Steve and I took the Abraham Hostel's “Best of the West Bank” tour on Saturday (when everything in Jerusalem is shut down because of the Sabbath), and the “Hebron Dual Narratives” tour Sunday. Both were long and in some ways grueling days (almost 12 hours each) that took us deep into the ideological heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We found them spell-binding, for the most part, and learned a lot about how each side sees things. In fact, I came away feeling that I'm finally beginning to understand the situation. But the reason it has taken me so to do so is because it's way too complicated to cover in a blog post. Instead I'll present Six Things I Learned about the Jews and Arabs in This Country (and the big chunks of land adjoining this country that aren't really countries but where millions of Arabs live and Jews are increasingly moving to).
#1 It's grossly inaccurate to generalize about how all Jews or all the Arabs do anything here.
Opinion among the Jews here ranges from ultra-Orthodox folks who are deeply anti-Zionist to left-wing peaceniks to the militaristic supporters of Bibi Netanyahu to many other shades of thought. Among the Arabs you can find pacifists, suicide bombers, and everything in between. But everyone here generalizes about the Jews and Arabs. So damn it, I will too.
#2 You can feel quite safe in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Of course our timing was good. Had we come last summer, during that nasty little war that killed about 2100 Palestinians (including at least 1500 civilians) and more than 60 Israeli soldiers (and several Israeli civilians), it would have been another story. But Steve and I have felt very safe everywhere, I think because everywhere we've gone, we've seen men, women, and children out in public, going about their daily lives and not looking tense or nervous at all. One of the guys on our Hebron tour was a young Czech foreign exchange student who has lived in Israel for several months. He laughed at how much safer he feels here in Jerusalem than he does in Prague. He said his Israeli friends were appalled to hear that he was going on the Hebron tour. They warned him he was likely to be killed. We all laughed at that one. Steve and I had the strong sense that the last thing the Hebron Palestinians would want to do is to hurt any foreign visitors who were there trying to understand what their life is like. They feel aggrieved and victimized and want to get their story out. (The Israeli government does not currently permit anyone with an Israeli passport to go into the parts of the West Bank that are under Palestinian control, nor do they allow West Bank Palestinians to enter Israel without a special pass. I think the explanation for this is that the government thinks someone might get hurt if Israelis and Palestinians freely mingled. But I'm not sure.)
I'm not surprised that I feel so unthreatened (by anything) in Jerusalem. I'd heard that from other travelers; it is a world-class tourist destination. It was more of an adrenaline charge to be strolling through the Palestinian refugee community in Bethlehem
Okay. They lie everywhere. And I can't say who here fibs more — Israeli Jews or Palestinians. But we've heard a couple of real whoppers in the last few days. I'm not talking about the guys in the souq who called out that they would give me a special price. Instead I'm thinking of the (licensed and highly experienced) Israeli (Jewish) guide, named Amitai, who toured us through the Old City and the Mt. of Olives Friday and told us that Muslims don't believe Mohammed ascended to heaven from the spectacular golden Dome of the Rock but rather from the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque. (From everything I've heard and read, both from our guidebooks, the Internet, and a Muslim guide, this is patently untrue.) Amitai also told us that the way to identify when you were in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City (as opposed to the Jewish, Christian, and Armenian Quarters) was that the Muslim Quarter was the dirty one. Then there was the Jewish settler in Hebron who declared to our group that Hebron was a really peaceful place where life was very relaxed. He was packing a pistol as he said this. A little while later, we watched a convoy of Israeli armored vehicles take off rolling into town, lights flashing. When we hear statements like that here, Steve and I tend to suspect there's some political agenda, though we often don't have a clue what it is.
#4 Many Israelis and Palestinians are very likable.
That guide Amitai also talked to our group for several minutes about the rudeness and obnoxiousness of his fellow Jerusalemites. He said we shouldn't take this personally; instead he advised us to ignore it. But in fact, Steve and I have not found it to be true. Many times we've paused on the street to consult our map or guidebooks and someone has approached us, asking if we need help. I was completely smitten by the intense young waiter at the stunningly good restaurant where we ate last night. We've found many of the Israelis we've met to be sweet or charming, if often edgy.
As for the Palestinians, several of them won our hearts. One was Tamer, the (also) edgy but hilarious guy who led us on Best of the West Bank excursion Saturday.
“Welcome to the terrorist tour,” was his first statement to the busload. “You are now officially kidnapped by me.” Throughout the long, tiring day, he never harrangued us, never lectured, but seemed to devote a lot of thought to finding ways for us take in the scenes of everyday life. In Hebron our guide was an endearing, rail-thin 28-year-old graphic artist named Motasem who calmly and quietly recounted some of the vicious events that have unfolded over the last dozen and a half years in Hebron (where the Israeli government has installed more than 100 security posts and checkpoints in the one-square-kilometer Old Town, closed the main street and barred the doors of more than 500 Arab businesses, and employed more than a 1000 (or was it 2000?) soldiers to guard the 400 or so settlers living in the central city.
When Steve asked Motasem what he and his fellow Palestinians want to see happen here, he answered (as Tamer had earlier) that they wanted Israelis and Palestinians to live together in a single unified democratic state, with equal access to jobs and other opportunities, and protection for everyone's rights (what's become known as the “one-state solution.”) As Americans, that sounded reasonable to Steve and me. But we learned that…
#5 Many Israeli Jews think they deserve to live in all of former Palestine and that the Arabs here can never be trusted.
The really terrific thing about the Hebron Dual Narratives tour was that it exposed us to both perspectives in Hebron — that of the Palestinian natives and the Jewish settlers. Our main guide, Eliahu, was a Hassidic Jew born in Hawaii who immigrated to Isreal a couple of decades ago. He forcefully articulated several key points throughout the day.
6) History casts particularly long shadows in this part of the world.
In the gloom of those shadows lie explanations for many of the seething antipathies. Understanding the history is tough, but I've made an effort on this trip. I've tried to summarize it in the Appendix to this post. But it is ridiculously complicated, isn't it? Time for me to quit trying to explain it.
The Jews weren't the first folks to live in what today is Israel and the West Bank. But they were here a very long time ago. The Romans essentially kicked them out in 70 AD/CE, and many other people took their place, including (starting in the 600s) Muslim Arabs. The Crusaders kicked them out for a while but then other Muslims conquerors struck back, with Mamluks and Ottomans (Turks) ruling until the British took over in 1917. The Brits used the old name Palestine to refer to the place they ruled.
By 1947 the Brits were sick of ruling, and the 1.3 million Arabs and 600,000 or so Jews who lived here then were sick of them. After the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews all over Europe were also looking for a sanctuary, and they finally convinced the UN to come up with a plan for making Palestine a Jewish homeland (with small sections reserved for the Palestinians who had once lived pretty much everywhere here.) The day the Brits actually left, David Ben Gurion declared that the Jews were turning “their” part into the state of Israel. Several Arab countries contested this but lost the so-called 1948 War (except for Jordan, which took the whole big West Bank chunk that was supposed to go to the Palestinian Muslims.) In the 1967 (so-called 6-Day) War, the Israelis took back the West Bank and a lot more. But they've been unwilling to give the Palestinians sovereignty over their parts (the West Bank and Gaza), nor are they willing to make Arabs in the occupied territories Israeli citizens. Instead, Israeli Jews are moving in large numbers (close to half a million currently) into government subsidized West Bank settlements, where they live in walled compounds protected by machine-gun-toting Israeli army soliders.