So, I have visited Israel and Palestine recently. I spent two weeks, one week in Israel and another week in Palestine. It was perhaps the most intense and most multi-dimensional trip I have experienced.
Readers of this blog probably have already known that my partner has Israeli citizenship. This means that for the past year or so, I had to be informed about the longest-running conflict in the world. After all, one cannot date an Israeli without not having an opinion about it.
I have spent so many hours trying to figure out how to write this blog post. Alas, I find no coherent way of doing it, so forgive me for the way it is presented, which at times might be in the form of stream of consciousness that might be reminiscent of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
Let me start by rewinding time to summer of 2014. There was the 51-day Gaza War. Rockets were shooting out of Gaza which were being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome, while Israel on the other hand kept attacking Gaza population centers, resulting in plenty of civilian casualties. I am not here to argue about proportionality, since I don’t think that is a valid argument anyway. Regardless, that was perhaps my introduction to the conflict. Previously, all I know about the conflict was what I have been reading on the news. Now, I live with someone who directly is affected and concerned with the conflict at hand.
There was this issue of media bias. People say that the Palestinians have a very good media propaganda machinery that works for them. Israel on the other hand gets quite a bit of bad rep. Indeed, most Israelis I have met think that way, thinking that most Western media are biased against them, reporting about the Israeli atrocities in Gaza all the time, every day, while the comparable atrocities that are happening in Tibet and Myanmar don’t even get a mention. Just look at how many UN Security Council resolutions that have been passed against Israel, as opposed to other regimes that commit human rights violations. The numbers are definitely skewed.
But so what? What if the media is skewed? I have a hypothesis that there is a reason behind this so-called bias. See, it might be the case that most Western folks implicitly think that it is somewhat even expected for non-Western regimes to commit human rights violations. I mean, what China has been doing to the Tibetans, what Myanmar has been doing to the Rohingya, those are okay. After all, they are not Western civilizations, hence, if they are barbaric and they commit human rights violations, it’s almost expected of them to do so. They aren’t European or North American, and therefore they don’t know any better. So Western media just turns a blind eye to them. Israel, on the other hand, is seen as a Western country, and therefore is being held up to a standard that is a little bit more stringent. And perhaps this is what is triggering the bias. In my opinion, the “bias” against Israel is not the problem here, but rather, the lack of concern against other regimes like China and Myanmar. Israel shouldn’t try to deflect the media attention to them, because this shows that the world actually expects more from them, not unlike other “barbaric” regimes in the world.
In relation to this, I want to comment on yet another aspect of this “bias”. I have had the chance to speak to several Israelis, and when I voice my concern about the tragic things happening in Palestine, which, I have actually witnessed personally, then most of them would respond that I shouldn’t forget the case of other countries too. It’s almost as if they are saying that yes, I can criticize Israel with the way it is handling Palestine, but I shouldn’t forget what France has done to Algeria, or what Belgium has done to the Congo, and so on. But is that even relevant? These comments make it sound like Israelis believe that it is okay to commit atrocities because other governments have committed them as well. It’s like saying that it is okay to vandalize your neighbor’s garden because other residents in the same neighborhood are doing it too. And as such I find that argument to be absurd and invalid. One’s morality shouldn’t be determined by the moralities (or lack of it) of others.
See, the unfortunate thing is that I came to Israel with high expectations. I had plenty of friends and acquaintances who have a very high regard of the country. Even when I was still living in the United States, I would hear some friends of mine who compare Israeli and American policies, and conclude that Israel is way better. Gay people can openly serve in the army, for example. Fruits and vegetables are way fresher, for example. And many other little things. Hence, I came to Israel thinking that it is a great country in the Middle East, an island of liberalism in an otherwise troubled region. But that view of mine slowly got shattered, as I spent more and more time inside. And it totally crashed when I entered the West Bank and experienced Palestine.
See, this crash happened slowly. First, when we were in Tel Aviv, my boyfriend started commenting about how he thinks things are dirtier than how he remembered. How things are disorganized and chaotic. He didn’t think that way before, but I suppose, when you start living outside, and especially in a place that can compare due to its comparable or perhaps even higher standards like Berlin, then your rosy impression of Tel Aviv and Israel slowly fades away.
And then we went to Jerusalem. I am going to dedicate a separate blog entry for this later, but I cannot say I liked Jerusalem. In fact, I hated it. I hated it because I felt like it was Ground Zero for all of the religious conflicts that are happening in the world right now. I also don’t like the fact that religion permeates the whole city’s operation, and especially how it imposes religious beliefs on non-believers, such as the lack of public transportation on Shabbat for example. But I will rant about this later, in a more comprehensive way. For me, it suffices to say that my visit to Jerusalem further reduced my impression of Israel down by a few notches.
And then I took the bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, crossing the border from Israel to Palestine. The five days I spent in Palestine was intense. I traveled as a Palestinian, riding cars with Palestinian license plates, which means that there were roads that were accessible to Israeli settlers, but inaccessible to my vehicle. It was tragic to see how Palestinians are slowly being squeezed out of their homes, being forced out of their farmlands, and being forced to use winding minor roads just in order to avoid the Israeli separation wall, which does not follow the Green Line, by the way. I went from Bethlehem (in the south of Jerusalem) to Ramallah (in the north of Jerusalem), and a straight route going through Jerusalem would simply take about half an hour, yet due to the separation wall, the trip took 3 hours.
And yes, I also went to Hebron. I saw what the Jewish settlers have been doing in that city, throwing trash at the Palestinian vendors in the Old City, which then forced the Palestinians to install nets so that the Jewish trash don’t go to them. I saw Israeli soldiers patrolling the area, walking in groups of five, with armed guns, trying to prevent a confrontation. The situation was definitely tense. Sometimes you wonder, what did the Palestinians do to deserve what they are experiencing? I am not denying that the suicide attacks committed by Palestinians have happened. But what the Israelis are doing to Palestine is pretty much a well-orchestrated effort on collective punishment.
Funny, months before the trip, when I casually told my boyfriend that I wanted to go to Hebron, he tried discouraging me many times. He said that it is dangerous, that people will shoot me there, and that it is not a place for a visitor. But I persisted, and saw something totally different.
I only experienced Palestine for 5 days, and I am in no position to dictate what should be done to resolve the conflict. I experienced 5 days in Palestine, which felt to me like a giant prison. It was stifling, it was disturbing, and it was overall tragic. I can only imagine the lives of people who have spent their whole lifetime in there.
Getting out was intense. I passed through the Qalandia checkpoint, by taking a bus from Ramallah to the checkpoint, going through maximum security prison-like security, and catching another bus from the other side of the checkpoint to Jerusalem. Of all the borders I have crossed, this one was the most intense. I can only imagine how the Palestinians keep doing this day in and day out, when all they want to do sometimes is to visit their family on the other side of the border.
Needless to say, by the time I left Palestine, I had a very negative opinion of Israel. Negative enough that at one point, I thought that I would only come back only because I have an Israeli boyfriend.
After leaving Palestine, I spent two more days in Tel Aviv, and this did well. I chatted long hours with friends, who, while they are left-wing Israelis and are therefore critical of the whole settlement program, they also acknowledge that things are more complex than how it seems. And they explained it all to me patiently. There are liberal Israelis who are supporting the two-state solution, and there are conservative (and sometimes religious) Israelis who think that it is their (divine) right to take the land and populate it, removing its local population if necessary.
After this, I think I have learned a lot more about Israeli society and politics, that it even feels like I know more about Israeli politics than those of my passport country. And needless to say, I have a more nuanced view of Israel now. I don’t believe that it is a beacon of liberalism in an otherwise troubled Middle East. I don’t think it is the Promised Land. There are plenty of social and political problems that are plaguing the area, just like any other country in the planet. Yes, there are human rights violations that the Israeli government is committing in Palestine, yet taking into consideration the context, it cannot be said that they do it in a level hugely different from other regimes. That, however, is not a statement condoning it. All I want to say is that Israel after all is normal, as a country it is nothing spectacular. It has good sides and bad sides. It has positive aspects and negative ones (don’t get me started on how religion controls plenty of social aspects of life: marriage for example can only be religious, and not civil). It’s definitely not the Promised Land, not the “Best Country Ever”, but it’s also not a monster.
I used to think that I wouldn’t want to go back because of what I have seen. But if I embrace that attitude, then there are plenty of countries I wouldn’t want to go back. And yet I keep coming back to them, not because I support their government, but because I have loved ones who live within their borders. I don’t agree with what the Israeli government has been doing with Palestine, but I will still come back, because I have good friends and loved ones who live within her.