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I recently travelled to the West Bank for the first time, a trip that showed the shared and divided ground between Palestinians and Jews.
On the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel – 14 May 2018 – the day the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the day over 60 Gazans, many of them children, lost their lives and thousands more were injured in demonstrations against the move, my husband and I visited the West Bank to see the historic sites of Bethlehem and Hebron.
We’d come to Israel for the history, keen to see the incredible sights of this ancient land. Israel has much to offer amateur historians – from the early Canaanite period through to the British Mandate and everything in between. It has a remarkably chequered narrative, so many influences, so much layering, so much to take in.
In particular we wanted to see Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities on the planet, spiritual centre of Judaism, home to the site of the First Temple built by Solomon in the tenth century BCE. Christians too have a deep spiritual connection with the city because Jesus lived and taught there, and it’s where he was imprisoned, tried and crucified. For Muslims, it’s the sacred place from which Mohammed ascended into heaven and it’s associated with some of the major prophets of Islam. The importance of religion in Jerusalem shouldn’t be underestimated – synagogues, churches and mosques not only cater to the spiritual needs of their flocks, but attract millions of tourists every year.
But back to the West Bank. We hadn’t realised the significance of the date we chose for our West Bank excursion having booked a private tour from Australia months before, but the added security around Jerusalem and its outskirts gave us pause for thought. We were taken by taxi from central Jerusalem and past the checkpoint at the Separation Wall where we met our guide, Yamen. He couldn’t pick us up from Jerusalem himself as he’s a West Bank Palestinian and his movements are restricted under Israeli law.
Palestinians might live 500 metres from their workplace but are forced two or three kilometres around the settlements to get there because they’re forbidden to pass through that land.
As we drove, we saw a large and, to we Australians, somewhat forbidding military presence. Soldiers were everywhere. Our guide showed us checkpoints, sniper towers and armed guards at smaller barriers, explaining that they were there to protect Jewish settlers, people who’ve been settled by the government in Palestinian lands against international law.
We drove past abandoned villages where locals had been evicted from their homes so that Jewish settlements could be constructed. Our guide explained that Israel controls the water in Palestine: settlers have running water, irrigated gardens, even swimming pools, but Palestinians do not. It’s easy to tell the Palestinian homes, he told us, they’re the ones with multiple water tanks on their roofs. When rain is scarce, often the case in that harsh environment, they have to buy water from the Israeli authorities. It’s not unusual for the average West Bank Palestinian home to have no water at all for days at a time.
To say we were shocked to learn this is an understatement. My understanding of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza was superficial at best and even now with what I’ve since learned, I’m overwhelmed with the situation’s complexities and the injustices that appear to be perpetrated every single day, so I can only write about what I saw; political and social analyses can be made by others.
To be denied water is simply wrong, but sadly that’s merely one aspect of life in Palestine. In Hebron we visited what was once a bustling market, now almost a ghost town. Homes for Jewish settlers have been built above the marketplace; they consider the streets below their personal garbage dump. We spoke to shop owners whose wares are smeared with eggs, slops, even human waste; we saw the damaged goods, the stones, bottles, household detritus. Even the erection of a chicken-wire ceiling can’t protect the people or their shops. It’s difficult for vendors to make ends meet – they simply don’t get the traffic through the market and their wares are consistently wilfully damaged.
We watched as Palestinian youths were dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. Israeli soldiers are instructed to shoot if they feel threatened… their assailants have a few stones.
Another major consequence of establishing settlements is that Palestinians are cut off from entire areas and to access something close by often means taking a lengthy back route. Some people might live just 500 metres from their workplace but are forced to travel two or three kilometres around the settlements to get there because they’re forbidden to pass through that land. Heavily-armed soldiers posted at the edge of settlements make sure they cannot pass. Muslim law dictates that the dead must be buried within 24 hours of death, and one shop proprietor pointed to the Muslim cemetery just 400 metres from where we stood. To reach the cemetery during a funeral however, mourners must go out of their way by several kilometres. Soldiers also sometimes close the gates between neighbourhoods so after school, children can’t get home except by taking another much longer route. Mothers behind the gate beg the soldiers to let their kids come through but their pleas remain unheeded.
Outside the ancient Ibrahimi Mosque – known by Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs and the site of a massacre in 1994 in which 29 Muslims were killed – we watched as four teenage boys were searched by the Israeli military. One after the other, each boy had to pull up his T-shirt, his pants legs and submit to demeaning taunts. This can happen every few hundred metres – it’s a way of life for Palestinians, who are routinely humiliated and heckled by settlers, sometimes even spat upon. The military turns a blind eye to the indignities heaped upon the Palestinian people who have learned not to retaliate. Fighting back can be dangerous.
In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, allegedly the site where Jesus was born, but in another part of town our eyes were drawn to thick plumes of black smoke rising above the buildings. It was a demonstration and Yamen told us that tyres are burned because the resultant smoke makes it difficult for military snipers to get a good bead on protesters. We watched from a distance of about 200 metres as rock-throwing Palestinian youths were dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets.
Slingshots and other makeshift weapons used by Palestinians are no match for the military. Israeli soldiers are instructed to shoot if they feel threatened, which sounds reasonable enough, but it’s hard to see how they can truly feel threatened when they’re armed with assault rifles and their assailants have a few stones.
Soldiers sometimes close the gates so after school, children can’t get home except by taking a much longer route. Mothers behind the gate beg, but their pleas remain unheeded.
Demonstrations in the West Bank are fairly regular events, but the one on this day was in response to the US embassy opening only nine kilometres away. It’s an extremely complex business but Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has not been recognised by the international community. East Jerusalem was claimed by Israel during the 1967 war, but the Israel-Palestine talks of 1993 stated that its final status was meant to be an integral part of peace negotiations. Palestinians consider East Jerusalem their capital and are unhappy with its effective annexation by Israel and the official US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, when they feel they have an equal claim. (And by the way, Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and have done for generations are not Israeli citizens. They have residency status only.)
We drove past a refugee camp in Bethlehem. My ignorance showed through again – who are these refugees, I wanted to know. When Israel was declared an independent nation in 1948 and also after the 1967 war, many Palestinians were forced from their lands and into refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. Generations of Palestinians have lived in these camps ever since. The standard of living is woeful. Refugees rely on organisations like the United Nations for essential services, including housing, sanitation, medical assistance and education.
Hearing these stories made me very sad. I asked Yamen if he hated Jews, but he was quick to say that he was not anti-Jewish at all. Rather, he laid the blame for human rights abuses at the feet of the government and the military. He told us there are many Israelis sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians.
On another day-trip we took, we spoke to a Jewish tour guide who backed this up. He was opposed to the embassy move calling it inflammatory, and like many Jews, wants a fairer go for Palestinians. He commented on the significant wage disparities between Israelis and Arabs and the fact that Palestinians have lower health outcomes and education opportunities than Israelis.
When rain is scarce, often the case in that harsh environment, they have to buy water from the Israeli authorities. It’s not unusual for the average West Bank Palestinian home to have no water for days at a time.
On a brighter note, both guides – the Jew and the Arab – told us about various Jewish groups that support Palestinian rights. Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, seeks an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and supports the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homelands.
Breaking the Silence is an NGO set up in 2004 by veterans of the Israeli Defence Force. Proudly Jewish, these former soldiers have related their own first-hand experiences during their military service, detailing the wanton destruction of Palestinian property and the humiliation heaped daily upon Palestinians. By speaking out, they hope to open people’s eyes to what’s really going on in Gaza and the West Bank.
B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, wants Israel’s occupation to end so that liberty and equality can be achieved. They’re angry at the lack of international condemnation of current Israeli government practices that allow detention, seizure and demolition of Palestinian homes and the denial of basic rights to fellow humans.
Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Palestinian-led organisation, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), is putting nonviolent pressure on Israel to give Palestinians “the same rights as the rest of humanity”. It urges financial and cultural institutions to withdraw investments from companies/organisations that support violations against Palestinians and actively lobbies for recognition of the more than seven million Palestinian refugees who are denied the right to return to their homes.
The United Nations’ Resolution 2234 (2016) affirms that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories “constitute a flagrant violation of international law” and that increased de facto annexation of areas of the West Bank is “alarming”. So global awareness of the situation is certainly increasing and we can only hope real change is coming.
No one would deny Israel its statehood. For centuries, Jews have endured the most dreadful persecution, culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Ordinary Palestinians acknowledge this; they just ask to be treated fairly and justly in the land of their ancestors. They want to be able to live and work alongside their Jewish countrymen, have equal access to services, employment, citizenship. They want one state to mean equal rights for everyone.
Sharing their stories is one way to help raise awareness of what Palestinians suffer. Perhaps they might also shame governments into doing the right thing.