26 June 2006

the west bank.

I left for this trip not entirely certain where I stood on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Knowing Israelis who lost friends in suicide attacks and Palestinian refugees driven from their homes, I tend to see the conflict as a tragedy for both sides. I will admit, however, that I've always tended to lean more towards the Palestinians as the oppressed and occupied. I do not, for any reason, support or even condone the use of violence, and by sympathizing with Palestinians, I mean peaceful civilians, not suicide attackers or extremists. I do, however, lament the circumstances that lead shahids to feel they have no other choice. The situation will never resolve itself if we spend our time debating over who is to blame for the situation, instead of discerning how to move past today and plan for a peaceful future. For that reason, I'm here to learn about what's being done, what should or shouldn't be happening, and how I can help, rather than waste time pointing fingers. We're in this boat now, and it's sinking fast, so knowing who poked the first hole isn't going to help anyone.

Today I met a plethora of individuals on the Palestinian side, from high-ranking government officials to refugees who had lived in temporary "camps" for decades awaiting return to their family's lands. With everything we hear about Palestinians and the occupied territories from the media, the actual experience was almost a bit of a disappointment. Absent were the violent extremists the media has led me to expect. In their place I found a people much like any other - proud of their heritage and eager to build a better life for themselves and their children. I expected one sided criticisms of Israeli policy, and while I did find them, I also found surprisingly balanced and self-critical perspectives from the upper echelons of the Palestinian government. More interestingly, who we spoke to makes a powerful statement about the conflict. We met the equivalent of the speaker of the house and the assistant Secretary of State (and the assistant in name only because the newly appointed Hamas foreign minister is confined to Gaza and unable to assume office in Ramallah). We would have met the President's Chief of Staff and potentially Abbas himself if not for the IDF soldier's kidnapping in Gaza. A group of students would never get the time of day from similar ranking officials in the United States, unless it was an election year and the students were from a swing state. The Palestinians have proved exceedingly willing to talk to anyone, and I have this heartbreaking feeling that it's because they're desperate for anyone to listen to them.

We started the day with a briefing from Dr. Ahmad Soubeh, the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Palestinian Authority, who offered a brief history of the negotiation process before diving into some of the issues facing the conflict. When asked about Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, he made a provoking point. He maintained that governments recognize each other, not political parties. The American government recognizes Israel and the PA, so it's not necessary for the Republican party to also make a formal declaration of recognition. While Hamas, being a terrorist organization before becoming a political party, is a bit of a special case, I think he makes an interesting case worth consideration. While I'm not certain I completely buy his argument there, I am in complete agreement with his view of the American reaction to the January Palestinian elections. He (and others throughout the day) contend that the United States is hypocritical for punishing the Palestinian people by withdrawing aid after they held free elections. By punishing the election of Hamas, the west is only strengthening the case for fundamentalism. Democracy is about people choosing their own government, and sometimes the other guy wins. That's the whole point, and we have no right to only be for democracy when it's on our terms. An anecdote from his own life made me realize how difficult the Palestinian situation is to understand, in that a nation is expected to make broad changes while living under occupation. As Deputy foreign minister, he was under house arrest, unable to reach his office for several weeks. But a journalist's first question in an interview was "Why aren't you doing enough to stop suicide bombers?" The man can't even get to his office or visit his family in the next town over, and yet we expect him to change the social fabric of his nation overnight. Dr. Soubeh's introduction of the potential solutions to the conflict caught me off guard when he described a one state solution. The 78-22% two-state solution is nothing new to me, and I thought that was always the ultimate goal. Au contraire - according to him, a large number of Palestinians would just as soon live as equal Israeli citizens in one state than in their own independent Palestine. While critics on the Israeli side contend this undermines the Jewish nature of Israel, I don't think that's a bad thing. Close ties between religion and politics have always been hard for me to swallow, and the possibility of people of three religions sharing the holiest sites in one united state is the most appealing idea I've heard yet.

Dr. Saeb Erekat, the Chief Negotiator for the PA, offered a poetic telling of his role in the negotiations over the years. As he put it, there were hundreds of unwritten chapters about the stupid things and missed opportunities on both sides of the table, and his self-deprecating humor about his role made for an entertaining look at a serious situation. Acknowledging the history of the Jewish people, he characterized the Palestinians as "victims of the victims," and maintains that there will never be a military solution to the conflict. He joked that he has the most difficult negotiating job in history, with a dispersed people, no land, no army, and no economy on his side, but as he put it, "even a broken clock is right twice a day." To see hope for a solution coming from the man who's been on the frontlines of collapsing talks gives me hope that I will one day study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as history and not as current affairs. When asked about role of the United States in a peaceful solution, he said the Americans could be valuable as an objective, unbiased intermediary, but once we sacrificed our objectivity, we were useless. He also criticized American actions in the region, arguing that the United States needs new tactics to address the problems of the middle east. For him, democracy is key to stability in the region, but it has to be a unique democracy for each nation.

We finished up the afternoon at the Palestinian Legislative Council and a talk from the PLC's spokesman, Dr. Aziz Dweik. (The pictures in the chairs of the chamber are for the PLC members in Israeli prisons. We also watched the Natural Resources Council debate a measure on water management.). Unlike the first two talks, Dr. Dweik presented a feistier, more confrontational look at the conflict and especially America's role in it. Like the others, he championed democracy as key to reforming his nation, but was much quicker to point fingers at Israel and America for the problems of Palestine. When asked about violence and extremism, he spent more time criticizing American and Israeli sanctions and actions that heighten the appeal of fundamentalism than addressing the factors he can control, such as the state-supported glorification of martyrdom. He refused to condem violence and recognize Israel until they did it first, arguing that the oppressor has to recognize the oppressed, not the other way around. Such pettiness about who apologizes first wastes everyone's time, and sometimes you have to be the bigger person and step up.

The Kalandia refugee camp defied everything I expected about a camp. On the one hand, my gut reaction was "is this really so bad?" When I picture refugee camps, I imagine people crowded into makeshift tents, with little privacy or safe water. But Kalandia is a city of buildings and streets. Ahmed, our guide, admitted that Kalandia is one of the nicest camps, and that the tent cities do in fact exist in parts of Gaza and poorer sections of the West Bank. But he offered a more provoking reason for the unconventional arrangement - the "camp" has been in existence for over 50 years, with many of its residents living there that long. Despite decades in a camp, when asked where they are from, most refugees will name the city their family came from, and say they only live in Kalandia. Children born in the camp who have never seen their families lands still believe that someday, they will be allowed to return to their lands. I don't know if it's hope or naivete, but I found it heartwarming that people who have lost so much still believe in peace. Ahmed's family still holds deeds to hundreds of acres in Israel proper, and he dreams of a one state solution where he and his family may return to their lands and live alongside their Jewish neigbors as equals. For many in the camps, the desire for their home outweighs the drive for a national homeland, and many would rather see their children become free Israelis on their old land than Palestinians with a state of their own. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that anyone, much less large numbers of refugees, would want a one state solution. Having always viewed the conflict as a nationalistic one, it seems I've misinterpreted the nature of Palestinian nationalism in the most positive way possible.

Visiting families of refugees in the camps demonstrated one of the most powerful themes I've found throughout my travels - the overwhelming generosity of the people who have the least. In every home we entered, family members immediately retreated to the kitchen to start brewing fresh coffee or tea while others arranged every chair and couch in the house so we wouldn't have to stand. At the house of a 95 year old woman and her husband, who have lived in the camp since its establishment, a young son was sent down the street to buy juice for us. Some of us are wearing shoes that cost more than a month's salary in Kalandia, and yet they insistedt on offering all they can. Here we are invading their house to talk to them about a clearly difficult subject, and they're the ones encouraging us to stay longer. Similar to the politicians' willingness to talk to a group of lowly students, there's this sense that there's nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by sharing stories.

In the camp, we also met two families of shahids, or martyrs. After spending a semester researching suicide terrorism and the implicit state support for the families of shahids, I wasn't sure how to ask if they were martyred, or if they martyred themselves as suicide bombers. While I feel for grieving families, I cannot overlook the deaths of innocents. As it turns out, both were shot by IDF soldiers at what Ahmed described as peaceful demonstrations 50m from soldiers. While I know I'm getting a one-sided explanation from the families of the victimes and that the soldiers were probably provoked in some way, I find it difficult to imagine the potential threat a 16 year old boy could possibly pose to armed troops to warrant his death. His mother was distraught, crying for his lost future and the loss to her family. He was just months from moving to the United States to study, and now, almost three years later, the mother appears to have lost all hope. With five daughters coming of age, her hopelessness and self-inflicted misogyny angered me. She seemed to think that only her son had a bright future outside the camps, and I can't help but think that attitudes like this play a bigger role in limiting women's advancement than any state-sponsored policy could ever do. I can't wait to start my internship and begin helping change just such attitudes. Everyone, from scholars to refugees, cites breaking the cycle of poverty as the key to social change. If children have something to do, something to live for, then they'll avoid falling victim to extremism and instead become productive members of Palestinian society. In Morocco last summer, someone pointed out the satellite dishes atop the poorest houses in the medinas, and since then, they seem to be everywhere. As a lifelong avoider of TV, this boggles my mind. An entire large family crowded into a two room house, children roaming the streets, and yet money is being spent on satellite cable. I have a similar reaction to the large number of smokers I saw in Kalandia. With limited resources and few opportunities for advancement, it breaks my heart to see money being squandered on mindless amusement to pass the time.

Perhaps more heartbreaking was the grafitti covering the walls of the camp. It reads "Hamas, 4-17-2006," which was the date of the first suicide attack in Israel since the January 2006 elections. While Islamic Jihad claimed the attack, Hamas refused to condemn the act, calling it a legitimate response to Israeli aggression. A tentative cease-fire was signed in February 2005, but it has been violated several times since then. That some people celebrate in the deaths of others sickens me, no matter what injustices have been committed. Two wrongs never make a right.

In other news, our hotel is blessed with free wireless internet, so look forward to frequent updates, at least while I'm in Jerusalem. We also have a overzealous rooster somewhere outside our window who begins crowing around 3 AM and doesn't stop until mid-morning, but he's slightly less exciting. Tomorrow we're spending the day with a variety of Israeli officials, and the day after visiting the settlements. In the meantime, pictures are posted, and I apologize in advance for grainy quality. I accidently left the ISO speed at 1600 from Bonaroo, but the problem's been corrected for tomorrow.


mbn said...


My goodness, you are truly having the experiences of a lifetime. I hope you know how privileged you are, I am jealous of the things you've been seeing and the people you've been able to speak with. Enjoy every moment and soak it all in as much as possible - I know you are.

In reading your blog post I had some strong immediate reactions. But I've learned that sometimes (and most times) it's better to pose questions than make statements. So here are a few for you to ponder...

What do you think about the notion that it may be the ultimate sign of disrespect to homogenize 2 distinct and separate people groups? By promoting a one-state solution for both the Israeli's and the Muslims are you not effectively devaluing each groups claim to the land as their own?

Did you forget that at the root of this conflict is religion and NOT politics? Realizing that neither of their religions are ever going to change, how can you possibly envision a future of peace?

Imagine hypothetically that the Israeli's were refugees outside of Mecca. Do you think that the Muslims would ever allow Mecca to peacefully inhabited by the Jews? Why should the Jews allow Muslims to live peacefully in Jerusalem?

Do you feel sympathy for the mothers of the 9/11 terrorists? Do you feel sympathy for Timothy McVeigh's mother? These people are all acting out of a feeling of "God's call." How are the Palestinian suicide bombers any different? Should we really pity them? Should we even respect them?


That's all I've got for you now. I wish I had more to offer to the conversation. Let me know what you think. Grat blog entry by the way.

It's good to hear how you're doing. I miss you.


mbn said...

I read the news about Israel's attack on the road in Gaza today. Stay safe over there. I know you can take care of yourself, but I worry about you.


jess said...

I'll respond to Matt's thoughts, after I post another short novel about yesterday and today's time with Israeli leaders - anyone else who has thoughts, questions, or challenges, feel free to post them and I'll do what I can to address them. If I don't, we can hash them out over dinner when I get back. For others who heard about the news in Gaza, don't worry, we're staying far away!