Note: This post is the fourth in a series of Acting in Faith entries by members of a May AFSC staff delegation to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. Mike Merryman-Lotze is program director of AFSC's Israel-Palestine program and served as one of two hosts for the delegation. You can read all of the posts here. - Lucy
As I prepared for this delegation I had no idea what to expect. I first came to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory in 1996 on a study abroad program run through Earlham College, completely naïve about the reality that I would encounter. I moved to Ramallah for the first time in January 2000 and lost whatever naivety I had living there throughout most of the Second Intifada. I have stood witness to killings, suicide bombings, home invasions, beatings and public humiliation of individuals, Operation Defensive Shield, the construction of the wall, the separation of the West Bank from Gaza, and the immediate after affects of both the 2006 war on Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. In total I spent seven of the eleven years between 2000 and 2010 living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory and my work with AFSC brings me back two to three times each year. At times I find it hard to set aside this history so that I can actively listen to and understand new stories and changing realities.
I helped plan the delegation schedule and had previously visited all of the places and met most of the people and groups on our itinerary. I therefore entered the delegation with enthusiasm and knowing that I learn new things on every visit I make to Israel and Palestine, but not expecting to be surprised during the trip. However, as our tour progressed I was surprised, not by new information but by the incredible consistency in the stories we were hearing and the injustice that we were seeing. A pattern began to emerge, people’s tales of historic and ongoing displacement and dispossession wove a net that connected Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza, Haifa, and Tel Aviv and that linked the past to the present.
The reality of displacement and dispossession that we witnessed spoke to me about the need to move beyond the simplistic focus on physical acts of violence that typically dominate Western discussions about the conflict to discussions that take into account the systems of power and injustice that rule Palestinians’ and Israelis’ lives. This reality also spoke to me of a need to move beyond the focus on partition and ethnic separation that have driven U.S. negotiating efforts over the last 20 years and that explicitly ignore the history of Palestinian displacement and dispossession in 1948. Instead, we need to begin focusing on achieving justice by pushing for equality between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians and beginning a restorative justice process to rectify the injustices of the past.
Below are short vignettes from each of our days in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. These do not do justice to the breadth and depth of what we saw during our trip, but I hope they will offer some insight into why I see addressing historic and ongoing Palestinian displacement and dispossession as central to achieving peace with justice.
Day 1 – Jerusalem: Passing by a destroyed Palestinian home in East Jerusalem we learned about the more than 20,000 outstanding demolition orders that have been issued by the Israeli government to Palestinian homeowners in East Jerusalem. This combined with the crumbling infrastructure, limited access to water, uncollected garbage, the separation Wall – pointed to a stark system of segregation that is used to pressure Palestinians to leave the city.
Day 2 – Ramallah: As you drive towards Ramallah, the Wall is first visible where it divides the Attarot industrial zone from the Palestinian neighborhood of Al-Ram. At this point the wall literally runs up the center of the road, dividing the Israeli controlled industrial zone from the once flourishing but now deserted Palestinian shopping district in Al-Ram. The empty storefronts and deserted streets in Al-Ram are a stark contrast to the bustling shopping district I remember from the period before the wall was built.
Days 3 and 4 – Gaza: After passing through Israeli military checkpoints at Erez we began the long walk through the no-go zone into Gaza. It is nearly a half mile walk from the Erez terminal to the Palestinian checkpoint where we were met by our AFSC Gaza colleagues. We made our walk through an encaged tunnel that runs along the side of what used to be the main road out of Gaza. Remote controlled machine guns located on the wall that surrounds Gaza and cameras tracked our progress through the destroyed wasteland of what once was the Erez industrial zone. The no-go zone is an area that varies in width from a quarter mile to up to one mile along Gaza’s border with Israel where Palestinian access is banned. Anyone entering into this area may be shot. The no-go zone contains up to 30% of Gaza’s most fertile agricultural land and many Palestinian homes.
Day 5 - The Negev: Upon leaving Gaza we traveled to the Negev where we met with several residents of one of the many unrecognized villages in the area. These communities are home to most of the Negev’s Palestinian Bedouin population. Although these communities have existed since before 1948 they are not recognized by the Israeli government which means that they do not receive state services such as schools, health clinics, water infrastructure, connection to the electrical grid, etc. Plans are being made to destroy these villages and displace their residents to planned cities in order to expropriate the Bedouins’ land for Israel’s use.
Day 6 – Bethlehem/Aida Refugee Camp: Aida Refugee Camp is home to nearly 3,500 Palestinian refugees, people displaced and the decedents of people displaced during the 1948 war. During a visit to the Lajee Center in the camp we heard camp residents’ stories about their displacement in 1948 and the continued impact of their dispossession from their lands and properties. The director of the Lajee Center told us his story of growing up in the camp and the struggles that his family faced in trying to rebuild their lives after having been dispossessed of all of their earthy possessions. He spoke about his Grandmother scavenging firewood to trade for food, of his Uncle who buys his children expensive shoes because he had no shoes as a child, and of the desire for justice that lives within all refugees.
Day 7 – Bil’in: Standing in an olive grove located on village land we looked over the separation wall at land stolen from the community. Construction cranes, dump trucks, and bulldozers could be seen in the distance building new settlement units on this land, which was the main source of livelihood for many of the village residents. As we walked back to the village we passed by a garden which marks the spot where village resident Bassem Abu Rahma was killed after being hit in the chest by a tear gas grenade fired at him from close range by an Israeli soldier. Flowers in the garden are planted in the spent tear gas canisters fired at village residents during their nonviolent protests.
Day 8 – Susiya and Hebron: The South Hebron community of Susiya is made up of a collection of tents and corrugated tin shacks. Until 1986 the village was located a quarter of a mile from where it stands today and included permanent structures. However, in 1986 all of the residents of Susiya were expelled from their homes, their homes were destroyed, and the village land was confiscated in order to construct an archeological site over the ruins of an ancient synagogue. After the village was destroyed, Susiya’s residents moved into tents and makeshift shelters on nearby land that they owned. However, they were never granted permits to build on this land so all of their structures are considered illegal by the Israeli military. The whole community has been destroyed an additional 4 times since 1986 and it is slated for demolition again soon. Because the military considers the community illegal it also will not grant it access to water and electrical networks which pass it by and serve nearby settlements.
In Hebron we walked down Shuhada Street which was the heart of Hebron’s commercial district until Palestinians were forbidden access to the street by the Israeli military in 1994. The street was closed to Palestinian access after the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians inside the Ibrahimi Mosque. Now only Israeli settlers and foreign passport holders can access the street. This segregation and the brutal violence of the settler population against local Palestinian residents have created a virtual ghost town in the portion of Hebron under Israeli control.
Days 9 and 10 – Haifa/Majdel Yaba/Tel Aviv: In Haifa we met with AFSC’s partner Baladna which is running a project with Palestinian-Israeli youth called “Our Return”. This project asks Palestinian youth to create a vision for what return to the villages from which their ancestors were displaced might realistically look like. Many of the youth engaged in the project are “present absentees”. Present absentees are Palestinian citizens of Israel (and their descendents) who were displaced from their villages inside what became Israel in 1948 but who were not allowed to return to their homes or reclaim their property. A video of this group’s work can be viewed here.
Then as we drove from Haifa to Tel Aviv we stopped at the site of the destroyed Palestinian village of Majdel Yaba. This is the community from which AFSC staff member Shirien’s grandfather was forcibly displaced in 1948. She wrote movingly about this visit here.
Finally, in Tel Aviv we visited Zochrot. Zochrot is an Israeli organization that works to raise awareness among Jewish Israelis about the events of 1948 and to promote acceptance by Israelis of Palestinian’s right of return. Zochrot’s founder Eitan Bronstein talked about the importance of addressing the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians in 1948 as well as the current reality of occupation in order to achieve reconciliation and peace that will benefit both Israelis and Palestinians.
Where to Now?
We started our trip shortly after the U.S.-brokered negotiations between the PLO and Israel ended without agreement. After our trip, I wrote a piece titled “Beyond Partition” for AFSC’s Israel-Palestine-focused newsletter, Impact, about the need for new thinking regarding what is required to build a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That piece was influenced by what we heard on this delegation and I think it might be useful to close these reflections with a few ideas that are further developed in that piece.
The reality is that historic and ongoing Palestinian displacement and dispossession is at the heart of the conflict. However, the negotiating process has never addressed this reality. Rather, the U.S.-led negotiations have attempted to realize peace by finalizing the partition of historic Palestine so as to separate Palestinians and Israelis while maintaining a Jewish demographic majority within the pre-1967 Israeli borders. This focus has made it impossible to address the realities of what happened in 1948 and has turned the negotiations into a zero-sum bargaining process focused on land allocation. This in turn has also incentivized Israel to continue to confiscate Palestinian land and dispossess Palestinians in order to maximize its control. This helps explain the ongoing displacement seen today.
What is needed now is a radically changed process; a process focused on equality and justice as opposed to ethnic separation and exclusion.
Rather than starting from a position that ignores history and sees refugees’ rights as a threat that must be denied, it is time that we start considering how restorative justice principles might be used to preserve the rights of Jewish Israelis while also realizing the rights of refugees to return to the locations from which they were displaced and the property from which they were dispossessed.
Instead of seeing security as only being achievable through the continued militarization of Palestinian and Israeli societies and through their separation from each other, we must understand that Israelis’ security is directly linked to Palestinians’ security.
Instead of demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we must demand respect for people’s rights regardless of their ethnic and/or religious identities and we must critically evaluate what formally defining Israel as a Jewish State would mean for Israel’s non-Jewish population.
Continuing to move down the same paths that have resulted in failure for more than 20 years will not bring peace. Rather, it is the realization of equality and justice that will bring peace.