Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Today I Saw Israel: No Smoking? No problem.

Israel recently passed a law that bans smoking indoors. It is a law that is making its way across the “civilized” world, it was inevitable that it would find its way to the Holy Land. I was in Be’er Sheva last weekend, a small (the fourth largest city in Israel, but far from anything substantial by American standards), college town in the heart of the Negev. I was visiting a friend. We went to a bar and within minutes of being inside, everyone that I was with had lit a cigarette. There were signs on the walls that said no smoking, but no one was bothering them. I looked around the bar and everyone was smoking. As my friends finished up their smokes and looked around for an ashtray, we realized that there were none. That is Israel. All that the smoking ban had done was to remove the ashtrays from the bar. So they threw their butts on the floor and continued with their night.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Teaching Kids English

I’m sitting in the office at the Ahali Center for Community Development the other day and Sobhi, one of my supervisors, calls me in.

“Maysoon is on the phone for you.”

“Uhhh, who’s Maysoon?” I ask.

“She’s the wife of one of our board members.”

Oh shit, I think. In the States, Board members are usually rich, powerful, and not to be ignored. “What should I do?”

“Pick up!”

“This is Nick”

“Hi, Nike” (some people mispronounce my name. They spell it Nike and say it Nyke. Rhymes with bike. It turns out that in Arabic, something that sounds like "Nick" means "Go f***." So Nick can't be my name.) “This is Maysoon. The last intern – his name is Seth – he talks to my children. Just talks. English. So, will you talk with them? Teach them English?”

“Uhhhh . . . “ and I cover the phone and ask Sobhi, “What should I do?” Sobhi just raises his shoulders, as if to say 'I don’t know.'

“Suurreee” I say with a question mark added on the last e.
“OK. We’ll see you tomorrow at five.”

So I guess you will


Well, I am now teaching a group of six boys, ages 9-14, English. And you know what? It’s a piece of cake! Twice a week Maysoon brings the boys (and two of the boys’ adorable younger sister) into the office. And we just talk.

I have set up some games – A rock, paper, scissors tournament, Hangman, and word searches – and they play them. If we’re not playing, we’re just talking. (I am also trying to introduce them to a diverse set of American and English music. Yesterday was a rotation between “Sgt. Pepper” and “Thriller.” Next time I will play "Pet Sounds" and "The Velvet Underground and Nico).


All of the boys are amazing well behaved. They treat me with a level of respect and interest that I would never have given me had I been their age and in their position. I keep think they are going to TP my house, or something.

Their English is mixed. Their vocabulary is very limited, but their grammar and pronunciation is spot on. I actually feel like they are getting better.


What does their behavior and manners say about Arab youth in Israel? I’m not sure. They could be outliers, though I have not yet met a truly rude kid here. Either way, they are certainly a pleasure to teach.


Oddly, there has only been one man hung in hangman. They managed to guess “Barack Obama,” “New York City,” “Brazil,” and “Jazz.” What word did they miss? “Hummus.”

Very strange.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Shoulder to Shoulder at the Check-Point

Today I went with my boss, Aref, to Jenin, a town in the northern part of the West Bank, to meet an associate of his and talk to him about various projects our organization is doing at the local level. Once we drove out of Ramallah, we came under Israeli jurisdiction, which meant a large IDF presence and many check-points. We passed through four en route to Jenin, where we arrived in the early afternoon. It was a normal Palestinian town with homes and stores sprawled across the mountainous landscape. We met up with Aref's friend, who invited us into his house, where I met his wife and later his grand-daughter. While I was there, I was offered three rounds of drinks. First, a fruit-juice drink, then coffeee, and then tea after lunch. Their conversation was entirely in Arabic, some of which I was able to make out. The hard task of putting the sentences together quickly while they're talking is what keeps me from grasping main ideas. But, I think as long as a continue to listen to native speakers have detailed discussions, I'll be increasingly able to pick up what's being said.

When 1 o'clock rolled around, his wife served lunch, which was a delicious, home-made meal. This is what I mean when I rant and rave about Arab hospitality. I was a complete stranger, but welcomed into her home without reservation. The man's wife (I didn't catch her name) wore the hijab and looked like someone who had worked hard, manual labor her entire life. Sweat filled the creases in her forehead and her hands were hard and cracked. After lunch, their grand-daughter came out to be with them. I have never seen a more beautiful little girl. At only three years old, she lit up the room and continued to distract me from my attempts to understand the conversation. She stared at me in wonderment, like she'd never seen someone that looked like me before. Maybe it was because I was someone new in the house, but I'm convinced that part was because she'd never seen a white person before, which is understandable especially at age three. As I was looking at her, I wondered what her future held for her. Would she stay in Jenin? Woud she go to college at a place like Bir Zeit? How would she perceive Israelis and Jews? Would true peace materialize in her lifetime or would she live her life under occupation? How will seeing armed soldiers on a daily basis affect her mentally? How is her generation going to deal with issues in the future? She was so innocent and untainted by the problems Palestinians face daily. She is not yet old enough to comprehend the situation, but I wonder how her life will change when she begins to understand what is really going on. I fear that her innocence will inevitably be chipped away by life in an active conflict zone. I imagine that's how everyone starts out; as innocent children whose outlooks are shaped by their outside environment. Innocence is lost as the external environment molds personality and reality kicks in.

On the way back to Ramallah, our car broke down as we slowed to stop at the first checkpoint. Steam billowed out from under the hood as the IDF soldiers on duty directed us to pull-over. My first thought was "at least we're stuck here where we can use a phone in case ours was out of service." Aref didn't share that sentiment. For him, this was the absolute worst place to be stranded. We had to figure out what was wrong with his car in the shadow of three soldiers armed to the teeth. In his mind, they had complete control over our actions. I could tell he was very nervous and wanted only to get to the next Palestinian town and seek help. But he couldn't. After he poured all the water he had in his car into the radiator (I think it was the radiator) he asked the soldiers if he could use some water. No dice. When the cars passing through the check-point realized he needed water, one by one they handed him full bottles of water. He got five or six bottles of water from generous souls who saw he was in need and wanted to help. As he walked down the line filling his arms with liters of water, I stood back in awe. While it wasn't on par with paying his medical bills, I was stunned. It was a tremendous show of Arab solidarity in the face of IDF obstruction. Although this was a relatively small act, I give this moment significant symbolic importance. Help from his Palestinian brothers released him from his predicament. Back in the car, he told me how amazed he was by what had just happened. I'm glad I wasn't the only one.

On the Way to Work

We are now into the third week of our stay in Ramallah. I think most of us here have gotten ourselves situated and have acclimated very well to life here in Palestine. Together, we've found the local grocery store, good places to buy fresh produce, and have tried many of the local restaurants and bars that this side of the city has to offer. We've gotten to be a pretty tight group, partly because we are all in the same boat here and also because I think we're all pretty compatible. There are disagreements and concerns in any group-living situation, and those have been resolved as they've come. I think all of us appreciate the support group we've formed for each other here. Not to sound too koom-bayah-ish, but we look out for each other. I think the "Ramallah group" is known within our larger group as the one that really lucked out with the living situation and is located in a part of Palestine that actually has a night-life.

We've hosted our fellow students here every weekend, and sometimes during the week depending on the circumstances. So, not only have we solidified as a group here, but we've also been lucky enough to have others came and hang out. At this point we could pretty much be tour guides for some parts of Ramallah because we've been exposed to so much of it. Although I'm sure if you asked a West Banker how much he thought we knew the area, he'd probably laugh and say "very little." Which is probably true, but I can embellish. I think I probably know a sizeable percentage of the taxi-drivers in this city. I take one to and from work everyday, and they're always different. I even had the taxi driver who drove us to the Jimmy Carter event wave to me today from his car as he saw me standing from the sidewalk across the street. Maybe I made an impression? I think it was probably because I was a. American and b. spoke some Arabic. Apparently that's a rare find in these parts. I've learned a lot just in my daily taxi rides and trying to understand the local Arabic that the Palestinians are speaking, which is a lot different than the Modern Arabic I learned in school. Thanks a lot, Virginia Tech. So I can read some newspaper articles and understand Al-Jazeera if they speak slowly, but it's all Greek to me when its colloquial Palestinian Arabic. Great, so I know that Obama spoke in Cairo but not how to get back home after work. I'm exagerrating, but you get the point.

So, my route usually consists of passing through the old city of Ramallah, which I not sure how old it actually is, but it's up there I think. It's almost like a maze of old city ruins glittered with various markets and stores. On the other side are San-Francisco-esque hills that feel like a steep waterslide on the way down. Looking out the window, you can see the rolling hills of the West Bank dotted with clusters of villages and minarets that reach into the sky. Last night, a few of us walked up to a look-out point where we could see the sun set behind the clouds and into the Mediterranean Sea. It was an incredible sight, and we think we might have seen tall Tel Aviv buildings in the distance. I'm still not sure whether it was actually Tel Aviv, but I think it's certainly possible.

Anyway, sometimes I ask the cab-driver small questions like whether he grew up in Ramallah and try to develop a conversation from there, which often leads to stories of stolen land and displacement. Many have told me that their family owned land with deeds issued by the Ottoman Empire and keys to homes that were either destroyed or taken over during the 1948 War. My strategy is to bring up a related subject and have them volunteer the information, in case the subject is too sensitive to discuss. I find it good to have some degree of tact in a foreign land, but most of the time the people here are more than willing to dicuss their opinions and tell they're stories. Many are also very curious to hear my take on what's going on. Last night, I met a man who asked what I was doing here, and then asked what I thought about the situation here. It's pretty clear to me that many Palestinians are curious about outside perspectives regarding the conflict. Maybe this is a result of a lack of exposure to the outside world, since most Palestinians are barred from leaving the territories. Either way, I think that Palestinians here are just as interested about other perspectives as we are eager to hear their take on the issues.

Internship Essay

My weekdays in Ramallah have been spent working for an organization called Al-Marsad, which is the Arab World Democracy and Election Monitor. It is a non-partisan, nongovernmental organization, which conducts electoral observations and issues reports surrounding the advance of democracy in the Middle East. Its mission is the promotion and advancement of democracy in the Middle East, with special attention on capacity building of governmental institutions both on the local and national level in Palestine. In coordination with other international organizations, it dispatches observers to different countries to monitor elections, such as in Lebanon recently. I don’t think they were involved with the disputed Iranian elections. The organization has a wide reach throughout the world of international organizations, and often partners up with such organizations to conduct its projects. It’s located in a small office on the outskirts of the main city. It’s nearby Mahmoud Abbas’ Presidential Compound and many PLO/PA offices. So, when I’m taking my daily taxi to or from work, I pass by dozens of armed guards that line the streets of the city and serve as dignitary protection for high-level officials. I’ve often had to wait in traffic as a higher-up is traveling and the roads are blocked for 10-car convoys driving through the city.

So, this is the external environment of my internship, which is situated within the hub of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. You can look out an office window and see downtown Ramallah, and then look out a different window and see the rural, hilly areas of the West Bank. All of windows are open, which makes up for the lack of an AC in the building. Cigarette smoke fills the air. My boss, Aref Jaffal, probably smokes at least two packs a day. It’s one after another all day long. Luckily, my desk is separated from his office by a wall, so I’m essentially immune to direct inhalation. If that were not the case, I’m not sure what I would do. I’m almost unwilling to travel to other places with him because the smoking is constant, and wherever he goes, those he meets smoke just as much as he does. It’s incredible. But I go anyway for the experience and for the fact that he expects me to attend. I’ll just have to live with it.

Apart from the chain smoking, Aref has dedicated his life to the promotion of democracy in a region that seems resistant democratic development. His passion is working in Palestinian politics, and helping Palestine emerge as a true democracy in the wake of Arafat’s soft authoritarianism. The goal is for Palestine to become a democratic state once the occupation is lifted and Fateh and Hamas are able to resolve their issues. He has his work cut out for him, no question about it. Two women also work in the office, Watan and Layali, one of whom is pregnant, along with several project managers. A girl from Germany, who had been working there for the past year or so, just finished up and went back home. The small staff allows for a cohesive unit, where the lines of communication seem to flow with ease. Aref is easily accessible and, despite his busy schedule, is always willing to make time for questions and suggestions. The office is very casual and laid-back. Suits and ties are reserved for very special occasions. I get offers for tea or coffee several times a day, and whenever someone is out, they call in to ask what everyone wants for lunch.

In only two weeks, I have gotten a feel for the work of civil society in Palestine and how NGOs work with the government and other organizations. Al-Marsad in particular has one eye on the Middle East as a whole and the other on the situation in Palestine. So, as an intern, I am simultaneously looking at the situation in a broad and specific context, depending on the issues I am addressing. Right now, I am working on a report regarding the political advancement of women in Kuwait. This is a country that for decades has denied political rights to women, but has very recently given women full political rights and just this past May four women were elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament. The report will analyze how this unprecedented breakthrough actually happened and what it could mean for the regional as a whole. This research is part of the organization’s focus on Middle East democracy and the political empowerment of women, which is a huge issue. Researching and writing the first draft of this report has occupied a significant amount of my time at Al-Marsad thus far. Aref has conveyed to me that he places a very large emphasis on youth and women’s movements in the Middle East as they relate to democratic achievement. He plans on releasing a special report on the Iranian elections in the near future.

In addition to the report on Kuwait, I’ve been helping Aref with a proposal to the European Union for funding for an elections education program in the West Bank for the upcoming elections. The focus of the project is the political enfranchisement of Palestinian women and youth. The goal is educate Palestinians on the democratic process and to lobby for legislative change that would provide these targeted groups greater incentives to participate in the democratic process. When Aref handed me the proposal to look over, I realized how much work needed to be done for it to be taken seriously. I had to edit and rewrite substantial portions of the proposal in order for it to be coherent and grammatically sound. The entire introduction needed to be revamped while following sections needed attention in order for the final product to be adequate. This is only to say that English must be hard for non-native speakers and that I’m wondering if past proposals made it to some prominent international organization in a similar fashion. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does, but on my watch I had to bring it up to my standards. After all, I am going to be the one traveling to Jerusalem to submit the proposal, since Aref was unable to get a permit from Israel allowing him to cross the border and do this himself. This is someone who has traveled the world, is an expert in his field and a prominent member of Palestinian society, yet he is unable to leave the West Bank and travel to Jerusalem for a day. Now I am the go-between, and I’m glad I can help.

This internship could certainly serve as a launching pad for greater attention and focus on my part on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I could use the contacts and experience gained there as a basis for increased involvement in different aspects of the conflict, such as lobbying for the removal of settlements. As this is my first true exposure to the situation here, essentially everything that I am involved in here is a new experience. I have begun to scratch the surface of some of the sentiment in Palestine regarding the conflict and how NGOs fit into the broader context of Palestinian society. The NGOs here do very good work as they provide important services to the public, but the resistance to change is so great that I’m not sure if any of these organizations are engendering any lasting, sustainable change. While this might seem cynical, it’s hard for me to see how ground-level, grassroots activism is going to tear town the separation wall, evacuate the settlers, and bring border security to Israel. That it all has to come from the top is one conclusion I’ve reached so far. I’ve also come to realize that conclusions like these are a luxury here. Conclusions are elusive in Palestine, while the situation seems to remain in a temporary stage of limbo. The conclusion is somewhere in the future in a room of negotiators, who will iron out which demands are honored, which aren’t, and how each side will compromise to bring about the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state.

A Casual Military

It’s often claimed the Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East, and I imagine that’s true. This might not be apparent to those observe the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) throughout Israel. The IDF is omnipresent in Israel. Assault weapons are omnipresent in Israel. Almost everywhere you go, you see the IDF walking among civilians. The army is part of the public in Israel. Also, it appears the IDF conducts some training among the public. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in college with the ROTC living among the students. The only difference is that the cadets at Virginia Tech. The difference is that the ROTC cadets were disciplined and weren’t armed. The other day when we left the Holocaust Museum, we passed by a group of soldiers pointing their weapons into the woods. It looked like a drill. Just before that, we saw more soldiers walking, not marching, through the woods. It looked like an IDF field trip. No disrespect intended.

I’m assuming then that training occurs both in designated military zones and in non-military areas. However, I’m not sure that everything the IDF does in Israel can be considered training. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the IDF march anywhere. It’s always been a casual stroll of young adults, carrying what appear to be M-16s, who often appear to be joking or having fun. Many of these groups appear to consist of harmless kids who many Americans would expect to see in college classrooms. The casual nature of the IDF is both disconcerting and comforting at the same time. Disconcerting because these are kids joking around with assault rifles, but also comforting because they don’t appear to be in a constant state of alert. The IDF doesn’t appear to be on edge, so maybe that alleviates some of the stress that might often accompany a constant military presence. The casual nature of the IDF is thus a double-edged sword.


I’ve only spent a week in Ramallah, but I’ve been here long enough to notice a few things. When I tell people at home I’m living in the West Bank in the summer, I get the usual response of “what would possess you to go to such a dangerous place?” While that is a reasonable response from someone who has never been here before and who probably often equates Palestinians with Hamas militants, I haven’t felt any danger. The Palestinian Authority police and military are on every street corner in this city, largely in case Mahmoud Abbas is traveling and requires security on the way. The other day I saw what I think was Abbas, or another high-raking official in the PA, moving through the city. Much like other presidential convoys, there were several black SUVs flanked by marked Jeep Grand Cherokees and two ambulances. The entire road was clear on either end of the convoy. Like I was saying, life is Ramallah is much like life elsewhere, with some variations of course. The other night I saw kids playing on the playground with their parents at around mid-night. Not a care in the world. It’s refreshing to see that even under tough circumstances, kids are still swinging and playing soccer in the street. The only time I was a tad uncomfortable was when my cab driver had at picture of Saddam Hussein taped to his dashboard, but discomfort is expected anywhere you go.

The hospitality here is unbelievable. A request for directions often results in a personal guide to the destination. Some of us went out to dinner the other night, and the owner sat down at the table with us for at least 20 minutes. He wanted to personally welcome foreign students to his country and impart his wisdom. He even promised to take us into the Dome of the Rock someday. Yea right. Last week I went into a cell-phone store, which I visited previously, and half of the employees got up to come shake my hand and welcome me back. I was taken aback by their graciousness. Where else does this happen? The boss at my internship, who I’ve known for all of 5 days, treated me to dinner on Wednesday night. The staff at the Christmas Hotel was largely responsible for the ease in which I was able to get around in East Jerusalem. If they didn’t know the answer to a question, they would find somebody who did. Southern hospitality’s got nothing on Arab hospitality.

I don’t think there are speed limits in Ramallah. If there are, they are definitely not enforced. There are no stop signs, lines in the roads, and relatively few street signs that indicate where you actually are. Maybe that’s why I’ve had such a hard time giving directions here, since no one knows where they are. I’m joking of course. People drive as fast as they want, and often park on the sidewalk. I have to tell myself that they know what they’re doing, since they’ve lived here their whole lives and have grown up used to driving at high speeds through small, urban spaces. Honking is the predominant street-noise. Drivers are either too impatient to wait for someone taking their time or are trying to determine if a pedestrian needs a ride. One hand is one the wheel and the other is constantly on the horn. It never fails.

There is also a largely unfinished nature to the city. New buildings seem to be going up all the time, but none look to be close to completion. It’s like all these construction projects are just taking forever to finish or have been stalled in their tracks. It’s hard to tell. The external steps into my internship office appear to be brand new, and marble, but entire sections of the wall inside are missing and the bathrooms look like the construction workers walked off the job. Things from the outside look great, but things are falling apart on the inside. This is just something that I’ve noticed. I’m not sure if any of this means anything at all or are indicative of larger problems here. It’s really hard to say. But, I do see the enormous potential of this place. So many Palestinians are well-educated and have extensive international ties, often to the United States. If they were able to move freely, both within the West Bank and over international borders. I think Palestine would blossom. Connection with the global economy, and an increasing economic equality with Israel, would make Palestine competitive on the international scene and bring much-needed jobs to the area. Violence and stalled peace talks only delay the rejuvenation of Palestine, so leaders on both ends better get on the ball.

Netanyahu's Words

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech the other night highlighted the main issues surrounding the conflict that we discussed during our week-and-a-half seminar period. It was his first major foreign policy speech in this term as prime minister and it represented his firm stance regarding many of the disputed issues. However, his words also showed fissures of compromise that might have been hard to catch pre-media coverage analysis. He claimed that Israel had no intention of continuing settlement construction, but also stated that "natural growth" will continue to be allowed. He also made it clear that he wanted Jerusalem to remain the united capital of Israel and placed major emphasis on the fact that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized. That is, it cannot have a standing army that could pose a threat to Israel in the future.

His speech represented the main crux of the Israeli government's end-goal in dealing with the Palestinians, which is "peace and security." Israel wants peace as long as that peace brings with it a sustainable security situation that keeps Israelis safe from terrorism and violence. This is equivalent to "peace and quiet." The quiet represents a life free of the fear of attacks from a hostile neighbor. For the Palestinians, the general demand is "peace and justice," which ostensibly brings both peace and reparations, in some form, to those who have been displaced or who have suffered under Israeli occupation. The Palestinians want repayment from Israel for the alleged injustices they over the decades, such as the granting the right of return. These are common competing narratives between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The objective of security is reflected in Netanyahu's speech. Even with his demands, which appeared to be non-negotiable, it was the first time that Netanyahu had ever used the term "Palestinian state." Until that point, the concept of a Palestinian state was never considered publicly by Netanyahu. This change of heart is largely attributed to President Obama's recent pressure on Netanyahu to cease settlement building and engage in negotiations. A picture of President Obama recently emerged of him on the phone with Netanyahu apparently making his demands clear to the prime minister. Ethan Bronner told us that the White House press release he received described the conversation as "constructive," which apparently is code word for disagreement. Netanhayu's balancing act on Sunday shows signs of this pressure from Obama in terms of easing his tough stance against granting Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu is forced to take a hard-line stance in order to please the right-wing constituency that is largely responsible for this election to office, but to also take into consideration the demands of an American president who holds military aid over his head. In all fairness, no matter what Netanyahu did he stood to lose friends in some circles.

As a side note, much of the Israeli public seems to be very upset with Obama. The other day we drove by a sign that read, "Israel Will Not Bend" in clear reference to Israel's supposed determination to withstand America's calls for a change in policy regarding the Palestinians. I imagine it must be hard knowing that one country has significant influence over your country's policies. Israel wants to be autonomous just like any other country, and outside pressure can certainly make that feeling of self-determination threatened. Netanyahu is stuck between a rock and a hard place. You can't please everybody. After the speech, he was attacked both from the right for not taking a tougher stance and appearing weak under presssure from Obama, and took hits from the Palestinians for not making any concessions to the Palestinian cause. No one was pleased except for those who understood the fact that Netanyahu did bend in a big way. He spoke of a Palestinian state, even if its establishment had to meet several of Israel's stringent conditions.

Many see this as a major step forward for Netanyahu, who has previously dismissed the idea. America's influence in Israel is definitely real, even if Netanyahu is taking baby steps towards increased alignment with Obama's demands. I imagine there will be gradual moves to comprimse and conciliation both on Israel's and the Palestinians' side, irrespective of Netanyahu's public pledges. Hopefully, gaining politic points will happen on the surface while back-door talks could yield productive results beneifical to both sides. It remains to be seen whether this silver lining in Netanhayu's words is real and substantive, rather than a way to please Obama in the short term and stall the process in the long term.

Shades of Gray

On the night of the 9th at 8:00 pm, former Editor-in-Chief of Ha'aretz, David Landau, and former Minister for Congressional Affairs for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Yoram Ettinger, came to our hotel to debate many of the issues we had been discussing during the past several days. It was the classic Dove vs. Hawk debate. Ettinger began in Landau's absence by claiming that in the past 1400 years, stretching back to a time when "states" as we know them today were nonexistent, there was never any inter-Arab peace between Muslim countries. Therefore, he questioned why Israel should make peace with the Palestinians at all, since a Palestinian state would surely violate the terms of the agreement and turn its guns to Israel. In his eyes, all Arabs were the same. Saudis are Iraqis are Libyans. Palestinians are swept under the same rug; grouped together with all past inter-Arab hostilities. I found it strange how someone could say, "Well, because Saddam invaded Kuwait....or 'Well, because Morocco and Algeria aren't on speaking terms that Palestinians can't be trusted with full autonomy." It's flawed logic, pure and simple. It's equivalent to saying that since Northern Ireland and Britain have engaged in past hostilities, Australians shouldn't have a state of their own. It's all very misplaced and designed to conceal the differences among the wide variety of Arabs in the this world.

When David arrived, he began with his jubilation regarding Obama's speech in Cairo. It was unprecedented in American politics. He described Obama as the first president with a true Third World perspective. His genuine care for the Palestinian people, and his public endorsement of their full rights, could very-well put him at odds with the American Jewish community. What am I saying? His stance has already lost him support from Jewish circles in the states. This is not to say that many Jews in the U.S. don't support a two-state solution, just that the Israeli Lobby is very powerful and in the past has pushed for unconditional support of Israel.

It has yet to be seen whether Americans as whole view this dramatic shift in American foreign policy as just cause for ousting Obama from office in 2012. No one is that prescient. What amazes me is that Obama is risking a severance in political longevity in going toe to toe with Netanyahu because he believes it is the right thing to do. That is what I extrapolated from Landau's shpeal on Obama's position vis-a-vis the conflict. Landau went on to discuss issues I've mentioned in past blogs, and Ettinger responded with the same tired rhetoric. What's interesting is that they both believed that they were right. I don't think either were intentionally deceptive. They were just looking at the same issues from two opposing vantage points and telling the story as they saw it to be true. If I had closed my eyes, I could have been forgiven for thinking that the debate was between a Palestinian and and Israeli, rather than between two Israelis. It highlighted the internal differences and schisms within any society. No group of people acts in a totally unified manner with the same aspirations and the same means to get there. Nuance and shades of gray are always present. Many, many Israelis believe in the rights of Palestinian statehood, but the current Israeli administration makes it hard for the outside world to see past the policies of settlement expansion and military occupation.

This may all seem very obvious, but I think many times people look to a country's leader and then apply their beliefs to the people. It's the easy way out. It's very easy to look at former President Bush's policies and view Americans as anti-Muslim and imperialistic. The "Death to America" chants speak for themselves. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, nuance must be sought out and brought to light. Palestinians should be distinguished from suicide bombers just as Israelis should distinguished from hard-line settlers. It's the only way forward. Peace can only come when the fringe is not equated with the norm. How would American politics look today if Republicans were all seen as KKK sympathizers and Liberals were constantly accused of joining ranks with the Earth Liberation Front? Fear would permeate both sides, risking political instability and deadlock to say the least. From a domestic perspective, this would seem completely unreasonable and counterintuitive to the American public, as it should. There is a wide gap between those who want peace and those who fight against it, even if they stand under the same flag. I think this was a point that Landau was hinting at, he just never drove it home.

A Staring Contest

On Sunday the 7th, we visited Yad Vashem in West Jerusalem. It's Israel's Holocaust Museum. On the way in, Yehuda (the director of the program who is somehow able to pull this whole trip off) pointed out to us various historical landmarks. One was a relatively large cemetary where British soldiers, who died in Palestine during World War I, are buried. We were also able to glance at the cemetery where Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin are buried. There are a lot of famous cemeteries in Israel. Half of the amazing sites we saw were on the way to and from our destination. There was so much in between, just not enough time to do it all in the first ten or so days. It would take several weeks just to see all of Jerusalem alone, much less the rest of the country.

The museum was very well done. Inside were tall, gray walls that slanted upwards, which gave it an eerie feel. A guide walked us through the exhibits, explaining major events of the raise of Nazi Germany and the suffering of the Jewish people during the time. The museum began with early anti-semitic propoganda and moved through the rise of Hitler and his expansion of power. Everything in the musem was authentic, from the red Nazi flags to the bricks from the Warsaw Ghetto, which we all walked over. Boxes were filled with gold and silver goods the Nazis stole from Jewish families. There was even a train from Auschwitz. It was probably the closest to a re-creation of the era than probably anything can get. We were able to step back in time and at least come close to understanding the collective memory of Jewish persecution under Hitler. The musuem concluded with the liberation of Europe from Germany, and an incline which took us to a spectacular overlook onto Israel. It symbolized the Jewish will to live on and continue to prosper in the wake of such a tragedy.

I think by the end we were all in shock. We came close to understanding this part of history and the collective fear that still resides in the Jewish psyche. Israel was born out of the need to provide a safe homeland for the Jewish people, outside of the danger of another Hitler. I can only imagine the comfort in knowing that as a Jew, I could escape anti-semitism, which as we all know is alive and well today, and become a part of the Jewish state. The "Jewish Homeland." There really is nothing like it of its kind in the world. A place where any Jewish person in the world can come to Israel and reap the full benefits of Israeli citizenship. It's the global Jewish safety net; a safe haven for those who want to start a new life in a new land.

The Holocaust plays a major role in Israeli politics today. I have heard the term "Final Solution" used several times as a scenario that Israel could face should a Palestinian state be established. The idea goes like this: once Palestine becomes a state, one of Iran's proxies, like Hamas or Hizbollah, could gain a foothold in Palestine and take out Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport with Qassam rockets. Then all hell would break loose as Israel would be forced into a war with heavily-harmed militias backed by enemy states. In addition to the casualties in Israel, it would risk getting bogged down in an Iraq-style, urban, counter-insurgency campaign in which it would risk countless Israeli lives. It's clear that the collective fear and paranoia from the Holocaust is alive and well, and sometimes vindicated when Iran pledges to "wipe Israel off the map" and its Revolutionary Guard marches through the middle of Tehran in the formation of a swastika embedded in the American Flag. Such provocations do nothing but solidify Israeli determination to block any future threat to its country, including granting Palestinian statehood.

So the long short of this is that powerful historial forces are at play, and Israel is taking every measure to make sure those aren't relived. The IDF is the most powerful military in the Middle East today, capable probably of defeating several Arab armies at once, as it did in 1967. Its occupation of the West Bank and its continued grip over Gaza ensures that no significant threat emerges from the Palestinian territories. The security fence (if you're Israeli)/separation barrier (if you're Palestinian) erected around the West Bank has stemmed terrorist attacks in Israel significantly. Its array of check-points gives it control of movement into and out of the country. Arabs often spend hours at such check-points, and are often not allowed through. Israel will not tolerate a third intifada (uprising).

Meanwhile, many Israelis and Palestinians live in hope that peace will be made within their lifetimes. Palestinins often point to the Holocaust and question if a Warsaw Ghetto has emerged in Gaza. They point to the separation wall, settler expansion, and internal check-points and recall the history of South Africa. The main question is why must Palestinians suffer so that Israel can survive? There are credible claims and grievances on both sides of this thing. Wounds run very deep and will most likely not be forgotten even as generations turnover. I can't imagine how hard it must be to put those aside, come to the table, and say, "I recognize you as a people with legitimate rights to live along side our people." But this is precisely what must be done. For the sake of futue generations, someone needs to blink first for the other to let their guard down.

Little Protests

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, on the way to Israel, I glanced at the complementary magazine included in my flight on Jordanian Airlines. It was interesting because the first half was in English and the second half was in Arabic. The articles in one language were translated into the other language. I actually learned a few new Arabic words while glancing at an article in English, and then in Arabic. I kept it to make flash cards later. I digress. A map of the Middle East was situated between the two sections. As I was reading through the names of various countries in Arabic, I noticed something. The name Israel was not on the map. Only Gaza City and Jerusalem marked the area of present-day Israel.

How amazing. Israel was not born yesterday; it’s now over sixty-years old. How can a modern map overlook the state of Israel, especially one that is endorsed by a country who made peace with Israel decades ago? It represents the underlying feeling about Israel in the Arab world. It’s a small denunciation of a state that many Arabs today believe to be obstructing a lasting peace. The intentional absence of Israel on a modern map underlies a psyche that condemns Israel. As an outsider looking in, this absence represents strong, passionate feelings in the Arab World regarding the Palestinian Issue. As long as check-points operate in Palestine, Israel can forget about total acceptance from its neighbors in the Middle East. From this perspective, too many homes are demolished and too many settlements are built for Israeli to have its rightful place on a map in Jordan, much less Saudi Arabia.

There isn’t really much else the Arabs can do than to mount these small protests that may often go overlooked. Israel’s position today leaves little negotiating power to any Arab state, save for maybe Egypt, but even Egypt can’t force Israel’s hand. Israel is largely immune from external pressure in the Middle East to reflect on its policies and possibly make mutually beneficial compromises. Only the United States has that kind of power.

Another example of these mini-political demonstrations is on a phone card I recently bought in Ramallah. On it is a picture of the Dome of the Rock, and underneath it reads Jerusalem, Palestine. However, as we know, this holiest of holies mosque is located within the borders of present-day Israel, even if it is annexed land from the West Bank. It’s seems to be a defense mechanism to a reality that is very hard to comprehend for many Arabs, even after sixty years. This is a way for many to still throw rocks at Israeli tanks, albeit metaphorically. Everyday items like maps and phone cards are imbued with subtle references to the conflict, illustrating its deep-seated presence in Palestinian society (Jordan is around 60% Palestinian). The politics surrounding the conflict are pervasive and ubiquitous. I believe these minor acts of resistance will continue until a Palestinian state is established. Until then, the absence of such a state will be attributed by the Arab World to Israel’s unwillingness to come to the negotiation table.


Added to the list of esteemed speakers we have been privileged to host was Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times. He came to speak about Gaza, where he recently visited. His remarks constituted essentially the only time during our seminar that we heard someone speak at length about life in Gaza today following the Israel-Hamas war in January. Our focus up to this point was mainly on Israel and the West Bank. Maybe this is because the situation in Gaza seems almost hopeless, while in the West Bank maybe something can actually be done to move towards a solution. Maybe it’s easier to withdraw Israeli settlements and ease the occupation than to rebuild a devastated infrastructure and rejuvenate a flat-lined economy under an often hostile Hamas government in Gaza. While the problems in Gaza aren’t as severe as say Sudan or Somalia, life there is relatively harsh. Even though Israel physically pulled out of Gaza several years ago, it remains in complete control of the territory. Israel controls all of its borders, including its border along the Mediterranean Sea, and Gazan airspace. Only items deemed by the Israeli government as meeting basic needs, such as food and water, are allowed into Gaza. Not much else.

This is reminiscent of the sanctions regime imposed against Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War in 1991. Anything that was deemed a “dual use” good was not legally allowed into the country. Dual use meant that the good could be used for both peaceful and military purposes. You can imagine how such a strict import sanctions regime affected the country. Saddam had a wide variety of resources, which he could utilize to keep himself in power during such a period. Not only that, Saddam actually got more powerful this time, while the Iraqi people suffered. Dinner was still ready and Saddam’s beds were still made in all of his palaces across the country in expectation that he would show up unannounced. He continued to wield unfettered power as he traded with allies under the UN radar. All the while the average Iraqi was sinking deeper into poverty. Paradoxically, the sanctions hurt no one but innocent Iraqis.

The situation in Gaza could turn out similarly as Hamas can rely on Syria and Iran for support while nothing really flows to the Palestinians. It’s equivalent to Israeli collective punishment against the Palestinians in Gaza for electing an Islamic party to power whose charter contains the dismantling of the Israeli state as a prime objective. However, is this really the fault of the Palestinians as a people? In 2005, Hamas ran a political campaign offering a new way forward in the wake of the corruption of Fatah and Arafat. It was the classic “change” campaign, which promotes a seemingly brand new style of politics for people frustrated with the status quo. In addition to the social services it provided, that’s a big reason why Hamas won, not necessarily because it sought to replace Israel with an Islamic, Palestinian state. Average Palestinians, who are highly educated and often secular, care more about putting food on the table than restoring the Islamic Caliphate. Hamas was the alternative to the corruption of Arafat and his political cronies who used the plight of the Palestinians to tuck away millions of aid dollars in Swiss bank accounts.

Palestinians are now paying a heavy price for electing that alternative. The economy in Gaza went from very bad to devastated after the Israeli bombardment. This is not to say that Israel was wrong in defending itself against constant Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, only that its response damaged much more than Hamas targets. Schools, homes, factories, and a United Nations building were taken out. Hamas provocation and Israeli retaliation have resulted in Gaza’s current quandry and normal Palestinians have been stuck in the middle. Now comes the impossible task of rebuilding without building materials and breathing life into an economy with no ability to import or export. Gaza faces the daunting necessity of providing adequate government services without widespread international recognition.

A big boost could come in the form of a Palestinian state, where Gaza and the West Bank could be connected via a road or a tunnel. Goods and people could move freely between the linked territories, and borders would be opened up to the global economy. Palestinians educated abroad could come back to their homeland and take part in development projects and capacity-building. The establishment of a true Palestine would flip the sign from “Sorry, We’re Closed” to “Yes, We’re Open.” Statehood means a lot, for both West Bankers and Gazans. Palestinian statehood would also help Israel, especially in terms of its image abroad and its security, at least in some respects. Hopefully, Israel will realize that a rising tide in Palestine will lift Israeli boats as well.

Indonesia in Palestine

After a marathon day of touring the settlements on our own, it was certainly refreshing to have someone, an Israeli, provide an objective context to the problem of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In the early morning, we met up with an Israeli activist (mentioned above) whose aim is to end settlement building in the West Bank. One of the first things he said to the group was that a two-state solution, and consequently a lasting peace with the Palestinians, must involve the evacuation of all Israeli settlers from the West Bank. According to him, this was a must. And, as unimaginably difficult as such a pull-out will surely be, I have come to believe the same thing.

Several weeks ago I came across an article in the New York Times that included a map drawn by a French artist. The title was something to the effect of "The West Bank Archipelago" and the fictional map displayed groupings of islands, similar to Japan or Indonesia. Each island represented a different portion of land in the West Bank separated by channels of water, which represented Israeli checkpoints, roads, and settlement structures throughout this part of the Palestinian territories. These islands were all cut off from each other and carved up into smaller pieces of the whole. This was a perfect analogy because it demonstrated the daunting barrier that water imposes between the islands, in similar fashion to the manner in which Israeli presence in the West Bank has obstructed overall Palestinian freedom. It was a very effective visual display of the degree to which Israel has penetrated the West Bank, and in so doing, has cut off internal movement and connection between Palestinian cities and villages. The map told more to the viewer than the entire accompanying article.

Forget the analogy, the West Bank is an archipelago, just without the water. Although this archipelago is invisible from the maps we see of the world today, it's there. Just substitute the Israeli settlement project with the water and you have a territory carved up to the point that even if a two-state solution were to come to fruition, the West Bank economy would take years to recover as the newly created state would need to rehabilitate itself post-Israeli occupation. The many Palestinian islands would need ample time to float back into reunification with the whole. A two-state solution then means, especially in the beginning, that Israel would remain the strongest state in the region alongside a fledgling, weak country that would be forced to refocus its efforts on internal development and capactiy-building in the wake of decades of control from above. This is what came to mind during this round of settlement visits as our guide explained to us the underlying implications behind Israeli settlement-building. If enough time passes, and as enough outposts turn into settlements turn into cities, it's entirely possible that a two-state solution will no longer be viable. Israeli policy will have precluded such an option as Israel expands itself so deep into West Bank territory that any call for a reversal will be simply undoable.

This is the point of no return, but where the red line resides no one really knows. Going further into this scenario, the one-state solution becomes the only reasonable way to achieve peace. However, in maybe a decade, the Palestinian population in the region is expected to excced that of the Israeli population. In such a situation, a one-state solution that would bring both Palestinians and Israels under the same rule of government would give the majority Palestinian population the upper hand in a democracy. This would be unacceptable for Israel, whose establishment was predicated on the notion of a Jewish, democratic state. Under a single state with a Palestinian majority, at least one of those principles would have to be sacrificed. On one end, the state would shred its democratic principles and the minority of Jews would control the majority of Palestinian majority by force. On the other end, Israel would be forced to relinquish its Jewish idenity, and accept the fact, as painful as it would surely be, that a democracy ultimately means rule by the people. A Palestinian majority would almost mean rule by Palestinians in a country whose meaning for existence was built upon this notion of a Jewish state. Such a drastic change would be cataclysmic for Israelis.

One of the two above outcomes seems possible if settlement construction continues unabated in the West Bank. It is in this way that settlement growth is actually inimical to long-term Israeli interests. One day Israel will wake up and, under intense calls from the international community for peace after seven decades of confict, be faced with no other option but the one-state solution. For Israel's sake, I hope it is able to see the writing on the wall now before a decade passes and there are over 1 million Israelis living in the West Bank.

Settlers and Outposts

No one could have planned the fact that we visited Israeli settlements on the very day that the President of the United States would deliver a speech calling for the cessation of any new construction of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. A sense of anger and betrayal on the part of Jewish settlers aimed at the United States was certainly felt, at least by me, as our day progressed. According to them, the President's call for a two-state solution revealed his ignorance regarding the history, both political and biblical, of the Jewish presence in the Levant.

"The Arabs don't want peace" was a phrase we heard continuously from settlers throughout the West Bank. "If you accept a car ride from an Arab, you risked death" came from a settler who used to live in the United States. The first settlement we toured was almost identical to a normal American suburb, but protected by a barbed wire fence and an armed guard. There, most of us got our first glimpse into the mind of an Israeli settler, a woman who emigrated to Israel from the United States. A self-proclaimed left-wing activist in American politics, she was involved in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, environmental advocacy, and was part of the movement for women's equality several decades ago. On the surface, she was pleasant, open-minded, and progressive. All of that was out the window when she began to speak about the Palestinians and her decision to live in "Judea and Sumaria."

From her, we heard the two main arguments justifying Israeli occupation and Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Number one, because the Old Testament says so. Jews have lived in Israel for thousands of years and they deserve a homeland supposedly guaranteed to them by God himself. This land includes all of Israel proper and the Palestinian territories. Number two, the Palestinians are violent savages and have no place in "Judea and Sumaria." It is important to note here that not once did I hear any Jewish settlers refer to the West Bank as the West Bank, as most of the world knows it today, but rather by the Bibical term "Judea and Sumaria."

Number three, the Palestinian territories are not really the Palestinian territories. There is no green line. International law is non-binding, and therefore not need be enforced by the Israeli government. There are many other Arab countries in the world, so the Palestinians should pick up and move to either Jordan or Egypt, both neighboring countries. This is all part of the same line of reasoning, if you can call it that. This is the anti-Arab narrative that justifies the illegal settlement of 300,000 Israelis in the West Bank. God gave this land to the Jews, not the Palestinians, so the Israelis are free to live wherever they please. Nevermind the historical realities of mass Palestinian displacement and Palestinian life under a suffocating occupation.

Unfortunately, the day didn't get much better from there in terms of discovering a moderate approach to the conflict. Next was a settlement that had grown into what was essentiall a city in the West Bank. Before I came to Israel, I pictured settlements as a few trailers scattered around a small school on some remote hill in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing quite like seeing something for yourself to make you understand what's really going on. The college we visited there had around 10,000 students. That's just students. Tens of thousands of more Israelis resided there. Inside we saw a presentation titled something to the effect of "The Benefits of Zionism," illustrating the school's achievements and its endorsement by current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That in itself pointed to the Israeli government's support of West Bank settlements.

Next was a pre-military academy whose purpose is to train young Israeli men before their compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force. This was not a military academy, but both instructors deemed it necassary to carry semi-automatic pistols. Why? In case they encountered a Palestinian. During a small lecture one of them gave to the group, his entire argument was centered around Biblical text. This is Jewish land because "It is written....It is written." To me, that sounds a lot like bin Laden saying that since Islamic text prohibits "no two religions in Arabia" it's permitted to knock down a few buildings. American presence in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War violated holy text, which justified 9/11 from his standpoint. When someone takes religious text as absolute, literal, and uncompromising, what room is left for debate? You can't counter the word of God. There is no space for negotiation if God gave Judea and Sumaria to the Jews. And that was that.

The rest of the day was more of the same, with religious fundamentalism trumping any concern for the plight of the Palestinians. At a small outpost consisting mainly of trailers and simple buildings, I heard one woman say, "We have nothing against the Arabs." Well, they have something against you. You are living on private Palestinian land that was never yours to take. However, Biblical interpretation wins out over the rights of the Palestinians who "...never developed the land in the first place." I thought about this and came up with an analogy. If I bought a house, but left the basement unfinished for whatever reason, should I be forced to let a stranger move into my basement and live for free? Should I be forced to eventually migrate up to the attic and give up my kitchen, bedroom, and living room to these new-comers who need space for their growing families? Unfortunately, none of that matters to Israeli settlers because God said so.

Day 2 in the Holy Land

After touring East Jerusalem all day yesterday, today represented a pronounced shift to a greater focus on the present-day conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Visiting the Holy Basin yesterday was certainly amazing, with the cross-section of major holy sites for the world's three major monotheistic religions all in one square-mile. The supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion is essentially next door to where the Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven. It's simply an unbelieveable part of the world.

Today we got a sense of the Palestinian perspective of the conflict from some very high officials in the Palestinian Authority, which would not have been possible in most other circumstances (outside of this group). First was a meeting with the Negotiation Support Unit in Ramallah. What amazes me is how Yasser Arafat is still glorified among the PLO and the PA. Granted he certainly played an instrumental role in the PLO's founding and governance in the Palestinian territories during his tenure as president, but his glaring flaws seem to be generally overlooked. His corruption and supposed sponsorship of terrorism, which weakened the Palestinian stance in past negotiations with Israel, only hurt the Palestinian cause. It isn't hard to imagine that the Palestinians as a whole are still feeling the negative effects of Arafat's legacy.

Aside from that, it seems clear that the PLO and the PA under Mahmoud Abbas have taken relatively moderate stances regarding negotiations with Israel. This was shown in their willingness to engage with Israel to map out a two-state solution, which Israel appears to have all but abandoned under newly-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu. The PA's willingness to accept a two-state solution based upon the 1967 borders contrasts sharply with Israel's apparent refusal to discuss such issues as Palestinian statehood and self-determination, two fundamental rights that in my opinion all deserve. A true, sustainable peace will never bear fruit as long as Israel denies Palestinian autonomy, which would serve as the basis for any lasting normalization of Israel with the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East as a whole. However, even as the two-state solution is advocated by parties on both sides, the chance for such a solution is withering away by the day. The more settlements are built in the West Bank, and the more infrastructure is destroyed in the Gaza Strip, the less likely that a Palestinian state will be able to emerge even if a peace agreement is reached. Check-points and road-blocks throughout Palestine limit internal movement and Palestinian control over its territories, thus denying the ability to exercise any semblance of autonomy.

This was the theme that resounded thoughout our various visits today. In a world where Palestinians would be guaranteed basic rights and equal protection under the law as Israeli citizens, it seems that they would by and large accept a one state solution where Israelis and Palestinians would share a state. But this is something that Israel would never accept, especially with the growing size of the Palestinian population. Therefore, a two-state solution seems to be the only viable alternative, except for the fact that its capacity to function as a state is diminishing. So what is the answer? The Palestinian officials today seemed to harbor similiar feelings. How is a solution possible under current conditions? Israel would have to take extreme measures by reversing its normal course of action. What incentive does Israel have to do that? Maybe more answers will come as the trip progresses.