Imagine hearing rumors of a plague. It reaches a family on the other side of town, destroying their lives. Slowly, it moves through the neighborhood. There seems to be no way to immunize your family against the plague. Without access to the antidote, there is no way to save your family once this symbol of death reaches your front door. You watch, with a knot in your stomach, as the plague wipes out your street. Soon enough, the plague has come to your neighbor’s home. You know it is only a matter of time before it comes for you.
I have been sitting on this half finished post for nearly two weeks now. I’ve been trying to make sure I respond to every criticism that might arise in response to my post, making sure I am getting the most accurate timeline as possible and devouring every website, article and book I can find. However, I realize that is impossible, and therefore I post this with objectivity in mind, though after seeing the things that I saw and hearing the stories that I heard, I realize I can no longer be objective.
With the glimmer of hope surrounding the rumored resumption of peace talks between the two sides, I realize that I am not the only one with the belief that Americans are given an incredibly one-sided version of the story, and so this is my attempt to contribute to the dearth of the truth (wow, I sound like a conspiracy theorist, don’t I?) surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.
What follows is a semi-successful attempt to organize my thoughts into some kind of coherent narrative. I apologize in advance for what has turned into an incredibly long post… but I do hope that you read it all.
My opening paragraph may seem like a dramatic way to introduce this post, but as I sat with my fellow interns and supervisor during our drive through the West Bank the second week of July, we couldn’t help but describe the Israeli settlements we saw on every hillside and around every bend as just that: a plague. According to my supervisor, the first sign of a settlement is prefab houses; a cluster of doublewide trailers are the pioneers of a future development. These settlements are, without exception, on Palestinian land. Much of the West Bank is farmland, often with a few small, sporadic homes, in between Palestinian villages, and an increasing number of Israeli settlements. In several instances, the pre-fabs could only be described as a plague. Within a few hundred feet from a lone Palestinian farmhouse, we saw the cluster of pre-fabs that signaled pending doom for the farmhouse (I tried to capture that in the photo below, taken from a window of a fast moving vehicle). According to our supervisor, sometimes the settlers (or whoever is negotiating on their behalf) try to cut a deal with the farmer, but more often than not, they are forced from their homes “for security reasons,” and never allowed back in.
A Palestinian village
In Arabic, Hebrew, and English: “This road leads to Area A under the Palestinian Authority. The entrace for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law”
I recognize how dramatic this sounds, and while I have an admitted penchant for exaggerating for effect, I promise, none of that exists in this post. I spent the better part of two weeks reading The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (published in 2007 but really only researched through the early 2000s), an incredible book about the human side of this conflict that I recommend to everyone – regardless of your “side.” It is an incredibly well researched narrative about the true story of a well-respected, well-off Arab family, who was forced to flee in 1948 and the Jewish family who emigrated from Bulgaria and ultimately moved into their home in Palestine. Just after the Six-Day War in 1967, the son from the Arab family travels to his childhood home and is greeted by the daughter of the Jewish family. A strong, but difficult bond forms between the two, as they fall in and out of each other’s lives for the next forty years, bound by their mutual home, but divided over the politics that determine who has legal claim to it. The book does an incredible job of shining a humanizing light on what is too often understood as a strictly political issue.
My daily work is for a UN organization founded to support the Palestinian population (UNRWA), and 100% of my (non-expat) coworkers are Palestinian. As a result, feel like I’ve been deeply immersed in this issue since Day 1. The book helped to frame the visit I made to the West Bank and Jerusalem, where what has already become an emotional issue for me was catapulted to an entirely new level. Hours have been spent, struggling to put my disjointed thoughts and hurriedly typed notes in my iPhone into some semblance of organization.
As I try to do this seemingly impossible task, it has become apparent that there are two major themes in my understanding of and relationship with the conflict. The first is the historical origins of the conflict, the second, the de facto apartheid that exists in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and the Arab Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, where I spent my time recently. While the first issue may be controversial (while personally, I see only one interpretation, I recognize that it is a complicated and contentious issue), the second is one that everyone, as a member of the human race, cannot deny is unacceptable. The imbalance of power that currently exists, and the dehumanizing treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is something that no one should be abiding by. I think an understanding of both the historical and present situation is crucial before anyone can formulate an opinion regarding peace talks and “compromises” that have or, notably, have not, happened since.
While at its heart, this is a religious issue, I strongly believe that the day to day of the conflict is political. It’s about land, and statehood, and allies, and weapons, and money.
The Historical Origins of the Conflict
Rather than attempt to write my own history book, I will try to list a brief sequence of events, as I understand them, with the hope that those seeking more information will turn to The Lemon Tree or another (unbiased) source (all my information is mostly from this book). In the decades leading up to 1948, Jews and Arabs lived peacefully side-by-side, together as Palestinians, in a country that was 94% Arab. In the wake of the 1948 war, Jews came to Arab towns to find houses left in states of disarray, in some cases with dinner still on the table. They were told the Arabs had voluntarily fled, and were given free reign to pick a home and make it their own. Arab streets were renamed for historical Jewish sites and figures, and for all intents and purposes, life started anew. Meanwhile, over 700,000 Arabs had been forcibly evicted from their homes, some only packing a few items, as they were under the impression they would be returning home after a few days. Without exception, these Arabs have not been legally allowed back into their villages, let alone their homes, since they left.
Why did the Jews come to Palestine en masse? Why were the Arabs forced from their homes?
Zionism is a Jewish political movement whose purpose was/is to establish a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to an important Zionist leader that made public the British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A direct quote from the letter says “His Majesty’s Government view with the favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” (http://history1900s.about.com/cs/holocaust/p/balfourdeclare.htm).
There were obviously significant political considerations behind this letter, but the gist is that it gave Zionist Jews the mandate they needed to begin establishing their state. In the wake of WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, a significant number of Jews immigrated to Palestine, given the promise of a new life. Arabs, increasingly worried about the influx of Jews to their homeland, armed with the promise of establishing a Jewish state, were understandably worried.
In November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, which divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Arabs did not support this declaration, as hundreds of thousands Arabs would be living in what would become Israel under the UN Partition Plan. Based on 1945 population data, the Arab State would be 99% Arab, while the Jewish State would only be 61% Jewish; 39% of the inhabitants would be Arab. It divided the country 45%/56%, with Arabs getting the smaller half of the country, even though they owned 93% of the land. Understandably, Arab leadership did not agree with the Partition Plan; pockets of violence erupted immediately between the two sides. In the spring of 1948, when Israel declared its independence, a coalition of Arab states invaded their Jewish neighbors, starting the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Really long, and complicated story short, as a result of the war, Israel occupied much of the Arab land mandated by Resolution 181. The West Bank was taken over by Jordan, and Gaza by Egypt. At the end of the 1948 War, the UN passed Resolution 194, which defined principles for reaching a solution between the two parties. Importantly, it “resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property…. Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation….” (http://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/C758572B78D1CD0085256BCF0077E51A). Resolution 194 is important, as it is what many Palestinians are referring to when they reference “the right of return,” an oft-cited sticking point in peace talks.
The Six-Day War in 1967 resulted in Israel taking both the West Bank and Gaza. In the aftermath of the war, UN Resolution 242 was passed recommending that Israel surrender land gained as a result of the war, and seek a peaceful resolution with Arabs. While initially denounced by Palestinians (understandably, since it gave them less land than either Resolution 194 or the original 181), Resolution 242 has since been widely accepted as the basis for future negotiations.
Here’s my incredibly simplistic breakdown of the problem, as experienced by two children. In this scenario, Mikey represents Jewish immigrants/Israeli leadership, Tommy represents the Arabs of Palestine, the Principal represents the UN, while the superintendent represents the US (I recognize that the Superintendent should be the UN, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing the US is less powerful than the UN in some situations). The school district represents the international community.
At recess one day, Mikey took Tommy’s dollhouse, and said: “I’m going to play with this now,” and proceeded to take over the home, kicking out Tommy and all the dolls and furniture he had put in the house. Tommy appeals to the principal to get full use of the dollhouse back, and is largely ignored. However, some appeals are considered and deemed valid by the principal who declares that Mikey should give Tommy his house back. Mikey says: “no,” and the while the principal is angry that Mikey isn’t listening, he does nothing further to enforce this declaration (i.e. resolution 194). However, the Principal does offer that the two could share the house (i.e. resolution 242). Neither is happy, and Mikey proceeds to take more of the rooms of the house that the principal said Tommy could have.
Years down the road, after Mikey and his friends have renovated the home, and created lives for his dolls, while Tommy is forced to make do in a couple attic rooms, the Superintendent decides that Mikey and Tommy need to get along once and for all. They start to talk about how they can share the home that was originally Tommys, but which Mikey’s dollhouse descendants feel is now theirs. The superintendent and Mikey decide that Tommy can have the attic room with slanted ceilings where he’s been forced to play for years, telling Tommy he should be glad that they are even giving him that much, OF HIS OWN HOUSE (i.e. Camp David talks in the 90s). Tommy says: “no, the Principal said years ago that you should give me my entire home back. Or, failing that, I should at least get half of the house, as further designated by the Principal.” However, instead of people recognizing the unfairness of this deal, Tommy gets chastised by the entire school district because he isn’t willing to accept such a generous settlement, when in reality, the house was his in the first place!!!
Does this make any sense!??!?
So that’s an abridged version of the early history of the conflict that has led to over 5 million Palestinian refugees living primarily in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank – making them one of the largest populations of displaced people in the world today.
I think that regardless of one’s personal views on the appropriate allocation of land between Palestine and Israel, the current treatment of Palestinians by the IDF as a result of a blatant imbalance of power is unacceptable. Justification given for increasing the number and speed with which settlements are being constructed, the completion of the “Wall of Separation” and the humiliation every day Palestinians are subjected to on a daily, and systematic basis, is “security.” It is true that Palestinians have killed innocent Israeli citizens, but it is just as true that Israelis have killed innocent Palestinians. Since September 29, 2000 alone, 1,104 Israelis have been killed, while 6,829 Palestinians have been killed, 1,519 of which were children. To use brute force and discriminatory policies to suppress an entire population of people is completely unjustifiable. I am appalled at the lack of attention this situation gets in the US, and sickened by the aid, exceeding 8 million dollars PER DAY, that the US continues to channel to Israel, in spite of their heinous behavior.
What makes this even harder to stomach is that this abuse is being perpetrated by a population that was, 70 years ago, the victim of unspeakable crimes themselves. I am in no way comparing the Holocaust to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but I do think it’s interesting that those who had survived unimaginable suffering were so quick to persecute another. Examples of such persecution, below:
Shatila and Sabra
In 1982, IDF troops surrounded and secured the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps in Lebanon, even lighting flares, so that a Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia could enter the camps for 10 hours and slaughter 762 – 3,500 Palestinians. A UN commission later concluded that Israel bore responsibility for the violence. I’ve walked through Shatila. We were told that had we driven further into the camp, we would have seen the remains of homes and buildings that were bulldozed as their inhabitants were crushed to death, or shot, execution style, more than 30 years ago.
Humiliation and Degradation
In 2004, the Israeli army was implicated in a series of incidents dealing with Palestinians. An IDF officer was recorded repeatedly shooting a 13-year old Palestinian girl and saying that he would have done the same had she only been 3 years old. Pictures appeared of some soldiers impaling a Palestinian man’s head on a pole and sticking a cigarette in his mouth. However, the most shocking event occurred when a young man, on his way to a violin lesson, was stopped at a checkpoint and forced to “play something sad,” before he could continue on. The incident shocked Israeli citizens, many of whom expressed outrage at the apparent immunity with which the army operates. “The combination of rules of engagement that encourage a trigger-happy attitude among soldiers together with the climate of impunity results in a clear and very troubling message about the value the Israeli military places on Palestinian life.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/nov/29/israel)
One of my coworkers, Suha* a dear old woman with nothing but a smile on her face at all times is originally from Jerusalem. When we told her we would be making a trip there the following week, she immediately started showing us pictures of the city online and talking about her home. We asked if she had been back to visit recently, and she said that her ID card had been confiscated and she could no longer return. When doing some basic research when I first started writing this post, I stumbled upon an Instragram feed from IDF troops:
I started crying when I came upon this image of Israeli soldiers playing cards with Palestinian IDs. I thought to myself, “Is Suha’s ID in there?” I realize that realistically it’s not, but I couldn’t help but thinking of Suha, no longer allowed to go home, no longer allowed to visit her family, because her ID and as a result, her ability to return had been confiscated by a soldier, perhaps because he needed another card for his deck.
I encourage you to follow the link above to additional pictures, including one of a IDF teen wearing a t-shirt that reads “My first bullet, his last breath.”
Don’t even get me STARTED on the Jordanian/Israeli border. Fortunately, our UN ID
badges allowed us to skip the majority of the Disney-world style lines filled with sweating tourists, Palestinian men, women and children waiting to present their passport to an 18 year old girl, while an 18 year old boy mercilessly searched through their luggage. People are often detained with little to no explanation why, for hours at a time (something that happened to one girl I was traveling with). My supervisor, also a Palestinian, was given a hard time but ultimately made it through customs, however he told us it had taken six months to obtain a visa that allowed him to travel to Jerusalem. Our passports were checked at multiple times during our journey, and our true intention of visiting Palestinian refugee camps and health clinics had to be kept secret.
It is mandatory for all men and women over the age of 18 to serve in the IDF for at least 3 years (2 years for women), which means that the majority of the armed forces I saw at the border, at checkpoints, and strolling around the Old City, their machine guns casually slug over their shoulders, were fresh out of high school. I know too little about the IDF to speak with much authority, but I was terrified by the guns, guns which have historically been used against Palestinians with little hesitation. *
We had dinner on two consecutive nights with the cousin of our Deputy Director of Health at UNRWA, himself a product of the UNRWA system, having been raised in UNRWA refugee camps, gone through the UNRWA schools, and now working at headquarters. His family was displaced internally in 1948 and fled to Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967. His cousin and his family remained in the Arab Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, where we had the honor of visiting for a delicious homemade dinner. His cousin, a gourmet chef, is prohibited from working in Israel – and would have to travel to the West Bank to find work – something which is very rare as it is. They have 7 sons, and our visit marked the first time in recent memory that all 7 of their sons had been out of jail at once. It is standard that at least one of them is being detained at any given time; their 17-year-old son was recently released from a 23-day stay, while an older son had spent over a year at one point. A friend of the sons came to visit at one point, hobbling on crutches after a run in with the IDF that left his knee totally messed up, however he is prohibited from traveling to East Jerusalem, where the hospital that can care for him is located.
I’m not claiming that these boys are totally innocent church mice, but I do think that this is a prime example of the imbalance of power that exists in Jerusalem and the OPT. Does speaking out on behalf of your birthright as Palestinians who have been forced from their homes justify a beating? Does advocating for a fair and just resolution to a situation that has plagued your family for decades warrant a year in prison? My instinct is to say that no, it does not.
*[I recognize that men and women in the US can also join the military at 18, but I think since they are not present in our everyday lives in the states, I was more shocked to see it in Israel. Additionally, I recognize that armies the world over, the US included, have come under fire for their inappropriate behavior while deployed. I am in no way criticizing the acts of the IDF only to turn a blind eye to the black marks on the US military for doing the same. Power goes to the head, and the culture of occupation, the stress of combat, corrupts young, impressionable minds.]
The Wall of Separation, or The Apartheid Wall
Last, but certainly not least, the final nail in the coffin for Palestinians is the Wall of Separation, or The Apartheid Wall that is slowly but surely sealing Palestinians off from each other, and encroaching blatantly on what is rightfully Palestinian land. The concrete wall “….is 8 meters high – twice the height of the Berlin Wall – with watchtowers and a “buffer zone” 30-100 meters wide for electric fences, trenches, cameras, sensors, and military patrols. In other places, the Wall consists of layers of fencing and razor wire, military patrol roads, sand paths to trace footprints, ditches and surveillance cameras.”
Upon completion, it will be 810km (approximately 500 miles), and will have essentially annexed 46% of the West Bank, while drastically reducing the habitable land in the rest of the territory. Once completed, the Palestinian population between the West Bank and Gaza will be encircled in only 12% of mandated Palestine. That’s virtually the entire Palestinian population forced to live in TWELVE PERCENT of the land they were allocated in 1948!!!!
In total, there are:
- 34 fortified checkpoints – 3 main terminals, 9 commercial terminals, and 22 terminals for cars and workers that control all Palestinian movement.
- 44 tunnels will connect 22 small ghettos inside 3 main ghettos.
- 634 checkpoints or other military obstructions including trenches, roadblocks, metal gates under Occupation control.
- 1,661 km of settler roads connect settlements and settlement blocs and complement the Wall system.
Nothing prepared me for driving through the checkpoint that brought me from one side of the wall to the other. Furthermore, it was on the “West Bank” side of the wall, that I was assaulted by the abundance of Israeli settlements. Not only are the Israelis totally defying international mandates and UN resolutions by building this wall nowhere near the “Green Line,” but they are continuing to encroach INSIDE of the borders of the wall. Is there no stopping this government?!?!
Clearly, I am pro-Palestinian here, but that doesn’t mean I have some magic solution that will make this problem go away. I do believe that the right of return is a concession of symbolic significance to the Palestinian people; a sign of good faith and an apology of sorts from Israel. An admission that what happened in 1948 and 1967 was not right. I’ve read multiple articles and accounts where it is acknowledged openly that if this right were granted, very few Palestinians would take advantage. There would not be a mass influx of refugees looking to reclaim their homes, rather, this would be a largely symbolic gesture. I do understand that a literal “right of return” is not feasible.
Did you know that many Palestinians walk around with the key to the house they were evicted or fled from 60 years ago around their neck? Or, these keys hang in frames in Palestinian homes in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and refugee camps throughout the region. Of course most of those locks have been changed, and houses demolished, but the symbolism contained in that key is overwhelming.
The problem with trying to find a solution amenable to both parties is this conflict is 60+ years old. We are generations into this displacement. New children have been born, new families have been raised. An ‘innocent generation’ exists in Israel. When I visited the Wailing Wall in the Old City, I started crying, thinking of the Palestinian Muslims who could not worship at so many of their holy sites, while any Israeli Jew can visit the wall at any time. However, looking at the young women my age sitting to my left and my right, I knew that it was not their fault that I was so upset. * It was probably not even their parents’ fault. I thought back to The Lemon Tree; it was not Dalia’s fault that her family moved into Bashir’s family home. Probably, it was not even her parent’s fault. They were given an entirely different story from day 1 – who knows what they knew of the family that used to live there when they moved in.
*[Caveat: we did stumble upon a couple of new Jewish settlers who stated unabashedly that they had moved to Israel because they were Zionists and this is where they were meant to be, regardless of who was here first. I have also heard stories of a settler bragging about the devious schemes and plots he and others devised to get the Arabs out of their homes and deny their children the inheritance. So, not all new generations are innocent.]
I have tried to put myself in the shoes of this new generation of Israelis. If I found out that my parent’s home in Massachusetts was actually the site of an ancient Native American burial ground, and the US government had given them the right to return to the land and restore it to the ceremonial place it had once been, how would I react? Would I want to leave my house? Absolutely not. Would I feel as if I should be made to pay for mistakes made/atrocities committed by ancestors I may not even be related to? Hell no. But does that totally negate the Native American’s right to the land? No, it does not. What would the best solution be to make both parties happy? Hell if I know!
I am terrified to learn more about what happened to the Native Americans that were here for generations before Christopher Columbus set foot on North America. However, a key difference between this blemish on America’s history and on Israel’s history are that at least, America has acknowledged that what they did to was wrong, and was unacceptable. The behavior has been deemed inappropriate. Those who perpetuated the original crimes are not around to pay for them, and so America has done what it can to compensate. Are American reparations to Native Americans sufficient? No. But again, at least we are not continuing to promote this as a proud point in our history.
[I really don’t know enough about US/Native American relations, so I apologize if I’m off the mark here]
I do not, and will never condone terrorism as a means to an end, but in this situation, I am at a loss as to how Palestinians will ever truly be heard. Clearly, Israel has taken a page from America’s book and refused to listen to or sign any UN resolutions, they don’t seem to respond to pressure from the international community, and they essentially laugh in the face of anyone who tries to make them accountable for their behavior. Again, I repeat that I do NOT condone violence on the Palestinian side, but I think that we as the international community need to lend them the sympathetic ear that they deserve. I’ve also read a lot of remarks about how the Palestinians “refuse to negotiate” or provide counter agreements during peace talks, but I think it’s important to understand the basis of these peace talks. Palestinians were stripped of their ENTIRE country, and now live as second class citizens under occupation, and they’re supposed to gobble up the scraps that the US and Israel offers them from the floor and be grateful? That’s an insult to the people of Palestine, and they recognize it as such as well.
The Palestinians deserve a hell of a lot more than they seem to be willing to settle for, and I think that should be acknowledged, finally. It’s a pity that recent history mars the historical origins of this conflict. Palestinians are seen as terrorists for fighting for what was taken from them with no remorse. Again, I do not condone their actions, I merely understand them.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think that’s a disservice to make a harsh judgment 1) based on US government propaganda and 2) before asking yourself the question, “If I were a Palestinian, and my mother’s ID card had been confiscated, or, my sons had been routinely imprisoned, or, my home was destroyed to make room for an Israeli settlement, or, my friend was forced to play “a sad song” for Israeli soldiers at gunpoint, how would I seek a resolution?”
For those that are interested, here are some recent articles from the New York Times re: the potential revival of peace talks between Israel and Palestine:
Recently, former white house correspondent Helen Thomas died at 92 years of age. I did not know much of her when alive, but clicked on her obituary in the NYT, due to a story tease that read: “Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, but her career ended ignominiously over remarks she made about Israeli Jews.” She had what seems to be one of the most remarkable careers of any woman of her generation, yet her legacy is marred by accusations of “anti-Semitism.” The remarks were made in 2011 and were apparently to the effect that “Jews should get the hell out of Palestine.” I personally view this as a political, rather than religious comment, but won’t make a sweeping statement since I don’t know more about her beliefs.
Ifamericansknew.org: At a glance, this is the kind of website that I would not take at face value before understanding the motivations of the organizations and those that run it. However, after witnessing this firsthand, I have to agree with I read. I do believe Americans get an incredibly biased and inaccurate picture of this conflict, and I would encourage others to find a media source that gives them the truth
Stopthewall.org: this is where I got my info on the wall
**A review of The Lemon Tree from Publishers Weekly, found on Amazon.com**
“The title of this moving, well-crafted book refers to a tree in the backyard of a home in Ramla, Israel. The home is currently owned by Dalia, a Jewish woman whose family of Holocaust survivors emigrated from Bulgaria. But before Israel gained its independence in 1948, the house was owned by the Palestinian family of Bashir, who meets Dalia when he returns to see his family home after the Six-Day War of 1967. Journalist Tonal traces the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the parallel personal histories of Dalia and Bashir and their families – all refugees seeking a home. As Tolan takes the story forward, Dalia struggles with her Israeli identity, and Bashir struggles with decades in Israeli prisons for suspected terrorist activities. Those looking for even a symbolic magical solution to that conflict won’t find it here: the lemon tree dies in 1998…”