a visit to the West Bank
Yesterday I went into the West Bank. Angela, my host in Jerusalem, had been invited to join an Amnesty Israel ‘day trip’. The Amnesty offices worldwide work on an area that is not their own, so as to avoid having their work limited by the state they’re working in. What this means for Israel is that Amnesty Israel, based in Tel Aviv, does not work on any of the human rights issues arising from the Israel/Palestine conflict. What was surprising was that most of the Israeli full time Amnesty staff knew as little as me about life in the West Bank. (‘You’ve come here after a week, when it took me 28 years?!’) Based as they are in Tel Aviv and working on abuses outside their country it’s easy to imagine them frantically working on the abuses of distant people, but knowing as little as I did about their own reminded me of something Angela had said the evening before: ma ichpat li (what do I care) is the idiom of choice for many an Israeli confronting a difficult truth.
From the various conversations I have had on my way here, with Israelis, Jordanians, Syrians, Turks and Europeans, I know that this is an impossible subject to broach. The emotions provoked are not always reasonable and their ferocity can be shocking. I’ve been in Israel just over a week. Before that I was in Turkey where the Flotilla martyrs/terrorists/peace activists where being sent from Israel. And in between I travelled through Syria, a people who lost their beautiful Golan Heights to Israel, and Jordan – a nation who have brokered an uncomfortable peace. There has been aggressive rhetoric and military attack from both sides and I have met individuals with wild hatred in their eyes and others who seem only to ask for peace. So that is my disclaimer.
I find that I can’t sympathise with actions that are illegal under international law – the blockade of Gaza, the demolition of people’s homes (and – more emotional – schools), the construction of settlements and infrastructure that carves through the West Bank. Yet no longer can I fall back on our Western impatience for the two factions to divide their land into two nations. Things are fucking complicated over here and with each day that passes without a solution, the problems just multiply and a two-state solution becomes more risible. In the West Bank it was easy to see that there are bad things happening which need to be stopped, now. It’s far less easy to find anyone who thinks they had The Answer to Israel/Palestine.
Whilst in Tel Aviv I was invited to stay with two 25 year olds, fresh from the army and fed up with it too. They were hippies, both wanting to leave Israel and set up a camp where you could take LSD and smoke pot 24/7 in the Ivory Coast. From the escapist environment of Tel Aviv this seemed like a possibility, a strange but potentially harmless, lifetime ambition. Shelly said ‘the army ruins your sense and your mind. I want to get back to my mind but for that I must leave Israel.’ I’m not sure what kind of mindscape she’d have after years of acid and hippy living in the Ivory Coast but for her anything was preferable to Israel. Both of them wanted to give Palestinians a country but when they were pressed – how much of a country – the whole West Bank? Half of Jerusalem? Even more than that? They would look disgruntled as if I were asking too many questions, and that the only real answer they had was that phrase I’d later learnt from Angela: ma ichpat li. For them the big difficulty would be to give up such beautiful land to such a ‘miserable people’ (their complaint about the Palestinians). The only miserable person that I met in the West Bank was a man Alir whose home had been demolished two weeks earlier. The situation is bleak but as ever the Bedouin I met were charming and hospitable (not being a lone girl was, I’m sure, a help). Most were surprised and delighted to see us, a group from the other side of the wall, taking the time to sit, talk and nod with sympathy at their stories.
In Jerusalem I’m staying somewhere quite different. Angela is a full time (i.e. 8am til 12 midnight, at least…) peace activist. When I asked how to describe her, an Israeli woman working in support of a free Palestine, she would not be caught in the linguistic trap of ‘pro-Palestine’ / ‘anti-Israel’ and all that that implies. She says that those who term themselves pro-Israel can only effect the opposite: that they are assisting Israel in its suicide. She moved here thirty years ago and has been an active Israeli opposing the land grab of Palestinian territories.
On the evening that I arrived there had been unrest in Silwan (a Palestinian area where between 20 – 80 homes are under threat of demolition). We watched the news before reading a website’s analysis of the report. A peaceful protest was discussed whilst archive images were shown of prayers at an open air mosque followed by images of Palestinian children throwing stones at the Israeli military. The archive images were not labelled and instead it was implied that they pertained to the report, that they weren’t archive at all but were somehow relevant to the report. I don’t know how regularly the media distorts the facts of life within the West Bank and Gaza. Even so, in a situation where honest reporting is so necessary to ensure that the humanity of both sides can be seen, it was shocking to witness this sleight of hand. It also went some way to explain why the Tel Aviv folk I stayed with feel so helpless, so sure that their opponents aren’t fully human, that their only solution to the difficulties is escape. Individuals talk about peace whilst the media focuses on conflict. Peaceful demonstrations are reported with images that mislead the viewer, fulfilling their fears of violence. The loudest voices on each side of the wall are violent screechings. But they’re also voices in the minority. Not to end on too twee a note but it seems true that the individual stories are ones of wanting to survive, wanting to protect a homeland and hoping that leaders (internationally and locally) will finally hit on a solution.