In my continued journey of learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there have been some days on the ground that have shaped my understanding—and prayers—more than others. One such day occurred during a recent 2-week filming trip for a project I am producing called Hope in the Holy Land: Delving Beneath the Surface of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The day on the calendar was Tuesday, July 17, 2018—a day of several we devoted to exploring the tensions and realities of life in the West Bank (referred to by most Jews living there by its biblical designation, Judea and Samaria).
It was a day of blessings and curses.
The day began with a scheduled visit to the Bethlehem Rachel Tomb checkpoint at 5:30 in the morning to see what it’s like for some of the 87,000 or so Palestinians in the West Bank who enter into Israel every day for work.
It was organized chaos.
Hundreds of people, mostly men, waiting in line to pass through the Israeli security depot and on to the other side where there was a congestion of buses, vans, cars and taxis.
Our Palestinian guide informed us that today’s wait seemed longer than it was on most days, but no one seemed any more agitated about it than I typically am during rush hour traffic in my hometown of Chicago when there is an accident causing additional delays on the Kennedy Expressway.
You deal with it.
On the Israeli side of the checkpoint I saw some Muslim men doing their morning prayers, others playing chess, and some getting their caffeine fix via Turkish coffee before catching their lift. Everything looked and felt routine.
But I could not help and recall the era prior to the 2nd Intifada (2000-2005) when the security barrier and the checkpoint that was causing much of this congestion and inconvenience wasn’t there. I’m sure there were many others around me who also remembered and longed for that era.
On the Israeli side I have come to learn that there is also a longing to return to that era, but not until there is reason to believe that their lives won’t be at risk for doing so. During the 2nd Intifada nearly 900 Israeli civilians were killed and 6000 wounded, mostly in suicide attacks. No one wants to go through that again, and thus the wall has become a necessary nuisance.
Since the time the wall (most of which is a fence) was completed in 2007, according to Israeli sources successful attacks have declined approximately 90 percent. Palestinians claim that the decline has had nothing to do with the barrier—that they often refer to as an apartheid wall—but because their tactics have changed.
I don’t suspect that the Israelis are going to attempt to find out if there is any real merit to that claim by removing the barrier, considering that there is ample evidence that multiple attacks have been attempted and thwarted by the IDF over the past decade, and unfortunately several that were successfully executed.
After 45 minutes our crew gave up on waiting to see how long it would take to walk through the entire checkpoint, and decided to revisit a great place for breakfast we found a few days earlier in Bethlehem. The manager there made some of the best omelets we’ve ever had; not only in the Holy Land, but anywhere. It may have had something to do with him growing up and attending culinary school in the U.S. He dreams of returning to open up a restaurant there—and if he ever does, I hope it’s near my home.
Before we departed for our next destination, the Omelet Virtuoso wanted to offer me some insight (off camera) about the conflict. Besides describing it as “complicated,” he proposed that most Palestinians would accept Israel annexing the West Bank rather than living under the rule of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but that they could never admit to that publicly. They, himself included, are too afraid to do so. I don’t know who he is talking to that leads him to such a conclusion, but he is not the first person I’ve spoken to that is not a fan of how the PA governs.
To help me understand what happens to Palestinians who (quite literally) give ground to Israel, he told me about his father’s friend who was shot in the face and later died of his wounds for being accused of selling land to a Jew, a “crime” long considered punishable by death according to the PA.
This policy was recently reaffirmed by Sheikh Mohammed Hussein on April 12th who decreed in his fatwa, “Palestine, which includes Jerusalem, is Waqf (Islamic trust) land, and it is religiously forbidden to give it up or facilitate the transfer of its ownership to the enemy.”
As I have been told by Palestinians before, this is how life operates in their world. Toe the party line or be prepared to die.
We then took off to head north to Nablus on Route 60, the main road running through the heart of the West Bank. We easily passed through a couple of vacant checkpoints. Our guide informed us that it was normally like that, except during times of tension.
Along the way, about 25 miles north of Bethlehem, he pointed out the Palestinian town of Turmus ‘Ayya, which stands out due to the numerous mansions peppered throughout its hilly countryside and the equestrian club in the middle of it. He called it the “Beverly Hills of Palestine” and informed us that many of the homes are owned by wealthy Palestinians who live and work in the U.S. The town’s own webpage also makes this assertion.
Our creative director marked it down as a place to return the following week to capture some b-roll to help people see that there is economic diversity within Palestinian society.
Sadly, when he and our director of photography returned there, they found more than they had bargained for—antisemitism. Spray painted in bright red on the side of a bus shelter stand was someone’s proclamation—
JEWS DID 9/11
Inside of it they found—
TERRORIST ISRAEL DID 9/11
ISIS IS JEWISH
There was also an image of a Star of David being equated to a swastika.
I presume that not everyone in this “town which oozes class” (as described on their webpage) agrees with these deplorable accusations, although during several man-on-the-street interviews we conducted with Palestinians throughout the West Bank, when asked, most of them affirmed the belief that the Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks, not to mention several other antisemitic libels, including the belief that the Jews are trying to take over the world.
I also presume, hopefully wrongly, that if I were to visit Turmus ‘Ayya at the time of this publication that the graffiti would still be there, untouched by the public works division.
But to be fair to the residents of Turmus ‘Ayya, they too have been the target of revolting graffiti and acts of vandalism by their Jewish neighbors in recent months. In the month of April alone, the Times of Israel reported that 14 apparent hate crimes were perpetrated in this town alone, not to mention several other locations throughout the West Bank. The graffiti (written in Hebrew) declared—“Wreak vengeance upon the nations,” “We’ll take our fate into our own hands” and “Let us take care of them” (i.e., the Palestinians).
Not one Israeli we spoke to, including several living in Shiloh just 2 miles away, when asked about where Israel could stand to get better in its conduct toward the Palestinians, felt compelled to cite these incidents as one of them.
But to also be fair to the Israelis, there were multiple articles from Israel-based media outlets reporting—and denouncing—these despicable acts of hate. Whereas I have yet to find any reports in the Palestinian media of residents and officials condemning the hateful antisemitic graffiti in Turmus ‘Ayya, not to mention the numerous images throughout the PA that venerate the lives of those who died murdering Israeli civilians.
But make no mistake about it—there is hate and curses that need to be addressed and confronted within both societies.
Continuing on Route 60, 15 miles north of Turmus ‘Ayya, we arrived to Nablus. During the 2nd Intifada more suicide bombers came from this city than any other in the West Bank.
As we made our way into town we stopped to find and speak with a few residents from Balata, the largest refugee camp in the Palestinian territories, home to approximately 27,000 people in an area originally designed for 5000.
The men we met were very eager to share their opinions and grateful that we came to listen to their grievances about the Israelis and harsh encounters with the IDF. Their gripes were also coupled with denials of the Holocaust and the belief that the numerous stabbing attacks perpetrated by Palestinians against Israeli civilians in 2015 and 2016 were fabricated by the Israeli government.
When we arrived to Nablus our guide informed us that it is situated between two mountains, Mount Gerizim (Jarzim) and Mount Ebal (Etal). These mountains are known to Jews respectively as the mountains of blessings and curses based on the testimony of Moses in Deuteronomy:
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse…When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses (11:26, 29).
In biblical times Nablus was known as Shechem. Many notable events occurred here, including God’s promise to Abram that the Land of Canaan would be given to his offspring (Gen. 12:6-7). It was also in this city, referred to as Sychar in the New Testament, where the well-known story occurred of Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-26). A modern Greek Orthodox church is built over the likely location of this well. There is also a small Samaritan community that lives on top of Mt. Gerizim, which remains their center of worship since ancient times.
Our guide took us to the top of Mount Ebal to take in the beautiful view and reflect upon the historical significance of where we were. Little did he know that he had appropriately taken us to the top of the right mountain for the curses I was about to hear.
While in the moment of trying to absorb the legacy of our location, a man—probably in his mid-40’s and well-weathered by life—approached and invited me to bring our crew to eat lunch at his nearby kiosk. He also wanted to know who we were and what we were making a film about.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” I told him.
“What about the conflict?” he asked.
“Well…we want to help people get below the surface of what they see and read in the media,” I replied.
“That’s good,” he said. “But…,” with a bit of bravado in his tone, “it goes much deeper than you think…much deeper.”
“How so?” I asked.
He seemed a little hesitant to tell me, but obliged my curiosity.
“I’m not religious,” he said before politely asking me if he could light up a cigarette. “But everyone knows that the Jews are coming here for their final destruction. I am not sad about getting all of the Jews from all the world here—because it’s the start of the end of them. Honestly, it will be the end of them. It will be the end of them and the end of the world.”
My mind immediately recalled that something similar had been said by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, in 2002:
But I’ll tell you. Among the signs […] and signals which guide us, in the Islamic prophecies and not only in the Jewish prophecies, is that this State [of Israel] will be established, and that the Jews will gather from all parts of the world into occupied Palestine, not in order to bring about the anti-Christ and the end of the world, but rather that Allah the Glorified and Most High wants to save you from having to go to the ends of the world, for they have gathered in one place–they have gathered in one place–and there the final and decisive battle will take place.
In this moment I was also thinking about how glad I was that I decided that morning not to wear my wedding ring, which has very visible Hebrew writing inscribed on the outside of it. Some previous interactions our crew and I had with some Palestinians a few days prior led me to believe that it was in my best interest in certain locations to not be perceived as the enemy. This was definitely one of them.
Wanting to know more from what my new and unexpected teacher would add to his end-times apocalyptic scenario, I probed.
“How does it end?”
“It’s in our Holy Quran. In the end of the world—be sure about it—when all of the Jews come here in this land.”
He pointed to a tree.
“You see this tree? This tree—look at it.”
“When a Jewish person is hiding beside it, this tree will talk to me. It will tell me, ‘My Muslim brother, there is a Jewish person behind me, come and finish him.’ That is what it says in our religion, in our Holy Quran, what said our Prophet Mohammed—he told us that. Every tree, every rock, will talk to us. What our God says about it will happen…everyone knows this.”
“Everyone?” I wondered.
No doubt that every member of Hamas knows—and believes—this. Their original charter quotes this hadith of Muhammad:
The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’ Only the Gharkad tree would not do that, because it is one of the trees of the Jews.
Both disturbed and fascinated by what my new teacher was telling me, I invited him to share his perspective on camera. He declined, but offered to remind our guide about Mohammad’s prophecy—and of course to invite us to eat lunch at his kiosk. Somewhat emphatically, I instructed our crew that we needed to move on.
As we departed this mountain of curses, the beauty of the view and its historical significance had faded from my sight. Not because it was no longer there, but because the eyes of my heart had just been diverted to the reality that the conflict really does go deeper than what is often reported and seen on the surface.
Unfortunately, our following experience in our next destination of Ramallah did not give me much confidence that the Jewish people will be sympathized with or warmly welcomed in this region anytime soon.
Our guide informed us that Ramallah is the middle to upper class of Palestinian society. Driving into the city we saw several armed members of the Presidential Guard patrolling the streets before we passed by the headquarters of PA, the Muqata’a.
As we drove down Al-Irsal Street, the main road through the heart of Ramallah, the vibe was similar to what you would expect in any sophisticated urban environment. There were traffic jams, hotels, boutiques, jewelers, cafes and restaurants—including a KFC and Popeyes directly across the street from each other; clearly fostering a conflict within the hearts of fried chicken lovers. Dozens of people were walking along the streets, many toting American branded clothing. It was even commonplace to see young women in their hijab head coverings posing for selfies.
But unlike most Western influenced urban cities, it soon became apparent to us that we weren’t in what we would consider a typical one.
While walking down Al-Irsal Street we came upon a street vender selling used books, mostly in Arabic, including several recognizable titles, such as the former bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.
To our dismay there was another very recognizable former bestseller being sold, which had a very visible swastika and picture of Adolf Hitler on the cover; his venomous diatribe against the Jews—Mein Kampf (My Struggle), in which he attests:
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: “by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Seeing this book, long considered (for good reason) one of the most dangerous books in the history of the world sitting there in broad daylight and obviously not being sold purely for academic purposes, was emblematic of the reality that Hitler’s antisemitic views have found a very safe haven within this part of the world.
Other than our crew, the presence of this book on display did not cause any of the other dozens of people passing by to pause and consider the negative implications of it. I would suspect that if this scene were unfolding in most towns in the Western world, most people would stop in disgust and question the bookseller for selling it, or at the very least whisper to their friends beside them—“Did you see what he was selling?”
But on this day in Ramallah we did not observe any righteous indignation toward this street vendor. Fortunately we also did not see anyone expressing interest in actually buying it (although there are reports that it was once a best-seller in East Jerusalem and the PA controlled territories). To make sure that there would be no temptation the following day for any of the locals walking down Al-Irsal Street to add this copy to their reading list, I took it off the street for the 30 shekels that the vendor was selling it for.
I have become convinced that until the vast majority of Palestinians are compelled to do the same—tearing out the antisemitism that has been woven into the fabric of their society—and replacing it with a hospitable attitude toward the Jew’s historical connection to the land and story as a people—they will not experience the benefits and blessings that come with living side-by-side with their Jewish neighbors.
While I appreciate the Palestinian narrative that the formation of the State of Israel resulted in catastrophic consequences for many innocent Arabs living in that region, it has become clear to me that the continuing conflict is not just a dispute over land rights or the means in which certain territories were acquired. It is not just about the occupation of a people and the challenges that come with checkpoints and limited movement. It is not just about the existence of Jewish communities living beyond the 1967 green armistice line, or even about the location of where a foreign nation decides to place its embassy in West Jerusalem.
I believe my teacher on the top of Mt. Ebal—the conflict goes much deeper than any of that.
For many—not all but by no means a small minority—it is about believing that the Jewish people exist in the land only to be eventually annihilated, and it is about denying their historical connection and right to self-determination within their ancestral homeland.
These views, in addition to demonizing their character as a people, are ones that have been consistently professed and incited for decades by many within the PA, including the current president of the Palestinian people, Mahmoud Abbas. How is this supposed to help foster peaceful coexistence?
To miss the latent—and often blatant—antisemitism that exists within Palestinian society is to grossly mischaracterize what is fueling much of this conflict—the “whys” behind the “whats”—and the remedies required to cure it; a cure that exists within the reach of the Palestinians themselves.
I am also aware that there are some within Israeli society—and those outside of it—who are fueled by religious fervor and marginalize the nationalistic aspirations of the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination.
For example, it bothers me when people disregard that Arabs have been living in this territory for centuries and then question or reject their right to identify themselves as Palestinians; saying that there has never been such a people. Do these same opponents also recognize that there weren’t Jordanians either until the creation of Jordan in 1921; nor were there Americans prior to 1776. Nationalistic identities develop and form over time, and if Arabs from historic Palestine want to identify themselves as Palestinians, especially those whose families date back several centuries there, why shouldn’t they have the right to do so?
That right only becomes problematic to me when it’s leveraged to usurp the Jews historical connection to the land, as often happens when they purport to be the descendants of the Canaanites and Philistines. That is a fallacy.
On the flip side, it is equally a fallacy for Palestinians to claim that Israeli Jews are European colonizers. Not only have Jews had a continual presence in the land for more than two millennia, nearly half of the Jewish people who were repatriated into it came from surrounding Arab countries during the war in 1948 and shortly thereafter, some of whom were fleeing for their lives as a result of severe persecution in those countries.
Another fallacy that must be confronted is when Palestinians—or their sympathizers—portray all of Israeli society as being controlled by the religious right and therefore the reason why peace negotiations remain at a standstill. While they are certainly less sympathetic to Palestinian nationalism than the mainstream or leftist Israeli, history has consistently demonstrated that even conservatives can be persuaded to compromise and accept the creation of an independent Palestinian state—but only when their existence as the nation state of the Jewish people is respected within safe and secure boundaries so that they can confidently move forward without the fear of being vulnerable to another genocidal attack, as has been attempted and threatened on numerous occasions. They cannot risk another Holocaust, nor should they be expected to do so.
That request seems more than reasonable.
Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli Orthodox Jew and best-selling author, laments the current state of affairs in his highly acclaimed book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor—
If Palestinians believe that Israel is the embodiment of evil and so must be destroyed—and there is no other reasonable conclusion to draw from the messages conveyed by Palestinian media and mosques and educational system—then genuine compromise becomes impossible. …Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair. That is the cycle we can only break together.
I would like to quote a similar lament by a highly-acclaimed Palestinian writer living in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem or Gaza who sympathizes with Halevi’s concerns, but I am not yet aware of one.
When we returned late that evening to the Airbnb condo we were staying at in Jerusalem, I went out to our balcony that provided a clear view of Yad Vashem—Israel’s powerful memorial dedicated to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Looking over that hallowed ground, I reflected upon this unforgettable day in the West Bank—a day filled with blessings and curses, but mostly curses.
I prayed that God would give me wisdom and hope, and the strength to continue walking in the tensions of this conflict.
I prayed that God would change the hearts of those who are hell-bent on cursing and destroying a nation.
I prayed for those like our Palestinian guide who are taking great risks to expose the truth and challenge others to treat their neighbors with dignity and respect.
I prayed that God would raise up courageous leaders who are willing to do the same.
I prayed for a spiritual breakthrough.
And I prayed for God’s will to be done.