Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Israelis and Palestinians

We've been in Israel for almost a week now, and it's easy to see why this situation is so complicated. Since we've been here we've heard from an Israeli human rights organization, an Orthodox Jew, a representative for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, someone from the U.S. Embassy, a Palestinian activist, former militants from both sides, and Palestinians who live in a refugee camp in Beit Sahour. We spent all day Saturday in the West Bank, meeting with Palestinians and observing the situation in and around Bethlehem. (Historical note: The West Bank was not a part of Israel until the 1967 War when it was reclaimed from Jordan. It is supposedly under the Palestinian Authority, but is really controlled by Israel.) There is currently a wall of concrete and barbed wire surrounding Bethlehem and much of the West Bank, curving around aquifers, illegal Israeli settlements, and Palestinian communities. It makes life miserable for Palestinians, especially those who rely on tourism for their income, or those who have to journey into Israel proper to work everyday. They are subjected to humiliating searches and checks as the cross the "border." We walked along this wall for a while, looking at all the graffiti and pleas for Israel to remove the barrier. While we were in the West Bank we met with a Palestinian man who had led the al-Aqsa brigades during the second intifada and who has since become a nonviolent activist. It was cool to be in Bethlehem, but it was also hard to see the Israeli settlements on the hills surrounding the city. We also went to a refugee camp in Beit Sahour, a city right next to Bethlehem. The wall ran right through it, and the bullet holes from Israeli soldiers were still visible in the walls of a mosque and school. Little boys ran around us playing soccer, and we helped push a car out into the street for a young guy. The refugees were hopeful, but hold out for their return to their villages.
Today we got another side of the issue. We went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. It was an intense presentation of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, with hundreds of pictures depicting the concentration camps and deportations of Jews. There was a room where there were hundreds of shoes piled up under a glass panel in the floor, and in other places personal items were on display, sometimes the only surviving proof that the owner once lived. It is unbelievable what human beings can do to one another, and how much the human body can endure before death. The Holocaust was so calculated; the Nazis planned exactly how to systematically exterminate an entire people group. This is the textbook definition of genocide. After seeing these horrors, it is amazing to think that anyone survived, and thus makes the creation of the state of Israel as a home for the Jewish people quite a feat. The problem is still present though. Even though the Jews were intensely persecuted in Europe and survived the worst genocide the world has (and probably will) ever see, does that mean they can persecute another people group under their authority? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so many facets, and will take compromises on both sides for something to improve. The things we're learning every day make this so much more real, and it becomes ever clearer that change will not come easily. I still hold faith in the power of human relationships though, and the power of nonviolence and peace to change people's lives.

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