Upside Down in the West Bank – Palestine, Israel, Middle East

I had been traveling in Israel for a couple of weeks, checking out the major sites. I’m an American Jew. I had long wanted to visit the Holy Land, feel the magic. But I felt there was something I was missing. I signed up for an "alternative tour", to include a
look at the "Separation Wall", a refugee camp (as close as we could get
to one, anyway), Israeli settlements and talks with some local
intelligentsia. I got what was promised, and a bit more.

The Bethlehem Checkpoint presented the first example of arrogance,
or at least condescension. I showed my passport, the guards were two
youths who I thought were a bit mocking of my being an American, wanting to enter the West Bank. They didn’t give me any trouble per
se, but I felt a fair amount of negative energy and overconfidence –
something I sensed during the entire day. They were fascinated by my fat
passport, looked through it for a minute or two. Then one asked me
if I like Obama, to which I said yes. I asked them if they did too – I
wasn’t 100% sure what they said in response – I think one said that
he didn’t know, "Obama’s Black". Charming. No surprise that Jews can
be as racist as anyone, you’d think though, that given our history, we’d at
least make an effort not to discriminate. 

On the Bethlehem side, I bought a cup of tea from a friendly local
while I waited for George to come get me. Got a hundred taxi
offers; business didn’t look too good there. The tea vendor invited me to
come and have dinner with his family. I tend to discount these offers, in any event, he was friendly and that helped get me back to
equilibrium after the checkpoint annoyance. Then George showed up and off
we went.

Some Tourists and What They Stand For

We picked up 3 more tourists – all Americans. Matt had just
finished university and was on a Birthright Program Tour of
Israel. Betty was a professor of Women’s Studies and Anthropology at
Wichita State University (she was shocked when I told her I knew the
WSU sports nickname is the "Shockers"), and her student Kristen, a recent convert to Islam, a vegan to boot. Betty and Kristin
had already spent some time in the West Bank (Betty a lot of time), both came in very pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist. Matt and I, both
Jewish, were open minded; we wanted to see the good, the bad
and the ugly. Mission accomplished – and how.

We started breakfast with a Palestinian
professor/author, Mazen, who taught at Yale, I believe. He did some
road shows at US universities before moving back here recently. He was a pleasant fellow – not hard to detect where his sympathies lay. His
thesis, presented gently but firmly, was that Israel is a colonial
power, acts completely in colonial ways, does not want any
two-state or one-state solution. It wants the status quo, to continue to grab land and squeeze Palestinians onto smaller, more
marginal bits of land, expropriating the best for themselves. Israel doesn’t want peace; it wants conflict, to push this process
along and to feed its military-industrial machine. To the professor, it’s
that simple.

I told him I found that pretty cynical, that it didn’t incorporate
the Jewish sense of victimhood and the memory of the Holocaust into the
equation, and that many, probably most of the Israeli public, and
perhaps its politicians, wanted some solution, not the status quo. I couldn’t cite any numbers or roll out any convincing data, but neither
could he. His arguments were more streamlined than mine, then again, he
spends most of his time on the topic and I don’t. I’m not sure how he
felt being challenged like this – Matt was keeping quiet, and
Betty and Kristen had gone for his argument hook line and sinker. Anyway, we kept it civil. I found it interesting to hear his
points. Nothing was entirely novel, I’d read these before, but reading
something and hearing it presented live are two different things.

The paradox here, in my opinion, is that there are so many layers to
the conflict that it doesn’t make sense to just talk about what’s
happening right now (Hamas fired rockets at southern Israel vs. Israel won’t give back the West Bank), the historical context is
critical to making sense of the mess. But the paradox kicks in
because, IMHO, you almost need to put aside the past and start with a
clean slate of paper – both sides can point fingers ad infinitum. The
best way to solve the conflict is to decide what’s an acceptable
end-state and work backwards from there. Of course, easier said than
done.

Apartheid Wall

Apartheid Wall

Walls, Israeli Settlements

From there, we went to see a couple sections of the "Separation
Wall
", which the locals call the "Apartheid Wall". Incredible
graffiti there, some of it quite moving. A few are humorous, hard to
classify. One person had stenciled Ich Bin Ein Berliner in huge
letters. Kristen didn’t know what that meant, no clue about a famous
moment in American – and world – history, a moment that at least the
graffiti artist (unlikely an American) had found relevant, and I agreed
was relevant to the new wall here.

I don’t like walls, short and simple. The Berlin Wall was fated to
fall. This one is full of bad karma and will come down one day too. I
thought about the wall the USA is building on its Mexican border. Walls don’t work that well; they create so much bad will (and an easy
target for hatred). They’re a net negative. You can argue that
every wall has a different purpose, but those differences are tactical
– the overarching objective for all of them is to keep one group out. This wall has the added aggravation of being built in parts of the West
Bank that were supposed to be handed back to the Palestinians – not only separating, but seizing. You’d think that Jews,
with their experience in the European ghettos during WWII, would know
better. 

Throughout the morning George was pointing out Israeli settlements –
legal and illegal – which surrounded Bethlehem. I think he said there
were 29 of them, and some were quite developed, looking like little
cities. I didn’t like this, not a fan of the settlers. I can’t see how having settlements in the West Bank helps Israeli
security or will lead to any sort of peace. If Israel doesn’t really want peace, only land with no Palestinians on it, then this fits right in.

Manger Square

Manger Square

We proceeded to Manger Square. There was an anti-Gaza bombing protest going on, fairly calm when we were there. Later we heard that some of the protestors tried
to get close to the Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint, but the
Palestinian Authority guards kept them at bay.

We went
into the Church of the Nativity and descended into the grotto where Jesus was supposedly
born, the spot marked with a silver star.

After lunch we caught a minivan to Hebron, our next stop. We skirted
the growing disturbance, centered near Rachel’s Tomb. The Palestinian
cops were trying to keep a gang of youths at bay – these Palestinians police are
really the meat in the sandwich, stuck between their own people and the
Israelis.

Caged living

Caged living

We reached Hebron without getting stopped at any checkpoint – most unusual. We walked into the old city, which is fairly well-preserved, at
least, restored. Hebron was an eye-opener mainly because here’s
an enclave of 300 to 400 Jews living in the middle of an Arab Palestinian
city of 170,000. Weird. The few Jewish areas were "welded shut and blocked by barbed wire,
fences, military gates" so that locals could not  enter. Two thousand Israeli guards protecting 400 settlers! Apparently, the guards hate the
job, who wouldn’t? The settlers must be crazy to want to live there – like caged animals, despite getting preferential
treatment with water, electricity, space, etc.

The two sides do not co-exist peacefully. The
old city alleys and streets have fences above the streets, because the
settlers often live in apartment buildings that tower above these
streets. They toss their garbage (and sometime dirty water, rocks,
and worse) down on the Palestinians below. Ugly.  

The Israelis have tried to clear the old city, at least those sections
near the settlers, by closing hundreds of shops, welding them
shut. Entire streets of Hebron are ghostly quiet and empty. Haunting. I heard that settlers have been known to attack
Palestinians on the street, then hide behind soldiers, or take off!

Cenotaph of Abraham

Cenotaph of Abraham

Our goal was the Tomb of the Patriarchs, aka the Cave of
Machpelah, where Abraham, Sarah, his sons and their spouses are
entombed (supposedly). After looking around, getting a
sense for the settler situation, we passed through a checkpoint
(there are over 100 in the city itself – imagine that) to get to the
Tomb. Betty and Kristen went ahead of us. When I got through, I heard
Betty dressing down a young soldier, saying: in our country you can
choose whatever religion you like. The young guard had
seen Kristen’s hijab and asked why she, an American
woman, had converted. Not sure what Kristen said in response, but the
guard then commented that she had made a mistake. Cheeky, totally uncalled for. Jews should know better.

Muslim prayers were being said, so we had a half hour off. We walked down to a street that’s off-limits to the locals, except
for a handful who work there. It’s a street entirely set aside for
Jewish settlers – there’s even a cultural center there. We had to
parley with a couple bored soldiers, then climb over a short
concrete barrier. The soldiers asked if we were Jewish. They eventually let Betty, Kristen and George in, but they gave them a hard time. All very
unpleasant. 

The street was deathly quiet, only one shop open. We went in. The owner, a Palestinian, was thrilled to see tourists. He almost cried. Betty bought something
from him, we chatted for a while.

More Security

Back at the Tomb, we had to deal with two layers of
security to enter. The Baruch Goldstein 1994 massacre had led to the
current heavy security, understandable, but the Israeli guards
gave George a hard time, kept hold of his West Bank ID card while he
was inside. They were OK with the rest of us, but I did detect some
hostility towards Kristen, and they weren’t all that friendly towards
the rest of us. It appeared as though they were thinking: why do you
want to be in the West Bank. 

I sensed these guards had a terrible job and
didn’t much enjoy it. I also noted transgressions. I
watched as an older Palestinian woman walked by the Tomb; a young
Israeli female soldier/guard yelled to her. The woman didn’t stop –
probably didn’t hear / didn’t understand Hebrew / didn’t know she was
the target. Eventually she turned, came over to the guard, who went
through her purse, then let her proceed. What was the security
justification for that move? It only demonstrated that a young Israeli girl could pull an old woman over and humiliate her
in a low-grade fashion. I watched, with distaste and a
bit of shock.

My head was spinning as we entered the Tomb, a place I’ve always
wanted to visit. I decided to synthesize my thoughts. The place is divided into a mosque and a synagogue,
most of the tombs are in the former. We walked around and saw
Abraham’s tomb. Isaac, Jacob and their wives are interred there too. The actual tomb is a level below, you can’t go down, the
caretaker said no one had been down in his memory. Candles are
lowered on a contraption, that’s as close as you get to
what may be the final, 4,000-year-old resting place of Father Abraham
and his brood.

The tomb is a solemn and impressive place, felt like the air was heavy with
history. On the floor next to
Abraham’s tomb, I noticed a few pieces of paper, bits of repair/construction going on. I told George I’d
give anything to be able to go to the tomb and see what’s really
there. He said that the Canaanites buried people in rock-hewn
cavities, that if this is really the burial place, the tomb itself
might still be in decent shape. I had wondered whether the place
was flooded/covered in garbage/etc. In any event Abraham might be
a fictional character, maybe not.

George showed us a few covered bullet holes from the Baruch Goldstein attack in 1994.

We walked out and back into the old city – a few dealings with the
guards, but not too bad. I thought throughout the day: the
morning discussion with the professor seemed ages ago.

My Thoughts

– Children should never be targeted or
hurt; people should be treated with decency. There’s no excuse
for ever violating these principles.

– Some things are beyond pure logic/law, in the
domain of emotion. I fully support Israel’s founding and right to
exist, despite the trauma it caused others. I’m Jewish, I lost
relatives to the Holocaust, and I think the creation of Israel was
critical to the survival of the Jewish people.

– I refuse to give my blanket support to all things Israeli,
including so-called security measures. What I observed during the day
disgusted me – soldiers taunting Muslims, settlements all over the West
Bank. This is wrong.

– Seems to me both sides deserve each other, depressing and cynical perhaps, but that’s my sense.

– I think that a two-state solution is the best approach,
sooner rather than later. I didn’t buy the professor’s argument that
Israel will drag this out forever, if for no other reason than the
demographics will make the Palestinian Arabs the larger group in a few
decades. I also can’t really say that he’s wrong.

What
we’re observing could be interpreted as supporting his thesis. I believe the occupation has been poisonous for Israel,
not worth it, bad energy is palpable. We’ve turned Jews into,
not heroic soldiers, but security guards, a scary copy of
Nazi ghetto guards in WW2. Watching the guards harass Palestinians
merely trying to move about the(ir) city, drained the life out of me, gave me a bad vibe.

I’ve generally been
supportive of Israel doing something to stop the rockets coming in from
Gaza. I haven’t been happy with the level of civilian/child
casualties, not at all, but I understand it’s hard to have no casualties,
particularly when Hamas seems to fire its rockets from densely
populated areas.  Still, I wonder where the diplomacy is and whether
there’s any way to break this vicious cycle.

To my earlier point about
time horizons and paradox, the two sides are stuck in a never-ending
cycle of accusations, hatred and violence. It’ll take a
powerful outside force, or person (Obama?) to break the inertial chain,
like the case of having an allergy or other chronic condition. Stopping the settlements, and dismantling the existing ones,
seems to me to be the place to start.

One more thought on this. I think it’s a terrible idea to let men
under the age of 40 hold a gun. They can’t handle it.  Believe me.

The day ended. George drove Matt and I back to the Bethlehem Checkpoint.  He called his pregnant wife. Aren’t we all similar, despite everything? George had lived abroad and spent time in the States. I met other
Palestinians who had similar experiences. Ninety nine percent of Palestinians are not
fundamentalist Muslims running around shooting. Most of them are as or less religious than many Israeli Jews. Ramallah is
known for having quite a few fun bars and discos.

Tourmate Matt was finishing up a stint in the Birthright Program, which
brings foreign Jews over for a look-see, pays most of the cost. Quite cool – I don’t think I’d ever heard of this program,
unfortunately. If I had, I would definitely have gone for it when
younger. Matt also told me that the Madoff scandal had hit the program
hard, that it was being severely cut back or perhaps even closed.  Yet another injustice, fitting after what we had seen this long day.

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