I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip to Palestine. Among family, friends and colleagues it was common to question my decision to join a delegation of millennials. Would I be safe?
Growing up attending Jewish day school, I was immersed in the idea of self-determination for the Jewish people after millennia of persecution. I remain a Zionist. I marvel at Israel’s achievements as an economically advanced liberal and social democracy that has enriched the world with its ingenuity amid persistent existential threats to its survival and legitimacy.
I went to deepen my understanding and hear Palestinian voices. From my experience, discussions about this conflict can be difficult among otherwise like-minded friends. The trip afforded a distinct opportunity to explore a side of Israel young American Jews are not commonly exposed to. The Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan think tank that advocates for a two-state solution to the conflict, organized the delegation. Over the course of a week we visited the Gaza border, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Nablus.
As a college student, I studied historical accounts of what the Palestinians call Nakba literally “disaster” that turned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees in 1948. There is no substitute for seeing the aftermath up close. The delegation visited the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The camp abuts the separation wall Israel constructed in the early 2000s amid the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada literally “uprising.” The graffiti on the wall gives a sense for the prevailing sentiment. It pictures Israeli soldiers aiming their machine guns and arresting a blindfolded Palestinian man. The quotation next to the illustration reads, “We can’t live so we are waiting to die.” As we walked, we could not escape the smell of burning garbage. The entrance to the densely-populated camp features the symbol of the Nakba, a key to the homes the refugees were either forced or chose to leave behind during Israel’s war for independence and survival. The residents I spoke with conveyed their genuine desire and expectation to eventually return to their homes seventy one years later. We watched a film portraying life as a refugee in a community room. It’s impossible to not feel the pain and anguish inflicted on the families living here.
Our first stop after arriving in Tel Aviv was the Gaza border. After touring the Kerem Shalom border crossing we had the opportunity to meet a young Palestinian technology entrepreneur. He, like most of his peers, is highly educated. He turned down a job offer from McKinsey to help make life better in Gaza by training and empowering other technology entrepreneurs. It was a risk for the young man to even speak with us. His voice exuded hunger for opportunity. Palestinians have some of the highest levels of education in the Middle East. Yet there is virtually no private sector here. The youth unemployment rate stands at 70%. The young man spoke about having Jewish friends in America. His English was perfect. Despite Gaza’s isolation he is managing to build his enterprise with limited resources. One could not come away without feeling admiration for his efforts.
We then sat down with a politician in an East Jerusalem bookstore. He wasn’t a typical politician. Mahmoud owns the bookstore. He explained this makes him not just a cultural leader but also a community leader because there no other spaces for political leaders to emerge in East Jerusalem. The over 400,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem take on a unique identity in this land. They are by and large not citizens of Israel despite being eligible. They have the right to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections but collectively choose not to so as not to recognize Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the entire city in 1981. As such, 40% of Jerusalem residents are unrepresented on the city council. In the realm of buying cars, obtaining health insurance and freedom to travel throughout Israel and the West Bank, East Jerusalem residents assume an Israeli identity. At the same time, in the realm of security checkpoints and interactions with law enforcement East Jerusalemites assume a Palestinian identity.
Mahmoud cannot and does not represent anyone. Nevertheless, his bookstore is a gathering spot for community discussion. He is quite eloquent and intellectual. He presented his perspective of the past and present. His lack of political agency underpins his pessimism and cynicism. He lamented the occupation’s division of Palestinian society. His lack of faith in the Palestinian Authority was pronounced. These were sentiments shared by the young Palestinians I spoke with on the streets of Bethlehem.
We met a soldier in Hebron. Nadav served in the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank as a spotter on a sniper team. His family has lived in Israel since the country’s founding. His military service led him to expose what he views as the immorality of the occupation. He led us on a tour of Hebron. As Nadav walked the delegation down a shuttered commercial center, a settler approached and started taking video of Nadav in a thinly veiled display of hostility. Words were exchanged. The tension was inescapable. In fact, this man had punched Nadav a few months prior. Just after our tour ended, we learned Nadav was once again attacked this time by youth. There were no arrests or charges brought.
Hebron is a Palestinian city of over 200,000 residents. Under the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1995, it is governed by the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, 800 Jewish settlers reside in four distinct settlements separate and apart from the rest of Hebron. They are motivated to be there out of genuine and deep religious conviction. Their presence and safety necessitates 1,000 Israeli soldiers stationed adjacent the settlements and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. As a result, Palestinian businesses in a main commercial corridor are shut down to ensure safe passageway for the settlers. The disruption angers Palestinian residents. The settlers insist they would remain if the soldiers were not there. Hebron is where the occupation strains rationality and justification most.
Back in Tel Aviv we met the leaders of Women Wage Peace, a group that promotes a political agreement to resolve the conflict and to include women in all aspects of decision-making. It is the largest grassroots movement in Israel. It has more than 40,000 members of varying political persuasions. The co-leader spoke about having lost her son, a soldier, to the conflict. She was joined by Israelis of Christian and Muslim backgrounds who co-lead the group.
I sat down with two young fearless labor leaders. Maya and Tamar, both Israeli and Jewish, are organizers and negotiators for the Koach Laovdim union literally “Power to the Workers.” Maya represents Jerusalem bus drivers, mostly Palestinian, who transport Jewish settlers to West Bank settlements. Maya talked about how these workers have been subjected to physical assaults by passengers. Even more, the buses have been stoned and shot at by Palestinians. Maya successfully compelled the bus company to bullet-proof the buses at significant expense. Maya believes the current Netanyahu government is not fulfilling Israel’s founding aspiration to be a light unto the nations.
I come away from this journey humbled. This is a very complex place. A place where strident simplicity will not bring justice for the righteous people I met who view and experience the conflict deeply and differently. There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians helping each other and working together everyday in this land. This isn’t spoken about much less amplified by the political leadership on either side. Neither unquestioned support for Israel nor a misguided boycott are recipes for a just resolution with dignity and security for both peoples. The mosaic of opinion among Israelis and Palestinians is vast. This conflict won’t be solved overnight. Nevertheless, there are ways to make life tangibly better for both peoples in the interim. We should support American and international investment initiatives for Gaza and the West Bank. Israel must not annex Palestinian Territory. Let us commit to progress.