About a year ago I wrote a paper on media bias in coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In her feedback, my professor accused me of being a Palestinian sympathizer and in the same breath called me pro-Israel. This conversation, in my mind, highlights the fact that no matter how careful I am, neutrality on this issue has become nearly impossible.
Let’s face it, no one wants to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict. No matter what stance you take, you’re going to offend someone. Since violence and tensions have somewhat lessened since last year, or at least have become overrun by other more flashy news stories, there hasn’t been a whole lot of coverage on the conflict. Though governments may be in a constant process of peace talks and negotiation the situation for most Israeli and Palestinian citizens remains unchanged.
About three years ago I spent some time living in both Israel and the West Bank. As a writer and photographer I naturally blogged about my experience, and the response I got was both shocking and highly predictable. This conflict touches on so many aspects of history and culture that it has become absolutely polarizing on the fronts of ethnicity and religion. Like the situation with my professor I managed to piss off people on both sides as I desperately clung to what I liked to think was middle ground, searching for a “pro-peace” option.
Now, “pro-peace” may sound like a hippie pipe dream, but until it’s at least on the table I don’t know if there can be any other way to move forward.
First things first: how long has this conflict been going? Many will claim it has its roots as far back as Isaac and Ishmael of the Old Testament. However, I tend to disagree with this argument. It’s often used as an excuse for inaction because it maintains that this fight between Jews and Muslims has been going on for thousands of years and, therefore, has no solution. Though Judaism may prevail as the majority religion and a defining characteristic, the state of Israel today is a secular democracy, and its government acts accordingly for the sake of self-preservation. Not all Palestinians are Muslim, nor all Israelis Jewish. The opposing religions may heighten this conflict but they are not the cause: the main issue here is land. If both nations, and the world at large, could maintain their sense of nationalism and at the same time acknowledge the right of the other to exist and thrive, then we could move toward a solution.
If you have time, please watch the whole video by CrashCourse, included below. He does a great job of highlighting historical events on both sides while somehow remaining neutral (kudos to him!).
If I go too far into the historical background we’ll be here all day, so instead I’ll touch on a few of the main issues of today that I experienced firsthand:
1. Borders and Security
“The Green Line” is the internationally agreed upon border between Israel and the West Bank as outlined in the Armistice Agreements after the 1948 Arab-Israel War. Following the beginning of the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel) in 2000, Israel began the construction of a security barrier as a means of protecting its people from bombers and snipers.
That’s totally okay.
What’s not okay is how and where they built it.
The Green Line represents the agreed upon border, the red line represents the actual path the barrier takes.
Regardless of what you want to call it, a security fence or an apartheid wall, when you’re standing under 25 feet of solid concrete your gut reaction begins to take over. I walked along the wall every day for a few months and couldn’t help but notice its less than conventional path. It cuts off roads completely, cuts off communities from hospitals and schools, and families from families. Yes, it has unarguably saved hundreds, if not thousands of Israeli lives, but at what cost to the Palestinian people?
2. Water Rights
In a land without a whole lot of water this is a huge issue. While I was in Bethlehem a riot broke out one evening because a Palestinian community’s water had been cut off, from Israel’s side, for over a week. Unfortunately this was not an isolated instance.
3. Israeli Settlements
Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are illegal under international law. There is no way around that one. Yet Hebron is a city that is surrounded by Israeli settlements, provoking violence on both sides. The market walkway has a wire cage overhead simply because settlers are constantly throwing their trash, as well as rocks, onto the people below.
Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic organization that is defined by most of the world as a terrorist organization. Holding power in the Gaza Strip, it was created in 1988 to liberate Palestine. It is, in essence, a by-product of the conflict, not the cause of it. As an organization/government they refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and have a long and bloody history.
What needs to be realized is that Hamas and Palestinians are not one and the same. Up until 2008 the West Bank took a stand alongside Israel against Hamas.
I was sitting next to a Palestinian woman on a bus one morning in the West Bank when she began telling me her story. She kept asking me to “tell the world that we’re not terrorists, we’re just people trying to live our lives in peace.” She felt so helpless, so misjudged and misrepresented that she broke down in tears of frustration and defeat. All I could do was assure her that I would pass on her words.
As you may have begun to notice, this conflict is complex. Yes, it has been going on for some time. Yes, both sides seem to be in an immoveable stalemate. But the politics and the jargon surrounding most of the media we receive here in the west fails to represent the voice of the people and fails to challenge those in power shaping their reality. While we argue about whether CNN is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, skewed death tolls and buzz words become a subject of debate rather than one of human rights.
I want to conclude with two stories, two people that have changed the way I look at the conflict forever: Fatima and Leah.
Fatima is a Palestinian mother of three living in a small town just outside of Bethlehem. Her family lived on that land for decades. It took years to save money and finally build a house that could be home to the three generations that occupied it. The evening before I visited her, in July of 2012, an Israeli military jeep showed up with a bulldozer and destroyed the family home, giving them only enough time to get the children out. Everything was destroyed.
When she demanded to know why she was only told she did not have a permit. The real reason loomed over Fatima’s property in the form of a large Israeli settlement slowly spreading over the hilltop. With tears running silently down her face she told me that “This is our reality. They can come and destroy our house, the concrete, the walls, but they cannot destroy our home. We still have our family.”
Leah is an Israeli mother of two living just outside of Jerusalem. Early in the spring of 1998 her 19-year-old son, a soldier at the time, was attacked by a group of rioting Hamas students. He was dragged out of his car, punched, kicked, spat on, and left for dead. Many years later he remained in a state of deep depression and paranoia. When she attended the trial to bring one of the men that did this to justice, she wanted to hate him, to see him thrown into prison and move on with her life. Instead she found herself seeing another son, another victim and prisoner to the history, beliefs, and politics of two warring nations. She shared that “We have victim, hate, victim, hate. There has to be a coming together. There has to be a defusing of what people perceive as the enemy. Both sides just want a place to call home, a place of safety and retreat; a place that is their own.”
There are endless stories like Fatima and Leah’s, lives forever altered and defined by this conflict, and that’s what needs to be our focus when we discuss Israel-Palestine. We need to change the international conversation from one of polarized animosity based on who we agree with and strip it down to the basics of human rights.
SARAH is a 24-year-old want-to-be journalist and photographer who is passionate, above all else, about people’s stories. She is currently revamping her website and blog, but the the old one can be found at swallensteen.wordpress.com.