Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Clarification: it's a beautiful thing."

photograph by Christian Als, a Danish photojournalist. Taken in Gaza just after the Israeli invasion of January, 2009. Behind a white dove, Gazan civilians search through the bombed out rubble for their belongings.

I would like to clarify - for the sake of not getting in trouble with future employers/the State Department - my earlier rant on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It's a complicated issue, and I'm well aware of that fact, despite what my angry tirade may have sounded like.

First of all, I understand that this is not a one-sided issue. It's not even a two-sided issue. There are multiple perspectives and experiences to take into account. I may just be "that white chick from America (andOr-e-gone no less)" but I would like to imagine that my point of view and experiences are valid as well. To bring you (general you) up to date not-briefly-at-all, my story and opinions go like this:

Sophomore year of high school, an extremely good friend of mine moved to Palestine for a year. She was in the West Bank, near Ramallah (map). For reference, that's about 40 minutes North of Jerusalem, and in order to get there you have to go through an Israeli checkpoint, of which there are many (understatement) (map).

For those who are unaware, "checkpoints" are various barriers between cities throughout the West Bank and Gaza. They separate not only Israel from the Occupied Territories, but also cities within Palestine. They were erected with the aim of making Israel safer from attacks by terrorists, which is an incredibly valid concern, of course. However, the majority of checkpoints do not sit on the border between Israel and Palestine like one might expect - for the most part, they are located throughout Palestine, as the map shows, and they have many unintended - and possibly intended - consequences. Not only do they harm the Palestinian economy, making it very difficult to do sort of business transaction between cities, but they also separate families.

Let's say I live in Hebron, and you live in Ramallah. GoogleMaps puts that at about an hour and a half drive. Not too bad, right? Now take a look at the map of checkpoints. Not only do you have to plan your trip in advance, and obtain a permit to cross into another city (so no surprise visits on my birthday), it can take hours upon hours to get through checkpoints, even with all the proper identification and paperwork. It's not like crossing the border into Canada: "What is your purpose here?" "Visiting family." "How long will you stay?" "Three days." "Do you have any fruit?" "No." "Have a good trip."

Not so much.

But I digress. So: friend in the West Bank. Annoying time difference, yes, but what does it matter? It's not like it's dangerous or anything! ...oh. Wait. It's 2004-2005. Events you may recall: PNA (Palestinian National Authority) President Yassir Arafat dies; Mahmoud Abbas is (KEYWORD) elected president of the PNA. Peacefully. Abbass goes to the White House to meet with Bush. Israel withdraws from Gaza (map) after Hamas gains political power in the January, 2006 PNA elections.

Note: Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the US. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, this if false. There is what the CFR calls a "military wing" (al-Qassum Brigade). I'm not entirely sure I concur with that assessment. Hamas has taken responsibilty for many suicide bombings in Israel, and for launching mortar shells and small rockets into southern Israel from Gaza. However, it maintains popularity among the Gazan people (generalization; not all people in Gaza support Hamas and not certainly not all/most support al-Qassam) because the political organization itself operates an extensive social service network for people in Gaza, providing food, water, health care, electricity, education, community activities, etc.

Another note, opinion style: If Hamas (Gaza) and Fatah (The West Bank) could pull their heads out of their collective rear ends and work together for the people of Palestine instead of fighting against each other for political power (which does the Palestinian people absolutely no good), it would go a long way to advancing the Palestinian position in the international community. Hamas does not recognize Israel as a state, and has claimed that they will not and can not live side-by-side with the enemy. Fatah works with Israel and the US, but their political influence is greatly weakened by what is seen as their inability to control Hamas. IF they could come to the table with Israel as a united front, representing simultaneously the people of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, it would make it much harder for Israel to disregard their demands.

More digressing. friend in West Bank. Lots of danger. This is still during the occupation, when there are enforced curfews (the IDF - Israeli Defense Forces - say when you can leave your homes, when you can't; how late you can stay out; where you can go; who you can visit; and so on and so forth). Months would go by and I wouldn't hear from my friend, and yet I'd be watching the news and reading the paper and hearing about a peaceful protest that was broken up by gunshots, military tanks, and tear gas. And I never knew - we never knew - whether she was okay. Whether she was injured, or even still alive. I realize that sounds dramatic, but it was a genuine fear.

My friend is home now, safe and sound, and while I don't believe in God I feel like I should thank someone for that, even if I haven't decided who.

Now it's junior year and there are exams and colleges to visit and road trips to be had and yadda yadda and at this point, I might have been able to study psychology and continue with French. (Keyword, might) But then I met Gili, who is Israeli, and who at the time lived in Hod HaSharon (now in Kfar Saba) which are both about 10 miles NE of Tel Aviv (map). This is just before summer, 2006 and the start of another Israel/Lebanon war. I don't know who here is familiar with Hizbollah, but it's an organization based in Lebanon that, like Hamas, provides extensive social services to Arabs in Lebanon; it's also very rocket happy. At the time Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, was threatening to bomb Tel Aviv - if he missed, there's very little chance he would have missed my friend in Hod HaSharon.

And so Catherine goes to GW, joins the Middle East Studies Program, fraks up Arabic hardcore, and studies abroad in Israel.

But I'm not done yet. I mentioned something about opinions, right? So here's the bulk:

No side is "right."

Most if not all Israelis know someone who has died in a bombing. Most if not all Israelis live in constant fear of terrorist attacks. And that is unacceptable. I have great sympathy for the people of Sderot - their daily lives are continuously disrupted because of mortar attacks from across the Gaza border. Phrases to loved ones on the phone like, "Hey, sorry I gotta go - there's a bomb warning and I don't get service in the shelter" aren't uncommon, and they should be. They shouldn't happen at all. But they do. And I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, insensitive to their plight.

I understand that Isreal, in part, is doing what it believes it must do to protect its people. But I also believe firmly that there is a line between what is necessary for survival and what is unjust.

The Separation Wall is unjust. The Wall is planned to be completed in 2010, at over 400 miles long, and over 200 feet wide (a combination of the Wall itself, ditches, and barbed-wire fences, and intrusion detection equipment that separate Israel from the West Bank). It effectively shuts Palestinians into the West Bank in a cold, ugly display of military might. In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Separation Wall violated both international and human rights laws. It denies Palestinians the right to self-determination, and it greatly weakens their economy, their education, their health, and their self-respect.

The siege on Gaza is unjust. 10 people per room because they aren't allowed building materials is unjust. Children are starving, families impoverished; there is little food, little water, no electricity, and very poor health care. Because Hamas controls Gaza, the US refuses to provide economic aid as it does to the PNA. The majority of the 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees and their decedents, civilians who were forced out of their homes during the 1948 war (after which Israel declared Statehood). I understand Israel's need to protect itself against rocket attacks, but people in Gaza aren't allowed to leave - not for health care, not for business, not for family (many of whom live in the West Bank, and haven't seen one another for years) - and on the rare occasion that they can leave, they can't come back.

When the IDF suspects it knows the location of a terror cell, it drops leaflets from the air to the surrounding homes, with messages telling citizens to leave immediately, that the area will be bombed. Most people have no where to go. The IDF has been known to bomb large areas, including schools, hospitals, and homes where terrorists may be hiding. I understand the desire to take out the enemy. But I do not agree with the decision to go forth with the effort no matter the cost - especially when the cost is civilian lives. Men, women, and children. It is not acceptable. It is not okay and it is certainly not just. I am not a military expert, but I find it incredibly hard to believe that with all the intelligence and might of the Israeli military, they can't come up with a better way to achieve their goals.

The collective punishment inflicted upon people in the West Bank and Gaza is in direct violation of international and human rights law. It is against the Geneva Conventions. It has been condemned by the international community time and again. And the risk of ruining my semi-scholarly essay with a quote from Battlestar Galactica "all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again." The term "apartheid" used in symbiosis with the Palestinian cause makes some people nervous. But it's defined as legal, enforced segregation. And if a giant wall dividing two peoples doesn't qualify, I don't know what does. Most people don't enjoy parallels between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, and what atrocities occurred during the Holocaust. Even I'm uncomfortable with the association. But I'd be remiss, and I'd be lying to myself not to look it in the eye and admit the similarities. And if I were Israeli, if I were Jewish, I cannot imagine how I would be able to face the mirror every day and say to myself "This happened to my ancestors. This happened to my family. And now my government is doing it to other people. And I'm okay with that, because it's necessary."

It isn't necessary. Not to this extent. Not to this degree of brutality and degradation. If Israel believes itself to be "the bigger man" - to be the one that garners the sympathy and support of other nations - then it needs to step up on the pedestal and play the roll of a state worthy of existence, not because of how its people suffered in the past, but because of its actions here and now.

I understand that there is no simple resolution. I understand that neither side is entirely right, and that both have agendas and concerns they need to address. I realize the issues are entrenched in decades of political and centuries of religious divisions. I realize the terrorism of al-Qassam and suicide bombers is born out of the same anger and desperation as the IDF soldier who believes that we should "move the Palestinians to Egypt." But I do not believe either of those options is the answer.

When people ask me, I will proudly say that I am quote "Pro-Palestinian" unquote. I believe in a two-state solution. I think East Jerusalem can and should be the capital of a Palestinian state. I think settlements should stop immediately, and I'm proud of President Obama for standing up and saying so. I believe there should be a Palestinian state, and I believe that one day, the two can live side by side in peace. I have to believe that. And someday, maybe I'll fight for it.

For now, I'm going to master my Arabic, master my Hebrew, and do what I can to make a difference in the everyday lives of Palestinians. I'm going to remain as open-minded as possible, but at the same time I will not compromise my basic beliefs.

Torri Higginson says, "[I believe that] most people are good. It's just unfortunate that bad people are louder." Maybe not the most eloquent phrase ever penned, but I love the sentiment, and for now, I will simply try to be louder.

PS: If anyone knows any of the factual statements here to be false, please correct me. I'd hate to be responsible for disinformation.


  1. (Standing ovation, tears streaming down Cousin's face, chest swelled with deep, deep pride) Oh, my sweet little Cousin, this I rock, in everyway. I wish that I had one small smattering of your conviction, bravery and daring. Not to mention your intelligence, compassion and open mindedness...

    I learned more in your post than I could have learned in a decade of news watching....and, I'm embarrassed to say, I'm still lost...but, I now know where I can go to get directions.

    The irony has been rolling around in my head that you are in the Holy Land and you don't believe in God.....(just a side note...)

    I love you and love your writing and your heart and your soul.

  2. Um. I love you. That is all.

  3. Two things: 1) Hizbollah has a distinct political and a distinct military wing. They do not necessarily work in tandem, just for your own reference; 2) don't think that because Israel is militarily superior that automatically means the technology is fool-proof. The U.S. continues to miss targets in Pakistan, blowing up homes, schools, etc. entirely by accident (mostly). While I find it difficult to believe that the mass bombing and destruction of entire areas was accidental, that doesn't mean that some of it wasn't. Personally, I haven't researched their military capabilities, so I don't know the extent of their targeting , but if the U.S. and DARPA can't manage to hit the broadside of a barn some times, I highly doubt the Israeli military has a better chance.

    And, for the record as my own personal opinion, the whole point of a war is to overwhelm and destroy the enemy. Western nations, with their leaders sitting in posh offices and diplomats chattering at each other about human rights in buildings that cost millions of dollars to construct, will talk big about human rights, but when threatened? Human nature dictates we do whatever is necessary to survive. Look at what happened after 9/11, after the London bombings, what's happened over and over between India and Pakistan, what's continually happening in Somalia, Zimbabwe, Mexico, and the list goes on. On the ground, the Geneva Conventions and high moral thoughts mean nothing to the people just trying to survive. Besides, war is continually moving into the unconventional realm, and the Geneva Convention is becoming increasing irrelevant because, to put it frankly, the world has moved on. It's much different now, and to apply the same rules of war that were used 60 years ago makes them nothing more than a farce. We can quote moral philosophy at each other all day, but that won't change the fact that war has become almost entirely de-humanized, that the rules of warfare are so vastly different that applying stringent morality to it is, at the very least, headache-inducing.

    Not to say there isn't a solution, because there is always a solution. But there is also always a line between idealism and naivete, and that's something too few people remember.


  4. Incidentally, I realize the above comment makes me seem like I support torture and mass casualties, which is not true. I recognize that violence (or the threat of), unfortunately, will always have a place in this world we currently live in, but only as a last resort. (It is, in fact, sometimes helpful at bringing nations back to the diplomatic solutions.) In the good of the many vs. the good of the few debate, though, I will always come down on the side of the good of the many, and can accept what is commonly referred to as "collateral damage" if there is significant proof and justification for it. Also, I'm not saying we abolish the Geneva Conventions; instead, I am saying they need significant rewriting and reimagining, along with the rest of the international laws and yes, even the UN itself and the way it interacts with the international community could use an overhaul to be more in line with the reality of the current world (as well as, perhaps, the coming world, which is a topic for another day).

    Oh, and I think you should add in the societal and cultural (clash) factors for reasonings behind the propagation of the war. That's probably just the psychologist in me talking, though. ;)

    (And, to add on to my prior last paragraph, there is also always a line between pessimism and amorality, which is also something too few people remember.)

  5. I won't, can't comment on this as thoroughly as I originally intended. You know my opinion and standing, and I don't feel I need to write it out for the world. I agree with a lot of what you've said here, but that to my initial and second readings it seemed that you have very much dismissed the great suffering on the part of the Israelis. None of this was factually false that I could see, but it is certainly swayed, and you have more than belittled the Israeli government and the IDF in this post, which would be all the same to me if you hadn't also belittled the Israeli public and its majority's attemps at voting actively for a two-state solution, not to mention its public and completely accepted judgement and execution of not all, but a majority of punishment and condemning of human rights violations. And that seems unfair to me. As a left-wing, pro-Palestinian Israeli, I found this post to be partly true and all impressive, but I cannot say I found it at all objective or even respectful to a lot of people, to a public, that deserves respect. That said, I love you, and I love you passion; and I respect you and your opinions. More than anything I respect the incredibly brave move of you coming here and living here and living IT; and that more that anything validates this post completely, regardless of my personal opinion.

  6. Ugh, my comment makes no sense, but I'm so tired. I think it can be decoded. =D

  7. the fact taht you can keep all those names right and straight and everything makes you my hero!!! <3