Sunkissed streets. Parisian-style pedestrian crossings. Bauhaus buildings on every corner, all curved lines and thermometer windows. Pride flags flying from rooftops and pasted onto shop windows. Walls decorated with multicoloured hearts and topless women. An anatomical diagram of the vulva tacked onto a tree. Bar after bar after bustling bar. Buskers on street corners. Hot plates of pasta. Vegan ice cream. Volleyball and outdoor gyms on the beach. This is Tel Aviv.
Winding mountain roads. Limestone in shades of beige, pink, orange. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in black hats; Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in wigs. Christian tour groups in matching white caps. Palestinian men in keffiyehs. A sprawling network of alleyways housing market stalls and their savvy proprietors. Churches and mosques and synagogues. Tombs and mausoleums and cemeteries. Pilgrims and soldiers, side by side. Road closures and police cars and AK47s. Stabbings. Shootings. A popping craft beer scene. A hipster youth hostel named after a Hebrew patriarch. Neighbourhoods that lock down on Saturdays. This is Jerusalem.
A towering concrete wall. Blood-coloured warning signs: “This entrance is forbidden for Israeli citizens”. Traffic jams and checkpoints. Pale tower blocks and pot-holed roads. Construction workers balancing atop half-finished roofs. A tomb surrounded on three sides by water. A minaret that once bore a laser pointing down into Jerusalem. Nelson Mandela’s likeness on a roundabout. Car horns blaring, sirens wailing, smiling faces calling out: “welcome!”. Roadside stalls overflowing with red strawberries, green drupes, orange loquats. Flatbreads spiced with za’atar. Coffee spiced with cardamom. Curious glances and requests for selfies. This is Ramallah.
The largest amphitheatre in the Middle East. Quad-biking and bungee jumping and rock climbing. Houses built from the rocks of the valley. Roads that curve upwards at alarming angles. Plans to create luxury hotels, shopping centres, a Palestinian Silicon Valley. Qatari money and Palestinian businessmen. An air-conditioned showroom you can “check in” at on Facebook. An English-language school. A flag torn down by settlers. A water pipeline passing through contested land. An entry road at the mercy of Israeli authorities. Big dreams and even bigger obstacles. This is Rawabi.
A derelict thoroughfare. Israeli flags fluttering over empty buildings and empty streets, painted onto water tanks and traffic barriers. A sign that reads: “this land was stolen by Arabs”. Broken glass and rusted metal awning. Staircases swarmed by barbed wire. Watchtowers. Checkpoint after checkpoint after checkpoint. A Palestinian street with a mesh roof – protection against settlers throwing stones. A settler street with a memorial – commemoration for Jews killed in the Second Intifada. An Ultra-Orthodox man leading his three year old daughter across a crumbling road. Two Palestinian women who smile and say “marhaban”, who giggle like schoolgirls when you say “marhaban” back. A holy building shared between Muslims and Jews, the dividing wall so thin you can hear IDF soldiers laughing as you stand inside the mosque. An international observer force intended to be temporary, but who’ve been here so long they know the locals by name. This is Hebron.
Five cities, two nations. Three major religions, four major languages. Five Arab-Israeli wars, two Intifadas, three Gaza conflicts, daily articulations and disarticulations of the need for peace. Fifty years of Israeli occupation beyond the Green Line, twenty nine years of ever-growing international recognition for the State of Palestine, twenty three years of Palestinian Authority governance, five years of UN observer status. Seventy years of Israeli statehood, seventy two years of Holocaust memory, one hundred and twenty years of political Zionism, two thousand six hundred years of diaspora. Three thousand two hundred years of history. All of this and much, much more, superimposed upon a land 1/19 of the size of California. It’s mind-boggling to say the least.
When I applied for the Grimshaw Club trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I had a lot of preconceptions. My parents, whilst sympathetic to the religious significance of Israel/Palestine and the traumatic scars left by the Holocaust, are pretty left-wing politically and have always been critical of the State of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. I first became politically aware of the conflict during the 2014 Gaza War, and as I followed the rolling news coverage all I saw was this huge disparity between Palestinian and Israeli casualties. As someone critical of state militarism in general and a habitual fan of the underdog, I found myself criticising Israel and my own government’s support for what I saw as a needlessly abusive state.
Yet I was also aware that what I’d read and learned and grown up around was biased. Minus a few weeks of academic research at uni, everything I knew about Israel/Palestine came from A) my mother, who is a Quaker and consequently interested in human rights in Palestine, B) the Guardian, a left-leaning paper if ever there was one, and C) the human rights organisations I follow and donate to. I’d never really engaged with Israelis or the Israeli side of the story. So the Grimshaw Club trip was a fantastic learning opportunity, a chance to challenge myself to think outside the confines of a partial story and start to engage with the complexity of the region.
And my oh my did I get what I came for. With every meeting, every conversation with an ambassador or politician or NGO worker, I reformulated my opinions. There was so much to absorb; I filled a whole notebook with my frantic scribbles. And that was just what we learned from talking to people. Being there, seeing this region with my own eyes…that was a whole different kind of knowledge. Israel is, frankly, incredible. When you consider that this is a state that has only formally existed for less than a century, and then look at the level of development and standard of living it has achieved, at the infrastructure and economy and political institutions, it’s quite mind-blowing. Walking around Tel Aviv is like walking around any major European city. You have to admire the industry of the Israeli people.
But then cross the Green Line and you see a very different story. It’s not as if the Palestinians are not industrious. Rawabi, Palestine’s first ever planned city, is testament to their drive for a better life. Built from the stone of the valley in which it is based, it’s an outstanding achievement – especially considering how difficult it is to build anything in the West Bank, what with Israeli restrictions. Yet Rawabi is the oddball of the West Bank. Visiting Ramallah and Hebron, Jericho and Bethlehem, you get the sense that this is a struggling nation. Take the price of lunch, for instance. In Tel Aviv, lunch costs 40 shekels (about £10). In Ramallah, it costs just 4. There are very real disparities in standards of living between Israel and Palestine. Not to mention disparities WITHIN Palestine – Ramallah is a vibrant city under full Palestinian control, but Hebron is really struggling. We didn’t even visit Area C or the Gaza Strip, the latter because of safety concerns – which might give you an indication of what life is like there. Clearly, something isn’t right here. The power differential between Israel and Palestine seems so massive, it seems at first like it must be wanton cruelty.
Yet, when you listen to Israelis – like really listen, with an open mind – you start to understand. With the exception of a few politicians and soldiers who really do seem to lack empathy, this isn’t wanton cruelty. It’s the consequence of a very real sense of insecurity, a very real fear that one day Israel and the Jewish people will no longer exist. Visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Centre, put something into perspective for me that I could never see before. I’d learned about the Holocaust in history. I’d heard statistics and visited Anne Frank’s house and thought I knew how awful it was. Then I walked the corridors of Yad Vashem, saw the family photographs and shoes and glasses and journals and artwork and clothing, heard the testimony of survivors who had been buried alive under six feet of bodies, who’d lost every single member of their family, who went from being doctors and artists and teachers to being evicted from their jobs, from their homes, from their country, from this world. It hit hard. And I understood: the Holocaust may seem distant for us in Britain, but for Israelis its memory is woven into the very fabric of the nation. As one official we met with expressed: “we will never again entrust our security to anyone else”. And I really cannot blame them.
Israelis see themselves as surrounded. Given the history, this is understandable. Hezbollah and Hamas and even the Palestinian Authority all declare that Israel has no right to exist. Hezbollah and Hamas have the backing of Iran, a state that has been anti-Israel since its 1979 revolution. The Arab states, whilst tacitly peaceful with Israel now (and in the case of Jordan and Egypt, formally peaceful), are ambivalent – whilst many elites see common interests with Israel, it’s very hard to square cold-hearted national interest with the emotional memory that lives on for the Arab peoples, who are scarred by the exodus of Palestinians and the perceived (and real) aggressions of the Israeli state. Israelis feel, not without good reason to feel, like their nation is constantly fighting for its right to exist.
Still, an Israeli right to self-defence, to existence as an independent nation, should not translate into the arbitrary oppression of another people. It should also not entail the militarisation of an entire society, wherein every Israeli citizen must serve in the army. To that end, Palestinian independence should not require the violent rejection of Israel. Just because violence is comprehensible does not make it defensible. The two state solution clearly must be implemented. But how to get there? The Israelis and Palestinians are so divided, yet so intertwined (literally, geographically – 20% of Israelis are Palestinian in ethnicity, 13% of Israeli Jews live in the West Bank, and many Palestinians travel daily to Israel for work), that it’s very hard to see how the two state solution could be arrived at. Looking at the “swiss cheese” West Bank makes your head hurt. No wonder so many Israelis and Palestinians have become pessimistic about the prospects for peace.
Yet there is also hope. There are so many initiatives that fly under the radar – trust-building programmes bringing Israeli and Palestinian school children together, for example. The 1990s saw an unprecedented push for peace, culminating in Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza. Whilst Israelis feel scarred by what came next (the election of Hamas and a new, militarised threat to Israeli security), this is evidence that with the right leadership, the right international support, and most importantly with the right frame of mind, progress is entirely possible. How long it will be until we reach that point is uncertain, and it’s even more uncertain whether everyone will be satisfied. But as a great man once said, “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”. Complexity must not become a barrier to meaningful action.