Thinking through Israel

As a girl from a Jewish family, I had visited Israel often. In recent years, though, I had grown uneasy at how little I knew about the tensions in the region, especially regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.  My resolution: a trip through Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories in order to gain some insight into the issues for myself.

Before entering Lebanon I had to obtain a new passport, as evidence of my previous visits to Israel would have been enough to send me home before I left the ground. All evidence that we were going onwards to Israel had to be removed, and as a land crossing through Syria was out of the question, we flew via Jordan.

Arab Israeli children playing football by The Temple on the Mount. Photo by Milla Lupton.

With neighboring Syria on the verge of civil war, the sight of lost limbs and bullet-pocked buildings in Lebanon were a poignant reminder; not only of previous wars with Israel, but also of the 15 year civil war caused in part by hostility towards the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who immigrated there after the creation of Israel. Unable to talk openly to the people we met, I started to become aware of a growing unease at our connection to Israel and of my own Jewish identity. One friend we could speak openly with – a Brit with Lebanese ties – asked, ‘Do you feel bad visiting Israel, considering how Palestinians are forced to live?’ It wouldn’t be until we reached the West Bank that I could find an answer.

In Israel we met an Arab girl named Laila.* She lives in Nazareth and attends the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Still getting to grips with the history of the conflict, Laila clarified for me that ‘Palestinians are from those areas which didn’t agree to be part of Israel in the ‘48 agreement. Arabs who live in Israel are those who did and they are called Israeli Palestinians – it appears on their passports but not on their ID cards. Palestinians cannot enter Israel without special permission, like a medical issue. Whereas Israeli-Palestinians such as myself can move around wherever but we get more questions.’

What were her feelings on the Israel-Palestine situation I wondered? ‘We don’t like to think about it, otherwise we wouldn’t know where we are. My own grandparents lived in Palestine and it was their home. If I was back in ‘48, I would be only for Palestine, but it’s different now. They [the Jews] have been here for 3 generations. This is their home now too.’

On the question of Palestinian animosity and violence, Laila pointed quite simply towards their treatment: ‘We buy what we’re sold. People begin to behave how they’re expected to’, meaning if someone is treated with hostility as a security threat, they will react violently and so continue the cycle.

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Grace Regan.
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Grace Regan.

A few days later Laila joined us on an attempted trip to Jericho in the West Bank, during which our car broke down. With no insurance and the borders closing soon for evening, we were forced to take refuge with an impoverished but incredibly generous Palestinian family. One older woman told Laila, who translated, of how she had not been able to visit her daughter for 17 years, though her daughter is free to visit her. I began to realize that fraught links such as these exist all across Israel and the Palestinian territories; countless families divided by the category of their identity cards. In meeting this one Palestinian family I became aware of the inevitable strain on any kind of solidarity between a people divided. Able to live in relative freedom and prosperity, Arab Israelis have imitated to survive in a place with Western ideals, and as such are rejected by many Palestinians.

As I open my eyes for the first time to all the soldiers in Israel’s streets, an image comes to mind – of Israel as an unnatural insertion into a land determined to repel it, its borders held in place only by the security of occupation. And as I thought about the question posed by my Lebanese friend, I really grasped the magnitude of the problem. Neither in Israel nor in the territories are Arabs allowed to live as they should, but Israel is no longer so new that its disappearance would solve the problem. This is a country now home to Jews just as it is Arabs, and it is on such an understanding that progress towards peace must be made.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.