Western Friend logo

Palestine, October 2022

Jim Anderson
On Conflict (January 2023)
Healing the World

As we have done before, my wife Janet and I traveled recently in Palestine. We joined a two-week journey in October with the British organization Quaker Voluntary Action. We visited Tel Aviv, Jifna (a small village near Ramallah in the West Bank), and Jerusalem. As a group of eleven, we visited a settlement, harvested olives, roamed the Old City in Jerusalem, visited Ramallah Friends School, shared meeting for worship twice at Ramallah Friends Meeting, and – in worship and conversation – faced the predicament of this “much too promised land,” as Aaron David Miller has described it.

We have taken five trips to Palestine since 2012. This trip was the hardest for us to face. From earlier trips, we had come to understand how Palestinians live under constraints, threats, instability, and struggle at all times, still exercising a remarkable resilience in going about their daily lives. Any people living under occupation feel resentment and anger, but most Palestinians hold this inside. However, during this recent trip, the anger broke out. Reports of violence and death came each day from towns in the north and the south – Nablus, Jenin, Hebron. General strikes closed entire cities throughout the territory, and a group of resistance fighters formed in Nablus in an effort to prevent Israeli soldiers from entering their town. Then the day before our visit to Ramallah Friends School, one of their students was beaten and arrested, taken at night from his home by Israeli police.

Both Israelis and Palestinians suffer, in different ways, from this conflict. The history is known to many. During the Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine in the early 1900s, one group of Jewish leaders imagined a political arrangement in Palestine under which both Jewish immigrants and the Arabs who had been living there for centuries would share the land. But after an intervening hundred years of British mandate, the Holocaust, the U.N. partition, and a series of wars, Palestine is now ruled by a powerful Israeli state facing conflicting aims. It desires to be a democracy, to be a Jewish state, and to occupy the entire region of Palestine “from the river to the sea.” The occupied lands along the still-disputed borders of Israel are home to a Palestinian population of near equal size to the Jewish Israeli population. Most of this Palestinian community lives on 22% of historical Palestine under Israeli military control, which means most Palestinians in Israel live under Israeli military rule. Additionally, more than 5 million Palestinians live as displaced persons in refugee camps in nearby countries, camps that are typically 75 years old. So yes, in Palestine there is conflict. And many wonder why it is so difficult to resolve.

By facing conflicts within our own Quaker meetings, we have learned that, while it is important to seek to hold one another accountable to truth, it is also important to listen respectfully to each other and try to comprehend the individual experiences that underlie our differences. In Palestine, such a model of “accountability with respectful listening” is especially difficult to follow for many reasons, including the dominance of Israeli power, the absence of democratic avenues for Palestinians to pursue their aspirations and rights, the history of European antisemitism, and conflicts within the Palestinian community.

Here are a few complicated scenarios we faced on this trip:

We spent one of our mornings in Jifna, a small town in the West Bank, helping an extended Palestinian family harvest its olive trees – a morning of work, but also of talking, eating, singing, and dancing. We were scheduled to help again the next day, in the orchard of another Palestinian family, one living near a Jewish settlement. The owners hoped our presence would give them some protection from settler harassment. However, it rained that night, and the cars could not get up the hill the next morning, so we didn’t go.

More than half a million Jews live in “settlements,” judged illegal by the U.N., on occupied Palestinian land called the “West Bank.” Most “settlers” are drawn to these government-subsidized communities by their convenience – protected by Israeli soldiers and connected to Israel by Israeli-only roads for an easy commute. But perhaps 20% of these Jewish settlers are deeply religious and believe that God gave them this land, that their claim to it supersedes any secular law, and that the surrounding Palestinian villagers are alien occupiers who need to be pushed off the land. Israeli soldiers, loyal to the Jewish state, are often reluctant to prevent these settlers from terrorizing nearby villages.

A few days after our visit to Jifna, we heard that the olive pickers at the second orchard did in fact suffer a violent attack from settlers. We watched a video of settlers launching rocks onto the windshields of the olive pickers’ cars. We wondered if we had luckily escaped, or if we had missed a chance to take a stand.

The day before our arrival in Jifna, violence had broken out in Nablus, a Palestinian city about forty miles to the north. Young men there had formed a group vowing to prevent Israeli soldiers from entering their town. Some were killed, a general strike in all the large Palestinian towns resulted, and Jifna itself was the site of gunshots that first night of our stay. The next day, a video was widely circulated of a young Nablus man shot near a checkpoint. He is shown taken down by Israeli bullets, but still alive, continuing to fire his pistol while suffering and reacting to subsequent shots. Eventually, he lay still. For many, he was a heroic resister, protecting his homeland. For most Israelis, he was a terrorist attacker. Occupation is costly, but many Jewish Israelis believe they rightfully own all the land of ancient Israel, and that they gained the portions called the “West Bank” through a defensive war. They see the Palestinians as a hostile community that must be controlled by military force, even if, regrettably, in disregard of international law.

In a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem, also in the West Bank, we talked with an elderly Italian settler. He had escaped from fascist Italy in his youth, and he told us of his arrival in Palestine, “Finally, I came to a place where I am free and safe.” He said he harbors no ill feelings for Palestinians and believes the arrival of the Jews benefitted them, creating a prosperous country that serves them also.

On the morning that we visited Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, students on break were eager to talk with us. One of their classmates, 16-year-old Shadi Khoury, had been arrested in his home during the night before, beaten up, and taken into custody. Shadi’s parents did not know where he was or what charges were being brought against him. Under the military law that Israel applies in the West Bank, authorities are allowed to hold detainees indefinitely without charge, lawyer, or trial – in “administrative detention” – on the suspicion that they may commit a crime in the future. Shadi’s schoolmates, of course, know this. Forty-five percent of Palestinians in the West Bank are under eighteen. These youth feel robbed of their prospects for a good future, for a normal life in their land, and they sometimes resist Israeli control by rock-throwing and, very occasionally, gunfire. The authorities attempt to reassert their control by arresting, terrorizing, and prosecuting 500 to 700 Palestinian children in military courts each year – without giving them the right to legal counsel or the presence of their parents. (Weeks later, we heard finally that Shadi had been released – after 40 days of detention – but he remained under house arrest until his trial. Charges had still not been brought, and the initial joy at Shadi’s release has been tempered by continuing uncertainty.)

On Sunday, we attended worship in the simple meetinghouse in Ramallah, where a very small number of local Friends joined our traveling group. This meeting has adjusted itself over the years and survived, offering a place of quiet in a struggling land. On our last day in Ramallah, we walked the streets, which are crowded with so many lives – people stopping on corners to talk, smoke, drink coffee, call to friends – and children, moving with excitement and curiosity through the milling numbers, children watched carefully or held by parents, parents who will protect them as long as they can.

Quaker Voluntary Action organizes these trips to Palestine as acts of Quaker service. Certainly, being present to a suffering people, who might otherwise wonder if they have been forgotten, is an act of service. But Janet and I have also reflected on ways that our service can extend into our lives here in the United States:

We can try to be accompaniers. Accompaniment is the opposite of abandonment, and we can continue to do this from afar. Supporting people and organizations through hard times is something we can do.

We can listen with sympathy and try to hold to truth. We must listen to one another's narratives with an ear for truth and an awareness of context. Power differentials make a difference in what we hear, what we are willing to share, and what the consequence of our conversations will be. We experience this in our everyday lives in the U.S. – through the power differentials of racism and sexism, for example – and we certainly observe it in the context of Israel-Palestine. There, in most ways, with American support, Israel has the power, and Palestine is weak. No conversation or negotiation in Israel-Palestine can be successful without an awareness of this power differential. At the same time, all participants must be willing to listen. We can work to improve these skills wherever we are.

We can try to make visible what we have seen. We can tell others what we have learned and help move the conversation forward toward something that will serve the future of Israelis and Palestinians both. True, there are (at least) two narratives. But I am convinced, after decades of attention to this issue, that the current treatment of Palestinians is unjust under any available narrative. The conflicting interests and aspirations of all parties must be sorted out without denying equal rights to Palestinians.

We can work to direct U.S. policy toward pressing Israel into alignment with international law and the recognition of Palestinian rights. Working through Quaker lobbying organizations like FCNL is one path. As I see it, the current question is not “one state or two,” or “getting both sides to the table,” or “finding a negotiating partner.” The path to peace and justice must start with holding Israel accountable to the legitimate needs and rights of the people of Palestine. It must continue with acknowledging Israel’s legitimate needs for security and peace. Even though we cannot see the entire path to peace, we can take a first step. Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans must share this journey.

Nonviolent action is a useful tool in this context. Most Palestinian resistance to Israeli policy has been through nonviolent action, although occasional outbursts of violence are a continuing threat. The “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” campaign (BDS) is the most widespread expression of traditional nonviolent action in the current movement for Palestinian justice. Many U.S. states have set up barriers to BDS. Our country could support the right to nonviolent actions like BDS, which press for changes in Israeli policies and practices. Without some external support for nonviolent efforts within Palestine, what might look like “peace and quiet” there will continue to be oppression and suppressed resistance.

The taxi meets us at 3 AM outside the Abraham hostel in Tel Aviv. The trip to the airport is short. We have allowed three hours for customs, based on previous experiences. But we move through customs without delay of any sort. In the large circular restaurant waiting area, we are between worlds. We purchase the international New York Times, buy coffee and croissants with our remaining currency, and sit on the edge of things, waiting for the gate call. ~~~

Jim Anderson is a member of Chico Friends Meeting (PacYM).


Palestine public witness Social Justice

Return to "On Conflict" issue