“It’s complicated.” That’s what nearly everyone said.
Traveling through Israel and Palestine just two weeks ago, we met with professors, journalists, activists, industrialists and generals. We broke bread with Ethiopian Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Muslims. We tried to learn as much about the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as possible during an 11-day trip, during which 10 hours of each day was devoted to listening to lecturers and asking questions.
We were a collection of Bay Area civic leaders, with diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, brought to Israel by the Jewish Community Relations Council for the purpose of trying to understand how complicated the situation is there. And it is complicated — incredibly so — but I learned a Hebrew word that sums it up even better: balagan.
Balagan means “chaos” or “fiasco” or “mess” or, as we say in colloquial American English, “shit show.”
That’s exactly what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, a complete and utter, century-old balagan that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
This week has been horrific. On Monday, more than 50 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli Defense Forces. Any death at a protest is terrible but, really, think about it. Think about the times you’ve been at a demonstration or seen one on TV and consider what it would be like if the authorities opened fire on the crowd with live ammunition. Of course, we’ve seen it before: The death toll at Kent State was four; Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland was 14. But Israeli forces killed dozens of people this week armed with little more than rocks, bottles, Molotov cocktails and apparently some kind of incendiary kites.
The protesters’ use of incendiaries is wrong. But what are Molotov cocktails compared to well-protected snipers with high-powered assault rifles? This underscores one of the major issues with the current iteration of the conflict: Both sides have lots of blood on their hands after a century of violence, but Israel has significantly more power, both politically and in terms of weaponry. Gaza is a veritable open-air prison, where Israel gets to decide who leaves and when, and the economic blockade keeps the people of Palestine impoverished. The fact that Israel enforces these things with state-of-the-art weaponry and deadly force leaves the Palestinians in Gaza in a desperate situation.
Israel is not the only one to blame. Hamas, a terrorist organization funded by Iran, has been in control of Gaza for a decade with the stated purpose of wiping out Israel completely. Much of the international aid that goes to Gaza to help build things like hospitals and infrastructure gets taken by Hamas and is used for bunkers, tunnels and weaponry. And Egypt, which borders the other side of Gaza, refuses to let the Palestinians live on their lands.
The situation is only slightly better on the West Bank. While the Palestinian Authority has control of 18 percent of the land and joint control with Israel of another 22 percent of the territory, they are wildly corrupt and don’t really have much power. For example, all the buildings in the West Bank have big water tanks on their roofs. That’s because Israel controls their access to water and sometimes turns it off. All this is occurring while Israel financially encourages religious Jewish zealots who settle in designated Palestinian lands because they think they were promised it in the bible. And just like Egypt, Jordan, which borders the other side of the West Bank, won’t allow Palestinians to move onto their land.
So why does Israel insist on exerting such tight and anti-humanitarian control over the Palestinians? From their view, it’s to protect Israeli citizens from the kind of terrorism that rocked Israel during the Second Intifada, which took place from September 2000 to February 2005 and resulted in 1,000 Israelis being killed. Since the day it declared its independence, Israel has had some very legitimate security concerns.
Total bala-freakin’-gan, right?
A Palestinian journalist from Rammallah suggested even though Hamas and the Palestinian Authority hate each other and have been to war with each other, they need to sit down and decide what’s best for the Palestinian people. As it’s obvious that Israel isn’t going anywhere, the leaders in Gaza and the West Bank need to acknowledge Israel’s right to existence and move forward with plans on how to live peacefully next to Israel. Once they have that, they can start negotiations with Israel.
Israel has a ton of work to do. First, they need to get all the Jewish settlers out of the West Bank. Not only are their settlements wrong, they are illegal. Israel should also pull back to its the 1967 borders and give sovereignty over to whatever unified Palestinian leadership comes out of Hamas and the PA making peace. If peace is to every really happen, Israel will need to completely reconsider the wall in the West Bank, if not tear it down altogether. While the wall has significantly reduced terror attacks inside Israel, it has done so at the cost of jobs lost, families divided, land divided and the freedom and dignity of innocent Palestinians. Besides the humanitarian issues, it’s not even all that effective: Twenty percent of Arabs already live on the Israeli side, and people sneak across the wall all the time for work opportunities.
Since Jerusalem is viewed as such a holy place for both the Jews and the Muslims, it’s a huge sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The best possible outcome would be if it was not owned by Israel or Palestine but was an international city where Jews Muslims and Christians can still live, pray, and make pilgrimage to.
This is just one way peace can come to the region, but there’s a long way to go before any of this happens. So what can we do as Americans?
At home, we start by electing a government that is not in bed with the right-wing extremists who are currently running Israel. Even then, Israel needs to get rid of its right-wing government, Gaza needs to oust Hamas and the Palestinian Authority needs to have leadership that doesn’t believe Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, as Mahmoud Abbas recently suggested.
Our biggest task is dealing with our own relationships to Israel.
Many will suggest the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel. Given its booming economy, that movement has been largely ineffective. Beyond that, it does nothing to help the Palestinians with what they need: jobs, security, education and health. Journalist Peter Beinart suggested a targeted BDS of anything manufactured in the Jewish West Bank settlements might be more effective. Supporting Israeli and Palestinian organizations that work for a peaceful two state solution and human rights for all is another way you can help.
We also need to deal with our own personal relationships.
Fellow Jews: Stop blindly siding with Israel. Their government is committing atrocities, things that, if it weren’t Israel, you’d be condemning. You can support the State of Israel while also denouncing their government. It’s what we do every day here with our own country. The things the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinian people are things that were done to us in other countries for centuries. The only way the Jewish state can have legitimacy is if it ends occupation of the Palestinian territories and stops persecuting the people in them.
Non Jews: Please stop equating all Jewish people with things the Israeli government is doing. There are millions of Jews around the world who can see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the criminal he is and who are dissenting against what the Israeli government is doing. In fact, many of them are Israeli citizens living in Israel and working for peace. Israelis in Tel-Aviv took to the streets to protest Monday’s massacre of Palestinians. Just because Israel is a Jewish state doesn’t mean its government represents every Jew. Anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, and this kind of thinking is helping fuel the flames.
Now, let’s see what kind of balagan the comments section becomes.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.