Ten things I did not see (or hear) during my recent 3 week trip to Israel/Palestine

Map of Israel/Palestine

On this map you can see many of the places I just visited during a 3 week tour to Israel/Palestine: Tel Aviv/Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron, the destroyed bedouin village of al-Araqib, and Canada Park, (itself built on top of 3 Palestinian villages destroyed in 1967).

Together with 7 other curious Canadians on a “come and see tour”, I met with 27 Israeli and Palestinian NGO’s, as well as international organizations. We visited the Knesset and various historical sites. And we also got to talk to many individual Palestinians and Israelis.

We saw a lot, heard a lot and learned a lot. But sometimes its instructive to reflect on what you didn’t see or hear.

Here are 10 significant things we did not see or hear, while we were there.

1. No evidence of ANY damage inside Israel from those Hamas rockets

Barely two months after the end of Israel’s most recent “war” with Gaza, we travelled the country from one end to the other but did not see ANY evidence of ANY damage inflicted on Israel by those thousands of Hamas rockets. No Israeli I spoke to could point me to any evidence of ANY DAMAGE at all. In fact, when I asked at the Avis counter at the Ben Gurion airport about any damage to the airport, the agent only grinned at me. Several Israelis did tell me that they had heard sirens, and also the occasional explosion during the “war”, but that they never saw any actual damage.

I assume there really were rockets. But it seems probable that the level of actual threat to Israel was considerably exaggerated for public (and international) consumption.

Rocket impact in ground

We didn’t see any damage in Israel from the thousands of rockets sent by Hamas. But here is one pic of rocket damage I was able to find in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

2. We did not see first hand the extensive damage in Gaza

Israel makes it difficult to get to Gaza, so we did not try and therefore were not able to witness the damage. According to Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization which specializes on the Gaza question, traffic to Gaza has been limited by Israel to less than 10% of what it was before the summer, and is limited to specific family and health issues. Israel does not appear to want people to witness the destruction there.

Collapsed building in Gaza

Outside Israel, the images of the damage in Gaza were shocking. We were told that very little of this appeared on Israeli TV during the “war’.

3. Although there was quite a bit of fighting around access to the Al Aqsa mosque, we did not hear any Palestinian talk about the struggle in “religious” terms.

The struggles around the Al Aqsa mosque were at fever pitch while we were there, with clashes every Friday and many evenings. ( We kept safely away and only watched it on TV).

The focus on the Mosque lends credibility to Mr. Netanyahu and others who interpret the struggle through a religious lens. But no Palestinian we spoke to saw this as a religious fight. In their view, the struggle around their right to access the mosque was only one of many defensive battles the Palestinians are forced to wage to preserve their shrinking rights in the face of constant aggression by Israeli settlers, backed by the Israeli military.

Other elements include the massive expansion of new Jewish settlements in area E1, the announced expulsion of Palestinians living in Silwan in East Jerusalem, measures to forbid Palestinians from using certain buses, the suspension of Arab Knesset members who are not loyal to the Jewish State of Israel, etc. etc. In this context, struggling to preserve their right to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque has become symptomatic of a broader struggle for their national rights.

Palestinians pray in front of Israeli right police

Denied the right to enter al Aqsa mosque by Israeli soldiers, Palestinians pray on the street on Nov. 2

4. No reference to Palestinians at Israeli history museums in either Jaffa or Caesaria.

Every time I visit Israel/Palestine, I try to visit one or two museums. Israel has a lot of them, and they are often very well done. This time I visited the “Jaffa museum” (on the history of Jaffa) and Caesarea National Park, which is historic park).

Until 1948, Jaffa was the largest Palestinian city. It had a population of about 80,000 (about 10,000 were Jewish). Caesarea was a maritime port under the Romans. Both these towns were inhabited by Palestinian Arabs since about 650 a.d. when the Muslims took over.

Surprisingly, the historical narrative in both places almost completely ignored 1400 years of Palestinian presence. Instead there is a historical jump from the “Romans” to the “crusaders” to the “Ottomans”, to the present time. When I asked the tour guide in Jaffa why she didn’t mention the Arabs in her presentation, she told me she “didn’t have time for everything”.

Interior of the Jaffa Museum

The tasteful Jaffa Museum, which includes two video shows, covers 3000 years of history of the city without mentioning the Palestinians who have lived there for at least the last 2000 years.

5. We found very little enthusiasm for Kerry’s “2 state” solution

Our visit came on the heels of the failed Kerry “peace process”. I asked dozens of people we met what they felt about a possible 2 state solution. Everyone wanted the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to end. Most seemed to think the 2 state idea was no longer relevant, or not likely to address their issues. One Palestinian Israeli put it succinctly “I don’t care if it’s one state, two states or 3 states. I don’t even care what the flag looks like or whether it’s called Israel or something else. I just want my land back, and I want equal rights.” Only one interviewee (a representative of the PA negotiation unit) defended the 2 state idea as a viable solution.

John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu

6. We were never in any danger. We never saw tear gas, smoke bombs, or live fire

While Israeli and western papers were filled with stories about terrorist attacks on Israelis, on the ground we didn’t see any of it, though we did see a massive police/military presence around the Old City on Friday when the Muslims go to pray at the mosques, including the Al Aqsa mosque. On the day we were in Hebron, for example, IDF soldiers had shot and killed a Palestinian in the refugee camp next door, but we didn’t know about it until we got back to our hotel and saw the coverage on TV.

During the two weeks we were there, there was only one occasion which made us nervous. On November 11th, (the day of commemoration of Arafat’s death) some Palestinian kids in Hebron had taken over one of the streets. Our car, with its Israeli plates, looked like it might be carrying a group of settlers, and we narrowly escaped having a rock thrown through a window.

7. We did not see/hear any hatred expressed toward Jews from the Palestinians we met

Based on statements by Israeli officials and the press, it would appear that Israelis are convinced that the Palestinians have a visceral hatred of Jews. We did not see any evidence of that. On the contrary, most Palestinians made a point of saying that they were opposed to Zionism, not Jews or Judaism. Many told us that before 1948, their parents had had good relations with their Jewish neighbours. But that changed after 1948 when new Jewish immigrants began expelling them from their land.

Even the refugees who had been living in camps since 1948, said did not see any reason that there could not be good relations in a future based on equality and respect for human rights.

8. We did not meet any member of “Hamas”, which according to polls, is the most popular Palestinian party

According to a poll released on September 2nd, Hamas is the most popular Palestinian political party in the West Bank and in a direct presidential election Mr Haniya would defeat Mr Abbas.

Back in 2006, in elections (judged by international observers as very fair), Hamas won a large part of the vote, and 78 of the 130 seats. Under normal circumstances, it should have formed the government.

But given Israeli antagonism and international opposition, it was quickly marginalized. Today, according to the Economist Magazine, more than 2000 Hamas members, including 36 of its elected parliamentarians, have been arrested by Israel or by the Palestinian police. As a result, Hamas has to operate as an underground organization, and it’s impossible to find representatives of Hamas to talk to.

Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Abbas

According to a recent poll, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya (l.) would easily defeat Mahmoud Abbas (r.) in an election. However, many Hamas leaders are in prison and its hard to find someone to talk to.

9. NO evidence of translation from Hebrew to Arabic at the Israeli Knesset (parliament)

We had a guided tour of the Knesset – the Israeli parliament. One of our group noted that, although there are 13 Arab Israeli members of Knesset and Arabic is an official language, there was no evidence of any translation equipment in the Knesset or in the committee rooms.
Our tour guide told us that if they want to be understood, Arab Mk’s speak in Hebrew. When we asked her about translation, she misunderstood the question and started telling us that when foreign heads of state (like Mr. Harper) visit the Knesset, of course there is translation.

The Israeli Knesset

The Israeli Knesset (or parliament). There was no evidence of any translation equipment in the Knesset or in the committee rooms.

10. Not much appreciation among Palestinian NGO’s for Prime Minister Harper’s total support for Israel.

Many of the Palestinian NGO’s we talked to were acutely aware of the pro-Israel position of the Canadian government. “It’s more “Likud” than the Likud itself”, one person told us. However, we did find an enthusiastic Harper supporter in our guide at the Holocaust museum. “Thank goodness for Mr. Harper”, she enthused. “If we had more people like him, the world would be a better place”. Polite Canadians as we are, nobody challenged her assessment.

Stephen Harper and Benjamin Netanyahu

11. (I know, I said 10, but I can’t help myself) No signs that the Palestinians are giving up their resistance

Despite daunting odds, and facing one of the most powerful militaries in the world, the Palestinians show no signs of giving up. In fact, if there was a world cup of non-violent resistance, the Palestinians would win hands down. Tax strikes, worker strikes, demonstrations, hunger strikes, “pray-in’s”, graffiti, appeals to the United Nations, rebuilding destroyed villages, public funerals, you name it. This is just a partial list. Palestinians resist every day.