers in general it is hard for settlers in Efrat, for example, to understand because they are unaware of the situation in Hebron, and can’t even seem to fathom such a thing happening. So to them, the frustrations expressed by Palestinians seem far-fetched and invalid.
“If someone occupies an area, they should be paying the price of doing so. In the case of Israel however, it is foreign aid that is paying the price of their occupation.”
Foreign aid is a huge factor in the Palestine – Israel conflict. In Hebron there is a 4:1 IDF to settler ratio and 80% of the military budget that allows for such drastically unbalanced military to civilian rates comes from the United States. So let’s say that a family of four moves into Hebron from Israel proper. They will have broken Israeli law to do so, but will immediately have about 16 new IDF military personnel in the area in order to protect them. That means if the U.S. is paying for 80%, then that means almost 13 of those personnel are being paid for by American tax dollars. (Remember when I said I wasn’t always proud to be an American?) While this money is technically going to protecting Israelis security, it is also causing tensions to rise and indirectly encouraging people to break the law. But on the other hand, foreign aid is also given to the Palestinians and that hasn’t been beneficial either. Many Palestinians would agree in saying that the PLO isn’t perfect. And foreign aid that comes to them doesn’t directly impact daily life. Some Palestinians are holding onto and passing down refugee status to their children, living in camps funded by the UN, driving on (segregated) roads funded by both the U.S. and the UN, and in a sense creating an economy that is dependent on foreign aid. Without it, the economy could very possibly collapse. In many ways foreign aid is a necessity that offers more problems than solutions, but still can’t be fully removed from the conflict because of the vital role it plays in supporting both sides of the conflict.
“When my grandson draws a picture, I don’t want it to always be a rifle or pistol. I want him to draw a flower, and olive tree, or a pigeon.”
Yes, there are many barriers to creating change and ending this conflict, but I also see a lot of hope. Unfortunately I think I see more hope than either side does. Perhaps this is part of my privilege in seeing both sides. You see Palestinians struggle to go to Israel and have to get permits, and even then they can’t always get through. When they DO get through, they don’t experience the same Israel that I do. They always have the opportunity to talk to Israeli citizens that oppose the occupation and are trying to change how Palestinians are treated. They don’t go to Shabbat services at a synagogue and experience the beauty of the Jewish faith. They are doing manual labor or trying to visit the place their family lived pre-1948, trying to see the Jerusalem they’ve always heard about but never of only rarely seen. But it goes the other way too. There are these huge red signs, and laws against Israeli citizens entering certain zones in the West Bank. They also don’t get to see the Palestine I see. They don’t get to be served so much food they can’t breathe, don’t get to meet Palestinians who say they “want Israel to be there,” they can go through life without ever being woken up by the call to prayer, but they don’t get to appreciate that almost no matter where you are, you will hear this routine reminder to pray. They may never realize that Palestinian doesn’t mean killer, but it probably does mean family. If things don’t change, neither will see that despite their differences, they share a common hope and dream of peace in the future.
So where do I see change happening? I think that as we speak people on both sides are thinking critically about what they can do to make a difference, but I also think that there are people who have no idea what people are like on the other side of the wall. In order for widespread change to occur, I think the main barriers separating these people have to come down. This means the “security fence” and the big red signs. Once people begin to see the other side as humans with similar hopes, dreams, and connections to the land, they will be able to work with each other towards a solution that fits everyone. Until those relationships can be built, responsibility is left with people like myself who have seen both sides to try and represent both sides to the other bridging the gap that currently exists.
Lots of Love, Mandi Jo