This past weekend I visited the West Bank (or if you prefer, Judea and Samaria) through my participation in the Israel Government Fellows program run by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. For two days, the Israel Government Fellows enjoyed informative meetings with Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers. We visited Hebron, Efrat, Shilo and Eli. To add some perspective, few believe that Efrat wouldn’t be annexed to Israel in a two-state solution. Eli, in contrast, is a very controversial settlement. While I learned much, this sojourn reminded me how easy it can be to make assumptions when looking at the Arab-Israeli conflict as an outsider.
One Palestinian we met in the West Bank works as a field agent for B’Tselem-the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. He was born in a refugee camp and has spent time in Israeli prison. Nevertheless, he confided in us that he was terrified of what form a Palestinian state in the West Bank might take. He implored us to look around at the rest of the Arab World.
In terms of government, how would sovereignty impact the West Bank’s current reasonably transparent democratic elections? Is it so hard to believe that a truly autonomous government in the West Bank won’t quickly turn autocratic? Few in Gaza can safely and publicly decry Hamas and even under occupation, one could plausibly argue that West Bank Palestinians currently enjoy greater access to protest than say, Arabs living in the newly formed regimes of Egypt or Tunisia.
Compared to their counterparts in the rest of the Arab World, Palestinian women are among the best educated. Though women may not be able to drive in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian women are making a splash in headlines as the first Arab women in the world to race on the international motorsport circuit. While Palestinian women are leagues ahead of their counterparts from other Arab countries in terms of gender equality, it’s anybody’s guess what turn this trend would take in a future Palestinian state.
Economically, the picture is also uncertain. Consider that in recent years, despite the intense monitoring by the NGOs and governments which pump foreign aid into the West Bank, most Palestinians are very pessimistic about the corruption and nepotism which permeates the PLO, and its management of the economy. Interestingly, according to a 2011 World Bank report, Palestinians actually perceive greater levels of corruption than actually exist. The question is once a truly independent state emerges in the West Bank, will this acute perception of corruption become more or less justified? I am certainly not arguing that Israel does a better job governing Palestinians than the Palestinians could do themselves. All peoples have a right to self-determination.
I only wish to share my realization that not all Palestinians would be equally thrilled if Israel withdrew from the West Bank tomorrow, or even at the conclusion of a successful peace agreement.
I don’t doubt that Palestinians find Israel’s presence in the West Bank brutal or repressive, but they also have no illusions about the shortcomings of their own leadership.
I am not writing this to push a political agenda. In fact, I believe a two-state solution is in Israel’s best interest. My point is that before my foray into the West Bank, I had been under the assumption that all Palestinians were hoping to have a state of their own as soon as possible.
Most Western news outlets certainly make it seem that way.
When Jewish settlers in the West Bank told me that Palestinians don’t really want their own state, I balked. Who wouldn’t? But hearing the same story from a Palestinian claiming to speak for many of his Arab peers who (for the time being) are content with the status quo was powerful stuff.
I am still unsure of what to make of the whole experience but I am reminded that when it comes to the Middle East, assumptions, particularly from Westerners, have no constructive role in conflict resolution.
If a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis are more or less content with things as they are now, finding a solution to this conflict seems an unlikely prospect as ever. To make real progress, the world will need some of its most brilliant minds put to the task and I encourage anybody reading this to ask the difficult questions and get involved.
However, I would advise you to leave your assumptions at the door and be prepared to have your point of view shaped not by mainstream media, but the people who live and breathe the conflict daily.
Don’t hear. Listen. You, like me, might just be surprised by what you learn.
The author is a participant in the Israel Government Fellows program, one of more than 200 long-term Israel experiences offered by Masa Israel Journey, a partnership between the government of Israel and The Jewish Agency for Israel.
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