Thursday, June 9, 2011

All Signs Point to Palestine

I can remember thinking to myself not too long ago that I would never want to work on anything having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mostly because I was flat out uneducated on the issue, but also because I thought “Aren't there enough people working on that issue? What’s the use in one more person getting involved in something that appears intractable?” I knew some basics about the conflict, but not enough to have an opinion. I was a Latin America girl – I spent high school and college learning Spanish and the history of ancient Latin American civilizations and conquistadors. I planned on spending my life lying in a hammock and taking inspiration from Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Che Guevara's diaries when I wasn’t busy managing education or economic development projects in rural Nicaragua or Bolivia.

But something happened along the way that changed my course. During my three month, solo backpacking trip through Europe, I jumped at an opportunity to step outside of my cultural comfort zone. Andalucia – southern Spain – and its Moorish architecture and mosques turned churches stunned me. Two civilizations blended, perhaps clashed, into a fascinating, eye-pleasing landscape. I knew the Spanish one. I wanted to know the other one. Flights to Casablanca, Morocco from Madrid were cheap, and I bought a round trip without the slightest hesitation. Morocco, as European as it may be, was a new civilization for me - a different language, history, and human story, about which I knew nothing. From that trip I recognized a need to learn about the world outside of the Western Hemisphere.

By the time I moved to D.C., I had mastered the Spanish language. I no longer had to think to speak Spanish. It was time to move on to language numero dos. Stuck between French and Arabic, I finally decided I should go for the tough one first, before I lose such ambition. Then, I needed a summer internship. Then, I started meeting people who knew people in Palestine. Then, I learned of large foreign aid disbursements in Palestine. Then, my other internship plan fell through. All signs pointed to Palestine.

So here I am. Immersing myself in modern history’s largest foreign affairs dilemma after claiming I wanted nothing to do with it. And quite honestly, I didn’t. I didn’t come here to become an activist, to throw myself in front of bulldozers, to go to Gaza (although it's tempting), to protest with the Palestinians, or to sympathize with one side more than the other. I came here to learn the human story behind all the headlines. Politics so infrequently reflects the realities of the common human being. 

Most foreigners that come here - nearly all of them that I’ve met - arrive with an opinion already etched in stone. Most foreigners are not totally foreign to this conflict; they usually have a stake of some sort. I had the advantage of arriving here as fairly impartial, and frankly, pretty politically and historically ignorant of all things Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Three weeks, two historical books, and dozens of checkpoint turnstiles in, I am no longer impartial. I’m trying to stay balanced in opinion, but the combination of historical illegitimacy and hypocrisy and present day Israeli politics inevitably provokes shock, and a bit of disgust and outrage – even for the less opinionated like me. I had no idea what occupation really meant, and I still have much to learn, but with just my tip-of-the-iceberg experience, I can understand why Palestinians have resorted to violence to achieve the ends they have sought. I have yet to visit some of the more contentious areas in the West Bank, or see bullet-pocked and bulldozed Palestinian homes - and I’ll never live to experience an Israeli raid on my home in the middle of the night for no legitimate or expressed reason and a denial of my human rights – but I have a feeling the more I see, the more I’ll feel. At the suggestion of a friend, I’m planning to end my time here by spending a weekend on a Jewish kibbutz in order to round out my experience a little more.

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