I knew I was in the midst of perilous unrest when humanitarian aid workers based in the Gaza Strip informed me it’s currently safer in their city than where I was in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In the past month, the two areas have been plagued by a wave of Palestinian knife attacks on Israelis, and fierce clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. East Jerusalem and the West Bank have begun to resemble a police state (many would say they have been for decades), and the death toll continues to climb.
The Palestinian Territories/Palestine
East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza make up the Palestinian Territories (also referred to as Palestine), which were seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israeli government maintains its actions were justifiable on the grounds that the territories were not governed by a sovereign state at the time of conquest. But Israel’s highest court, the International Court of Justice and an overwhelming majority of the international community have rejected this claim, declaring that the Palestinian Territories are under illegal and military occupation. (My view is the latter.) They are now inhabited by 4.5 million Palestinians.
Israel eventually withdrew from Gaza in 2005, yet continues to maintain control of its borders, air space and waters, citing security reasons. Both Israel and Egypt also enforce an economic blockade on Gaza, which has had a devastating humanitarian impact on what some call the world’s largest open-air prison. Almost all residents, most of whom are refugees, are not free to leave. Only journalists and humanitarian relief staff, I was told, are permitted to enter. This restriction prevented me from visiting Gaza, so I made my way into East Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron.
Driven by intense curiosity and, despite the dangers (real or perceived), I sought answers to two burning questions: who are the Palestinians, and why won’t they stop attacking Israel? What I knew of them was, of course, the sinister image fed to me by Western mainstream media over the years: that of the knife-wielding Islamic fundamentalist, the blood-thirsty Arab savage, the Jew-hater, the death-obsessed suicide bomber hellbent on destroying Israel.
I did, indeed, encounter hatred of Israelis in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. I heard the gunfire and explosions. I inhaled the tear gas.
But what I also found is not what you might expect.
Life and APH
Inquisitive children approached me to say hello, sometimes with shyness and, other times, as an invitation to play. In the overcrowded Aida camp of 4,700 Palestinian refugees, rambunctious boys urged me to shoot their photos as they posed before playing photographer themselves with my iPhone.
In East Jerusalem, the predominantly Arab side of the city neglected by municipal authorities, two smiling school girls in their headscarves stopped me on the street to ask me about my Asian origins. Their faces lit up when I revealed my Korean background. In a giggling fit, and to my shock, they declared, “I love Korean dramas!” — the same soap operas my parents watch all day and night, and nearly drive me to drink. My immediate urge was to ask “why?!” but then I remembered how I used to watch Dynasty and the Young & Restless when I was their age. I was just happy to meet them, to make this social connection in a belligerent place with a people who for years had been presented to me as the dark-skinned “Other”.
Equally surprising was how often I was warmly welcomed. When I arrived at the East Jerusalem home of my Couchsurfing host, Renaud, he warned me against venturing too deeply into the neighbourhood where clashes were still erupting. I heeded his advice and didn’t stray far from his house.
While walking the streets the day I arrived, I drew stares. It was as if passersby were wondering to themselves, “who is this Asian woman and what is she doing in this part of town?” Suddenly, out of nowhere, a boy and girl emerged from behind me, speaking in Arabic. Realizing I didn’t understand their language, they told me in broken English I couldn’t walk any further. It must be too dangerous, I thought, but it turned out I was heading towards a dead end on the road. The girl then motioned to me to follow her, so I did and, after 25 feet, I reached her home. She wanted to show it to me. It didn’t take long for all the curious girls and women in her large family to emerge from the house and poke their heads out the windows to ask me who I am and where I’m from. Their inquiries quickly led to exuberant greetings of “welcome to my home!” and, moments later, I was invited into the house of these random Arab strangers I met on the street and offered a meal of maqluba at their family table. How could I say no?
Inside the house, I communicated effortlessly with the father, a tour bus driver with almost fluent English-speaking skills. I was peppered with the questions I’m typically asked when I travel solo: “Do you have children?” No, I answered. “Are you married?” Again, no. But instead of the astonishment that usually follows, he nodded his head in approval and quipped, “Hmm. That’s good.” Cue the awkward smile. In the kitchen, I joined the mother, studying her closely and questioning her about the ingredients as she prepared the rice. Her daughters diced the vegetables beside the television airing Palestinian news, a strange but fascinating glimpse into the other side of the Western and Israeli media landscape. All my offers to help prepare the meal were squashed, and when lunch was finally served at the table, I’m certain I was served double the amount of everyone else, yet was repeatedly offered more.
Lunch was followed by tea. “Just half a glass, please,” I requested as the mother poured my glass. “Not enough,” she retorted, and proceeded to fill it to the brim. I had found the Palestinian alter ego of my mother, making the whole exchange all too familiar. The communication barrier was frustratingly impenetrable at times, but that afternoon has become one of my favourite travel memories.
Later that evening, I shared my experience with Renaud. “Ah, it’s called APH,” he told me. “Aggressive Palestinian Hospitality.”
I encountered it in the Old City of Jerusalem too, where I was stopped by a young shopkeeper who, like all his neighbours who have been hit with the loss of business as a result of the city’s turmoil, was making futile attempts to sell his souvenirs.
Just because he was so courteous, I stepped into his shop and, although I didn’t make a purchase, he respected my decision and I went on my way. Later, after an incident when I thought I had been pickpocketed (I wasn’t, but that’s an entirely different story), I crossed paths with him again, this time in a state of anxiety. When he recognized me, I explained what had happened. “Listen, you’re upset. Please, sit down. I’ll get you a stool, some tea and we’ll talk,” he suggested. I declined, fearing another sales pitch later, despite his expression of genuine concern. But he was unyielding. In a stern voice, with eyes fixated on mine, he insisted, “Listen to me. Sit. Down.”
That afternoon, I sat with him for a half-hour outside his shop, laughing between sips of Arabic tea and exchanging stories. His business is located in the Christian Quarter, but he revealed he’s Muslim. We talked about what was happening in his city. Fighting isn’t in his nature, he told me; he respects everyone because that’s how he was raised. His girlfriend is Russian… and his best friend is Jewish.
At the end of our conversation, I browsed his display of scarves and jewellery to thank him for his company and good will, only to be interrupted, “It’s okay. I don’t need you to buy anything. Really. I just wanted to make you feel better. If you need help with anything, you’re welcome here. Come back whenever you like — as my friend.”
In Ramallah, I had the pleasure of meeting a family who struck up a conversation with me in a restaurant, curious to know more about my life in Canada and why I was visiting a place so few foreigners choose to see. They asked about my time in the West Bank, then told me about their village between Ramallah and Bethlehem. “Will you go there?” the mother inquired. I can’t be certain but, had I answered yes, I suspect an invitation to their home was well within the realm of possibility.
I spent that night at another friend’s house in Ramallah. Alone at the time, I tried to order a pizza but, for unknown reasons, was unable to make the call from my mobile phone. So I made my way to the local mini-supermarket down the street, where I asked the man behind the counter how to dial the number correctly. “Not working,” I explained in simplified English with exaggerated hand gestures. After his own failed attempt to connect from my phone, he graciously dialled from his landline. On my behalf, he described to Mr. Pizza in Arabic where his grocery store is located so my dinner could be sent there instead of my friend’s house, which they wouldn’t have been able to find anyway (there are no official street addresses in the West Bank).
I loitered there for a half-hour until the delivery man arrived. Before returning to my friend’s home, I offered the grocer a slice of pizza with the translation assistance of a customer who happened to be standing next to me. It was a gesture of gratitude for his help. He laughed and politely declined, but very much appreciated my offer.
Hospitality of the APH kind is one of the greatest gifts of travel, a motivation for my perpetual wanderlust. But this discovery of benevolence was unsettling too. Why for so many years had I been deceived about this small corner of the Middle East and the people who inhabit it? Where were the masked Islamic jihadists or raging killers so often portrayed to me by the media?
The Dark Side of Palestine
I didn’t encounter them but we know they exist, as social media, videos and countless news reports tell us. Women are faced with gender violence, including honour killings. Religious radicalism breathes here. More and more youths — children even — are resorting to stones, knives, Molotov cocktails and firebombs against Israeli soldiers and innocent civilians. While a culture of racial/religious hatred and violence is alive and well in Israel (“death to Arabs” is a familiar chant in Jerusalem), evidence regularly gathered by Palestinian Media Watch gives us reason to believe it exists in Palestinian society with greater intensity. Indeed, Palestine wrestles with frightening social demons that warrant urgent examination and action.
But do we paint an entire population with this brush? Do we take the simple, convenient route of prejudice? We all do it more than we’d like to admit, but can we do better? Does it make sense to make broad assumptions and judgments about an entire population based on what we’re told by media outlets when the vast majority of them make a business out of sensationalizing controversy, scandal and strife?
Each news provider, we also know, is entrenched in its own biases. When it comes to issues as controversial and polarizing as the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can formulate more informed opinions by turning to reports and op-eds from a wide spectrum of sources: local and international, liberal and conservative, and from those on both sides of the conflict whose lives are, or have been, profoundly affected.
But, it’s often argued, the fact is Palestinians democratically elected Hamas, the brutal terrorist organization that oversees Gaza and has a number of war crimes (committed against both their own people and Israel) to answer for. They, as a whole, must glorify violence, advocate terrorism, and therefore be responsible for their own destruction and the ghastly number of civilian deaths during last year’s Israel-Gaza war.
While it’s true nearly 50% of Palestinians voted Hamas into power during the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, that leaves us with the glaring fact that over 50% did not. That’s over two million people we’re talking about. The same can be said about the results of public opinion polls that tell us how many Palestinians support violence as a means to an end.
And my personal encounters? I met two Palestinians who vehemently insisted Israelis are “animals” and anything I said to the contrary was futile. I also witnessed an Arab youth on rollerblades slap a Jewish boy on the shoulder as he flew past him in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. These incidents aren’t to be taken lightly, but the surprising truth is the overwhelming majority of my experiences in Palestine were positive.
Of course, as an Asian female, I acknowledge my appearance afforded me a layer of protection during my time in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Would I have received the same reception if I were white — that is to say, if I could have easily been mistaken for an Israeli or Jew? For them, the threat of danger is terrifying and all too real; twice I saw Jews in East Jerusalem donning what appeared to be stab-proof vests. When I posed the question to my friend Renaud, a tall, brown-haired European, he recalled the day he moved into his East Jerusalem home. While driving through the neighbourhood, a stone was hurled towards his car by Arab teenagers (thankfully, they missed). Following that incident, his landlord informed nearby residents Renaud was both a foreigner and his tenant. No one tried to stone him or his car again.
But when I passed through other areas in East Jerusalem with Renaud where he wasn’t recognizable, I couldn’t help but quietly measure in my mind the risk he was taking and, therefore, I was taking by accompanying him. Wherever we walked, with every road we drove on and every shop we entered, I found myself anxiously observing our surroundings.
Why did he seem so fearless? Israelis innocently walking the streets are being knifed to death by Palestinians, for god’s sake! He explained to me that he keeps his cool by using open body language and making eye contact. He smiles at and acknowledges shopkeepers with “salaam alaikam”, the common Arabic greeting for “peace be upon you”. Since the stoning incident the day he moved into his house, he hasn’t been on the receiving end of harassment or physical aggression. On a public bus, I also met two white Americans who felt comfortable and safe enough to live in East Jerusalem.
I write this, however, with the recognition that they and Renaud don’t wear the visible markers of Judaism. For those who do, the everyday reality in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is a frightening one that, as one of my Jewish guides emotionally conveyed, invokes deeply painful memories in their collective consciousness. The history of Jewish persecution, in fact, dates back long before the Holocaust and, appallingly, Jews still experience it today, every day. While suicide bombings are a thing of the past, they now face rockets from Hamas, random street stabbings and car-ramming attacks.
In North America, we hear the stories and cringe in horror. We expect the perpetrators of the grisly crimes to be prosecuted and the loved ones of those injured and murdered to see justice. We support the rights of everyone to walk the streets without fearing for their lives, and to protect themselves against terrorism (that is what I hope, anyway).
The Harsh Realities of Life in Palestine
There is, however, another story of anguish that unfolded before me in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, one rarely told on my side of the world, hidden behind the dominant narrative of the uncivilized Palestinian with an inherent propensity for hatred and bloodshed. While the religious tensions, riots and terrorist attacks are frequently highlighted in North American news, hundreds of thousands of ordinary, nonviolent Palestinians — many of whom have been forcibly driven out of their homes since 1948 — experience the indignities of military occupation every day. They’re cornered behind eight-metre high concrete walls (not unlike the Berlin Wall) that continue to be erected; racially profiled and humiliated at military checkpoints (as I witnessed myself); strangled economically and deprived of their right to travel freely between their homes, schools and medical centres as a result of said walls and checkpoints; and deprived of basic services such as adequate water and sewage.
Palestinians also face land seizures, as well as home demolitions for lacking difficult-to-obtain building permits and as punishment for lone-wolf terrorist attacks, displacing entire families. Explorations into East Jerusalem and the West Bank make these dehumanizing realities of collective punishment impossible to ignore.
But most alarming are the frequent reports of excessive violence against, and unlawful killings of, Palestinians by Israeli police, soldiers and extremists who inhabit the expanding settlement blocks that have been, and continue to be, built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in contravention of international law.
Such incidents are rarely (if ever) reported in North American mainstream media, yet they occur regularly and with near impunity. Palestinians I’ve met have asked: why does no one call this terrorism and why does it continue to go unpunished? How are we to protect ourselves from and fight one of the most powerful armies in the world?
The human rights abuses and hostile conditions under which Palestinians live are well-documented by nonprofit organizations such as Amnesty International and B’Tselem; and Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli military veterans, attests to the prevalence of these institutionalized injustices.
Many Palestinians equate their oppression with colonialism and apartheid, and their voices are being heard. While there are key differences between their circumstances and South African apartheid, troubling parallels have been drawn by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. A small but growing number of black Americans also identify with the Palestinian struggle for dignity and self-determination.
The Palestinians of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank — almost all of whom remain stateless — face other challenges too. Fanning the flames of their indignation are the loss of faith in their political leaders, as well as a deep feeling of neglect by the international community and abandonment by the Arab countries surrounding them.
All of this begs the question: Is there a correlation between the continued occupation, harsh realities of life in Palestine and outbreaks of violence? At the very least, these precarious circumstances provide the social, economic and political context for the current crisis.
What Palestine Taught Me
The disturbing sights, sounds and smells of East Jerusalem and the West Bank are seared in my memory. But there is far more to Palestine than the riots, the hate-filled Arab and armed jihadist. Amidst the fear, despair and madness, I found kindness, friendship and inspiration (see these stories about the moral courage of Hashem Al-Azzeh and Rabbi Arik Ascherman). I gained an understanding, however modest, of the challenges Palestinians face every day.
Travel opens us up to these experiences, but only if we let it. Expect a people to be soulless deviants, and that is exactly what we will see. But believe in the universality of suffering and the inherent goodness of people, and the world will surprise us. It requires exposure. It requires logic. It requires compassion and the willingness to reach out and see the humanity in the “Other”.
In the words of Maya Angelou:
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”