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Monday, August 8, 2011

East Jerusalem to Ramallah

For the Arab Spring, Israel represents the hope that in the Middle East, a nation can be both a national homeland and a free society. Israel is a modern, thriving democracy amid a region dominated by despotic regimes that brutally oppress their people and rape their land’s resources. Freedom enables Israel’s advancing economy, robust educational system, unique culture, prolific media and independent judiciary to thrive.

Yet Israel and its neighbors remain in a perpetual state of war, and the majority of the world’s nations regularly condemn the Jewish state. Unable to beat Israel on the battlefield in 1956, ’67, ’73 and the ’80s, Israel’s Arab neighbors resorted to terrorism, the perpetuation of Palestinian suffering and endless propaganda.

In this context, Israel has struggled for peace. For decades Israel has been a willing and reliable partner in peace with Jordan and Egypt. However, a lasting peace with the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s surrounding enemies has remained elusive. Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, all active surrogates of the Iranian regime, are sworn to Israel’s destruction, oppose peace at every turn and promise not to be bound by any agreement.

Nevertheless, the Jewish state must regain the moral high ground. Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu are vilified as obstacles to Palestinian self-determination. So strong is the impression that Israel perpetuates Palestinian suffering that a majority of United Nations members may vote to support a unilateral Palestinian state at this September’s General Assembly.

In America, perception is fast becoming reality, and a growing number of people are questioning support for Israel. Worrisome for the longer term, even among younger Jews, support for Israel is now a debatable question instead of an undisputed fact.

Through Hillel, Birthright Israel, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel and many other initiatives, we work tirelessly to educate Jewish youth and expose them to the wonders of their heritage and to the blessing that is the Jewish state. But when this generation is bombarded constantly by images and descriptions of Israel’s villainy, it becomes increasingly difficult to combat negative impressions. Through action and inaction, Israel is fast losing ground in this battle.

Palestinian people, in addition to their other hardships, have been cut off from East Jerusalem by a gigantic concrete wall and a series of checkpoints which prevent easy passage between Israel and the territory of the West Bank, occupied in violation of international law since 1967. East Jerusalem is a city of over 300,000 Palestinians, which -- though it has never been their political capital -- has been their cultural, economic and artistic capital for countless generations.

A short fourteen miles away, in the hills to the north of Jerusalem, lies the acting political capital of Palestine, Ramallah. When we visited Bir Zeit University in the morning one of the students told one of the Muslims in our delegation who had been praying at Al-Aqsa how she too longed to go to East Jerusalem one day; later that evening one of the Israeli students from Hebrew University told me that he had heard many wonderful things about Ramallah.

They're all true. Ramallah is a wonderful, vibrant town, bustling with energy and verve. Where else in the world is a city in which one of the main streets running through the center of town is named after an ice cream parlor? And on Rukab Street, down a shadowy staircase there is an English language bookstore where shone up at me from a book table the face of Suheir Hammad, Palestinian-Brooklynite poet. Later on the street, hanging in a store window: a charcoal drawing of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who made Ramallah his home when in 1997 he at last returned to Palestine after a lifetime abroad.

After our visit to Bir Zeit University we were able to talk with activists from Gaza via a teleconference system. The seven young activists, all between 18 and 22, most of them women, were able to tell us about their various democracy building projects in Gaza. We had to strain to make out their grainy faces in the low-resolution project, and strain also to understand their heavily accented English but it moved me nearly to tears to hear the hope in their voices, see the commitment and kindness in their faces.

The Palestinian people have been divided in four and none of the four can meet, create cultural commerce or find political unity as a people. Scattered by war, they are now scattered by "peace." There are the Palestinian-Israelis who live inside the "green line," the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel. There are the Palestinians who live, sealed up in Gaza, without adequate construction supplies to repair any damage caused in the siege of Gaza, many of them living without electricity, access to fresh water or medical care. There are the Palestinians who live in the cities and towns of the Occupied West Bank and then of course there are the approximately 4 million members of the Diaspora who have no legal status as Palestinians per se. Though legally some are permitted to travel, the onerous system of checkpoints makes a twenty minute drive turn into a three or four hour journey.

In East Jerusalem I was constantly aware of the fact that, though beyond the "green line" and so not a part of the internationally recognized State of Israel, we were in annexed territory. I had no sense of the Palestinians here as a sovereign people. There are urban settlements inside the city and a set of settlements ringing the city to the east (and so inside the Occupied West Bank) that are cutting off the Arab city from the rest of Palestinian territory. As we drove out of Jerusalem toward Ramallah we had to drive through a checkpoint past the high concrete wall. This wall ostensibly divides Israel from the Palestinian territories but the wall is far inside the West Bank, cutting off parts of what is legally considered to be Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

One thing that has haunted me on this trip through an unsettling region with two names is how complicated the situation is, how many views there are toward solving the seeming myriad of issues that face the Palestinian and Israeli people. One issue seems basic: there can never be a functioning and vibrant Palestinian polity until there is freedom of movement for the Palestinian people. The wall must come down, the blockade of Gaza must end and the checkpoints in the Occupied West Bank must be removed and transit between Gaza and the West Bank restored.

There are a range of complicated issues that face the Palestinian people about which there is lively debate and discussion but three concerns seem to be the most basic ground point from which to begin a true movement toward peace between two equal partners, two nations devoted to finding common ground and a way toward justice over part grievances and shared prosperous future: there should be a full withdrawal by Israel from Palestinian lands illegally occupied since 1967 (Gaza Strip and the West Bank), full equality for Arabs living inside Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

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