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The Palestinian Problem

JULY 5, 2000

It's almost three weeks since I left Israel. I've sat nearly as many times as it's been days trying to sum up my two-weeks in the world's most holy, most contested, most pained place: Jerusalem. First I tried to take a Palestinian approach by writing the story of a woman I met one Jerusalem afternoon.

It was late in the day, a few hours before sunset, when I sat on a large flowerpot sipping some orange juice and watching the hustle and bustle of the Israelis racing through the streets on their way home. An ancient woman hobbled up to me and grabbed my arm as she sat down.

"Shalom." She said and I smiled.


"Jew?" She asked. I shook my head and resisted the urge to repeat her question Woody Allen-style. She proceeded to tell me she was from Poland and had seen Israel from its birth in '48 from right there in Jerusalem. Her voice croaked and gurgled, full of pain and touched with something I couldn't name. As she spoke on about how the city had changed over the years she stroked my arm and leaned in close to my face, invading my American-sized personal space.

"American?" She asked and I nodded again. "You people are very, very lucky," and she added without pausing, "When you won your lands in the New World you killed all your Indians." And, as she continued on about the Palestinian "problem" in Israel, I felt all the blood in my face drain slowly away. After a few more minutes I excused myself and plodded back to my residence. During my trip to Israel I had heard stories and read articles that viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict as a pest-pesticide issue but I had yet to come face-to-face with it.

When I sat down to write out this story I wrote and wrote and wrote; the pages numbered ten before I was done. I stopped, looked at what I had written and realized that that one sentence the old woman uttered conveyed everything I'd written in those ten pages. The story was too emotional and complicated and, like many of the planned Arab-Israeli talks, I set it aside and told myself I'd get to it later.

The next story I scribbled down looked at a sympathetic Israeli.

The morning before I left Jerusalem I met with Israeli radio personality Benni Hendel. Benni had been on Israeli air for over 16 years meeting with various artists, politicians and members of society from all across the word. He would bring them into the studio to discuss any number of things but always with the focus on cultural difference and understanding.

We discussed at length the trouble and suffering that is an everyday occurrence in Israel. "If you'd like to hear my theory on humanity," said Benni in a quiet tone imbibed with patience and a hint of sadness. "People are like radio frequency--Is that the word?--we are all individual particles but we are also all on the same wave." And maybe that's part of the reason why we torture each other so: so similar yet so different. Yet, I liked Benni's idea and it made me feel that much more touched when I had to leave and he shook my hand with a tear in his eye.

Although things that have happened in Benni's particular part of the world leave me questioning human similarities. So after I had written Benni's story out, described all the visitors and guests he'd invited to speak on his radio show and the multiplicity of views they had represented, I again set the papers aside.

The conflict between these two people--the Arabs and the Israelis--is, without a doubt, a difficult one; there is no other similarity like it on Earth. The problems date back thousands of years, as Israeli ancestors were a people continuously persecuted throughout their history. So with a past like that the paranoia that infiltrates Israeli thought is understandable. The main argument, however, was drafted not too long ago, just a few decades before Israel declared itself independent on 14 May 1948.

In the chaos of the First World War most of the world's super powers were looking for a way to divide up their colonies in the Middle East. The little stretch of land between Egypt and Lebanon, called Palestine, had the fortune (or un-fortune, depending on how you look at it) to include the city of Jerusalem, a sacred city to all three monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This land was the center of discussion for a very small number of Jews (called Zionists or those Jews who believe in the creation of an all-Jewish state that encompasses Jerusalem). The situation sparked when the main colonizer in that area, Britain, wrote what is called the Balfour Declaration, a letter that fundamentally supported Israel's claim for independence in Palestine. It wasn't until the end of the Second World War that Israelis would use this declaration as legal writ in the founding of their country.

Ever since its birth Israel has been a volatile place. In the struggle for Jewish independence many of the Palestinian Arabs who had been living in the area for nearly 2,000 years fled or were kicked out of their homes to make way for the incoming Israeli settlers. More often than not the removals involved violent acts of brutality, terrorism and murder. (Only recently has Israel attempted to define its interrogation techniques with the banning of torture and a legal definition of the term Moderate Physical Pressure used on its prisoners.) As a way to please both the Arabs and the Israelis, in 1948 the British drew maps defining the land. The holy city of Jerusalem would be divided, split not quite down the middle, by a large brick wall between the two groups. But in June of 1967 the walls would crumble. In what is known as the Six Day War, Israel effectively routed its Arab cousins to take not only the city of Jerusalem but also the lands of present-day Israel, parts of southern Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

Peace has since then been made with Egypt and Jordan, with Syria and Lebanon on the coattails. The main issue now lies with the Palestinians. After close to 52 years of expulsion the Palestinians may see a green light in their drive to "return home", or at least have the opportunity to see a little peace, in their lifetime. Negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have been held (a major step for progress as historically the leaders would not even sit in the same room with one another) and tentative plans for peace have been laid.

Recently a friend of mine wrote, "Peace is breaking out all over." A cynic would look at that, lean their head back and laugh ad infinitum. But there are small trends in the world that give good evidence to the thought that maybe peace is a little less humiliating than war.

One thing is certain, attitudes won't change overnight and atrocities will continue to be committed in the name of security--this is true for most of the world. But hopefully, like the new trend, more people will realize the error in their thinking and try at the least to develop, if not understanding, peace.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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