“Disputed territory” is how the guide preferred to reference the West Bank and Palestine, calling it the most accurate – regardless of your opinions on who’s occupying whom, we know it’s disputed. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry spent 70 minutes expressing, in no uncertain terms, his concerns for viability of peace in Israel and the two-state solution. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have known how to react. And I’m shocked to see so many people reacting to his speech (some before it even happened), without fully understanding the situation.
To be fair, it takes a lot to fully understand – I know that I certainly don’t get it all. But visiting several cities in Palestine has given me a first-hand look into what occupation and walls do to people. I was fortunate enough to spend almost three weeks exploring Israel and Palestine and my most salient takeaway is a reminder that we spend too much time trying to prove who is right that we forget to do what is right.
When pride comes before people, we humans get ourselves into situations that ironically, are hard to be proud of.
What is Palestine and what’s the problem?
Well, that’s way too complicated of a question to get into here, but to make it simple, it’s a country. It is not a voting member of the UN, but is a member state. Which means that it should have autonomy and sovereignty, but that’s not really how things are going. Agreements in place were designed to slowly move Israeli occupation and forces out of Palestine with the vision of them standing separately (hence the terminology of a two-state solution).
However, Israel isn’t holding up their end of the deal. When their influence and occupation should be retreating, it is growing through illegal settlements (which is what the UN vote was about and what triggered Kerry’s speech). This isn’t to say that Palestinians are innocent little angels in the history of this conflict – the incidents of violence are what Israelis cite when it comes to defending their defenses.
NOTE: This post is not meant to present a detailed history, feign expertise or take a look at who’s been right and wrong along the way. I am presenting my personal experience visiting the two countries – what I have learned and seen, the questions I asked and still have and how I feel about it all.
Hebron – a dual, dueling narrative
One of the days was spent in Hebron on a dual narrative tour, during half of which we heard from a Palestinian guide and the other half, an Israeli. We ended the day with an opportunity to talk with one of the Jewish community leaders on the Israeli side. He deflected questions about Palestinians having excrement thrown on them. He dodged questions about Israel living up to their end of UN agreements. Then I can only hope he lied when he answered my final question.
“Are you proud of how your neighbors live?”
“Yes. I’m very proud.” Ironically, he quickly cited their access to education. Education that many Palestinians value, but wish they could actually use. Since their movement is so restricted, the opportunity to use their education and build careers is incredibly limited. On the wall in Bethlehem I read a story written by a 9 year old Palestinian girl who wishes to leave Palestine – she says she would rather be free than educated.
In Hebron, encroaching settlements and increasing restricted movement have shuttered businesses and stifled growth. Because Israel is occupying the city, they control important services like city maintenance, which looks very different on each side.
It seems that both sides agree on the difficulty of having land and homes changing hands – populations displaced on both sides (though Palestinians are officially recognized as refugees for their displacement). Many Palestinians still have the keys to their homes that have been occupied or shut by Israelis, with plans to return someday. But that return is complicated.
Where do the people living there now go? It’s tempting to have an attitude dismissing this problem – if they are living somewhere illegally, they should leave. Simple, right? That would be a lot easier if we were talking about a handful of people. But now, returning Palestinian refugees from their camps and neighboring countries to their homes means displacing a large population. Maybe it’s ok to not feel bad about kicking them out for squatting, but it is still a massive logistics problem.
Where do they go?
Is it all about land or religion?
While in Nablus, we saw a group demonstrating. Our guide explained that this is an ongoing demonstration that rotates cities and is aimed at compelling the Israeli government to return bodies of Palestinians faster, and compelling the Palestinian government to do something about it. Though other articles online have conflicting stories, saying that the demonstrations are against the Palestinian Authority, calling for an election that has been perpetually postponed.
So it isn’t just conflict between the two states, but within them as well. Again, complicated.
Refugees and refugee camps
This had me very confused. We visited a few Palestinian refugee camps. In Palestine. What? UNRWA is responsible for building the camps, but the host country is responsible for administration. Which gets complicated in Palestinian areas where the Israeli military has control – the country causing the displacement of people is responsible for looking after them.
I’ve heard stories of kids throwing rocks at visitors, mistaking them for settlers. We had a boy following us around trying to figure out what we were up to. But these sweet girls asked my name and chatted with me for a bit.
Because refugees were displaced as early as the 1940s, there are second and third generation refugees in the camps. The lucky ones have sewer systems, but many don’t. Their water quantities are controlled by the Israeli government which limits the per-person water allotment to a fraction of the settlers’ allowances. But hey, they have access to education, right?
Is it all just TERRIBLE?
Of course not. Many of the cities are bustling and finding a balance between modernization and old life. There is a strong tourism flow, much of which based on visiting biblical sites all over the country (from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the baptism site at the river).
Strolling through the markets is a delight to senses. Smells and sounds all around.
And if nothing else, there’s knafeh – one of the many sweets Palestine is known for. Food is a big part of their culture, and something to be proud of (they even let me practice stretching the dough out).
That is the beauty of humanity. Despite forces against them, people will always work to make their situation the best they can. Be the happiest they can and do the most for their children.
What can you do?
The graffiti had it right – make hummus, not walls.
People were warm and welcoming. It never felt dangerous. Food, tea and laughs were shared all around. When you connect with people instead of their politics, you might be surprised with what you find. I believe that people are as kind as you let them be. Before over-simplifying conflict and issues, take a bit of time to understand the people side.
And in less flowery terms, take the time to get educated on the situations you’re judging; question the motives of everyone involved; ask questions; ask more questions; be kind.
[if you’re looking to visit Palestine, I went with Abraham Tours and they have several options depending on what you want to learn]
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