It’s remarkable how differently you perceive the same football match, depending on which side of the stadium you sit. We see whatever fits best with our schema of the world. So when four of us visited Israel and Palestine, we had a choice — to see what we wanted, or to see the true state of play.
Let’s be clear: defining “what we wanted to see” is rather difficult, when your group comprises one Catholic Ayrshireman, a Protestant Northern-Irishman, a Muslim Palestinian-Glaswegian and a Jewish Londoner. We do share a common desire to see a just, peaceful end to the conflict, but it wouldn’t be helpful to spend eight days in a co-existence village.
OneVoice have never claimed that Israelis and Palestinians particularly like each other, or that the status-quo of occupation and violence is in anyway acceptable. Our work appeals to both sides’ nationalistic self-interest, and polling has shown that an average of 76% of both peoples would accept a negotiated two-state agreement.
The reality for Israelis and Palestinians is extremely brutal and, in eight days, we sought a small taste of this reality.
In Palestine’s West Bank, optimism is crushed daily by checkpoints, the monolithic separation wall and the continued growth of illegal settlements. In Israel, the evidence of violent and sustained conflict is ever-present in the form of sporadic attacks and in the country-wide hyper-security, like nowhere else we’d ever been. Israelis point to a list of hostile neighbours, each sworn to its destruction, to argue that their fears are real and pressing. Palestinians argue that security is used as a pretext for oppression. On arrival at Tel Aviv Airport the focus was on Hala, our brown-skinned companion, who was detained for questioning three times.
The next morning saw us on an early bus to the banks of the Dead Sea. The destination was Mitzpe Shalem; an Israeli settlement and home to Ahava. Ahava is a cosmetics company which, due to its illegal settlement location, is the focus of boycotts.
First impressions weren’t great. We asked one member of staff if she spoke English or perhaps Arabic and were told:
“No! This is Israel, my country, why would I speak Arabic? I speak only Hebrew.” Ironically, that response was in English. We were eventually pointed towards an office where we met Dr. Miriam Oron Mingelgrin, chief chemist.
In an interview, Miriam stated a clear view that the right-wingers, who occupy some of the settlements, are just as to blame as extremists on the other side. However, she said that the people of Mitzpe Shalem were largely moderate and secular, and with a two-state agreement, they would move for the sake of peace. She spoke out strongly against academic boycotts, suggesting that universities are an important forum for Arabs in Israel, which allows for a free flow of ideas. Miriam’s closing remark was to say that the real obstacle to peace was the leadership on both sides.
A few days later we found ourselves in Jerusalem. Walking from the Old City to Sheikh Jarra, we encountered: a micro-settlement, the Arabic verbal assault of Orthodox Jews (translated roughly: “I will fuck your sister”), and two Israeli soldiers asserting their authority by stealing pizza. The settlement was on the site of a Palestinian home that had been demolished by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). A single Israeli home has now been erected in its place, complete with a mini security tower.
We’d been told previously to expect an amazing bunch of youth leaders from OneVoice in Nablus, and our hopes were not dashed. Make no mistake, they’re passionate nationalists. Their support for a two-state solution is founded on a desire for freedom, security and sovereignty for the Palestinian people, little of which exists now. We asked what they want from UK students — they don’t want sympathy, or screaming protesters, but real progress in the peace process. Their hope is that we can push our leaders to push theirs.
After another inspiring morning, this time with OneVoice Israel, the afternoon in Sderot would prove to be far more challenging. Thousands of rockets fired from Gaza have landed on Sderot, killing fifteen and wounding many more. Shalom, a representative of the town, stood before us in the municipal council's bomb shelter and relayed his story. When presented with innocent human tragedy, like the two year-old and four year-old killed while playing together, one can only feel sympathy for those suffering. But it was difficult to warm to Shalom. His wild claims and myths undermined the grim reality, and suggested that he was more interested in political point-scoring than ending the conflict.
Frustrated, we headed to the other side of town to witness how OneVoice challenges such perspectives. OneVoice’s town hall meetings bring a community together to discuss the taboo issues at the core of the conflict. In Israel, this can mean confronting the falsehood that continued occupation brings security.
“All they [Arabs] do is terror … every time we give them something they attack,” said one resident of Sderot. Some of the others clearly agreed, but then came the challenges. Many from Sderot objected to the insinuations that Palestinians had been rewarded for violence: “I’m not giving them something new, I’m giving [land] back to them.” Sparking this intra-community debate in shell-shocked Sderot was no mean feat.
At a townhall meeting in Salfit, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, we heard from a desperate and frustrated room of farmers: “They [settlers] want to make our lives a nightmare.”
The topic was land-swap, that settlement blocks might be swapped for Israeli land in a final agreement. After many years of illegal settlement growth, the harsh reality on the ground necessitates compromise from both sides if there’s to be progress. Land-swap wasn’t popular in Salfit. But, after we left, the farmers reportedly remained for two hours, debating the issue.
There’s much that hasn’t been covered here, but eight days and 1000 words have their constraints. We didn’t go to Palestine and Israel looking for empty solutions.
You might think that OneVoice faces an arduous task, and you’d be right, but the same could have been said before the Good Friday agreement. Finding consensus between two polarised nations is an uphill struggle, but the OneVoice Youth Leaders aren’t giving up; their futures are at stake. No matter which side of the stadium you view this conflict from, they deserve your backing in their efforts.
Anthony Silkoff is Chair of OneVoice Glasgow. To find out how you can get involved in future trips and activities, or to add your name as a supporter, email [email protected]