When talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the various perspectives involved, it doesn't take long for intelligent people to start talking like kids about who did what to whom first.
But life in Israel and the occupied territories is not some John Wayne flick, where the forces of heavenly good are up against pure evil. It's more like a Clint Eastwood western, where moral shades of gray are the norm; the protagonist and antagonist both fighting inner demons, even as they interact with one another.
Recognize: Aside from divine intervention, the state of Israel is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. In talking with hundreds of Palestinians from across the West Bank and Gaza, it's clear to me that they, too, have accepted this reality. Time brings change. After all, 60 percent of the Palestinian population now living in the West Bank and Gaza is under the age of 30.
As I walked around the Old City of Jerusalem, and then in visiting the Wailing Wall, it struck me how wonderful it must feel to be a Jew in a place where you can revel in your Jewishness with the relative security that you won't be expelled or exterminated in mass for just being Jewish.
The flip side is: Establishing the secular nation-state of Israel has brought with it the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian natives. And for Palestinians who didn't flee, it has meant 52 years under military occupation by a vastly superior military force. Think Mike Tyson in a fist fight with Elian Gonzales.
In the city of Hebron, which is in the West Bank, just down the street from where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob are buried, is the office and home of the Christian Peacemaker Team - a small group of American and Canadian Mennonites.
Besides offering counseling services to Palestinians, CPT members patrol the streets, engaging in nonviolent interventions whenever they see some altercation about to erupt between Israeli "settlers" or soldiers and Palestinian villagers - a routine occurrence, most often being committed by the former against the latter.
Anita Fast, a CPT staff member, told us it is a common occurrence for "the settlers," many of them toting guns on their hips, to harass and intimidate Palestinian villagers by tipping over their vegetable carts in the market, throwing rotten vegetables, spitting or yelling racist insults at them.
An American lawyer we met a few days later just outside Nazareth commented: "It's like Mississippi 1930 over here. Apartheid. I had no idea it was like this before I came."
Of the 6.3 million Israelis living in Israel and the occupied territories, 195,000 are "settlers," who live in these beautiful "settlements" outside of Israel proper. But the word "settlements" brings to mind some old-Western gold rush village. They're nothing like that - except for the guns.
Picture one of those private-gated communities you see in suburban America surrounded by several thousand soldiers with guns, tanks, sandbags, U.S.-supplied helicopters and other assorted weaponry. The "settlers," Anita explained, verbally and physically attack Palestinians on a regular basis. It usually goes the settlers' way, not because Palestinians are a bunch of Dalai Lamas (although Palestinians are very friendly and hospitable people). It has more to do with the presence of the Israeli Defense Force posted in strategic military outposts along the streets and on rooftops everywhere.
The IDF completely controls the roads, the air and the sea. So, let's say a "settler" is senselessly killed by a Palestinian gunmen. The typical IDF response is: road closures, trapping Palestinians in their village. A 20-hour, stay-in-your-house curfew is also imposed on every Palestinian in the village. This after the IDF shells an entire neighborhood suspected to be the area from where the gunmen fired. I'm talking tank and helicopter attacks for up to six hours - clearly a campaign not to catch the gunman but to terrorize people whose only crime is that they happen to live in the vicinity and are Palestinian.
This is known as "collective punishment," meted out because of the desperate violent act of some hope-lost Palestinian, unrelated to the Palestinians being bombed and shot at by IDF forces. Walking up a central street in the old city of Hebron with a Palestinian journalist, we passed by two soldiers standing on the sidewalk next to two teenage Israeli "settlers."
Smirks on their face, the "settler" kids gave the newsman the middle-fingered salute and said some nasty things about his father. He said something nasty about their mother.
"Do you know them," I asked.
"No, I've never seen them before," he said, shrugging it off as if they were just saying hello to one another. Now I realize: They WERE saying hello to each other.