By Melkam Lidet
‘Out of sight out of mind’ is a common saying in different languages– the further away one is from something or the longer time one has spent away from it, the less relevant it becomes. After days of traveling with friends to the north of Israel – Haifa, Akko, the Galilee and the Golan this saying resonated with me in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The north is a beautiful place: the blue Sea of Galilee, the mountains, green terrain and the grace of Mt. Harmon in the occupied Golan Heights. Except for the Golan which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and is considered occupied territory by international law, much of the North is now what is considered Israel-proper, captured and claimed in the 1948 war and recognized by the international community as such. The north is also home to diverse groups: Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Jews and Druze. Almost half of “Arab Israelis” i.e. people who are Palestinian in nationality but citizens or permanent residents of Israel, live in the North, making up a slight majority over the Jewish population there; and compared to other places around Israel/Palestine, these groups live in harmony.
In all the places we went, we stayed with Israeli hosts we met on Couch Surfing, an online social network that connects travelers with locals who can host them in their homes. We were a group of peace studies students, living and working in the West Bank and a Palestinian from the West Bank who had to get a permit to join us on this trip; obviously, politics came up several times in our conversation. Keeping in mind that the people we met were left-leaning, open-minded, well-travelled people- a minority in Israeli society, their knowledge of the West Bank was very limited. Most haven’t been to the West Bank except maybe on school trips back in grade school or in ‘Green’ – as soldiers. But the ones we met were in Special Forces so they served away from the West Bank or were limited to the offices and bases in the West Bank with no interaction with Palestinians.
The further away from the West Bank one goes, the more blurred the image of the occupation appears. The North is very far from the West Bank where the occupation manifests. Here, there are no confrontations with settlers, checkpoints, encounters with young Israeli soldiers or a long, concrete separation wall. There is not much that would remind you of the Occupation. Our hosts weren’t aware of the daily human rights violations and maltreatment Palestinians go through at the hands of individual soldiers or the iron fist of the army. Evictions, house demolitions and roadblocks to farmlands didn’t ring a bell in their collective memory. While they interact with “Arabs” everywhere they go in their respective cities, it was surprising to them how my Palestinians, such as my friend from Hebron, have never met ‘normal’ Israelis. His experience with Israelis have been unpleasant interactions with soldiers or angry and violent, ideological settlers in Hebron even mainstream Israeli society disapproves of due to their economic burden on the state.
I don’t usually buy into conspiracy theories and I’m not saying this is necessarily one, but a bigger picture of the occupation struck me during my time up north. There is a mechanism of occupation – a divide and rule, detach, distance and dehumanize strategy that is neither a coincidence nor a result of the course of history. Palestinians are divided amongst themselves, confined to small areas, dehumanized in Israeli media, and kept at a distance from the average Israeli all behind a wall that most Israelis do not bother to peek over.
As a result, at the societal level, the further away one goes from the West Bank, the more distant and irrelevant the occupation becomes. Given the political, economic and diplomatic power asymmetry between the two sides, there’s nothing that would ‘bring home’ the suffering and oppression of Palestinians to average Israelis to call for political change. The occupation is different from the Vietnam prototype where every family felt the cost of war. Even when the fact is that almost all Israeli citizens serve in the military, the reality is that many do so behind thick bullet proof glass, bullet proof vests, heavy machine guns in hand and in situations that are less intense and political than they are casual and social. Of course this is no excuse for the lack of awareness or ignorance of Israeli society about what’s going on and what their government does. Rather, it points out how interaction between Palestinians and Israelis are in places and in ways that would reinforce stereotypes and power imbalances between the two people at the political but also personal level.
The lack of social interaction or citizen diplomacy therefore puts the overall solution to the conflict in the hands of politicians who, according to recent polls and analyses are lagging behind their citizens in their will for peace. As the gap between the “us” and “them” gets wider while giving a sense of peace (or at least coexistence in the North for example) without a peace agreement, it hides the truth and kisses justice good-bye cutting one of the building blocks of peace out of the big picture. As a result, stability is conflated with peace and it is used to justify maintaining the status quo in the pretext of maintaining “peace”. But this is out of sight; hence it is out of mind when one lives so far away.
Melkam Lidet is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected].