Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thoughts from the West Bank

I just got back from a two week study tour of the West Bank. During the trip we spent our days traveling around the West Bank to all the major cities including Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Jenin as well as a few small villages whose livelihood has been affected by the Wall... We met with human rights organizations, advocacy groups, as well as other groups that work to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to find mutual interests and understanding. We visited and even stayed overnight in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, stayed with a Palestinian family and generally immersed ourselves in the deep complicated issues of this conflict.

Prior to this I was someone who sort of ignored this conflict. It was too complicated and emotional and I just didn't dare have much of an opinion. As is my way, if I am going to start exploring an issue I like to do it first hand. I find it amazing how much information my brain is able to absorb when I am on the ground in a country. Trips like this one make a participant face directly the cold hard facts of war and, in this case, ongoing occupation.

No matter how many news stories I have probably seen about war, (and even other conflicts I have seen first hand Nicaragua in the 80s, Afghanistan in 2006, the fading oppression of the Soviet Empire in the 80s...) Nothing hit me like a walk through Hebron in the southern West Bank. Sites like military checkpoints in the middle of the city, military guard posts on the top on buildings, barbed wire blocking corridors in the market area, Jewish settlers walking through with big guns strapped on their backs, graffiti of Jewish stars hostily painted across shuttered Palestinian shops (reminding me of the swastikas that were used against Jews in the past.), spray paint covering Arabic wording on signs in the Arabic part of town
(Perhaps part of a larger effort by Jewish settlers to stop the use of Arabic in all signs in the West Bank), an empty road guarded by Israeli military with yellow lines down the center that guides the Jewish settlers to their settlements so that they don't have to stray into the Palestinian streets. And the worst was that the alleys of the market have to have wire mesh over them so that Palestinian shoppers below don't get hit with the garbage, 2x4s, and anything else the Jewish settlers on the above floors can find to throw. (I honestly can't even begin to express the horror of this sight.)

And then there were the stories we heard first hand of harassment by patrolling Israeli Defense Force soldiers, a random killing of the brother of a Palestinian women we met when he came into the city for milk for his child and was shot right through the door of his car, forced curfews that lasted days without letting Palestinians leave their house. People prevented from attending school, going to work and basically living.

I've been trying to figure out why this felt so much worse than other places. All I can think of is that this is not really a time of war that will come to an end, instead this is the reality of daily life that Palestinians face. Walking in Hebron brought me straight to the images of Jewish ghettos during the holocaust. And although Hebron felt more directly painful, all Palestinians live with varying degrees of these harassments. This daily oppression, humiliation and persecution affects every aspect of their lives. In the first days of my trip I kept thinking that although walls and check points are terrible and that reducing the freedom of movement for a whole sector of society is not right, I believed people would eventually get used to it. After seeing Hebron, I felt the roots of anger. I can definitely see where the defiance comes from. You just can't take people's freedom and dignity away and not expect to feel a lasting terrible price and the insecurity Israeli's feel is that price.

All of this made me really sad. I have spent many days visiting the sights of empty ghettos in Europe and the grounds of Auschwitz and gone to many holocaust museums. I have heard over and over about the wrongs that have been done to Jews. I have seen the damage from antisemitism over and over and I really want to believe Israel is a possible dream. But what I can't wrap my head around is how people who have been so wronged could turn around and do the same thing to the people who lived in Palestine in the early 1900's when the Zionist dream began to become a reality? After being forced to live in ghettos, how could Jews come in and move Palestinians into ghettos and take their property? After being so persecuted for their beliefs how could they then do that to others?

As with all these types of issues, the reasons are deep and hard to understand. The roots can't be pinpointed easily, but the reality of today is NOT right and it is not right to tolerate it. The part that troubles me the most is that the USA is an active participant in this conflict. Our hands are covered with blood from both sides as we play the middleman ineffectively. We have a history of saying one thing and doing another. Last year, Parade Magazine (as neutral a source as I could think of) says we gave Israel $2.4 billion, almost 10% of our entire foreign aid budget. We supply aid for weapons and pay for the some of the ugliest parts of the occupation. Currently we are funding the building of roads all over the West Bank that connect the Jewish settlements to the Green Zone, the Jewish Israeli borders and to Jerusalem. Often they are built under the idea they will also help Jews and Palestinians get around the increasingly overcrowded the West Bank and are paid for under the allocated Palestinian aid and then when they are complete, access is closed to Palestinians by blocking the Palestinian access roads with piles of rocks, gates and even with walls. Systematically Israel has let 305,000 settlers move into the West Bank even though its been deemed illegal under international law and condemned by the UN. The US closes its eyes as every hilltop is developed into settlements, making a two state solution impossible, since all those Jewish settlers won't live under Palestinian rule even though they have decided to move into Palestinian land as defined by international law. The US watched as Israel built the "separation barrier" that directly annexed 28% of the land previously defined as the West Bank. The wall cuts Palestinian farmers off from their lands. It separates families. It cuts off communities. And from my opinion this wall is the thing that will spell Israel's demise. Its one step too unreasonable. No unbiased person can look at it and not see its unjustness.

So in the end, I believe that Israel's security excesses will spell its end. The world will not tolerate these injustices forever and eventually Israel will have to find a better way to deal with the Palestinians. I only wish I could visualize what that end might be.

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