Today, I was given the honor of joining Bishop Munib Younan as his photographer, at a round table discussion with the Elders, an independent group of respected leaders who work together for peace and human rights. Founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007 and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Elders work to find solutions to some of the world’s most challenging geo- and socio-political issues.
This event was assembled in order to update the Elders organization with a current state of affairs concerning the Israeli occupation of Palestine. A number of individuals from a diverse background were present, from a former Prime Minister to representatives from the Carter Center, Just Vision, al Quds University, and Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation.
Each person who spoke of the Palestinian experience brought to the discussion a facet of living under Israeli occupation: from the challenge of simple, daily tasks, to the morbid statistics of education, low salaries and education, and the growing number of refugees, people displaced through forced removal or complete destruction of their homes.
Without Proof of Birth
One woman described how she had a number of years ago moved back to her home land from a good life in Dubai in order to grant her son an Israeli birth, only to learn after his birth he would be denied a certificate because she was married to a Palestinian man. The Israeli government explained she would need to divorce her Palestinian husband in order for her son to have an Israeli birth certificate.
She had to choose between leaving her homeland forever, or playing the game for she was already in Israel, her son without a birth certificate. She divorced her husband (on paper, not in her heart, from what I understood). But instead of being granted a birth certificate as was promised, she was denied for six and a half years. Without a birth certificate, her son was not allowed to attend school in Israel or Palestine. Her family was torn apart as she was caught in a no-win situation.
A Home Invasion
Fourteen year old Ibrihim (a name used to protect his identity) described something completely inconceivable to me, and to most who hear his story. It is so bizarre that it simply does not seem possible. If I had not already heard similar stories from an Israeli friend, I would find it difficult to immediately believe.
The Israeli government has since 1967 encouraged and supported “settlements”—illegal (according to the geo-political boundaries set in 1947 by the United Nations General Assembly) acquisition of land in the Palestinian territories. Sometimes through relatively subtle, gradual take-over, but in many instances, the overt bulldozing of entire housing complexes and family homes. In all, more than 750,000 Palestinians have been documented as fled or forced from their homes. While on paper many yet own land in the occupied territories, or even in Israel proper, they have nothing to return to or are not allowed to return at all.
In attempt to counter the Israeli occupation, there are NGOs whose function is to support the rapid reconstruction of Palestinian homes after they are knocked down, keeping the Israeli’s from claiming the land once unoccupied. They knock them down and they are rebuilt again … and again … and again.
But what is even more unbelievable is the occupation of family homes while the Palestinians yet remain there, the Israeli Settler family literally takes over a few rooms, even half the house. Sometimes, as is the case with a home in the Old City, they leave the Palestinians with but a single room or court yard, using the ancient laws of division of property by sons and then daughters to their favor, as the Palestinian family is split and no longer fully accounted for at that location.
Ibrihim describes how one half of his family home was forcibly taken over, a young couple (likely in their late twenties) moving in. At threat of police or military intervention, they are forced to share their home with unwanted, permanent guests.
The Settlers often do not work, rather, they are paid by the Israeli government to occupy this space. They make reports about the coming and going of the Palestinians, verbally accosting them and even spitting on Ibrihim’s grandmother whenever they pass. There is but one front door to enter, and a shared court yard.
Ibrihim and his parents have left, as they simply cannot live in this condition. But their grandmother remains, steadfast so as to not lose the family home.
This is not an isolated incident, rather, there are 28 such examples in Ibrihim’s home town alone. Why do they do this? Slowly, one house at a time, it is the intent of the Zionist movement to claim all of occupied Palestine for Israel, an assumed biblical heritage which ignores the Palestinians 4,000 years history on this land. After centuries of hostile take-over and more than twenty five invasions, the mandate by the U.N. is ignored and the request for State just last year denied, in part, by the United States.
Ibrihim’s own words were incredible to hear, given what he has experienced. Holding back tears, he shared with all those present at the Round Table discussion, “I do not hate the Israeli people. I do not hate the Jews. I have many Jewish friends. I do not hate them. But what these people do, I do not understand. They come into my home. My family’s home, and they yell at us every day, saying horrible, mean things. They spit on my grandmother when they pass and they tell us we do not belong. I do not–I will not hate them, but what they do is wrong.”
What I don’t understand …
On a personal note, I struggle with this at several levels. I am baffled as to how this unfolds, how this can happen. It is bizarre, surreal even. And yet, it is true, documented, time and time again, not some urban legend.
Yes, governments have for millennia committed far worse, in both historic and modern times, coordinating the destruction of properly, rape and murder of their own people. In those circumstances as with this, I ask not how a government can intentionally force strangers into a family home, but what is the psychology of those who are the ones to move in, to live there every day? How can a couple in their twenties, a time in one’s life when the world should be open to opportunity, be so filled with hatred and violent tendency that they feel ok, inside, about what they do?
In the military, young men are taught to defend at any cost, to kill without hesitation. But what kind of training did these young couples receive? What were they taught, when, and where? How were they programmed to disable that natural human tendency for compassion (even if their empathy gene is switched off ), to lose differentiation of ok versus not ok?
Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at Hebrew University of Jerusalem has studied the content of Israeli school books for the past five years. Her account, “Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education” describes … a racism that prepares young Israelis for their compulsory military service.
Peled-Elhanna states “One question that bothers many people is how do you explain the cruel behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians, an indifference to human suffering, the inflicting of suffering. People ask how can these nice Jewish boys and girls become monsters once they put on a uniform. I think the major reason for that is education.”
This is not unlike the U.S. Border Patrol turning on the A/C in the dog catcher trucks in the cold winter or the heat in the dead of an Arizona summer while depriving migrant workers of water, a change of clothes, or return of their belongings. Something snaps. It simply must. At some point, humans are no longer seen as human, rather some kind of lower animal and the action is justified. This has been happening for centuries, not just here in Israel and Palestine, but on a global scale in countless thousands of conflicts and issues of imbalance throughout history: caste systems, slave trade, and apartheid to name a few.
Xenophobia is very, very real.
The conclusion I have arrived to is that in time of war, it would be far easier for me to fire a rifle than to sit in someone’s home, verbally abusing the owners and spitting in their faces. I cannot imagine what someone would have to tell me, how I would need to be programmed to do this not once, but every day for months, even years on end. It seems the power of religion can work to both heal and divide equally.
At the same time, he exemplifies the most powerful aspect of humanity while his adversaries display the worst, for even at fourteen years of age, he refuses to give into hate. He simply desires for his grandmother to be safe, to return to his home, and for his people to have a nation they can call their own.
Where does this go?
I want to be clear in stating that Jewish Setters do not in any way represent all Israelis. In fact, they are in the small minority. But they have been granted incredible power through funding (much of which comes from American citizens) and Israeli law which supports their actions.
I do not have ample understanding of what transpires here to make any sort of statement about what should or will unfold to bring this conflict to an end. I hear talk among my associates here in Palestine that without economic sanctions, a unanimous decision by the United Nations, or a third intafada—this will continue to unfold for decades more. In recent news the Christian churches in North America are calling upon Congress to investigate how U.S. military aid is used in conjunction with Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The official Jewish response was harsh and unyielding.
As the opening presenter made clear, a tourist can visit the Holy Land and unless he or she ventures into the Islamic quarter and observes Jewish children escorted under armed guard to and from school, or ventures into Hebron and other heavily occupied cities, it is not obvious what is transpiring. The cameras, the military preparedness, the tension right under the surface is not something one gathers from a few days in Jerusalem, and certainly not in Western Israel.
The relative subtlety of the Israeli effort on a daily basis is interrupted only by those seemingly “news worthy” events—rock throwing returned by gun fire, outbreaks at checkpoints, and the occasional story of a United States manufactured bulldozer destroying Palestinian homes—makes for the perpetuation of a methodical ethnic cleansing from an ancient Palestinian land.
There are thousands of individuals here from around the world, working through the United Nations, NGOs, schools, churches, and a variety of volunteer and humanitarian aide organizations—all trying to make a difference. It is my hope that while any one organization is not likely to change history, together, gradual, slow change will occur.