I've Been Reading About the Occupation for Years. Seeing It for Myself Was a Punch in the Gut
Reading about the West Bank is no substitute for seeing it, from the obnoxious privilege of Silwan's Jewish settlers to Palestinians who dodge questions about terror, to a small village ringed by settlements.
NEW YORK – The minaret stays with me. It stands half-built in Khalet Sakarya, a smidge of a Palestinian village tucked in the rocky Judean hills and ringed by Jewish settlements in Gush Etzion. The minaret, rebar protruding from its top, stands like an amputated limb next to the mosque while red-roofed Israeli settlements and the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva seem to stand stolidly, watchfully, from a short distance away.
I recently visited Khalet Sakarya with about 25 other American Jews as part of an Encounter Intensive trip to the West Bank and East Jerusalem (like all the participants, the cost of the trip was underwritten by Encounter). The Intensive, an invite-only program, is intended, like Encounter’s regular, shorter programs (open to all), to bring American Jews to witness what life under Israeli military rule is like for some of the West Bank’s nearly 3 million Palestinians.
We met with 18 Palestinians with a wide range of backgrounds: a high-ranking Fatah/PLO official; senior representatives of the Palestinian Authority; heads of NGOs which focus on nonviolent resistance; and ordinary Palestinians - a nurse at Hadassah hospital, a local tour guide, an elder from Khalet Sakarya and a Palestinian-American trying to build a high tech economic sector in Ramallah.
Reading about the West Bank is no substitute for seeing it
Listening to their challenges and frustrations was difficult, even painful. Listening to some of their perspectives was at times angering. But our charge was not to argue or debate. The purpose of the trip was not dialogue. It was to listen and to learn.
And it was eye-opening. It’s one thing to read or watch a film about life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But nothing compares to even briefly seeing it for oneself.
I had read about Israeli Jews moving into Palestinian neighborhoods like Silwan, just outside the walls of the Old City. Reading the material is intellectually unsettling, but my short visit left me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.
In this crowded neighborhood, home to some 55,000 Palestinians, it was unnerving to see a few of the 800 Jews who have moved in walk the street literally surrounded by the security officers who provide them with protection at all times. A local Palestinian told us of her inability to obtain permission to fly her Palestinian national flag. After climbing a rickety staircase (locals cannot get permits for renovations or repairs, she said) and seeing how the Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating literally underneath already-precariously structured buildings near the Siloam pool, I noticed a two-story tall Israeli flag covering Bet Yonatan, a building in which Jews live. The obnoxiousness of this display of privilege was stunning.
Dodging responsibility for terror attacks, for the future
As an American Jew I’m not directly impacted by what happens, of course, whether the status quo crawls toward a one state solution or whether the two state solution — for which every Palestinian with whom we met expressed longing — is miraculously revived.
I’m also not one of those American Jews who claims certitude about what the outcome should be. I don’t believe Biblical text makes wise political policy, and I know that what someone may have the legal right to do isn’t necessarily what they should do. But neither do I regard the equation as simply Palestinians = victims and Israelis = victimizers. Several of the Palestinians with whom we met dodged direct questions about responsibility for terrorist attacks, aside from blaming it on Israel’s boot on their collective neck.
While the reality is complicated, two things are clear: Many of the miserable conditions Palestinians live under could be ameliorated, if Israeli officials cared to do so; and the present dynamic has created a generation of Palestinians who have lost hope.
The security barrier casts literal and figurative shadows over those whose lives it circumscribes. Families and livelihoods are bisected by the wall and by residency requirements: husbands unable to live with their wives and children for years. But I’m also aware that suicide bombings have become nonexistent since the wall’s construction.
After Encounter, I went to south Tel Aviv. The graffiti-covered cement shell of the Dolphinarium club, destroyed in 2001 by a suicide bomber, stands in brilliant seaside sunshine as mute testimony to the 21 Israelis that Sa'id al-Hutari murdered, 16 of them teenagers.
Illogical neglect and humiliation
And yet. There are many aspects to life for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that make no sense and seem unrelated to security. Why does Israel heap humiliation on ordinary Palestinians? Is there an official policy encouraging dehumanizing psychological punishment, or is it neglect so profound that it amounts to the same thing?
Why withhold permission for simple things that would make life more tolerable for Palestinians even if the political process isn’t settled? It would not be what American Southerners would call “putting lipstick on a pig” - but it could communicate some fundamental respect of shared humanity.
Take the décor covering the large wall everyone faces on the Israeli side exiting Checkpoint 300, near Bethlehem. Thousands of Palestinians pass through each day to get to jobs, family members and doctor’s appointments. After walking through a long dusty passageway that feels like a cattle chute, they wait inside a hangar-sized shed to be funneled through a metal detector while a uniformed Israeli soldier and security contractors watch from an overhead catwalk.
The last thing they pass is this wall, papered with bright signs welcoming visitors to the Jewish state, much as one would see at an airport. One features a large photo of a man’s forearm wrapped in tefillin in front of the Western Wall. The discordant note against the gray-brown dustiness of the facility is stark.
Another reflection of the Israeli authorities' tone-deafness: According to Abu Ibrahim, a Khalet Sakarya village elder, his community was instructed to reduce the volume of their recorded call to prayer so it wouldn’t bother their Jewish neighbors. At the same time, a generator from a nearby Jewish settlement is so loud it drowned out ordinary conversation while we were there.
Sakarya began building its minaret in 1980, said Abu Ibrahim, with a permit in place. Then the permit was revoked. When requesting its reinstatement, village leaders were told to check back in 6 months. Then 12 months, and 6 months after that. After awhile, they stopped asking, he indicated. That was 37 years ago. So it still stands unfinished, rebar protruding from its top like uncut hair.
Seeking answers from the COGAT: Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, also known as Israel’s civil administration, illuminated the gulf in Palestinian and Israeli realities.
A COGAT spokesperson told me that no request was made to have Sakarya turn down its call to prayer. I also asked why the community can’t finish its minaret. “No guideline [building] plans exist and most of the village’s construction is illegal,” she said. The civil administration is not aware of the half-constructed minaret, she added, and has not in recent years been approached by Sakarya residents about it.
In the four days of Encounter I witnessed and heard about dozens of similar realities — and worse, like the Bethlehem-area mother who told us about her 17-year-old son who'd recently been shot in the leg by a rubber bullet (which, we were told, are actually lead bullets with a thin rubber coating) as he was going to school one morning. She rushed him to the hospital, where the bullet was removed and his wound sewn up. But nearly three weeks later, he was still refusing to return to school.
Both Abu Ibrahim and this teenager's mom clearly felt a ground-down sense of weariness, a lack of agency and of resignation, even of defeat.
A Palestinian man we encountered as we approached Checkpoint 300 captured it in a passing comment. Referring to the classic dystopian tale, he said, “Welcome to Nineteen Eighty-Four. You like our life?”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a U.S. correspondent for Haaretz, where she writes about politics, philanthropy, religion, trends and culture. She has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine. She has been recognized several times by national reporting awards and also authored Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter:
Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant (Jewish Lights).
Debra Nussbaum Cohen