During my time in Israel, I made it a point to visit the West Bank out of curiosity and in order to better understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. My time in the West Bank was the most eye opening of my entire trip and forced me to reconsider my opinions on what the future of Gaza and the West Bank should be. The often brutal military occupation of the West Bank must indeed end. The current situation is not only untenable, but also wrong, if not morally, then for the mere fact that only a short time there was enough to see why people are blowing themselves up in busses. While I personally think Israel has every right to retain the land as it was captured "fairly" in a war of aggression by Jordan and Egypt, the only realistic solution for me is the two-state one. Due to my limited amount of time, I saw only two towns: Hebron and Bethlehem, both of which were worlds apart.
My first full day in Israel was actually spent in Hebron. I got a last minute seat on a bus taking Israelis there to see the effects of the occupation. As a foreigner, it wouldn't have been much of a problem to go there myself (as I only found out later), but Israelis wouldn't go into the West Bank if their lives depended on it. Hebron is perhaps the perfect example of what the occupation of the West Bank has done to many places. Around 500 settlers live there and 100,000 Palestinians. Yet, the Israeli army is stationed there cutting off a large portion of the town for Jewish only use or as the military describes it: "sterile." Jews have lived there since the 1500s, though always in small numbers. Thus, though Jews do have historical claim to be able to live there, using the Israeli army to guard them is an outrage, made necessary by the Israelis themselves. Additionally, they have forced Palestinians out of their homes, closed roads and made them Jewish only and allowed attacks by settlers on Palestinians, often standing around watching the violence and doing nothing. They serve only to protect settlers, and not as the police, thus watching people be attacked (including school children, which I saw a home made video of at a Palestinian's house) or houses destroyed. And they wonder where terrorists come from.
Above the law: ultra right wing settlers in Hebron:
The infamous wall, standing 27 feet (9 meters) high. In a perverse way, entering Bethlehem was like entering a medieval walled city with concrete towering almost 5 times as high as me and a massive gate opening into the city.
Bethelehem did actually have a few tourists, but they came in big bright buses, drove straight to Manger Square, saw the church where Jesus was allegedly born and got right back on. I doubt any of them saw the wall, wandered through the souq or mingled with the Palestinians. The economic situation there is quite desperate. After being dropped outside the wall with the others (all Palestinians) in my bus, I took a bit to walk up and down the wall, shocked at its height of 9 meters, or 27 feet, and photographing all the graffiti. I was also rather quickly asked if I wanted to take a taxi. Now, by that time I was used to pushy taxi drivers trying to rip me off (a few words in Arabic usually solves that), but here it was a bit different. These men weren't out to rip me off, they were desperate to earn money. After turning them down as I prefered to walk and see more of the city, one driver who spoke excellent English followed me, driving right next to me for at least 10 minutes begging me to take a ride. Having readjusted to "Arab prices" I told him I'd give him 5 shekels (~1 euro) but that was all. His asking price had bottomed off at 15 before but after shaking his head, he took it.
He'd studied at the American University in Bethlehem, which I later visited, and his English was quite good. We discussed Bethlehem's situation. The economy was in shambles, due partially to the wall, but mostly to the Intifada scaring off the hordes of Christian tourists. It had been this way the past few years. Almost every one I spoke with on the street said the same thing, many cursing the Muslims for starting it and blaming them for the violence (around half of the city is Christian). One man even told me it was better with the Israelis occupying Bethelhem because at least there was work. Today, the only way to feed your family is to work in Israel during the day, yet anyone who was ever arrested for anything during the Intifada was blacklisted and never again allowed to enter Israel.
I actually didn't see too much propaganda in Bethlehem. I saw the example below and a number of Hamas posters but that was all.
Though I unfortunately spent a short time in the West Bank, I came to understand the situation on the ground a bit better and can now see more clearly what needs to be done in order to begin to solve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. While, as noted above, I actually don't think Israel is under any obligation to give back land which it conquered in a war started by the enemy in 1967, I do think the current situation is unsustainable. One day in Israel itself will show you a one state solution will never ever happen and thus the two state solution is the only one. Hammering out the details, as we all know, is supremely difficult but I believe the United States needs to use all its power to force, not pressure, force Israel to settle this conflict and give the Palestians a state. Nothing else will stop the terror and perhaps most importantly, the public relations value of such a move would be historical in and of itself. If the United States is serious about the war on terrorism, then we need not only to mercilessly destroy the terrorists themselves, but most importantly to fight the circumstances which tend to produce many of them just as hard.
There will always be people talking about the clash of civilizations, jihad and the like, but they are and have been a minority. It is our behavior which determines how credible and appealing their claims are to the masses.
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