By Adam Schneider (MPP/JD)
Last week, Harvard Law School hosted the event Bearing Witness, during which participants of the Palestine Spring Break Trek (Pal-Trek) reflected on their experiences. The event provided a valuable opportunity to hear from my friends on the trek sharing stories about what they saw and learned. However, it became apparent that Pal-Trek, with its focus on understanding the daily struggles of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, had only exposed its participants to voices from just parts of a single side of the conflict, painting an artificially clear picture of a situation that is far from simple to address.
Over the course of the panel, trip participants shared with us heartbreaking stories of the humiliation and degradation Palestinians face each day while passing through the numerous Israeli Defense Forces checkpoints spread throughout the West Bank. They told us shocking accounts of their visit to the city of Hebron, in which they described 2,000 Israeli soldiers enforcing humiliating restrictions on tens of thousands of Palestinians residents to provide for a small Jewish settlement constructed in the heart of the city. One speaker, echoing thoughts conveyed by another Pal-Trek participant in an article last week, suggested that those on the concurrent Israel Trek were presented a false picture by not being shown this other side of the occupation.
Despite this last accusation, it appears that Pal-Trek itself did not present the Israeli side of the conflict. In fact, it is apparent that Pal-Trek did not formally speak with any Israelis about their own experiences. This is unfortunate, because if they had done so, the participants of the trek would have had a fuller understanding of the perceived injustices that they observed and the humanity that exists on the many sides of the conflict.
The participants saw the indignities of the checkpoints for Palestinians, but they failed to hear from any of the thousands of Israelis who have lost loved ones to terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinians traveling from the region, attacks that the checkpoints exist to prevent. They discussed tragic stories of the so-called Apartheid Wall separating Palestinian farmers from their own fields and orchards, but they never visited one of the many scores of suicide-bombing sites in Israel-bombings that have all but ceased due to the construction of the security barrier. The participants described the open-air prison that is the Gaza strip, a 26-mile sliver of land in which many Palestinians not much younger than us have ever had the chance to leave. Yet there was still no mention of the families living in Southern Israel subjected to tens of thousands of rockets that Hamas, the internationally designated terrorist organization that controls Gaza, has indiscriminately fired at Israeli towns and villages. And there was no recognition that the Israeli and Egyptian Blockade has been the primary mechanism for preventing Hamas from obtaining far more powerful weapons from its Iranian sponsors.
The panelists compared the situation in the region to that of Apartheid South Africa, one in which there is a simple right versus wrong. However, if they had heard from the perspectives of those on the other side, they may have come to the different conclusion on the complexity of the conflict and its injustices, and that apartheid is not an accurate label for the difficult measures Israel has no choice but to enforce to protect the lives of its citizens. They may also have recognized that the only way to end the suffering on both sides and guarantee Palestinians the right to self-determination is through the creation of a Palestinian State, living side by side with a Jewish State of Israel in mutual peace and prosperity.
While I would like to believe that the one-sided nature of Pal-Trek was a function of the organizers’ natural human tendency to bias oneself toward hearing one’s own perspective, I am concerned that it may be the result of a far more dangerous line of thinking. In introducing the event, one of the organizers described the trip as visiting “Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Occupied Palestine, which are the Israeli territories.” Labelling the entirety of the State of Israel as “Occupied Palestine” denies Israel’s very existence as a legitimate nation. This is the same position held by Hamas, as well as groups such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which advocates for the effective end of the Jewish State. This position is blatantly anti-Semitic and deeply damaging toward the prospects of peace in the region. How can Israel compromise and achieve peace with those who continue to refuse to recognize its very existence and legitimacy? Why is it that in Israel, bordered by 3 officially Arab states and in a region of 27 officially Muslim states (including the declared State of Palestine), is it too much to ask for just a single Jewish State in the only land that has ever been truly our own? Simply stated, it is not. This pervasive mentality of refusing to recognize Israel’s very own right to exist must be quashed for the sake of the futures of both Palestinians and Israelis.