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Journalist’s lived experience and fact-finding shifts his perceptions

Hunter Stuart Israel

05 Mar 2017

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In the summer of 2015, just three days after I moved to Israel for a one-and-a-half year stint freelance reporting in the region, I wrote down my feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A friend of mine in New York had mentioned that it would be interesting to see if living in Israel would change the way I felt about it. My friend probably suspected that things would look differently from the front-row seat, so to speak.

Boy was he right.

Before I moved to Jerusalem, I was very pro-Palestinian. Almost everyone I knew was. I grew up Protestant in a quaint, politically-correct New England town; almost everyone around me was liberal. And being liberal in America comes with a pantheon of beliefs: You support pluralism, tolerance and diversity. You support gay rights, access to abortion and gun control.

The belief that Israel is unjustly bullying the Palestinians is an inextricable part of this pantheon. Most progressives in the US view Israel as an aggressor, oppressing the poor noble Arabs who are being so brutally denied their freedom. “I believe Israel should relinquish control of all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank,” I wrote on July 11, 2015 from a park near my new apartment in Baka. “The occupation is an act of colonialism that only creates suffering, frustration and despair for millions of Palestinians.”

Perhaps predictably, this view didn’t play well among the people I met during my first few weeks in Jerusalem, which even by Israeli standards is a conservative city. My wife and I had moved to the Jewish side of town, more or less by chance —the first Airbnb host who accepted our request to rent a room happened to be in the Nachlaot neighborhood, where even the hipsters are religious. As a result, almost everyone we interacted with was Jewish Israeli and very supportive of Israel. I didn’t announce my pro-Palestinian views to them —I was too afraid. But they must have sensed my antipathy. (I later learned this is a sixth sense Israelis have.)

Because my first few weeks in Jerusalem I found myself constantly getting into arguments about the conflict with my roommates and in social settings. Unlike waspy New England, Israel does not afford the privilege of politely avoiding unpleasant political conversations. Outside of the Tel Aviv bubble, the conflict is omnipresent; it affects almost every aspect of life. Avoiding it simply isn’t an option.

During one such argument, one of my roommates —an easy-going American-Jewish guy in his mid-30s —seemed to be suggesting that all Palestinians were terrorists. I became annoyed and said to him that it was wrong to call all Palestinians terrorists, that only a small minority supported terror attacks. My roommate promptly pulled out his laptop, called up a 2013 Pew Research poll and showed me the screen. I saw that Pew’s researchers had done a survey of thousands of people across the Muslim world, asking them if they supported suicide bombings against civilians in order to “defend Islam from its enemies.” The survey found that 62 percent of Palestinians believed such terror acts against civilians were justified in these circumstances. And not only that, the Palestinian Territories were the only place in the Muslim World where a majority of citizens supported terrorism; everywhere else it was a minority, from Lebanon and Egypt to Pakistan and Malaysia.

I didn’t let my roommate win the argument that night —the bickering continued into the early morning hours. But the statistic stuck with me.

Less than a month later, in October of 2015 , a wave of Palestinian terror attacks against Jewish-Israelis began. Nearly every day an angry, young Muslim Palestinian was stabbing or trying to run over someone with his car. A lot of the violence was happening in Jerusalem, some of it just steps from where my wife and I lived and worked and went grocery shopping.

At first, I’ll admit —I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for Israelis. Actually I felt hostility. I felt that they were the cause of the violence. I wanted to shake them and say, “Stop occupying the West Bank, stop blockading Gaza, and Palestinians will stop killing you!” It seemed so obvious to me, how could they not realize that all this violence was a natural, if unpleasant, reaction to their government’s actions?

It wasn’t until the violence became personal that I began to see the Israeli side with greater clarity. As the “Stabbing Intifada” (as it later became known) kicked into full gear, I traveled to the impoverished East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan for a story I was writing.

As soon as I arrived, a Palestinian kid who was perhaps 13 years old pointed at me and shouted “Yehud!” which means “Jew” in Arabic. Immediately a large group of his friends —who’d been hanging out nearby —were running towards me with a terrifying sparkle in their eyes. “Yehud! Yehud!” they shouted. I felt my heart start to pound. I shouted at them in Arabic “Ana mish yehud! Ana mish yehud!” (“I’m not Jewish, I’m not Jewish!”) over and over. I told them, also in Arabic, that I was an American journalist who “loved Palestine.” They calmed down after that, but the look in their eyes when they first saw me is something I’ll never forget. Later, at a house party in Amman, I met a Palestinian guy who’d grown up in Silwan. “If you were Jewish, they probably would have killed you,” he said.

I made it back from Silwan that day in one piece; others weren’t so lucky. In Jerusalem and across Israel the attacks against Jewish Israelis continued. My attitude began to shift, probably because the violence was for the first time affecting me directly. I found myself worrying that my wife might be stabbed while she was on her way home from work. Every time my phone lit up with news of another attack, if I wasn’t in the same room with her, I immediately sent her a text to see if she was okay.

Then a friend of mine —an older Jewish Israeli guy who’d hosted my wife and I for dinner at his apartment in Talpiot —told us that his friend had been murdered by two Palestinians the month before on a city bus not far from his apartment. I knew the story well —not just from the news but because I’d interviewed the family of one of the Palestinian guys who’d carried out the attack. In the interview, his family told me how he was a promising young entrepreneur who was pushed over the edge by the daily humiliations wrought by the occupation. I ended up writing a very sympathetic story about the killer for a Jordanian news site called Al Bawaba News.

Writing about the attack with the detached analytical eye of a journalist, I was able to take the perspective that (I was fast learning) most news outlets wanted: that Israel was to blame for Palestinian violence. But when I learned that my friend’s friend was one of the victims, it changed my way of thinking. I felt horrible for having publicly glorified one of the murderers. The man who’d been murdered, Richard Lakin, was originally from New England, like me, and had taught English to Israeli and Palestinian children at a school in Jerusalem. He believed in making peace with the Palestinians and “never missed a peace rally,” according to his son.

By contrast, his killers —who came from a middle-class neighborhood in East Jerusalem and were actually quite well-off relative to most Palestinians —had been paid $20,000 to storm the bus that morning with their cowardly guns. Over a year later, you can still see their faces plastered around East Jerusalem on posters hailing them as martyrs. (One of the attackers, Baha Aliyan, 22, was killed at the scene; the second, Bilal Ranem, 23, was captured alive.)

Being personally affected by the conflict caused me to question how forgiving I’d been of Palestinian violence previously. Liberals, human-rights groups and most of the media, though, continued to blame Israel for being attacked. Ban Ki Moon, for example, who at the time was head of the United Nations, said in January  2016—as the streets of my neighborhood were stained with the blood of innocent Israeli civilians —that it was “human nature to react to occupation.” In fact, there is no justification for killing someone, no matter what the political situation may or may not be, and Moon’s statement rankled me.

Similarly, the way that international NGOs, European leaders and others criticized Israel for its “shoot to kill” policy during this wave of terror attacks began to annoy me more and more.

In almost any nation, when the police confront a terrorist in the act of killing people, they shoot him dead and human rights groups don’t make a peep. This happens in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh, it happens in Germany and England and France and Spain, and it sure as hell happens in the US (see San Bernardino and the Orlando nightclub massacre and the Boston marathon shootings and others). Did Amnesty International condemn Obama or Sisi or Merkel or Hollande when their police forces killed a terrorist? Nope. But they made a point of condemning Israel.

What’s more, I started to notice that the media was unusually fixated on highlighting the moral shortcomings of Israel, even as other countries acted in infinitely more abominable ways. If Israel threatened to relocate a collection of Palestinian agricultural tents, as they did in the West Bank village of Susiya in the summer of 2015, for example, the story made international headlines for weeks. The liberal outrage was endless. Yet when Egypt’s president used bulldozers and dynamite to demolish an entire neighborhood in the Sinai Peninsula in the name of national security, people scarcely noticed.

Where do these double-standards come from?

I’ve come to believe it’s because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeals to the appetites of progressive people in Europe and the US and elsewhere. They see it as a white, First-World people beating on a poor, Third-World one. It’s easier for them be to get outraged watching two radically different civilizations collide than it is watching Alawite Muslims kill Sunni Muslims in Syria, for example, because to a Western observer the difference between Alawite and Sunni Muslims is too subtle to fit into a compelling narrative that can be easily summarized on Facebook. Unfortunately for Israel, videos on social media that show US-funded Jewish soldiers shooting tear gas at rioting Arab Muslims is Hollywood-level entertainment and fits perfectly with the liberal narrative that Muslims are oppressed and Jewish Israel is a bully.

I admire the liberal desire to support the underdog. They want to be on the right side of history, and their intentions are good. The problem is that their beliefs often don’t square with reality.

In reality things are much, much more complex than a 5-minute spot on the evening news or a two-paragraph long Facebook status will ever be able to portray. As a friend told me recently, “The reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so intractable is that both sides have a really, really good point.” Unfortunately not enough people see it that way. I recently bumped into an old friend from college who told me that a guy we’d both known when we were freshman had been active in Palestinian protests for a time after graduating. The fact that a smart, well-educated kid from Vermont who went to one of the best liberal arts schools in the US traveled thousands of miles to throw bricks at Israeli soldiers is very, very telling.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you want to change someone’s mind, first make them your friend.” The friends I made in Israel forever changed my mind about the country and about the Jewish need for a homeland. But I also spent a lot of time traveling in the Palestinian Territories getting to know Palestinians. I spent close to six weeks visiting Nablus and Ramallah and Hebron and even the Gaza Strip. I spent another six weeks in Amman, which is 60% Palestinian. I met some incredible people in these places; I saw generosity and hospitality unlike anywhere I’ve else I’ve ever traveled to. I’ll be friends with some of them for the rest of my life. But almost without fail, their views of the conflict and of Israel and of Jewish people in general were extremely disappointing to me.

First of all, even the kindest, most educated, upper-class Palestinians reject 100 percent of Israel — not just the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They simply will not be content with a two-state solution —what they want is to return to their ancestral homes in Ramle and Jaffa and Haifa and other places in 1948 Israel, within the Green Line. And they want the Israelis who live there now to leave. They almost never speak of coexistence; they speak of expulsion, of taking back “their” land. To me, however morally complicated the creation of Israel may have been, however many innocent Palestinians were killed and displaced from their homes in 1948 and again in 1967, Israel is now a fact, accepted by almost every government in the world (including many Middle Eastern ones). But Palestinians’ ongoing desire wipe Israel off the map is unproductive and backward-looking and the West must be very careful not to encourage it.

The other thing is that a large percentage of Palestinians, even among the educated upper class, believe that most Islamic terrorism is actually engineered by Western governments in order to make Muslims look bad. I know this sounds absurd. It’s a conspiracy theory that’s comical until you hear it repeated again and again as I did. I can hardly count how many Palestinians told me the stabbing attacks in Israel in 2015 and 2016 were fake or that the CIA had created ISIS. After the Nov. 2015 ISIS shootings in Paris, for example, which killed 150 people, a colleague of mine —an educated 27-year-old Lebanese-Palestinian journalist —casually remarked that those massacres were “probably” perpetrated by the Mossad. Though she was a journalist like me and ought to have been committed to searching out the truth, no matter how unpleasant, this woman was unwilling to admit that Muslims would commit such a horrific attack, and all too willing —in defiance of all the facts —to blame it on Israeli spies.

Usually when I travel I try to listen to people without imposing my own opinion. To me that’s what traveling is all about: keeping your mouth shut and learning other peoples’ perspectives. But after 3-4 weeks of traveling in Palestine I grew tired of these conspiracy theories. “Arabs need to take responsibility for certain things,” I finally shouted at a friend I’d made in Nablus the third or fourth time he tried to deflect blame from Muslims for Islamic terror. “Not everything is America’s fault.” My friend seemed surprised by my vehemence and let the subject drop —obviously I’d reached my saturation point with this nonsense.

I know a lot of Jewish-Israelis who are willing to share the land with Muslim Palestinians, but for some reason finding a Palestinian who feels the same way was near impossible. Countless Palestinians told me they didn’t have a problem with Jewish people, only with Zionists. They seemed to forget that Jews have been living in Israel for thousands of years, along with Muslims, Christians, Druze, atheists, agnostics and others, more often than not in harmony. Instead, the vast majority of them believe that Jews only arrived to Israel in the 20th century and therefore don’t belong here.

Of course I don’t blame Palestinians for wanting autonomy or for wanting to return to their ancestral homes. It’s a completely natural desire; I know I would feel the same way if something similar happened to my own family. But as long as Western powers and NGOs and progressive people in the US and Europe fail to condemn Palestinian attacks against Israel, the deeper the conflict will grow and the more blood will be shed on both sides.

I’m back in the US now, living on the north side of Chicago, in a liberal enclave where most people —including Jews —tend to support the Palestinians’ bid for statehood, which is meanwhile gaining steam every year in international forums like the UN. Personally I’m no longer convinced it’s such a good idea. Because if the Palestinians are given their own state in the West Bank, who’s to say they wouldn’t elect Hamas, an Islamist group committed to Israel’s destruction? That’s exactly what happened in Gaza in democratic elections in 2006. Fortunately Gaza is somewhat isolated, and its geographic isolation —plus the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed blockade —limit the damage that the group can do. But having them in control of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem is something that Israel obviously doesn’t want. It would be suicide. And no country can be expected to consent to its own destruction.

Hunter Stuart is a journalist and editor with more than 8 years experience. He was a staff reporter and editor at The Huffington Post in New York from 2010-2015 and has spent the past 1.5 years working as a freelance reporter in the Middle East.


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