What Americans Should Know About Palestine – Part 2

An Emerging RamallahWhat does statehood mean to a young Palestinian student, dreaming of her future and that of her friends and family?  “Of course a Palestinian State means we will have the opportunity to focus energy on building our lives, and not have to wake up in the morning with a tank parked in front of our house.”  Hiba, a university student in Ramallah, goes on to say “You might say in ways we are victims, due to the occupation, but we cannot continue complaining about it.  We have to continue working to develop ourselves.  We really want independence and statehood.”

In April 2011, during a visit to Ramallah, I had the opportunity to interview several Palestinians, and asked their views on statehood, Palestine’s place in the world, and what they wanted Americans to know about Palestine.   The interviews included members of the government, entrepreneurs, students, and even taxi drivers.  The responses to questions were remarkably consistent.  Nobody mentioned resistance or violence, and in all cases rejected the recent level of conflict in the Gaza territory as unproductive to the Palestinian cause.

We are sensitive and creative people. We have poets, writers, and a deep culture.”

I ask “what do you want Americans to know about Ramallah and Palestine?”

Each person has a slightly different answer, but all answers are positive.  Talk about the occupation quickly moves on to topics about future, and how everything in changing in Ramallah.  In fact, just walking along the streets of Ramallah can be a challenge – not because of anything dangerous, but rather the level of construction makes it difficult to navigate streets.

Answers to the question are difficult to pin down.  Once the topic is raised, you will get one or two quick ideas, including concern that Americans are not getting a clear picture of the “real” Palestine through news media.  In particular, those in Ramallah want Americans to know there is a big difference between the West bank and Gaza.  The impressions Americans get (as seen on their satellite television broadcasts of CNN and Fox News) of Palestine is one of rocket attacks, kidnappings, and violence.  In reality, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, and other locations within the West Bank are very peaceful, with most people working hard to improve their quality of life.

Ramallah itself is a city of cafes, shopping, cultural events, construction, and even discos to round out an emerging night life and entertainment industry.   However, as this is not current news, and does not sell US advertising, it is rare you would ever have an opportunity to see this side of Palestine in the US media.  

Hiba was a bit disappointed on one topic – she was busy the following day and could not attend TEDx Ramallah, an independent event supported by the innovative community TED.  “TEDxRamallah aims to showcase inspiring stories of Palestine. It also aims to educate and inspire by providing a space for people to share their ideas in any field, whether science, education, literature, technology, design, etc. to contribute to the positive perception of Palestine.”

She concedes the Palestine university system may not adequately introduce innovation and entrepreneurial spirit within the formal curriculum, however with groups such as TEDx Ramallah, and expatriate Palestinians returning to the country there is a new spirit driving young people.  In addition, the Palestinian Authority actively encourages foreign companies to invest in Palestinian small and medium businesses (SMEs), hoping to further develop both the local economy and support innovation.

Investment in Palestine is being encouraged not merely to increase the size of the economy, but also to increase private sector employment, generate income, and improve living standards. A move towards increased per capita prosperity will additionally have the overall effect of potentially stabilizing tensions in the region, if achieved in tandem with a just political settlement. A just peace and prosperity within the West Bank and Gaza
Strip is not only good for us, but it’s good for Israel and the Middle East as a whole.
(PIPA)

The 2010 Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem attracted more than 1000 potential investors from 38 countries with pledges to invest nearly $1bil in Palestinian SMEs. Of particular note was the interest in developing Palestine’s IT and software development industries, which are attractive due to the limitations in export/import of materials as controlled by Israel.   This does show a very positive outlook and confidence in Palestine’s future by the international community.

“Statehood Means We Will Have an Identity”

The WallHiba continues that “I have never been outside of the West Bank.  Not because I don’t want to travel and see other locations around the world, rather it is because I cannot get a passport, and am not allowed to travel outside of Palestine.  I know how the outside world is, because we get movies and television from around the world.  What makes us different from the rest of the world?  Why can’t I experience life as in the movies and television just because I was born in Palestine?

Difficult for an American to appreciate.  For us freedom of movement, expression, and religion is assumed, and we feel great anger when faced with even small barriers to those freedoms.

It hurts inside that we cannot travel to Jerusalem and pray at our Mosques and other holy sites.  Those locations are very important to us (Palestinians and Muslims).”

A taxi driver goes out of his way to expose me to the difficulties all Palestinians encounter while going through checkpoints (between Ramallah and Jerusalem), and give an up close view of walls, guard towers, and Israeli military installations designed to control movement, keeping Palestinians within the West Bank territory.

With statehood we can begin applying our energy to improving our lives, not just trying to stay alive.”

Then his conversation once again turns positive.  “Do you see their settlements?  Don’t you agree Ramallah is a much nicer city than Tel Aviv?  Once we have freedom we’ll be a very strong little country.”

A Lasting Impression

While this is not my first visit to Palestine, Israel, or other locations within the Middle East, each experience brings new observations, emotions, and ideas.  Human nature tells us we should think positive, as negative energy rarely brings progress.  The Palestinians have a tremendous level of positive energy, and as an outsider it is certainly refreshing to see the enthusiasm of a country on the verge of establishing their own nation and identity.

Will the United Nations grant this status?  Will Israel accept a Palestine state?  Will the United States apply pressure to the region to consider Palestinian autonomy?

Time will tell.  But for now, we can only hope the international community and media will apply factual reporting of all aspects of the Palestine issue.  It is a wonderful place, with warm, friendly people, and we will hope their future generations will be free to develop and prosper as any other in our global community.

NOTE: For the record we need to acknowledge Israeli citizens are also prevented from entering the West Bank and Gaza. This can only contribute to the misunderstandings between citizens of each country. And in fact, during the routine “interrogation” I received departing from the Tel Aviv airport, the majority of questions directed to me were more of “tell me a bit more about Ramallah. I cannot go there and it is interesting to hear how things are within the city…”

Palestine Prepares for Statehood – Part 1

Hiba, a young university student in Ramallah dominates the conversation with dreams of her country’s future, and confidence her generation will build a new nation that is equal to any other in the world.  This is the new Palestine.  A Palestine that shifts memories of invasion, occupation, and repression to the side, focusing valuable energy on building a new nation.

Renewel Projects in Old RamallahIt is easy for visitors to appreciate Hiba’s enthusiasm.  Walking on any street within Ramallah is a challenge.  Not because the streets are bad, rather because the city is in a constant state of construction.

A few short years ago Ramallah was still putting the pieces back together from destruction due to invasion and conflict.  Today energy is directed to the new Ramallah – one that is beginning to take on impressions of a mix of European cities with the rich culture and history of Palestine.

The Palestine State

Recently the United Nations reported that Palestine was ready for statehood, with a target of September 2011.  For those who have lived their lives in an independent country, this is a difficult idea to comprehend.

Imagine if California was culturally and socially an independent state, occupied by the Confederate States of North America for the past 50 years.  As a Californian, you cannot have a passport, become a citizen of the occupying country, travel freely, determine which city you want to live in, or even which radio or television stations you would like to watch.

The Wall Separating Israel and PalestineMoving between villages and cities requires you to go through checkpoints, with military sentries who despise you due to your religion and ethnic background.  Sentries who have no moral or ethical problem abusing you, as they do not really consider you an equal human being to those from their country.

Imagine going to school one day, and learning the occupying country has now closed the border between your village and the school you attend, and you cannot return home.

Americans can refer to our own history with Britain, and appreciate the struggles independence and freedom require.  And the cost of freedom in blood, resistance, and commitment to never capitulate.

There are many examples around the world of countries invaded, occupied, and ethnically cleansed.  Cultures that have been diluted or destroyed, and history that is written by the victors of conflict.

However the Palestinians have resisted, fought, and refused to give up their struggle for independence and identity.  And that struggle is nearing and end.  End with the United Nations recognizing the state of Palestine.

That is of course we assume Israel will peacefully allow a transition to Palestinian statehood, which is far from certain.

History Remembered, Future Embraced

Hiba will not forget the days spending 6 hours in checkpoints each day going to and from school.  She will never forget interrogations by military patrols, and watching as homes of friends were plowed under to accommodate expansion of Israeli settlements into the West Bank.

Yassar ArafatBut today Hiba is more interested in being exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, or how she can apply her knowledge to building a nation, and better quality of life, for her family and children.  Not unlike any American or European student’s vision and dream.

Trained as a software engineer, Hiba outlines her ideas on how to bring an aggressive entrepreneurial spirit to Palestine, particularly related to agricultural and services industries.  How she can make contact with expatriate Palestinians, both learning from their successes – as well as attracting their investment money to further develop economic capacities in the country.

The Youth Are An Inspiration

Students discussing their future cannot hold back enthusiasm and vision.  How can young people put aside their bitterness, memories, and hatred of an occupation aside so easily?  Are they simply tired of the anger and hatred?

Difficult to say.  When pressed, Palestinians can get very worked up on the emotional topic of Israeli occupation, settlement expansion, and human rights.

Then the moment will pass, and energy is refocused on the present, and opportunities for the future.

===

This article is the first of a series on Ramallah 2011, and the road to Palestine statehood.  The next segment will discuss what Palestinians want Americans to know about their country, people, and future.

Your comments and ideas about Palestine, Israel, and independence are welcome.

Perspectives on War and Conflict – Which Side is Right?

As children of the 50s and 60s, growing up in the US, we had the constant fear of nuclear annihilation riding on our backs. The “Red Threat” resulted in the construction of nuclear fallout shelters, attack drills, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the “Domino Theory” warning of the advance of communism. Every American child was taught to fear, and hate, those who lived in foreign countries considered hostile to the US because of their ideologies and forms of government.

During my first visit to China in the early 1990s, I was genuinely afraid I’d be arrested at immigration due to my past US military experience. Even though I was in my late 30s, the fear of China was so deeply embedded into my psyche that I could not shake the impending feeling of doom as my airplane touched down at the Beijing airport. Even while deplaning I could not help but notice nearly EVERYONE in the airport was wearing some kind of uniform, and they were all looking at me as a spy or person who had entered their country to do them harm.

At immigration the inspector looked at my passport, and said “welcome to the People’s Republic of China.” And that was it.

Conflict of war and perspectiveExiting the airport also meant exiting the community of uniforms, and I entered a world that fascinated me then, given the warmth and openness of the people in Beijing, and continues to fascinate me today. Occasionally a Chinese person engaged me in a debate about the differences of democracy vs. communism, but in the post Tianamen period most Chinese were concentrating on making money, working hard, and getting on with their lives.

Ditto for Mongolia. While I have to admit it was a bit uncomfortable for me to see HIND helicopters flying around, and soldiers walking around with AK-47s, I started to warm up to the idea they were defending their country, their way of life, and trying to keep enemies away from their borders. Kind of like what Americans do within our country.

In Hanoi, a name that still brings a bit of anxiety to many Americans of my generation, walking through the city and museums produced concerns that I might not be well liked, as an American, in a country we fought in a horrible conflict through much of my youth. I had the feeling everybody looking at me was wondering if I flew B52s, or had wounded or killed one of their family.

In fact, many of them do have that question. But much like other humans around the world, life is for the living, and the living get on with their lives. In fact, Hanoi is one of the friendliest cities I have been in, and continues to bring pleasant surprises every time I venture out of the hotel into the community.

The 1000 Pound Reminder

I have started rationalizing my emotions towards war. As a professional soldier I know the meaning of conflict, have been in conflict, and don’t like it very much. The enemy has no face, no soul, no name, no family, and is a slab of meat that needs to be captured or killed. Soldiers, regardless of the soft news that surrounds winning the hearts and minds, are trained to take the lives of their enemies either while advancing on their position, or defending their own position. Pretty simple.

Walking through Hanoi there are still signs of conflict. A large crater that formed when 1000 pound bombs were dropped into neighborhoods. The “Hanoi Hilton” of John McCain fame. The “Hanoi Jane” memorial anti-aircraft gun. All memories of a time many years ago when people in Hanoi were killing or being killed.

As an American I grew up hating the Vietnamese for torturing US airmen. I grew up hating Muslims for the terrible things they did to Jews. I hated Cubans for just about everything. All a result of the media telling me I should hate them. A media that continue s to drive the same message for other conflicts and cultures – broadcast by people with a lot of experience in war, such as Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. They do have a lot of military experience to draw their conclusions from, right?

Now, after many years of walking through countries we have at some point in our generation been at war (Japan, Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Viet Nam, Palestine, Israel, Germany, etc., etc., etc…), my perspective is changing. I wonder how I, as an American, would react if the war was fought, for example, in Long Beach (California). If bombers from Manitoba were dropping 1000 pound bombs on Belmont Shore, what would my reaction be?

If I caught a Manitoban flyer who had his plane shot down while dropping bombs on my neighborhood, what would I do to him?

The answer is pretty easy. I would rip him limb from limb and feed the parts to coyotes – while I watched and laughed.

When I think of the indignities a young school girl encounters while passing from Ramallah into East Jerusalem, what can I expect her to think or feel as she passes Jewish people or Israelis each day? What if I was her father? How would I react to bulldozers wiping out my neighborhood to accommodate settlement expansions? If foreigners were occupying my homeland, would I welcome them with open arms, or find a way to fight?

How do you win the hearts and minds when a bomber accidently drops its payload on a civilian community and calls it “collateral damage?” At the end of the day, it really makes no difference if it is a mistake or not – people die.

It is all about your perspective. As history has shown, the winner ultimately writes the history. It is both enlightening, and confusing to look at the perspectives of each side. We can now look at the wars of the Romans, Mongols, British Empire, and Zulus with a detached, neutral, and academic view. Recent wars are still being written, and may not be understood for another 500 years or so. And when they are written, there is not going to be a right or wrong, only a winner and body count of the dead.

My perspective is now that war is not a good thing for the living. And as Clausewitz eloquently said, “war results when diplomats are incompetent or screw up.” Or something like that. And 16 year old children implement their failed policy with guns or explosives strapped to their belts.

All about perspective, and understanding there are two distinct sides to every argument or conflict.

When the Tanks Rolled We Continued to Drink our Coffee – Ramallah Raid 2007

(01-05) 04:00 PDT Ramallah, West Bank — Israeli troops staged a rare incursion into this city Thursday, bulldozing cars and vegetable stands near the central square as they engaged gunmen and stone-throwing residents in a chaotic two-hour battle that left four Palestinians dead. (LA Times, 5 Jan 2007)

“While the Israeli tanks rolled through our neighborhood, we sat at a sidewalk café and continued to drink our coffee” commented a diner at Thursday night’s Ramadan feast. For the past four nights, most of the Ramallah MosquePalestinians I’ve met on the West Bank have shown a great enthusiasm in engaging me in conversations about Palestine, Ramallah, Israel, and the impression Americans have of the conflict and country.

The gentleman discussing his thoughts and memories of the last incursion Israel made into Palestine, nearly two years ago, was one of fatigue. “We are just tired of the misery this conflict has brought into our lives. We are no longer afraid of Israel, we just want the problems to go away.”

These words attracted several nods from my table and nearby tables, bringing several others into the conversation. One lady described how the house across the street from her home was destroyed by a shell, and it blew the front of her house apart due to the concussion of the explosion. Israeli soldiers would not let her approach the house, as the area was a “security problem.” She was able to return to her home a day later to being rebuilding her life.

“What gives one person the right to destroy the home of another?” asked the lady. Of course I have no answer.

An evening of stories and thoughts of prior conflicts, incursions, the leadership of Arafat, and the current climate of tolerance and desire to get everybody’s lives back on track.

“What is your impression of Palestine, do you think we have hope?”

I took a risk and answered the question by saying “Americans in general hate victims. We don’t like anybody who sits back and waits for others to solve their problems. When I see construction workers on the job at 5 a.m. during my morning jogs; when I see Palestinian software companies popping up doing outsourcing for American companies such as Cisco – and companies in the semi-conductor business, yes I have hope.”

“You are right. I’ve lived and studied in America and that is right. Never really thought of it before. Our leadership is making a mistake. They believe we should tug at the heart strings – which of course won’t work in your country. This story needs to be told.”

During the past four days I have walked the streets of Ramallah, met dozens of people, and had a wonderful time. During the past two days I have encountered two American State Department representatives, both of whom were protected by teams of what appeared to be Blackwater security, or a Blackwater suitable substitute thugs. “The package is 30 seconds out, all is secure…”

And one of my local colleagues asks “why is that guy carrying guns around in my country?”

“I don’t know. Guess they think they are in Long Beach.”

We Really Haven’t a Clue

When I watch Fox news, I get the impression everybody in Ramallah or the West Bank wants to demonstrate against the US, Israel, motherhood and apple pie. Americans think Ramallah is a cauldron of hate, looking for every opportunity to disrupt life as we know it. And we run around the country with armed security forces that are, well, NUTS!

There are four consulate offices near my hotel, and there are Palestinian police protecting the residences – just like in any other country. The local consular officer travels freely throughout Ramallah without concern, as this is a pretty peaceful place. Jogging along the streets you see representative offices from just about any NGO (non-governmental organization) in the world, as well as the United Nations and the World Bank. No Blackwater Security.

How can Americans possibly expect to learn about this ancient and wonderful part of the world when our own leadership acts with such arrogance and elitist actions? The journalists following state department officers in the middle-east must get a small sliver of reality when traveling with the “package.” It appears even the state department officers have convinced themselves this is appropriate behavior.

The Ramadan evening buffet meal over and another walk through the city back to my hotel. It is such a beautiful at night, with a half moon and clear sky, that it would be a sin to ride in a cab or car. Dodged a couple cars as I walked into the street to avoid some construction debris, otherwise the trip was uneventful. No kidnapping attempts, no assaults, and no problems other than I forgot how to say “good evening” in Arabic.

John Savageau, from Ramallah, West Bank of Palestine

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