Hamas. Olmert. Emergency government. The Quartet. Abbas. The political terms of the relentless Israel-Palestine question appear constantly in the news these days. (My personal favorite: Fatahstan.) The language of politics is an easy frame of reference for thinking about a conflict. Unfortunately, it can also be used to maintain distance, dehumanizing the affected people and reducing them to mere "constituents."
This summer I went to the West Bank to volunteer at an orphanage and to improve my Arabic. Living and traveling around Bethlehem introduced me to these Palestinian "constituents." It made the conflict more real and its impact more heartbreaking. On the trip over I thought about politics; on the trip home I thought about people.
One weekend I visited Hebron, a city one hour south of Bethlehem, where ideological Israeli settlers have established themselves. The settlers, deemed extreme even by much of Israeli society, harass the Palestinian population to the point that Christian peacemaker teams have to escort local children to their schools. On a market street, Arab merchants erected wire mesh netting 12 feet off the ground to catch the garbage settlers throw down from their apartments above.
Nearby we met Hamid, who lives in the village of At-Tuwani. Wearing a baby blue Yankees cap and speaking softly and slowly like a farmer in no hurry, he describes the escalating pressure his community faces from nearby settlements. One day, when his 70-year-old mother watched the family flock, a group of settlers came to beat her with chains and steal the sheep. When Hamid ran to help, the settlers fired shots at his feet.
The nicest building in At-Tuwani is the school. However, because Israel restricts building permits for Palestinians, it was built without permission and is scheduled for demolition. A lawyer managed to delay that action for 10 years, but that was nine years ago. While Hamid declares quietly that he has no hope, his youngest daughter squirms and giggles in his lap, too young to understand.
I also listened to my host brother describe how he had to use the pretense of a laser-eye surgery consultation just to obtain Israeli permission for entry into Jerusalem to see "The Matrix" on a big screen. I saw West Bank roads that only settlers can use, shared roads that only Palestinians are ticketed on and vast orchards of Palestinian olive trees cut down, ostensibly, for security reasons. I drove past a Palestinian farmer working land that he has had to fight for in court for 17 years, despite owning property deeds dating to the Ottoman Empire. I saw the rubble of a home that a family had built four times and that Israeli soldiers had bulldozed each time.
I do not wish to talk about politics. I know that, if left alone, Palestinian society would be far from perfect; it would still be wracked by violence, sexism, fatalism and many other terrible things. What I do want to talk about is people. The West Bank is home to great and systemic human suffering. Perhaps if real faces can peer out from between all of the political words, the need for peace will seem more urgent and the status quo less acceptable.
Nate Van Duzer of Seattle is a senior at Georgetown University.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer