Visiting the Palestinian narrative requires more than a visit

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” ― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

A heated argument is taking place about the morality, benefit, and value of traveling to Palestine to witness firsthand what Palestinians are facing in the context of prolonged Israeli military occupation. Assuming these travelers are well-intentioned and want to see Israel’s military occupation for what it is, what they get in the best case is a brief glimpse of the Palestinians’ current reality. They will not come close to learning in any depth about the full lived experience of Palestinians, let alone acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the Palestinian narrative.

By force or otherwise and over several generations, Israel has succeeded beyond its founders’ wildest dreams and in broad daylight to fragment the Palestinian community geographically, socially, economically, and politically. For an authentic engagement with the Palestinian narrative, one would need to also visit Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Denmark, Germany, the US, the UK, Canada, Chile, Brazil, and Venezuela, to name just a few. Visitors would also need to spend some time visiting Israeli prisons to meet a growing number of Palestinian political prisoners being detained, hundreds without charge, and some for 10, 20, 30 years or more.

A full understanding of what Palestinians have been put through since the founding of Israel and what they are facing today in each of their fragmented places of existence would be unbearable for the average person, mentally and emotionally. Indeed, a full comprehension of what they face is also more than what most of today’s traumatized generation of Palestinians are willing to consciously entertain as they endeavor somehow to carve a meaningful life in a cruel and demeaning reality.

“Ethical tourism” to Apartheid

This debate on “ethical tourism” to Palestine/Israel is most apparent in Jewish communities around the world and, in particular, in the American Jewish world. American columnist, journalist, and political commentator Peter Beinart recently hosted me on a panel about this very topic, The Ethics of Organized Travel between the River and the Sea.

Middle East trips by Jewish community groups and many others, including a steady stream of US lawmakers, have been on the increase in recent years. The itineraries now routinely include a stop in Palestine, usually in the city of Bethlehem or Ramallah where I reside. Ramallah is often said to have a 5-star occupation as one of the Palestinian cities least battered by the Israeli occupation — which is not to say that Ramallah is occupation-free. Scratch the surface of any Palestinian city, including this one, and what may initially seem like a hustling and bustling Middle East bazaar will quickly reveal itself to be a structurally damaged society. This is absolutely the case for all Palestinian locales across the occupied territory.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve been asked to speak to hundreds of these visiting groups. As I watch this debate about the “ethical” way to visit Palestine, I can’t help but wonder about the value of engaging in this fleeting way with people who are passing through in quest of a Palestinian narrative.

The overwhelming majority of people with whom I’ve engaged are genuinely seeking to broaden their horizon on Palestine/Israel. And in fact, the education they receive in talking with Palestinians from different walks of life and briefly seeing a sliver of reality on the ground, be it the sprawling settlements, the separation wall, or intrusive military checkpoints, will surely add to their knowledge. Some few are also moved to act, and it is these visitors who make speaking to groups worth the effort.

At the other end of the spectrum are those coming just to add examples and cred to their pre-determined beliefs that whatever Israel does must be for good reason: No matter how ugly the reality, there must be some justification even for crimes of Apartheid and mass persecution. For such visitors, the underlying racist premise is that Palestinians are violent, and Israel is justified in protecting itself at any cost. To hell with international law and human rights.

The English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently published a piece titled, “Why a pro-Israel Campus Organization Is Bringing Jewish Students to Ramallah,” by Judy Maltz (Aug 25, 2022). Two of the student visitors she interviewed expressed the opinion that their single trip enlightened them:

Jordan Robinson, a 21-year-old participant who recently began his graduate studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the experience had not really changed his views on Israel and the conflict. “But I now feel more comfortable being an activist on campus,” he said. “I now have more information and experiences I can draw from so that I can go into conversations feeling confident because I witnessed things firsthand,” he added.

Or as Rachel Cusnir, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan, put it: “It’s given me the legitimacy to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen what goes on there.’”

These students believe that after one trip, after maybe engaging with a few Palestinians for a few hours, they have witnessed “what goes on” here. Sadly, their exposure has been so fractional and inadequate that for all intents and purposes they remain clueless, although I certainly applaud them for crossing the chasm and making an attempt to understand.

Wherever this debate on the ethical way to visit Palestine may end up, some context would considerably improve the level of the discussion. No visitor coming to Palestine, on a single trip, should be allowed to fool themselves into thinking they experienced the Palestinian narrative in full — or even obtained a complete sense of the lived experience of those Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

What you miss when you visit

Dispossession. In this limited space, I can’t even begin to adequately convey a sense of the deep wounds that remain unhealed across all Palestinian communities, regardless of where they reside, resulting from the experience of dispossession from their home and homeland. Although the number of Palestinians alive today who witnessed this dispossession firsthand are dwindling, the collective consciousness of dispossession lives on. It has been carried from generation to generation by oral histories, some documented but most not, and by younger generations who are questioning their current living conditions. It is difficult to forget when the dispossession continues. Imagine being uprooted from your home and never being permitted to return. Imagine your home being demolished. It is both that simple to understand and too complicated to explain in all its ramifications. When a Palestinian child answers your question of “Where are you from?” by saying Haifa, although she has never set foot into Haifa and was born and lives in a West Bank refugee camp, you can start to see the depth of these wounds and the power of collective memory — trauma, lived and inherited. Science has a name for this, it is transgenerational trauma.

Gaza. The overwhelming majority of visitors from abroad, like most Palestinians living in the West Bank, will never make it into the Gaza Strip — because Israel controls entry and exit. Internal Palestinian politics aside, the Gaza Strip is a hellhole. Imagine being a 15-year-old Palestinian and never once having experienced an entire day and night with uninterrupted electricity service, not to mention having lived through four Israeli military onslaughts by your mid-teens. With over 2.1 million Palestinians residing on some 365 square kilometers (141 square miles), Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world; half the population is under the age of 18; 67% are refugees; and more than 70% of Gaza’s population relies on humanitarian aid to meet basic needs. All these numbers aside, the invisible element in Gaza is the individual human being. Imagine being born into this reality with no way out and being continually under bombardment and sniper fire by Israel. Gaza’s continuing trauma is something most Israelis should actively be worried about but work very hard to forget.

Refugees. If visitors are lucky their itinerary will include visits to refugee camps. Such visits usually happen in the most accessible camps, such as the Dheisheh Refugee Camp located off the main road just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. However informative the visit, West Bank refugee camps have gradually become built-up areas and the uninformed may view them as mere neighborhoods — shanty towns — of the cities where they exist. Nonetheless, these camps are squalid and downtrodden, and speaking to its refugee residents will inaugurate a long journey of understanding about what it means to be a refugee in the long term. And no matter how intense the experience, nothing can be compared to refugee camp life in Lebanon, where life and death grimly equated themselves long ago. As if the original dispossession was not bad enough, being denied other options and forced to live as a refugee for decades on end, or being born into refugeedom, is a fate that will remain essentially opaque to most outsiders, even after a lifetime of observation and study. It should not come as a surprise that many camp residents have turned to substance abuse to cope and to human traffickers as a way out.

Loss. For Palestinians, the emotional weight of losing their home and land is matched only by the loss of loved ones. Dealing with such bereavement, especially the loss of children, levies a formidable toll on all those left behind to pick up the pieces of their lives. Imagine being a teenager and returning to your classroom to find the empty chairs of your classmates who will never return. Israel has increasingly taken the infliction of loss to a new level: Israeli authorities retain possession of the dead bodies of Palestinians they have killed, as bargaining chips: over 270 as of the last count. Yes, necropolitics and necroviolence are being practiced by the “only democracy in the Middle East”. Imagine losing a mother or a father in the prime of their lives. Imagine the corpse of your loved one confiscated by those who killed them. Imagine such losses in your own family, not once during your lifetime, but over and over again, all the while daily fearing for your own life. Visitors to Palestine will see cheerful and smiling Palestinians wherever they visit: people who do not wear their losses on their sleeves, but surely carry it with them in other ways, mostly invisible to a visitor. Nevertheless, they grapple with permanent damage during each hour of every day, while attempting to carry on. More and more are unable to carry on and we see the results in terms of mental health issues, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and so much more.

Travel restrictions. Foreign visitors must enter today’s Palestine through Israeli-controlled points of entry, usually Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. For many, especially for most Jews, entry is uneventful. For many others, however, especially if they are profiled as “non-white” and, God forbid, in solidarity with Palestinians, entry can be a challenge. Not infrequently such people are denied entry and sent back to where they came from. Visitors admitted to Israel/Palestine generally travel between the river and the sea — Gaza excluded — with few complications. They freely visit Palestinians who can only dream of traveling freely in their own homeland. Visitors will generally not see, or glimpse only partially, what it means to live in an open-air cage, being under 24/7 military surveillance, needing to pass machine guns pointing at you to travel from one point in the occupied territory to another; being unable to travel to and from Gaza or Jerusalem; having to experience the humiliation of leaving the country only via Jordan, across the infamous Allenby Bridge. A nearly perfected Orwellian maze of Israeli population control infrastructure is not easy to photograph: it encompasses IDs, permits, checkpoints, drones, and a host of draconian restrictions. Seeing how all this affects those living it day after day is hard to put into words, even assuming you have seen it in action while visiting and understood fully how it operates. To get an inkling of a small taste of what life is like for Palestinians, tourists should cross through the Qalandiya/Ramallah Checkpoint, Checkpoint 300/Bethlehem, and between areas H1 and H2 in Hebron.

Palestinian-American businessman Jamal Niser currently imprisoned under administrative detention

Administrative detention. This is a practice that Israel engages in to stifle activism against the occupation and strike fear into the hearts of an entire population. On both accounts, it is a losing strategy. Case in point: Last year my Palestinian-American cousin Jamal Niser, a senior citizen approaching 80 years of age, was arrested and detained by Israel for four months. Numerous Israeli jeeps were on scene as more than a dozen soldiers woke him up in the middle of the night and hauled him away. No consideration was given to his being a diabetic and having lost more than half his eyesight. No charges were ever brought forward. We recently celebrated his release. Then, about a month ago, he received a call from the occupation authorities. He was offered a choice: Come to the Israeli prison so we can interrogate you or Israeli soldiers will return and arrest you from your home in Al-Bireh, yet again. Jamal told them that there was no need to scare the neighbors again in the middle of the night. He voluntarily went to the Ofer Detention Center on the outskirts of Ramallah and was interrogated for an hour or so before returning home. A few days ago, the nighttime raid on his home was reprised. At around 4 AM, Israeli soldiers broke down the front door to his home and came upstairs to find him and his wife in bed. Jamal was hauled away in a jeep and 3 days later given another four months of administrative detention. Again, no charges. The man is almost 80 years old, don’t forget. Add to this Kafkaesque reality these other facts: after spending more than forty years in Ohio, Jamal attempted to return to his home in Palestine in 1995, after the Oslo Accords were signed. He was denied entry by Israel and returned to the US. He tried to return home again a few years later and was able to enter and subsequently gained West Bank residency. Then in 2012 when he attempted to make one of his frequent visits back to Ohio to oversee his businesses, he was denied exit from the West Bank. Multiple lawyers were unable to help. Then came these arrests and administrative detentions. Now take this case and multiply it by 1,000 if you want to start to get a feel of what Palestinians face every single night. Reflect on the spouses that must pick up the pieces the following morning. Imagine being a child and living through a dozen heavily armed soldiers barging into your home at night and forcefully removing your father, mother, brother, sister, or even grandfather.

I could go on and on, but the point has been made. The Palestinian narrative includes all of the above and so much more. Even if a person visiting Palestine is exposed to these issues, feeling them and comprehending them as a lived experience requires much more than a few trips to a single location, let alone a single trip.

Welcome to Palestine

And yet, all this and much more, we still welcome you to Palestine.

We will do our utmost to let you experience our generosity, see the beautiful land which is at the center of the attack on us, and taste our traditional foods which Israel is gradually appropriating as its own, a massive cultural heist if ever there was one. You will encounter amazing individuals who keep smiling and hoping that the living hell in which they wake up every morning will one day give way to something more normal.

While here, you will meet at most a handful of Palestinians. Some will put what you are seeing in its historical context which will make you feel uneasy. Others will pretend that there is normalcy under occupation and speak about business, sports, or cross-border cooperation as if “willing it” was enough to make it true.

Whatever you witness on your trip will be valuable in its own right. Just please do not think for a minute that you have comprehended what it means to be Palestinian after 74 years of dispossession, 55 years of military occupation, and daily humiliation and economic strangulation designed by Israel with US backing.

This full frontal assault on an entire people leaves the individual Palestinian with three paths forward: 1) leave Palestine, Israel’s preferred option; 2) resign yourself to the fact that you are a lesser human being and worthy of nothing more than marginal enhancements to your quality of life under occupation (this means that you will accept working in Israel as a cheap laborer for the benefit of Israel’s economy); or 3) turn violent, in response to Israel’s ongoing and unbridled violence. This last path appears to be tempting more Palestinians lately, although still relative few, among the multitudes who have lost all hope that the international community — if such a thing exists — can muster the political will to hold Israel accountable and end this human nightmare that they brought into existence.

As for Palestinians outside of Palestine, Israel does not even see them or offer them any way forward. These invisible Palestinians are the ones that Israelis should be seeing in their nightmares and ignoring them en masse is likely to prove to have been Israel’s Achilles’ heel.

It is fortunate indeed that people need not personally experience cruelty and pain in order to be motivated to act to change things before it is too late. A judge need not have been raped herself in order that a rapist standing before her bench be convicted and punished. We do not all need to be victims of domestic violence to take a stand to bring such violence to an end. Sometimes, even a little comprehension can go a long way. No one who is reading this needs to fully comprehend the trauma and never-ending pain of Palestinians, individual or collective, in order to decide to take action to finally hold accountable those who are battering Palestinians into oblivion.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on September 20, 2022 on ePalestine, a website featuring commentary by Sam Bahour.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Bahour.

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