Armed Israeli settler strolls across checkpoint in Hebron, West Bank. Photo: Thomas Dallal
By Ferrari Sheppard *
The mind has a way of making traumatic experiences seem like distant dreams to those who survive them. As it goes, the more traumatic the experience, the quicker the paramedics in one’s mind rush to dress wounds, resuscitate and stabilize the victim; the victim being you.
Since returning from Palestine 36 hours ago, I find myself confronted with feelings of detachment and minimization of what I encountered. My subconscious has decided the horrors I witnessed in the ‘Holy Land’ were nothing serious–horrors which include a 26-foot-tall concrete wall enclosing the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank, and the sniper towers seemingly on every other corner of this open-air prison.
This was my first trip to Palestine–most westerners call it Israel, but I’ll address that topic shortly. I had never been to the country, but I read enough to know the basics: Palestinians and Israelis were fighting over land. The Israeli government was formed in 1948 as part of a vision set forth by a secular European colonial political movement called Zionism, founded by Hungarian Theodor Herzl in 1896. Herzl, an atheist, sought to free the Jews from European oppression and anti-Semitism, with the ultimate goal being the creation of a Jewish state. He first proposed East Africa’s Uganda as the location of the Jewish state. This proposal also found the approval of the British government which controlled Palestine since the First World War. Herzl, however, later identified Palestine as the country of choice. I knew this.
The history of Palestinians was something I was familiar with as well, only because in high school, my friend’s parents were Moroccan Jews with staunch right-wing Zionist views. They’d go on about how Palestinians were worth shit and how they were sucking off the land they stole, and how they were not from Palestine, but Jordan. Truth be told, my friend’s parents’ passion about their ‘homeland’ made me sick. As a black person living in the United States, I could not relate to their love for their proclaimed homeland because I never had one. My ancestors were captured from various regions of Africa and forced onto ships bound for the Americas. Therefore, when questioned about the geographic origins of my ancestors, my answers were as vague as Africa is big.
Before I go further, I must put to rest a misnomer. Contrary to what’s been reported in the news for years, there is no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. None, zero, zilch, diddly-squat. I can say with confidence that Palestinians have no agency. The Israeli government controls everything in the country. This total control which is most magnified in the West Bank, concerns everything from where Palestinians are permitted to travel, to how much water they consume per month. Currently, there is no ‘conflict,’ only the omnipresent power of the Israeli government and those who resist it. This is important to understand.
Where was I?
I began researching the history of Palestinians in my senior year of college and discovered that my high school buddy’s parents weren’t only functionally insane, but they were completely incorrect in their claims. Palestinians had not fallen from the clouds and landed on Jewish land, (interpretations of certain religious texts would suggest otherwise) but had inhabited the country for thousands of years. In fact, Palestine hosted several occupations throughout history: Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Philistines, Tjekker, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Jordanians– a gang bang of military occupations. Nasty.
American author and Professor of Political Science Alan Dowty put it best when he wrote, “Palestinians are the descendants of all the indigenous peoples who lived in Palestine over the centuries.” Moreover, studies suggest, that part, if not the majority of Arabs living in Palestine, descend from a core population that dates back thousands of years.
Perhaps it would be easier for me to believe the story of Palestinians falling from the clouds, or crossing into Palestine from Jordan shortly before the creation of Israel — that is, if my perception were formed by mainstream western media. In the years prior to the events of 9/11, including the initial months of the Second Intifada, media outlets such as Fox, CNN, and BBC, unfolded one dimensional narratives which included bloodthirsty Palestinians blowing themselves up in public places, killing innocent people. Never did they examine the societal constraints and conditions which might drive people to commit such atrocities.
In order for colonialism and occupation to be successful, previous inhabitants of a region must be dehumanized, labeled savages, and finally, their very existence denied. Once this paradigm has been established, any and all acts of horror can be inflicted upon them without recourse. Thus, the stories of the oppressed become irrelevant.
Members of our delegation show passports at checkpoint entering illegal settlements in Hebron, West Bank. Jewish Israelis are permitted entry, internationals must present passports and endure interrogation and Palestinians are not allowed. Photo: Thomas Dallal
Getting in and out
In the weeks preceding my departure from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Tel Aviv, I received travel warnings from The Carter Center, the organization responsible for sponsoring my trip. Our delegation, which consisted of prominent African-American journalists and artists, was provided suggestions of how to increase our chances of getting into Palestine-Israel. It is not uncommon for travelers to be denied entry into the country for absurd reasons such as their father’s last name sounds Arab, or they criticized Israeli policy on a social networking website. I decided I would tell my Israeli interrogators the truth, but be as vague as possible.
If denied entry, travelers could be detained for hours, interrogated and forced to board an airplane back to where their flight originated. Other visitors to the region advised me to avoid saying words like “Palestine,” “Palestinian,” ”solidarity,” and “West Bank” inside of Israel’s airport. I was also advised to sanitize my email in the event that Israeli officials requested my password in order to rummage through my inbox. Unfortunately, this is a common experience for Palestinian-Americans attempting to visit the country. Additionally, I was warned that Israeli authorities, on occasion, provoke visitors by being rude, or asking inappropriate questions–they aim to cause one to feel as though they’ve done something wrong. In my case, this tactic was working. I felt I was committing a crime by wishing to enter the West Bank to talk to Palestinians. Israel was getting to me already, and I hadn’t left my apartment.
How things work
I reached Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and made my way up a flight of stairs leading to a long, wide, windowed corridor filled with travelers speed-walking towards their destination. To my left were palm trees of a country I was hoping to enter, and fixed high above was the sun, whispering the arduous tale of humankind.
I had made it to customs. It resembled a race track betting area with fifteen booths and neon signs fixed to them which read, “Israeli Citizens” and “Foreigners.” I got into the foreigner line. Inside the booth sat an Israeli woman, maybe 20 years old. She looked sad and beautiful.
“Passport,” she said in a dry tone.
I gave it to her.
“What is the reason for your visit?”
I smiled and replied, “A tour of the holy land.”
She examined my passport, then she examined my face,”Will you be visiting the West Bank or Gaza?”
I said, “No,” without thinking.
“Where will you be going?” she asked.
“Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth,” I replied.
She examined my passport again, “Do know any Palestinians?” she asked.
I smirked and lied, “No.”
I was officially permitted into the state of Israel. I found my taxi driver, loaded my carry-on bag into the trunk, and we were off. Leaving Israel would not be so easy, but I’ll save that story for another time.
Riding from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the first thing I noticed, besides the breathtaking Palestinian landscape with its palm trees, olive trees and immense hills and valleys, were walls and barbwire. There were literally hundreds of miles of concrete walls and barbwire–not the kind one sees on a Los Angeles off-ramp, but those belonging to a prison
I’d later find out that a portion of my 90-minute ride from the airport to Jerusalem gave a brief look at “Area-C.” As it goes, the occupied West Bank is divided into three parts: “Area-A,” “Area-B” and “Area-C.” “Area-C” is controlled by the Israeli government, while “Area-A” is supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority (or PA), a self-governing body established to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip (“Area-B” is under glorified Palestinian municipal control and Israeli security control). The reason I say “supposedly,” is because after spending a week in the country, I began wondering if the area classifications were simply a broad public relations campaign to convince the world that Palestinians have a degree of military, political, and economic power they do not have. This is not a far-fetched inquiry. Since the second Oslo Accords in 1995, the Israeli government has asserted, and the international community has accepted, the notion that “Area-A” is under PA control, but on the ground, the PA acts as a subcontracted enforcer to the Israeli occupiers.
In Jerusalem, I witnessed great religious and ethnic diversity. I saw Arabs, Asians, Europeans, Africans, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Christians, all scrambling in Old City Jerusalem towards their various destinations. It was postcard worthy.
The variety of cultures in Jerusalem is outstanding. Similar to many societies however, Palestine-Israel presents a polished version of itself to tourists, where 5-star hotels in Tel Aviv and tourist attractions in Jerusalem cloak its brutal realities. The fact remains that our delegation was subject to a type of racism I’ve only experienced in the southern states of the United States of America. Of course, to a Jew or a middle class Palestinian living in Jerusalem or Nazareth, my observations may sound like exaggerations, but for the African migrant sleeping on the ground in South Tel Aviv, or for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, my evaluations are dead on.
The blatant, systemic subjugation and profiling of Arabs was most pronounced when our tour guide, a middle class Palestinian woman, was forced by IDF soldiers to exit our tour van and pass through a checkpoint on foot. As all Palestinians must do, she was told to place her thumb on a scanner to pass through a turn-style at a checkpoint. The members of our delegation were no exception to IDF scrutiny. The light skinned blacks in our delegation were interrogated and asked bluntly if they were Arab, and if not, what the last names of their fathers’ were.
Palestinians and progressive Israelis told our delegation story after story of the abuses and degradation they’ve suffered at the hands of Israeli settlers or soldiers, and we witnessed some of this treatment first hand. Along with the rampant home and land confiscation in the West Bank (in which settlers receive state subsidies), agricultural violence is on the rise, as settlers uproot and destroy the olive trees Palestinians rely on for income and nourishment. More sinisterly, public beatings, arrests and shootings are common, particularly in the West Bank. Without charges, a Palestinian can be imprisoned and held for months or years under administrative detention. The same law does not apply to Jewish Israelis. In fact, Israeli citizens can commit a range of crimes against Palestinians with near impunity. Furthermore, Israelis benefit from being under police and civil courts jurisdiction, while Palestinians are under military jurisdiction. Human Rights Watch has documented the “Separate and Unequal” legal situation endured by Palestinians.
Yehuda Shaul (seen in orange shirt) lectures our delegation near village of Susya. Photo: Thomas Dallal
Our delegation was introduced to Yehuda Shaul, a former commander in the Israeli army and current Foreign Relations Director for Breaking the Silence, an organization of former IDF soldiers who have dedicated themselves to revealing the atrocities committed against Palestinians, as well as the general corruption of higher-ups in the Israeli government. Yehuda, a heavyset man wearing a yarmulke, still moves and speaks like a soldier. As we drove up and down the hills of South Hebron, Yehuda’s lecture quickly began to feel like a general preparing a platoon for an offensive. He even revealed Israel’s plan to force rural Palestinians away from their land and into West Bank cities, making them dependent on the government.
As a liberal Israeli, Yehuda believes in granting rights to Palestinians and developing a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution. Yehuda is still a Zionist, and beyond lecturing about various land grabs, violence and injustices committed by Israeli settlers and the government, the 31-year-old steers away from revealing his personal story, which likely involves his journey as an IDF commander who terrorized Palestinian neighbourhoods, to the activist he is today who accepts that Palestinians are human.
Yehuda commanded our Palestinian driver to stop on the side of a road near an illegal Israeli settlement in the village of Susya. I point out that our driver was Palestinian because stopping in Susya was extremely dangerous for the three Palestinians in our van. Susya is home to armed, right-wing Israeli settlers who as Yehuda admitted, would “beat up” Palestinians on sight. Our Palestinian colleagues stayed in the van.
For some reason, Yehuda was compelled to conduct his lecture outside of the bus while our delegation shivered from a mountainous chill. It was then that a dusty car stopped feet away from us, engine running, with the driver focusing a murderous stare on our group. Yehuda kept lecturing as though nothing was happening, and our delegation pretended to listen as we remained vigilant for the deranged onlooker. The man examined us for a minute more, then sped off violently to return moments later to repeat this action. Sensing danger, I suggested to Yehuda we get back in the van and leave, but he ordered us to remain outside.
“This will only take a few minutes more,” he said, before continuing his lecture.
The rapid fire gunshots we heard in the distance gave us our cue to finally return to the van. The moment we were about to drive off, Israeli army vehicles pulled up, and a few soldiers peered in at us. They took a quick inventory of the van and then sped off. Apparently, during our lecture, Israeli settlers were attacking a group of Palestinians. I had seen enough.
Zionism has convinced many Jews that they are preserving themselves. The common thought is that if the “savage” Palestinians stop resisting, stop shooting rockets, stop fighting Israel’s inevitable domination, there can be peace. I find this peculiar because during my visit, I felt no danger from Palestinians, only from Israeli soldiers. Perhaps it’s because I’m accustomed to being hunted in America. There is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict; there is only oppression.
I will never disregard the Holocaust which left millions of European Jews dead or scrambling for survival. There is nothing that will ever right the wrongs committed by the brutal German regime. On the same note, I will never minimize Germany’s first, and little-known, genocide against the Herero and Namaqua of Africa, or King Leopold’s bloody reign on the continent. Tragedy is tragedy, one should not be placed above the other, nor should a past tragedy justify the next.