Experiences in the Holy Land
A personal report
A lot happened on my trip to Israel and Palestine in July 2005. It was mainly focused around Bethlehem, but it also involved attending the 'Way to Sulha' peace gathering in Israel, visiting several members of Jerusalem Peacemakers, being involved in the 'PeaceTrees' tree-planting project in Bethlehem, spending time at the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem, meeting people and taking lots of photos.
How to sum it all up? I think I have veered toward working mainly with Palestinians, not out of bias, but more out of a feeling that they are more receptive to the kind of input I offer. In my estimation the Palestinians are now ready for peace and normalisation - though they need substantial concessions to help them make their lives and 'nation' viable and workable. The Israelis are not ready or willing - they're confused and on another trajectory, and widely and strongly varying in opinion about where it's going. They seem to be tumbling into an internalised heart-searching and showdown process. Israel is a zesty country, yet there's also a feeling the steam has gone out of it and it has lost its way. Not much different to much of the Western world, but tough in its consequences.
So I do not see peace and resolution around the corner - I see it as a long-haul process lasting perhaps twenty years, working from the ground up.
I'm taking my cues from Northern Ireland, where they have had a de facto peace since 1996 amongst ordinary people, while politicians and warmongers still harangue one another and refuse to make agreements. I think a majority in the Holy Land are already on their way to peace, but things have gone wrong so many times before that they are stuck. A powerful, vociferous minority are still fighting a war, and conflict is a gruelling habit, almost a comfort-zone. The question concerns social immunity to the mindset, threats and exhortations of those who would oppose, divide and fight, and the building of a trust, understanding and tenderness which forms a basis for healthy coexistence.
I was disappointed at the sheer levels of apartheid in the Holy Land. It might be reducing violence, but it is not a solution. Israelis and Palestinians are being incrementally separated out, physically and psychologically, experiencing less and less contact with one another. Sure, it's 'disengagement', but not peace-building. This lessening contact allows people's concepts and projections about 'the others' to take on an increasingly unrealistic aspect. Yet I feel Palestinians are better informed about Israelis than Israelis are with Palestinians - because Israelis impact on Palestinians' lives more than Palestinians on Israelis'.
I noted many instances of deep humanity - IDF soldiers at checkpoints who were at times very friendly (at least, with me and us), and Palestinians who undoubtedly accept Israelis and what they're doing - they have little choice, but accept it and get on with life. Some indicated that the conflict had confronted them personally with deep moral choices - and under the surface this is a collective phenomenon which might one day bring more visible sanctity back to this holy land.
One Druze man from the Golan Heights said that his shepherd brother had been sentenced to 27 years in jail for learning how to defuse landmines, because too many of their sheep were getting blown up - yet this crisis had caused him to 'choose positive', avoid ill-feeling and redouble his efforts at contact-building across the great divide. A man from Jericho expressed his tiredness at feeling sandwiched between Hamas activists and Israeli soldiers and their respective pressures and demands - he just wanted to get on with life and look after his family. A young Jewish settler recounted that she first met Palestinians last year and had forged many new friendships - but she couldn't tell her folks back home about it. Brave souls, these.
I was most impressed by the positive social atmosphere in the Palestinian West Bank - a strong community feeling and sense of welcome and of safety (yes, safety). They have a case of what Brits call 'World War Two Spirit', a kind of factual brightness, a mutual generosity and solidarity under adverse conditions - though despair lurks under the surface, quietly for now. I've seen this embattled positivity in Tibetans and Vietnamese too - it's a cruel kind of spiritual initiation. In my estimation, the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians definitely want peace, recognising that conflict no longer serves them well. Yet they have lost so much that they definitely need quite a lot back if they are to succeed and survive. They are vulnerable to being pushed back into conflict to stave off the encroachment and stalling of Israelis and the insincere indifference of the international community. But there is still hope - conflict is not inevitable on the Palestinian side.
I was aware of the creeping tragedy that is Israel. On the surface it looks like a successful Western-style country but, underneath, I see disaster looming - environmental, domestic and international - and I feel great pity for Israelis. The critical issue is that virtually all Jews prone to emigrating to Israel have now done so, and immigration has dried up, together with birth rates. So Israel's growth-pace has ground to a halt, and it finds itself spread wider than it can sustain.
Meanwhile, Palestinians now constitute 50% of the population in Israel and Palestine together (according to Ha'aretz) and, with or without democracy, this is critical. Their large families don't mean just population growth, but a sociological development of extended families and communities that work like survival-machines, with or without effective governance. Israel is at the same time not far from becoming a pariah state - even at Ben Gurion airport the style and extent of security measures taken (more when leaving than when entering Israel) is inconsiderate, alienating and disproportionate to travellers, discouraging return or foreign empathy. Many of Israel's actions over recent decades, at least from a European viewpoint, have clearly been excessive and disproportionate, and a shadow rests over the nation exceeding the normal amount of errors most nations and peoples usually make (after all, no nation is perfect).
So, the dream of Israel which drove its foundation sixtyish years ago, even in its milder manifestations, seems to me to be coming to an end and needing fundamental reassessment. This means cutting back the nation and its aspirations to meet the future, resolving domestic issues, making friends with its neighbours and making Israel a more normal country - an enormous job which cannot be delayed without consequence. Irrespective of Israel's military prowess, it cannot long continue as a militarised state ruled by graduated generals, even if nominally a democracy. If, as some wish, Israel is to control all the land from the Jordan valley to the sea, then the Palestinians will become a democratic majority. In order to preserve Israel's Jewishness, either a pull-back or a descent into a racially-dictatorial state will be necessary. The nation is politically stymied, as things now stand.
Israel's future lies in the Middle East - USA's support is unreliable since it has its own growing problems, Europe sits on its hands, quietly but uncommitedly supporting the Palestinians, and the Middle East holds back its friendship until better days. Israel's military focus is both a distraction from and a cause of many wider and deeper issues than the conflict. Israeli society now itself suffers significant violence, social hardness and unsolidarity. People penned up in settlements and concrete housing estates, surrounded by security walls and guarded by checkpoints don't look happy to me. The separation wall is a disaster and a prison for Israelis as well as Palestinians. It's rather like a tragic two-sided mirror snaking across the landscape, making each side see only its own projections - and increasingly its own reflection too.
Regarding the Zionist ideal, I think the religious settler Rabbi Froman has hit the nail on the head - though, in the short term his proposal is controversial and not doable. He wishes, as an Orthodox Jew, to live in the Land of Israel in its spiritual sense, and he doesn't mind whether this is under an Israeli or Palestinian government. Israel has a Palestinian minority, and Palestine can equally have a Jewish minority, he says. He proposes separating the spiritual from the political notion of Israel, and I believe he's got a point. This is the kind of 'mad' solution which can change the context of the conflict and re-frame it in a peace-building direction. New perspectives like this are very necessary.
The longterm future involves, I believe, the incremental founding, over a 50-year period, of a Middle Eastern Union. It would be a big jump, but it would gradually dissolve the territorial borders of the whole region and permit a return to the perennial inter-ethnic situation which has existed there for so long, in which social/cultural/religious minorities define their position not by territorial control but by social roles and niches. The Middle East's social groups have always been spread across territorial boundaries, intermingled, distinct and contributing different inputs into life. Before someone says 'impossible', I wish to point out that the European Union was forged over the decades on the foundation of war, on a 'never again' basis. Interestingly, the European contingent at the PeaceTrees project in Bethlehem this summer was made up of Germans, Austrians, Dutch and British, all good friends - and our 'group mother', the youngest person there, was a British Muslim.
Historically, apart from during the 20th Century, the former Arabic/Turkish hegemony in the region gave a safer haven to Jews than Europe ever did. But now Jews are no longer the abject victims that they were 60-100 years ago - they have proven their strength - and they are now in a position to come to a mutually-beneficial, peaceful arrangement with their neighbours in coming generations. As one of the founding thinkers of the nation, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, originally foresaw in the 1920s. What this mainly awaits is a shift in the way Israelis feel about themselves and their aims. This is a longterm perspective, yet the lack of vision is perhaps one of the Middle East's greatest underlying problems right now.
Palestinians, meanwhile, are in a tricky situation because, while they are technically in a 'cease-fire' with Israelis, they have little power to progress that peace - it mainly awaits a response on the Israeli side. This could take time, since the Israelis seem rather entrenched in their existing positions and ways - setting difficult preconditions on negotiation, playing for time, creating 'facts on the ground' in the form of settlements, walls, demolitions and encroachments, making East Jerusalem non-negotiable and throttling movement and trade in and from the Palestinian territories.
Like much of the Western world, Israelis are running a 20th Century tape, referenced backwards, yet they're struggling with it too. The forthcoming economic decline from its dizzy heights of the oil-dependent West will probably change this radically. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have to keep their angry radical minority quiet and wait out this awkward period, and this is difficult. There is a risk Palestine will re-radicalise, fired up with frustration.
Israel is in no mood to make sufficient concessions over settlement-building, the separation wall, land-seizures, East Jerusalem and releasing control, to satisfy the Palestinians. There is insufficient trust in peace, the Palestinians and their Arabic neighbours on the Israeli side. Yet the conundrum is that 60 years of military action has not achieved its goal. Reality faces Israel. The Gaza withdrawal, though dramatic, was not a significant enough move for Palestinians, to give them a sense of progress. Nevertheless, the consensus in Palestine is still for peace: they want no more losses, to normalise their lives and get on with the future. They have 'hit bottom', and the next direction is up. Arafat's death marked a tidal change, bringing Palestinians up-to-date with their intractable reality, as it now stands.
The best contribution outsiders such as I can make is to encourage contact-building between both (all) sides, to support Israelis in relaxing their post-Holocaust defensiveness and seeing things another way, and to support Palestinians in being patient and persevering (yet again). I believe a change in the wider world - in the form of economic and geopolitical change, or environmental shocks, or unforseeables - could accelerate shifts in the Holy Land.
We must be realistic, and look at the extent and depth of what 'peace' means - not only ending conflict, fairness and justice for all, but a deep-level forgiveness, redemption and forward-movement, which can a generation or two. The building of this starts now. The good news is that older generations pass away and younger generations grow up already different - and reacting against their parents.
Peace and the conditions to foster it are not close, though a little progress has been made - though there are still those who would sabotage it and wrench things backwards again. Yet I sense that a tide has shifted and, while there will be setbacks, the general movement is forward. Longer-term, I am optimistic. Shorter-term I think we must expect fitful, sometimes painful or tragic, gradual advances, in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back fashion. I think peace-builders have two decades' work ahead. Which, in my own case, takes me up to age 75! But then, a life's work takes a lifetime.
This is my assessment. During my trip, I think my greatest unintentional contributions came in the form of 'healing perspectives', appreciated by many. I have studied history and geopolitics all my life to try to understand the longer and wider significance of our times. As a 'flower child' and student protester when young I played a part in forging history, and this generated in me an aptitude for frontline action which working in the comfortable West no longer satisfies. I found myself recounting to many people how my father, his siblings, parents and generation dedicated themselves to fighting Germans and how, today, our countries are part of the same union. Warring peoples can and do put the past behind them. Time does change things, and remarkable turns of event can happen. This is difficult to face and to remember on a day-to-day basis, though.
I found the trip emotionally moving. My eyes were regularly searched for authenticity, to see whether I was a 'good man'. Again and again I had to convey to Palestinians that, though I come from Britain, I'm not a rich man - and the camera was borrowed!
People are in a delicate state, underneath. Everyone is trying to live a life and get on, but there's an enormous mess in front of them. Getting things done is complex. Drawing on my experience of living in Glastonbury, I know that living in holy places amplifies life's ups and downs, making some things exaggeratedly difficult and other things mysteriously easy. I can see how Israel and Palestine have got themselves into a tangle which isn't easily unravelled and ratcheted down. But it must be done. Because one of the greatest ingredients of peace - weariness - is already there. It's all running out of steam - but how to disentangle it?
By taking each day as a starting point, and going on from there. By establishing clearly that the price of further conflict is far higher than the price of peace, and acting on that basis. Things are moving on.
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2005.
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