In April 2017, I was on a bus going through the roads and the streets of the Palestinian territories and the state of Israel. When I’d signed up for the trip, which was student-led, arranged through the Harvard Kennedy School where I was a Master’s in Public Policy candidate, I was worried I’d feel unsafe under the risk of Palestinian terrorist attacks or the stones of their slingshots, but along with 120 other students, I wanted to build my awareness of the vulnerable situation of the Palestine people as they face long-term Israeli occupation. The trip challenged everything I thought I knew. The only threats I faced were from the shouts and the cameras of the Israel settlers or the checkpoints and controls of the Israel soldiers. My prior image of the Israelis as entrepreneurs, open-minded and progressive, was temporarily substituted by the angry settlers and their seeming irrationality and aggression. My expectation of the terrorizing and violent Palestinian was replaced by the courtesy and tranquility of our Palestinian hosts. The narratives that I’d had in my mind seemed not to fit; nor was I the only one. The feeling in that bus was full of confusion and indignation.
I am Spanish and European and have long empathized with the pain of the Jewish population and their historical suffering. In 1492, the entire Jewish community, some 200,000 people, were expelled from Spain, and thousands of Jewish refugees died while trying to reach safety. The holocaust represented the worst side of some of our European countries and left a historical painful scar on the Jewish community. I have been impressed by Israel, and how their resilience allowed them to establish a vibrant democracy in a context historically threatened. But those views were shaken by this travel.
The first day of the trip we accompanied the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for a tour around East Jerusalem. In a few hours, we descended into a complex and paradoxical labyrinth of walls, checkpoints, constructions, and demolitions. The roads were zig-zag crossing hills and valleys, tunnels, dense residential areas and empty yards. They were built next to a wall (also called security fence) that border sinuous territories. For new-comers like us, it was difficult to understand the bizarre constitutions of the land planning. After receiving the explanations of the United Nations Officers and analyzing the maps and the historical progress, we realized that a third of East Jerusalem, which was occupied Palestinian territory, has been expropriated for the construction of Israel settlements, demolishing thousands of Palestinian-owned structures. A planning crisis has been legally permitted, violating the zoning requirement. What initially looked a chaotic scheme, it ended up being a strategic design of land occupation of the Palestinian territory.
The next day, we continued visiting Hebron, a Palestinian city located in the southern West Bank. It was the largest city in the Palestinian territories after Gaza, and home to 215,452 Palestinians. It was the traditional burial site of the biblical patriarch, and Islam and Judaism consider it a holy city. That is why the Israel government has occupied 20 percent of the city, setting up a settlement in the middle of the city with 500-800 settlers. In our visit, we were accompanied by “breaking the silence,” an organization of veteran combatants who had served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and were committed to expose the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories. That was not an easy visit. We waited for two hours at the entrance to the city stopped by the Israel police under the argument that our safety could be threatened if we passed by. During those two hours, we waited in a garden at the entrance of the settlement where we visited the tomb of a settler who entered in a mosque in Hebron and shot and killed more than 30 Palestinians who were praying. That was supposed to be a place where the settlers can pay tribute to him. After we finally entered we could move across a phantasmagorical scenario of former Palestinian houses with empty markets and business shops. It was a paradoxical reality where young Israel soldiers wandered across the vacant streets with the goal of protecting a small group of settlers that had accepted to move to a strategic hotspot in the middle of Hebron. Either moved by economic incentives or by religious principles, the settlers have established themselves there, creating a high disequilibrium. Few of them approached our bus, taking photographs of us and moving around with their cars.
Our visit coincided with the publication of the United Nations report which stated that Israel had established an “Apartheid regime”. We heard many testimonials validating that report. For example, from Yacub, a Palestinian old man born in the village of Lifta who after being expelled from his village became a refugee. Since then, he was prohibited from returning to his original home. Also from our tour guide George, a young Palestinian who was living in the West Bank. There, Palestinians were governed by “military law,” while the Jewish settlers were “governed by Israeli civil law.” Or from Esharaw, an educated Israeli lady with an Arab name and Palestinian origin living in Haifa. A beautiful Israeli city where nice Arab buildings were mixed with a Mediterranean aroma. Her Arab name and Palestinian origin made her a second-class citizen in the Israeli state with different civil rights than the Jewish citizens.
Telling the story of this trip cannot be straightforward. It is like the landscape of those walls in East Jerusalem, chaotic and sinuous, where I was never sure in which land I was. It reminded me the famous quote “the first victim of a war is the truth” and I could see how the truth has been mistreated. However, the Palestinian voices that I heard, the places that I saw, and the sensations that I experienced all still resonate. The trek was full of testimonies of oppression and resistance, but also of hope and a willingness to change the status quo. They requested us that once we have seen and experienced some of the paradoxes and abuses, we take on the responsibility of spreading their voice. We meant to be an active agent in this conflictive environment. Coming from Harvard, we had the expectations of raising those issues that are not usually heard, reaching people and places that were attainable and proposing alternatives that are hardly ever considered.
I am still digesting all the information received. I am understanding how the legitimacy of the land depends on the legitimacy of the narrative and how important is the vocabulary used to define what I experienced or the history written to explain what I saw. Two different narratives have always been debating each other. Although still in the confusion, I believe the dilemma and the perplexity are themselves the main insights of the trip. Now, when I remember that bus and those emotions, I feel the responsibility of starting to build my own narrative. Because at the end, this trip was not the end but just the beginning of a journey to understand a very important problem for two countries that sooner than later require a solution.