Six Recurring Themes from Israel and Palestine: A Personal Perspective

There’s been a resurgence in recent times of discussion of peace prospects in Israel and Palestine.  John Kerry has been in the Middle East trying to restart peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.  And there has been a range of responses to this news, with some expressing renewed hope, and others saying that the talks are unlikely to go anywhere. For a good, detailed account of some of the major issues – including the status of Jerusalem, settlements in the West Bank, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees – have a look at this recent New York Review of Books article.

Against this backdrop, I wanted to offer some personal reflections on my first ever visit to Israel and Palestine in late June and early July.  I wanted to draw together some of the themes that emerged again and again during the trip, to share what was said to us with a broader audience, and to encourage others to read more about – and to visit – the region.  (This also seemed like a good way to resuscitate my blog, which has been slightly dormant for the last couple of months.) 

Sometimes it seems like there is such a fog of confusion and murky misinformation hanging over Israel and Palestine that no one can draw any conclusions about what is happening there.  The media and others suggest that things are just too complicated for any person to stake out a position on the conflict.  But I felt and thought and saw and heard things with what seemed to me like clarity, and I want to write all of this down.  I don’t want to suggest that I pierced through this fog.  I do want to suggest, though, that despite this fog (which may, I think, often be manufactured) a visit to the region can still bring out certain impressions that – I think – are worth recording.

*

My trip to Israel and Palestine was all too brief.  I was there with my girlfriend, Julia, for only 9 days.  We spent three days in Tel Aviv, and then stayed six nights in East Jerusalem, and during our time in East Jerusalem made day trips to the West Bank – to Hebron, Nablus, and Bethlehem (including tours around Palestinian refugee camps in Arroub and Balata).  We went because a Palestinian friend suggested a trip after many conversations about issues in Palestine and Israel, and because we have always been interested in the issues in the region. 

I’ve been interested because issues in Palestine and Israel seem to have animated people close to me – friends I met when I lived in Indonesia when I was younger, my good friend Akif (a Pakistani New Zealander), and now new friends of mine at Oxford.  Beyond that, I think I have also always been interested because explanations for what is going on in the region raise issues that have long fascinated me, relating to the legacy of history; religion and culture; racial discrimination; colonization; and militarization.

I recognise that it’s very difficult to draw any wider conclusions based on such a short trip.  Different people will have different experiences based on the places they go to, the people they meet, and luck and circumstance.  I am also aware of debates about the utility of foreigners visiting the region, and expressing views over the top of local voices.  I am, too, acutely aware of the danger of over-simplification.  (As well, every word and phrase I choose in describing the region is loaded – is it even right to describe it as a “region”? Should I be referring to “countries”? Or a single “country”?)

But I want to record my thoughts nonetheless, acknowledging all of these challenges.  I want to record these thoughts in part to communicate some of the ideas expressed to me by Palestinian young people we met.  And I want to record these thoughts to do what these Palestinian young people said we should do: namely, to encourage others – you all – to visit the region, so that you can see what is going on with their own eyes, and form your own conclusions amidst that fog which hangs over all discussions of issues in Israel and Palestine.

*

The first recurring theme from our travels was the importance of education to Palestinians.  We met a few inspirational young Palestinians, whom I won’t name without express permission, and all of these young Palestinians spoke of how, to them, learning and acquiring skills was their future.  “Education is our only weapon,” one said eloquently.  We heard, time and time again, about large Palestinian families in which most, if not all, children of had attended university – though their parents had come from far more humble beginnings.  This hunger for education on the part of Palestinians is a point not often heard in the international reporting on the region.

Secondly, we were told repeatedly about dissatisfaction with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (the PA) and Fatah’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.  This is something that is said more frequently in the international media.  But what was striking was the unison of voices on this point.  Despite more money being directed towards the PA through taxation and other support, we were told that there were no visible results from that funding.  There were murmurings of corruption, and of large cars and sumptuous houses in in Ramallah (in the West Bank), where Fatah is based – an embarrassment when this wealth is compared to the poverty in which some Palestinians are living.

Dissatisfaction with the PA was more muted, though, than the unhappiness over Israeli settlements in the West Bank – the third theme of our trip.  Settlements seem to have become more and more rampant.  They can be seen from the buses going into the West Bank – pristine but soulless housing developments dotted around the hills.  But they also have a more nefarious face: they can be seen above the marketplace in Hebron, where a grill or netting has had to be set up to stop rubbish and in some cases methylated spirits being thrown down onto Palestinians going about their everyday life. These settlers, sometimes sponsored by the Israeli government and sometimes working on their own accord, have caused great hardship amongst the Palestinian population.

Fourthly, the militarization of life in Palestine and Israel, and the visible presence of the Israeli army (known locally, albeit controversially, as the Israeli Defence Force), is hard to forget.  In Tel Aviv, the Yitzhak Rabin Center (which tells the interesting story of Yitzhak Rabin, a former general and Israeli politician who helped to negotiate the Oslo Accord in 1993) presents a very military-centric account of the history of Israel – talking, for example, of “dazzling” and “spectacular” Israeli victories.  However, the militarization is not just limited to words on a page.  As is commonly reported, the Israeli army maintains a strong presence on entry into the West Bank and at Palestinian refugee camps.  On one bus into the West Bank, most of those going into the West Bank were taken off the bus and we were not given any scrutiny (despite having our passports out); and at one refugee camp, the army decided to do spot-searches of all cars going into and out of the refugee camp, brandishing very large weapons constantly.  Of course, many in Israel will defend this presence as necessary.  Regardless of whether this is true, what is clear is that this is a region where the Israeli military is never far away.

The military is particularly active around checkpoints and borders – and this highlights a fifth theme: the problems associated with restrictions on travel, particularly for Palestinians.  I had not fully grasped before going into the West Bank that those living in Ramallah or Nablus or Hebron, for example, often cannot travel into Jerusalem at all (or sometimes can travel but only with permits that are difficult to obtain).  Tourists like me, meanwhile, can easily go between Jerusalem and West Bank – an uncomfortable situation to be in.  We heard, repeatedly, about the grief that this has caused.  Palestinian families cannot return to Jaffa (next to Tel Aviv), where they are from; they cannot make trips that tourists take for granted.  Israelis, too, are told that it is illegal to travel to the West Bank.  All of these restrictions on freedom of movement are not just damaging to people’s lives, but also seem counter-productive for allowing friendships or relationships to form across Israel and Palestine.

A final theme that was continually highlighted for us was the differential treatment of Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  It is easy to think, before travelling to the region, that Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza – and that Israelis live in Tel Aviv and certain other cities; in other words, it is easy to think that there is hermetic separation between the peoples.  While there are efforts at enforced separation (such as the restrictions on freedom of movement discussed above), reality in the region is of course much more complicated than this.  There are numerous Palestinians in Israel, and we heard of the differential services received by Palestinians there: the separate schools in which Palestinians are taught (though not in Arabic), and the reduced spending on infrastructure in East Jerusalem (with its high Palestinian population), for example.  It is this treatment that has merited the “apartheid” description from former US President Jimmy Carter and others.

*

These themes – of the importance of education for Palestinians, dissatisfaction with Palestinian leadership, unhappiness with settlements, militarization, restrictions on travel, and differential services for Palestinians – paint a negative picture of the region’s current state.  And, indeed, the situation faced by Palestinians is a modern-day tragedy, that more should know about.  

But it is important to emphasize that, at least in our experience, Palestinians were still able to pluck shreds of hope and happiness out of the daily desolation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  These moments that we were able to share in were the highlights of our trip: the tour of Old Jaffa given to us by a Palestinian activist who took joy in showing us around the golden stones of the old city; the cigarette we had with a family at the Belata refugee camp (which I smoked woefully!); the delicious lunch we enjoyed in Hebron at a local Palestinian cafe.  It is this strength of character in such trying times that offers inspiration to all those fighting against injustice around the world – and that may just hold out the possibility of some permanent peace in the future in this region, which might not be shrouded in as much fog as some might like to suggest.

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