My life in the West Bank was a lot less dramatic than you might imagine. I wasn’t kidnapped and I didn’t see any gun battles in the street. I went to university every day, ate delicious food and traveled throughout various cities in the area. This is not to say that life is normal in this part of the Palestinian Territories. Based on the freedoms I had taken for granted in the United States, I was not prepared for the absence of certain civil liberties there. One such freedom was to move freely to school and work. Israeli military checkpoints litter the roads throughout the West Bank, and if you live 15 miles away from school or work, chances are you will have to go through at least two or three of them. Exiting your vehicle, you are herded to a barb-wired waiting zone, all under the cold gaze of an Israeli soldier and his or her automatic weapon. Needless to say, this was terrifying for someone who is not comfortable with guns. If you’re lucky, your American passport will get you off the hook, or maybe one of the young Israeli soldiers will think you’re cute and let you pass without interrogation. But for most Palestinians, the checkpoints are a daily humiliation and reminder of the military occupation under which they live.
These checkpoints are one of the few exchanges that Israelis and Palestinians share, a phenomenon that goes to the root of the problem in the conflict. This brief interaction leaves the Palestinians viewing the Israelis as nothing more than military monsters, and leaves the Israeli soldiers suspecting each Palestinian as a potential suicide bomber. There is a wall, both figuratively and literally, between the Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors, and this prevents both sides from understanding the other whom they consider the enemy.
But during my stay, I was lucky enough to meet a Palestinian woman who saw the humanity on the other side of the barbwire. ‘Abeer was a member of my host family, a mother of four with a warm smile. Once over coffee, she asked my friend, Ron, if he wanted to go to Tel Aviv. Ron is an anti-Zionist Jew who is extremely critical of Israeli policies toward Palestinians and of average Israelis who he views as reprehensible for either supporting those policies or not protesting them. So when asked if he would like to travel to Israel, Ron said bluntly, “No, I do not like Israelis.” ‘Abeer looked at Ron like he was crazy, and asked him, “Why?!” Not waiting for an answer, she immediately began to defend Israelis, saying “They are just like us. They have problems too, they even have more problems than we do. You know, I feel sorry for them. Do you think they enjoy forcing people out of their homes? They are just people too, and yet they are in a situation where they have to do bad things.” I was stunned at this moving defense of Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mother. ‘Abeer went on to tell the story of how she first began to see that the Israelis were people, too, and not a sub-human enemy.
“Our father was very sick with cancer when I was 14 years old. My nine-year-old brother had been up by the road throwing stones at soldiers. When he ran back to our house, the soldiers began to chase him to arrest him. When the soldiers found our house, they came in to seize him. But then they saw my father, who was clearly very sick and dying. They looked at my father, and looked at my brother and told us that they would not arrest my brother because of our sick father. Then they left. I knew at that moment that these soldiers were people too, and that they and the other Israelis have the same feelings that we do.”
It was incredible to hear her express such empathy and even sympathy with the Israelis. When it all comes down to it, we all are human. And while it’s easy to criticize and condemn, it is much more productive to understand, and to try and see ourselves in the other’s position. Labeling all Israelis as war criminals is just as wrong as labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. Fighting fire with fire is no way to go about ending the generalizations, the enemization or the resulting violence. So, thank you ‘Abeer, for being able to put yourself in the boots of the Israeli soldier. Perhaps on my next trip to Israel, I will meet an Israeli soldier who can put his feet in your shoes.
Pauline is an LSA senior and can be reached at email@example.com.