Israel- Palestine

  • Shalom! Salaam alaikum! studytrip to Israel and the Palestinian territories

     

    When I did my masters in Amsterdam, I went on a diversity studytrip to Israel and the Westbank with a group of the VU university in Amsterdam. The group in itself was very diverse already, with people from different backgrounds and studies, but we’d encounter some mind boggling diversity and severe culture shocks on this 10-day trip.
    I wrote this all with a healthy dose of cynicism and from my own point of view, having read a LOT about the Israel-Palestine conflict throughout my life. I learned a lot on this trip, and feel more informed about the topic, but I still stand by the fact that an injustice rules these lands, and I don’t think that will ever change.
     

    Day 1

    Arriving in Tel Aviv I received the following text in the airplane while landing:
    “Merhaba! Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. JAWWAL welcomes you to Palestine.”
    Only 20 minutes later did I receive a “welcome to Israel” text.
    The battle already started in the air.
    2,5h security check, and of course the girls with the headscarf were taken to a separate room and interrogated. But also the boy with the Jewish name and looks was interrogated and questioned. “Why on earth are you with this group, going to the West Bank?” Upon which his luggage was also fully searched. I was just asked about the purpose of my visit, and was let through after 30 seconds. Very selective, as expected of course.

    Then Tel Aviv; which is quite surreal. It feels like you’re somewhere in Spain, pretty mediterrean villa’s, lots of open space, but also very green, which surprised us since we know the Middle east as a brown and dry place. Of course, if you control 80% of all water reserves in the region, you can afford to sprinkle your lawn now and then…

     

    Since we arrived in the evening, not much happened in Tel Aviv on day one. we made a beach walk, and it felt a bit like Barcelona. I understand completely why Tel Aviv is considered a bubble, and how easy it would be to stay isolated from everything happening in Gaza and the Westbank, even when it’s less than an hour drive from occupied land.

     

    Day 2

    The next day it was time for the program to start. the DIVERSITY PROGRAM.
    Our very first stop was in the Al Qassami Islamic College in Bacq Al Gharbiya. A town full of arabs (muslim arabs) in Israel. When it comes to identity, they call themselves first muslims, then Palestinians (or Arabs) but never Israeli, even though they have Israeli citizenship. I was very excited to meet these people, since they are a special minority in Israel, and a proof for most Israeli that they CAN live peacefully with arabs, even though they live completely segregated in separate towns.
    The college consisted of 99% girls, most of them wearing a headscarf. We met up with about 15 of them in a classroom. Their professor was babbling about sonnets (“He thinks he’s the arab Shakespeare!” said one girl) and some of the girls seemed to look a bit bored, scrolling on their smartphones. Most of them were exited to talk to our group though, since they usually only get Jewish groups visiting (“to understand the arabs better”) and they had never seen foreigners with headscarfs (Israeli arabs aren’t allowed to enter in any other arab country).
    In conversations on the conflict, it seemed like they did feel like the West Bank shouldn’t be separated, but they would never want to live there. Why would they of course, they have so many more rights living in Israel. And on top of that, they feel like the Palestinians in the West Bank have kind of a different culture than theirs.
    I see these 2 groups of Palestinians as a twin that got separated at birth, where one ended up in a rich family with a lot of opportunities, while the other was sent to a poor abusive family.
    They’re the same, but at the same time, they no longer are…
    In the afternoon we crossed the checkpoint to visit the Birzeit university in Ramallah.
    the other side of the wall (or “the fence” as it’s put on the map) provided a huge contrast. Heavily built territory, buildings packed against each other, a lot more trash on the streets, and a general feeling of discomfort. You are now entering an open air prison. 

    The Birzeit university campus itself was very beautiful and you could see where the Saoudi-arab funding for Palestinians went…

    We got a little promotion video for the university, and another clip from “the rights to education program” with a lot of suggestive images of people crying at checkpoints. Talking about how difficult it is to get to university every day, to provoke an emotional reaction. Even though some in the group felt the bias in the clips was annoying and made them lose credibility, I feel like these emotional videos is something both sides do. Furthermore, you can’t get around the fact that it is ridiculously difficult to move around in “their” territory.  When you don’t know if going to university is going to take 10 minutes or 2 hours today, it gets pretty frustrating.

     

    In the evening we arrived in Jerusalem, which the muslims in the group were super exited about, since it’s one of their holiest places.
    We walked around a bit in the old town, which was quite deserted (especially considering those small maze-like streets are crowded with little markets and passengers by day) and we also went to the wailing wall by night. Again this feeling of general discomfort overcame me, even though I, as a blonde, blue eyed girl, have nothing to feel uncomfortable about at the wailing wall. But the diversity of our group drew some eyes, quite hostile eyes, and I could only imagine what it had to feel like for the people in our group that did look arab… yet the fact that they were allowed at the wailing wall (even with the unfriendly reception) did surprise me!

     

    Days are very exhausting here, and there’s so much to share and so many impressions that I can’t possibly all write down, nor do I have the time to do so. I prefer to suck it all in and enjoy it than to waste my time writing it all down, yet I know later I will be happy I took the time to do so.
  • Israel and the Palestinian territories: day 3-4

     

    Day 3:

    Today was Israelday. First stop was Yad Vashem, the 2nd biggest tourist attraction in Israel: a holocaust memorial/museum.
    The museum had the kind of very symbolic architecture I had seen at other holocaust museums. It intends on making you feel a bit claustrophobic and anxious, with a collection of testimonies from people that suffered in the camps, and relics of those that hadn’t survived.
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     I’m having quite a hard time describing how I felt about this place, since it would be an understatement to say this isn’t the first time I’ve seen something about the holocaust.
    In school we were very informed about everything that happened in the holocaust, we went to deportation camps, museums, and I personally read tons of books on the holocaust on a young age already. It’s hard to describe how the pain and horrors touched me so deeply on an emotional level.
    So maybe over the years I’ve become a bit desensitized to all of the unforgivable suffering that has been done to a specific population. I didn’t feel anything with this museum. Many of the people in the group had that intense experience, but it really didn’t touch a button with me. It all felt somewhat “seen it, read it”, which is horrible of course. How can suffering become something you find *yawn* repetitive? Have I lost my ability to feel emotions?
    I also felt the same as with the clip of the Palestinians at Birzeit University; they were intentionally playing with our emotions. Trying to evoke some intense emotions, almost like a tear-jerker drama, using facts of horrible accounts, and then emphasizing the suffering. Somewhat propaganda. More than I had seen in other holocaust museums. The guide felt it was necessary to emphasize everytime that everyone DIED. They’re DEAD. DEAAAAD! A clip of jewish children waving at the camera became “these children aren’t waving to the camera, they’re waving goodbye to life. Because they died.”
    For some people it worked since they felt it on a deeper level, for me, it started losing its emotional value, and it made me supercynical. How can you talk about this enormous suffering that has been done to the jews, but refuse to talk about what you’re doing to an other population that you are occupying and denying fundamental human rights? I know, it’s cheap to compare the holocaust to the occupation. 
    These feelings were also reflected when we met up with Avraham Burg later in the week. He’s an Israeli writer of the book “the holocaust is over, we must rise from it’s ashes”. It’s about how he feels Israeli society should stop looking back at the holocaust all the time and define their entire existence based on the holocaust.

    Later on we went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. VERY nice campus, Albert Einstein taught there, and cats are chilling everywhere (I want to LIVE there!).

     

    since the diversity program we came with has 2 themes (‘diversity’ and ‘religion as jumping point for peace’), apparently the university understood this as: “maybe we should have some of our academics write an article about this religion as jumpingpoint for peace and present this to the students!”
    Which resulted in a very boring lecture… I’m sorry, I’m terrible, but it was really difficult to concentrate, and I did not expect a 3 HOUR LECTURE on history of religion. Academics droning on about every itty bitty detail of religious history, using names of religious leaders that I had never heard of, where they constantly went “mufti **** Which you of course all know”
    It’s also because I’m not interested in this, to say it cruelly. I’m interested in the conflict, it’s what I study. It’s what I came to learn about. and every time some link came to what role religion can have in solving the conflict, the speakers kind of didn’t want to go into it… I don’t know, I was also tired… I drew a bit in my journal…
    There was also no real possibility for a dialogue with Israeli students, which was sad because I really wanted their point of view. Students in Jerusalem really live in the eye of the storm. I did stalk one of them that was giving us a campus tour, but he was alone and we were all kind of bombarding him with question. I think he must’ve been a bit intimidated, although they’re used to people arguing with them over their political view on the conflict. Unfortunately there was only a limited time. The only thing he could really tell was that he also has a life outside the conflict, and doesn’t want his entire life to revolve around the Palestinians. He supports his government, and he’ll criticize them by voting every 4 years. We will meet more Israeli later fortunately!

    In the evening we met up with an ex-IDF soldier from Breaking the Silence! This was something that I was really looking forward to on the trip. For those that don’t know breaking the silence, it’s an organization of ex-soldiers that don’t agree with what they had to do during their military service. They actively oppose the occupation regime which they had to support militarily in the Palestinian Territory. (For more information and testimonies: http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/)

    All Israeli are obligated to do military service for 3 years when they turn 18, which does something weird to a society in my opinion… they’re just so incredibly militarized! 

     

    At dinner too, there was someone (apparently a settler) walking around with a kalashnikov. just like that. it totally freaked me out…
    Luckily there are people that are willing to talk about some of the horrible experiences, and they think society should know. Our soldier gave the example of how they had to block an entire town of 70.000 people from moving around for some weeks after they found out that some guy that had shot at soldiers came from the town. They would barge in with their tanks, shoot in the air, throw grenades and call out in megaphones “this is the IDF, stay in your house, you are not allowed to move around”. When kids would come and harass them, they would shoot them with rubber bullets (which are basically bullets with some rubber around them. It usually doesn’t kill them, but sometimes it does). After a few weeks of terror to the city, they would just get the order to leave again.

     

    Anyway, more of that kind of stories you can find on the website. What amazed me the most is that Breaking the Silence is not known AT ALL in Israeli society. Most people that know them, give a lot of critique. The ex-soldiers are seen as traitors and self-hating jews, while they just oppose the occupation of a territory and people and want their country to be a lawful and just country.

     

    Day 4:

    In the last morning in Jerusalem, some of us decided to wake up together with the Muslims (at 4h30 am) to try getting into the Al Aqsa mosque, one of their holiest places. Of course we didn’t (blond, blue eyes, “are you muslim? Give me a verse of the Quran!”) but the mosque opened for tourists at 7h30, so we walked around the Old City for 2 hours. I was a bit cranky at first, but was so happy to see this ancient city wake up, jewish children go to school, the little shops open up, and we got offered a coffee from an arab that had lived in the Netherlands and heard us speak Dutch. When we were able to enter the mosque with the stream of tourists, looking at things through the eye of their camera, babbling away and not giving a care about what they were seeing, I completely understood why we weren’t allowed to enter this place. I could imagine how it had to be without tourists, the sun just coming up and a very special peace overcoming you walking around this spiritual place. Therefore I lost my frustration over having to wake up at 4h30 and not being able to enter; muslims deserve to have their prayer without the clicking sound of the camera’s of a bunch of American tourists in sweatpants and sneakers.

    After this we went to the Al Quds University in East Jerusalem (This is in the Palestinian Territories).
    Unfortunately everyone was on strike that day (the Palestinian Authority had not paid the teachers, and they were also asking for a raise) and the campus was empty, but we had a very enthusiastic political science student giving us a campus tour. He didn’t really talk much about the buildings (thank god!), but mostly about how he saw the occupation and the situation. He, as the younger generation, had such a moderate and realistic vision on the whole situation that really called for some admiration.
    I can’t (and will not) go into detail on what he exactly said because it’s always so many ideas and insights that just have a “you had to be there” thing. He was mostly very critical of the Palestinian Authority, and felt like they were a bunch of crooks. He felt that don’t really care about the Palestinians, except out of principle, to annoy the Israeli, who used the PA’s stubbornness to punish Palestinians of course. 

    What really saddened me was that this intelligent young man had traveled the world (he had been to India, Kosovo, Britain,…) but had only ONCE in his 27-year lifetime been able to go to Jerusalem, which would be 5 minutes (!!!) to get there, had there not been a wall. It was just an impossible destination for him. The wall separating him from Jerusalem was very ostensibly right in front of the University.

     

    at the entrance of the university: the wall
     
    Some thing that really struck me was something they had put on the university campus; a replica of the inside of an Israeli prison, including some information on the torture techniques used on Palestinian prisoners. Unfortunately because of the strike we were not able to go in (since the student didn’t have the key to the building). I was rather cynical; why is this on a university campus…? Apparently they had their own students disappearing everyday and put in the prisons, to be released months later with no explanation on why they were arrested at a checkpoint. Of course we don’t know in how much these students were a “security threat” to Israel and were rightfully arrested (and of course they didn’t tell us).
    What saddened me a little was the list of all the students that had died in the prisons after such random arrests. Their family never even got a formal apology or explanation on what happened… I can imagine it must hurt, not even knowing WHY. it might be wrong for a university to be so politicized, yet the entire Palestinian life is just so politicized it’s only natural.

    Tent of Nations

    In the afternoon we went to visit the Tent of Nations. This might be the visit that up until now left the biggest impression on me, and it is very difficult to explain what exactly it did to me but I’ll try to set a picture. 
    The “Tent of Nations” is the farm of the Nassar  Family. They have their farm in the C-zone of the Westbank (for those uninformed; after the Oslo Agreements the Westbank was divided in A-zones (under complete Palestinian Authority rule), B-zones (the PA can control civilian life, but Israel controls the security) and C-zones (basically occupied territory by Israel. There is no control of the PA on the territory) these C-zones are also where most of the settlements are erected.
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    Almost all of the Palestinians (which are mostly farmers) that live in C-areas don’t have a proof that the land belongs to them, and are evicted (and settlements are put on their land). The Nassar family fortunately did have a legal proof of ownership (going back all the way to the Ottoman empire) and thus cannot be evicted according to Israeli law. But they have been in a legal battle with the Israeli government since the Oslo agreements (20 years by now), where Israel drains their resources on legal fees over procedural faults and loopholes. Meanwhile they are being COMPLETELY surrounded by settlers. The tent of nations is on a mountaintop, if you just turn 360°, you see 6 settlements in the distance on every surrounding mountaintop, growing towards each other.
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    At the same time their life is made impossible to live where they are.  They are cut off from running water and electricity, their farm of olive and fruit trees is regularly burned and cut down by the settlers, roadblocks of big boulders are made on the only road to his house, which made us walk 2km to get to his house/farm. They cannot erect new buildings/constructions or the Israeli come demolish it because they need a permit to build new things (which they do not get of course). 

    Yet this family is the most resilient, creative and optimistic I have ever seen.
    Instead of making new buildings, they started digging caves which doesn’t need a building permit. With all sorts of innovations they gather their own water and use solar power for electricity, installations sponsored by foreign donors. They invite everyone to come visit the farm and possibly volunteer to help out on the land, and they invite even the Israeli’s and the settlers who constantly bully them, since their motto is: we refuse to be enemies.

    They are a non-violent resistance, which is clearly something Israel does not know how to deal with. Israeli judges don’t want to grant their right to territory because it would set a precedent for other Palestinians that try to keep their territory in C-zones, but they can also not just evict them because they have legal proof that the land is theirs. It would undermine Israel’s already fragile claim of having a rule of law state. They can also not evict them for security reasons as they did with others, because they are as  non-violent as can get, unless merely “being Palestinian” is a security threat in itself, which is even more unjustifiable.

     

    Anyway, I could write 10 more pages on the Tent of Nations, but I think the message is clear why I felt this was such an inspiring visit. They could set a great example for other Palestinians. Non-violent resistance is possible even though it’s hard, and it freaks Israel out. Their spirit and their reluctance to give up is very inspirational.
    That evening we moved to a new hotel in Bethlehem (Westbank) where we would stay for the next 3 nights.
  • Israel and the palestinian territories: day 5-6

     

    Day 5

    Since Bethlehem is the most religious place for Christians (next to Jerusalem), they have a large Christian population, and also a Christian University. Half of the students are Muslim though, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The University also seemed well-sustained, and it became clear where they got their money thanks to all the donation signs around the university. The biggest donor (next to private Christian donor organizations) was the Vatican. This was literally a university of the Vatican, where the Vatican flag was held up high right next to the Palestinian flag, a very odd combination in my eyes! 

    The university also had a modest *ahum* chapel (aka: a whole goddamn church on the campus)

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    The visit to Bethlehem Christian University made me realize even more, after 5 days, the enormous complexity of the entire situation. When it comes to who is there, the region has just too many identities all in one. Up until that point I had not even thought about the Christians; they’re there too! And they’re Arab!
     
    When we asked how these people would define their identity, one girl said she was first and foremost Palestinian, and then Christian (but Armenian Christian, because you also have orthodox and other stretches of Christianity who are entirely different). She felt Arab, but with Turkish roots. when it comes to bureaucracy, she has a Jordanian Passport to be able to travel outside of the Palestinian Territories, and since she lived in East-Jerusalem, she had a blue IDcard, which is different from the ID card of others living in Bethlehem. If she would ever move from Jerusalem, she would never be able to move back again, so she was willing to travel 4h back and forth through 2 checkpoints everyday to go to Bethlehem University. If she would live temporarily closer to university, she would lose this precious IDcard and ‘privilege’ to live in the East-Jerusalem.
     
    A point that I had never thought of, is that Christians and Muslims live peacefully together here (which is so different from European society) because they also share the same culture. They have Arab culture in common, but feel most strongly about being Palestinian. Even though they have a different religion, it does not influence their feeling about each other, which confirmed again for me that this entire conflict isn’t religious. It’s not jews against muslims. It’s about territory.
     
    Since we were in Bethlehem, we HAD to see the place where baby Jesus was born of course. The stable where Maria gave birth had a huge church built around it, which was governed by 4 stretches of Christianity (Roman-Katholic, Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Syrian-Orthodox. The Protestants don’t participate in this public display of Christianity of course…) I thought it was a very unpleasant church since every centimeter of the church was fought over by the 4 stretches, and it showed. It was a chaos of different decoration and was just… kitch!
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    And everywhere Christmas-decoration. Because, you know. Everyday is Christmas in Bethlehem 😉

     

    We were also supposed to visit a refugee camp, but did not have enough time for it. We was quite disappointed about that, just because none of us really had a clear image on what it looks like.
    In the evening we had a visit of Lex Takkenberg, the Chief Ethics advisor of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) which deals with the Palestinian Refugees. He told us some things about the situation for the Palestinian Refugees, who make up 1/3rd of the Palestinian population. These are people that fled (or as more and more historians also in Israel are starting to recognize; many were forced and chased out of their homes) in 1948 when Israel became independent and the 6-day war started. A lot of them have fled to neighboring countries, but many fled to the West-Bank, and have lived in the camps ever since, and amount to about 5 million by now.
    What is important to know on how it looks like, is that these tent camps turned into bricks after a while, and the people inside became less dependant on the help of UNRWA, which makes it seem like normal villages. Yet these people are still refugees and have considered their situation as temporary for the last 60 years since they have a right to return under refugee status. This is a very essential point that always comes up in negotiations; what about my right to return? ALL of them are attached to this right, and even though that doesn’t mean all of them will actually return when given the right, it’s a question of principle for all the refugees that their right is respected.
     
    Anyway, Lex’s explanations were a lot broader, and I did learn a lot from it, but in the end I was missing the voice of the refugees themselves too…

    DAY 6

    On day 6 we went back to Jerusalem to meet up with Avraham Burg. Right before the meeting, the organizers agreed we deserve another hour to see Jerusalem (even though “this is not a touristic trip!”) since we don’t really get to be in Jerusalem every month…
     
    Since I had already seen the Al Aqsa mosque, waking up at 4am, I wanted to see the grave church, which was built around the place where Jesus was crucified and died.
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    Even though this chuch was a lot more impressive than the birth church in Bethlehem, the general atmosphere was here too overshadowed by the bickering of the different Christian stretches. An Orthodox and a Catholic priest were loudly arguing right at the most important place in the church, where Jesus died, over how the candles should be lit… Not that I’m religious, but the Christians really have something to learn from the muslims when it comes to serenity and spirituality of places…
     
    Some of the group wanted to go to the al Aqsa Mosque in that one hour, but only one girl that wore a headscarf actually got into the site.  A mere hour before some jews had come onto the site and had kicked some muslims reading the Quran in the mosque and wrecked havoc. Apparently these are things that happen on a daily/weekly basis. I don’t know how much is true of the frequency, but the authenticity of what had happened that day checked out, with many different witnesses, which really baffled me. 
     
    Anyway, we had the very special occasion to meet up with Avraham Burg, the former chairman of the Knesset, who decided to leave politics when he realized how disgusted he was by all of it, and started writing books. 

    We read his book “the holocaust is over, we must rise from its ashes” to prepare for the trip, in which he describes how sick and tired he is of Israelites defining their entire identity by claiming victimhood as holocaust survivors. Yes, the holocaust was bad, but how the holocaust is manipulated now for political purposes cheapens the memory according to him. He reflected the same feeling over what I had written about Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial/museum). He also pointed out this little detail that everything in Israel is written in 3 languages (Hebrew, Arab and English) except in Yad Vashem. Arab is left out of the museum, because the Holocaust isn’t meant for Arabs. The Israeli don’t want to share the universal experience of suffering, but of JEWISH suffering according to Avraham Burg. This was also the reason he claimed jews don’t seem to care about the Palestinian suffering; they’ve become so ethically traumatized that no suffering is comparable to their suffering.

    He does however refuse to hear any comparison of the holocaust with the Palestinian suffering, and I can agree on that now. Regardless of how bad both are, the Israeli are not deliberately exterminating Palestinians, they just don’t care about their request for justice.

    Many more things were said, and he was a very inspirational speaker, who unfortunately doesn’t want to go back into politics right now, since he claims there’s no political climate for his views right now. He does see a future in ending the conflict where arabs keep making non-violent resistance, opposing the occupation, since Israel has no clue how to deal with it.

    Hebron

    In the afternoon we went to Hebron, one of the more conservative regions of the Palestinian territories, which we did feel when having lunch outside. Our very diverse group drew curious eyes again and I did not see one woman without a headscarf. We were welcomed at the Hebron University by a huge number of students, and had to sit in groups of 15 students to talk. The groups would rotate every 15 minutes.
    It really tired me, and I was quite done talking about the conflict in superficial, and yet very “In your face” direct ways, with a small introduction immediately followed by “so what do you think of the conflict and Palestinians?” How do you reply to that in a balanced way in less than 15 minutes?
    I tried to have discussions with some students about other things than the conflict, but it turned out to be a difficult task, since EVERY aspect of their life is influenced by it. “so, do you like movies? – yeah I do, but the electricity is cut often so it’s hard to see a movie in full”… sigh.
    The students in Hebron did feel the most bitter. I heard very shocking opinions on Israeli and Jews, with some justifications of violence, leaving a very uncomfortable feeling. We tried to convince them that many Israeli oppose the occupation and are not monsters but try to do that in 15 minutes…  
     
    After that we had some explanation by TIPH (the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, an organization that only has an observational role to report back to the government of the 6 European countries involved what was happening there) about Hebron and the Jewish presence there. Hebron is special because the settlers came to live right in the center of the city. Their Arab neighbors had to move for safety reasons of course, and a lot of the streets surrounding the settlements were turned in ‘demilitarized zones’.
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    The city has a great significance both for Jews and for Arabs, which makes it, like Jerusalem, a tug of war who gets to own the city. 
    We went to visit the Ibrahimi mosque, a very important mosque in the old town. We had to pass 2 Israeli Checkpoints just to get there. Narrow claustrophopic turning doors and a soldier aiming a machine rifle directly at me with his finger on the trigger when entering; not the most enjoyable experience in my life…
    a couple a years ago Baruch Goldstein, one of the more crazy settlers, entered the mosque and shot somewhat 27 muslims praying. He is considered a martyr for the settlers in Hebron and a hero. The thought that the soft carpet on which I was standing barefooted was once blood soaked really nauseated me.

    We walked around a bit in the ghost town part of the center that wasn’t inhabited by anyone (‘safety zone’). It totally felt like a war zone, and we discovered our Palestinian guide would not be able to be there if he wouldn’t be guiding us. When approaching the entry to a settlement, he couldn’t even walk with us anymore. A soldier on a roof shouted at us “DO YOU LOVE ISRAEL??” with his rifle in his arms and an smug smile on his face, leaving almost all of us speechless.

     A settler woman at a busstop shouted something in Hebrew at the soldier, we figured it was something like “don’t talk to them, they’re arab”. We left when darkness started closing in on us.

    There were 2 little souvenir shops in the abandoned ‘safety zone’ street, a presence that couldn’t have felt more surreal. We were truly the epithomy of a disaster tourist.
  • Israel and the Palestinian Territories: the last days

    Day 7

    After almost 4 days of only having talked to Palestinians, or Israeli which were critical of their own politics, we went to the Jewish settlement Alon Svut in the westbank.
    Maybe not the best timing…. But maybe also not bad to see a total juxtaposition of viewpoints.
    When we first came in, it felt like one of those holiday resorts like Center Parks. Totally fabricated and disconnected to reality.
    The Rabbi of the settlement gave us a little tour and history of how the land (of course) had always been theirs, and how they had fought to obtain the land back.
    He showed us the Yishuv, a sort of thora-university, where students sit in a space together all day, 5 years long, reading the holy scriptures and arguing with each other about it. Quite peculiar.


    This settlement was, interestingly enough, one of the settlements surrounding the Tent of Nations, the Palestinian farm surrounded by settlers that we had visited before. Unfortunately we didn’t really get an opinion of the Rabbi on how this settlement felt about the Nasser Family and their right to land. He kind of avoided talking about it. According to the rabbi, the settlers live in peaceful coexistence with the arabs around the settlement, and he educates his children that Palestinians have the right to live there. At first I thought, wow, what a rational, moderate rabbi! How is it possible there is still this conflict going on when all the people we meet are so conflict-avoiding and peaceful?

    But when we started digging deeper, his views weren’t as moderate as he himself thinks they are.
     His perception on “rights” of the Palestinians is totally different than ours, since in general he considers the entire westbank to be Israeli territory. They refuse to call it “the West Bank” by the way, since it’s the land of Judea and Samaria, and the Westbank is a construct. Arabs can live there, as long as they don’t bother the Israeli, or when they want to expand the settlement, the Palestinians should move, because the land was given to the jews according to the bible.
    He doesn’t think the settlers should get out of the land since he thinks it won’t help the conflict. He used the example of Gaza, the territory of which Israel disengaged in 2008, closing the door behind them, not letting anyone in and out anymore. According to him the Gazans could’ve had paradise on earth in Gaza but instead they just started rocket launching attacks on Israel. Completely oblivious of the living conditions in Gaza of course and the fact that there are 1,5 million people squished together on a 42km long, 12km wide territory.
    We also got an entire powerpoint presentation on “walls in the world” that would justify the Israeli wall.
    It was very frustrating to sit there in this rabbi’s home with our group of 20 people listening to his short sighted views without being able to argue with him, yet I do think it was very useful to hear the settler’s perspective too, as much as I disagreed with it.
     
    In the afternoon we went to At Tuwani, a small poor Palestinian shepherdvillage in the C-zone. Apparently the villagers being harassed often by the settlers, and when the children go to school outside the village, they often get attacked by settlers who newly set up camp in the woods. I don’t really have a lot to say about this village. Yes, it was poor, but they seemed to kind of link it to the settlers, while these type of villages are generally poor, conflict or not. 

    There was also an activist organization of Italians, operation dove, who were there to capture every harassment of settlers against the village on camera and put it on youtube. Most of the stories they told us though happened a few years ago. The worst harassments happened mostly during the intifada. The children now even get protection from IDF soldiers when going to school (even though they should rather fix the problem than cure the symptoms…).

    I really lifted an eyebrow when our coordinator told us that a domestic violence is quite a big problem in At Tuwani. The Italian activists there kind of ignored this, because it’s not the purpose of their presence.

    This is something I think is important to comment on, which might bring out my supercynicalness again. Being apologetic for internal human rights violations to obtain other goals is something that delegitimizes supporting the Palestinians in their struggle for justice. You have to be critical to all parts, and not just excuse ‘minor’ injunctions of Palestinians for the bigger picture. This is measuring by two standards, and is unfair towards the Israeli too. You can’t say they are the ones doing everything wrong, and Palestinians are forgiven for not caring about human rights (rights of gays, atheist, women,…) just because they’re the weak underdog.
     

    Haifa

    That evening we slept in Haifa (Israeli harbour city), but before that we were supposed to go for a drink with the students of Haifa University in the evening.
    IMG_1459.JPG
    Very nice idea, but we hadn’t really had the chance to talk to Israeli students on the entire trip and get their perspective on the conflict. We really didn’t feel like talking intensely about the conflict again at a moment where we were all very exhausted and wanted some light bar talks and drinks. It was still good to finally get to talk to ordinary Israeli who don’t radically oppose nor support the government’s policy of occupation. Since these are students just like us, it’s interesting to see how they feel about it. Even though most of them recognize the suffering of Palestinians, it seems like Israeli in general always try to defend themselves by pointing to their own suffering. “the entire arab world hates us” “we’re in a hostile environment and are in danger to be wiped out again”, “during the intifada we had to fear for our lives every day”. I disagree that these arguments will ever justify the excessive oppression of Palestinians, but I guess it’s a way to cope…
    Anyway, the next day (DAY 8) we were talking with the students in a more formal way around one table with about 30 people. Obviously also not the best way to go deep into discussions, but I did get a better view on how Israeli try to rationalize the conflict by using a very dry logic that lacks empathy for the other side. For instance the fact that Palestinians are pushed away from the land is legitimized in such a way that they don’t have a proof that the land is theirs. Or those that have a proof sold the territory, so they’re not forced (not keeping into account the bullying by extremist settlers, forcing most to sell the land of course…)
    When it comes to the settlements, I heard some say they should just clear out ALL the settlements in the Westbank and the conflict would be over. I’m not sure I agree on this either. We’re talking about a quarter million settlers by now. People that have built cities inhabiting 100.000 people, kids that also grew up there and would get to hear that they’re being evicted because their parents or even grandparents were doing wrong things… moving all those big settlements i an equally inhumane solution as evicting Palestinians. Most arabs didn’t really seem to mind living with settlers, they just care about their agressive attitude and them taking more and more land, and just want justice to be done, in whatever form. But maybe I’m this time a bit too naive that they could all just live together in peace.
    Another solution would be to make an agreement on trade of territories, making those settlement zones official Israeli territory (instead of occupying the territory that ‘belongs’ to the Palestinians). The problem is just that Israel doesn’t know what territory to give in return. The arabs villages under Israeli rule don’t feel like moving to Palestine rule either. They’re perfectly happy where they are… and making 1 state of course defies the purpose of a Jewish state, since it would no longer be predominantly jewish… so yeah, this is one of those things I learned from an Israeli perspective, in a nutshell.
    We were having some conversations within our group about the idea of a confederal model. Both would keep their own rule of their people when it comes to cultural affairs, but the territory would be ruled mutually, a bit after the Belgian model. Everytime I mentioned this idea though, people would just laugh and say “so how’s that working out for Belgium?” since we’ve been having some existential crises. It could push aside the conventional two-state – one-state gridlock, but yeah. Who am I to start telling these people how to rule this ridiculously complicated conflict.
    Those last 2 days not a lot (in my opinion) happened anymore, I just gained more insights by talking with people. I apologize in retrospect for those that are not interested at all in reading my all ideas but just want to know how my trip was and what I saw; this was most of the entire trip; an experience with diversity and conflict. There was no real goal of the program. So naturally I feel the need to share those insights I have gained, since I have nothing I can use them for… except for sharing.
     
    Anyway, it’s not like we didn’t do anything anymore on day 8 and 9, we visited Haifa a bit with the students, saw the Bahia Gardens (recognized by UNESCO as world heritage)

    We spoke with an organization that wants to bring arabs and jews living in Haifa closer together through activities. Quite similar to projects everywhere in the western world dealing with multicultural societies, although it was interesting to see how Israeli cope with those arabs living in Israel. The conflict seemed a lot less prominent in Haifa though, yet we also weren’t in a bubble like Tel Aviv. Those that don’t mind living with arabs go live in Haifa, I quite liked it.

    That evening we slept in Nes Amim. I’d like to describe it as a Christian settlement by Dutch people with a strong kibboets vibe (kibboets are these socialist living communities that were very popular right before and also after the erection of the state of Israel). It’s in Israeli territory now, but it started out in the 40’s with the same ideas of a settlement (but then by Christians). The founders of Nes Amim would explain it a bit more euphemistic than that…
    Since it was Friday evening, it was also the beginning of Sjabbat. An orthodox jew and his wife were happy to celebrate it with us. Some singing, wine and a lot of explanation about tradition befell upon us, I enjoyed experiencing the tradition. We had some nice beers with the entire group, and finally felt like we could relax a bit. It had been such a mentally draining trip. 

     

    DAY 9

    Saturday, our last real day in Israel was a bit of an off day. We didn’t do anything special, but we also didn’t get the possibility to relax. We were given a tour of Nes Ammim, got a tour of another Kibboets. We shortly saw the ocean in Nahariya,

     had lunch at Raymond’s house, a friend of the coordinator and peace activist who welcomed us in his home, and we went to an old town close to Haifa before driving back to Tel Aviv to catch our flight the next day. I went through it in a blur. 

     

    Normally we would’ve had students of Haifa spending the entire weekend with us, making it more exiting, but in the end only one joined, an American who had emigrated to Israel 4 years ago. It was interesting though to have him with us and see his perspective on things. He was an outsider compared to those that lived their entire lives in Israel, wasn’t as emotionally blind for some things, but had a good view on the ins of Israeli society. He was very critical of Israeli politics and the injustice done to Palestine, but at the same time the occupation didn’t delegitimize the right for the state of Israel to exist according to him. I agreed with him, and could understand a bit better how it must feel to “belong” somewhere, something all jews probably go through when they come to Israel. 
     
    Our last night in Israel we went out of course. It was also the first time we came into contact with people that did not know in advance we were on this studytrip. The question “what are you doing in Israel?” was like this bomb dropped everytime, which felt very difficult to answer without unravelling into an entire discussion of an hour. Israeli generally think that if you’ve gone to the west bank, you’re judging them and don’t like the state of Israel.
    They’re prejudice about you being prejudice. Our trip was a hell of a lot more nuanced than that, but try explaining that in the line for a club. The answer “we’re here to party” was just easier to not start a discussion…  but it did feel uncomfortable to lie about this.  I feel like it will not be the first time I will have to twist myself in a bunch of corners, and will lie just to not start an entire discussion. Having a nuanced opinion on Israel is impossible without having to explain yourself for an hour.
     
    The next day it took us about 4 hours to check in, with one security check after another. my entire luggage got searched. It’s seemed more difficult to leave this country than to get in…
    I don’t have any end remarks on this trip except for being happy to share my experience, which comes with a general feeling of impotence of not being able to do anything with it. Thanks for reading, and a special thanks to the entire group of fellow travelers that made this trip 10 times more special to me!
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