At the security desk at Tel Aviv Airport, having just landed, an Israeli guard asked our purpose of visit. My heart catching in my throat, I only knew what not to say: that I had come to the Middle East as part of the “Space to Breathe” Program. That our plan was to spend equal amounts of time in both the West Bank and Haifa with both Palestinians and Israelis to see how their lives are affected by the conflict. The program aims to engage in discussions with people of opposing beliefs and contrasting identities, and to practice envisioning a peaceful solution to a conflict that has spanned decades and is still very much alive today. In a land so segregated by violence and a distrust of the Other, the idea of cooperation between the two sides can be seen as something of a taboo, yet it is this idea of cooperation that fueled our trip.
A first step
We began in the city of Bethlehem. Sitting side-by-side with Palestinian participants in a local centre, we commenced with reflection by composing a timeline of worldly and personal events over the past century that we felt had affected who we are. While everyone’s early years detailed little that one wouldn’t find in a history book, upon approaching present day, a divide between Irish and Palestinian became apparent. For us, the Irish, our lives had been recently marked by “the year I went travelling” or “the year I started university”. This was contrasted sharpy by “the year my cousin was killed in conflict”.
In the West Bank, there are constant reminders that this is not a peaceful climate, thethe most striking being the 26-foot high wall stretching along 70 kilometers, separating Israel from the West Bank. Banksy’s “Walled Off” Hotel stands before a section of it, operating as a museum for visitors. For $2 you can buy a can of spray paint in the gift shop and compose a message on the wall. Something along the lines of “make hummus, not walls”. Or you can buy the same slogan on a T-Shirt. The whole concept is darkly comic yet eerie. As if trailing around a history museum, only everything that you see, this blatant apartheid, is happening now. I later spoke with a Palestinian participant, Basil Ibrahim, on the difficulties relating to movement, that the wall and the various checkpoints pose to Palestinians living in the West Bank. He confirmed: “Travelling through the checkpoints feels unsafe and like you’re not in your own country. I know a lot of people who have been hassled and assaulted by Israeli guards at checkpoints more than once, often without any reason at all. In fact, sometimes it feels like the guards do it just for fun”.
With the intent of observing the conflict at its most prominent, we paid a visit to the city of Hebron. Split into Palestinian and Israeli controlled areas, some 700 Israelis live in settlements guarded and protected by Israeli soldiers in the H2 zone controlled by Israel, with around 40,000 Palestinians living alongside them. As a result, there are dozens of military checkpoints which severely limit and complicate the freedom of movement in the city. While there, after visiting the Ibrahimi Mosque, we were invited to share a meal with a local, named Mohammad. His house was located on a street which has over time become a predominate home and base for Israeli settlers. Over lunch he conveyed to us how harsh existence can be for him and his family due to their controversial location and how the conflict warps the lives of normal people. He explained that in order to go about daily activities, they are often forced to pass through the same checkpoints multiple times. Despite being completely familiar to the Israeli guards, they are still subjected to thorough searches on a constant basis.
Speaking of his childhood, Mohammad tells of one day playing outside his house with his cousin. He detailed how his cousin was hassled and later shot by an Israeli soldier nearby for refusing to hand over a football. Seeing Mohammad’s own young children, one riding a miniature tricycle, the other excitedly dancing around the table where we ate, I couldn’t help but wonder why they remained in a place of such violence and danger. He revealed that this decision was one of great controversy. His father had been offered large sums of money by Israelis looking to buy his house, the latest bid, an incredible 10 million dollars and he had received significant backlash for rejecting it. Justifying his position, Mohammad explained simply that this was his home. He and his family had no desire to leave what was so familiar to them and what held so many memories.
A second opinion
Struck and surprised by his viewpoint, almost immediately afterwards we were countered with a completely alternate one. After making a brief stopover to allow the Palestinian participants to step off our tour bus, ( the location which we were to visit was one which they were forbidden entry to), we arrived at the gates of an Israeli settlement. Here, we met with Ardi, who had moved from Chicago as a young man alongside his wife in order to answer what he referred to as “a calling from God to return to the Holy Land”.
After Ardi had given us a brief summation of how he and his family came to reside in the settlement, as well as an explanation of the daily operations of this microcosmic town, he opened the floor to questions. After the harrowing stories we had just heard from Palestinians, a confounded silence gripped the room. However, questions soon began to flow, as too did our growing sense of frustration and confusion over his answers. From his viewpoint, it was the corrupt Palestinian government that was mostly to blame for the harsh conditions faced by Palestinian citizens and, furthermore, for the conflict as a whole. When a member of our group carefully retold Mohammad’s story, desiring to know his perspective, he responded coldly, “that was probably bullshit”.
The notion of engaging with Palestinians seemed to be one he was firmly against. “They don’t wear badges saying ‘terrorist’ or ‘not a terrorist’ ” was his reasoning. From his perspective, he was afforded guaranteed security and protection inside this settlement. Regardless of the conditions endured by his Palestinian neighbors, he was not willing to risk his or his families safety for the sake of a solution.
Our meeting with Ardi had brought to life a sense of hopelessness from how the divide between the two sides was too great and the hatred too extreme to allow for peaceful communication. So many of those early days of the program were spent on a tour bus, staring out the window and counting road signs warning danger to the lives of the Palestinians or Israelis who ventured from safety. Passing the many checkpoints and the innumerable Israeli guards armed with machine guns who seemed to be no older than I, the task ahead seemed monstrous and change a distant possibility.
A Military Mindset
Departing the West Bank for Haifa, a city known for its large concentration of both Jews and Arabs, we passed a day in Jerusalem. There, we had the opportunity to meet with Jewish Israeli activist, Sahar Vardi. She attempted to provide insight into the reasoning behind Israel’s strong military, as well as the immense effects this military presence has upon the Israeli psyche; violence is now a concept many Israelis have become numb to. Vardi spoke of how the military is seen as a visual symbol of the state of Israel, this notion reaching even to the classrooms of young children from when they begin school. In high schools, it is normal practice for soldiers to come in and out of classes giving speeches and a week of basic military training is held for students in 11th grade. For us listening, it was almost impossible to comprehend this internalization of violence.
Vardi continued to explain what she saw as a large factor in the military’s prominent stance in Israeli society, the long Jewish history of persecution. From an early age, the legacy of the Holocaust is impressed on Jews living in Israel and Vardi described how having a strong defense system is seen as something of a necessity in order to prevent the Jewish people once again falling under a state of oppression. Israeli participant, Ben Ben Ami later poignantly confirmed this mindset from his personal experience: “As a small child living in Israel, I just had this very simple view: that there are neighbor countries next to us that want to kill us and that’s why we have the military”.
Vardi went on to reveal her personal story. As a conscientious objector, she publically refused to serve in the defence forces, and endured trial and imprisonment as a result. She spoke furthermore on her views of the military’s detrimental impact on young people, particularly regarding the area of mental health, citing the alarming statistic that the number one cause of death in the defence forces is suicide. While this is shocking to come to terms with, what is even more so, is the condonation of this immense power and enormity of the Israeli military by other countries. Vardi explained that the biggest arms dealers in the world endorse the Israeli military and encourage them to use their weapons in Gaza, in order to stamp “guaranteed battle-proof” on the side.
The insight into the Israeli military mentality we had been afforded remained with us as we arrived in Haifa, and began to colour the previously black and white conflict. During our time in the West Bank, the oppression endured on the Palestinian side appeared so blatant. Talking with Israelis in Haifa I got a sense of the difficulty that exists in trying to empathize with an another perspective when the narrative of your own people is what you have been brought up to trust and is all you have ever known. Ben Ami shared with me his personal story of how he came to be involved in “Space to Breathe”, among many other programs promoting discussion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ben Ami’s family originated from Morocco, and like many Jewish families deriving from Arab countries, held quite traditionalist and nationalist beliefs. Speaking of his upbringing, Ben Ami recalled:
“Growing up in Israel, I wasn’t exposed to the Palestinian narrative, in the same way that Palestinians living in the West Bank aren’t exposed to the Jewish narrative. The maps in my school classrooms didn’t mark the green line, I never knew what “the occupation” really was, and I only began to understand the Palestinian narrative at the age of 18 when we started speaking about it in my civics class in High School. My perspective on the conflict began to change because I chose to research and I chose to ask questions, it was not what the flow of my life suggested to me. Most of my friends have never met any Palestinians from the West Bank and have never had conversations about identity with an Arab, and I think the same is true for most Israelis and Palestinians.”
The significance of communication and engagement to promote a peaceful co-existence became truly apparent during my time spent in Haifa, and we were fortunate enough to come into contact with many people who work arduously towards establishing this co-existence. One of these people, Amna Kanane, a Palestinian Arab, invited us into her home. Here, she prepared a meal for us and disclosed her personal story, of how originating from a traditional Muslim background, she established “Awareness4U”. This organization aimed at reaching out to women of an upbringing similar to her own, and raising their level of social consciousness, educating them on family planning and teaching them skills such as driving, as well as challenging cultural traditions that disempower women.
Kanane remembered as a young girl feeling different and disengaged from Jews of a similar age and so today organizes meetings between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in one another’s separate communities. With a smile, she revealed the secret room that hides behind a cupboard in her kitchen, explaining that this space serves as a meeting ground for people of different ideologies. Here, a Palestinian and a Jew can prepare food side-by-side, and through this, find a common ground and establish a mutual connection. Kanane has organized many peaceful demonstrations where Jews and Palestinian Israelis link arms and stand together in solidarity to condemn violence and promote tolerance and equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, photographs of which adorned the walls of this secret kitchen.
Kanane’s meals highlighted the difficulties of trying to solve a such a deeply ingrained conflict from a worldly and political perspective and showed instead the success found in the mundane. Palestinian “Space to Breathe” Participant Basil Ibrahimi commented:
“I wanted to communicate with Israelis to get to know first-hand how they actually feel from their side, not what the media tells me they feel. I see this discussion as one of the ways to find a solution to the conflict.”
The value of dialogue and coexistence is appreciated throughout the communities of people who see its significance. Israeli participant, Ben Ami spoke of the impact his decisions have had on those around him:
“Personally, as I have become more aware and active, my parents have also changed from their nationalistic social and political views. We have even hosted Palestinians in our home and that’s something that just wouldn’t have happened before. When I started in the military, part of me thought ‘now people will appreciate my word more, because of the credit I will get from serving in the IDF and I can bring about the idea of making peace with the Palestinians in this way’, I understood later on that I do not need this credit, that by being in the army I am taking part in the violence I want to prevent”.
Upon returning to Ireland, to my home, where I have never felt threatened by violence, have never worried about having to serve in the military against my will, have never felt oppressed due to my identity or my beliefs, I realized that peace is not something to be taken for granted. It is something we should work tirelessly to promote. Social and political change is never imminent, and it’s clear that peace in Israel and Palestine will not be achieved overnight. However, what has been made apparent to me during my experience so far with “Space to Breathe”, is that peace will never be achieved with hatred or segregation at the foreground. Every piece of dialogue and human understanding contributes to breaking this hatred and segregation, and will thus pave the way for a more optimistic future.