Hope, and How Not to Visit Palestine

My visit to Nablus coincided with the first Palestinian Human Rights Film Festival at an-Najah University. Even better than the films shown were the panel discussions afterwards, on issues such as refugees, resistance and women’s rights. The first film I saw was “To Shoot an Elephant” (watch it here), a brutal, highly-recommended documentary shot by International Solidarity Movement activists who happened to be in Gaza as the 2008/09 massacre unfolded. After the screening the audience communicated with director Alberto Arce via a video link-up to Spain. (Alberto is permanently banned from entry into Israeli-controlled territory.)

Alberto said this: “It is not my job to tell the Palestinians what to do. It’s my job to support the Palestinians and to witness what’s happening to them. The Palestinians have suffered so much from the actions of foreigners, and foreigners have no right to impose their beliefs on Palestinians.”

Later he argued that one factor behind changing Western attitudes to Israel-Palestine has been the great hospitality of Palestinians, who have welcomed thousands of foreign visitors and volunteers into their towns, camps and homes over the last decade. Once these foreigners have an opportunity to experience daily life in Palestine they become ambassadors of the Palestinian cause in their home countries. Alberto cautioned, however, that besieged Gaza has recently become less welcoming to non-Muslim outsiders. The understandably paranoid Hamas government fears the foreigners are spies calling in air strikes, and many of Gaza’s traumatised younger generation, who have seen the West joining wholeheartedly in Israel’s siege of the prison territory, are unwilling or unable to distinguish between Western governments and people.

On the comparatively less-stressed West Bank, foreigners are still very welcome (and tougher, more experienced activists will of course still be able to make themselves at home in Gaza, which needs more witnesses and helpers than ever). I met the volunteers at Nablus’s Project Hope, an NGO which brings foreigners (when I was there, from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, Japan, Singapore, Canada, the US) of all ages to teach Palestinian children and young adults in locations ranging from the university to the refugee camps. Volunteers pay their own way to Palestine, but are put up free in shared rooms in beautiful century-old buildings and are provided with basic Arabic tuition. They must have some teaching experience or qualifications. Subjects taught include English and European languages, sports skills, creative writing, music, art and drama. Project Hope recommends a work visit of three months, believing that less time would not be enough to find your feet, and that longer might exhaust you. I would certainly recommend Project Hope, place and people, and for the education that residence in beautiful, friendly Nablus can offer.

Some of the volunteers were activists, some curious travellers, some purposeful academics. They were all there to learn. They didn’t necessarily agree with or understand every aspect of garrisoned Palestinian culture, but they respected it and never assumed their own superiority.

But I met one foreigner (not a Project Hope person) who had come to Palestine with a chalk in one hand and a Sam Harris book in the other. When I asked him why he was here he launched into a long, thespian speech on the civilisational benefits he had to offer – modern educational methods, atheism, women’s rights, non-violence, individual liberty, rational thought. After submitting to ten minutes of the monologue I wandered off. Now, as an Arab and Muslim I have plenty of my own reservations on the rebirth of ‘tradition’ in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and sympathetic debate of the issue is always most welcome. But this speechmaker, who I’ll call C, was not sympathetic, and had no grasp of either context or practised reality. He didn’t speak a word of Arabic, for a start. Not to me but to a friend he announced, “The people here are not used to a sophisticated level of argumentation.” (The useless addition of a suffix to ‘argument’ tells us quite a lot about this intellectual wizard’s self-image.)

I wonder, I wondered, how long C would proclaim his militant atheism if a bombing raid started? If he saw his mother murdered in front of him? If he were forced to live in a box for six decades, under fire? Perhaps if that happened his beliefs would prove sufficiently rooted to survive such constant fear, although I doubt it. But if it happened to him he’d at least understand the tastelessness and the vanity of preaching comfortable-people’s assumptions to the suffering.

A Palestinian PACBI co-ordinator told me that a lot of foreign ‘peace activists’ arrive muttering the following mantra: ‘We don’t support the Palestinians; we support human rights.’ In other words, Palestinians are allowed to sing Bob Dylan songs at Israeli bulldozers. But as soon as they throw a stone they become, in the eyes of these young faux-liberals, no different from the occupier.

There was a great panel discussion after the screening of Budrus. Ayed Morrar and Muhammad Khatib, organisers of non-violent popular resistance in the villages of Budrus and Bil’in respectively, were sitting next to Jamal Hwayil, leader of the armed resistance in Jenin at the time of the 2002 massacre. Every speaker expressed the belief that the two forms of resistance, armed and unarmed, complement each other, that the question of which to employ in a given context is not a moral but a tactical question.

C was in the audience, and he clearly pitied the panel’s lack of sophisticated argumentation. He made the following intervention: “We’ve seen on the news these rockets, these missiles, coming from Gaza and killing innocent civilians, women and children. I’d like everybody on the panel to comment on that.” The tone of his voice was the worst thing. It was the same tone I use on my children when they’ve been playing up for hours and I’ve just had enough of their silliness. The panel put C in his place, I’m happy to say, and so did the audience, more forcefully. One made the essential point that the targetted town of Sderot is built over several bulldozed Palestinian villages, that the rightful owners of the land are still caged in refugee camps in Gaza, that so long as this situation obtains the settlers of Sderot remain a peculiar class of innocent civilian. One asked “Does he know what has happened to us? What does he think of the innocent people driven from their homes in 1948?”

Unfortunately time was running out, and a great deal of the Palestinian response to C could not be translated.

33 thoughts on “Hope, and How Not to Visit Palestine”

  1. The good people of Sderot are not “settlers” , they live inside Israel’s recognized international border and have the right to live their lives in peace. Or is the writer saying that among Israelis there’s no category of “innocent civilians” ? With that kind of thinking you can justify any atrocity.

  2. I hope more of the responses to C will be translated.

    Thank you for this great insight. It is often hard to see how many issues intermingle with each other unless we are in the front-line.

  3. Mr. Segal – Israel has not defined its borders, so I don’t see how these can be internationally recognised. The UN does recognise Sderot as part of Israel, but also calls on Israel to allow the refugees to return home. Until such time as it does so, Israel’s situation remains irregular. More to the point in the long term, the Palestinians, the Arabs, and increasingly the Western public, do not recognise Israel’s legitimacy, nor the supposed right of its settlers to security, until such time as the refugees are permitted to return to their lands and the apartheid system which separates the Palestinian natives into controlled reservations is dismantled. At that point I will defend the right of Jewish Israelis to live in security. Not until.

    Zionists like to think that we’ll forget the 78% of Palestine occupied in 1947/48 and the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the occupation simply because the remaining 22% was occupied 20 years later. That’s wishful thinking on the Zionists’ part.

    More and more people are becoming educated. Time is slowly but surely running out for Zionism.

    1. I will defend their right as human beings to live in security in this case because I do not see that as conflicting with Palestinian rights in any way, shape, or form. I see a defense of the people living on Sderot’s human right to live in security as inseparable from the Palestinian right to live in security in whatever political arrangement a democratic process accepts as reasonable. I reject the arguments of those who claim that security for the Sderot settlers/citizens is something to be defended violently. It isn’t and it can’t be.

      Segal doesn’t like the rockets falling on Sderot? I’m with him–the people living there are Mizrahi Jewish Arabs who are the tools and victims of Zionist policies. So yes, political violence sucks. No one likes violence, except for fascists. But he might think about who is responsible for those rockets, those who make them basically inevitable: people in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and Washington, not those living under the gun in Gaza and Damascus.

  4. Excellent and extremely thoughtful article

    As an exiled Palestinian I have faced similar problems coming from some of our supporters in exile, some would support us with the ambitious furtive wish that we drift away from our faith, abandon our heritage and follow their “superior” secular belief system

    They repeatedly declare their vision of the only future solution to Palestine’s problems, which can be summed up in the creation of a SECULAR state with equal rights for the occupied and occupier alike!

    They ignore the fact that Palestinians are a prominently Muslim society, with faith and concept of God as central pillars of that society. It does not occur to them that we might just have a different history, a different culture, a different outlook to life, different problems, different ways of solving problems, and different hopes and visions for our future that might not be exactly identical to theirs

    They ignore that most socio-dynamics in an Islamic society stems from that belief; starting with God-man relationship, ending with man-nature relationship, including all what is in-between, i.e. the boundaries of personal freedoms, and extents of responsibilities in the man-man relationship.

    It does not occur to them how condescending that attitude is

    It does not occur to them that we are absolutely sick and tired of Western colonialism, including “thought colonialism”

    More on that in



    1. I see your point, Nahida, but remember the ‘secular’ formulation, though perhaps sometimes misunderstood by foreign activists, was first made by the PLO, which called for one secular democratic state until it was persuaded to enter the ‘two state’ charade.

      ‘Secular’ in this context does not mean anti-religious or atheist, it means that the state could be shared between different religious groups, that it could be the state of Muslims, Christians, and Jews at the same time.

      If Palestine became a democracy, then there would no longer be an occupier and an occupied, just equals. That’s what happened when apartheid ended in South Africa. A few whites refused to accept the idea of equality with the blacks, and they left. Most of the whites stayed, and although there are tensions on both sides, they’re doing allright.

      1. ‘Secular’ in this context does not mean anti-religious or atheist, it means that the state could be shared between different religious groups, that it could be the state of Muslims, Christians, and Jews at the same time.

        But that is not secularism, and what it means. Why do you not call it something else instead of truncating the meaning and ideology behind it.

  5. Mr. Yassin-Kassab,By not differentiating between Israel proper and the occupied territories, , you’re proving that the extremists on both sides are mirror-images of each other. The Israeli Right says the same thing: that there’s no difference between Tel Aviv and Nablus, between Sderot and Hebron. People who are interested in promoting peace and mutual understanding in the region should emphasize the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories.
    Civilian populations have the right to live in peace- in Sderot and in Gaza- without attaching unrealistic conditions such as the return of the refugees . As I pointed out, by apparently not recognizing the category of “innocent civilians” regarding Israelis you could justify terrorist attrocities.

    1. Jonathan, why is returning the stolen land unrealistic? Surely, we want a solution that is based on justice. So is it injustice to give back the Palestinians what have been taken away from them by brutal force?

  6. Mr. Segal – When I came out of the West Bank into Israel I and my driver, that’s a British citizen and a Jerusalem ID holder, were pulled over, searched and interrogated. So was a Palestinian-Israeli family, dressed traditionally. So was a woman dressed in European style, another Israeli passport holder, with Hebrew books in her bag, travelling alone. What we all had in common, as well as Israeli plates on our vehicles, was Arab names. Jews whizzed through the checkpoint. In the West Bank as in the rest of Israel-Palestine Palestinians are surrounded by Jewish settlements. Jews travel freely while Palestinians wait. So the only distinction I see is an apartheid distinction, between the two peoples, not between territories.

    The people in Gaza are not ‘living’ in the Sderot sense of the word, and would not be even if more materials were allowed in and no more bullets were fired. They are crammed in refugee camps, behind a wall. They come from Sderot. Your balancing of civilians in Sderot with those in Gaza effaces this fact. Until there is recognition and a remedy built on justice, and until Israel-Palestine is a state of equal rights for all, the Jewish state remains an imposter on stolen land. It’s not just me that thinks so, and that’s Zionism’s long-term problem. As soon as the walls come down and Jews and Palestinians live as equals, I will wholeheartedly support the individual and communal rights of the Jews to safety and prosperity in the country.

    I believe like John Mearsheimer that it’s far too late for a two state solution. Having just been in the West Bank again, I must say that this reality is glaringly obvious. Those on the Israeli right are stating the obvious. They and I probably also agree that the moon is not made of cheese. But our analysis differs when we envisage an end solution. They want indefinite apartheid or, if circumstances permit, another large bout of ethnic cleansing. I think democracy would be a better idea, for everybody.

  7. also for jonathan, something I found at Nahida’s link (and I should be working) – a quote from Malcolm X: “It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself, when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks”

  8. Mr. Yassin-Kassab,
    First of all – I see from your comment that you’re in Israel, so I hope you enjoy your stay – and try not to focus exclusively on the negative aspects. You’re welcome to look me up (in Be’er Sheva).
    On the checkpoints : I agree that they are ugly manifestations of the occupation. On the other hand: could you guarantee that if they were removed , and everyone “whizzed through” , no terrorists , bent on murdering Israeli civilians, would come through?
    On “balance”and “recognition”: I believe in equal rights for all people, so , yes, the people of Sderot and the people of Gaza have the same rights to live in peace. Indeed, there should be recognition, but it has to be mutual: each side needs at least to recognize the fact that the other side is here to stay and has the right to self-determination and to a state of it’s own. I continue to support a 2-state solution as the only solution which is both morally sound and politically practical (just barely). I sincerely hope that those who say time has run out for two states are wrong. The alternative, in my opinion, is a bloodbath.
    “Imposter on stolen land”: Israeli Jews are not imposters, or invaders or aliens or colonialists. We are very much at home here.
    Finally : -to Mr. Abdullah as well – The Palestinian refugees obviously can’t return to their actual former pre-1948 homes . The “Right of Return” can only be implemented in the context of a future Palestinian state. Palestinians and Israelis can have either justice or peace , can’t have both. I fervently hope that they choose peace.

  9. I wonder, I wondered, how long C would proclaim his militant atheism if a bombing raid started? If he saw his mother murdered in front of him? If he were forced to live in a box for six decades, under fire? Perhaps if that happened his beliefs would prove sufficiently rooted to survive such constant fear, although I doubt it. But if it happened to him he’d at least understand the tastelessness and the vanity of preaching comfortable-people’s assumptions to the suffering.

    Indeed,60+years is a long time to endure the comfortable preaching. So Mr. Kassab, do have any hopes that these people will one day leave the comfortable preaching?

    1. Hagle – most foreigners I met in Palestine weren’t there to preach. Some idiots will always be arrogant. As for your earlier comment, ‘secularism’ does indeed have different meanings in different contexts. British secularism is different from French secularism, for instance. I don’t think I trucncated or distorted anything in my earlier comment. I was giving an accurate description of what the PLO meant by secular. Amd my surname is not Kassab, but Yassin-Kassab.

  10. Returning stolen property doesn’t seem too unrealistic to the European Jews. WWII survivors and/or their heirs are at present forcing banks in Switzerland to break their trademark secrecy to reveal any hidden assets, safety deposit boxes, etc. that can possibly be claimed.

    the worst thing ‘western civilization’ accomplished was the separation of families and letting cultural traditions die from neglect, so we in the west have nothing to sustain us when times are rough.

    If the USA would smarten up they would immediately stop all financial & military aid to zionists and enact legislation to end dual citizenships.

  11. Yes, this is a good portrait of who really runs most of the ‘solidarity’ actions, especially in the English speaking countries. Most of the activists are like ‘C’, from wealthy and well educated backgrounds, but they project the white women’s burden in this way quite arrogantly.

    Many are of course Jewish, and many others won’t challenge ANY Jewish person’s prejudices or arrogance, since they are similarly burdened with guilt complexes over the failure of Western elites to stop the slaughter of the European Jews…

  12. jonathan segal: you try to think of yourself as a “normal person” living in a “normal country”, but that’s just a fantasy, trying to hide in a dreamworld.

    In actuality you are a racist fascist living in the most criminal state on the planet at this time.
    Wake up dummy.

  13. I’ll leave it up to the readers and posters on this forum to judge for themselves as to who is commenting on topic and who is resorting to hate-filled personal attacks. Being called a racist, a fascist and a dummy by “teafoe2” is an honor.

  14. Jonathan,

    That is a sick joke…..with the gun pointed at our head and being told to LEAVE in Peace I don’t think you really mean peace where we will respect each other.

    Peace and Justice should come hand in hand. The Israelis should be willing to make a considerable amount of “sacrifice”….. otherwise, there isn’t much that we can do now. Grabbing on to stolen land and talking about peace is pointless.

    Yes, if you say Peace at the expense of Justice should be achieved then I think that is achievable by a few minor changes to the definitions of the usual words of the old dictionary, the Israelis are very good at that with its top PR firms churning out old words with new definitions everyday, e.g. “fence” instead of the colossal wall. I’m afraid Peace can only be achieved through Justice.

  15. Segal – Israel-Palestine is full of Jewish terrorists intent on murdering Palestinians. These people do murder enormous numbers of civilians, and nobody stops them. By by ‘terrorists’ you mean the resistance. If Israel wants security from the occupied people in the West Bank and Gaza, it should withdraw from these territories. If it wants long-term security, it should allow the refugees to return to their land (in the land stolen in 48) and end the apartheid system. Very simple – no justice, no peace.

    I’m not saying that the settlers in Sderot and the refugees in Gaza are equal. Read what I said again. I don’t believe the Sderot settlers have a right to security. Nor did German civilians have a right to security once their country had invaded Chzechoslovakia and Poland. Nor did white south africans have a right to security so long as apartheid continued.

    It is quite irrelevant whether or not you feel like an imposter. Hitler may have felt like a humanitarian, for all I know. It doesn’t change any historical facts.

  16. And I don’t see any positive aspects of a state built on ethnic cleansing full of brainwashed people sick with racism. Really. I know there are theatres in Tel Aviv (which I haven’t visited) – but I don’t want to visit them while people are living in prison just a few miles away. If you were human, you wouldn’t want to visit them either.

  17. Robin,
    Let me start at the end : you visited Israel but didn’t go to Tel Aviv? Did I get that right? Sounds to me like a case of denial-of-reality, don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts…
    As to the rest:
    “Terrorists” – I’m applying the standard , textbook ,definition: people who deliberately target – innocent civilians to achieve political goals. Inexcusable in any case, Jews, Arabs or whatever. Calling them “the resistance” makes them sound heroic , but terrorists -like the Hamas – are still terrorists.
    I find you contention that the people of Sderot have no right to security to be, frankly ,outrageous. By the same measure you could argue that because of Britain’s participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the people of London have no right to security, and therefore you can justify, say, the Tube bombings.
    “Stolen land”- I would like you -and the other posters here as well – to clarify what you mean: the settlements? All of Israel? . I’m active on the Israeli Left : against the settlements, in favor of ending the occupation on the West Bank (from Gaza we’ve already withdrawn, in case you haven’t noticed…), and seeking a way to achieve peace between our two peoples. I even think it’s possible, but both sides need to accept the concept that this country is the homeland of two peoples, and both are here to stay.

    1. Mr Segal,

      For the sake of decency, the israelis are slowly bleeding the population of Gaza to death. They have blocked all means of movement between Gaza and the outside world. I don’t know what you wanted to claim by saying “from Gaza we’ve already withdrawn, in case you haven’t noticed…”.

      Will peace mean the real peace or just another twisted meaning produced by the Israeli machines where they will claim they have reached a “peaceful” solution whilst thousands of people still want their place back from which they have been forced out?

      The claim that you are making (“both are here to stay”)is wrong. We are not there to stay but we were there before you forced us out to claim “we are here to stay”. You have the gun on your side today so your voice is very strong too.

      The fatal error in any solution is to overlook Justice.

  18. Why is not going to Tel Aviv equivalent to denial of the facts? What a strange thing to say. My work was not in Tel Aviv.

    I think it is valid for Iraqis and Afghans to attack British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t think it’s legitimate to attack British civilians in London. Why? Because the people in London are at home in their own country. They are not living on bulldozed villages. The original inhabitants of London are not in refugee camps. In Palestine-Israel the case is different.

    I havent noticed your withdrawal from Gaza, no. The colonists have gone, but the land entrances, the sea, the air and the airwaves are controlled by the IDF, and the IDF enters the territory at will, bombs it, and beseiges it.

    Don’t misread me. I accept that Palestine-Israel is now the homeland of two peoples and that the Jewish immigrants are here to stay. I do not accept an apartheid relationship between the two peoples, in which the Palestinians are trapped in camps, in which non-Jews are not nationals, in which 93% of the 78% of Palestine occupied in 2010 is off limits to non-Jews. I do not believe that a two state solution is possible, from the evidence I’ve seen with my own eyes. If there is a viable two state solution which brings peace then I’ll support it, but it isn’t coming. All the land is stolen, whatever gloss you want to put on it. It was conquered by invading militias and the original population were deliberately ethnically cleansed. Once the invaders are willing to live as equals with the natives in a binational democracy with freedom of movement and residence then I will consider the Israeli Jews to be deserving of security. Violence is inevitable so long as the current injustice continues, and I’m not going to waste my time or integrity condemning it.

    It’s a shame that this is difficult for the ‘Israeli left’ to understand. Your right to safety must be won by ending injustice.

  19. Robin and Abdullah, I’m glad that you clarified where you stand . I’m saying that deliberately targeting innocent civilians is always wrong , you’re saying that attacking Israeli civilians is OK. Whose position is morally sound?
    The people of Sderot are “at home in their own country” (to use your characterization of the people of London). As a matter of fact, there were Jews in Israel way before there were Brits in London.
    On Gaza: there is no real “Israeli siege” of Gaza: it’s mainly political theater staged by the Hamas so they can produce PR stunts like the flotilla. You ignore the role of the Hamas terrorists running the show over there in shaping present realities in Gaza. The restrictions on Gaza could be removed in ten minutes if the Hamas were interested. They seem to be quite happy with the present situation.
    On other points:
    “I do not accept apartheid” – absolutely, I’m with you on that.
    “the Palestinians are trapped in camps” . Right. What are you talking about?
    “non-Jews are not nationals”. See above: I’m with you on that, and what are you talking about?
    “93% of the 78%…” Huh?
    “all the land is stolen”- Simply untrue. Before 1948, under Turkish, and then British, rule ,the Jews couldn’t steal land even if they had wanted to. All land for Jewish settlement was purchased at the going price. After 1948 it’s indeed a different story, and a complex one, but let’s not forget that the 1948 war was initiated by the Arab side, in an effort to prevent by force the implementation of the UN partition plan. If they hadn’t started the war, no Palestinians would have become refugees.
    Finally, on justice vs. peace: In the experience I’ve had with Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups, it’s an exercise in futility to try get either side to accept what the other would see as “justice”. On the other hand, when peace is discussed, when we’re talking about what’s best for the present and for the future, and not who-did-what-to-whom 60 or 100 years ago -there’s real hope. That’s why I’m convinced that we can have either justice or peace, and I’m hoping for the latter.

  20. Mr.Jonathan,

    I now understand your stand on peace when you call the tragic event on Flotilla a stunt. Thank you.

    I don’t think the Jews were a problem at anytime up to 1948….but it is the state of Israel.

    There is hope. That has what kept the people of Gaza alive after all the massacre, humiliation and deprivation from basic human needs. I thought that the Jews will keep a check on the world from repeating what they had suffered at the hands of Hitler. But Alas! Man never learns from past mistake.Unfortunately, they have copied hitler and reigned with terror on another nation.

  21. I’m saying that attacks on Israeli settlers, wherever they are, is inevitable so long asthe injustice continues.

    Most of the Sderot Jews are immigrants from Morocco. If you want to get historical, I suggest you read Shlomo Sands The Invention of the Jewish People. There were Jews in Palestine 2000 years ago, and their closest descendants are the Palestinians.

    Your misinformation on the ongoing brutal siege of Gaza contradicts reports by UN bodies, the international Red Cross, etc. Your lies about it being Hamas’s fault are contradicted by facts – the Hamas ceasefire, the sanctioning of Palestinian democracy, etc. This is what the ‘Israeli left’ comes up with. Mendacity. Propaganda. While people die.

    On nationality only being for Jews, you don’t know what I’m talking about. Please learn something before you open your mouth. Do some research. And you don’t notice apartheid. Half of the refugees were driven out in 1947 before any Arab fighting force arrived in Palestine. The Jewish militias started the war, obviously, by planning a Jewish state in someone else’s country. You think justice is a matter of perspective, and you thjink the Palestinians should forget about it. In your dreams, Zionist propagandist.

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