Feilidh Dwyer: A journey through Israel & the occupied West Bank Territories

This August I spent two weeks travelling through Israel during a meltingly hot summer. Aside from visiting holy sites in Jerusalem, partying in Tel-Aviv, worshipping air conditioners and chowing down on pita and hummus, five of my days were spent in Palestine’s West Bank. While the intention of this piece is not to apportion blame to only one side in the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine, from the little I observed, there is a massive power imbalance at play in the region.

In spite of Israel’s small size, their military is currently considered one of the top 20 most powerful in the world and the nation earns around $6.5 billion in annual arms sales. Meanwhile, many ordinary Palestinians have little autonomy over their lives and are frequently subjected to treatment that is dehumanising, cruel and shameful. Worst of all – little action is being taken by the international community to stop it.

Author’s note: Discussions attempting to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are inherently fraught. Those who criticise the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) or in any way empathise with Palestine are often immediately dismissed by Israel defenders as being either anti-Israeli or anti-semitic. This is not only absurd but also unhelpful to constructive discussions about bringing peace to the region. It should go without saying that there is a huge difference between condemning the unjust policies of a particular government and holding prejudicial views of a populace from which a government derives.

During my quick whip ’round this tiny landmass alongside a young English travel companion named Liss, I visited Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and Jericho. We saw beautiful sights – such as the alleged birthplace of Jesus – met wonderful people and explored a region that most travellers never go to. We also unintentionally ended up visiting a small Palestinian village called Nabi Salih.

At that village, located directly across a valley from an Israeli settlement, we met Palestinian families who had seen their land stolen, their access to a local water spring denied, their boys as young as 12 arrested, and family members shot and killed during protests.

A map of Israel and the Palestinian territories

In Hebron we passed through imposing checkpoints dotted throughout the city, spoke to locals who had had their businesses shut down, and saw the stark contrast between the Israeli and Palestinian districts. Unfortunately for many Palestinians, there is no escaping their situation. The unpleasantness and brutality they bear is a daily reality.

No story is entirely one-sided. I have friends in both Palestine and Israel and it should be noted that Israelis, like any groups, are not an amorphous mass who all give a tacit nod of approval to what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza; quite the opposite. Over the decades, Israel too has fallen victim to many terrorist acts.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are genuinely bad actors fighting for Palestine. Hamas – the de facto government of Gaza – have consistently called for the complete annihilation of Israel and regularly fire missiles across the border. I condemn those and any other attacks against civilians. However – statements that equate anything to the effect of ‘both sides of this conflict are equally at fault’ are in my view insulting and strain credulity.

This reflection does not debate all the rights and wrongs of the conflict going back to the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. I’ll leave that task to those better-versed in the complexities and history of the region. Rather, it’s an overview of my thoughts and impressions of the situation while I was there. For a brief summary of Israel-Palestine conflict – check out this short clip from Vox:

What’s the West Bank Like?
First up – dispel from you mind the idea that the West Bank’s cities are in anyway similar to some of the obliterated cities we’ve seen on the news from Syria. The last significant flare-up between Israel and Palestine was in 2014 and things are currently relatively peaceful. While the New Zealand Government and others currently classify the West Bank as a ‘High Risk‘ zone, at no point during our visit did either Liss or I feel unsafe.

Funnily enough, I actually felt substantially more secure in the West Bank than during my 2011 trip to Barcelona, where I narrowly escaped two robbery attempts in three days. Although many Palestinians are living through tough times, the area retains thriving communities, interesting places to visit and friendly people. I unfortunately didn’t get to visit Gaza – it’s tad difficult to get to right now.

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As a tourist, you will frequently see reminders that Israel is a nation engaged in an ongoing conflict. On trains, busses and walking the streets, you will see soldiers with their weapons in hand – some wearing uniforms, and others in civilian gear. I’ve grown up scarcely ever seeing a gun, so having people standing around in public sporting heavy machine guns did take a bit of adjusting to. It wasn’t frightening as much as just…strange.

All Jewish citizens over the age of 18 are conscripted into military service – 32 months for men and 24 for women. Arab-Israelis – who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population – are exempt, but may serve if they wish to do so. There are a few grounds for exemption, such as mental illness or living abroad, but generally speaking it is extremely difficult to get out of. Although this Vice article shows a few ways crafty young Israelis managed to avoid serving, for the vast majority of citizens a good chunk of their youth will be spent serving in the military.

Once in the service you can opt for civilian roles such as cook, mechanic or other ancillary positions. There is an organisation made up of ex-IDF personnel called Breaking the Silence, who speak out against what they witnessed and did while serving in the occupied Palestinian territories. Some of it is truly shocking.

The (il)legal state of the settlements
Israel regards the West Bank, which has been under the control of their military since the 1967 war, as “disputed” territory. Around 600,000 settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with more arriving and building every year – although the rate has slowed recently. These settlers are not rogue actors, building without approval; in fact, the Israeli government helps fund the building of settlements, provides settlers with extensive financial support and protects them using the military.

Settlements in the West Bank

Last year, the United Nations Security Council (of which NZ was a temporary member), voted 14 to 0 to condemn Israeli settlements. The US, in one of the last acts of Obama’s administration, abstained from the vote, allowing the resolution to pass. The UN resolution stated that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, have “no legal validity”, constituted a “flagrant violation” under international law and are a “major obstacle” to a two-State solution (see more here). To be fair, some Israelis point out that the UN has been relatively inactive in passing resolutions against places like Saudi Arabia and China but are very active against Israel. I agree with that criticism, but it doesn’t make the illegal status of the settlements less valid.

While the Israelis will claim their occupation is about protecting themselves or that the Palestinians have turned down the opportunity for statehood three times (1947, 2000 and 2008), the settlements are broadly seen as a roadblock to peace in the region. Public polling in Israel from May this year shows that 38.2 percent of Israeli Jews either moderately or strongly see the settlements as an obstacle to peace, while 55.2 either moderately or strongly do not.

Frustratingly, at a meeting commemorating 50 years in the West Bank in late-August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of 1500 Israeli settlers: “We are here to stay forever.”

You can read more about the settlements in this NPR article.

The big, not so beautiful wall
There are two major walls of note in Israel. One is the most holy place for those of the Jewish faith, the other is a gigantic concrete barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. If there is a more apt symbol of a divided society than a gigantic wall, I’d like to hear it. At around 8 metres tall, it runs a distance of 708km. The Palestinian side of the wall in East Jerusalem is covered in graffiti and street art – some of which tells stories of everyday Palestinians and the struggles they go through.

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As foreigners, our crossings over the border between the West Bank and Israel were relatively easy. The same cannot be said for Palestinians. A minister of the Israeli government last year admitted that the condition of checkpoints in the West Bank where Palestinians were forced to stand waiting for hours “without shade or water” was “a disgrace and shame on Israel and the defense establishment.”

While in Ramallah we stayed at Area D hostel (highly recommended). While in the West Bank we noticed that many streets in Ramallah and Hebron were strewn with pieces of garbage. The receptionist at the hostel explained to us that the Palestinian local authority, which manages the building and rubbish collection was pretty useless. He said the repairs needed for the broken entrance gate at the hostel were unlikely to happen anytime soon.

View from Area D hostel looking out to Ramallah’s central mosque. In the background (right) you can just catch a glimpse of Jerusalem. So close but world’s apart

According to this article from last year, 96 percent of Palestinians view the Palestinian Authority (PA) as corrupt. Under the Oslo Agreement signed between Israel and Palestine in 1993, the PA are required to share information with Israel about any armed resistance to the Israeli occupation. This practice is known as “security coordination”, but resented by many Palestinians.

The West Bank, aside from a few prominent landmarks, is not a particularly touristy place. As we walked the streets we were often excitedly greeted by smiling locals saying “Welcome!” or “Where do you come from?”

As a Muslim region (close to 100 percent of the population are Sunni), women nearly universally cover themselves with long trousers, sleeves and head coverings. Liss got more than a few lingering stares and judgemental glances for her comparative state of undress – essentially bare shoulders – but after a quick outfit adjustment, all was well.

Ancient ruins in Jericho, West Bank. This is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and has been around for 14,000 years

On the second day at our hostel, Liss and I were invited by a young local guy who was friends with the hostel workers to visit his village. We didn’t know the name of the place but, along with a couple of others from the hostel – a mixed European group, all in their early-20s – we agreed to join. It was a completely impromptu trip, which made what we were about to experience all the more surprising. Half-an-hour later, after catching a taxi and getting dropped off at who-knows-where, the group of us were picnicking in a relatively deserted woods. We explored an abandoned house full of graffiti and climbed some trees, as you do.

Out in the woods, with Liss and company

Before long we set off to the village. We emerged from the woods and came upon an open hillside covered in scrubs, rocks and dirt. Looming ominously in the distance like the eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, was an IDF military watchtower (see the cover picture). On one side of the valley we could see the Israeli settlements. The buildings were clean, uniform and had orange tiled roofs. On the other side of the valley, to the right of the checkpoint was the village of around 600 resident – Nabi Salih.

The Halamish settlement (background) across the valley from Nabih Salih

On our stroll across the plain, our guide pointed out the military detritus lying around on the ground. In this area, right next to his village, he and his fellow villagers regularly take part in Friday protests against the Israeli occupation. The protests generally go as follows: a group of locals, often including women and children, form into a procession and are usually accompanied by a few foreigners and journalists. They then make a walk, waving their flags and signs down the road towards the main water spring in the valley, which Israeli settlers took control of in 2009.

The Israeli soldiers form a barrier and generally, in an effort to disburse the crowd, they will fire tear gas canisters. The male villagers will often start hurling stones at the soldiers and things often get out of hand. This 2015 article from the Times of Israel gives a good account. You can also check out this clip:

A general question arising from all this is for me was – what exactly is the appropriate response from Palestinians when their land is being stolen and they are treated like rubbish? Are they supposed to just sit back and tolerate as they are slowly driven off their land? I think not.

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We eventually made our way up to the village. It’s a small place with just a couple of streets, a gas station and a convenience store. Some of the villagers had tied up the spent grenades and gas canisters fired at them by soldiers onto their fences. Quite the decoration.

Once we were in the house we met our guide’s family, who all spoke decent English, and took a seat in their lounge. A framed photograph of Yasser Arafat hung prominently and there were a number of large couches. The six of us from the hostel hadn’t been there long before a group of colourfully festooned African-Americans joined us in the lounge. This was completely unexpected, and we were informed they were a peace envoy from the US. This family regularly host visitors from many countries in an effort to raise awareness about the daily reality of their lives.

The mother of the family, Manal Tamimi sat down and began to tell us her story. In April 2015, she had been shot in her leg by an Israeli soldier during one of their weekly protests, and the pain from the wound still bothered her. She spoke for around 20 minutes and exemplified her points using footage shot by her husband Bilal. Some of the highlights of her speech:

*Two-thirds of village land had been confiscated since the 1960s using justifications like: “It’s state land” or that the “landowner hadn’t used the land for three years” (which they had been prevented from accessing).

*The villagers were not allowed to build new houses or add to existing ones. They have had 12 demolition orders for houses built since the 60s due to violations of code, such as adding a new kitchen.

*The IDF sometimes sprays the villagers and their properties with skunk water – described as smelling “worse than raw sewage” – from vehicle-mounted water cannons. The company which concocts the skunk claims it is made from “100% food-grade ingredients” and is “100% eco-friendly – harmless to both nature and people”.

*The below clip shows a midnight raid of their home by IDF soldiers in 2012 (footage shot by Bilal).

*Manal’s quote: “It’s about silent transfer. The are trying to force us to leave the village. When the children grow up and want to build their own houses and get married, they will have to leave to other cities or emigrate abroad.”

*”The main means of resistance was to stay on the land and try and protect it.”

Rather than post the full video of Manal speaking, I will instead share this short clip I filmed of an 11-year-old Palestinian girl, Jana Tamimi. She started describing how she personally had been touched by tragedy losing both a cousin (death by gas canister) and an uncle (shot in the kidney). She described her experiences going through multiple checkpoints on a daily basis to get to school and her wish to see a free Palestine. She has been making videos on her phone about the occupation since she was seven and it was pretty powerful to hear her tell her story. It was difficult for me to imagine what it must be like growing up in her situation. Manal is sitting to Jana’s right. Pardon the light in the background.

This is just one village and one story but there are millions of others like it.

If I had a simple answer to this seemingly intractable, more than half-century dispute, I would be a very wise man indeed. This Guardian article gives some idea of why peace talks (the last were in 2008) are so difficult and have thus far failed. It’s one of those situations where the hurt and hate runs deep.

An infamous image of an Israeli and Palestinian man screaming at each other during the Second Intifada (2000–2005)

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) is one way that many pro-Palestinian activists suggest to punish Israel for the ongoing occupation. It advocates boycotting and withdrawing funding from Israeli businesses and imposing international sanctions on Israel until they come into compliance with the existing UN resolutions. This is seen by many Israelis as a racist measure, because it singles out one nationality for differential and discriminatory treatment.

While I don’t know the exact answer to this problem, I do know it’s an issue that can’t be ignored. There are grave injustices occurring, and right now very few practical steps are being taken by the international community to stop Israel’s seizure of land. One small step would be for the US to put pressure on Israel to stop flouting international law, although with clueless narcissist Trump in charge, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

Feilidh Dwyer is a freelance writer and also works for Wellington-based journalism funding platform PressPatron. He holds a joint MA in Journalism and Globalisation from the Universities of Hamburg and Aarhus.

This piece was originally published here.