I must admit that before I spent time in Palestine this summer I knew very little about the occupation. I understood of course that the two Palestinian territories have been under Israeli control for decades and the Israeli military regularly commits gross human rights violations, most notably the 2014 military operation in Gaza. This, however, was just about the extent of my knowledge. My lack of familiarity with the living conditions and political situation in the sections of historical Palestine still inhabited by Palestinians was the main reason I decided to study in the West Bank. In addition to an intensive Arabic language program, I took a political science class at Birzeit University and was shocked at the number of consequential historical events I was previously unaware of. One such example is the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their villages in 1948, a horrific instance of ethnic cleansing known as al-Nakba or "the Catastrophe." Palestinians settled into refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and the surrounding countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon with the belief that they would soon be allowed to return to their villages. It is not easy for me to admit my ignorance of such historical events but I think it is important to share because this is not something that the many foreigners on a vacation or a study abroad trip in Israel will learn.
I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on June 12 and headed straight for Jerusalem, a city that was not unfamiliar to me. Shortly thereafter I proceeded to the border crossing and saw the apartheid wall for the first time. The wall is a truly menacing structure that is fit only for a maximum-security prison or a science-fiction film, complete with its guard towers, barbed wire and surveillance equipment. Despite the high level of security at the border, entering the West Bank from Jerusalem is surprisingly simple; cars and busses enter without a single security check. On the contrary, crossing into Israel from Jerusalem is a much more difficult process, especially for those with a Palestinian ID who must first obtain a permit that is often revoked for unspecified security concerns.
Within the first few days I began to feel at home in Palestine. I experienced nothing but genuine kindness from each individual I met, whether it be the owner of the grocery store who greeted me with a fresh cup of coffee each morning or my landlady who forced various types of sweets upon me every time I came through the front door. The warm heartedness of the Palestinian people never failed to impress me, even from those who are deeply impoverished and have experienced years of abuse at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers. One such occasion took place in Hebron, the second largest Palestinian city where violence spawning from the small Jewish settlement in the old quarter has plagued residents for years.
While walking through the settlement my friend Asma approached an Arab woman and asked if Arabs were allowed to live in the Israeli-controlled section of the city. The woman told her that Arabs are still permitted to live right up the hill from where we stood but aren't allowed to walk on paths through the section where the settlers live. Due to these restrictions her walk to work takes 45 minutes as apposed to less than 5 if she could walk on the settler bypass road. After Asma introduced her to the rest of our friends and me, she promptly invited us for dinner at her home and took us under her care for the next few hours. Although it was very apparent that she and her family were of very modest means, they prepared a giant feast and refused our offer to leave and buy gifts to repay their kindness. Even her husband, whom the settlers had thrown stones at on his way home, was overjoyed to see that he had guests and remained in exceptionally high spirits. It is not only men who are subjected to the settlers' harassment; the three young girls of the household are regularly taunted and hit with various objects on their way to and from school while in most cases Israeli soldiers do nothing to fend off the perpetrators.
The soldiers themselves are often the source of violence in the West Bank with the refugee camps serving as their principle target. Refugee camps are a hotbed of political activity and resistance against the occupation, which is why they are often the targets of violent night raids. During my studies in Palestine I became friends with an American named Zayd. Much to my surprise I learned that the Palestinian side of his family lives in a refugee camp in Bethlehem and one day he invited a group of us to meet them. The first thing that struck me upon my arrival in the Aida refugee camp was the content of the graffiti laden walls. In the entrance of this particular camp someone had written the names of every child that was killed in Gaza last summer. Further on was a list of every Palestinian village that Zionist forces emptied in 1948. In regards to the extensive ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the famed Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion once said, "The old will die and the young will forget." Many of the old have since died but the young will never forget. Every Palestinian I've spoken with knows the name of the village where their family came from even though they've never been there and in most cases aren't permitted to visit. The villages have long since been destroyed but many Palestinians still have a deep connection to the land where their ancestors once lived.
One of the most telling pieces of art on the walls that I came across in the Aida refugee camp was a beautiful butterfly underneath the words "Here, only butterfl[ies] and birds are free." It is a common sentiment amongst Palestinians that animals are treated better by the Israelis than they are and from what I've seen and the personal accounts I've heard they're not far off. The living conditions in the camps are very poor and so overcrowded that the refugees have virtually no privacy. They can't expand because Israel is continuing to occupy territory in the West Bank to make room for new settlements, which are illegal under international law. On top of that the apartheid wall is always within view and serves as a constant reminder that there is no true freedom of movement for Palestinians living in the West Bank. Worst of all are the frequent night raids conducted by the Israeli military, which often end in the murder of Palestinian youths and those trying to protect them. This summer three unarmed Palestinians were killed in three separate night raids within the span of just one week. One of the victims was the uncle of a close friend of mine who has already lost multiple loved ones at the hands of Israeli soldiers.
When I think back on my first visit to historical Palestine I'm astounded by how little I actually learned about the plight of the Palestinians. It was not until I ventured to the other side of the apartheid wall that I began to understand how heavy-handed and violent the occupation really is.