The technicalities behind Palestine’s recognition as a sovereign state, piqued my interest years ago in a United Nations course during my graduate program, and eventually drew me to the West Bank on a warm day this July.
Disclaimer: this post is not intended to declare a political or moral side. I am American by nationality and Jewish by ancestry, and I have never felt that identity so intensely as while visiting Israel. I am also a pacifist and a philanthropist. Not in the- I’m rich and donate to charities and hate war-sense, but in that my life is guided by a love of humanity, and a concern for all human welfare and I aim to promote peace. Therefore, in tandem with feeling connected to Israel and my Jewish Heritage, I feel a deep empathy for Palestinians. There is no easy solution to the conflict in the Middle East, but I think those who are quick to point fingers, or write off the solution as clear, should take the time to walk on both sides.
I am not an expert in International Relations or diplomacy, but I am a student of the geopolitical uniqueness that makes up the Middle East.
Studying the history of the conflict and listening to the narratives of Israelis while touring Israel, made me decide to sneak over to Palestinian territories for a day to see what the other side of the wall was all about.
I needed to know for myself what people felt and believed, and how these emotions were reflected into reality for people on the ground. I needed to understand the roots of the hatred that kindles the ongoing conflict between two groups of supposedly different people co-inhabiting the same land.
Luckily, I had met up with my Aunt in Jerusalem who was also eager to explore Bethlehem. A place she had visited before in a different capacity.
Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, is the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ, a town with shifting control, a hotbed for controversy, and is located in the West Bank portion of Palestinian territory.
As we hopped into a car in Jerusalem shaking hands with our new driver, our personal tour guide answered our pressing questions about the current political and social climate in the area given the recent attacks.
The week before, I had visited the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. I walked past an enhanced Israeli security presence, through metal detectors and past thousands of people praying at the holiest site in Jerusalem for both Jews and Muslims.
The increased security presence was due to an attack earlier that day, two Israeli police officers were attacked and killed within the sacred compound by three Arab Israeli citizens.
Consequently, the week I spent in Israel leading up to my visit to Palestine, was filled with tension, manifesting into protests and subsequent attacks.
Visiting Bethlehem in the West Bank portion of Palestine
We drove on restricted Israeli roads, as our tour guide assured us that this excursion into Bethlehem was safe. My heart was pounding with anticipation.
I wasn’t afraid for my safety per say, but of seeing hardships that I didn’t know how to resolve.
We passed endless lines of Palestinians waiting to commute to work. A process they partake in every day while showing Israeli soldiers their color-coded identification cards, that label them as different levels of Palestinians, and ultimately determine the region they are allowed to settle in.
As the Israeli soldier at the border of the West Bank waved our car along into Bethlehem, I marveled at how bizarre the scene was. There were no questions asked to our driver who was an Arab Israeli, or our guide- an Israeli Jew.
As we drove along the stark road, the thick cement wall grew steadily in its fierceness with barbed wire jutting out the top. The wall spanned 700km, periodically shifting in dreary shades of grey.
On the Palestinian side of the wall, the streets were covered in dilapidated structures and a visible Israeli military presence was spread throughout at various checkpoints.
We passed historic biblical sites, and stepped onto the disputed soil which has caused so much turmoil for Jews and Muslims alike.
I could feel the energy seeping into my bones, with each step I took.
Visiting The Walled Off Hotel
I walked along the portion of the wall in front of the Walled Off Hotel.
The messages and art mostly painted by tourist, ranged from a desire for peace, pleas for help, anger, and pure confusion about the ongoing conflict. I took each one in, planting it in my mind with the rest of the tangled information I had absorbed over the years. The colors and words shed a passionate international perspective on the situation.
As I stepped into the foyer of the hotel, I prepared myself for whatever awaited me beyond the stained glass wooden doors. The hotel contained an emotional museum and an old-fashioned piano bar created by the British graffiti artist Banksy, who aimed to address a specific side of the story.
I walked inside, past the Grand piano and the intentional colonial façade, and made my way through a virtual timeline of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I allowed myself to soak up the images, quotes and statistics, and cataloged them solemnly.
I watched footage of Palestinian families telling their first-hand accounts of terror they’ve experienced at the hands of Israeli soldiers. I placed those side by side with the stories I heard the week before as Jewish soldiers and friends relived the gruesome murders of their loved ones by Arabs.
Banksy’s hotel was clear in the message and promotion for peace, and the bias towards Israel’s responsibility to achieve that peace, covers the walls inside.
A short video in the beginning briefly acknowledges the history of the global persecution of Jews, and then quickly drifts into the story of Israel and Palestine. The museum shows you statistics about the incomparable death count on both sides. They show proof of global support for Israel, and draw subtle parallels about the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust and systematic methods of discrimination used during apartheid to the current persecution of Palestinians.
The images thick in conflict and despair stay with you as you exit the Walled Off Hotel.
Final thoughts on peace and conflict between Israel and Palestine
Even though Jews and Arabs both have reasonable claims to the land, the Israeli government is currently in physical control of it. Whether the current power structure is justified, necessary, or fair- it is not simple.
But it is clear to me that Israel is surrounded by enemies, the Israeli government has attempted peace, that they make attempts through leaflets and phone calls to warn Palestinian civilians to evacate before a missile attack, that they prioritize their own citizens safety and lives above all else, and feel as though they cannot risk Israeli lives by relinquishing the stronghold they’ve managed to obtain over Palestine, which has prevented many terrorist attacks.
In Israel, I saw rooms that are used as bomb shelters in homes and heard about the air raid sirens that warn them of incoming missiles. I drove by parts of the Iron Dome missile defense system, which has successfully intercepted several short-range rockets with a 90% effectiveness rate. I walked through a cemetery of fallen Israeli soldiers, many just barely adults. I talked to young adults and middle-aged Israeli citizens about their experiences growing up with the impending fear of terrorist attacks, and about attacks that took the lives of their loved ones.
In my short visit to Palestine, I witnessed some of the harsh realities of oppression and segregation Palestinians face on a daily basis. In a world where they cannot move about freely, access certain resources, or obtain citizenship, their claims and demands are understandable. The feelings real, the emotions justified, their actions -in their minds- fair.
However, it seems that the Palestinian National Authority does not prioritize the safety of their own citizens, by not assisting in any kind of evacuation when Israel has repeatedly warned civilians before attacks on Hamas members and their homes and hiding places. Instead, there appears to be a trend of using civilians and children as human shields as an attempt to deter counter attacks by Israelis.
The only thing for certain, is that the conflict is unfathomably complex in resolution.
The following two quotes sum up the confusion for me into two simplified thoughts.
“Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate Jews” – Golda Meir
“If every single Jew born anywhere in the world has the right to become an Israeli citizen, then all the Palestinians who were chucked out of Palestine by the Zionist Government should have the same right, very simple.” ― Tariq Ali
I can’t help but shed a tear for both sides. I left the Middle East with a greyer notion about right and wrong, and a reinforced drive to always travel with an open-mind, and to help others understand the important role of travel in opening our minds.
I boarded my plane home with a stronger belief that peace begins from exploring and educating ourselves on other cultures, trying to understand our differences, and most importantly recognizing our similarities.