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
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.