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On Occupied Ground

“It’s the occupation, stupid.”

This paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s iconic campaign phrase looms large over everything I say or do that is related to Israel and Palestine. I believe that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Palestinian people who live there is the major moral issue facing the Jewish world today, and that we are being stupid not to acknowledge this loudly and often. Israel’s denial of basic civil rights to West Bank Palestinians is an ethical disgrace, and a source of shame for Israel and for those of us who love her. Furthermore, when Diaspora Jews (along with our Israeli counterparts) maintain ignorance of the occupation and its repercussions, we jeopardize the very future of Zionism and Israel as we know and love them. The occupation is a time bomb.

Open Borders, Closed Borders

When the Oslo Accords were announced in 1993, I was an RRC student living in Jerusalem and studying at the Hebrew University. As flawed as it was, the Oslo process allowed many of us to experience a Camelot-like moment when the entire region seemed to blossom into the myriad possibilities that peace might bring. Within two years, when I was living and working in Jerusalem, the barriers seemed to be coming down as co-existence flowered. Palestinian buses to Ramallah or Bethlehem passed through West Jerusalem, making visits to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority simple.  I made such trips regularly in order to participate in dialogue groups, volunteer as an English tutor for Palestinian children and take Christian visitors to Bethlehem. More importantly, Israelis also visited the Palestinian areas of the West Bank regularly, allowing open-minded people on both sides of the then-porous border to get acquainted.

Twenty years later, the border consists of a concrete wall that is up to 26 feet high; metal fences buttressed by barbed wire and electricity; and scattered checkpoints where Palestinians who have secured permission to work or study in Israel are subjected to stressful ordeals, long waits, and frequent humiliation and danger. In some areas, the wall actually divides Palestinian communities internally: family members and friends living on two different sides of the same town must drive for hours to visit someone who lives just three blocks away. Farmers are prevented from working their own land on the other side of the barrier. Students are forced to traverse Israeli military checkpoints to get to class.

Symbols of Enmity

I witnessed these hardships regularly because I am not an Israeli citizen. Israelis—even those who carry foreign passports—are forbidden to visit the Palestinian West Bank. A few weeks ago, on a visit to Ramallah and its environs, I saw several huge, red warning signs stating: THIS ROAD LEADS TO AREA “A” UNDER THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY. ENTRANCE FOR ISRAELI CITIZENS IS FORBIDDEN, PUTS YOUR LIFE IN DANGER, AND IS AGAINST ISRAELI LAW.

These warnings reinforce many Israelis’ view of Palestinians as implacable enemies. Although some Israeli Jews have been kidnapped and even murdered while traveling in Palestinian areas, the average Palestinian is not interested in harming Jews. Many would like to see Israelis return to the area to purchase goods and services. Activists for peace and justice on both sides of the border argue that the laws preventing Israelis from visiting the West Bank without a special and elusive permit aren’t in place primarily for safety reasons; rather, they serve to prevent Jews and Palestinians from meeting one another and learning how to live as peaceful neighbors. Such xenophobic signs contribute to the credibility of hate and fear mongering Israelis, who add them to their pile of “evidence” that the Palestinian people are inherently dangerous to Israel’s survival.

In reality, the military occupation of the West Bank poses more danger to Israel’s survival. The many Jewish settlements that have been built have created a two-tiered social system that has so dehumanized Palestinians that the recently built Jewish-only roads on which they are forbidden to travel are actually called “sterile roads,” as if Palestinians would somehow infect them. I visited the West Bank during the Pesach holiday this year. Since many Israelis travel around the country then, the military police closed more roads than usual to Palestinians. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers living just down the road from Palestinian villages sport Israeli license plates on their cars, so they can zip through checkpoints and down brand new Jewish-only highways. The occupation builds resentment, which, combined with the growing settlements, makes peace-making ever more difficult.

Facts on the Ground

On a visit to several West Bank communities with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), I met olive farmers whose trees were destroyed by young Jewish settlers. I witnessed twenty middle-aged Palestinian men being forced to stand for hours in the blazing noonday sun without shade or water: while they had to address traffic violations at the nearby military police station, they were not allowed to enter the large Jewish settlement that houses it. Instead, they waited for hours for the military police to come and process the tickets. When the armored car finally arrived with its blue lights flashing, the officers climbed out with M-16’s drawn and police dogs at their sides. All of this for traffic tickets.

I am less interested in theories about how to solve this intractable conflict than I am in urging Diaspora Jews who care about Israel’s future to learn more about the occupation. Every Jewish visitor to Israel should also visit the Palestinian West Bank. The landscape is spectacular, and most Palestinians are warm and hospitable to Jewish visitors. The major population centers are a short drive from Jerusalem, and there are many guides who offer “dual-narrative” tours of the area. Only by visiting in person can one truly appreciate what the occupation means. My hope is that, when confronted with the disquieting reality on the ground, more of us will support our Israeli counterparts in their struggle to end it. 

In 2012, I participated in a dual-narrative tour of Hebron led by an Israeli and a Palestinian peace activist. While the co-leaders of the trip were each forbidden to visit the other’s section of this deeply divided, heavily militarized city, we international visitors were able visit and talk with people on both sides, as well as with international peacekeepers stationed there. In Hebron I met Jewish settlers who have enshrined the grave of Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims as they prayed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site sacred to both Judaism and Islam because it is built over the grave traditionally identified as that of our shared ancestor Abraham/Ibrahim. Those of us who are appalled by Jewish terrorism carried out and glorified by fanatics who claim to speak for the Jewish people and the State of Israel must not remain silent. We must confront and repudiate such people and actions, but we only learn about them by visiting both current populations of the West Bank: Jewish and Palestinian.

In conversation with an Israeli whose army service had been in Hebron, I came to understand that ending the occupation and resolving the conflict are two different processes. While a conflict is resolved between disputing parties, true negotiation can’t take place while the boot of one is on the neck of the other. He also pointed out that the amount of military resources deployed in Hebron and neighboring areas is vastly disproportionate to what is required in areas of Israel proper. This former officer declared that he would always pick up a gun to protect his beloved Israel, but for that pledge to be truly meaningful, Israel needs actual borders—something it has not had since 1967.

Possible Futures

A few weeks ago, my partner and I traveled to the West Bank with long-time peace activist and negotiator Dr. Gershon Baskin, who took us to the brand new Palestinian city of Rawabi, which has been featured in American media. We saw the innovative and impressive models of a city that will house Palestinians of all backgrounds. I agree with Baskin’s assessment that supporting the emerging Palestine is not only the morally correct thing to do for Palestinians, but is also the best guaranteed security for the Israel that many of us hope to see: an open democracy situated side-by-side with its neighboring state, Palestine. And counterintuitively, cities like Rawabi also may serve the interests of those Israelis who would rather keep Palestinians at a distance. A self-sufficient Palestinian society that does not depend on Israel for its basic needs will have less need for daily entanglement with Israel.

Visiting Ramallah, it was clear to us that the nascent State of Palestine already exists. The real question is whether its’ government buildings, cultural centers, commercial districts and banks become the dynamo from which Palestine grows, or whether we all continue to inch toward a single state that through demographic inevitability will eventually not be a Jewish state. Currently there is a one-state reality on the ground, in which Jewish Israelis control Palestinians in most aspects of their lives, and determine whether or not Palestinians who live abroad can return to their native land. Israel was not created so that Jews could subjugate another people without affording them basic civil rights. Regardless of what one thinks of an “ethnic democracy” (an issue many European nations grapple with), there is nothing democratic about a military occupation. As long as settlers live freely on a West Bank occupied by Israel, the Jewish state is far from a democratic nation.

As Gershon Baskin writes in his April 15, 2015 column in The Jerusalem Post,

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory is undeniable: […]a majority of Israelis support a right-wing vision for Israel’s future. But let’s not forget, even for one minute, that nearly half of the Israeli population does not. Half of Israel’s population continues to support a vision of two states for two peoples, and I would venture to say that if Israelis believed it was possible to achieve such a solution, that number would grow to two thirds…

The people of Israel, even most of the half of them from the Center leaning toward the Left, do not believe there is a partner for peace in Palestine.

I strongly disagree, and I base my disagreement on constant ongoing contact with the Palestinians and their leaders.

I have sat with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and extensively discussed all of the issues in conflict in permanent-status negotiations, and I know that there are possibilities for reaching agreements that will provide Israel with all of its security needs. I have had these discussions with a large number of Palestinian leaders throughout the West Bank, in cities, towns, villages and refugee camps. I am there several times a week for years already. I speak to Palestinians in Gaza almost every day…I am convinced that there is a Palestinian partner for peace.

Baskin’s column is titled “The Citizens’ Challenge — from Despair to Hope.” We diaspora Jews who still believe that a just and peaceful two-state scenario is possible must offer hope to our Israeli counterparts who feel post-election despair. The only way for this to happen is to confront the reality of the occupation head-on.

After we have faced that harsh reality, we also need to act. I boycott West Bank goods as a protest against an illegal occupation that is sustained by a steady, large infusion of government money to the detriment of education and social welfare in the rest of Israel. You might choose a different path. However, for the sake of the Jewish people and of justice in the world, we must not be silent.

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