Hopeful and hopeless in the West Bank

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Middle East » Israel » West Bank » Bethlehem
September 5th 2008
Published: September 10th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

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I have a confession to make, and this confession is that four months ago when I was working in my tall building with my important computers in my expensive clothes in my fancy city, I knew barely the bare minimum about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nothing, and really, I didn't even care too much. I wouldn't doubt that many of you reading this probably don't know much or care to know much either. For me, it was just another piece of bloody news, somebody attacking somebody else, somebody else blowing up another building, all happening on a little strip of land far, far away. Happens all over the world, and I can't figure out which conflict deserves more attention than the other, so I'll get back to it another day... Sounds ignorant and heartless I know, but personally it's hard for me to care too much about anything unless I have a personal connection to it one way or another.

My connection to this particular conflict happened several months ago when I traveled through some countries of the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt). In this month I met not scary extremist Muslim terrorists, but a number of genuine, kind, open-minded people. Well this is awfully strange, isn't it? I learned that what we see on our news channels and in our newspapers overseas cannot be trusted as the whole story. My country sends something upwards of 7 billion American dollars towards helping Israel buy the necessary arms for keeping their hold on the land they have taken from another people, but for any moral or actual reasons I'm not sure. We buy guns, grenades, and explosives for Israeli soldiers, while Palestinian children are left throwing rocks in retaliation. I met Jordanians and Syrians who hated Israel with a passion, a sentiment I didn't meet often back in the US or even in Asia. Given the geographic proximity to Israel/Palestine, I met a number of travelers who shared their experiences of Israel with me. Late night debates sprouted as we sat smoking sheesha in Damascus, drinking mango juices in Dahab. Since June, one of the friends I made traveling in Syria, Victor, has volunteered in the West Bank with ISM, been shot with two rubber bullets from less than 20m, been thrown in an Israeli prison for a week, beaten, and deported back to Canada. Tucker, an American I met in Jordan, left Israel with an indescribably disgusted taste in his mouth. At the same time, my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, is super-Jewish and I left with a best friend who is Jewish himself. My closest friend in Hong Kong is actually also Jewish. I've attended seders and have wished Happy Hanukkahs. For all these reasons my interest in the conflict was finally sparked, and I decided that I needed to see the situation for myself.

Traveling with Fred and Martin, I'm not sure if I could say they had any sort of connection or strong interest in the conflict itself. My initial reason for suggesting Israel as a destination is more so to see the political side of things, and I think for the Frenchmen they are more interested in the cultural side. After a couple days in Jerusalem I am ready to get out. More precisely, I am ready to get out of "Israel" and into the West Bank, which constitutes an area of the Palestinian Territories for those of you unfamiliar. Why ever would I want to venture into the West Bank? Isn't it dangerous? What's there to see THERE? It took a bit of convincing, but they agreed we would spend some time in the West Bank, and I agreed that at least we could first go to Bethlehem as they wanted to see it and the Nativity Church. They in turn agreed to come with me for the day to Dheisheh, one of the Palestinian refugee camps.

Visiting a refugee camp anywhere... perhaps this doesn't seem like the most appropriate thing to do. Go in waving your American passport, parade around with your cameras, drop a few dollars, look at the unfortunate people and tsk tsk about their situation. OK, valid point. At the same time, sometimes if you never see it, you will never understand in what conditions the people (the Palestinians in this case) must make do with. And if you haven't the time to stay and volunteer, then it may be unfortunately one of the only options. So I wanted to go, I wanted to see, so that I could try to understand , and you can judge me separately for that.

In Israel now, Palestinians have been driven into and confined in 2 main areas: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They left their houses and their lives in x part of what is now Israel, and were forced to squish in and relocate into what we now call the Palestinian Territories. These territories constitute about 12% of the area they used to inhabit. They are forced into these Territories because Israel is adamant on having a pure Israeli state - meaning if you aren't Israeli/Jewish, you don't belong, you can't stay, and you don't get citizenship. A far cry from what historically has been done in other takeovers. Israel has this idea that as "God's chosen people" and because of something written in a book, they have the right to come in and take what they want. Doesn't matter that there are people living there already. And because of the atrocities of the Holocaust and past persecutions (which nobody denies) they now say they need a land to call their own after being driven out of all other countries. Oh yeah, and they want to cherry-pick this land and they choose the most significant area in the world for three separate religions. They want to expand around this land now, into Jordan and Syria out, even though they don't have enough citizens of their "country" to fill it. Their government therefore pays for Jews all over the world to visit Israel on "birthright trips" and learn about their "country," a week of brainwashing and propaganda, in hopes of gaining the citizens, soldiers, supporters that they so need to keep this mirage of a country going. It is their birthright after all, you know, to be a part of this super exclusive country that doesn't tolerate any other religion or people, because they are after all, "God's chosen." All this based on your religion...

The West Bank is encircled by something like an 8 meter high wall, whose entrances are dominated by large check points of more walls, electric fences, and barbed wires. As an American, I only get asked where I am from and am allowed in with a sweep of the hand without even showing my picture. The Palestinians are not allowed out of these "borders," and then only certain ones can obtain the permit to leave. To obtain permits, they are forced to "apply," and pay some exorbitant amount of money for the right to even hold the permit. The Muslims that used to live in Jerusalem are one exception and from what I gathered, they were allowed to stay in Jerusalem. There is no sustainable economy in the walls, and young people aren't allowed to apply for this permit to work elsewhere in Israel. Even Palestinian taxi drivers must obtain weekly permits for the right to drive to one single city outside of the territories. I wish I could give the statistic on what percentage of Palestinians are actually allowed out of the territories for any reason, but unfortunately I can't give it. I can assure you the percentage is shockingly low. In fact Israel has even, within the Palestinian territories, set up check points between Palestinian territory cities. For example for a Palestinian to get from Bethlehem to Ramallah in the West Bank he must go through countless other check points, and sometimes they don't even allow this movement between the cities.

The Dheisheh camp is one of fifty-nine Palestinian refugee camps sprinkled around what used to be Palestine , Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. It is one of the largest around Bethlehem and houses over 11,000 Palestinians in under one square kilometer of land. Small narrow streets lined with litter and rubble lead the way through a concrete maze. There is no greenery. Palestinian children play in piles of demolished remnants of their neighbors' houses, while children all over the world play in grass. The Israelis employ what is called "collective punishment," by which if a certain Palestinian so much as looks at an Israeli soldier in the wrong way, not only will he be thrown in jail, but the IDF will go and demolish/bomb the building in which he lives, his family lives, and as in the refugee camps more than one family lives in each building, all 5 families homes are destroyed. Israel controls the water and electricity supply in the camp. Israeli soldiers patrol the camps. Business and economy is nearly impossible, taxi drivers clamor for business at the checkpoints. Business is bad, and individual tourists are not common anymore. The tourists they see are the ones passing through in big Jewish tour buses, apparently they come but for what reason I'm not sure. It is a depressing sight.

What is particularly sad is the lack of spirit (or the abundance of) in some Palestinians. Our taxi driver turns to me at one point asks me "From what you see and what you know about this, do you think peace will come soon?" I shake my head and say that unfortunately I don't. Silence follows, he thinks, and he breathes again. "What is shown in the newspapers and TVs in America? Does it look like Israelis are attacking Palestinians or are Palestinians attacking Israelis?" To be honest, our media is skewed heavily pro-Israel. It does make it looks like only Palestinians are attacking Israelis. "Life is hard here. I don't think peace will come soon either."

Another Palestinian met showed us around the refugee camp, and declared to us "I was born here, I grew up here, but I am trying very hard to not die here." In conversation that follows, you can tell he still holds hope for a free Palestine. He wants to push for a one-state solution. To him, what is happening in Palestine is still an "occupation" by the Israelis. Palestinians have no problem sharing their land, their country with another people. They are happy to cohabitate with Israelis, unfortunately it doesn't come the other way around. We don't have the heart to tell him that unfortunately a one-state solution or any peaceful resolution in the near future seems basically non-existent. At the same time, what do you expect him to do? They have nothing else to turn to, they only have hope and faith that the world will correct itself. Upon leaving all I can do is wish him the best of luck.

I write this now not exactly with hatred towards Israel or pure sympathy towards Palestine. I am completely conscious that I am in no position to judge. Unlike Victor and Tucker, I personally didn't see live any particular atrocities being committed right in front of my eyes. Conflicts such as this one are extremely complicated and I know I don't have all the facts, all the details, all sides of the story. Being nonreligious makes this all the more abstract for me in a way. What I did learn from this experience though is that nothing is as black/white as our media overseas makes things out to be and Palestine is not full of crazed suicide bombers.

I know that what I saw may have been skewed somehow by the certain places I saw, the people I spoke with, but at least I was able to understand a bit more the side that gets very little attention in America. After stepping into a situation such as this however, you start to think about how our world could have come to this, and how something supposedly as holy as Religion could create such hatred and suffering. I leave the West Bank both more informed yet more confused at the same time.

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Fear builds wallsFear builds walls
Fear builds walls

Hope builds bridges

16th October 2008

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