Walking the streets of Bethlehem in the West Bank yesterday, you wouldn’t have seen much evidence of the international uproar that has been ignited once again over the Palestine-Israel issue.
Until you talk to the locals. Not all the Palestinians I spoke with yesterday were immediately able to voice their feelings. Some didn’t want to say anything about the Israeli naval commandos’ raid on the Turkish aid flotilla. Others didn’t have the English to express what they would have liked to say. There were shrugged shoulders and shaken heads. People seemed just as concerned about the issues they face on a daily basis: the lack of tourists in Bethlehem, the number of young, university-educated people trapped in Palestine without work. "It’s like being in jail here," said one woman.
One local, Antoine, who sits on the city council, told me he could speak for many in his community. "We are against [the Israeli action]," he said. "Israel had no right to stop aid to Gaza. Everyone knows how hard the economic and social situation is there." That awareness was clear to me a few days ago when a young Palestinian told me the blockade is a constant problem when it comes to getting help to refugee camps. They need wheelchairs, medical supplies, he said, and NGOs can’t meet the demand as it is. Antoine worries the Israeli attack will make people reluctant and afraid to bring help to Palestinians, and believes Israel ought to have respected international waters.
The Israeli newsagent I’ve been buying the paper from feels the same. In his opinion the Israeli Government "will have to fix up this mess. If it had been in Israeli waters, it would have been ok."
But while Antoine, like other Palestinians I spoke to, "cannot accept the excuse" that Israeli naval commandos were provoked and were attacked by people on the ship, my newsagent can. However, overall, he feels that it was unnecessary for Israel to raid the ship: "There is already ammunition in Gaza," he says, "why worry about it now? Just keep it closed from Israel." He is sure the activists and Turkey deliberately provoked Israel over the blockade of Gaza. He thinks they should open Gaza to the sea and "let it be someone else’s problem. Who wants Gaza?" He doesn’t think the problems here will ever be over.
There is a pervading sense from all sides that this crisis is less a turning point than just the latest chapter in an intractable stalemate. Walking around West Jerusalem, things seem normal. Protests are reported in the paper, but I don’t see them. I’m told there was a strike in East Jerusalem in protest against the raid. A fellow tourist, a young American, mentioned the Muslim part of the Old City has been "closed down — really dead". I’ve heard there have been warnings to US citizens travelling here. The Australian Government’s website tells me to "exercise a high degree of caution" in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank. I’ve been in both, and the only threat I encountered was that of sunburn in the 36-degree heat. Of course the situation is different in blockaded Gaza.
The most obvious sign here of an international crisis comes from the local English language newspapers. The Jerusalem Post is lamenting the world media’s portrayal of Israel as a villain. Yesterday it wrote that the Israeli Defense Force should have released its footage of commandos apparently under attack much sooner than it did, not once "the narrative on which the international community passed its judgment" was already well established. Ha’aretz, meanwhile, cites this as an Israeli Government-defense force bungle, and argues it’s time the blockade, as a cause of moral concern and international isolation, must end.
Whatever the Jerusalem Post fears about the global outcry, the Palestinians I spoke to expected very little to come of it. "These are the usual things we hear from the world. It’s not enough for us," says Antoine. "The world will forget about this next week," says another, a shop owner. "They’re turning the Palestinian cause into an industry," one man says, gesturing toward the diplomat haunt, the American Colony Hotel, "but nothing changes for us."
It’s not just the local Palestinians who appear to disagree with the media on the importance of this crisis. One Israeli I spoke to, simply shrugged off the controversy. "What can we expect?", he asked.
On Monday night, sitting in a bar in West Jerusalem with a TV playing constant updates on the raid story from BBC news, I met someone who was much less indifferent to the media’s coverage of Israel, both on this issue and in general. A 22-year-old Israeli soldier, he was on a break from the army he’s served in for three years.
"It’s all kids with guns, just like me," he says of their patrols. He is convinced those on the Turkish aid boats attacked and provoked the Israeli soldiers first. It was Hezbollah on that boat, he believes. He’s been speaking to army friends involved, he says. "My friend is in hospital. He can’t see out of his eye now."
He seems emotional about the media’s treatment of Israel. "You always make us look bad, like we do everything wrong," he says over his beer. "But we are just taking our orders." He believes he’s just trying to "keep everyone safe".
Safety is a pretty big issue here — that much was clear immediately. When I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the stamp in my passport revealing my trip to Lebanon led to my passport being confiscated, and to official questioning and suspicion. It seemed likely to me that I’d be denied entry and stranded at immigration.
I was shuffled off to a room with other travellers to the Middle East with hostile state stamps in their passports. One by one, we were called into a room and questioned by two men — security officials, I suppose. There were no introductions on their part, just questions: "What are you doing travelling alone in the Middle East? I’m surprised a young woman would do that. Why would you go to Lebanon? Who do you know there? Are you interested in Islam? Who do you know in Israel? If I call them, will they confirm you are coming? What is your work? Are you here on behalf of your employer?"
The other travellers in the room got through that stage quickly and fairly seamlessly, although they seemed taken aback, wearing expressions after the questioning like those of children who’ve been scolded by a teacher. But for me it was two hours while I worried about my "unattended baggage" on the other side of the barrier, and wondered whether it was my job in the media or my travels in Lebanon that caused the Israeli officials the most concern. After a long wait next to a handcuffed Israeli guy and his guard, I was given back my passport, along with a piece of paper stamped with an entry visa to Israel. My bag was at the lost and found desk.
Israeli acquaintances in Tel Aviv responded to the tale of my airport adventure in a range of ways. There was laughter and amusement: "You do look pretty scary!", as well as concern that my profession may have been the issue, and how that might reflect on freedoms in Israel: "That makes us look as though we’re not liberal." Others regretted that I’d been put through that, but wanted me to appreciate what they see as a necessity: "This is why we don’t have terrorists here," they told me.
Later, upon learning I was a tourist, one Palestinian I’ve been chatting to a lot said: "This is a very tense place to live. I don’t know that I’d want to visit here."
That’s one view I felt qualified to disagree with. It’s good to be here and to meet people who live here. It’s humbling though, as it makes me feel my inadequacy in reporting — or indeed comprehending — the situation they live with daily.
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