In October 2008, I traveled to the West Bank on behalf of Friends World Committee for Consultation-Europe and Middle East Section (FWCC-EMES) to review the Quaker-sponsored Amari Play Center in Amari Refugee Camp. I have since written the review. But when the secretary of FWCC-EMES asked me to write a personal reflection of my visit, I wondered if this would be much harder to compose. I would struggle to share what I had experienced: inspiration and fear.
The inspiration is easier to discuss, and it is the very project I was sent to review. What I found was a project that has, for the last 35 years, touched the lives of children and reached the poorest of the poor. It has stood as a bridge of compassion, a play center with a Christian identity serving a Muslim community. For 35 years, Quakers worldwide and in Ramallah have supported it. My job as a reviewer was to make recommendations for its future, and that task is finished. As a Quaker, though, I went home and reviewed our personal finances to see how I could help.
The fear was that, after two weeks in the West Bank, I “smelled blood.” I couldn’t wait to board a plane and leave.
I’m not exactly new to the region or the conflict. I spent two years teaching at Friends Girls School in Ramallah during the first Palestinian intifada, a year with the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA) mediating between Palestinian refugees and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the thick of that intifada, and two years with the UN in Gaza helping to implement the Oslo Peace Accords. I was shot by the IDF, held as a protection shield by terrified Palestinians, and saw cruelty, abuse of power, and hope. I had never, though, “smelled blood” in Israel and Palestine. I had experienced this sensation only once before in my life, in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, when my UN Human Rights team and I were investigating mass graves.
But I had been away from Israel and Palestine for 11 years.
When I first lived in the West Bank, in 1987, the Israeli Occupation was felt powerfully by those who were occupied, but for the outsider the occupation was not as obvious. A tourist would not likely notice that different people were given different-colored license plates and identity cards depending on whether they were an Israeli citizen or an occupied Muslim or Christian Arab. A tourist would not understand how the laws protected one but not the other. A tourist was unlikely to explore the occupied territories and see the refugee camps with their open sewers and the ever-growing modern Israeli settlements on hilltops above. They would not know that Palestinian schools and universities were often closed by Israeli military order, or that the demolished house on the roadside lacked a building permit that Israeli authorities refused to give anyway. In those days, the experience of living under occupation was the daily humiliation of being defined as a second-class human being, a non-citizen, in a life lacking all the legal assumptions you and I take for granted. When giving talks about the region, I used to describe the occupied Palestinian experience by grinding my finger into the earth and saying, “The Palestinian is under that finger.”
Some things changed in the mid-1990s. There was hope for a peace process, but there were also expanding Israeli settlements, suicide bombs, and a rise in the use of border closures. I lived in Gaza then, and one could keep quite busy analyzing the ever-increasing Israeli restrictions on goods and people moving in and out of Gaza. We had a whole UN office analyzing just that.
Last October, though, I returned to a region that, in my eyes, could be defined by two words: separation and denial. In these I saw the unsustainable, and I smelled blood.
The separation is now very physical. For example, a tourist can fly into a beautiful new (to me) airport from which West Bank and Gazan Palestinians are simply banned. Down the road to the south is Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, where one-and-a-half million people are effectively sealed off from the rest of the world. To the east is Jerusalem, but tourists should not stray too far east or they will hit the massive concrete Israeli wall. It rips through the soil over which everyone is supposedly fighting, often ignoring the traditional Green Line border, cutting right through Palestinian towns and villages, and claiming prime farm land and aquifers. With the Wall comes a whole new infrastructure of separation, and with the separation, a denial of the other’s needs. The Israelis have built new roads crisscrossing the West Bank to bypass Palestinian areas as if these people didn’t exist.
In turn, Palestinians in Zone A—Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled—have built their own roads to reconnect villages and towns. It is illegal under Israeli law for an Israeli citizen to visit a PA-controlled area, though the IDF still enters these areas at will. But the occupation remains. Israel controls all the borders of the West Bank and Gaza, and much of the land in the West Bank. There are areas of Palestinian self-administration in the West Bank, but the Palestinian economy is seriously depressed by border restrictions and is upheld by donor aid. The situation in Gaza, even before the recent bombings, was considered an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Jerusalem once felt alive and complex, but now it seemed to me surreal, sterile, and segregated. West Bankers need a permit simply to enter Israel, and as permits are hard to obtain, most West Bank Palestinians have not been to Jerusalem in years. The Wall also cuts some West Bank Palestinian villages out of the West Bank, throwing inhabitants into the bizarre situation of now being “in Israel” but without the “right” to be there. They are told that they can stay in their homes but not leave their villages. There is also an Israeli “center of life” law that affects Arabs from East Jerusalem. If you leave Jerusalem and temporarily move elsewhere, Israeli authorities state that your “center of life” is elsewhere, and confiscate your identity card. You no longer have a right to live in Jerusalem. This “center of life” law is not applied to Israeli citizens.
Politicians have shifted their focus to Hamas, but Hamas is a symptom of a disease. If struck down, another—perhaps more lethal—symptom will evolve, especially with the rising hopelessness and poverty. Treat the disease if you want to de-radicalize the symptom. The disease is the occupation and its institutionalized inequality.
Two months after my trip, I sat before my television set and watched, dumbstruck, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in response to Hamas-fired rockets. Many people worldwide protested against the Israeli approach to halting Hamas rockets, but an unprecedented number of Israelis supported it. Against the international protests, Israelis felt even more isolated, misunderstood, and committed to their position. Among Palestinians, the bombings increased already unprecedented levels of poverty, anger, and hopelessness. This is a very dangerous combination. The level of violence we are seeing, whether through placing a population under long-term siege or through heavy bombardment despite the high rates of civilian deaths, implies to me an increased dehumanization of the “other.” I fear the violence could get much worse, yet I feel useless. Sensing this, I ask myself: What can I do? Or should I ask myself:
What am I doing so ineffectively?
Am I part of the problem?
Let me explain. I am outraged by what I see and have seen. But I am also haunted by the polarization that I have experienced within groups of “concerned outsiders.” How many of you have been asked, “Are you pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli?” How many demonstrations do you see with nationalist flags or demands specifically for one group of people? How many times have you described the horrors you have seen, only to watch the other person’s eyes glaze over? Concerned outsiders often appear to take sides quickly, and fail to seek a language that moves beyond polarization.
When I use the term concerned outsider, I refer to someone like me who has no tribal links to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. We are deeply concerned about the conflict but our reasons for concern may differ widely. Some of us, like myself, are horrified by the present oppression and injustice, so we identify with the Palestinians and often dismiss Israeli fears. Others are concerned, but silence our own criticism of the Israeli occupation in the name of past oppression and injustice experienced by Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. Others, and their numbers are growing, reflect a Christian Zionist interpretation of biblical Scripture in which this conflict is seen as inevitable and Israel as irreproachable. There are many more examples of “concerned outsiders,” but I tend to meet people in these above categories.
Over the years I have met with Christian Zionists, both in Church mediation attempts and in family gatherings. The experiences have been disturbing, as I am told repeatedly that God prefers one group of people over another. But the experiences have also been educational, and have led me to focus on the concept of equality. I consider it a critical concept, as U.S. foreign policy toward this conflict has systematically viewed these two peoples’ needs as unequal. As a result, the conflict is far more destructive to people’s lives than it was when I first arrived as a teacher, 22 years ago.
I now bluntly ask Christian Zionists, “Are you saying that Israelis are superior human beings to Palestinians?”
In turn, I ask this question to myself and others involved in Palestinian justice issues, as the atmosphere in activist groups can be easily dismissive of Israeli needs. “Do you think that Palestinians are superior human beings to Israelis?”
These are shocking questions to ask, and most people would answer in the negative. Most people would agree that what are unacceptable conditions for their children would be unacceptable conditions for all children.
But does our language reflect this?
When I consider the various reactions to the situation, I see groups of concerned people who are stuck in different corners of the room. But apart from the Christian Zionists, who view Israel as a means to an end, I think there is hope for a common language, and with the language, concerned outsiders could have a more healing role. We need this language to build a future.
Do we fail to remind ourselves that the world we seek for one group of people is the world we seek for all people? Today the Palestinians face greater injustice and daily suffering. In the past, in other countries, Jews faced greater injustice and daily suffering. There is no one here who can predict the victims of the future. We need to demand a world in which such injustice, for any human being, is unacceptable. In our anger, horror, or fear, we don’t always articulate this, and the “other” often sees us as uncaring of its struggles. Then we stop hearing each other. Our language becomes tribal, and it stays that way.
But if this conflict gets bloodier, and I think it could, then both groups will suffer. And if you place a dead Muslim, a dead Christian, and a dead Jew at my feet, would I cry differently over each one? I hope to God not.
What, then, is our message for everyone?
We seek a safe and fruitful life for all people. We can remind the world that when the interests and needs of different groups of people are not viewed as equal, the result is injustice, resentment, and often violence.
What, then, is my ploughshare for peace? What language raises us above anger and fear? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good start.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing, or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
This article, which was first published in the 2/20/09 issue of The Friend (UK), and appears here with some reworking, is reprinted with permission.