Category Archives: violence

Inconclusion Jerusalem

By Diana Saverin

Old City, Jerusalem (Saverin/TYG)

JERUSALEM—My last days in Jerusalem left me far from comfortable. I saw many infuriating things, but one that especially sticks out in my memory was actually one of the most benign.

As I wandered around the Old City, I saw one young Jewish boy with a kippa and payot on his bicycle and two Palestinian boys with sticks. As I walked, the back-and-forth taunting intensified. They must have been 7 years old, and they faced off on the empty stone street. They backed away from each other, and they all seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move, just as their respective leaders always seem to in peace talks. Eventually, my comrade scattered the kids, but I couldn’t help feeling defeated. They were so young. The mutual hatred and fear felt inevitable.

This one moment may be insignificant; kids fight all over the globe. But it did fit in with the plethora of hopeful and discouraging experiences I had over my ten weeks in the region. Now that I’m home, it feels appropriate to write “concluding thoughts,” or something along those lines, but my thoughts so far have been anything but conclusive.

I left the Ben-Gurion airport—after spending four hours in priority security procedures because of a Palestinian kafia and documentary on the West Bank found in my bag—feeling a web of contradictory emotions. After witnessing the numerous injustices in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, I could not help feeling anger. I felt anger for the man in the town of Siswaya whose village shrunk from 500 families to 43 as Israeli forces filled their caves and settled their land. I felt anger for the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the West Bank, where even out houses are demolished by the Israeli government, when yards away red tile roofs and cookie cutter houses mark the settlement Karmel next door. I felt anger for the disproportionate distribution of resources in the “united city” of Jerusalem. I felt anger for the checkpoints in the city of Hebron, where settlers cut down Palestinian olive trees and videos reveal settlers attacking Palestinian schoolchildren and even the aid workers there to protect them.

Olive trees owned by a Palestinian family in Hebron cut down by settlers. (Saverin/TYG)

A Bedouin village in the South Hebron hills, where any permanent structures built is demolished, with the Karmel settlement in the background (Saverin/TYG)

A Palestinian man looking at his and his ancestor's caves that have been filled by Israeli authorities (Saverin/TYG)

I felt anger for these and many more injustices, but this is not the whole picture. I went dancing in Ramallah, a thriving city in the West Bank. I even visited a hilltop, caravan settlement in the desert of the West Bank, and was welcomed with open arms. And I love so much of Jerusalem: the shuks and the suqs, picking figs and rosemary on my walk home, the hidden gardens, watching tourist groups at the various holy sites, the quiet of Shabbat, the mix of sugar and sage in Bedouin tea, arguments of who serves the best hummus or falafel, and the excitement of living somewhere in the paper almost every day.

And now that I am home, everyone wants to know “how it was.” Every time this question arises, I feel torn between giving a tirade on all the pain I witnessed that I want everyone else to understand, talking about my long walks through streets that smelled like cardamom or nectarines whose juice would spill down to my elbows, and everything in between. I haven’t mastered a party line to get both messages across, but my goals moving forward are the following:

1)   Show Americans what their government is supporting. This isn’t a distant conflict that Americans can claim they have no place to meddle in: our tax dollars fund many of the atrocities I saw. The Israeli army protects the settlers in the West Bank, and don’t protect Palestinians when these settlers use violence against them. While many Israelis claim that these settlers are extremists and terrorists, they cannot be so ostracized as long as Israel continues to protect them and sponsor their continued development. As long as Israel is supporting them, so is America.

2)   Encourage constructive criticism. As an often-fierce critic of Israeli policy, I have been stunned by and unhappy with much of the criticism I hear in America. This is not a one-sided conflict by any means, and in order for a viable peace to be possible, both sides and perspectives must be recognized as legitimate. One frustrating criticism I have encountered is gaffs at Israel’s security claims. Israel does have security concerns, and while I disagree with many of the actions done in the name of security, the answer isn’t to dismiss the fact that there are security concerns. Outright criticism is not helpful. The situation is complex and deserves no one-sided oversimplification.

3)   Don’t speak about Israelis as one unit. As with any society, there is a wide political spectrum in Israel. Further, the civil society is more vibrant and active than I’ve ever witnessed. From soldiers who give lectures and tours about their experiences in the occupied territories, to the weekly protest of the settlements in Sheikh Jarrah, to the women of Machsom Watch who watch over the checkpoints in the West Bank each day, to the bereaved families on both sides who discuss their loss together, the variety of organizations working towards peace are numerous and differ in strategies. Even for opinions I don’t support, there is a plethora of organizations working for change.

4)   Read multiple sources when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s astounding how different the narratives are, and how seemingly vital “facts” can be overemphasized or omitted. I no longer believe objectivity exists, which is fine, but more than one voice must be heard to at least hint at the reality. On this note, avoid hard to define and loaded words, such as “terrorist.”

5)   Keep learning, and talk to people. This conflict, like most, so easily becomes numbers and figures, and thus dehumanized, but any “solution” from the top would be futile if the situation on the ground remained the same. The other issue with the media portrayal of it often depicts it as hopeless and never-ending, but being there and witnessing the constant agency warrants hope. Hearing from the people who experience the conflict day in and day out reminds me that peace and coexistence are possible. At least talking to some people does.

As time puts more distance between me and those enlightening months, maybe I will have more definable goals or conclusions. For the time being, I will keep learning, keep an open mind, keep hope, and encourage others to do the same. Jerusalem is the most fascinating city I have ever been in, and I hope to find myself in this region again soon.

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Imagining the 1973 War

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – This past weekend, I headed to Cairo to see pyramids and ancient ruins. While I did gape at 5,000-year-old artifacts, look into the seemingly boundless Sahara desert, and float down the Nile, my touristy adventure couldn’t escape certain political surprises.

Everywhere in Egypt, people speak of the war with Israel from October, 1973. In Israel, it is called the Yom Kippur War. In Egypt, it’s a national holiday. On October 6th, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on Judaism’s most holy day, Yom Kippur. While I am no expert on the war, my impression of it from Israelis was that Egypt and Syria were able to get farther than usual due to the timing of their attack on the first day, and it was an intelligence mistake not to know and prevent the war before the attack that led to unnecessary casualties, but that within days Israel was able to take back the lead as usual. Almost three weeks after the attack, Israel was 40 kilometers from Damascus, and 101 kilometers from Cairo. The peace Israel eventually made with Egypt through the Camp David Accords and Israel’s giving back the Sinai is emphasized as an example of Israel’s concessions for peace.

In Egypt, though, the war was a victory. Every Egyptian I spoke with brought up the war. Streets are named after October 6th. It was described to me multiple times as the most proud moment in modern Egyptian history. In the military museum, several murals and descriptions of the war would make one think that the Egyptians slaughtered and humiliated the Israelis. In descriptions, though, Israel’s name isn’t even mentioned. Allusions to the “phantom,” “the enemy,” and “the planes with blue stars” describe the apparently disgraced Israeli army as the valiant Egyptian army showed the world the courage of the Egyptian people, and won back the Sinai after the 1967 6-day war.

While the reality probably lies somewhere in between the two narratives, I was struck by the overwhelming fanaticism with the war in Egypt. In Israel, it’s another war amongst the many in the past 60 years: the War of Independence in 1948, the Suez Campaign in 1956, the 6-day war in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the 1982 Lebanon War, the First Intifada in 1987, the Second Intifada in 2000, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the Gaza War in 2008.

As I received a huge hug from an Egyptian after saying that I knew about the victory of the 1973 war, I was inundated with the sense of the impossibility of objectiveness in this conflict. Maybe it’s the same with others as well, but Israel’s 60-year existence has been so densely filled with complicated events, not to mention the history stretching back at least 2,000 years, that one can pick facts to support almost any opinion. It’s impossible to not to have any opinion, I know that my interpretations of events is often clouded by fierce biases, but these systematic and dialectic viewpoints reveal the divides and lack of mutual understanding throughout the conflict.

Egypt and Israel have made peace, but the vastly different narratives reveal a greater trend with Israel and all of its neighbors. These mass inconsistencies pose a threat to any sustainable peace, and put future generations on both sides in danger of growing extremism.

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Gilad Shalit and the Absence of Face in American Wars

After the march with Gilad's parents from the North, thousands gathered to listen to different speakers, performers, and children on why his release of immediate concern. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – Thousands of people gathered between King David and King George Street on Thursday night in the culmination of the march from the north of Israel to Jerusalem advocating for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas. Two hundred thousand civilians joined at some point, and the blur of shirts and posters with a blue outline Gilad’s face cultivated a sense of unity.

In many ways, the march could have appeared in support of anything. Jerusalem is a constant hub of protests and marches given the tense political climate that spans a range of issues relating to land, religion, Zionism, education, gender, modesty, and more. This particular gathering struck me as incredibly unique, though, and exposed a great deal about what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict something difficult to relate to as an outsider.

First of all, the relationship between citizens and the army is completely different from that in the United States. Because of the obligatory service, almost everyone here has, is currently, or will serve in the army. Further, everyone’s sons, daughters, neighbors, and colleagues will serve. The service cuts across socioeconomic lines. This dynamic creates a different culture surrounding the conflict, and makes it intensely personal. Instead of figures and numbers used for election purposes, faces from next-door infiltrate people’s understanding of war. One eight-year-old girl stood up in front of the thousands of people to refer to Gilad as her brother, as every soldier could easily be her brother, and because of this, she prays each night for peace. While the different sizes of the countries clearly influence this relationship, I have never confronted this sentiment in the U.S. The American army does not proportionally represent the population, as it runs almost systematically on socioeconomic lines, and sentiment towards it thus varies greatly.

The army and the conflict were fittingly shown through a humanistic lens. Gilad’s parents were the focus of the event, as speakers asked, “have they slept in four years?” His mother spoke of the pain of waiting for so long, and a woman whose whole family died in a terrorist attack expressed her desire to have a prisoner exchange, even if that meant the release of her family’s killers, because if Gilad can return to live a normal life that is worth more than anything. Saving a life, she said, is saving a world.

Would such a claim ever be made in the United States? How many prisoners of war are there in Afghanistan and Iraq? I don’t even know the number, let alone march for the return of each one. On both sides here, almost everyone knows a bereaved family. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brother was killed in a hostage rescue mission. This tragic reality makes the implausible possible, hundreds of thousands of people marching for the life of one.

Proximity also affects the nature of this relationship. The conflict does not hide; people live it everyday. Just walking around Jerusalem, and seeing the settlements, protests, racially divided neighborhoods, walls and towers left from each conqueror, venerated monuments, divides between the religious and the secular, the wall to the West Bank, soldiers everywhere, different organizations educating the public about the conflict, graffiti, posters, and more constantly reveal the issues pulling the city apart. The reality is inescapable. In the U.S., the reality is all too escapable, and I know I could effortlessly pass days without thinking about the wars. We are fighting two, and while I am quick to criticize the conduct of the Israeli army, what about my own? Are the war crimes any different? Do I feel that each soldier is my brother, and think of their parents’ lost sleep each night as the wars carry on?

The intimate feeling with the conflict is true to both sides. Palestinians and Israelis live and feel it together in Jerusalem, and both are deeply affected by casualties. Palestinians face stark facts in terms of prisoners of war as well, as administrative arrests for security can keep them in prison for up to five years with no court, and Palestinians arrested in the West Bank are subject to military court. As of May 2010, Israel is holding 213 Palestinians in administrative detention.

The pain that ensues this mutual grief brings cohesion and passion. Often, it polarizes people further into stringent views, but it can also unite them to work together to effect change. The Parent’s Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families to tell stories of their experiences losing a loved one to the conflict, side by side.

I have not witnessed this humanistic relationship with conflict in the U.S., for where is the feeling that what the American army does matters in my everyday life? Maybe it is an unfeasible desire, to want to truly understand the effects of “shock and awe,” Guantanamo, and the past decade of pain caused by the two American wars. Without knowing the faces, though, how can I hope to hold a genuine opinion on the wars, let alone work to implement my vision of them? I am grateful to not have lost anyone in the wars, but the loss and pain exists, and I believe there is an obligation to at the very least witness it.

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What Jerusalem and Texas have in Common

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock is the only building I can distinguish from afar. (Saverin/TYG)


JERUSALEM — As things have calmed down in the wake of the flotilla, the political tension has been slower to thaw. The pro-Israel rallies in the streets have been dwindling, but conversations surrounding the conflict persist. It feels as though the area is on the brink of some kind of change. Talk surrounding the many pending flotillas, the blockade, Egypt’s role, relations with Turkey, Hezbollah’s arsenal and ties with Syria, the continued smuggling to Hamas, the “we con the world” video, and more engender an atmosphere of urgency, which is reflected in the conflict’s constant role in almost every conversation I engage in.

I don’t think, though, that this sense of urgency and feeling that the conflict is on the threshold of some historical shift is unique. I get the sense that Israelis, and most likely their neighbors, either feel this way constantly or have stopped feeling the intensity of it. As I was researching Iran’s threat to arm its aid flotilla with Revolutionary Guards, I asked a veteran coworker what he thought would happen in the event of a convergence with the IDF. He laughed, “World War III.” I did not find this equally amusing. Many residents and frequent visitors share this jaded immunity to the constant threat of a breakout of violence, which is certainly foreign to America’s take on violence and vulnerability.

This is amplified by the militaristic presence; guns (mostly M-16s) are everywhere. Every Israeli I know my age is in the army, and a couple friends of friends were commandos on the flotilla. I see women my age, often dressed like me, but instead of a satchel with a tourist map, sunglasses, and a bag of walnuts, they carry rifles over their dresses. Israel is the only country in the world to have a draft for women. While they may opt out for national service, many enlist in the military. This past week I watched a documentary on women who have served in the West Bank and Gaza, and their experiences in this hyper-masculine culture they often called “the wild, wild west.” The footage provided an interesting juxtaposition between more religious women, whose role is emphasized as bearing as many children as possible leading to stories about women have had upwards of twenty children, and these often more secular women who use violence and a hardened outlook on Palestinians to maintain the political dynamic of the territories and to fit in as “one of the guys.” Fitting in as one of the guys, though, often meant taking pictures with dead bodies of terrorists, detaining people at the border arbitrarily, and violating Arab women’s bodies in weapons searches. The images were grueling, and the memories were painful to hear.

Seeing this footage and constantly discussing the complexity of the conflict with a very wide range of people has overwhelmed me at times. There are so many logical perspectives and there is so much information surrounding the conflict, but the more I learn, the less I am sure of.

It is a common saying here that people who come for a week write a book, people who come for a month write an article, and people who come for a year don’t write anything. To live here, residents have to keep a light spirit about it in some form, because if they didn’t, how could they get through each day? Sometimes I find Jerusalem’s weight tangible. There is a promenade where I run, which is far enough above the city that the buildings are indistinguishable, except perhaps the Dome of the Rock on a sunny day. Looking out from the top, I often feel helplessly sad with the amount of blood shed over thousands of years for this land, which looks like many other cities from the distance.

I have decided, at least for today, though, to focus on the constant agency in the city. Amid the disillusionment that can easily characterize my feelings towards this city, which a friend who lives here tells me Israelis think about the same way Americans think about Texas—there is hope. There is a radio station broadcasting dual narratives from Palestinians and Israelis, with people from both sides working together in one building. Parents of victims of attacks on both sides speak side by side about their sorrow for an organization called the Parent’s Circle. Jerusalem Peacemakers are bringing together Imams and Rabbis to learn about each other’s faiths as they used to generations ago. Yesterday I attended a universal hug around Old City, where people of all faiths, from all walks of life, and from all parts of the city came together for meditation, music, and mutual understanding. Beyond organized efforts, people coexist. The same promenade that brings me sadness is a connecting point between East and West Jerusalem, which brings together a wide range of people. I visited an Orthodox neighborhood the other night for dinner, and amid my discomfort with some narrow viewpoints, I heard the call to prayer from a mosque down the street. Kids from West Jerusalem even buy drugs in East Jerusalem. Coexistence happens. It has to. Just looking at the Kotel and the Dome of the Rock reveals this, as they appear to be stacked right next to each other.

Even the Haredi protests give me a strange degree of hope. I fundamentally disagree with them, but they care. This city is in so much motion with different causes and people constantly trying to do something for their respective passions. Maybe the sense I have had that Israel is on the brink of some change is due to the fact that people here think so too, and act accordingly. As a peace activist friend taught me this weekend, quoting the famous Israeli author Amos Oz,  if there is a fire, I will try to get a team of firemen to extinguish it. If there aren’t firemen, I will bring people with buckets. If I don’t have any buckets, I will use bowls. If I don’t have bowls, I will use a spoon. I will carry that lesson to avoid the cliché that the longer I stays here, the less likely I’ll be to continue to understand and work to resolve the many conflicts. It will be an act of immersion, joining the Jerusalemites in the battle to make this land the place the idealist in me imagines it to be.

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Boats and Biases in the Middle East

by Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM — Oh what a difference one night can make. Waking up on the 31st and seeing the news about the attack on the flotilla was overwhelming in a way I rarely experience the news. The day was a bustle of international law, constant news updates, and blurry videos from the ship, and since then, I have been thinking critically about what I typically trust. While I have my qualms about working for a pro-Israel organization, hearing the complete Israeli side to the tragedy turned the incident into a whole new shade of grey. When I read the New York Times article, which came out right after the incident and depicted the event so one-dimensionally (against Israel), I realized that if I was home, that probably would have been the only side I listened to. This incident drives home how complex the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, and I can’t say that I truly support either side in the flotilla event, but because five ships went back peacefully in the flotilla, and a handful of others have in the past, it does not make sense to me that the Israeli soldiers would whimsically decide to massacre this group, and the videos support the fact that there was resistance aboard the boat.

Existential questions aside, Israel’s future appears a lonely battle. Israeli army generals at a security conference I attended the other day constantly emphasized how Israel can only rely on itself, and has to assume it will not have any external help. I sympathize with this precarious position, but given the hundreds of tunnels importing goods and weapons to Gaza from Egypt, the current set up of the Gaza blockade appears to hurt the Palestinian people instead of Hamas.  Through the tunnels, Hamas can limit goods such as books that would undermine its message, tax the goods it allows (including cars!), and have access to weapons. Support for Hamas has only gone down 6-10% since the blockade, and that could be due to many other factors.

I also recognize Israel’s security concerns in the flotilla incident, especially in light of the fears provoked by arms found on a ship heading from Iran to Syria last November, but I think it would be detrimental to Israel to do anything else but change policy in some way towards Gaza. It will be interesting to see how Israel copes with international pressure to lift the blockade, especially if the United States pressures Israel. As I learned at that same conference, Israeli security puts the government in a constant tug of war between concern for Palestinians and protection of its people. My mind has never been open enough to consider the extent of this difficulty because of my fierce reaction against the current conditions in Gaza. Hearing the perspective of the people who constantly make those decisions humanized Israel’s position, even if some of my convictions towards it remain.

One main reason I wanted to come here is the disillusionment and anger I felt during the Gaza War in winter of 2008-2009. After being dismissive of the Israeli viewpoint, I am glad to be in the process of understanding it. This has made me realize in a dramatic way just how important it is to try to take into account both sides. In recent days I have been on Palestinian group websites, as well as sifting through Israeli Defense Force statements, and it has definitely changed my idea of “facts,” if such a thing can even exist, especially in a conflict so loaded with emotion from the loss of loved ones on both sides, religious zeal, and claims to history. As one of our Jerusalemite friends says so truthfully, referring to the ongoing disputes over who owns what land, “everyone is right,” and as I attempt to understand with an open mind both sides of the conflict, I have to continually remind myself of this notion to get away from the often dehumanizing rhetoric in the media.

The initial scramble for information also ignited zeal in me to write. Biases run so deeply, and as I’ve said, that became true in a very immediate way during this conflict for me. In the race for facts given our boundless access to information, something is lost. We saw in the build-up to the Iraq war and talk of WMDs how the media does not always play its role as a “watchdog,” and I have seen it in this conflict on both sides in the unwillingness to simultaneously present two valid points of view. Doing so creates a complicated narrative, and provides few answers. I knew all of this before, but being here makes it personal, and I hope to continue to carry this burning desire to provide accurate information home.

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