A group of 13 Canadians has just completed a fascinating 2 week tour of Israel, Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Organized under the umbrella of the National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine, the group travelled extensively – from the Lebanese border in the north to the Negev desert in the south. We visited the Knesset and the Holocaust Museum as well as some of the key religious sites. In all, we met 23 Palestinian and Israeli NGO’s, politicians, students and local leaders, in addition to having many casual conversations with individual citizens.
Overall the trip was exciting, illuminating and exhausting. Each trip participant will draw his/her own conclusions.
See 10 of my own observations here.
1. Contrary to our fears, safety was not an issue. In the weeks leading up to our departure, there had been an upwelling of violent incidents. A number of Israelis had been attacked by Palestinians in Jerusalem and in the West Bank in particular. Israel responded by a “shoot to kill” policy towards accused and potential attackers, which has resulted in many deaths, including youngsters of 14 – 18 years old
However, during the 2 weeks of travelling around in Israel/Palestine we never felt any danger at all. Our guides had our safety as their number 1 priority. The only inconvenience was that, as a precaution, we rescheduled one day of our trip to avoid a potential demonstration and Israeli military reprisals in the city of Hebron. Instead we had a pleasant day in Jericho and at the Dead Sea. Everywhere, Palestinians were welcoming and hospitable – ever grateful that outsiders came to look at their situation.
2. Israel is a success story on many levels. Flying over Tel Aviv on arrival in Israel, one gets a sense of how vibrant and how successful the Israeli project has been. Israel is a member of the United Nations and has diplomatic relations with 160 countries.
It boasts a dynamic high-tech industry, modern infrastructure (a lot more modern than Canada’s), and 12 Nobel Prize winners. It also has a fearsome military, equipped with fighter planes, missiles and nuclear bombs. Hebrew, once only spoken in synagogues, has been now revived as the national ”lingua franca” helping to bring together a new nation founded by Jews who have come to Israel from places as varied as Russia, the USA, Morocco and Iran.
3. However, Palestinians, whether they live in Jerusalem, inside Israel, or in the Occupied Territories are increasingly desperate. We could see evidence that Israeli society is expanding everywhere at their expense. And the expansion, whether undertaken by rogue groups of settlers, or the Israeli military (IDF) itself, can be shockingly brutal. The unarmed Palestinians, and their powerless and ineffective government, have little ability to defend themselves. Palestinians feel that Israel is unfairly given impunity by the international community which still lives in the memory of the Holocaust.
Every situation is different, but we detected a general pattern of Jewish encroachment and domination over the Palestinians.
- Palestinians living in Haifa although citizens of Israel, face a daily struggle with Israeli officialdom for decent education, better infrastructure, and against systemic discrimination.
- Palestinian Bedouins, also citizens, showed us how military force is being used to drive them off their traditional lands.
- Those living in the West Bank explained how Israel is using a variety of methods to annex about 75% of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and incorporate it into an ever expanding Israel.
4. Israel has created a “rights hierarchy’ for all those living in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including Israel and the Occupied Territories. While the total population of the area is about equally split between Jews and non-Jews, only those who are citizens of Israel, where Jews form a large majority, are entitled to vote for the Israeli government – the only one that really counts. Each person must carry an ID card which instantly identifies them and defines their rights.
Israel’s “Rights Hierarchy”
5. There is a wide spectrum of political opinion in Israel, but there does seem to be broad consensus on one point – Israel should keep the land and property taken from the Palestinians in 1948. “We won, they lost” appears to be a view shared by Israelis of both ‘right” and “left”.
The notion that Zionists should return any of the land, jewelry, goods, books, cattle or moneys taken from Palestinians in 1948 did not seem to occur to anyone. (Of course I assume all would agree that is justified for Jews to recover goods stolen from them by the Nazis only a few years before 1948.)
6. On the Palestinian side, there is unanimity on the “unfairness’ of what has happened to them, but a broad range of opinion on what to do about it. Older Palestinians show remarkable patience and gritty determination in the face of what appear to be hopeless odds. “Hang on” would seem to best determine their attitude. A shrinking number express any hope that the USA will ever force Israel to give equality to the Palestinians.
Many younger Palestinians seem completely frustrated as no positive future is offered to them. They show little enthusiasm for the Palestinian Authority which many openly referred to as ‘stooges’ (or worse.) Some of them have taken to violent individual acts, attacking Israeli soldiers with knives knowing that in doing so they likely face death. While we met few Palestinians who support these actions, we met nobody who would condemn them either, saying that they stem from continued Israeli expansion and aggression. Other young Palestinians, especially those with some wealth, escape their frustration in an insouciant party scene.
The most coherent Palestinian strategy was articulated by Omar Barghouti of the Palestinian BDS movement. He argued that the BDS movement to boycott Israel is a peaceful and non-violent international measure aimed at forcing Israel to give Palestinians their democratic rights.
7. There seemed to be very little enthusiasm among either Palestinians or Israelis for a “2 State solution”. While the international community (including Canada) still officially supports a 2 state solution, we found almost no support on the ground for this idea. Indeed, given the extent of penetration of Israeli settlements into the West Bank, it is not clear whether a two state solution is still possible. And even if it were possible, at best it would appear to address only the concerns of the Palestinians living in the West Bank, but ignore the issues facing the Palestinians living in Jerusalem or inside Israel. And it does not even attempt to provide a solution for the 5 million Palestinian refugees living just outside Israel’s borders. It would seem that Canada, along with the international community, should begin to consider other options.
8. A huge “sleeper” issue that appears almost completely ignored by the international community is that of the 5 million Palestinian refugees. We stayed overnight in one of the 19 refugee camps located in the West Bank. Our refugee host families could not have been more accommodating and hospitable.
Those refugees and their children (now numbering 5 million) are still demanding their right to return and compensation for destroyed or stolen property. The present value of goods stolen could amount to billions of dollars. Today, the refugees appear to be without a political voice, but this is an issue both Israel and the international community will have to deal with.
9. We also saw evidence that Israel has made determined efforts to erase the Palestinian collective memory. For example, the JNF has been complicit in using forestry to cover over the remains of many of the over 500 Palestinian villages that were destroyed following the expulsion of the Palestinians.
In other spots we saw archeological digs used to destroy the evidence of the last 2 millennia of Arab/Palestinian habitation. Public buildings have been constructed on top of Muslim cemeteries, and mosques turned into bars and nightclubs.
10. Finally, many Palestinians and Israelis were aware that Mr. Harper was defeated in the most recent election. The Israelis were disappointed of course, and the Palestinians were elated and congratulated us over and over again. However, we warned them that they may have unrealistic expectations about what Mr. Trudeau can or will do. Many seemed surprised to know that Trudeau has many times declared his complete support for Israel (while criticizing specific Israeli policies).