Israel. Palestine. Gaza. The West Bank. Our generation has grown up with these words ringing in our ears, a constant drum-beat of bad news. The Middle East has dominated news bulletins almost daily since we were born, and most of us are weary of headlines that offer no sign of a resolution to a most bloody conflict.
Our campus is no stranger to this war. With large Jewish and Muslim contingents at Birmingham, the “Middle Eastern issue” has many of us in its grip, polarising attitudes across our red brick surroundings. Knowing this, it was with trepidation that I boarded a plane to Israel two months ago. I was scared. Not of bombs or bullets, but of the pain I would see. Having witnessed the anger and resentment present on both sides in Britain, I dreaded seeing even deeper bitterness and anguish I was sure would characterise the situation on the ground.
It was simultaneously relieving and exasperating to discover I was wrong. Westerners who have not visited Israel but read the news could be forgiven for thinking that Arabs and Jews cannot even pass each other in the street without stones, AK-47s or suicide bombers getting involved. Funnily enough, this is not the case; conversations with representatives from both sides of the conflict repeatedly threw back the message: “We all want peace, we all want a two-state solution, and we all want to stop living in fear”; a sharp contrast to conversations on my own campus, where some expound the view that Israel does not have a right to exist, and others painstakingly whitewash her behaviour. The necessity of living in such a painful long-term crisis does not always breed the extremism that accompanies distance. Both sides, after all, have to live their daily lives amidst the debris of decades of violence, and both sides suffer for it.
This is not to say that the suffering has been allocated in equal quantities. Standing atop Jerusalem a few hours after landing in Tel Aviv, an emotive symbol of the ongoing conflict that has earned Israel the title “apartheid state” in some circles confronts us. The security wall, or “fence” as it is doggedly referred to by Israel’s representatives, is a powerful physical image of the ideological barrier that divides Palestinians and Israelis. It is 425 miles long, eight metres high and consists of a mixture of concrete slabs and razor-wire fences. A heated debate quickly brews between our group and the Israeli tour guide. “We had no choice,” he argues, citing the 85% drop in suicide bombings as evidence that the wall is justified. A representative from the Palestinian Authority later puts forward the obvious counter-argument: the wall is not even on the 1967 borders; it “divides Palestinian families and communities”, preventing them from living their lives. Frequent checkpoints, guarded by zealous IDF soldiers, make it almost impossible for Palestinian families to bridge the gap imposed on them by an Israeli government they see as having no right to dictate their living conditions, already vastly worse than those in a state whose economy is booming (Israel’s exports exceeded her imports for the first time in 2006).
The wall is a short-term solution, yes. Suicide bombings are a reality, one that stared us unblinkingly in the eye as we later heard the excruciating stories of three survivors of such attacks. Understandable that any government would want to protect its people from such vicious acts. Understandable, but constructive? Just as it seemed obvious to us that attacking Iraq would water a ground ripe for terrorism, so it seems this wall is just a band-Aid on a wound that will fester in bitterness, spawning increased attempts to infiltrate Israel and kill more civilians.
Yet if we’re going to stop the wall we must stop the terror. Issa Kasasiya, Assistant Chief of Staff in the Palestinian Authority, insists that the conflict is perpetuated by extremists on both sides. So what are Palestinian politicians doing to clamp down on extremism from their people? How are they stemming the development of suicide bombers? Despite Kasasiya’s earlier eloquence concerning Palestinian grievances and Israeli failings, his sidestepping of my question was embarrassingly obvious. Amidst his protesting answer that yet again highlighted the faults of the Israeli government, there was a deafening silence as to what responsibility his side was taking to deal with their own mistakes.
This seemed to be a recurrent theme on both sides: a dragging and obstinate reluctance to admit fault unequivocally. By the end of the trip our ears were worn by listening to people protest that the other side had done more wrong than they. The Camp David summit of 2000 was a prime example; each side was expert in explaining why the blame lay mostly with the opposition. Couple this with the gridlock that holds Jerusalem, with the city being sacred to both Muslims and Jews (not to mention Catholics), and I was left with the terrible but inevitable suspicion that there is never going to be a resolution to this conflict.
Both sides now lack leaders who have real leadership qualities, let alone leaders who can work together to regain each other’s trust. Trust between the two peoples has gradually been eroded for decades, leading to the paranoid stalemate that now holds them in an iron grip. I applaud those who are trying to work towards a peaceful two-state solution, and like many of the people we met pray for this to happen. But something has to give. And this is the great challenge. Apologies must come unqualified; mistakes must be admitted without justification. And this is not fair, because grace is not about fairness; it is about giving something that is not deserved.