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Peeling Back the Layers of the Middle East

Written by Zoe Mathews, 2014 Middle East Behind the Headlines. 
You can find Zoe’s personal blog at www.zoemathews.wordpress.com.

If there is one thing I have learned this week, somewhere wrapped between the airport waiting, conflict negotiation talks, volunteer work in the West Bank, camping at the Dead Sea, and even just walking through the streets of Jerusalem, it’s that everything happens in layers…very much like an onion.

What follows are excerpts from my journal as I go through the Operation Groundswell program, but also my personal experiences in Israel and Palestine.

Jerusalem. May 27.

We took a tour of the Old City, a sprawling grid of religious and historical sites crammed into a 1 square kilometer plot of land. It felt as if all of history had happened and was simultaneously happening in some sort of Abrahamic snow globe. As powerful as it was to see Christian, Muslim, and Jewish buildings all together, it was also painful to accept that all the bloodshed and tension are essentially over the keys to the entrance to some stone buildings. The story is often stripped of the complexities it deserves, and becomes reminiscent of a king of the mountain game-like scenario. At this point, the historical truth of who came first, which seems to be one of the most important questions around here, is drowned out by national propaganda on both sides.

Operation Groundswell tours the Old City

Jerusalem Day. May 28.

Today is the day Israelis celebrate the reunification of the city, or the recapture of East Jerusalem from the Palestinians after the Six Day War in 1967. If anyone had visited East Jerusalem on any other day, they would miss this layer of the onion, this aspect of city life. The market in East Jerusalem, normally a filthy underground tourist attraction, was shut down completely. The peddlers who just yesterday were selling herbs, sandals, and FIFA World Cup merchandise, were nowhere to be seen. The vibrance and energy was sapped, and the dampness that was previously just part of the atmosphere, now seemed overwhelmingly oppressive.

Dome of the Rock at Sunset
As I meandered through the underbelly of the Muslim Quarter, I came across a police (Israeli) barricade, with about 20 agitated and arguing people stuck behind it. One man walked through to my side, looked at me and said, “Oh, you can pass through, tourists and Jews are allowed.” As we re-entered West Jerusalem, the wind had picked up. It carried with it waves of Israeli pride. Blue and white streamed down Jaffa Street to the gate into East Jerusalem, and the rail was even shut down. It was a sea, and we were clearly swimming against the tide. As the seemingly impenetrable force got rowdier and stronger, someone I was with quietly remarked, “This is not a celebration, this is a demonstration.

Negev Desert, Southern Israel. May 31.

The way I’ve come to see it, Israel is more or less comprised of people living in extreme situations. One could say the entire country is just a bunch of people living where others believe they shouldn’t. To Israelis, it’s the Palestinians, and vice versa. But within the Palestinian group are the Bedouins, an Arab nomadic people who got the short end of the stick in many ways. Their movement has been severely limited and restricted by the Israeli government, and they more or less live in shantytowns in the Negev desert. They live in one extreme, and on the other, at the very southern tip of Israel, is Eilat, a Jewish resort town known for its beaches, coral reefs, and nightlife.

Heaven’s Field. West Bank. June 1-3.

I am quickly learning that the nonviolent camp is very small. There are many organizations, but only a handful of people leading them. It’s an interconnected web of volunteers, Palestinians, Israelis, and even the occasional Evangelical preacher from Dallas, Texas (Preacher Bob, here’s lookin’ at you). For some people, it isn’t about the big organizations, it’s more about the people to people connections. For Ali Abu Awwad, this is very much the case. He is a Palestinian who experienced enough suffering from the divided nature of taking sides, that he now speaks out against it at all. Our group came to his family owned land to help rebuild a wall and clear the pasture, and to learn about his experiences. As we sat around on couches shaded by drop sheets in the middle of his field, he and his friends fed us to the point of bursting, engaged in dialogue about nonviolence and the one-ness of humanity, and made us feel valued. I think I likely got more from his words and hospitality than I could ever pay him back by the meager labor I could offer. His knowledge is vast, and his spirit is kind. Ali has a way about him that makes everyone feel comfortable in their own skin.”It is not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. That is not enough. It is about being pro-solution.

Heaven's Field-Meeting GroundsHeaven's Field Volunteering
His words resonate past his land and ripple throughout the West Bank. He is heard. But people resist his message. And they have their reasons. There is an anti-normalization movement on the Palestinian side; many people are too frustrated with the lack of progress that they refuse to engage or acknowledge Jewish settlers at all. Their frustration is understandable. But according to Ali, their inaction serves as action; to not act out of fear may cause more damage than the action the fear is preventing. If anything, fear does not discriminate. It penetrates all sides of the conflict. Some Israelis are afraid to venture into Palestinian neighborhoods because they are told it is dangerous for them, settlers and Palestinians are hesitant to interact with each other because they fear the stigma from their community.

The week of the onion has been pretty dense, clearly. Fear wafts up to me as the layers peel back, and I must acknowledge I will not reach the heart of the problem in my remaining four weeks. I will not know all sides, and I will likely have more questions than when I set foot in Tel Aviv eight days ago. Perhaps this onion doesn’t even have an attainable and agreeable center. But I will keep peeling.

Zoe Mathews
2014 Middle East Behind the Headlines

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