When violence erupts in Israel and Palestine, and especially when Hamas is mentioned, I always think back to 1995 when I spent a couple of weeks there. For part of the trip we had a local guide, a very pleasant and friendly Jewish woman. However, she lost her temper with me once, in a revealing way. She was very angry that I was using a guide book with a map that portrayed the West Bank as occupied territory, rather than an integral part of Israel. It wasn’t just a terse passing comment. She was furious at a book that she regarded as being anti-Israel. In her eyes my choice of book wasn’t just political, it was also a highly offensive gesture.
Another episode I won’t forget took place in a hotel in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city. I went down for a beer before dinner. The bar was shut, but there was a group of hotel staff sitting drinking tea. They cheerfully called me over. They said they couldn’t be bothered opening the bar, but I was welcome to join them and have a cup of tea. Their English was excellent and they couldn’t have been friendlier. It was very enjoyable.
The conversation gradually turned to politics. I was teased about the Balfour Declaration. The Palestinians’ problems were ultimately all Britain’s fault for promising the Jews their own homeland in Palestine. It was good natured and there was much laughter as they ribbed me. I shrugged and explained that there wasn’t much I could do about it since it had happened 80 years before.
All of them were Hamas supporters. “We’re all Hamas”. I asked why Hamas and not Fatah. The atmosphere instantly became serious. One said, “because Hamas kill Jews”. The others nodded and agreed. “Yes, they’ll kill Jews. Lots.”
It was a wonderful trip at a time when the country was peaceful, in between the 1st and 2nd Intifadas, shortly after the second of the Oslo Accords that set up the Palestinian Authority. There was a constant, awkward, nagging tension between the optimism of the peace process and the depressing knowledge that huge long term issues, i.e. Jerusalem’s future and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, were no nearer to being resolved. The incidents with the guide and the waiters made a deep impression on me. These people were a joy to be with, but there was a level of intransigence and underlying anger that left me pessimistic about the future and reluctant to take sides in the conflict.
My neutrality doesn’t mean I can’t be judgemental. Who is at fault? Everyone; every party that inflicts violence and panders to those who tolerate it; everyone who makes a decision to kill civilians, launch a rocket and bomb a school; anyone who says that it is all the fault of one side, anyone who tries to dodge moral responsibility by responding to criticism of their own side’s crimes by saying “what about the crimes that the others have committed?”.
Some might think this stance effectively absolves the real villains (insert faction of your choice) from blame. Perhaps, but the criticism I hear of each side is largely valid. It’s the justifications for violence, murder and oppression that are self-serving and unconvincing.
Is there hope? There’s always hope, but that won’t amount to anything while people are trapped into thinking one side is entirely in the right and the other in the wrong. The guide will have to accept my book, and the hotel staff will have to be as friendly to all those who share their land as they were to me. It might happen one day, but I doubt if I will ever see it.