A large part of my life was spent in the Middle East, over 11 years including Turkey and Iraq.
I wrote the below essay as a way to ease my mind as I struggle each day to read about and watch on the News the massacre of innocent people caught up in revenge as the US provides weapons and offers humanitarian pauses. I am trying to understand why I think the way I do about the Palestine-Israel conflict. I tried to recall some significant memories and observations related to Israel/Palestine the thoughts I had and now have, and how they have changed or not.
If anyone who reads this has a comment on my thoughts or facts I’ve stated I would appreciate a message clarifying the issues that I have raised.
From My Experience
I had a short 8-month career as an attorney, more like a clerk, in a small San Francisco law firm with two Jewish partners, Jerome Garchik and Joel Fine. All day they ranted and raved and cursed the Arabs and the Jews, and sometimes praised the Palestinians and Zionists, and the same for Sandinistas and Contras and every other refugee-producing country. They were passionate about their work. They didn’t make much money as most of their clients were taken on as pro bono. And they were good. A large number of the Latin Americans living rough south of Market at that time were there because of Jerry and Joel’s ability to get them refugee status to stay. I listened, learned, and enjoyed their political debates and was often confused about whose side they were on, which made the arguments all the more interesting. From the start, they knew I was not really interested in practicing law but I think they appreciated my probing questions about the problems and politics of the Middle East and Central America.
At around the same time somewhere on a motorcycle ride in Napa Valley, I met an Israeli kid also on a Suzuki. Hod was intense looking with his piercing blue eyes and wild black curly hair and he could ride a moto faster than me. He was on a two-month paid leave in the US from his military service in the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). He came to Berkeley to stay with his brother and sister-in-law and travel around California on a motorcycle. He was part of a special operations team that made incursions into “Arab areas”. Hod’s brother, David, is confined to a wheelchair after his tank hit a mine in the 1973 War with Egypt. He was studying for his MBA at UC Berkeley. I spent a few days traveling around the North Coast and the wine country with Hod and spent long evenings with him and his brother and his wife enthralled by their stories of the moshav/village where they were from and the tough and exciting life they lived defending Israel from the Arabs. Their family’s story had ties to the dramatic Exodus story by Leon Uris. As soon as I learned I passed the Bar Exam on the second try, I quit the law office bought a ticket for Istanbul, and headed southeast across Turkey to Israel. It was Fall 1987.
After crossing Turkey, Syria, and Jordan by train, bus, and taxi, I don’t remember all the details about how I ended up in the Holy Land Hotel, run by a Palestinian family, right outside the well-known Damascus Gate of the Old City, Jerusalem. The elder owner helped arrange transport and people to accompany me to different villages in the West Bank and parts of the Old City that I wanted to visit. Often I was embarrassed as I easily passed through the numerous checkpoints with my US passport but had to wait and watch as soldiers questioned and humiliated my Arab guide and companion. I watched daily protests by Palestinians who were prevented from entering the Old City and could not avoid getting teargassed by the IDF who stopped all attempts of protest. In villages and on roadways I saw the IDF enter houses and cars, beating and arresting kids, some with stones and some with only empty pockets. I remember feeling confused about Israel and what Hod, his brother and sister-in-law described to me. Jerry and Joel’s arguments about this place became more real. Naively I thought I had to see Hod and tell him he was wrong about the Arabs – they did not want to throw stones and attack Israelis, they just wanted to stay on their land. I took a bus to Haifa and made my way to Hod’s moshav, Kfar Yoshoa, about a half-hour taxi ride northeast.
After a warm welcome and introduction to Hod’s extended family, we all sat down for dinner. They seemed interested in my travels, particularly about my crossing of Syria and Jordan. They asked many questions about Damascus and Amman but I was anxious to tell them about my time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah in the West Bank. I blurted out, “You got it all wrong, the Arabs are not as bad as you think”. After dinner when I was alone with Hod he said I could stay the night but it would be best if I left in the morning. I can’t remember if I stayed the night or if I left that evening.
Fast Forward, and Back
I just read a very good article, 9 November 2023, by Thomas Friedman, a respected NYTimes columnist. The first book I read about the Middle East conflict while living and working in Turkey in 1991 was, From Beirut to Jerusalem, by Friedman. The book answered a lot of my questions about the Middle East inspired me to learn and travel more in the area and even influenced my effort to land my first job with the UN in the occupied territories of Palestine. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of the region. I continue to read his articles on the Middle East but I must admit I do not agree with everything he writes. In Friedman’s recent article, I was surprised he did not mention the Zionist Settler movement that started in the late 19th century and has continued until today. What happens in the West Bank will determine if there is a peaceful solution to the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not the war in Gaza.
Currently, militant settlers and nationalist extremists in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are ardent champions of expanding the Jewish presence in occupied territories. The religious-nationalist extremists Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, both are champions of settling Jews in the West Bank, which they refer to as the biblical Judea and Samaria. Since 7 October over 200 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank. This has nothing to do with the Gaza war but it is seen as an opportunity for the setter movement. Palestinians are constantly terrorized by the Zionist settlers through the uprooting of hundreds of their olive trees, the vandalizing of property, beatings, and shootings, and prevented to travel on the roads near outposts the settlers and the army have built to connect settlements and outposts. I observed violent settler activities during three postings with the UN for a total of six years working in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza, and the West Bank.
My first job in the West Bank as a UN official was basically to maintain a presence in any area where the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) and/or settlers would encroach on Palestinian land and villages and make a written record of humanitarian and human rights violations and make recommendations to improve security and social welfare services. I have been in every village in the West Bank and most in Gaza, some many times (many Palestinian villages were refugee camps, some since the 1948 forced displacement, and some since the 1967 conflict. The main objective was that with the UN visibly present, the IDF and settlers would behave with less violence and not maintain their presence. There were some IDF officers that we could engage with and even facilitate in reducing violence and abuse of the population. This was not the case with regard to settlers. I did not meet with any settlers I could have a rational discussion. Not long before I departed this post, we were instructed to stay away from any location where settler activities were taking place as they were prone to violent acts against anyone standing in their way, including their own IDF. The few settlers I encountered spoke English like me, many with a New York accent, and would often ask what was I doing in their holy land.
In February 1994 I was about to leave for a new posting in Bosnia but was delayed because of a massacre in the main Hebron mosque. A settler opened fire during prayer time killing 29 people including children and wounded 125. I remember how we needed IDF protection to travel to Hebron. I and my Palestinian assistants were always nervous traveling in the Hebron area where there are many openly armed settlers. Most Israelis denounced this attacker as a single deranged person. Baruch Goldstein was a doctor born in Brooklyn and a member of a far-right settler movement. He is a minority but among the settler movement, there are many people like him including Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 for attempting to make peace with the Palestinians. He stated he thought the agreement would deny Jews their “biblical heritage which they had reclaimed by establishing settlements”.
Over time I have come to more fully understand Jewish/Israeli fear and their need for a homeland. I befriended the Gals, an Israeli family whose son Ilan owned a bar in Jerusalem where I spent many a beer-filled night with Palestinians and Israelis. It was the only place I experienced that Palestinians would go to in the Western part of Jerusalem. The father at the time was Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. The daughter, Ronit was a gorgeous smart, and funny 20-year-old who in addition to her Hebrew spoke perfect English and good Arabic and four other European languages. She often met with me in East Jerusalem with Palestinians to practice her Arabic. She was one of the most open Israelis I had met. I had kept in contact with her after I moved to Bosnia and she was studying art in Milan. Years later I learned she was living in Montreal and married with five kids. She became Orthodox and told me she wore the customary dark conservative dress and a wig.
One night over dinner at the Gal’s house in a settlement next to Bethlehem the mother described to me the suffering of her family under the Nazis and their feeling of safety in Israel and their desire to keep it for all Jews. I can’t remember her passionate description but I remember I was left with a different perspective and even empathy I never felt before. More recently I read the history of Ukraine by Yale Professor Timothy Snyder and learned the scale of atrocities against the Jews of Germany, Poland, Latvia, and Western Ukraine and the horrors they have experienced throughout their history, never mind the Holocaust, I agree that Israel is the place for a Jewish State, but Palestinian rights must be respected, just as Americans have come to learn indigenous rights of Native Americans must be respected. Not much has been done but there are efforts being made.
When I started to work in Jerusalem in 1992, the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza was just over 100,000. 1993 was the start of a peace process known as the Oslo Accords that created the outline for a two-state solution. I was surprised that the Palestinian leadership would contemplate the plan that outlined conditions against international law, where the Palestinian territories have been divided into small, disconnected enclaves on the map surrounded by settlements and provided a slow transition process that did not guarantee eventual connection with Gaza and Jerusalem as a shared capital. In many commentaries, Palestinian leaders are blamed for not taking advantage of peace agreements offered by Israel. If I was a Palestinian leader I would not have agreed to what the Israelis offered as a Palestinian State. The settler movement continued during and after these negotiations and Hamas unleashed suicide bombers to make sure the agreement was spoiled.
In 2009 I returned to the occupied territories with the human rights office of the UN (OHCHR) to support a Fact Finding Mission to create an independent human rights violation report of the aftermath of what the Israelis called “Operation Cast Lead” on Gaza. The conflict resulted in 1,500 Palestinian and 13 Israeli deaths (including 4 from friendly fire). That attack on Gaza has its origins in the Hamas takeover of leadership from Fatah, another Palestinian political group after it won a local election in 2005. Before and after taking control, Hamas increasingly became more militant against Israel. Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza choking its economy and freedom of movement and severely impacting the basic needs of water, food, and health services. This was done with the full support of the US. I remember the debates in our office about whether we could still engage with Hamas authorities in Gaza after the US pressured the UN not to meet with Hamas authorities because the US considered Hamas a terrorist organization (soon after the EU and Canada under pressure from the US also labeled Hamas a terrorist organization).
At that time, I remember distinctly thinking that if anyone was a terrorist it was the State of Israel, because of the blatant destruction caused by Israeli indiscriminate bombing and the continued settler and IDF incursions that terrorized Palestinian communities in Gaza and the West Bank. Not long before it was Fatah, the political wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, that was considered a terrorist organization by the Israelis but now Fatah had become Israel’s partner in a peace process that was supposed to weaken Hamas.
To ensure the UN would continue to receive funding from the US, the UN limited contact with Hamas by only meeting with their humanitarian representatives but we had no control over who showed up for meetings. This was the only time in my UN career a government directly impeded UN humanitarian activities. You can’t deliver aid without the involvement of the authorities in charge. The Fact-Finding Mission for the 2008/9 Gaza Conflict found that Israel, at least in part, targeted the people of Gaza as a whole. The Mission gave its opinion that the operations were in furtherance of an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience and for its apparent support for Hamas, and possibly with the intent of forcing a change in such support”. At that time the international media was paying the same attention to that conflict as they are now reporting on the current war in Gaza.
We Support the Problem
I have come to view Israel as the 51st state of the US. Only with this understanding is it conceivable to understand the consistent financial and military support provided to Israel since its creation. Through this support, the US has a foothold in the Middle East to ensure access to oil resources and to support our own religious fundamentalists who believe in prophecies that Israel is necessary for the second coming of Christ. This is not conspiracy thinking. Hakkim Jeffries, the leader of the Democratic House stated at a recent rally in support of Israel’s war in Gaza, “We love the Jewish people and I’m so glad to help, until Jesus comes back – which won’t be long” he said, holding a large Israeli flag. Without the US government support, extensive military assaults continuing settler violence, and taking of land could not happen to such a degree and for so long, which makes me feel complicit as an American. How many fewer lives would be lost if the US was a fair and honest broker in the Middle East?
The IDF is more powerful than any Palestinian armed group and can crush military attacks with the overwhelming power provided by the US, as is taking place now in Gaza. But they cannot prevent attacks as long as there is an occupation of Palestinian land. To be clear, the recent successful Hamas attack was horrific and should be condemned but it will be judged by many as the result of a political mistake by the current Israeli government more focused on supporting the right-wing settler extremists than making a peace agreement with a two-state solution. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and African states over-run by jihadists we have learned you cannot prevent terrorism through military action. The more Palestinians killed in response will only create more “terrorist” attacks in the future. The continued settlement and occupation of Palestinian land will have to be addressed for “terrorist” attacks to stop and for any chance of peace. Bombing Gaza and killing civilians – even if all of the existing Hamas fighters in Gaza are killed – will not make Israel more secure.
I returned again to Israel in 2012 for three years working in Tel Aviv for the UN supporting the Israeli government in dealing with the large number of African refugees arriving from Egypt but continued to observe the ongoing settlement activity in the West Bank. The settlers had grown to over 500,000 by 2014. Now there are over 750,000 settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and they continue taking land and building settlements.
The Zionist movement throughout its history has considered the land of Israel sacred—as do Christians and Muslims. The Torah, the Jewish religious text, depicts stories of ancient prophets who were instructed by their God to return to this homeland. The movement aimed at encouraging and helping the government to carry out an official plan of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir which laid the foundations for 2 million Jews to settle in Judea and Samaria (otherwise known as the West Bank). The Palestinians as a people have been living on the land for centuries and continue to be attached to the land. The Israeli Zionists’ attachment to the land is through their religion, not by their continued presence on the land. To be clear, I’m not a believer in the Torah (which I’ve read a translation given to me by an Israeli in Tel Aviv) or the Bible, so for me, the issue of attachment to the land is stronger for the Palestinians.
Make no mistake, Hamas is an armed and dangerous group. But if a fair division of land was made based on UN Resolutions, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians would embrace it, and support for Hamas and other peace spoiler groups would significantly reduce. A large majority of Israelis would also embrace it. But the Zionist settlers would try to make sure it does not happen. How the Israeli and US government deals with this group is a million-dollar question. The settlers are far more of an obstacle to peace than all the horror Hamas or any other peace spoiler could create.