The irony of spring break

Slipping out of the mild, tepid rain, we entered a modern, multi-storied building with a smoked-glass exterior that shouted “PLO” in white bold letters.

It was Thursday morning of spring break and three Eastern students enrolled in Politics of the Middle East—seniors Ashton Dennis and Christy McCoy and sophomore Mary McEvoy—along with two others from Fresno Pacific University and me, were in the West Bank city of Ramallah to visit a Christian political rock star in the turmoil called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Her name is Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the once political consultant and close friend of the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and now a leader of a tiny Palestinian political party called The Third Way, the name of which infers a political approach that eschews the corruption of Fatah (the current governing party of the West Bank) and the violence and anti-Israel Hamas (the opposing party governing the Gaza Strip).  The diminutive size of The Third Way belies its political power as it includes Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as another of its leaders.

We were experiencing mental and emotional whiplash and were in Dr. Ashrawi’s government office to ask her a few questions.  The days before we heard from Israeli Jewish human rights groups about the pervasive suffering of Palestinians and from a passionate Jewish settler who guided us on a 4-hour tour of one of the major Jewish settlement areas south and west of Bethlehem in the occupied territories, all the while making a compelling case for supporting the settler movement that the human rights groups (and the US) believe is not only harming Palestinians but blocking progress on a final peace agreement between Palestine and Israel.  We had also seen something many of us didn’t expect: the conflict is really an array of conflicts, not merely between Israelis and Arabs but internecine conflicts among Israelis and among Palestinians…and everyone had his or her own compelling stories and perspectives.

Our heads were full and hearts were heavy. We were eager to hear a hopeful note.  What we heard to start our meeting was, “Eat. This is certainly better for you than what you’ve been eating.”

A gracious, articulate woman, Dr. Ashrawi sat with us around her office table draped in Arab culinary delights, fresh cut veggies and, my favorite, mint tea. While we took copious notes and peppered her with questions, Dr. Ashrawi painted a bleak picture of the withered peace process in which the US has played a starring role.

Knowing we would be talking to the US Peace Process Officer in the US Embassy the next day, we asked, “What should we ask him?” Not missing a beat, Dr. Ashrawi said, “How can the US expect to achieve an enduring peace agreement from negotiations characterized by an asymmetry of power?”

After what we had already seen and heard, we all knew exactly what she meant.  She went on to explain anyway.  US pro-Israel domestic politics has hand-tied the US government from forcing the Israeli government to stop settlement building on Palestinian territory.

The next day, the US Peace Process Officer answered the question this way. “Yes, there is an imbalance. Palestinian leaders can only offer Israel intangibles, like the promise not to threaten Israeli security, while Israel has primarily tangibles to offer, such as the evacuation of settlements—i.e., ‘land for peace’.”

True enough, but he missed the cardinal point, I thought.  While the US is satisfied with simply making the two sides negotiate, as it stands back appearing to be neutral, Israel continues to establish “facts on the ground” (i.e., settlements, etc.) that add much more negotiating chips to what it can trade, and certainly much more than Palestine can offer, which means by the end of the process Palestine will be left with much less than real justice requires and what Palestinians can accept.  It reminds me of a day laborer who is paid little and treated poorly because while he desperately needs what the employer has—a job—the employer doesn’t need that day laborer since there are many other workers desperately vying for the same job.

Fortunately, by week’s end we saw signs of hope in the joy we experienced while staying with Christian Arab families and later eating a meal with Israeli Messianic Jews and Christian Arabs dedicated to working toward reconciliation between Israelis and Arabs.  Still, our hope was chastened by the brutal attack on a settler family a couple of days before we left and the bus bombing in Jerusalem soon after we left the region. 

Thrusting ourselves into the overlapping Israeli/Palestinian conflicts to study them was like diving into a tangle of razor wire in a house of mirrors. To extricate ourselves from distortions of reality we had to figure out what is real amongst the multifaceted, competing images of what is true.  The experience both focused our minds and wounded our hearts as we searched for justice in a land ironically called Holy.

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