West Bank; Western Eyes
Note: I had previously written an article on my experience in the West Bank back in 2019 that is readable on the Blogs. I decided to revisit the topic as an older adult as it has truly been fundamental in shaping my view of the conflict.
Seeing the other side of the story firsthand was something that had crossed my mind frequently in my youth, but I was unsure when I’d ever be able to. Growing up in a Jewish family in America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was spoken about every time we had the chance. And the idea of a Jewish homeland, where our people could be free of persecution, was something we held near and dear to our hearts. These values profoundly affected my worldview; but the entire narrative of our neighbors, the Palestinians, was the missing piece of the puzzle of this complex geopolitical conflict. I understood we “shared,” for lack of a better term, this small parcel of land with them. I understood they had a different culture and mindset, but did not have a deeper understanding of their experience. Although brought up with a narrow worldview, I recognized that, aside from the hostility emanating from both sides, as people, our fate and destiny are tied to each other. Hence, it was of utmost importance to fully learn not only my side, but the story of the Palestinians, who similarly, have deep historical ties and an unwavering, steadfast connection to the land. Keeping in line with my love of adventure and my never-ending quest for knowledge, when I had the chance to visit the West Bank in the summer of 2018, it wasn’t going to be something I would miss – no matter how dangerous or crazy it seemed. So, a good friend of mine and I hired a driver and we hit the road.
I’ll never forget the words that greeted me as we entered every single Palestinian city. A bright red sign read, “THIS ROAD LEADS TO AREA “A” UNDER THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY. THE ENTRANCE FOR ISRAELI CITIZENS IS FORBIDDEN, DANGEROUS TO YOUR LIVES AND IS AGAINST THE ISRAELI LAW.”
I was born and raised in New York, the son of a Jewish-American mother and a devout Israeli Jewish father from Jerusalem. My father served in the army, like his father before him, along with every Israeli male on his side. We have family living throughout Israel and also in the Occupied Territories. When visiting the West Bank, I was told that “it’s dangerous” and I should leave anything visibly Jewish, like a Star of David or yarmulke, at home. You can see violent incidents on social media every now and then of Israeli citizens unknowingly entering Palestinian territory, only to be greeted by a hostile reaction. Perhaps the most famous instance of violence was the “Ramallah Lynching” in 2000, when two Israeli citizens were beaten to death brutally by an angry crowd in an event that shocked the world. Yet despite being told “you’re crazy!” or “you’re insane” to go there by friends, I marched on. I visited the cities of Ramallah, Hebron, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin. Each city was special and profound to me, but the latter two affected my outlook on my life, the conflict, and the world around me profoundly.
Nablus and Jenin, in the Northern West Bank is were where I experienced soul crushing third world poverty for the first time. After all, I was American, and the poverty here was astonishingly different from anything I had ever experienced back home. It was almost as if I was on a different planet, even though I was a stone’s throw away from cosmopolitan Tel Aviv; barefoot children in tattered clothes running on jagged hot pavement burned by the summer sun, donkey’s pushing villagers in old makeshift pushcarts as a method of transportation, the sullen and hardened faces of men who have witnessed more than I can probably ever imagine. We then made our way to the Jenin refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, which has become known in recent years as a hotspot for radical activity. Here I witnessed more of the same; the atmosphere gloomy, and the people dejected with large families pushed into small shacks in a slum surrounded by more of the same crumbling infrastructure. Couple this with being surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and military installations on all sides created an air of inevitable hopelessness and despair that even I, as visitor, felt. Though there are valid security concerns and important context, history and reasons behind this, witnessing firsthand that the ordinary innocent Palestinian lived in what could essentially be classified as a prison was enough to make even the most hardened pro-Israel person like myself sympathetic and forlorn over the plight of the Palestinian people. Yes, I as a Jewish person knew I had deep ancestral and historical ties to the ground in which I was standing but I had understood so did the people I was among. At that juncture, their side of the story clicked with me for the first time, and I made a heartbreaking realization; a people essentially imprisoned in their own homeland.
Besides the tragic situation the Palestinians found themselves in, I found the Palestinian people to be incredibly kind, exceptionally friendly and witnessed for the first time their world class hospitality. I saw scenes no different than back home in the States; children tightly clutching their mother’s hands as they wandered through markets, the shopkeepers eager to practice their English while selling their goods, and young girls with colorful backpacks jovially walking home from school.
As wonderful as it was to see typical Palestinian daily life, one thing left me with an unsettling feeling. Posters of men with explosive vests and machine guns adorned the walls of Nablus and Jenin, both small signs in shops and massive murals on the sides of buildings. I later learned that these young men, portrayed heroically and smiling ever so gleefully in these posters, were suicide bombers who had killed innocent Israeli citizens during the Second Intifada. It boiled my blood knowing that these men, who had killed my kin, are glorified and revered by much of Palestinian society. Looking into the eyes of these men was like staring into the dark abyss of pure evil. Each time I saw one of these posters, I was saddened. Saddened that these innocent Palestinian children grow up surrounded by the glorification of such evil. How can there ever be peace I wondered? This culture of violence will simply permeate every generation, in turn continuing a vicious cycle. Thousands of Palestinians have died, tragically many of them children. Continued violence will only guarantee more deaths on both sides.
I think that most Zionists and Israel supporters like myself have trouble understanding that the Palestinian people were dealt a tragic hand. In 1948, they were dispossessed of their land and their society and culture were laid waste. For varying reasons, nearly 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled and between 400-600 Palestinian villages were destroyed during the creation of the nascent Jewish state. It’s important for us to acknowledge that these historical events happened and it’s important for us to learn about and accept them as we move forward. After witnessing the situation firsthand, I understand better now the frustration of the other side. It doesn’t make me any less pro-Israel to sympathize with our neighbors, understand their plight, and face our sides’ imperfect history head on. Clearly the creation of the State of Israel was anything but peaceful.
It’s important to note that no matter how much I may support some Israeli policy and Zionism, when put into action, it’s evident that it is problematic when applied to the real world. These travels to the other side really opened these western eyes to the, oftentimes, harsh and brutal realities on the ground. Though peace feels like it may be lightyears away, I truly believed each man, woman and child I saw in the Palestinian Territories and Israel represented a potential opportunity for real change, peace and a brighter future for all the land’s inhabitants. I wish all would be able to research and experience this with their own eyes, as understanding and learning is as crucial as anything when it comes to conflict resolution. Much must change on both sides, but hopefully, be’ezrat hashem, inshallah, there will be lasting peace and coexistence in my lifetime.