Sunday, September 09, 2007

From the border: Palestine, close up and personal

I got this over the summer and I asked for permission to share it with you. It will give you a different -- perhaps more immediate, and more compelling -- perspective on life in a part of the world that too often seems so far removed from us here in Ithaca:


I've been back in the U.S. for a week now, and I thought I'd send out one last email. Some people have been asking me how I would sum up my experiences this summer, and some people have rightly sensed that I've been holding back a little bit in these mass emails. So, for those of you who are interested, here's my response…

First of all, Palestine is intense, and at times it was really draining emotionally. It's not that my life there was difficult, and I never felt like I was in danger, but there were times when the stories I heard or the things I saw seemed impossible to fit into my understanding of the world. The vast majority of the time I was fine, but sometimes the blatant abuse or the extent of the suffering or even people's ability to survive were simply too much to wrap my head around. My reaction then was either despair or anger, and there were certainly times when I just felt disgusted with the state of Israel (and the U.S.) and not very interested in the political, social and psychological explanations for what is happening.

That kind of emotion can be productive, but it can also be dangerous. I hope that moments of feeling overwhelmed or outraged don't make me self-righteous or blind to other perspectives. There's a lot I don't know about Zionism and Israeli society. (I'm actually taking an Israeli history class this semester because of that.) The historical narratives and the political situation in both Israel and Palestine are extremely complex and I know I need to understand them better. But at the same time, there are a lot of things about this conflict that are frighteningly straightforward, and I feel comfortable saying that the situation on the ground calls for resistance to the occupation. While Israelis do have legitimate fears and grievances, they are the occupiers and the powerful actors (relatively speaking, at least), and their grievances don't come close to what the Palestinians face on a daily basis. For these reasons, I think listening to and addressing Palestinian grievances has to be the priority.

I think it's hard for most Americans to appreciate how destructive the occupation is. When I went to the West Bank, I actually expected to find the situation better than I had seen it portrayed in films and articles, whose purpose I knew was partly to shock their audience. I expected that the horrible stories I'd heard were symptomatic of an oppressive system, but that they were the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately I found that wasn't the case. Inside the occupied territories – especially since Oslo – the occupation is not something abstract. You don't have to go looking for concrete examples of a theoretical injustice - it's all around you. In Israel or the U.S. you might be able to throw around terms like "benevolent occupation," you might be able to talk about Israel as an exemplary democracy, and you might argue that Israeli policy has been aimed at peace and stability. But inside the territories, while there is huge diversity of views on most other issues and much understanding of (if not sympathy for) the Israeli version of things, there's basically no way to see the occupation as benevolent or Israel as a true democracy or Israel's intentions as benign. It's simply impossible to reconcile any of those things with living under occupation. Palestinian children don't need Hamas television to teach them to hate Israel or to embrace violence. They experience the violence of the occupation firsthand before they have the chance to be indoctrinated.

So what should happen now and what should people like me do? I don't know. The situation now, most Palestinians say, is about as bad as it's ever been because of the fighting between Fatah and Hamas and because settlements, settler roads and the wall have made a viable Palestinian state almost geographically impossible. As far as the negotiations go, it's hard to see how any agreement that hasn't involved Hamas can be sustainable. One thing that people seem to agree on is that a change in the status quo can only come from a change in U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. I think it's really important for Americans to at least educate themselves about the situation, because our military aid quite literally enables the occupation to continue, and every Palestinian is very well aware of this fact. It would be pretty hard to persuade any American administration to do so, but I think the U.S. really could force Israel to change its practices by withholding aid. There's also a movement towards boycott and divestment, similar to what happened with the apartheid government in South Africa, to put pressure on Israel. That's something worth looking into as well.

Most importantly, no matter where you fall on the issue, I think it's really important to open up the discussion about Palestine in the U.S. The scope of the debate in politics, mainstream media and even a lot of academic institutions is much too narrow and heavily biased toward Israel. There are people with many different perspectives who are sincere about engaging those who disagree with them, but there are also many powerful people and organizations who want to shut down debate. That's what happened when Jimmy Carter's book came out last year, a book (and I read it) that is about as friendly to Israel as it could be while still criticizing Israeli policy. In other words, if Carter's criticisms of Israel were inappropriate and therefore unworthy of serious consideration, then it would seem that almost no criticism of Israel is appropriate. That I find terrifying, and it's that atmosphere more than any American policy that makes me somewhat ambivalent about coming back to the U.S.

As usual, this is getting long, but I just have a couple things left to say. First of all, I would really encourage any of you who have the chance to go to the West Bank to do so, especially if you're visiting Israel. Palestinians are so eager to have people listen to them, and although they are resentful of U.S. policies, I never felt any hostility directed at me.

Also, thanks for reading my long-winded emails. I would have written a lot about this summer anyway, but I can't tell you how many people practically begged me to tell my friends and family in the states about what I saw. People have a lot of faith, actually, that Americans would help their situation if they only knew more about what was going on. Finally, there are a bunch of you on this list who I'm sure disagree with at least some of what I've said over the course of summer, and while sometimes it's easier to just leave this issue alone, I also want to hear what others of you think and where you think I'm mistaken...


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