Tuesday, 2 February 2016

When is it time to choose one's side - can a travel blogger ever just be a bystander?

I returned from West Bank feeling every bit as conflicted as did before leaving Israel.

This statement, located in East Jerusalem tells something about how bad the situation is. So did a scene I witnessed as I was waiting, tired, frustrated and angry, for a tram to take me to the centre of Jerusalem and off to Tel Aviv and saw guards stop a random Palestinian guy for an ID check and body search across the road. 

The presence of police, border patrol and security guards in Israel and West Bank is heavier than before, which is hardly a wonder - so is the frequency of the attacks on the Israeli side. 

The situation for the Palestinians is suffocating and not even people wiser than me have been able to come up with a solution. What is there for the Palestinians to do? What are they left with? Let's face it: Israel is not going to discontinue the occupation without some form of resistance and internal and external pressure, are they?

One thing is clear, though: the stabbings and suicide bombers are not going to benefit anyone. Those acts of violence only play straight into Israel's hands, reinforcing their views about how all the Palestinians are out there to get them. 

Those couple of dozens assaults do not enjoy the unequivocal support of most of the Palestinians either. They perpetrators are the only ones getting off lightly: they'll get shot and that's it - khalas. They're not the one s who'll need to live with the consequences and the situation only getting worse for everyone else still left behind.

"They're only kids", said one of my friends. "They don't know what they're doing. If only there weren't those who praise these cowardly acts as heroic and celebrate them as martyrs". 

"Politically motivated acts my ass", said another. "It's just a suicide they wouldn't have been allowed to commit on their own". 

So, why travel on a conflict zone? To learn putting things into perspective? Gratitude? 

If a country's commitment to upholding human rights would be the pre-requisite when choosing the travel destination, that would rule out many interesting countries: China among them. Most of Middle East as well. Many, many countries in Africa. And of course my ultimate, if elusive dream: the Shangri La that is (according to their leaders) North Korea. 

At which point is boycotting a country justified? Is there a clear watershed moment for deciding that? Or is it just a judgment we all have to individually make? Israel Palestine conflict is often compared to the apartheid era South Africa and so many of the tools being offered to solve the situation, such as boycott, hail from there, too. 

One thing that makes reaching any kind of an informed decision is all the conflicts within each person. I would not wish to use my money to support Russia's tourism or economy, yet I still find myself doing the very thing with Israel.

"Hebron is ours"

Can one travel in this kind of places and just remain a silent bystander? Is it possible?Something one should strive for? Or something to avoid at all cost?

At which point does it become necessary to choose one's side and stick with it? Stand up for it even? The easiest option is of course to blindly believe just one side's narrative and the reasoning and explanations behind that demonize the other party, but is that really the sustainable way to go? Is it better to just avoid confusing oneself in the endless and ever so frustrating quest of truth or strive for that? In order to gain and possibly even share the first hand information and stories one's witnessed?

I've spent years trying to figure the conflict out: through my studies, my work, my volunteer work and advocacy. Yet I keep on having me questions than I have answers.

I definitely want the state of Israel to continue existing - does that make me a Zionist? I would, however, classify myself as a supporter of the two state solution - does that make me a racist?

I believe Palestinian state to bring peace to the region; peace Israel so deserves, yet I can't see how that could happen considering the territory has been divided into two plots of land with no access in between.

I whole-heartedly understand my Palestinian friends' yearning for freedom, yet can't agree with the signs and chants I hear in every single demonstration about Free Palestine from River to Sea as that is a scenario in which there's no Israel whatsoever.

This is not a conflict between two equals, which is why any kind of half-hearted attempt to write it off as a situation where "both have wronged" is simply not tenable. Palestinians are the categoric underdog as far as any resources are concerned. Israel's situation is, however, far from easy, too.

The Gaza disengagement of 2005 did not welcome era of peace: instead the number of rockets fired from this Hamas-controlled area went through the roof. I have visited the town of Sderot located right next to Gaza strip and I can tell there the closest bomb shelter is always only seconds away. Even at the playground.

Other countries in the region don't exactly contribute to the safety, either. there's Iran, whose entire foreign policy seems to rely on open calls to destruct Israel and theories of Zionist conspiracies, each more absurd then the next.

Then there's the unrest going on elsewhere in the region. Just a couple of weeks after I came back, a cafe in Tel Aviv was attacked by a man shouting slogans declaring his support to ISIS. 

"Death to the arabs"

Israel likes to advertize itself as the only democracy in Middle East. In many ways things there are infinitely better than in the surrounding countries but its treatment of those who disagree with its views doesn't make it a prime example of democracy.

When I was living in Hebron, I was part of a delegation consisting, among other people, female Nobel Peace prize laureates, one of whom had not even been let into Israel because of her vocal opinions. A more recent example is the way Israel has banned Swedish Foreign Minister.

It is just as clear that many of the problems in the Palestinian territories have absolutely nothing to do with the occupation-no matter how the black humour of its people would have it. "ooh, how my head hurts today - it must be the occupation". "I overslept and missed the bus to work - I blame the occupation". 

Honour-based violence and killings are one of these issues. Owing to the secrecy that shrouds the phenomenon there are no exact statistics but it is estimated that at least 10 honour killings take place in West Bank alone annually.  Death listed in the District Attorney's files as "suspicious" however mean, that the accurate number is likely to be several times that. 

Another thing that makes navigating the situation even more challenging is the need to question and second guess everything you hear being passed as a fact. As is the case in Arab territories, people talk. A lot. But not all of the gossip can be believed.

One example of this is story I heard in a training before being moved to Hebron.  Because of the road blocks, checkpoint and delays that restrict the freedom of movement for the Palestinians, a pregnant mother hadn't made it to the hospital on time and was forced to give birth behind one of the checkpoints. The child was mentally handicapped - something the public opinion blamed on the Israeli army, of course. Thea real culprit? The fact that the parents were first cousins. 

In Hebron I witnessed a Palestinian youth being caught at a checkpoint trying to smuggle in a hand grenade. As soon as the story got out, we were flooded with calls from our Palestinian contacts denying such incident had ever taken place and accusing the occupation forces for lying. All this even after we told them we were there to see it all.

So many questions. Not enough answers.

A very black sense of humour has proved to be a useful coping mechanism, but I suspect even that will go so far. "You sure about this?" a friend of mine asked as we were making our way to a restaurant for a lunch. "They do have all those knives in there and I am Palestinian after all!"

The situation that's gone on for decades has left people on both sides defeated and deflated. In conversations I have in Israel I might not even tell where I'm off to next. "So, how's the situation...?" starts the conversation that we never finish anymore; sentences that are left hanging in the air, pregnant and so, poignant. 

The conversation in the Palestinian territories dies out, too before reaching its end. Words stop, gazes stare into emptiness and hands rise into a powerless shrug. "I don't know... not anymore", they whisper. 

And nor do I. 

* Blasting off my iPod right now: Journey: Don't stop believing *






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