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An American Observer in Palestine

Josh McGowen is a Bloomington-Normal resident, currently visiting Palestine.

Israel has declared war on Hamas, resulting in a near nonstop bombing campaign over Gaza for the last 5 days. The campaign, called “Pillar of Defense” by Israel during a tweet, was said to be targeting Hamas operations inside Gaza. It has been quickly pointed out, however, that these attacks come on the eve of Israeli elections and just before Palestinians ask the U.N. to consider them a sovereign state, a move which Israel has promised will come with grave consequences, including the nullification of peace agreements reached in the 1990’s (agreements the Palestinians feel were never kept anyway).

I am currently in Palestine with my wife on a three month stay observing events unfold. While I’m not in Gaza and can’t report much on this situation, I can share what I have observed here in the West Bank. So what follows are some of the pertinent observations of an American citizen living in the West Bank during the last 3 months. I hope this will add some clarity to a very poorly covered situation (by “poorly covered” I mostly mean non objective coverage)

When I first came to Palestine in 2011 it was to meet my wife’s family. It was surprising to see that not much was surprising. Her sisters sat on Facebook while her mother protested the house’s lack of her standard of cleanliness, and her father watched the news, eagerly translating it to the new guest. It could easily be any household in America. I met uncles and aunts, grandparents, cousins, and friends. Of particular interest to what follows is a close cousin of my wife. This woman lived a normal life indistinguishable from your average American. She had interests and hobbies, a job, a daughter, and a husband. Her husband was an easy going and likable guy who showed me around the Jericho area, interjecting roughly translated jokes into every 30 or 40 seconds of conversation. There was nothing out of the ordinary or dangerous about this man at all. Yet shortly after my visit this family’s door was kicked in by Israeli forces (during his daughter’s 5th birthday party), and the husband was taken. He was to spend one year in Israeli prisons, a sentence which was supposed to reach its end while I was visiting this year. However, he was never released and is now awaiting a new release date (this happens routinely with no explanation given). He was never charged with a crime because he committed no crime. However there was a reason for his imprisonment and it’s this reason that upon further probing reveals a great deal about the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The reason this man was imprisoned was because he had been documented meeting with local leaders of a liberal political party here known as the Public Front. He had hurt no one and plotted nothing, and he wasn’t being accused of this; he simply was a member of a political party and met with local leaders. I will discuss this more in a moment but first a quick look at Bethlehem University is needed. Bethlehem University, like most Universities, has elections for positions such as student president and student counsel. Here in Palestine potential candidates for these positions label themselves according to the national political party that most closely represents their political beliefs. So students vote for the PLO candidate, the Hamas candidate, or any other number of politically affiliated student candidates. At the end of each election something happens that should seem unthinkable in a democratic system. The Israeli authorities take the results of these elections and put a check-mark next to the name of every student who votes for a leftist party. What’s strange about this is leftist parties such as the Public Front, are the opposition of the moderate ruling conservative party (PLO), and the extremist right and sworn enemy of Israel, Hamas. Voting for these conservative parties gets no notice by the Israelis.

So what does this check-mark mean? It means you have a strike on your record which leaves one without the possibility of ever getting any kind of permit from the Israeli government, which includes travel and land permits and which I should remind you is for Palestinian, not Israeli citizens. So back to my wife’s cousin and his imprisonment. Meeting with local Public Front leaders gave him his second check-mark and with it his imprisonment, and torture. It is in this way that Israel attempts to push Palestinians away from Hamas and PLO opposition parties and by logical deduction towards Hamas and PLO themselves. Keep in mind that the local liberal party leaders are not arrested, almost as if they are left to be bait. So the question in this foreigner’s mind: why would Israel push the population it is occupying towards the most violent political party available, a party Israel routinely goes to war with?

If I put myself in Israel’s shoes my first thought is manipulation. Israel wants the rest of the Palestinian territory but international eyes are watching. Justifications are needed to launch these attacks and defend settlement building and near constant harassment, Hamas seems to fit the bill nicely. But again, these are simply my thoughts and observations.

Municipal elections were held here in the West Bank in October. Despite the penalties that can be expected for open support of liberal parties, the elections saw the Public Front get more votes than any other political party. The Public Front formed a coalition with a centrist party and the election was won. The PLO was out and the Public Front was celebrating. You can check here for more info if you wish. The following day it was announced that the election results had changed, the centrist party had decided against its coalition with the Public Front and made a coalition with the less popular PLO giving them the election. It was admitted openly by many party members that bribery was involved.

I should say upfront that I have always been pro-Palestinian, but the people I have met and the events I have witnessed have reshaped my view of these people. Without direct experience here in Palestine I had been holding onto false narritives borowed from what I thought were well informed sources. Hamas and the PLO do not share widespread popularity and owe their continued existence only to Israeli policies and aggression, as well as internal corruption. The average Palestinian gets no pleasure from Hamas retaliating against Israel. It is well known that this exactly the justification Israel craves. And perhaps most surprisingly, the Palestinian population does not pursue the return of their lost lands but simply a halt to the aggression and expansion of Israel and the recognition of Palestinian Sovereignty.

So now we are in war time, jets are bombing Gaza, tanks and infantry have posted themselves in Bethlehem close to my wife and I. Tensions are high and it feels a little like being in a tornado warning that just keeps going. And today I see something that again changes my perspective. I see protesters of the war being tear gassed and shot at with rubber bullets just outside an Israeli military outpost in Beit Jala, Palestine only a few blocks from where I’m staying, many being rushed away in ambulances. This in itself is not unusual or surprising, it is the crowd itself that shocks me. It’s made up not just of the usual crowd of young, passionate Palestinians but also Israeli citizens joining Palestinians in protest of their own government’s policies regarding the Palestinian people and territories. Now once again, my eyes have been opened to the reality of this situation and I cast away one more piece of false narrative from my mind.

Online Resources

How Israeli Helped Spawn Hamas (Wall Street Journal)

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123275572295011847.html

Running time line of War events and photos from Gaza. (Al Akhbar English channel)

http://english.al-akhbar.com/live-event/israel-declares-war-gaza

Discussion of bias in media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian (RT Today)

http://rt.com/news/israel-gaza-campaign-hypocrisy-815/

Photos from conflict in West Bank

Israeli forces entering Bethlehem in the west bank.

Tear gas thrown by Israelis into the streets of Bethlehem.

Israeli soldiers spraying an unidentified liquid in the streets of a refugee camp in Beit Jala.

Israeli soldiers arresting an 11 year old boy in a Beit Jala refugee camp.

A young muslim girl is arrested by Israeli soldiers for protesting the killings in Gaza.

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