While Nicole and I usually avoid politics in our editorial writing, what follows is a bit of an exception. As I wrote previously, I spent the week of Spring Break on a Harvard Kennedy School-sponsored trip to Israel and the West Bank, which would naturally raise a host of politically fraught issues. Even the fact that the trip was labeled as the “HKS Palestine Trek” (given the focus on the West Bank and Arab citizens of Israel) makes a statement with ‘Palestine’ bound to raise opinions on both sides of the conflict.
I decided to join the trip to get a different, and often hidden, perspective on an issue that I feel personally connected to as a member of the Jewish community and interested in given its geopolitical significance. I hope most that the broader perspective I return with can generate dialogue and a greater awareness of the issues on the ground. To this end, if you have any reactions, questions, or challenges, feel free to reach out in comments or otherwise.
Overall, the week strongly reinforced my existing view that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank undermines the country’s democratic institutions, security, and long-term success and viability. Furthermore, I now believe that these policies and the security challenges they bring about serve to indirectly segregate and isolate minority Palestinian populations in Israel proper. In case you’re interested, this view is largely consistent with organizations like JStreet and Americans for Peace Now.
We began the trip on a more touristic note in historical East Jerusalem with visits to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Western Wall. Getting to visit the Muslim sites was an interesting experience as while I recall visiting them on my first trip to Israel in 1995, entry was tightened following Sharon’s 2000 visit and the Second Intifada, and we were unable to get in during a trip to Israel in 2007. Visits still remain tightly controlled by the Islamic foundation that oversees the site and we had to enter and exit at specific times.
Our time in Jerusalm also included a visit to the religious settlement of Sheikh Jarrah in the company of Dr. Meir Margalit, a left-wing Israeli researcher and politician. Claiming ownership dating from the Ottoman Empire, Orthodox Jews (many from NYC) have forced Palestinian residents from their homes in the area. The obvious irony is that Palestinians often refer to the same Ottoman titles as a basis for the return of their property in Israel proper and inevitably meet with far less success.
After Jerusalem, we crossed through checkpoints into the West Bank, first spending a day in Bethlehem and Hebron. While we passed quickly through, many Palestinians commuting to work in Jerusalem can spend 45 minutes waiting to pass. As a result, short-distance commutes of only 5-10 miles can take up to two hours, especially when multiple checkpoints are involved.
This was also our first experience with the Israeli separation wall. While I generally oppose such barriers (Berlin, US-Mexico, etc.) because they isolate and inhibit the free movement of goods and people, I understand Israel's security motivation (suicide attacks have dropped 90% since the wall's erection). However, two factors give me serious concern's about Israel's barrier. First, rather than running along the 1967 border, the wall cuts into the West Bank in many places, often cutting off Palestinian villages from their productive lands in the process. Second, though the wall has had a short-term impact on security, I worry about the long-term implications on peace, security, and stability. Israel's border games and the wall itself seem to deeply antagonize and humiliate the Palestinians and create greater animosity towards Israel among the broader population.
Looking over the Separation Wall into Israel (Palestinian-owned olive grove in the mid-ground)
For me, our visit to Hebron was an especially emotional part of the trip as it was the most visible example of both intrusion and segregation. While 60-80% of the 300,000 West Bank Settlers (number excludes the 200,000 in East Jerusalem) are economic and attracted to housing developments through tax incentives and other programs, the other 20-40% are religious and believe in a divinely ordained mission to inhabit all of the West Bank. For them, Hebron holds special significance with the Cave of the Patriarchs (the burial site of Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca, and Jacob/Leah and the believed entrance of the Garden of Eden) located in the city center. Naturally given Abraham's status as a prophet of Islam, the site also holds great significant for Muslims.
While the site was the location of historical skirmishes between Jews and Muslims, tensions became especially high following the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims at prayer by Baruch Goldstein - an American-born religious settler. In order to ensure the safety of the settler community, the Israelis moved to heavily restrict Palestinian movement in the historical city center - the site of the traditional market. Only settlers can drive on the main thoroughfares and Palestinians cannot approach the area without special permits from the IDF. As a result, hundreds of Palestinian shops in the market area were forced to close (which in a tremendous irony, settlers have celebrated by painting Stars of David on closed shopfronts). This, combined with heavy fortifications and empty streets makes for a scene out of a post-apocalyptic war movie. The fact that I could share anything in common with the perpetrators of such an effort left me a bit shaken as we left the area.
On the lighter side, we also had a chance to meet with the mayor of Hebron - who spoke with pride about the launch of their eGovernment portal - and visit a glassmaking shop outside the city before returning to Bethlehem for the night.
On Tuesday, we headed north back across Jerusalem to Ramallah (basically, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem run in a ~30km contiguous arc) where we toured Paltel - the dominant Palestinian telco - and had an incredible opportunity to meet with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Dr. Ashrawi is a prominent Palestinian christian politician, activist, and scholar and has served as a leading voice on Palestinian issues to the outside world. She was incredibly well-spoken and well-reasoned regarding the occupation and I'll refer back to some of her quotes later on.
Didn't expect these folks to be so "corporate"
The afternoon was marked by a second emotional visit - this time to the village of Bil'in near the border of the West Bank and Israel. Since 2005, the village has been the site of non-violent protests against the construction of the wall. Originally planned to cut through a significant portion of the village's lands, the permanent wall was rerouted following a Israeli supreme court ruling (though still not along the actual border). However, the "temporary" security fence and road still remain and villagers and activist Israelis still gather to protest the wall every Friday. They are often shot at with tear gas or raw sewage before reaching the actual fence and several have been killed or seriously injured by canisters fired at too-close range. Tuesdays are a bit more low-key in town and we had a chance to actually walk up to the fence, where there's a ditch filled with barbed wire and littered with spent tear gas. Villagers are allowed to access their groves on the other side of the fence once a week, but must cross this no-man's-land first.
Returning to Ramallah, we spent the night out at a bar that could have fit in well in Boston or New York and that provided quite a contrast to our afternoon.
Wednesday took us north to Nablus where we visited a refugee camp, toured the Palestine stock exchange, and (in a second stark contrast) had lunch hosted by Munib Masri, a Palestinian billionaire and legislative council member. His "house" atop a hill outside of Nablus was inspired by Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and is like nothing I have ever seen.
Checkpoint and Sniper Tower on the road to Nablus
Munib Masri's "House" - there were actually Roman ruins in his "basement"
Thursday brought a bit of R&R and we spent a welcome day off at the dead sea and hiking in Ein Gedi national park in Israel.
During the last two days of the trip, our focus shifted to the situation of Palestinians and Arabs within Israel. We met with several NGOs in Haifa, Nazareth (the largest Palestinian community within Israel), and Majdal Shams (location of shouting hill) on the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. This also brought us through some of the most scenic areas of the country.
Looking over the Baha'i Temple in Haifa
Sunset over the Western Galilee
View into Syria from "Shouting Hill"
For me, the issues we covered on the trip can be organized into two overarching themes - those concerning the status and condition of the West Bank (and Gaza), and those concerning the status and condition of minority groups within Israel proper.
As you can probably tell from my writings, I found the state of the first to be especially startling and that's where I'll focus these thoughts. I've heard some critics refer to the structure of the West Bank as "apartheid" and tragically, that's not far from the truth. The Wall, Settler-only bypass roads, gated residential settlements, and full Israeli control of the Jordan Valley have divided the West Bank into isolated Palestinian areas (see map below). Meanwhile, checkpoints within and into the West Bank, and "sniper" towers outside many Palestinian towns and villages have served to restrict freedom of movement, curb liberties, and create a militarized environment that ordinary Palestinians must deal with every day. Economic growth is stifled and normal life for 3.4M Palestinians is rendered impossible.
Yet, it is not just the Palestinians that bear the cost. According to the Adva Center, an Israeli think tank, the occupation of the West Bank has cost Israel at least $10B over the past two decades and has undermined the country's growth. Furthermore, the significant expansion of the settlements (400% since Oslo) raise the question as to whether a true two-state is still a viable option. If it's not, demographics alone paint a scary picture for the viability of a "Jewish and Democratic" Israel. According to recent surveys, the Jewish population in Israel numbers 5.4M while the Palestinian population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza numbers 4.7M. Given recent trends, non-Jews may outnumber Jews across the combined territories within a generation. Without a Palestinian state, Israel could be forced to fully integrate this population. With a non-Jewish majority, could the state hold true to its founding ideals?
Having seen the situation on the ground in the West Bank, I believe Dr. Ashrawi was right in arguing that the negotiations have become an end unto themselves and have given Israel the space to do what they've wanted. As a result, the Palestinian leadership that pushed a peace agenda has been completely undermined (as have US presidents), creating space for Hamas and other groups advocating more forceful approaches. While spoiler terrorist attacks have inflicted a real toll on Israel over the years since Oslo, I believe they by no means provide justification for the full extent of Israeli actions. They've also allowed for a double-standard, where as Dr. Ashrawi put it, Palestinians must be "morally unblemished" while Israel can be "totally unaccountable."
Maintaining a seemingly unending occupation has also played directly into the Palestinian (and broader Arab) narrative of struggle and it's as if no one is able to move beyond the conflict. Refugees still remain in camps rather than fully integrating into society, clinging to the idea that they'll be able to return to their ancestral homes. Palestinian citizens of Israel still harbor deep feelings of injustice from 1948 and appear to remain segregated within the country. These gaps only grow wider through the years, and each side becomes less human to the other. It seems unlikely that Jews growing up in Israel today would know many Arabs, or vice-versa. As a result of this gap, I have minimal hope for an internally driven resolution to the conflict.
Instead, I believe that it is critical for the outside world, and especially the American Jewish community to act. I'm convinced that blind support of Israel is detrimental to the long-term viability of the state as a Jewish democracy and counter to many of Judaism's progressive ideals. Instead, I believe that ending the settlements and the occupation is the best way to ensure Israel's long-term viability, stability, and vibrancy and to finally push people beyond the conflict. Groups like JStreet represent this view, but face an uphill battle against the status quo, AIPAC, and the Israeli right. In my opinion, it's time for a new approach - I hope you'll join me.
Thanks for reading!
NB: More photos are available on MobileMe