The West Bank Wall

Another close-up of The Wall in Jerusalem


Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Did you feel safe as an American in the Middle East?

  2. Did you feel safe there as a woman?

  3. Did you feel threatened by Palestinian or Israeli violence?

  4. Is Palestine actually a country?

  5. What do you think about Israel's Wall?

  6. What do you think about Hamas's victory in the January 2006 Parliamentary elections?


1. Did you feel safe as an American in the Middle East?

In general, I found people in the places where I traveled in the Middle East -- Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria -- to be exceptionally chill about the fact that I was American and to appreciate very much that I was willing and able to see beyond the stereotypes on the news and check it out for myself. Most were happy to tell me their stories and perspectives. I made a genuine effort to respect and understand their point of view, which they returned in kind.

I had been led to believe that Arabs might pigeonhole me as an "American imperialist" or "Crusader". But they did not; they had no trouble distinguishing between American individuals and the American government. It was humbling, especially considering how quick many Americans are to conflate Arabs and Muslims with "terrorists," and considering how much more damage our elected leaders have done to them than their extremists have done to us.

I would not, however, travel to Iraq right now under any conceivable circumstances. We've done such a thorough job of destroying that country, its economy, and its sense of security that I would be ashamed to show my face there and, due to the deplorable security conditions, I would also fear for my life.

2. Did you feel safe there as a woman?

There was no shortage of sexually frustrated young men who would not hesitate to "compliment" me as I walked down the street minding my own business. This was irritating, but never threatening. It only happened on the street, and only with strangers; anyone who had been introduced to me was perfectly respectful.

One of the most astonishing things to me about Palestine is that despite the fact that they are living under an illegal military occupation with no prospect of maintaining the rule of law for themselves (given that both militants and Israeli soldiers are better-armed than the police), most Palestinians still maintain and respect a sense of civic order. It's not perfect, but it's good enough that I felt safe walking the streets alone at night (the only thing I feared was a random Israeli raid), and petty theft was quite rare. I believe this is due largely to the close-knit character of Palestinian community. Nobody wants to disgrace his family name or face the wrath of his mother.

On the mild sexual harassment front, one incident was actually kind of hilarious. A Dutch friend and I were walking down a beach promenade in the Sinai, and strong winds were blowing her sarong around and threatening to blow it off.

A young Egyptian man walking in the opposite direction cautioned us, "You must be very careful... otherwise something WONDERFUL might happen!"

3. Did you feel threatened by Palestinian or Israeli violence?

I'll just recount my three scariest moments in the Middle East. One was when I found myself in an off-duty Palestinian ambulance during a clash at a checkpoint, and we began taking in wounded, mostly 15-year-old boys but also a woman who had stomach pains. I could hear gunshots outside, but I couldn't see outside. Israeli soldiers have shot at Palestinian ambulances on several occasions, and I was terrified of a shot being fired at us.

The second was at a Palestinian non-violent demonstration against the Wall in Bil'in, a village west of Ramallah. The "Separation" Wall in this area is stealing half of Bil'in's privately-owned agricultural land for the sake of illegal settlement expansion.

Israeli soldiers responded to the protest by beating and arresting protestors, shooting rubber-coated steel bullets, and hurling projectiles at us. A grenade hit me on the back of the leg as I ran -- I had no idea what kind of grenade it was at the time or what kind of danger I was in -- and bounced off and exploded behind me. I was left partially deaf for several hours because of the blast. After the fact I realized it had been a stun grenade (aka concussion or flashbang grenade). This type of grenade is not generally lethal, but if it had exploded on impact instead of bouncing off, it would have burned me, possibly severely. As it was I just had a deep bruise on my calf that made walking painful for weeks.

My worst experience was during a midnight arrest raid by Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. On the way home from a night on the town with a German and a Canadian friend, our cab unwittingly pulled up behind an armored Jeep in the dark, and an Israeli soldier popped up out of the top and aimed a large-caliber gun at our windshield. He did not know there were foreigners inside, and Israeli soldiers tend to have a low tolerance for risk to soldiers and a fairly high tolerance for Palestinian collateral damage. A soldier next to the Jeep was aiming his gun wildly in all directions, as if daring a Palestinian to peek out of an upper-story window in the building next to the road.

We didn't dare open a door or window to speak or show him our American and European documents, as he could have interpreted any movement as aggression. We kept very still and very silent and prayed that the soldier aiming the gun at us would not get spooked by anything. After several minutes, they had apparently gotten what they came for and drove off.

Palestinian militants occasionally held armed rallies through Main Street, but to my knowledge these never lead to anyone being killed or injured in the West Bank. I felt pretty comfortable attending the proceedings. Non-violent protests and rallies were much more common, but you wouldn't know that watching the mainstream news.

Militants occasionally shot up or ransacked restaurants or bars, ostensibly to protest the upper crust's decadence, loose morals, and/or indifference to or lack of support for militants and the unemployed, but mostly just as an empty show of frustration and power. These never killed or injured anyone while I was there. They were exceptionally rare, not directed at foreigners, and always soundly decried by the population at large.

Foreigners were very occasionally kidnapped briefly by numbskull militants who had no idea what they were doing. No foreign kidnappees have been killed by Palestinians, although a few Israeli kidnappees have been.

The times when I felt scared in general was when I was on a rooftop in range of Israeli snipers, especially in Gaza (which has been described by Israeli soldiers as a "playground for sharpshooters"), or sleeping in my apartment in Ramallah listening to Israeli war planes fly over. Israeli planes bomb Palestinian civilian areas with relative impunity, usually claiming to be aiming at a wanted man. Extrajudicial assassinations are illegal according to the Geneva Conventions, and Israel's assassinations often result in the deaths of innocent bystanders.

A friend of mine had her entire apartment block bulldozed as collective punishment for a militant taking refuge in one of the apartments, which she had nothing to do with. The militant had already been captured and killed. In another incident, an Israeli pilot dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza in AUgust 2002, to assassinate one militant. The bomb killed the man plus 14 innocents, half of them children. Assassinations in Gaza overall killed more bystanders than targets.

I sincerely hoped that no one in my flat had any questionable acquaintances.

Broad daylight Israeli raids were also terrifying. If they came in the middle of a workday, shop owners and office workers would quickly shutter their shops and hide inside. Looking out of a window was a good way to get shot. Sometimes a lone figure would dart out of a door and throw a rock at the armored Jeeps or Hummers and then quickly run away again. This was another good way to get shot.

The raids were extremely offensive and humiliating. You can imagine how you would feel if armed foreign teenagers imposed terrible danger on you and the town and people you loved completely at will. Some Palestinians got tired of cowering properly.

Settlers were also threatening and scary at times, and even less restrained than Israeli soldiers. Once a settler who occupied the upper floors of the Hebron Old City poured slop water down on the Palestinian area below, and it nearly hit me and a Jewish friend on the head. (Judging from the trash nestled in the chicken wire above our heads, the settlers made a habit of this.) Settlers have also beaten several members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and others who have tried to protect Palestinian school children from settler violence. Several times settlers have shot and killed Palestinians in cold blood.

While spending time in Israel, particularly in cafes and on buses, I couldn't help but look around to see if I could spot anyone with a suspiciously bulky midsection. The prospect of someone blowing himself up in the middle of a peaceful civilian scene was truly horrifying.

But to put it in perspective, Israelis have a better chance of being killed in a car accident than in a Palestinian attack, especially since Hamas has unilaterally held to a ceasefire since February 2005.

On the other hand, every single Palestinian is targeted by debilitating movement restrictions (checkpoints, Walls, road blocks, etc.) and land and water theft, thousands are targeted by home demolitions and mass arrest raids, and thousands have been killed and wounded in Israeli bombing raids, shootings, and settler terrorist attacks. In the suffering contest, Palestinians "win" by several orders of magnitude. The intense suffering and humiliation caused by the occupation are severely counter-productive to Israel's security.

But in general, 90% of the time I felt very safe. As long as Israeli soldiers could see that I was not a Palestinian, they had an excellent PR reason not to hurt me. Palestinians treated me as a welcomed guest in their country. In Arab culture, guests are treated excellently. My parents and several Jewish, Israeli, and American friends visited me in the West Bank and had a great time.

4. Is Palestine actually a country?

Palestine is a nation, but not yet a country. It is one of the unfortunate legacies of European colonialism that many nations have been left over without a country of their own and without the basic right of self-determination.

Historically, Palestine was a territory that encompassed all of the area of modern Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After WWII, this territory, which at the time was a British colonial mandate, was turned over to the UN, which voted to partition the land between Arabs and Jews, giving Jews 55% of the land despite the fact that they owned only 7% of it. Arabs throughout the region rejected the partition, considering it a European colonial giveaway of historically Arab land.

In the war that followed in 1948, most of the Arab armies failed to live up to their anti-colonial rhetoric. Iraqis, for example -- themselves having been under a British colonial mandate for decades -- had outdated equipment and ineffectual leadership. Some Iraqi soldiers were sent to war without shoes, much less weapons. The Arabs were humiliatingly defeated, and 78% of historic Palestine -- which is today known as Israel -- was conquered decisively by the mostly European Jews. In the process 700,000 Palestinians, mostly farmers and shopkeepers, but also poets, artists, professionals, and intellectuals, fled or were expelled.

To this day the vast majority have not been allowed to return home. They and their descendents now number in the millions, and many live in squalid refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere, dreaming of the day when they can once again inhabit or at least visit the homeland of their grandfathers, the cradle of their culture and identity. Some of them still have the keys to the front doors they hastily locked as they fled the violence, expecting to return home in a matter of weeks. Israelis blocked their return by force of arms in contravention of international law. Nearly 60 years later, Palestinian refugees make up the oldest and largest unresolved refugee population in modern history.

The West Bank was administered by Jordan and the Gaza Strip by Egypt from 1948 until 1967, when Israel conquered and occupied both territories.

Today, most Palestinians are struggling for a homeland on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the last 22% of their historic homeland. Unfortunately, Israel has been building settlements and transferring Israeli citizens to Palestinian territory for decades in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is a signatory, in the hope of permanently annexing large and vital areas of the West Bank. Illegal settlers in the West Bank now number around 400,000, including those in Arab East Jerusalem.

Hopes for a peaceful two-state solution hinge on a negotiated solution based on international law. UN Resolution 242 is the legal framework for a solution to the conflict, recognizing Israel within secure borders on 78% of historic Palestine and Palestine within secure borders on the remainder: the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Arab League has in principle accepted these conditions, and in 2002 proposed the Saudi Initiative, which agrees to recognize Israel within secure borders in exchange for a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, and a fair and agreed-upon solution to the 1948 refugee problem.

Israel has refused even to consider the generous offer, claiming that a withdrawal from the West Bank would be detrimental to Israeli security. In reality, nothing would be better for Israeli security, and the only people who would be hurt by the move would be the ideological settlers and Israeli politicians who would be forced to abandon 60 years of mendacious rhetoric. It is the only reasonable way for Israel to integrate sustainably into the region. And without regional integration, and with Europe increasingly frustrated by Israel's violent intransigence, and with America on the fringes of the beginning of a debate about whether Israel is a strategic asset after all, Israel's future prospects look dim and dangerous.

Innocent civilians on both sides continue to suffer horribly. In the Palestinian territories, crippling movement restrictions, land theft for and by illegal settlements and Israeli army bases, discriminatory laws, and frequent Israeli raids, home demolitions, broad-daylight assassinations in busy civilian areas, and bombing campaigns against civilian areas and infrastructure make life extremely difficult and often dangerous. In addition, the Israeli army operates under a culture of impunity that rarely punishes soldiers who kill Palestinians in questionable circumstances (including a captain who was cleared of all charges after he deliberately pumped 20 bullets into a ten-year-old school girl). Additionally, under Israeli law, Palestinians are not allowed to sue the Israeli government for wrongful death or damage inflicted by Israeli soldiers and police.

In Israel, horrific suicide bombing attacks by Palestinian militants have become very rare since Hamas unilaterally ceased its attacks two years ago in 2004. A rogue faction called Islamic Jihad has struck about six times in the past two years, killing about 40 innocent Israelis.

In the past six years, about 3,700 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have been killed. About 70% of each were civilians, including 720 Palestinian children and 100 Israeli children. Many thousands more have been injured and left disfigured or disabled. Thousands of Palestinians are living in deplorable conditions in Israeli jails, hundreds of them, like the Guantanamo detainees, without charge or trial, and hundreds of them women or children.

For a counterpoint, a brief overview of the conflicts that is only slightly biased toward the Israeli perspective (IMHO), see this narrative from Mid East Web, an Israeli site with several Arab contributors. It is occasionally incorrect on its figures, including leaving out the 200,000 East Jerusalem settlers from its settler count and implying that Israel offered Palestinians 97% of the West Bank at Camp David and Taba, a figure I and Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University do not believe is accurate.

5. What do you think about Israel's Wall?

I, along with the International Court of Justice and the Israeli High Court, consider it a land grab, a device used to entrench illegal annexation of Palestinian land. The way it follows the contours of planned settlement expansion leaves little doubt. The Wall was originally claimed by Israel to be built as a "temporary security measure with no political significance." Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear in the past few months that he wishes to retain the Palestinian land sliced away by the Wall inside the future borders of the state of Israel.

The Wall is also a hideous post-modern nightmare of a scar on an ancient and beautiful landscape that truly has to be seen to be believed. The way it severs Bethlehem from Jerusalem severely infringes on the rights of Palestinian Christians and Muslims to worship and travel freely. It indiscriminately separates Palestinians from their lands, schools, hospitals, and families.

Over 700 km long, the massive, expensive structure dwarfs the Berlin Wall. It steals 10% of the West Bank's land, its most important water resources, its capital East Jerusalem, the farmland and livelihood of dozens of towns and villages, and the West Bank's border with Jordan. (See the maps to the left.) It also divides the West Bank into three cantons or "Bantustans" that cannot be traveled between without Israeli permission and only with great difficulty. Under Olmert's "unilateral convergence" plan, Israel will permanently annex the lands stolen by the Wall, and Palestinians will be left caged inside with no control over airspace, water, borders, imports, exports, water, or electricity. The Wall's path renders any possible Palestinian state non-viable and non-sovereign.

Sometimes the Wall is a concrete structure 30 feet high, particularly in urban areas. Other times it is a chain-length fence with electric sensors, a 100-meter security buffer around it, and an army access road built on either side of it. Approaching the fence without authorization carries a serious risk of summary execution. Farmers are supposed to be given ready access to their lands that are isolated by the Wall, but this almost never happens. Even if farmers can get permits from Israel to visit their own lands, their day-to-day access is entirely up to the whims of the soldiers on duty. This creates intolerable working conditions for Palestinian farmers.

While suicide bombings have decreased since Wall construction commenced, evidence indicates that this is not primarily due to the Wall. Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in February of 2005, and since then it has not attacked Israeli soil, chosing instead to try to achieve legitimacy and accomplish goals through democratic political channels.

Illegal Palestinian workers easily slip through the Wall daily; suicide bombers can do the same if they so choose. Additionally, the Wall cannot prevent Palestinian rocket attacks, home-made or otherwise, or tunnel digging, as the Gaza Strip has shown.

As long as there is no negotiated solution based on international law, Israelis and Palestinians will never know peace and security. A Wall only makes this more difficult and does not solve any problems.

6. What do you think about Hamas's victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections?

I'm working on a more comprehensive answer to this question, but for now I will just say that the elections were far from a landslide. Hamas actually received 45% of the vote compared to Fatah's 41%, and secular and leftist parties secured the remaining 14%. The reason Hamas won so many more seats than Fatah is because Fatah foolishly split the vote in many districts due to internal disagreements.

Why did Hamas get even that many votes, given that most Palestinians are in favor of a negotiated two-state solution? In my opinion, this is largely for three reasons:

  1. Palestinians voted for Mahmoud Abbas for President in January 2005 primarily because Israel indicated that he was the only guy they would talk to; the only hope for peaceful negotiations leading to a fair final status solution. But the Israeli government refused to talk to him, too, calling him "no partner" and "irrelevant" almost immediately, ostensibly because of his weakness -- yet this weakness had a lot to do with the fact that Israel wouldn't talk to him. It was a bit of a catch-22.

    If Israel didn't want to talk to Yasser Arafat, that was one thing. But if they refused even to talk to non-violent vanilla Abbas, who had always opposed violence and called for negotiations, who on earth would they talk to? Abbas's major selling point was that Israel would talk to him. When Israel refused, Abbas was rendered impotent to carry out what he had promised the Palestinian voters.

  2. Fatah is spectacularly corrupt. Palestinians detest this corruption. They were willing to give Fatah one more chance with Abbas. With Israel's help, Abbas blew it. Thousands of Palestinians voted for Hamas as a protest vote to punish Fatah, not realizing that Hamas would actually win.

  3. Israeli violence and settlement expansion seem to continue no matter what Palestinians do. Fatah hasn't been able to gain any ground at all. Why not try out Hamas? At least they aren't corrupt. It is widely known that when they get monetary donations earmarked for community works and public service, it gets where it needs to go. Hamas's public services among Palestine's poorest has won them many supporters.

Of course, Palestinians didn't count on America leading the way in sanctioning and punishing Palestinians for their democratic choice. America and Israel imposed a hideous and ongoing collective punishment of comprehensive sanctions that is making life hell for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by withholding international aid and Palestinian Authority tax revenues, which are needed to pay the salaries of civil servants, including teachers, nurses, and counselors. Middle-aged women are selling their bride's gold and wedding rings to buy bread, and the gold is running out.

This showed the Arab world exactly what America means when it promotes democracy in the Middle East: Apparently, some democracy is compulsory, and some democracy is forbidden.

Questions? Comments? Corrections?

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