I wrote the following Op Ed piece shortly after returning from Israel and Palestine in June 1992 and submitted it to some dozen newspapers in Upstate New York.
"Have you seen the newspaper today? There was a killing last night in Beit Sahour (the neighboring town). Anton Shomeli was a classmate of mine at the University. He was shot at point blank range by the Israeli soldiers. When will the killing stop?" This was the beginning of my first conversation in Palestine, with Hanna Zoughbi a 22 year-old student at Bethlehem University. It was very much in character with much of what I heard from Palestinians during several weeks I spent in Israel and the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in early May.
In my meetings with a wide range of individuals and organizations, both Israeli and Palestinian I found that there is currently little hope that the U.S.- initiated peace process is leading anywhere. Evidence of the despair and increasing frustration were evident everywhere. As a result, I wasn't surprised to hear about recent killings of Jews by Palestinians, or of the extremely repressive response of the Israeli government and military.
Israelis are clearly afraid, and at the same time realize that they have a far superior military and are able to dictate much of the agenda of the current peace process. Yet, there are deep splits in Israeli society, and few people believe that the current situation can continue indefinitely.
Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom of Jerusalem spoke of the conflict as follows, "the biggest problem we face is ideology. There isn't much on either side (traditionally) which speaks of peaceful coexistence."
During my stay in Israel both Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day were commemorated. I was riding on a bus in Jerusalem in the middle of the morning when it stopped in the street, and everyone stood up to observe several minutes of silence. It was a tremendously moving experience to see all life in a busy city stand still to remember the horror of the Holocaust. The following week I visited Kibbutz Palmach Tzova and saw their memorial to the over a dozen men from the kibbutz who had been killed during fighting since 1948. The pain and fear are strong.
Outside Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, was a statement carved into the wall which caused me to reflect a good deal about Israel and its current conflict. "Remembrance is Redemption" stood on the wall, seeming to try and sum up the devastating experience of the Holocaust. As I thought about this I realized that for me this statement is all wrong, and that it gets at the heart of the contradictions facing Israel today. Remembering the Holocaust is very important, and must continue. However, focussing only on remembrance doesn't allow us to move forward, to confront the current realities and seek solutions which can work for everyone.
Every Palestinian I met shared impassioned stories of pain and suffering involving their families, friends or themselves. All of them spoke movingly about their desire for peace: peace with justice. Palestinians recognize the suffering that Jews have experienced, but they don't believe that they should be denied a homeland in order to atone for the sins of the Germans or others who have persecuted Jews throughout history.
Khalil and his wife Omkhalil live with their seven children in Beach Camp in the Gaza Strip. Their three older sons have all been imprisoned. Twenty-two year old Khalil, has been imprisoned eight times. The most recent time he was shot in the head and then denied proper medical treatment. As a result he has continuous health problems. When I asked Khalil if he had any specific messages for the American people, he said, "just tell the American people the facts. We're not terrorists as they try to make us out to be. We love life and respect all people in the world, even the American people, though we hate the American government."
Later in my trip Veronica Cohen, an Israeli peace activist told me of her growing concern with the "death squads" operating within the Israeli military. Some of these squads dressed up as Palestinians and driving in Palestinian vehicles captured and shot "wanted" Palestinians. Other times, as in Anton's case, soldiers kill Palestinian activists when they are arrested and claim that the person was resisting in some way.
It is clearly time for the U.S. government to begin applying our ideals about freedom and democracy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The recent decision to deny Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees because of the continuing settlement building in the Occupied Territories was an important first step. However, there is much more we can, and should be doing. Israelis and Palestinians alike realize that without the financial support of the U.S. government (over $3 billion annually) Israel could not continue to maintain its occupation.
Khalil saw the lack of consistency in U.S. policy. "UN resolutions about the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait were applied immediately, yet dozens of resolutions during the 25 years of the Israeli occupation have not been enforced at all." Now is the time to create policies which recognize the right of all peoples to self-determination and freedom.
Hatim, another resident of Gaza and someone who has spent much of his adult life in Israeli prisons summed it up quite well, "tell the American people that our people are a nice people, who can forget the hardness and difficulties with the Israelis. Our people have sacrificed a great deal. Our struggle is not just for Palestinians, but for all people to live in peace and freedom. We hope people understand this."