Maybe they don’t want to see

by Melanie, Hebron team

“I think people don’t want to see what is going on.”

An Israeli soldier searches a 15 year old boy in Hebron.  One of the many incidents that takes place in Hebron that many Israelis don't know about. Photo EAPPI, August 2012.

An Israeli soldier searches a 15 year old boy in Hebron. One of the many incidents that takes place in Hebron that many Israelis don’t know about. Photo EAPPI, August 2012.

I am in Haifa, Israel talking to a group of 16 year old Israeli students about life in the West Bank, when one of the girls makes the above statement.  I just summarized what takes place in Hebron – Israeli soldiers, Israeli settlers, life for Palestinians. I struggle to hold it together when speaking, both because of the reality of life in Hebron, but also because I am acutely aware that these young people are the next generation of Israeli soldiers. Any of them may serve in Hebron in a couple of years: protecting violent settlers living in illegal settlements and doing the things I have observed, like searching Palestinian children’s schoolbags, harassing ordinary people going about their business and detaining children.

Some of the students tell me they have never heard of Hebron and had no idea about what goes on there, or about the situation with checkpoints and other problems that my EAPPI colleagues based throughout the West Bank describe. A lively discussion between the students arises as to why this might be. A few blame the media. We point out that these issues are in the press on a daily basis, including the Israeli press, and there is a vast amount of information on the internet. After all, none of us EAs come from the region, and we managed to find out about what is going on.

The conversation changes when a girl suggests that many Israelis don’t want to see what is going on, they don’t want to know.

Certainly, it is possible to live a fairly normal life in Israel, while mostly ignoring what goes on just a few miles away on the other side of the wall that separates it from much of the West Bank. Ruth, another Israeli who kindly hosted me with her family in Haifa for a weekend, told me that in the last five years there were just three days when the conflict with the Palestinians touched her life in some way. The rest of the time, if she had chosen to, she could have completely ignored that it was happening. This is despite the fact that, if things carry on as they are, her two sons will be conscripted into the army in a few years.

This girls’ observations are similar to what many Israeli organizations are saying. Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers says,

“Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years… While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny what is done in its name.”

During our meeting with the young people at their college in Haifa, they showed us a memorial room which has photographs of 20 Israeli students or former students who were killed in the conflict. Although significantly fewer in number overall, the examples of tragic loss seem to be everywhere you turn in Israel, as in Palestine. But still, those young people were entirely ignorant of Hebron – one of the most notorious examples of this conflict.

I find this deeply troubling. In a previous blog, I mentioned that a 20 year old Israeli soldier was shot and killed recently at checkpoint 209 in Hebron, apparently by a Palestinian. His name was Gavriel Kovi and, as it happens he came from Haifa, the city where I spent the weekend staying with an Israeli family – Ruth, Sarah and their two sons. I have seen no outcry in Israel about why he was there in the first place and this is puzzling. He was there to protect a group of Israeli settlers who use violence to further their views, which I have both witnessed and experienced. Such acts of violence would normally be subject to the force of the law but instead, the Israeli government sends its army to protect them. This army is made of young people who are sometimes tragically killed, as with Gavriel Kovi. I fail to understand both how it is in Israel’s own interests for this to be happening or why people don’t want to see this.

*Read the full article on Melanie’s personal blog.

EA Blog: “Do They Hate Us?”

by Johan, South Hebron Hills Team 

Last week, the Ecumenical Accompaniers were invited to participate in Shabbat celebrations in Jerusalem. We went to the Kehilat Yedidiya synagogue, where we sat in for the evening prayer. Kehilat Yedidiya is a congregation that is used to welcoming visitors from all faiths.

Deborah Weissmann, former Chair of the Council on Jewish-Christian Relations, is a member of the synagogue and welcomed us with a smile:

-It has been a hard week with lots of snow in Jerusalem, and people are tired on a Friday evening. If you fall asleep during the sermon, you won’t be alone!

The prayer consisted of Kabbalat Shabbat – welcoming the day of rest. The entire congregation joined in the singing, and the atmosphere was solemn, yet relaxed. Children were playing in the aisles, and people prayed in their own rhythm.

Inside the synagogue. Photo: Kehilat Yedidiya

Inside the synagogue. Photo: Kehilat Yedidiya

The service was a very nice experience. Still, the highlight of our evening was to be invited to Shabbat dinner after the service. I thus had the privilege of joining a Jewish family in their home in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem, along with two other EAs. Our hosts had also invited some other friends and their children to share the evening with us.

Before the dinner we washed our hands in silence, and our hosts blessed the wine and the challah, the bread. They also sang to welcome the Shabbat angels into the house: According to some Jewish rites, two angels accompany every person home from the synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. The dinner itself was a feast consisting of many tasty, home-cooked dishes.

We had already realized that our host and his friend were politically liberal. They were genuinely interested in our experiences as Ecumenical Accompaniers in the West Bank, and they also asked about what we do back home. Since I just graduated from university, the question of where I studied came up.

-The American University in Cairo? Wow! Bruce, one of our host’s friends, said.

-What was it like to study there?

-Well, I learned a lot about the Arab perspective on Israel and Palestine. So, it’s also good for me to come here and hear the other side of the story.

-I’m glad to hear that. Bruce nodded. All of a sudden, his daughter burst out:

-Do they hate us?

That question hit me right in the stomach. She hadn’t said anything until then. She basically wanted to know whether my Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian friends hate her. If they hate her for being Israeli. I wasn’t prepared for such a question, and what do you answer to that? I thought for a second about the word “hate”. A strong, harsh word which didn’t belong in that house, in such pleasant company. The word “hate” left a gloomy atmosphere around the table.

I though it was sad that she, a 21-year old girl with her entire life ahead of her, asked this question first and foremost. I hesitated.

-Tell us the truth, everyone said,

-We probably know it already. And don’t worry, we can handle to hear it from you.

Bruce continued: Do your Arab friends perceive Israel as a Western, colonial power, or as the Jews returning to their home?

-I know students in Cairo who don’t think that Israel fits into the region as things stand today, I finally replied, -To them, Israel ripped apart the common cultural and social fabric that was the Middle East before, and now they don’t know what to think about the country. There are so many painful stories. In Cairo, I met Lebanese who were teenagers during the war in 2006, I met Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps…

– And the hatred exists. Unfortunately, it does.

Our hosts and their friends nodded and understood. We sat in silence for moment.

The rest of the evening we often returned to the topic of the occupation, the settlers, and the clashes we have witnessed between soldiers and Palestinians. Our new Israeli friends appreciated that we told our stories, and they understood the problems the Palestinians face in the West Bank. Our host had even worked on human rights issues in the Occupied Territory before. We had a great night and enjoyed unforgettable hospitality, but I was reminded that politics are never far away when you talk to Palestinians and Israelis.

And on my first Shabbat, I faced some difficult questions. As I make more friends on both sides of the conflict, the tough questions become even more difficult.

The solution must be peace. Hatred is not perpetual; it can and must be changed. If 1948 tore up the Middle East, a just peace can sow it together again, with Israel as a natural part. My host in Jerusalem agreed. His friends agreed. I know that many in Israel and Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East, agree. As Israel gears up for elections next week, this message is more important than ever.

Shabbat shalom, and have a nice weekend.

From Acre, Israel (pictured) to Beirut is only about 110 kms. Photo: J. Roko

From Acre, Israel (pictured) to Beirut is only about 110 kms. Photo: J. Roko