Friday, 9 November 2007

Found: Peace in the Middle East

All is not yet lost for Israel and Palestine: Hazel Sheffield explores past conflicts and uncertain futures in the Holy Land

At the heart of the conflict in the Middle East lies one country, torn apart half a century ago with the end of the British mandate of Palestine and the much needed creation of a homeland for Jewish people worldwide: Israel. This tiny territory, roughly the size of Wales, is in and out of the press weekly as tensions grow and subside. These days though, it’s often relegated to a brief mention in the international news: not many of us have retained interest in a such a long-running conflict, the origins of which are now almost lost in historical obscurity.

A Summer In The Holy Land
It is with these vague televised troubles in mind that I decided to spend my summer in Israel. Somewhere behind generic war-time images of exploding buildings and nameless politicians in never-ending negotiations I knew there must be real people keeping on with their lives. But I knew I’d never see all this from the comfort of my living room.

A week after I’d made that decision I was there, living in a basement apartment in the centre of Jerusalem with two friends. I stayed for a month, forging my own little life in the Holy City. I talked endlessly with strangers who soon became friends, found out as much as I could, and tried to help when I was able. The most striking part of my investigations was the way in which I was received: everyone I met had a story to tell and no one resented my curiosity. To the contrary, on many occasions people were delighted by my interest. The Palestinian owner of the framing shop next to my apartment would often stop me on my way past to talk to me about his ideas for peace. One memorable time he said, “We need people like you, people to tell our stories in Britain and abroad. We need your help to make peace here.”

In the beginning it baffled me: although I’m well travelled, I’ve never experienced a pervading sense of goodwill and peace anywhere as much as I did in Jerusalem. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a friendly “Shalom”, meaning peace. I felt safe to walk the streets alone at night, which I would never do in my hometown. I involved myself in conversation with perfect strangers, something I could rarely bring myself to do in England, being used to the very British fear-of-the-foreigner attitude. It was almost impossible for me to reconcile my experience with the horror stories I heard in the news.

One day a friendly stranger asked me what I thought of Jerusalem. “It’s magnificent,” I replied, “I’ve never experienced anything like it before.” To which he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Well, maybe that’s why everyone’s fighting over it.”

The Homeland of the Jews
At the end of the Second World War pressure increased for the creation of a Jewish State to put an end to the Diaspora (the dispersion of Jewish people across the globe). The Holocaust had been a terrifyingly brutal expression of how a race without a homeland could be abused by an adoptive nation, thus by 1948 international consensus favoured a recognised Jewish state to protect the Jews, and Israel was born.

Immediately mass Jewish immigration to Israel began, displacing the existing population. Palestinians, who once occupied all of modern Israel, emigrated or moved to the West Bank as Jews and Muslims struggled to live in harmony with one another: violence became commonplace. Since 1967 Israeli forces have occupied the West Bank for ‘security reasons’, which more often translates as an unwillingness to hand over natural resources, especially water supply. This occupation and continuing violence from both sides culminated in the construction of the separation wall in 2003, which is still being extended.

At the heart of the conflict lies one city: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but Palestinians, too, claim East Jerusalem as their capital, although Israel currently severely limits Palestinian access to the city. Today Christians, Jews, Muslims and Armenians all live in separate quarters within the Ottoman walls of the Old City. This is also the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified; the Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended to heaven; and the Western (or ‘Wailing’) Wall, significant in Judaism as the only remaining wall of the Second Temple.

No wonder I could sense a certain spirituality about the place. During my time in Jerusalem I fasted for Yom Kippur as Islamic prayers washed over the city, emanating from the mosques on the first day of Ramadan. I pressed my head to the Wailing Wall and pushed prayers for peace, written on scraps of paper, into the cracks in its smooth, warm surface. I walked in the footsteps of Christ when he carried the cross. As an atheist, I’d certainly never expected to reap such spiritual benefits from my time there. The extreme energy of the place is pervasive, almost physical, certainly unavoidable, and the extent to which the Israeli government will go to maintain exclusive possession of the city is equally extreme.

Separation Barrier
The separation barrier, built in direct contravention to UN security council resolutions, means that Palestinians are now living within the walled confines of a veritable Israeli prison. It falls just to the east of Jerusalem, cutting off Palestinian access to many essential facilities belonging to them in East Jerusalem, including the three main Palestinian hospitals.

To gain access to these facilities Palestinians have to cross the barrier at an armed checkpoint just outside the city. Here, I witnessed hoards of Arab men crammed like cattle through metal turnstiles to get home after a day’s work in Jerusalem in Human Rights violations that left me open-mouthed. Papers and passports have to be presented to the army, protected inside glass booths, in order to pass through. Papers don’t guarantee access though, as the Government Security Service (GSS) routinely bars people from crossing for suspected terrorism. Those who are refused entry will not be told why, though it might mean they can’t get to their place of work or go to hospital: such is the omnipotence of the GSS.

Addressing Human Rights Violations
Inside the crossing points two older women can normally be found, watching the proceedings. They are from an organisation called Machsom Watch, which was founded in 2001 in response to repeated reports in the press of the Human Rights abuses of Palestinians crossing army and border police checkpoints. Since then the organisation has grown to some 400 women, most of them mature professionals, all of them Israeli, who volunteer daily at checkpoints. Their quiet but assertive presence demands accountability on the part of the security services towards the civilian state.

The day I passed through the checkpoint, the Maschomwatcher on duty told me, “One year, before we started volunteering at the checkpoint, forty Palestinian women gave birth here because they were refused entry and couldn’t get to hospital. Since we’ve been monitoring only one woman has given birth here, and that was because she left it a bit late to get to hospital!”

It might not seem like much, a bunch of grey-haired women standing around watching people pass through the gate. But in a society where the dominant discourse is military and where young soldiers with guns openly patrol the streets, the non-violent and unyielding presence of these benevolent women is a direct challenge to the moral authority of the military.

The Israeli Response
Yet Jewish Israelis remain largely supportive of the project. When I asked people within Jerusalem if they were comfortable with the limitless controls being imposed on thousands of Palestinians to ensure their own safety from Palestinian attack, the response was often that if such measures were necessary, so be it. One woman said, “If the separation barrier means I can sit in a restaurant without fear of terrorism, then I think it’s the right course of action.”

It might sound callous on her part, but who among us here at Durham would not expect the state to protect our liberties in the face of a terrorist threat? Statistics show that since the construction of the barrier terrorist bombings and actual violence has all but stopped in Jerusalem. This is reason enough for it to stay in the eyes of most Israelis.

The Future
On the 15th November, Israeli President Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with the heads of the Arab states in the US for a peace summit, the first since the enormously unproductive Camp David in 2000. It is unlikely that this summit will be any more effective - for one thing the militant Palestinian organisation that currently has control of Gaza, Hamas, hasn’t been invited.

One thing I am sure of is that any real change on the ground in Israel and Palestine isn’t going to come from politicians. It has to come from real people: from the coming together of Israelis and Palestinians in a mutual quest for peace. I’ve no doubt from talking to people within Israel and the West Bank that both sides are tired of the conflict, willing to co-operate, and bemused by the resounding militancy and destruction of the whole crisis. But there are plenty of barriers that need to be broken down before co-existence can become reality: language, religion, and the irrelevant battling of politicians remain far greater obstacles than any concrete wall.

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