Israel and Palestine: Uneasy Neighbors

Author: Sarah MacMillen '07Ph.D.


Chatting online with Ahmed, a Palestinian and now a good friend, I ask him why he likes Jerry from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Tom and Jerry. Jerry, the underdog mouse, is always smarter than the cat, Tom.

“Is this like Israelis and Palestinians, or do you hope that?” I ask.

He sends a smiley face and replies, “Yes, Yes!!”

Ahmed is a member of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) I am researching that brings together Israeli and Palestinian family members of those killed in the conflict. Founded by two Israelis—a wealthy businessman and an auto mechanic—the group has existed since 1994.

Ahmed joined a decade later. His sister and baby brother were killed during the Six-Day War in 1967 when his mother was driving her children to meet her husband at a safe haven, the Jordanian border. An Israeli plane—as witnessed by fleeing Palestinians—bombed the car of the civilians. Five-year-old Ahmed’s life was saved when his sister’s body partially shielded him from the bomb’s blast and its shrapnel.

I met Ahmed during my first trip to Jerusalem in May 2005. We arranged to meet in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, about halfway between his house in the Jordan Valley and where I was staying in Jerusalem. We started from equidistant points, 70 kilometers away. Ahmed’s journey took more than five hours. Mine, journeying within Israel proper, took about one hour.

Palestinians who live in the northern West Bank face multiple checkpoints and harsh road conditions. They are not allowed to travel on the more direct and well-maintained roads reserved for Israeli settler usage. Finally Ahmed arrived at our rendezvous point in the town center of Ramallah, across the street from a café called “Star’s Bucks,” with a logo reminiscent of the famous coffee franchise.

Ahmed and I headed to a restaurant a few blocks away, where we sat in an open patio. Naively, I asked him why the trip took so long. He explained the details of checkpoints and rocky roads. When I ordered hummus and coffee, I asked Ahmed if he wanted anything. “No,” he replied with a smile. Ahmed is skinny, almost frail. He would rather smoke than eat, and he chain-smoked throughout our entire meeting. He gripped his cigarettes tightly between index forefinger and thumb. His action made me think of a passage from Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s book on apartheid South Africa, in which Stephen Kumalo firmly clenches his opiate between these same two fingers: holding on so tightly because so much has been and could be taken away.

We talked for almost two hours, Ahmed returning to that day when his mother was desperately speeding with her three children from the territories west of the Jordan River during the Six-Day War fought between Israel and forces from the neighboring countries of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. He described it as if he were a child of 5 again—details of flying body parts, a traumatic memory as vivid today as if it had just happened.

The road to Ramallah

During my latest journey in November 2006, I decided to repay the debt of Ahmed’s rough journey to Ramallah and meet him at his northern West Bank home in the Jordan Valley.

I began in the southern tip of Jerusalem, taking Arab buses through the crowded city and through the Kalandia checkpoint into Ramallah. We passed into the West Bank without going through the checkpoint individually—the soldiers waved us through the major checkpoint after examining the ensemble’s documentation. A couple of Palestinians who spoke English told me that having an American aboard the shuttle made things speedier.

On this journey to Ramallah, I spoke to a fellow passenger, Adnan, a professor of accounting at Birzeit University. I introduced myself in English, as I saw he was reading a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. We talked about the future of Palestine and the importance of developing businesses and technology. He was well-dressed and told me about his time as a college student in Chicago. I asked him about the book he is reading. It is his favorite. I told him that it is the favorite of many American students and that the author is Jewish.

He flinched and then said, “Well, I never knew that. I like it so much.”

As we exited the bus in Ramallah, my new friend made sure I was able to find my way to my meeting spot with Ahmed’s brother, Khaled. He even called Khaled for me and spoke in Arabic when Khaled struggled to speak in English. Adnan’s “random act of kindness,” I now understand, was not a random act at all. In Palestine, selfless hospitality is an obligation.

I met up with Khaled and was served a wonderful breakfast by his wife, Hameira. Because Hameira holds a Turkish passport, she is not allowed to leave Ramallah—those who have an external passport from a Muslim country are rarely permitted to travel, even within the West Bank. She cannot even visit her in-laws in the Jordan Valley, let alone her family in Turkey. After breakfast Khaled and I were on our way.

Khaled and his 5-year-old son, Mubarak, were traveling with me to Ahmed’s city so I didn’t have to go alone, yet another example of Palestinian hospitality. The 90-kilometer journey from Ramallah crossed three checkpoints and took three hours. When we stopped at checkpoints, the Israeli soldiers were surprised to see an American in the shared taxi and seemed to relax their inquisitions. This made the journey relatively quick.

Historical background

Since 1947, when the United Nations partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, Israeli-Palestinian relations have been fraught with wars, broken treaties, redrawn districts, peace proposals, Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli death squads, territorial conflicts and a continuous cycle of violence. The conflict over the land extends deep into history, however, and an objective summary is almost impossible.

Palestinians have described the founding of the State of Israel as the Nakba or catastrophe. In 1948 more than 1.4 million people lived in Palestine. After Israel was established, some 720,000 Palestinians were uprooted. New Israeli neighborhoods were built on the remains of desolated Arab homes. Even though U.N. Resolution 194, issued in December 1948, stipulated that Palestinians’ lands be returned and damages paid, many Palestinians became homeless refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Tensions and battles between Israel and neighboring Arab states and Palestinian organizations continued for years. In May 1967, Israel, fearing a massive invasion by Egypt, took pre-emptive action and went to war with Egypt. Jordan and Syria then began separate attacks on Israeli fronts.

After its decisive victory in the Six-Day War, Israel annexed the areas that were a part of Jordan in 1948—East Jerusalem and the northern and southern West Bank. Israeli settlements illegally began to implant themselves in these Palestinian territories.

Major Palestinian _intifadas_—literally Arabic acts of resistance—occurred in 1987 and again in 2000. The first intifada was caused by a number of general factors, including frustrations with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The second intifada came from more brewing animosity because of similar factors but was sparked by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the old Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most sacred territory for Jews and Muslims. The old (Jewish) Temple Mount is the ground on which the Al-Aqsa mosque rests, the site commemorating where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven. Some think Sharon intentionally went to the area to provoke another intifada.

Though Palestinians initiated both intifadas, Israel had a serious military advantage in these conflicts. The bulk of losses were on the Palestinian side. In 2004, the ratio of children’s deaths was 22 Palestinians for each Israeli.

The most recent rise in suicide bombings led to Sharon’s decision to build a wall around the boundaries of the Palestinian territories to increase security within the state of Israel proper. The presence of the Wall is most prominent in the areas around East Jerusalem and at the roads to Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Though the Wall has curbed suicide attacks, it has also created a system of segregation and discrimination—apartheid.

Checkpoints as chokepoints

Independent news outlets and NGOs that monitor checkpoints routinely report abuses. One such NGO, Machsom Watch, consists of Israeli Jewish women who stand at checkpoints to monitor Israeli soldiers’ treatment of Palestinians. Many are grandmothers who see the soldiers (usually in their late teen years or early 20s) as symbolic grandchildren.

The Machsom Watch members’ email reports are posted on their website at, and the reports are stunning in their reports of abuses. Some tell of Catch-22 cases, such as those of some Palestinian men whose I.D. cards had been illegally confiscated by soldiers. The men did not receive documentation that substitutes for the I.D., the watch group reports, and “are doomed to house-arrest, without trial. To try and obtain a new I.D. they have to leave their homes. At the first checkpoint they encounter, they will be arrested for traveling (within the Occupied Territories) without identifying papers.”

During the first leg of my journey to the Jordan Valley, the bumpiness of the off-road conditions (Palestinian roads are much more dangerous than Israeli, “Jew-only” roads) caused 5-year-old Mubarak to choke on a piece of candy. His panicked father turned him upside-down and tried to pat the candy from Mubarak’s throat. We managed to get the taxi driver to pull over. Every man (all seven) in the taxi disembarked and attempted to help with the situation. Eventually Khaled dislodged the candy.

At one point near Ahmed’s city the jeesh (Israeli soldiers) stopped the car and, upon seeing my U.S. passport, dismissed us. Perhaps the soldiers don’t want Americans to see any maltreatment of Palestinians. Mubarak said, “Lateef [nice] jeesh.” I think jeesh is probably one of the first words Palestinians learn when living in the Occupied Territories.

I was surprised to see just how much of a Jewish settlement presence there is in the West Bank. Settlements are located near the main routes and better roads, which Palestinians can’t use. As we did on that trip, Palestinians must travel off-road, up windy pathways and unpaved routes with large stones and uneven ground. They also are forced to stop at each checkpoint along the way, pile out of their vehicles and face inquisition.

At one checkpoint, we spent more than 45 minutes just sitting in the four-car queue. One of my travel companions remarked that this was a “short” wait for this particular checkpoint. My presence, as an American, again seemed to moderate any overt mistreatment. One of the Palestinians on board even acknowledged this and said, “American! Shukran [thank you].”

Checkpoints are choking the Palestinian economy, particularly agriculture. Israeli settlements stand to benefit. Palestinians’ products are not allowed into the main markets of Israel proper. Where once Palestinian farmers could sell their goods to Israelis across from where the Wall now stands, many Israeli grocery distributors now sell only Israeli Settlement produce and foods. This has caused massive losses for Palestinian farmers, who once had Israeli and even European markets for their goods. Settlement goods are now sold and exported instead.

Such Israeli policies, as well as bans on permanent housing, threaten Palestinian means for existence and survival. They are enforced depopulation mechanisms that can lead to homelessness, exposure and limited access to medical supplies and treatment. The policies could also be interpreted as a subtle, slow form of ethnic cleansing. And this doesn’t even include violent armed attacks on Palestinians, especially children.

In Ahmed’s village, similar devastating effects exist. During my visit, Ahmed arranged a meeting with his mayor and council. The mayor is a gentle giant who stands nearly 7 feet tall. He loves the United States, he told me; as a student-athlete he played college basketball in California’s state college system. The mayor said his town was being throttled by checkpoints, which were curbing business and transit of goods, services and workers throughout the northern West Bank. It takes four to five hours to travel the 40 kilometers from Ahmed’s city to the city of Nablus, a nearby commercial and university center where many Palestinians bring goods and produce to sell or seek higher education. Law enforcement was also an issue. At the time, international support had been withheld after the election of the radical party Hamas to lead the Palestinian government, and there were no funds for policing.


Because of the Wall, checkpoints and other travel restrictions, many Palestinians cannot travel within the West Bank to jobs elsewhere in other cities. Khaled, who lives in Ramallah, works in Jenin (which is about an hour away, without increased security). Increased travel time has restricted his work schedule to only two days a week.

Ahmed’s city has also suffered these effects. Before 2000, labor exported to Israel (usually to Jerusalem) constituted the second-highest sector of employment for residents of the Jordan Valley, with agriculture and fishing being the primary means of wage earning. According to a U.N. report, because of the Wall and tighter restrictions, unemployment in the region increased from 10.7 percent in 2000 to 23.5 percent in 2005. And it has been growing.

“Again, the worsening situation since the end of 2005 urgently requires every effort of the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government and the international community to achieve decent work for women and men in the occupied territories,” the report said. “The development of a viable Palestinian economy must be a priority.”

At checkpoints, the jeesh routinely treat Palestinians as suspected criminals. Here in the American press, fighting Hamas and Fateh factions are seen as lawless. But, I ask, how could Palestinians police themselves—a measure several treaties and agreements have called for—if they do not have the financial and other infrastructure to support basic law enforcement? Resistance acts of terror and violence can brew within these places.

A controversial term

The Wall and checkpoints have been described as a form of apartheid, a term used most famously, and controversially, by Jimmy Carter in the title of his 2006 book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.

Carter recounts a conversation with a prominent Israeli, in which the former U.S. president said, “I am afraid that we are moving toward a government like that of South Africa, with a dual society of Jewish rulers and Arab subjects with few rights of citizenship.” The Israeli replied, “The West Bank is not worth it.”

This sentiment echoes the Jewish theologian Yeshayahu Leibovitz’s 1968 predictions: “Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions. After a few years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers. The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials and police—mainly secret police.”

Similarly, there is Michael Ben-Yair, Israel’s attorney general from 1993–96, who in 2002 stated, “Israel enthusiastically chose [after the Six-Day War in 1967] to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the Occupied Territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities.”

Ben-Yair observed that the continued growth of Israeli settlements created two justice systems: In Israel, one that is progressive and liberal; in the occupied territories, cruel and injurious. “In effect,” he said, “we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. This oppressive regime exists to this day.”

The unbalanced view

Most media accounts wish to offer a fair and balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the view of the conflict’s status is not balanced at all. Carter’s use of the word “apartheid” ruptures this notion of even-handedness for the parties involved. “Apartheid” suggests a grave inequality, that Israel is a modern democracy within the 1967 borders and a police state outside of them. Treating Israeli apartheid as an understandable security need ignores other perspectives of the conflict.

Ahmed said his dad told him to never feel anger at this situation or act in vengeance. When his children were killed in the 1967 war, Ahmed’s father responded by showing Ahmed books and documentaries about the Holocaust. Although most Israelis reject the notion that the Shoah legitimated the founding of the state of Israel, some Palestinians see a social, psychological continuity between the Shoah and the 1967 war.

Unlike the radical position of President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who denies the Holocaust and the legitimacy of the state of Israel, most Palestinians understand the need for the Jewish State and have compassion for the sufferings of the Holocaust. Even Yasser Arafat acknowledged the right of Israel to exist in a state of peace and security. In many polls, Palestinians have asked only to return to the pre-1967 borders.

Both sides have failed to police their own extremists since the occupation began in 1967, and Israel has the further obligation to remove illegal settlements. Each side needs to confront its own extremists while cooperating with the other side rather than allowing resentment to build because of them. Recognizing the nightmare of the occupation in the attempts to realize the notion of Eretz Yisrael (the Biblical Land of Israel, which inspires many settlers), Israel must acknowledge the increasing global unpopularity of the Wall and its apartheid effects—not to mention the devastating financial impact of maintaining the unsuccessful occupation and the sacrifice of her own young people, bodies and psyches, in Israeli Defense Force operations.

As Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin has proclaimed, lessons need to be learned from the failures of the 1993 Oslo Accords: the borders must be redefined according to 1967 lines. The Israeli government must reign in the unchecked militarism that led to last summer’s war against Lebanon and the continued defense of illegal settlements. Hamas needs to moderate its position and address pragmatic issues relative to international support for its cause.

The two-nation plan is a short-term goal, as apartheid systems also discriminate against Arab Israeli citizens (within the 1967 borders). Those in East Jerusalem, for example, face unfair housing policies, are being forced off their legally owned property and are not allowed to travel. In the long term, both sides need to realize their mutual codependence. Immediately, however, Palestinians must be granted their rightful property and means of survival.

On the home front, the U.S. population and government need to recognize the world’s growing dissatisfaction with Israel’s apartheid and our own media’s manipulation of the situation. Recent boycotts against Israel and relationships developing between such Central Asian powers as China, Russia and Muslim countries should be treated as a wake-up call to the political and economic realpolitik of dissent against the injustices of the Israeli military and the failures of the occupation.

Sarah MacMillen is an assistant professor of sociology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The names and other identifying characteristics of the Palestinians in this article have been changed. The author received funding for research from Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, and Duquesne’s McAnulty College.