As many of you know, Peter and I have had the important opportunity to observe reactions to the war in Gaza while here in Istanbul. Events which are no more than concerning news items to many people around the world have been of vital importance to several of our friends and colleagues here, some of whom have family living in Israel, or even children currently serving in active duty in the Israeli military. The conflict has been the source of discussion, and occasionally some disagreement, among the Fellows here at the Research Institute.
We have also watched with interest and concern the pro-Palestinian rallies that for several weeks took place on a daily basis, sometimes two or three times a day, on the street outside our residence. Many of these had overtly anti-Semitic overtones, as well as elements of anti-American propaganda.
Many of you are also aware that we had planned a trip to Israel and Jordan before the war broke out. We watched the developments closely, wondering whether we should call off the trip or go ahead with it. At the advice of our Israeli friends, and after exchanging several emails with the U.S. Consular offices in Jerusalem, we decided to make the trip. By the time we departed for Israel, the situation in Gaza had calmed down somewhat. Nevertheless, the Consulate told us that although there were no restrictions in place for non-diplomatic U.S. citizens, it "could not recommend" that we do three things (and had forbidden its own staff from doing them): 1) take lodging inside the Old City of Jerusalem, 2) enter the Muslim Quarter of the Old City on Friday afternoon, or 3) enter Palestinian territory in the West Bank. In the end, we did all of these things.
We will write about our experiences in Jerusalem in later posts. But I feel that it is important that we share our experiences in the West Bank first. Partly this is because I want to do it while it is still fresh in my memory, and partly because I am still struggling to make sense of what we saw and experienced, and writing always seems to help with that process. It is not overstating the case to say that our few brief hours there have affected us deeply, enhanced our understanding, but also shifted our viewpoints regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That being said, I am not writing this to forward a particular political viewpoint. I hope that this will be read by many of my friends and family members, some of whom will have very different views of the political situation. I am certainly not wishing to offend anyone with this. I also understand that although this experience has given me a vantage point from which to speak about the situation that I did not have before, I am not an expert on the politics of the conflict. I realize that I am susceptible to emotional manipulation, and that not everything that was told to us by the Palestinians that we spoke with may be completely true, or can possibly be unbiased. But I believe that it is still important that it be heard:
Last Saturday, we took a "servees" (an Arab shared taxi) from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. Since these are vans that regularly carry mostly Arabs with Israeli ID cards, who are free to move between Israeli and Palestinian territory, they may bypass the military checkpoints, which potentially saved us a lot of time spent in a taxi sitting at the border. We arrived in Bethlehem in the early afternoon and had a nice lunch in Manger Square, facing the Church of the Nativity, which commemorates the supposed site of the birth of Christ. The town is pleasant and quiet (at least currently, since tourism is way down). The main public building on the square is the Bethlehem Peace Center. Bethlehem is a town that desperately wishes to be associated with peace.
Our first stop was the Church. Outside the building, as at most tourist sites around the world, license tour guides offered their services. 'Only 40 shekels; (about $10). No, we didn't need a guide. '30 shekels.' No, thank you. '20 shekels.' Only later did we realize how desperate the survival situation has become for many of the Palestinians living here, and we wished we had taken a guide that we didn't need.
Although in other seasons, and in other years, Bethlehem has been a major site of pilgrimage for tourists from around the world, while we were there we saw only a few tour groups: one small group from the United States, some Germans, and a larger group of Nigerians. They crowded into the small grotto underneath the church with a bronze star on the floor marking the site of the Nativity, and sang "Silent Night." This is a scene that is probably repeated hundreds of times a year on this spot, and we could not help but note the irony. "All is calm, all is bright...Sleep in heavenly peace." After maybe an hour in this church and the one next door with a grotto puported to be the study (and tomb) of St. Jerome, the tour groups were hustled back onto their buses and back to Jerusalem.
Leaving behind the tour groups, who never ventured off the main square, we walked further into town to visit the Milk Grotto. Legend has it that this cave was the site where Mary and the infant Jesus hid from Herod's soldiers, before the Flight into Egypt. It is said that a drop of Mary's breast milk fell onto the ground when she was nursing Christ, and turned the rocks of the cave white. The chalky powder scraped from the walls and ceiling is sold as a remedy for lactation problems and female infertility. While we were walking to this church, we were approached by a young Palestinian man who offered to be our guide, no charge, if we would come visit his shop after we were done looking around. I had planned to do some shopping in Bethlehem anyway, being interested in purchasing some of the beautiful olivewood sculptures made locally, so we agreed.
It soon became clear that this young man, Said, was not your average salesperson. Often in our travels we have encountered these "guides" who know the very basic facts of a site, often less than is in the general guidebook, or who are only passing on confused information they have heard from other guides, hoping for a small fee or a visit to their shop. Said, however, was extremely knowledgeable about Bethlehem and the surrounding area, and particularly about the history of the Roman period of Palestine under Herod. He said that he would like to work as a tour guide for all of Israel, but that it is impossible for him to get the papers that would allow him to leave the West Bank.
We left the Milk Grotto and accompanied Said to the small store where he works, where we were greeted by an older man and woman (family?), offered tea, and shown various examples of the local sculpture. While we picked out our purchases, we began talking to the three about their experiences living in the West Bank. What had started as a typical middle eastern shopping experience quickly turned more serious. Tourism is down they said. It was already low before, but now, with the war in Gaza, no one comes to Bethlehem. When they do come, they come only in a group, on a bus. The tour operators used to walk the groups through town, bring them to the small shops on the side streets. They no longer do that, but rush their groups into and out of the two main churches and back to Jerusalem. No one is selling anything. No one has money. They have no way to make money, no way to support their families.
But it is not only the loss of revenue, of livelihood, that concerns these people. As the older shop owner related, 'I love the Jewish people. I speak better Hebrew than I do Arabic. They were my neighbors, my brothers. They were my best friends when I was growing up. We lived next to each other.' Now, the only Jewish people living in the area are in the walled settlements. They no longer have daily contact with the Palestinian people living here. With the division of the land has come a loss of community, and a great alienation for the Palestinians.
ONE OF THE ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS IN THE WEST BANK
Our hosts are eager to know what the view of the war in Gaza is in the outside world. When we tell them that there are many people around the world concerned about the situation, they are happy. Said says, 'This is the only thing that keeps us going -- knowing the world is thinking about us.' Then he asks us if we will come with him to visit the wall. He will call his cousin to come and drive us there.
At first we are skeptical. After all, it is hardly the safest thing to go in a vehicle with someone you have barely met in a foreign country. But we have a good feeling about Said, and he is genuinely concerned that we see the wall, so we decide to do it. While we wait for our ride, I talk more with the female shopkeeper. I ask how the war in Gaza has affected them, since we had not felt during the rest of our trip that it was affecting northern Israel at all, except perhaps in a slight decrease in tourism. "It is peaceful here," she says. "We don't see anything. We only wake sometimes in the morning and hear that soldiers came in the night and took some people."
Said's cousin arrives in a 20-year-old, beat-up white sedan. There is no handle on the passenger door on my side, so I crawl in the other side. The two young Palestinians laugh and call it a "classic car." They drive us across town to the limits of their world, the Israeli wall. It is covered in graffiti, and we want to take pictures. "We can't stop here," Said tells us, "there are security cameras and they will wonder why we are looking at the wall. We'll drive to an area where we can stop."
The wall, of course, is the barrier constructed by Israel beginning in 2002 to stop the suicide bombings and shootings of civilians in Israeli towns that were being carried out by Palestinian terrorists. While the politics of the barrier and its route are complicated, there is no doubt that it has been effective in decreasing suicide attacks, saving the lives of an unknown number of Israelis. The question that must now be answered is whether it is the most effective way to achieve a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, and at what cost to the Palestinian people. Again, I am no expert on the politics or the history of this conflict, and I am not attempting here to sway anyone's political opinion, but it was clearly of critical importance to Said that we visit the wall with him, and that we hear his story and share it with others. So I will let him speak for himself, and post here our photos of the wall:
"This is the cage of the Palestinian people. You would need wings to get over this wall."
THE BLUE LINE RUNS THE LENGTH OF THE WALL IN BETHLEHEM AND REFLECTS ONE GRAFITTI ARTIST'S DREAM THAT THE WALL SHOULD BE SO HIGH.
THE WALL SEEN THROUGH THE REAR WINDOW OF THE CAR, WITH A STICKER ON THE GLASS
"We have no cars. We have no nightclubs. We have no girlfriends. We have no life."
A YOUNG PALESTINIAN STANDS IN FRONT OF THE WALL.
"We are Palestinians. We can do anything -- we can do it for the entire world. But we don't have the chance."
Who do the Palestinians blame for the state of their lives? Completely contrary to what I would have expected, we heard over and over, from different Palestinians that we talked to, that they do not blame the people of Israel. Just as the shop owner misses the mixed community of Jews and Palestinians that he once enjoyed, Said says of the current conflict, "It is not the people that cause this problem, but the governments."
Also, contrary to what we have often been told by the media, many of the Palestinians are not buying the line that Hamas is trying to feed the world -- that they are the saviors of the Palestinian people, defending their rights against the Goliath of the Israeli state. Says Said, "Hamas and the directors do not care about any living Palestinian. They only care about staying in charge. They are like gangsters, with guns." He urges us to tell our friends that if they are sending aid to Palestine, make sure it does not go to an organization that will pass any of it on to Hamas. He is convinced that none of that money ever reaches the people. He wishes more people understood that, and that if they want to help, they would send money to organizations like the Red Crescent.
I am sure, of course, that there are Palestinians who feel differently, and the situation may very well be different in Gaza, where the struggle to survive has become even more immediate than for those in the West Bank who are losing their livelihood but not necessarily their lives. But it was very striking to us that continually the Palestinians were talking about a reconciliation with their Jewish neighbors that could be brought about on the level of the people, although they have no faith than any government or politician can, or will, do it (not even Obama, although they are optimistic about him in general). This complete lack of ill will towards the Jewish people on the part of the Palestinians we talked with makes the often anti-Semitic rallies that we have seen in Istanbul all the more tragic. It seems that the Palestinian people are being used as a banner by anti-Israeli groups whose ultimate goals do not reflect what many average Palestinians would wish for.
The few hours that we spent in the West Bank gave us much food for thought, and I certainly have not reached any conclusions yet. I look forward to conversations with friends and colleagues about these issues, and we welcome the posting of any comments that those of you who are reading this may have.