After months of writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I decided that I need to visit some actual Palestinians, ones who are currently living in the West Bank. I realized that most of my information about Arabs was coming from Israelis. And I realized this was pointless and even a bit dangerous. I wanted to see what Palestinian culture was like, apart from the conflict.
So I arranged to meet with a friend of a friend in Ramallah, who has asked that I call him Mr. T. It took me five buses and four hours to get roughly 30 miles from Tel Aviv to the Al-Jalzoon refugee camp north of Ramallah. Mr. T has a background in international law (which he says has no practical application in the occupied territories) and works for two non-profits in Ramallah, both of which are concerned with Palestinian culture and refugees. He welcomed me into his home and provided everything I needed for the three days and two nights I stayed there.
I was unsure about host/guest protocol at first so when he ordered and paid for my carrot juice at a juice bar, I asked him how much it was as I pulled out my wallet. He gave me The Look.
I have become very familiar with The Look during my time in Israel. It is one of the many cultural aspects Israelis and Palestinians have in common. It says, “What, you’re trying to pay? Oh, do put that away, it’s a pathetic attempt.”
Hosting, in Palestine, seems to be even more of a high honor than it is in Israel, which is something I never thought possible, since Israelis had been the most welcoming and thoughtful people I had yet encountered. Although, when I really examine my life experience, I should have known.
Just after high school, I used to baby sit at hotels for tourists. Almost invariably, the guests at the most expensive hotels, with the largest rooms, tipped the poorest. Guests at the Best Western tipped better than guests at the Ritz.
And so it was that a man who lives with his parents and eight siblings in a refugee camp purchased everything I needed during my visit.
But I quickly found that Palestinian culture could not be separated from the conflict. They feel its effects every day. It governs everything they do, every decision they make.
Mr. T took me to the Al-Jalzoon refugee camp, which is home to some 12,000 people, mostly from cities in the interior of Israel, such as Ramla and Lod. As we walked through the narrow streets, he explained that Israel has legal control over the camp, under the Oslo Accords, but that all services (sanitation, health, education) are provided by UNRWA (United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). However, these services are slowly being scaled back.
The school for boys sits at the edge of the camp, behind which one can see the characteristic red-tiled roofs of an Israeli settlement.
The streets of Al-Jalzoon show all the predictable signs of poverty: grafitti, garbage, crumbling walls, poorly-paved, narrow roads, and the occasional empty lot filled with rubble. Mr. T points these lots out here and there and says these homes were demolished by the IDF. When I ask why, he gives me an answer I will hear many, many times during this visit: for security. He says it with a sad sort of chuckle and when the look on my face prompts him for a more complete answer, he adds, “That’s what they say. That’s what they always say.” He adds that often the water supply to the camp is sometimes withheld and that Israel does not permit either the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA to dig wells below a certain depth.
The insides of the homes are remarkably different from the outsides. They are carefully decorated, with matching furniture and drapes, and sets of knick-knacks proudly standing guard in each corner. There is a large family room, a sitting room, a kitchen, bathroom, and several bedrooms. I asked Mr. T why there was such a big difference between the outsides and the insides of Al-Jalzoon. Before he could answer, my mind started generating possibilities. The most logical one is that the residents of the camp do not own their houses and the IDF does not allow them or UNRWA to make improvements to the infrastructure of the camp. Therefore they can only make improvements that cannot be readily seen. Another thought I had was that this home represents 56 years of life. Mr. T was born here. His elderly parents have lived here since the building was built in 1952.
But Mr. T’s answer was much simpler than mine. In response to my question, he quoted Palestinian poet Mahmoud Derwish, “We enjoy life whenever we can.”
We sat together in his sitting room and I asked him another question, one I have been asking many people during my stay in Israel. The question has two purposes: to help me expand my understanding of the conflict and to make people examine their own assumptions. The question is: what is the difference between a terrorist organization and a political party?
Mr. T thought quietly and then answered, “My own view is that terrorism does not have a definition so far. Under any circumstances, conflicting parties do not have to target a civilian population. But at the same time, if an occupying power oppresses an occupied people all the time and does not leave them any other option, then their action would be violent. I’m not trying to justify suicide bombings. But at the same time I can tell you that I understand them. Because if you hit me, if you continue hitting me, you have to expect my reaction. You are telling me, ‘Come and hit me.’”
He thought a moment more and then added, “One night about two years ago, there was a knock at the door. It was 2 a.m. Some soldiers came into the house and made me stand there, and took a picture of me. There was no reason for this. I believe this is terror.”
After this, we walked to the camp’s gathering place and smoked a hookah and talked about many things. An Arabic radio broadcast discussing the prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah came on. I asked Mr. T if he thought it was fair to exchange five live prisoners for two dead bodies. He said, flatly, “yes.” I pressed him, “Do you know what crimes the prisoners were held for?” “No I do not.” “So how do you know it’s fair?” “If this is the only way Israel will release them, what difference does it make?”
This led to a discussion of Israeli prisons. I asked him if he was ever in an Israeli jail and he said that he was once, for two weeks. When I asked him what the charge was, he said that he was not charged at all.
40% of adult male Palestinians have seen the inside of an Israeli jail. Prisoners can be held on “administrative detention” for years without being charged, and then released inexplicably. Other methods of punishment are house demolition, crop burning, and deportation. All of these actions can take place without charges being brought.
The next day, Mr. T brought me to Jericho where we saw Hisham’s Palace. As we sat quietly in the shade of a public park, trying to cope with the heat of the day, Mr. T said, “You know, things in the Arab world are changing. It will not benefit Israel to continue acting this way. Before two years ago, before the second Lebanon war, the world believed Israel was a superpower that could not be defeated. That is changing.”
Back in Tel Aviv, my Israeli host tells me the phone has been blowing up with inquiries about my trip to the other side. She rapid-fires questions at me, one of which is, “Did you discuss the prisoner swap?”
Sami Kuntar was one of the prisoners Israel released to Hezbollah. He spent the last 30 years in jail for murder. She said that prison was like Club Med for him- he got an education, he was taken care of. I said that she does not have a very accurate idea of her own prison system.
She frowned and I debated whether to continue. Should I educate her on her own country’s jails? She did bring up the subject, after all.
So I went on, and told her carefully that, based on many, many first-person accounts I have heard, no matter what crime you are arrested for, you are tortured. Israelis almost without exception torture their Palestinian detainees.
For detainees who are suspected of the most innocuous crimes, this torture may consist of forced nudity, stress positions, and sleep deprivation. For those who are accused of more serious crimes the torture may consist of subjection to surgery without anesthesia.
When I told her that nearly all Palestinian prisoners are tortured, she took the defensive. She did not deny that this was true, but instead pointed out that other countries do this, and nobody is accusing them of anything. She mentioned the United State’s bombing of civilian areas in Yugoslavia and asked why the world doesn’t cry about this.
What I thought, but did not say, was that the point was simply to know the truth. The truth is where it all begins.
But the truth is a cold rock in the belly that most Israelis cannot digest.
Note: As a supplemental visual aid in discussing the West Bank, I offer this map.
When most people imagine the West Bank, they assume that it is synonymous with the country of "Palestine" and that this area is under Palestinian control. The reality is that very little of the West Bank is under sole PA jurisdiction. Most of the West Bank is under Israeli military control. Other areas that are under full or partial PA control are still subject to Israeli intervention at the will of the IDF.
There are hundreds of IDF checkpoints in the West Bank and the passage of people through them is also at the will of the IDF and whichever commander is on duty at any given time.