If you followed my Instagram feed, you know I spent most of January in the Middle East, specifically in the region known as the Holy Land. While I was working on developing friendships, and helping the KIVU Gap Year students; I had some general observations that may be helpful for some of you interested in the current news cycle.
On December 6, the current American Administration announced a move. The United States decided to move the U.S. Embassy from the coastal city of Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem, further announcing it’s support of the Israeli recognition of Jerusalem as the Eternal Unified Capitol City – a major negotiation term at the table of the Middle East Peace process since 1967.
In 1993 during the Clinton Administration, an agreement called the Oslo accords was set into motion with the stated goal of developing two independent States that would have to figure out how to share Jerusalem between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Ever since 1993 the Oslo accords have continued to strain relationship on both sides as the Palestinians and Israelis try to find a solution to live together.
You can imagine the sentiment on both sides.
Israelis are in love with the American Administration for taking their side.
The Arabs? Well, that’s a different story all together.
Before I get right into the details of this monumental shift in United States foreign policy, and what it means to the people on the ground, I think there are a few points of fact that need we all need to work from.
- Most of Israeli government operations have operated out of Jerusalem for a long time. This is nothing new. The Parliamentary body called the Knesset, convenes in Jerusalem, and to state this is the Israeli capitol is a bit redundant to those who operate on the ground.
- Israel has had the municipal authority over a majority of Jerusalem since 1967. With the exception of the divided city (East Jerusalem) on the other side of the 1967 green line boarder, there’s nothing outside of the city/national government reach.
- I believe No country, including the United States, has the authority to decide where another country should put its capitol. Can you imagine if the Mexican government all of the sudden decided that Dallas Texas was it’s eternal capitol and it was coming back to take back the land from America? Nonsense. That’s just not reality. So a critique of the administration’s decision is that it was much a do about optics instead of practical common sense on the ground.
- There are estimated nearly 600K Arab Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem. And although here in America that may not pose a problem, in a land of controversial ownership, it is THE problem. Miss-trust based on years and years of violence and ever changing government rules leaves the citizens of Jerusalem to wonder, what is to become of their home.
- Israel claims it wants to be a “Jewish” State.” It takes it’s lead from America and also claims to be the only “Democracy in the Middle East.” But in order for a democracy to work, the people living in the region have to have a vote. If you go back to Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on Israel in December 2016, you can see the complexities play out concerning the difference between a Democracy and Ethnocracy.
While many in America see this declaration as a support for Israel policy, many people on the ground see the difficulties now operating daily life.
- Ultra Orthodox Jews rarely support the government of Israel. Many of the Orthodox I spoke with, although largely supported by the “non-profit” status of being a religious leader, have a skeptical view of any empire that would replace the authority of their god. It becomes difficult for religion and nationalism to exist side by side.
- Jerusalem has a demography problem. The estimated 600K Arabs in East Jerusalem see the declaration as another way to cast them away from their homes they’ve claimed for thousands of years. Many I spoke with have no personal issue with Israeli citizens, but they do have a problem when they pay higher taxes, are denied permits for building, and receive less services that their Jewish counterparts.
- If you take a look at the “Greater Jerusalem Project” proposed in the Knesset, you’ll see the process of increasing the amount of Jewish neighbors, and annexing parts of Arab lands in hopes to reduce the numbers of Arabs who can actually be citizens of the city. Think gerrymandering, but on a much larger scale. (There is a a difference in being a Jew, an Israeli, a Citizen of Jerusalem, an Arab, a Muslim, and a Christian. Each category has certain permit obligations and rights associated with the way they function in the city.)
As the problem with neighbors increases, the sentiment on the ground feels like a tinderbox ready to flame up at any given moment. Israelis have limited access to Arabs, and vice versa. Society is built to insulate everything from language to music, business to education, and even roads where Arabs are forbidden to drive on because of their national identity, not to mention anything about the great wall divide of religion.
So when you think about what’s going on the ground, I might offer a few thoughts for you to understand why this region continues to make the top news stories around the world.
- The divide of hatred, fear, and mistrust is real. Israelis who think about being in social settings with Palestinians hold a real fear of being attacked. With this psychology, you can imagine how people try and protect themselves and their families. I spoke with one man who carries a firearm on his hip at all times, claiming to be prepared for the terrorist who is out there to harm his way of life.
- Solutions for Middle East Peace isn’t simply about people just “getting along.” There are real conversations about natural resources, security, and authority to govern. When the problem gets down to who gets the last drop of water to drink or take a shower, all bets are off the table.
- Religion continues to fan the flame of hatred by identifying people with a label. For sure, religion can be a good thing that brings hope to millions around the world; but when used in a nefarious way, religion can be a powerful motivator to segregate people to the US. vs. Them narrative. (for my American friends, just think about how many Sunday services happen in different flavors of Christian each week.)
- The argument really isn’t about any thousand year old struggle. It’s quite a modern day problem, and when the International community throws it’s hands up in the air to claim, “Well they’ve been fighting for…….” we refuse to recognize the pain in the lives of real people. We don’t take into consideration the fear of today’s Israeli citizen for the need of security. We don’t begin to think about the fear of today’s Palestinian who fears the Israeli Army ever presence in their neighborhoods.
I spent a pretty good amount of time learning about the rising leadership in both cultures. The hope I walked away with is this, there are leaders willing to transform the region into a prosperous peaceful region, if they had some help.
One thing is sure, America has given away its long held position as a neutral third party negotiator. The Palestinians I spoke with in Ramallah are ready to unwind all relationships with the United States, recognizing America will always take the side of Israel. It’s sad to see, in a world where so much good can be afforded to the region, America is now not trusted to even help.
That’s why I’m working diligently to form an International Peace Fund that would aim to help Israelis and Palestinians who live on the ground to begin interacting with one another. It would set the stage for business partnerships, social interactions, and even places of bilateral education. I believe the only way to find peace is to interact with members of the human community on both sides of this conflict zone. You don’t have to choose a dual framework to be either “pro Israel” or “pro Palestine.” What if you decide to be “pro human?” Then we can recognize the beauty and historical importance of both sides of the negotiating table without demeaning either.
As for Israel, there is a great vibrant economic society growing all through the country. The people – by in large – on the West Coast in Tel Aviv are thriving in a strong economy. It’s only when religion enters the conversation the mood shifts. Security and Significance are Israel’s two most desired values, and while there are countries who vocally vow to start wars with Israel, I don’t see a good solution for the future.
For the Palestinians, there is a “life as normal” type of attitude. Millions of people on the ground try to make a living, get their kids an education, and try to serve their neighbors.
I’m humbled to have so many friends on both sides of this issue. It has encouraged me that humanity can, if given the opportunity, find ways to work together for the greater good.