Thursday, June 3, 2010

Palestinians and Israelis are deserving of a better future

The recent violence and escalation of tension in Israel is disheartening. It’s easy in situations like this to simply point fingers and pass blame, but that type of exercise becomes tiresome. Besides, like all conflicts, the truth usually lies closer to the middle. This doesn’t diminish the struggle that Palestinians face in their pursuit of respect, dignity, and freedom; nor does it lessen the fear that Israelis feel when erratic missiles are lobbed into their territory, or a fanatic kills innocents, spreading terror through the streets of Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, or Haifa. As one Israeli cab driver said to me while there a few months ago, “we [Israelis and Palestinians] are both living in a prison.”

Missing beyond the news stories, and protest, and bellicose rhetoric of--this land is mine. No, it’s mine--are the ordinary people, who are eking out an existence and just want to enjoy the simple things that life has to offer. In the nearly two weeks that I traveled throughout the West Bank, I was continually met by gracious and hospitable Palestinians. At times of heightened tension it is these people one thinks of most.

I remember the playful boys who waved and scampered down a large hill to meet our group. There was Nadal, our first guide who has lived his entire 48 years in a refugee camp. I’ll never forget the delicious meal his wife prepared for us. Yet, I wonder what the future holds for his children, as they grow up in an overcrowded refugee camp plagued by a lack of resources, limited opportunities, and high unemployment.

“Hello. Hello. Welcome. Welcome.” I’ll never forget the greeting we received from young and old, as we walked into Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank. And Habib one of our guides, who opened up his home to us one night and who, amongst the spectacular, yet sparse, landscape was adept at gathering some leaves to brew a delicious pot of tea.

I reflect upon the Bedouins I met, whom for centuries had lived a nomadic existence. Preferring the wide expanse of the land, they moved from place to place, where the politics of national borders meant little. Today, they are penned in on small, scrabbly tracts of land. Misunderstood and discriminated against, their traditional way of life has disappeared.

And I’ll never forget the festive scene on Palm Sunday in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem, where hundreds of Arab Christians spilled out of the Church in an uplifting and celebratory mood. The Boy Scout band marched its way up and down the street, and children were holding balloons in the shape of cars, and flowers and cartoon characters.

I think of Jack, who owns a small souvenir shop in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Dressed in a tweed suit jacket and matching tam, I guessed him to be in his late 70s. He laments the lack of business. Few visitors stay long enough to shop or experience the town that gave birth to a religion. The tour buses bring people to the Church of the Nativity, but just as quickly as they come, they hurry back to Jerusalem, past the checkpoints, and the imposing 26-foot security wall that Israel has constructed.

I was bouyed by the inspiring message from Abdelfattah, who heads the Alrowwad Centre that provides artistic, cultural and theatrical training for children in Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp. “Peace and love are human values that we all share.” Indeed they are. And so it is that I think of the Israelis in Jerusalem, who I saw in the little café I frequented. And the young couple on the train to Haifa, who helped us find our way, or the throngs of people in Tel Aviv sitting in seaside bars watching the sun set into the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, you’ll never the see these people on the news. And while each has probably chosen sides in this conflict, they all have something in common--they want what we all want. A life filled with security, and purpose, and dignity. I know it may sound simplistic, but I hope that reason and compromise can overcome the heated rhetoric. Both Palestinians and Israelis are deserving of a better future.