By Patrick Mascoe
I am not a Jew, nor am I a Palestinian. But for one month this summer, Jerusalem was my home. During my time there, I had the opportunity to travel through Jerusalems Jewish and Arab neighborhoods and into the West Bank. Reading about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle from the other side of the world is really no match for observing it from within. When I read a journalists rendition of the Middle-East conflict I notice how in vogue it seems to criticize mighty Israel and defend the oppressed Palestinians. Other journalists inevitably stay on the politically correct neutral path claiming both sides are to blame for the on-going dispute. The trouble I have with these views is that this is not what I saw.
As I stepped off the bus in front of my hotel, the first thing that caught my attention were the two soldiers on the corner decked out in full military gear. Both were carrying Uzis and looked ready to use them if necessary. I noticed that they werent the only ones carrying weapons. The hotel security guards all carried side arms. Within five minutes of my arrival into Jerusalem I realized that guns are a way of life here. For Israelis, guns are merely accessories, much like cell phones. Later that evening I also saw how security had permeated the Israeli mindset. Going to a grocery store required a search of my knapsack by armed guards, before passing through metal detectors. Outside on the street, soldiers were sweeping for bombs under parked cars. My immediate thought was who lives like this? My next thought, is this really necessary?
Israelis live everyday under the threat of violence. Hamas in the West Bank openly and vocally support the destruction of Israel. They believe that the land was consecrated to Muslims by God and is not negotiable. Israel fights with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and battles daily with countless militant groups in Gaza. Insert into the mix Iranian president Mahmoud (the Holocaust never happened) Ahmadinejad and his continual threats aimed towards Israel. Include the fact that the entire Muslim World seems to be siding with the Palestinians, and that a number of them are willing to fight on their behalf. Add it altogether and you see why Israelis seldom smile.
The sad reality of life in Israel is that yes, you always need to be on high alert. I almost learned this the hard way one day while sightseeing. After visiting the Mount of Olives, three colleagues and I decided to walk back to the Old City. Along the way we stopped and watched a group of Hassidic Jews immersed in prayers. Suddenly, a rock, the size of my fist, landed a few feet to my left. There was no traffic at the time and no instant answer as to where this rock had come from. Someone yelled out, Take cover, theyre throwing them from up there. Sure enough, from the Temple Mount, people were throwing rocks at the Hassidic Jews below. The fact that I wasnt Jewish didnt seem to matter. The fact that Hassidic Jews are a non-violent sect of Jews who refuse military service didnt seem to matter. The fact that the Temple Mount is considered a holy sight to Muslims didnt seem to matter to those throwing the rocks. The rocks finally stopped, the Jews kept praying, and life simply carried on. Welcome to the Holy Land.
The internal administration of the Temple Mount was handed over to the Muslim council by the Israelis as a gesture of good will. They did so under the agreement that both Jews and Christians would have access to visit the sight. I tried three times and every time I was turned back with the same message, Muslims only. So much for good will; at least no one threw a rock at me this time. Coincidently, I was never turned away by Israeli Security from entering the Western Wall. Judaisms most holy site is open to all. Unlike the Temple Mount, which is considered the third most holy site in the Islamic world, after Mecca, and Medina. It is also considered sacred to Jews as it is the site where Abraham bound and almost sacrificed his son Isaac. Unfortunately, the Temple Mount is also the site of a great deal of controversy between Muslims and Jews.
Regrettably, this was a trend that often repeated itself during my time in Israel. I had read in my guide book and had been told by local Israelis that it was not safe to travel into any of the areas that were under the Palestinian Authority, such as Jericho and the City of David. Another area that was considered out of bounds was entering the West Bank and visiting Bethlehem. However, being a Christian and coming all the way to Israel, I simply had to see the birthplace of Jesus. Much to the dismay of my Israeli friends, off I went.
Crossing from Jerusalem into Bethlehem requires going through the eight meter high separation wall that is today at the heart of much public debate. For Israelis the wall is in place for their protection. According to David Horovitz, Editor in Chief of the Jerusalem Post, before the wall was erected and during the second intifata, Israeli citizens never knew if they would make it home from work each day. Bombs were going off every second day. The security wall has been the reason for the radical reduction in suicide bombings in Israel.
Those opposed to the wall feel it disrupts the movement and lives of thousands of Palestinians trying to get to work or school and that it stifles the West Banks economy and drives more Palestinians to extremism. One of my colleagues saw the wall as an oppressive barrier that demeans the Palestinians and referred to the West Bank as an Apartheid State. When I asked him if he would like to travel into Bethlehem with me his answer was a quick No I dont think it would be safe to go there. So, is it the wall that oppresses the Palestinians or is it their actions behind the wall that restricts their development as a people? The answer is probably a bit of both.
While going through the checkpoint into Bethlehem, I was surprised by the large number of Palestinians that possessed Israeli work permits. One gentleman told me they were easy to get and that there is always work to be had. As you leave Israel the last thing you see on the separation wall is a giant sign wishing, Peace Be With You. Once on the other side of the wall, now under Palestinian Authority, you are met with various messages of graffiti, none of which make you feel very welcome or secure. I saw the Star of David with a swastika through it, which might explain why there are no Jewish tourists. Slogans such as, Death to America, apparently $100 million in economic aid buys you little love in the West Bank, and Globalize the Intifata, advertising suicide bombers, may prove to be a poor way of attracting tourism. To be fair in Jerusalem I did see a painting on a wall of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with bunny ears. However, within two days it had been painted over. The graffiti in Bethlehem has been there for a while and I would be willing to bet it wont be painted over any time soon.
Once inside, and traveling around Bethlehem, the Palestinians that I met seemed very nice. I ate at one restaurant and spoke openly with the owner who told me he had no problems with Jews and at one time they had all lived side by side. He felt the wall was responsible for hurting his business and stifling the Palestinian economy. He seemed like a pleasant, open-minded fellow. We just want to live in peace and have our independence. If only his fellow countrymen felt the same way. The problem again is that what I heard wasnt what I saw. Outside the restaurant, plastered along the walls of the buildings, were posters commemorating the deaths of the Palestinian suicide bombers. Looking back into Israel you could see where smaller walls have been built around Jewish neighborhoods to help defend them against the small arms fire that occasionally gets aimed their way from Bethlehem. One cannot claim to want peace and independence while supporting suicide bombers and a political ideology that calls for the destruction of your neighbor.
Israel is not without fault with regards to their conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis themselves will tell you this. But from what I saw and experienced in my short time there, was that the tolerance I witnessed by the Israelis was far greater than any I saw on display from the Palestinians. Most Israelis accept that the Palestinians should have their independence. Most Palestinians reject the idea that Jews have a right to a national existence in the Middle East. Palestinians claim that the Israelis are stopping them from gaining independence, yet, three times it was offered to them and three times they turned it down. Israelis feel the Palestinian Authority needs to guarantee and provide Israeli security. According to a 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey, 70% of Palestinians support suicide attacks.
The real irony here for Palestinians is that their independence is within reach. In all honesty, why would Israel even want the West Bank? The assimilation of millions of Arabs would be a complete nightmare for the Jewish State. The demographic landscape would surely change with their arrival. Palestinians want independence, but along with that right comes responsibilities. The Palestinians need to recognize Israels right to exist.
The fact is Israel does exist and has existed for close to sixty years. In 1949, after Chiang Kai-Shek lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong, he moved his government to Taipei. Mao Zedong declared that government an illegitimate entity, yet today Taiwan is universally recognized as a legitimate country. Pakistan was formed in 1947 as a result of Muslim separation from India. These countries, even those established by violence once established become part of the international community and are not forever denounced. Present Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, must do what Yasser Arafat never wanted to do and that is accept the U.N. offer of a two-state solution.
The Palestinians must come to an agreement of peace with the Israelis and keep their word. The desire to reach a peaceful settlement would be done not due to any change of heart that they have erred in their disdain for Israel, but instead out of need for the development and well-being for the people of Palestine. As long as Israel feels the need to have to defend itself, walls, road blocks, and security checks will all remain. Both sides claim to want peace but until the Palestinians start showing that the love of their children and their future is greater than their hatred of Israel, there will be no peace in the Middle East.
Patrick Mascoe is a well published freelance writer who has in the past shared travel articles with the readers of the-vu. He has just returned from Jerusalem where he was one of ten Canadians to receive an academic scholarship to study this summer at Yad Vashem. While in Jerusalem he had the unique opportunity to travel into the West Bank. This is a first hand account of actual events.