Shifting views of Israel and Palestine

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I am on a study tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It is my eighth visit over twelve years, and each time I come away with less clarity and more questions about the tensions that plague this tiny land.

Palestinians burned tires and threw stones during clashes with the Israeli police on 15 May 15 2011 at Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah, West Bank. The day marked the 'Nakba' or 'catastrophe' which befell Palestinians following Israel's establishment in 1948. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is multi-dimensional, has deep roots and no easy answers. Who is the oppressor? Who is the oppressed? It all depends upon the lens you look through at any given moment. And our view is continually shifting as we make our way from East and West Jerusalem to Bethlehem, from Jericho to Ramallah, from the Gaza border to Tel Aviv.

In Jerusalem, with Israeli elections looming, we engage with the views of a left-wing Israeli journalist, a centrist Jewish author with Muslim dialogue partners, a controversial Arab-Israeli candidate on the campaign trail, a right-wing veteran Middle East commentator who sees no viable peace on the horizon, and another political correspondent dubbed 'the most optimistic man in Israel'.

At Yad Vashem we are plunged into the darkness of holocaust history. At the Centre for Israeli Innovation we are dazzled by Israel's entrepreneurial chutzpah. It is no small miracle that a fledgling nation of traumatised people, surviving genocide and three wars of self-defence, has managed to reinvent itself into a leading start-up nation.

Inside the West Bank the view is just as complex. At the Palestinian Authority government offices we are greeted by a foreign ministry official and a hard-line lecture on all Israel's sins. An hour later we are hearing the strikingly moderate views of the Deputy Prime Minister. We have already been exposed to painful scenes at Aida refugee camp, the controversial Israeli security barrier ('wall') and Qalandiya checkpoint.

Making our way through the bustling streets of Ramallah, advertisements for Palestinian fashion and fine-dining juxtapose the charred remains of yesterday's protest. A short drive later, the modern marvel of Rawabi rises from the ancient landscape. Rawabi is Palestine's first master-planned, environmentally-sustainable city under construction for 40,000 residents, the brainchild of a multi-millionaire American-Palestinian.

The many faces of this land and its peoples never cease to surprise. Our Israeli-Palestinian guide ably navigates the diverse narratives emanating from settlements to falafel vendors, from war memorials to cultural icons. He acknowledges the benefits of being an Arab Muslim citizen of Israel, yet also harbours a painful ancestral story of dispossession in the 1948 war.

 

"No one wants this occupation. It is bad for Palestinians. It is bad for Israelis. Yet how to end it justly and safely for both parties is far from clear."

 

Here, amidst all the complexities, most people get on with their lives. Palestinians from the West Bank might queue for hours to get through a checkpoint on their way to work in Israel. Meanwhile Israeli children near the Gaza border sleep in bomb shelters. Palestinian parents fear for their children's safety amidst Israeli military presence in the West Bank. Meanwhile Israeli parents fear that their teenage children will be those Israeli soldiers assigned to duty in the West Bank. No one wants this occupation. It is bad for Palestinians. It is bad for Israelis. Yet how to end it justly and safely for both parties is far from clear.

Still, there are signs that political impasse and bloodshed may not have the last word. The NGO EcoPeace has Israelis and Palestinians lobbying the governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to better manage scarce water resources. Project Rozana and Road to Recovery have Israelis and Palestinians working together for improved health outcomes for Palestinian communities. The Aguda is a Tel Aviv LGBT organisation that includes outreach to Palestinian gay people in the West Bank.

Combatants for Peace harnesses the energies of those on both sides who have exchanged armed struggle for educational targets. The Parents Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian families who have each lost a child, killed by the 'other side'. Their personal stories convey a strong message: if we can reconcile, surely governments can too.

Meanwhile, other cooperative initiatives focus on economic development. Palestinian Internship Program supports young Palestinian graduates with Israeli-sponsored start-up assistance and networking opportunities in the hi-tech sector. And the list goes on: individuals, NGOs, grassroots initiatives embodying the very peace to which the world aspires.

Nor is it all about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Tel Aviv we visit Bialik Rogozin School, which educates 1500 non-Jewish children from 51 countries. Culturally diverse, Israel both succeeds and struggles in its efforts to integrate waves of immigrants and refugees. At a nearby women's collective called Kuchinate, we meet asylum seekers from Eritrea and Nigeria slowly rebuilding their lives. The unassuming little nun who greets us has received public recognition for her part in uncovering human trafficking networks in the Sinai Peninsula.

The complexity of Israeli and Palestinian societies demands respect. Israel is not the evil empire and Palestinians are not all terrorists or eternal victims. By and large, Israelis and Palestinians resemble people everywhere: saintly and sinful, hopeful and fearful, challenged and talented. They both carry deep ancestral memories, past traumas, and legitimate connections to the land. Shared aspirations for peace are often betrayed by questionable political forces, self-seeking media agendas and the violent actions of extremists.

As Australians living 14,000km away we are in no position to solve this conflict; but we can help by taking great care in how we communicate about it. Whatever our political leanings, we can steer clear of causes that demonise the other, that eschew nuance and treat ethnic or religious groups as one-dimensional categories. Rather than import the conflict 'here', we can support Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding initiatives 'over there'. In the words of a bereaved father from the Parents Circle, 'Don't be too pro-Palestinian. Don't be too pro-Israeli. Desire peace for both.'

 

 

Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based Catholic faith educator.

Main image: Palestinians burned tires and threw stones during clashes with the Israeli police on 15 May 15 2011 at Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah, West Bank. The day marked the 'Nakba' or 'catastrophe' which befell Palestinians following Israel's establishment in 1948. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Teresa Pirola, Israel, Palestine

 

 

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Existing comments

A finely nuanced and compassionate article. The Israel-Palestine conflict is certainly an entrenched, and still volatile, situation. There are many peacemakers as mentioned in the article. However, great suffering and suspicion still exists. Perhaps the intense scrutiny and analysis has become insufferable. For one or both sides. Therefore, it may be best not to take 'sides' and then a form of peace may have a chance.
Pam | 06 May 2019


Thank you Teresa for your closely observed and acute observations on an agonising situation that affects so many Palestinian and Israeli people longing for peace. Your article has helped me to pray in a truer way for peace in that land where many continue to suffer greatly yetgive cause for hope.
Philippa Wetherell | 08 May 2019


Great article, Teresa, one of the most succinct and fair I've ever read on this topic. I share your experience of sympathy for both sides. My first experience of the Israel/Palestinian issue was through that wonderful film "Exodus" (1960) - obviously pro-Israel. By the time I visited Israel in 1990, I was leaning sympathetically towards the Palestinians, but we had a great and knowledgeable Israeli tour guide, and my own observation of what the Jewish citizens had made of the country in the years since statehood gave me great respect for them and what they had achieved in so short a time. Then as the settlement movement became more and more blatant, unfair, and clearly supported by a government exploiting racism, as the wall was built, and Israel moved to the hard right, I became more critical again. But it is true that there is such potential in both peoples and also potential goodwill on both sides, that there are people who are genuinely seeking resolution and the best for all. May those people find a way (and get all the help and prayers from around the world that they need)!
PaulM | 08 May 2019


Well done. You should be on the ABC media regularly so that Australians get some understanding of the complexities.
angela | 08 May 2019


Two interesting articles on a very complex situation. I agree with the criticisms of the first article, though I am still wondering whether it is anti-semitic or merely ingenuous. Teresa Pirola's article on the other hand is a beautifully written, balanced piece, as is usual with her writing which I have been following for many years. She seems really to understand the complexity that is the Israel/Palestine conflict and offers a very sensible starting point for attempting to resolve the conflict. The first article, whether intentional or not, merely provides a way to exacerbate the conflict. Peter
Anonymous | 08 May 2019


Nice piece. Thanks Teresa.
Anne Benjamin | 09 May 2019


Reading this article gives me hope and reminds me that its people, people like Teresa and the people who travelled with her, the people they met, yes even me and you who can make the difference.
Greg Wilson | 09 May 2019


A magnificently written and nuanced article. Such a complex situation that is too often aggravated by mis-information. In this, as in so many conflicts, the truth is hard to find. Media outlets, social media and other sources are subject to bias and ideology as we all are. Let us pray that God will work through the hearts of all to find peace.
FTP | 10 May 2019


To the outsider it is an extremely complex situation in Israel/Palestine. It also looks extremely volatile. The real problems may not come from inside, but externally from powerful groups in both the United States and the Middle East.
Edward Fido | 10 May 2019


A most reflective and balanced article Teresa thank you.
Trish Brown | 11 May 2019


A really good piece that humanizes both sides of the conflict, and recognizes the rights of both peoples. As Teresa correctly notes, Australians should assist individuals and groups advocating peace and reconciliation, and at the very least do no harm. This article stands in marked contrast to the one-eyed ethnocentrism favoured by the other E. Street contributor, Ramona Wadi.
philip mendes | 11 May 2019


Teresa Pirola, you ask, " Who is the oppressor? Who is the oppressed? " If, after 8 visits to Occupied Palestine, you are still asking this question, with all due respect, I'm guessing that your tours are spending too much time in Holocaust museums & not enough time with Palestinian people. Might I venture to suggest that you jump on a bus to Jenin & spend a week living in the Cinema Jenin Guesthouse & walk the streets talking with the local people. I guarantee the answer will present itself!
David Hicks | 12 May 2019


I have just returned from a 2 week visit to Israel, staying in Tel Aviv,travelling on the north coast and staying in Jerusalem with visits to Jericho, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. Teresa's article has changed my deep pessimism to some degree of hope for this tiny complex land. The multiple waves of occupation have been won by those with the most devastating weapons. Now they have the ability to annihilate each other and the neighbours. I hope Teresa's list of active peace groups succeeds in changing human behaviour and history. For whom is it the promised land?
Ann Long | 12 May 2019


A very moving, balanced and hopeful article - thank you Teresa.
Elise | 15 May 2019


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