Thursday, August 7, 2014

A post NOT about the rights and wrongs of Israel and Palestine

This is not a blog post about which side is wrong and which side is right. It’s a blog post about humanity and only that. It’s a blog post about conflict, war, violence, and what that means to people caught in the crossfire and how it can transform lives. 

I went to Israel in 2004 as a part of the Israel Young Leaders Program. Targeted towards undergraduate students who proved themselves to be a leader in some way or the other the program “endeavours to elevate the academic discourse on Canadian campuses regarding Israel and the Arab-Israel conflict.” If my memory serves me well there were 13 of us from universities across Canada. I met really great people, some of whom I am still facebook friends with – whatever that means. But, at the end of the day we all know that the trip affected all of us greatly and turned out to be an incredibly valuable experience for all of us. 

For 7 days we traveled Israel with heavy protection in the form of armoured vehicles and former IDF soldier bodyguards. We had a really great tour guide by the name of Tsvi who actually gave us a pretty unbiased overview of Arab-Israeli political discourse and history. We were exposed to numerous speakers – efforts were made to bring in some pro-Palestinian speakers. We met Israeli politicians, law makers, and academics. 

But, at the end of the day I think what stayed with me the most were the people. It’s going to be exactly 10 years this December since my trip – and I will never forget the people. I don’t remember their names; I am feeling a lot of guilt right now for having lost them over the years. Writing this is going to be painful, especially in light of what is going on over there right now. 

1. I remember walking through a market in Jerusalem. We were awed by the sights and the smells of glorious food. And then a little boy ran up to me and handed me a little packet. Somebody yelled don’t take it! But, I did. I don’t remember what was in the packet. Might have been a sweet of some sort – but the smile that the little boy flashed me will stay with me forever. I don’t know where he is. Maybe he is an IDF soldier now? I don’t know. 

2. As part of our trip we visited an Israeli Arab community in Israel (not Palestine) and met a lot of young children. When we asked what they would do after they graduated high school, the girls answered with a lot of hope in their eyes that they would like to be teachers or doctors. The boys were not so hopeful. We were later told by someone else that the possibility that all these children end up in university was slim to none. It is hard for Arab kids to end up in universities in Israel because of a number of barriers – psychometric testing, preferences given to those who serve in the IDF (Arabs are barred from participating in the army) etc etc. Children of rich Palestinians can sometimes end up in other foreign universities (mostly Russia) but that is rare. I don’t know where these children are anymore – no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to paint a pretty picture set in the present for them. I just can’t. 

3. We visited Sderot. As part of the tour we were taken to a small hill which looked out onto Gaza. It was a beautiful evening – the sun was setting as it basked in its hues of orange, red and yellow. As we stood there silently and watched the sun set over that part of Palestine that was deemed too dangerous for us to ventured into, a mother and her son showed up on the hill. Her son, who could not have been more than 8 years old brought with him a soccer ball which he started kicking around with us. We didn’t speak the same language, but all this kid wanted to do was play. We indulged. At one point the mother started sobbing. When we asked her (through our IDF bodyguard) why she was crying she replied that, she was just happy to see her son playing outside. The fear of rockets compels them and her son’s friends to stay indoors most of the time, so he barely got to play. That kid is probably 16 now. He is either in the IDF right now or getting ready to join. I can’t place a gun in his hands and an IDF uniform on his body. I close my eyes and shudder. 

4. We had an amazing trip to the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron where we witnessed the strange confluence of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. As a non-believer I remember not being very interested (I think I would have paid a lot more attention now just because I find these things interesting) and so I sort of wandered off and started to check out other things. The temple is sectioned off into sections controlled by either the Israelis or the Arabs as their individual holy sites. However, the IDF controls access to the temple and have set up check points outside the building. One such soldier was standing on guard in uniform. Fascinated (and troubled) as I was by the pimply faced teenagers in full army uniform, holding loaded weapons everywhere I approached one such soldier. He was a kid who couldn’t have been more than 17/18 years old. We began talking. I noticed he had some kind of red Hebrew lettering embroidered on his gun strap and I asked him what it said. In broken English he told me it was his girl-friend’s name. Apparently, putting a girl’s name on your gun strap amounts to going steady in Israel – a very serious commitment. I wonder where he is today and what he is doing. My imagination doesn’t take me to a very pleasant place. 

5. The same day in Hebron, we went to a home that was turned into a museum by this Israeli woman who lost her husband “was killed by Palestinians”. She had a number of children surrounding her. Clearly the woman had been through a lot of pain, but she was resolute in her hate for the Palestinian people, and their innocent children. We sat and listened to her talk about violent revenge while her children crawled around on the floor, or sat and listened to her quietly. I am left to wonder today, what happened to those children? What kind of an effect does a lifetime of listening to hateful diatribe have on an innocent mind? 

6. We visited with a Druze community in the Golan Heights where we were invited in with open arms into an incredibly warm and welcome family tea. We ate desserts and drank tea with a large Druze family while we talked to them about the meaning of family, friends, and relatives. They told us that they have a lot of family left in Syria, but they can’t visit with them because they do not want to accept Israeli citizenship, and still consider themselves Syrian citizens. They have no phone lines – and so on religious or cultural days of celebration they meet their families on their own respective rooftops. You see, the border runs right through the village/community and so you can actually see across to the rooftops of houses that flank the border. I wonder what things are like for them now. How do they know when and if a family member has been killed in Syria? Or maybe they have phone lines now? 
7.  We walked around the city of Tel Aviv and found a man selling waffles on the street. We struck up a conversation with him, and found out that he was an army deserter and now lives on the street in an effort to hide from them and his identity. He told us that he left the army because he disagreed with their policies and that he was happier this way – with nearly nothing and barely making ends meet by making waffles and meeting new people from other countries. I wonder if he is still there selling waffles in Tel Aviv and what he thinks about what is going on now. 

8. Our IDF bodyguard, a man named Hesse (?) spent a full week with us, listening to us talk and talking with us. By the end of the trip he said to us that he learnt more by hanging out with us for a week than he has by being in the army and actually participating actively in the process. Hesse was looking forward to his post army stint vacation in India (apparently that’s what IDF soldiers do – Goa is a big destination!) and then deciding what he was going to do with the rest of his life. I remember him, the smile on his face and his eyes optimistic and hopeful for a great and exciting future.

9. At the end of the guided trip 3 of us decided to stay back since we didn’t have to be home for Christmas. We lived in a youth hostel in Old Jerusalem and experienced Israel and Palestine like the locals. Everyday we did something different. On Christmas Eve we crossed the checkpoint into the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) with our Canadian passports and ventured into Bethlehem. It was a miserable day – it rained all day and was quite chilly. My black wool coat was soaking wet and still we wanted to see if we could somehow make it into the Bethlehem Nativity Church for mass. We managed to get one ticket which one of us used. The two of us left that didn't get to go inside stood outside the church in the rain, had tea and talked to random people in Bethlehem. Bethlehem known as Jesus Christ’s birthplace is now 80% Arab. We met a journalist who introduced us to a Palestinian teacher. Since the latter didn’t speak a lot of English, the journalist translated most of the conversation back and forth. At one point we were asked if we would visit his home for lunch the next day, and we humbly accepted. The next day we took a taxi across another checkpoint and somehow ended up at his house. I can’t exactly remember, but I think he met us at the checkpoint and took us to his home. I remember walking over and past rubble – which served as homes to many families. Most had chicken coops in their houses as a way to provide for their families. We ended up at his house in time for lunch and met his wife and his 4 daughters. The man told us in broken English how he wanted his girls to be educated and to make something of their lives. He told us that he was one of the fortunate ones (!) and how it is so difficult to make ends meet in Palestine on the measly salary of a teacher. I believe his salary in Shekels translated to about a hundred dollars a month.  When lunch was served we had a simple meal of chicken and rice served on one giant plate. We all sat down together and ate with our hands. I will never forget how the best meal we had during out entire trip was given us to a man who had nearly nothing but simply wanted to be a good host. I remember that we all left with a sad, heavy feeling in our hearts. So when we got into the cab, we pooled together whatever little money we had and gave it to the man as a parting gift for his girls. Today, I wonder where they are, where he is and what they are all doing.

War, conflict, revenge, occupation, embargoes, settlements, bombs, rockets – these things don’t happen in a vacuum. People, innocent people are caught in the crossfire and their children sacrificed. When we left Israel and Palestine we left with the understanding that the people who make the decision to fire are never they ones who are directly affected by the crisis. It’s the people who bear the burden of war - the people who have nothing to do with the decision making processes of war. I will never again see these people who made my trip so memorable and touched me so profoundly in many ways, but all I can do is hope that their scars don’t run too deep.