“I don't want you to go. I feel if you want to help, be a part of something, whatever, it should be for your own country. Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, the National Guard, whatever.”
This was a common reaction to my decision to live in Palestine and work for Palestinians for two months.
I decided earlier this year that I wanted to spend my summer volunteering with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, which aims to stop (or at least postpone) the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes by the Israeli government. I also arranged to live in Ramallah—where the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority are located—during my stint with ICAHD.
To some, I was working for the wrong people and living in the wrong place. Why would I do this? Isn’t it dangerous? Don’t Palestinians hate Americans?
To take a cue from the Arabic language, I’ll address these concerns right to left.
It seems logical to believe that Palestinian Arabs would dislike Americans. After all, the U.S. is Israel’s closest ally, supplying the Jewish state with everything from U.N. Security Council votes to the cruise missiles which are not as “smart” as their owners suggest. The U.S. is also waging not one, but two wars on Middle Eastern Muslim nations, wars which have no end in sight. Only now is our new president beginning to try and mend those incalculably deep wounds, but talk is cheap and Jewish settlers from America are still setting up camp in their backyard. So why wouldn’t they hate us?
Yet Palestinians are more intelligent than we give them credit for. They understand that the actions of a government, even a “democratically elected” government, are not representative of the will or character or moral fabric of an entire people. They know this from their own legacy of corrupt and ineffective leadership that continues to this very day, and so they still give Americans the benefit of the doubt – especially the ones that opt to come to Palestine rather than flock to the Miami-esque beaches of Tel Aviv, oblivious to the very different world that exists on the other side of the wall.
So as I walk through the streets of Ramallah, waves, smiles, and ‘Hello’s in my direction are not uncommon. As I stand at the table of a bread vendor, the young man next to me places what must be the Palestinian equivalent of an Oreo cookie into my hand. My Swiss friend at my side tells me it is part of Palestinian culture to feed others – it is unthinkable to eat food in front of somebody who has none, no matter how little there is to begin with. Thus it is no surprise to hear her say later on that “there are no homeless people in Palestine.” As we move through an outdoor market, another Palestinian youth gives me a hearty “Welcome!” and gives me a high-five unexpectedly American in nature, with the clenched finger snap finale and all. Then later, after buying some tomatoes, an old mustached man behind the vegetable stand calls me “habibi,” which I’m told translates into “my darling.”
From the way the Palestinians act here, you would almost think there is no Israeli military occupation—which makes their attitude all the more impressive when you see what life is like for them outside of the “A” areas like Ramallah (Palestinian Authority-controlled) and into the “B” and “C” areas (partial to full Israeli control, respectively). To put it simply: life is not easy for most Palestinians. Even President Obama, during his sweeping speech in Cairo, acknowledged “the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation.”
If these wonderfully giving, accommodating people are being herded like cattle by foreign soldiers through nerve-wracking checkpoints, if what should be a twenty minute commute takes three hours, if their homes are in danger of being demolished because their existence is jeopardizing the demographic majority of another race, if these people are not allowed to have an army, but are then called “cowards” for fighting without one, if their only option for work is for the very people that pushed them out of their homes, if some them are driven to blow themselves and others up in desperation, if the whole world seems indifferent to this
And with the majority of the American people (and a vast majority of U.S. foreign aid) in supporting Israel, how can a Palestinian refuse the rare American that offers to help them?
Which brings me to the opening quote. Even if these people are oppressed, shouldn’t I as an American aim to improve the situation of my own country, rather than involve myself in a political beef between two alien cultures and political entities halfway across the world?
The way I see it, to help the Palestinians is to help America.
After a disastrous eight years of President Bush, America’s previously fragile rapport with the Muslim and Arab world is now fully in the toilet. Bush gave the state of Israel what could only be described as unconditional support, even as Israel built a “security fence” that operated suspiciously like a tool to grab Palestinian land, extending beyond the internationally-recognized “Green Line” well into Palestinian territory. Bush also gave Israel a green light to continue its settlement policies, even as a 23-year old American woman was crushed to death in an attempt to stop an Israeli bulldozer from advancing on a Palestinian home. Finally, the Bush administration supplied billions of dollars worth of weaponry to the Israeli military, which were used to destroy thousands of homes and lives in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
The Arab world knows this. Some know it intimately, being lucky enough to see the American serial number printed on the twisted carcass of an Israeli missile that was used to reduce their home and their lives to rubble. Is there any wonder why Osama bin Laden never has to worry about meeting his recruitment quotas? Is it surprising when he points out American support for Israel as one of his main motivations for organizing the 9/11 attacks?So politically speaking, I’m here to help not only the Palestinians, but my fellow Americans, and yes, even the Israelis in the long run. As I write this, the words of the late Edward Abbey are seared in my mind: “Sympathy without action is the ruin of the soul.”