Saturday, July 26, 2014

There Was No God in the Holy Land -Reflections From a Brief Visit to Israel and the West Bank

Gaza has been in the news. Israel has been in the news. Israeli soldiers have died in action. Many more Palestinian civilians have been killed. Israel is targeting them directly. Rockets have flown has far as Tel aviv airport. Bombs, tank shells and artillery have laid waste to hundreds of homes in the Gaza Strip. Riots have broken out in the West Bank against Israel's military operation and Israeli occupation.

 As of now a twelve hour ceasefire has been agreed to between Hamas and Israel. How long will it last? No one is certain. What is certain is the blood that's been shed won't be forgotten, especially by terrified Gazans. Neither will the destroyed homes or the long cyclical narratives of violence and retaliation that permeate the history of Palestinians and Israelis.

So many heated opinions are swirling around cyberspace now because of these events. So many voices of condemnation, denial and finger pointing. At such a time, it might seem fruitless to add my small perspective to the mix.

I studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict briefly. I had the chance to see its Israeli and Palestinian faces in 2009 when I went there specifically to study it. But I am not an expert and there are many, many more knowledgeable people I know who could do a far better job of explaining the issues underlying this current outburst of violence.

Nevertheless, I did want to share what I saw, heard and felt during my two and a half weeks in the so called Holy Land when I was a college student. For whatever my perspective may be worth, I hope, at least it sheds some light for people on what this part of the world is like.

The Old City of Jerusalem.

I was twenty two when I arrived in Israel with around thirty other North American students as part of the Middle East Studies Program. We had spent the better part of a month traveling in surrounding countries. When our bus crossed the Jordanian border and approached an Israeli checkpoint to enter the West Bank there was a bomb scare. Bald men with M-16s scurried below us in front of the terminal as our bus pulled a safe distance away. In the end, there was no bomb and we were allowed to pass through.

It was our first exposure to the palpable fear and paranoia that grips Israeli security personnel...and Israeli society. The fear that at any moment a seemingly ordinary object or average looking person could explode and cut your life short. The more time I spent there, the more I would come to understand this fear. I would understand how justifiable the paranoia was for many Israelis. Yet paradoxically I would also see the utterly inhumane results of this fear, especially its detrimental affects on Palestinians.

I saw fear and concern in many places and on many faces. For the bulk of our time in the country, we stayed in the Arab Quarter of East Jerusalem. Not only are the majority of people who live in this district ethnic Arabs, Palestinians also consider it the capital of their own state.

What fascinated the most about my stay in the walled off old historic part of Jerusalem, was how so many different and conflicting religious and ethnic groups lived side by side in this hotly contested corner of the world. The Old City of Jerusalem, is home to some of the holiest locations for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are all crammed into a walled area that is only one or two miles wide and long. I from one historic gate to another gate in about twenty minutes. For such a small corner of the world to have such significance for so many religions is a recipe for conflict. Arab Muslims and Christians and Israeli Jews all live in there own quarters in the city. Yet because of the lack of space, inevitably they must bump shoulders and rub against each other. It was normal for Ultra Orthodox Jews to walk through the Arab Quarter in order to reach the Wailing Wall to pray. Church bells were muffled by the Islamic call to prayer emanating from the Al Aqsa mosque on the Haram al Sharif.

Yet though these faiths could coexist on some level here that peace was based on people of those religious persuasions living in their own parallel worlds ignoring the presence of the other faiths were living, walking and shopping beside them as if they were simple in another dimension. And when several groups of people claim the same piece of property exclusively, they can only stay on their parallel paths for so long before colliding.

We heard that collision during our stay in the Arab Quarter when a group of Jewish settlers came pounding on its door. Every year, Israeli Jewish settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who have settled illegally on land meant for Palestinians, parade through the streets of East Jerusalem. They wave Israeli flags, dance and send a message to the Arabs living in that corner of the city. The message is: 'This quarter is ours, not yours. Get out!' In the past, Arab owned shops have been smashed up, Arabs killed by mobs of angry young settlers who clash with them. I never saw the parade but was close to enough to hear the shouting and jeering. It was the sound of parallel world, parallel histories colliding.

Israeli security wall around Bethlehem from the Palestinian side.

These collisions are the source of the violence and the fear of violence one feels everywhere. When describing my time in Israel and the West Bank I often say that I felt as if I was constantly walking on the edge of a wall, trying hard to balance myself as at any moment I could fall off.

Men with assault rifles, Jewish Israeli men with assault rifles, were a common site in Israel proper. In the West Bank, the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority, I never saw such weapons in front of me except on the posters featuring dead Palestinian fighters and suicide bombers that plaster so many street corners of Palestinian towns like Bethlehem and Beit Sahour.

More jarring and compelling than these posters though was the graffiti art that covered the infamous West Bank Security, an enormous wall with guard towers built by the Israeli military which separates Palestinians in the West Bank from Israel proper. It was built following the second Palestinian Intifada uprising by Palestinians against Israeli occupation. Designed to keep out Palestinians militants and suicide bombers, it has succeeded in keeping Israelis and in making the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank even more miserable than before it was erected.

Our guide, a Palestinian Christian, showed us a UN run school in a Palestinian refugee camp which was within a few meters of a paint splattered guard tower. He pointed to the school's upper floor where several windows had been filled in with concrete blocks. He explained that the school had filled in the windows after Israeli soldiers in the guard tower started shooting at the children taking their lessons there. He also explained how the refugee camp was also used as a training ground for the Israeli army, who without warning or consulting the Palestinian residents, would raid the homes in the area for the sole purpose of teaching their soldiers how to conduct house to house searches.

We heard many other stories from Palestinians about the suffering they had endured at the hands of Israeli soldiers occupying their communities. Our guide recounted how Israeli soldiers had raided his neighborhood in Bethlehem during the Second Intifada. Indiscriminately, Palestinians were pushed out of their homes and forced to watch as the Israeli soldiers removed all of their property from their homes and smashed it to bits in the street.

A former Palestinian militant also told us of how is daughter was shot in the end by Israeli soldier as she was lining up for school and an ex-Israeli soldier, now a member of the activist group combatants for peace, recounted how his service in the Israeli military prompted him to dedicate himself to protesting against his country's policies in the West Bank.

Israeli guard tower in the occupied West Bank.

Seeing the ways Palestinians in the West Bank suffered as a result of Israeli occupation was jarring. There was no doubt in my mind after leaving there that the Palestinians were the underdog in this struggle. They had no standing army, no currency of their own ((they use the Israeli shekel), no control of any resources even in the lands they were supposed to be in control of even according to the official Israeli position. Israel truly had them in their grip. They couldn't take loved ones to a hospital only a mile or so away without going through an extensive search by Israeli security forces.

And yet Israelis had also suffered as well. A trip to Jerusalem University drove this home for me the most when our guide explained how during the Second Intifada an Arab Israeli who worked in college's cafeteria had blown himself up and killed several Israeli college students.

Writing now, it strikes me how similar so many of my interactions were with Palestinians and Israelis were. So many times it seemed as if both Israelis and Palestinians were trying so very hard to convince me that they, and their respective peoples, were good people not the stereotypes we see in media. And they would succeed. Most of my interactions with people from both sides of the conflict were largely positive. Until...the opposing side was brought up.  As soon as Israel was mentioned to Palestinians, as soon as Palestinians were brought up to an Israeli...a transformation occurred. Suddenly, the victimization would begin for their people usually in conjunction with the demonization of the other and the justification for acts of indiscriminate violence perpetrated against them.

'All Palestinians are raised to hate Israelis. They will all become terrorists, that's why its fine when Palestinain children are killed in our military operations.'

'All Israelis serve in the military, have served in the military or will serve in the military. That's why its perfectly fine for our fighters to kill Jewish civilians.'

Every violent act, every massacre perpetrated by 'the other' would be raised while every atrocity perpetrated by their own side would be excused or flat out denied and ignored.

Then as now, I can't help but feel a deep sense of sadness for this permeating psychology of victimization that both sides are fully absorbed in. Always, whether Israeli or Palestinian, they are told by their parents, by their leaders, we are the victims. They are assured time and time again that their stained hands are not bloodied. They are told this so much that they are convinced it is the truth. And the killing continues, for the victim never has to justify his acts of retaliation.

Now, I feel as if it has come time to end this piece. It's a difficult one to conclude. Mostly, that's because there are a number of conclusions I can't make.

I can't tell you what the answer to this enduring conflict is. I can't tell you that there is a 'good' side or an 'evil' side. Any one who gives you such an answer has no business being listened to and there are far, far too many individuals making such broad generalizations for the sake of a political or religious end.

That said, I will conclude with this. The one thing that I know for certain after recounting my time there.

No one, neither Israeli or Palestinian is righteous. No one, neither Israeli or Palestinian is an angel or demon. They are both like us. They are human, they breathe, they eat, they drink, they shit, and like us they want more and they are so, so deeply flawed as we all are.

During my entire time there, as I visited historic and religious sites, I felt nothing of God. He does not dwell in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Ramallah. He does not dwell in stones or rocks or trees. All I saw and felt were people, lost terrified people. That's all Israelis and Palestinians are. And perhaps, sadly that is all they will ever be. If God is there he is with each and every one of them, Muslim Jew Palestinian Israeli, somewhere buried underneath all the fear and anger.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this, Sean.