In American media, the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestine typically only appears in a limited number of contexts, namely discussions of policy/negotiations to create “peace” and American military expansion. Most recently, the so-called “Middle East Peace Plan” from the Trump administration was the topic of media coverage relating to Palestine/Israel. Freedom of movement, access to resources, and self-determination are treated less like basic human rights and more like political pieces that can be traded. The one-sided portrayal of the occupation by the American media is a major issue, but that is not what we will be talking about in this piece.
In this article, I will be sharing my experience in Palestine/Israel with the express intent to focus on the human lives being impacted right now. The human element of the occupation is all but completely ignored in American coverage, and boiling it down to ‘policy decisions’ is both morally disingenuous and disrespectful to the lives at stake. I was fortunate enough to participate in a study trip to Palestine/Israel as part of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course over winter break, and I will be sharing some of the most impactful experiences from that trip.
The first story that I would like to share is that of a Palestinian man from the village of Lifta, which is near Jerusalem. I am not naming him for his own safety. Lifta is considered ‘abandoned’ by the Israeli government, but the Palestinians that lived there did not leave by choice. In the 1948 war under the newly established Israeli state, many villages were destroyed or forced to evacuate. In the case of Lifta, he explained, the military first burned down the home of the village ‘boss,’ in order to intimidate the remaining residents of Lifta to evacuate. The military destroyed the school and was successful in getting most residents to flee, fearing for their lives. Several were shot and killed. He explained how the military blasted holes through the roofs of each home, which made them uninhabitable by allowing rainwater and other elements to enter. This was intended to prevent anyone from returning to their homes.
As we walked through the village, we could see Israeli children and families playing in the remains of some of the homes, likely unaware that this was not, as the sign near the entrance to the village purported to state, a ‘nature reserve.’ He showed us the mosque, or what was left of it, at least. Israeli filmmakers had destroyed the roof and part of the wall of the mosque for the positioning of film equipment. He expressed his sadness and longing for being able to return to the “simpler times” of life in Lifta. He just wants to go home. He showed us the documents that proved the land belonged to his family, as well as the key to his door. A key is a universal symbol of the Palestinian return.
The next day, we traveled to Efrat, an Israeli settlement not too far from Bethlehem. We met with the leader of the settlement, Ari Gildman, who provided us with a tour. For the record, he is not an employee of the Israeli government. He explained that “the master plan” for this settlement is to get to a population of 30,000 residents.” He dismissed the issue of water shortages, saying that it was “fake news” and that the Palestinians should “just use less water.” When asked about the legality of settlements under international law, he said that the U.N. does not have enforcement powers and that “the U.N. General Assembly does not make decisions.” This either seemed to be a complete misunderstanding of how the U.N. works or a dismissal of its legitimacy. The General Assembly has released several resolutions that liken the Israeli occupation to apartheid and has declared that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Gildman also said that the now defunct League of Nations recognized this as the Jewish homeland. For the record, under the Geneva Convention, settlements are illegal under military occupation, and the West Bank settlements are illegal under both International Law and Israeli law.
We then traveled to Hebron, a city in the Southern part of the West Bank, where we met with a group run by former soldiers of Israel Defence Forces s called Breaking the Silence, whose goal is to spread awareness about the injustices committed by the IDF. Our tour guide showed us the restrictions on movement for Palestinians in Hebron. Many of the roads are marked as red, meaning that shops must be closed and travel is prohibited, but only for Palestinians. As such, Hebron is often referred to as a ghost town. For some Palestinians living here, the restrictions mean that they are not allowed to walk on the road outside of their front door, so they have to climb onto their roofs and make their way across buildings until they can reach a road that they are allowed to walk on. Should they walk on a forbidden road, they will be detained.
Our guide, who served in a combat role in the IDF, shared two stories from his time in the military that I find particularly powerful. The first is detailing the training procedures that he experienced. One training routine, which he found to be immoral in every sense, is the practice of picking a random Palestinian home, conducting a raid, and arresting a member of the family. The person targeted had not, in fact, committed any crimes. They are usually returned without apology or information the next day. They are taken to a military base or other detention center, and he said that the purpose was simply to get IDF soldiers comfortable with raids. He said this has become common in training programs for combat units in the IDF.
The second story he shared was about orders he was given in the early 2000s. He said that gunfire had been originating from a neighborhood in Hebron, aimed at one of the bases. His base, which was over two miles away, was ordered to return fire. He said that he told his commander that those orders did not make any sense, as “it would not be possible to see where the shots were coming from, even at night. They would be firing randomly.” His commander told his unit that they were to proceed as ordered. They fired into the neighborhood. The next day, they were told to change their weapon. Instead of returning fire with a rifle, they were told to use a grenade launcher. He explained how inaccurate grenades are and how they essentially randomly targeted spots within the neighborhood for a week. He said that the discomfort within the unit gradually decreased, and by the sixth day they were playing games, trying to see who could get a grenade into a basketball hoop or who could get one into a car window. He remembers driving home from work one day and hearing a news radio report, which said that “soldiers in Hebron responded to deadly fire. They targeted the shooters directly.” He realized when he heard this that his family and the Israeli public had no idea what was actually being done by the military, as he knew that the fire from the neighborhood was not lethal, and that his unit did not return fire directly, especially considering that that they were randomly firing into a civilian neighborhood.
Something that I found particularly striking during this trip was the difference in perspectives on the debate between a ‘One-State’ and ‘Two-State’ solution. Most Israelis we met had an opinion on it, one way or the other. Conversely, most Palestinians did not. Many of them simply expressed their longing for freedom and how much they wanted to go home.
When I was in Bethlehem, there was a quote that I found particularly striking: “Most Palestinians living in the West Bank will never see the sea, and those in Gaza can never leave it.” We traveled to the Gaza border on our last day. We passed Israeli tanks and could see surveillance balloons hovering over Gaza. Despite having a population of nearly two million people, it is only 25 miles long and around 5 miles wide. It is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. It is projected to be uninhabitable due to lack of water, waste treatment, sanitation, and other basic needs by 2020 — this year. We could see the Mediterranean Sea from where we stood. The border fence, which is electrified with lethal current, stood only several hundred feet away. Behind it, long patches of grass marked the site of the March of Return, where Palestinians in Gaza gather every Friday to march and protest for freedom. A few minutes before we left due to increased sniper fire, everyone went silent for a moment because we all thought we heard something. We listened closer. From inside Gaza city and all across the Gaza strip, we could hear the call to prayer. Under such oppression and facing such horrific odds, they still called and answered. This was one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds I have heard.
On the inside of the West Bank wall, Palestinians create art. One painting depicts Muhammad Ali, standing victorious in his match against Sonny Liston. At the time, Ali was told that it would be suicide to attempt to fight Liston. Ali defeated Liston twice, and in the second match, he knocked Liston down in the second round. Ali was the ultimate underdog, from his time in boxing to his opposition to the Vietnam War, to his membership in the Nation of Islam. Ali constantly faced opponents and challenges that seemed insurmountable, impossible to overcome. Ali visited Palestine in 1974, where he said “I declare support for the Palestinian people to liberate their homeland.” Muhammad Ali understood. He understood that Palestinians deserve freedom and liberation. They deserve human dignity. They are not political points to be toyed with. They have a voice, and it needs to be heard.