Israel, West Bank: What Was Said (1 of 3)

This post is the first in a series of three posts about things people said to me when I was in Israel and the West Bank. These people were not some kind of sinister “official” people, delegated to pull the wool over my eyes, keep me from seeing things or saying things, etc. Nor was there an avoidance of the situation: on the contrary, people really wanted to talk about it. These people were from many areas, but self-selected, of course. (That is: There are a lot of people from extremes and semi-extremes who would not have talked to me, and certainly not freely). I didn’t feel anyone was lying about his or her feelings, though there was some initial tentativeness about me—where did I stand, did I have preconceptions? Being neither an Israeli, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Christian, nor American, was probably facilitating. As for the cold hard facts, some of them are cold and hard (no argument, everyone agrees), but some are fuzzier – you hear different “factual” versions.

The opinions are those of the speakers.

“People” includes:  native-born Israelis; West Bank Palestinians; Israelis who originated in other places, such as the U.S.; non-Israeli, non-Jewish, non-Arab people who are in Israel now (e.g. for diplomatic, NGO, or business reasons,); and, via remote means, North Americans not in Israel, Jewish and not, British not in Israel, Jewish and not. To preclude judgment of the comments because of the affiliations of the commentator (“as in, “They always say that, they don’t mean it,”), I’ll wait a week before tagging them by origin. I won’t name individuals, I said I wouldn’t, and it could be dangerous or unpleasant for them. (I.e., they would get attacked, or worse.) Meanwhile, see if you can guess what kind of person said what.

In general: “ ‘A war of the strong against the weak will always fail.’ ” “There are no stereotypes that fit.” “It’s like a roll that’s stuck in your throat: you can’t swallow it, you can’t cough it up.” “We’re stuck.” “It’s fear. Everyone’s afraid.” “We know where we need to go, we just don’t know how to get there.” “We’re down here and we need to be up  there, but it’s the part in between we can’t seem to do.”

The neighbours: “Everything is so close together here.” “Why can’t they live with their neighbours?” “We used to go there, now we can’t.” “Our kids used to play together.” “It’s a family fight.” “It’s a land fight.” “I would really like to kill them.” “They will always hate us.” “Ordinary people –they are terrified of us.” “We are here, where else can we go, so we need to work out how to live together.” “There’s so many different groups – it’s not just two sides.” “There are a lot of groups in which we work together on the ground for things we both want to achieve. You don’t hear much about them.” “You have to be low profile about working with them because you could get labeled a collaborator.” “There really are spies and collaborators, of course.” “They could help us, we could help them.” “The zero-sum way of thinking – a gain for one is a loss for the other – must go. We need to find something that’s a win for all.”

Change: “Things have to change.” “Things will change soon.” “Things won’t change, it will just grind on in the same way.” “Nobody wants to change unless forced to by events.” “Nobody wants to give up power.” “Western-thinking people think that change has to happen soon, they’re in a hurry, but Eastern-thinking people have a different time frame. They think in thousands of years. They can wait.” “In 1984, no one would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall.” “Who would have predicted the election of a black US. President?” “Things can change in an instant.” “Yes, but not always for the better. Look at 9/11.”

The West Bank division barriers: These are the structures that have been built across the land to keep West Bankers on one side and Israelis on the other. They are fences/walls that sometimes look like the structures in Jurassic Park, only smaller (openwork wire), and sometimes like highway sound barriers.(opaque). They are most often electrified, and there are sensors. There’s a sand strip to show footprints. There are access/patrol roads beside them, and a great many checkpoints. I was told Israelis are not allowed to go to the West Bank (“Too dangerous,” by which is meant the possibility of kidnappings and killings). West Bankers can get into the Israeli side if they have permits. (A big if.) There are usually lineups, sometimes long waits. Foreigners can mostly travel, but unless they are diplomatic they will be questioned at the checkpoints, and sometimes even then. Gaza is a lot more difficult. While I was there, I was told that a writer from The Economist was refused entry.

There has been discussion about what these structures should be called: wall, fence, barrier, etc. “It doesn’t matter what you call them, it’s what they do. They divide, they wall off.” “Palestinians are constantly harassed and humiliated.  They have to travel long distances to get to a place that should take only ten minutes. It’s an everyday thing. It grinds away at them.” “It’s destroyed the beautiful landscape.” “It’s a constant affront.” “It’s a constant pain, a wound.” “They say it’s a security thing, but really it’s part of a land grab. They’re using the settlements and the barriers to divide up the West Bank so that Palestinians can’t have a viable state.” “It’s connected with money: a huge amount of money has gone into it, and they’ve developed technology they can sell and export to other countries.” “Can you imagine what that amount of money could have done if applied to education, to health, to children, to….” “Nobody likes it, but what can you do? I hate to say it, but the suicide bombings have stopped, and Israelis feel safer.” “They’re turning into a police state.”

The peace process: “It’s the first step towards direct talks.” “I wish they hadn’t started with Jerusalem, it’s the hardest.” “They needed to start with Jerusalem, it’s the hardest – they could work out the rest and then it would all fall apart over that.” “It’s just propaganda: they want to delay and drag things out so they can keep on doing their aggressive things.” “We had hopes before, and look what happened.” “We made concessions, but they weren’t reciprocated.” “We’ve tried dialogue, we’re tired.” “We don’t trust them.” “They will just think up some reason for walking out.” “They will do something aggressive to sabotage the talks and then blame the other.” “The word ‘peace’ is tainted.” “The word ‘hope’ is tainted: for each side it just means they hope they will get everything and the others will get nothing.” “We have to stop dwelling on the past: what happened, who did what, how many got killed. We need to start from where we are now.” “People need to admit what happened, they need to apologize.” “Hamas needs to be at the table.” “We should let the grandmothers negotiate. Get rid of the machismo: men feel they can’t back down. Invite some international grandmothers to be facilitators. The grandmothers would work it out. It was the mothers in Northern Ireland…”

“ …we commence, yet again, another effort to reach peace with our Palestinian neighbours. We hope this effort, led by the United States, will lead to direct negotiations and towards a breakthrough for peace. I believe that the majority on both sides –Israeli and Palestinian – want it and are willing to pay the painful price for it. The same should apply on our northern front – the need for peace with Syria. … we understand how vital this objective is, for our people, for our region, and for our world. I sincerely hope we will not miss again another golden opportunity, putting the blame on each other. This requires bold steps from our leaders. With boldness and courage to lead ahead, we can realize this dream!”

Question: (by me): What chances do you give it, out of ten? Answers: From zero to 3 to 5 to 7. (There was a preference for odd numbers.) Nobody went as high as 9, but there were several 7s.

Obama: “At least Obama got them back to the table.” “Obama is inexperienced. He should have put equal pressure on both sides.” “A lot of people hate Obama in this country.” “Obama should listen more to his advisors.” “We’re praying for Obama.” “They think they can count on Obama, and won’t have to do anything themselves.” “Obama isn’t serious.” “Obama is very serious, I have it on good authority.” “It’s like two kids fighting: somebody bigger has to step in and separate them, and make it work.”

Question: (by me): Is the settlement freeze really real? “Yes.”  Even in East Jerusalem?  “Yes.” But: “They aren’t building, but they’re still knocking down houses.” Me: “Why?” (Answers in next post.)

Question: (by me): If you could have a wish granted and remove one thing from the mix that would help to unlock the log jam, what would it be? “Nostalgia.” “Hatred.” “History.” “Fear.” “Fear.” “Fear.”

Coming in next two posts, not necessarily in this order: Environmental concerns and efforts. The shape a solution should take. Military things. Universities, and discussions at. Different kinds of boycotts. Impact of boycotts. Students in Gaza: realistic steps needed to allow them to make use of their scholarships. Deterioration – in Gaza (“de-development.”). Land concerns. Settlements and Outposts. Health concerns. Jerusalem. Freedom of expression. PALFEST. (Palestinian Literary Festival, now in its second year.) Inclusive groups working co-operatively together, and what they are doing on the ground.


Filed under 1, YOTF Tour Blog

8 responses to “Israel, West Bank: What Was Said (1 of 3)

  1. Occupy nomo

    Please give us a break and spare us the poetry. It is exactly the mish mash of he said she said they said I asked etc that marginalizes the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. Do your homework, understand the facts and state your position.

  2. B. Lockey

    Ms. Atwood,

    You are embarrassing yourself. The problem is that you are ignorant and that you are too proud to admit your ignorance. Please stop this nonsense, and read an unbiased book about what happened to the Palestinians in 1948 and afterwards. And what is happening to them to this day.

    What makes it worse is that you just boycotted a literary festival in Dubai for an issue that pales in comparison to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians and the Israeli abuses of civilians living in Gaza.

    You need to read a book– since you seem only to trust Zionist voices, then try Benny Morris’s books, which at the very least tell the truth of what happened.

    My advice to you is, if you want to preserve your reputation as a moral voice: make the effort to visit Gaza, make witness to the blockaded and desperate people there. As the recipient of this 1 million dollar prize, you could call a press conference and say that you demand to see for yourself how the people of Gaza are surviving. And if you don’t gain access, say you will give the prize back. The Israelis will let you in in 2 seconds flat

    After you visit there, you will immediately understand that you have a made a grave error. You should go public with your admission of error– that is the only way you are going to save your reputation at this point.

    • With respect, Ms. Atwood is not ignorant and if she were, my feeling is that she would NOT be too proud to admit it.

      My view: I’ve been visiting the Middle East since 1969.

      Even with all that time to acknowledge, absorb, weigh, qualify, interpret and understand some basic truths about the region and the peoples that inhabit it, I have been stonewalled time after time.

      The mixture of truth and fiction…of fact and fantasy…of religion and politics leavened with the tragedy of the Holocaust and the horror of the Naqba makes understanding and ‘knowing’ extremely difficult.

      The more you learn, the more carefully you tread.

      Even Professor Morris has learned, much to his own regret, that he is not immune to persecution and has been forced to “recalibrate” his views.

      The triumph of political zealotry over religious law is a “cross that must be borne”.

      Ms. Atwoodowes no one an apology.

  3. Robin Yassin-Kassab

    You censored a comment I left here by not publishing it. I pointed out something you were wrong about (Palfest is in its third year) and made some mild fun of your pretension. Now that you’ve censored me, can I pose and whine about being one of the writers exiled and imprisoned and shot? Please? Can I be noble? Please? And bollocks to the millions of Palestinian exiles and all the slaughtered writers. You toad.

  4. Pingback: Atwood and Ghosh respond « Sarah Cypher

  5. Deborah

    “Let the ‘ordinary’ people speak,” is not a persuasive response, to the criticism of your acceptance of the prize.

  6. Please read Maxine Kaufman’s “Refusing to be Enemies”.

  7. Very interesting topics. i’m looking for this type of topics.
    Hoping to see more of your great postings.

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