This past week, I had the privilege to travel to Jerusalem over fall break. For the first time, one of the central conflicts of this region was given a physical place and my understanding of the conflict was clarified, which then subtly changed my perception of this place politically defined as the Middle East. The first day, we took a tour with a group based in Hebron called Youth Against Settlements who are against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We were shown through one of the more volatile checkpoints into the city center, where Palestinian families and business owners have been pushed out by the IDF forces there to protect Israeli settlers. Our tour guide was a Palestinian sports journalist who guided us through the politics shaping the violence, and explained the unjust treatment of Palestinians by the IDF forces in Hebron.
The tour was important on a level that is difficult to describe to one not familiar with life in Hebron or the West Bank, but it can be related to the necessity of hearing underrepresented stories. Although I loved Jerusalem, the Jewish story was very accessible and I was given a picture of the conflict that was heavily weighted towards the state of Israel. In order to understand the occupation and ongoing struggle of the Palestinians to be recognized as autonomous people, this tour was a necessary part of my visit. The group I toured with was friendly and peaceful and very open to holding conversations with us about their lives and the reality of life as a Palestinian in Hebron, for which I was enormously grateful. They cared about our safety and well-being and I would highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting Bethlehem or Jerusalem.
Despite the politics, and my own guilt that my Jordanian and Palestinian friends from Amman can’t visit Jerusalem, the city was very beautiful. The history is tangible, especially in the old city, where we spent hours walking through hundreds of small shops that have been there for generations. At Razzouk Tattoo, the Razzouk family has been tattooing in the same small parlor since the year 1300 and we saw design blocks that were just as old. Although the rest of our trip was wonderful and we were collectively enchanted by Jerusalem, I was struck by how isolated the Israeli cities are from cities in the West Bank, which furthered the importance of our visit to Hebron. Jerusalem is only an hour away from Hebron, but the stark difference in infrastructure and dress makes Jerusalem seem almost European, and it becomes clear what story has been historically emphasized to tourists in Israel.
My time in Jerusalem changed my understanding of what it means to be Palestinian. Because the Palestinians are denied many rights, including claim to a physical country of their own with cohesive infrastructure, it can be difficult to grasp who the Palestinians are, as an ethnicity as well as body with a unique and common nationality. In the face of an ill-defined border, bureaucracy surrounding citizenship and rights to travel are determined by much more arbitrary rules that easily become racist and exclusionary in nature when applied by the IDF. Despite my limited knowledge of the conflict, my time in Hebron made it clear that an institutional change was necessary to ease the tension that permeates every part of the city that I visited. No city that lives under such violent pressure will be able to culturally thrive, and it becomes necessary to work with local groups such as Youth Against Settlement to find a path to creating a livable environment.