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Reporter’s Notebook: Testing the Fabric of Humanity in the West Bank

Danielle Moodie Mills

If your sibling, mother or father were to commit a crime, whether it's throwing a rock at police officers or shoplifting—should the family home that you all shared be demolished? Should you have to pay for their alleged crimes?

What if your 10-year old child, nephew, niece or cousin was so frustrated with not being able to do basic things, like play outdoors or walk on certain streets, and they were caught by police holding a rock and shouting, is a 6-month house arrest the answer—especially when that house arrest takes them out of school?

These are just two of the countless policies and/or punishments that are placed on Palestinians in the Democratic State of Israel and the Occupied West Bank—I won't even go into the open air prison that is Gaza; which has it's waters, airspace, and tunnels all sealed off from both Egypt and Israel— leaving Gaza with the highest rate of unemployment in the region, if not the world at 40 percent, which is currently being controlled by the extremist group Hamas.

Like most people I only had a headline news understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that has been waging for decades.

Last month however, I received a much needed primer, when I joined a group of journalists from various walks of the profession: religion scholars, foreign affairs experts and social justice activists, along with our host the Foundation for Middle East Peace, for a week-long trip throughout Israel and the Occupied West Bank.

What's fascinating about Israel and the occupied territories is that the names of their cities and towns, for many of us, are suspended within religious teachings as if they are not modern day places, where real people currently live and real problems exist.

For many, especially in the U.S., we think about Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem during the beginning of the Christian and Judaic holiday seasons, but not much else. Israel and the occupied territories aren't museums with sculptures and moments frozen in time. Nor are they a moral Disneyland where we all get to go on vacation to feel good about ourselves—these are real places, with real people, politics and issues.

It's hard for me at times, like many of us, to wrap my mind around things that are not directly in front of me. There are times when I barely know what is happening across town let alone thousands of miles away.

What I do know is this: We are all connected by our desires to live free, whole and complete lives—where we are treated with dignity and respect and are allowed to dream and come into the fullness of our very existence.

When the group of journalists and I began our trip in Jerusalem; which unbeknownst to me, is an incredibly contentious area of Israel, incredibly divided, not just by religious beliefs; but by actual walls, checkpoints, many of which were erected during the past few weeks. In areas of the occupied West Bank like Hebron, they have "sterilized streets" (roads that Palestinians are not allowed to step foot on or even be near—these roads are for Israeli Jews only)."

Danielle Moodie Mills

Jerusalem is divided into east and west as well as by Palestinian and Israeli Jew. Now to be sure, there are indeed Palestinian citizens of Israel, and there are some mixed areas where these two groups live together, although even Palestinian citizens of Israel face intense discrimination. The rights of Palestinians who are not citizens are far from equal. In Jerusalem, Palestinians have the status of "residents" and can vote in local elections, but not national ones. Many live in fear of losing their homes to expanding Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and, while they have access to the Israeli legal system, this is an expensive process that often does not lead to justice being served.

Palestinians that live outside of Israel in the occupied territories --who are unable to enter Israel without a permit and whose travel even in the West Bank is very often interrupted or even prevented by Israeli checkpoints - have no guarantee of their most basic rights. Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military law and not the Israeli civil law that applies to its citizens or even to Jerusalem residents. Palestinians living under occupation do not have the right to vote and are not provided fair and speedy trials (almost 90 percent of Palestinians that come before a military style tribunal are convicted)."

When my colleagues and I arrived in the region it was during a time of heightened violence and security, as stabbings and shootings had begun to increase. I was almost too scared to go on the trip, but am thankful that I pulled my nerves together to join this esteemed group.

I will never know and understand what it means to be Jewish— at times a hunted minority religion— whose extinction was almost granted by the blatant neglect of the world and worse the blatant disregard for their suffering in World War II.

While some extremists believe certain facts are still up for debate, the ruins of concentration camps, the diaries and horror stories remain all too clear. The clearness of this brutality exists not only in the minds of those who lived it; but in the minds of their children and grandchildren whose bedtime stories were not those of fantasy; but of a hardened reality of what it means to be hated to the lengths of extinction.

Cecile Surkasky, wrote in Salon:

Hitler wasn’t only intent on eliminating Jews. Nazism was based on a perverse racial hierarchy that placed Aryans at the top, and Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals at the bottom, and which also marked millions of Slavic “sub-humans” for extermination and enslavement. It was a state-sponsored system that was central to the logic of extermination that led to the Nazi genocide.

These horrors were real and happened under the watchful eye of the world. A world that didn't see fit to intervene until 6 million Jews were murdered. There is a lot of pain and trauma that comes from being abused and knowing you are unwanted. There is a lot of pain that comes from being tortured and it doesn't just fade away over time. It festers and turns into fear. That fear can then be used as a political tool; which we've witnessed in our own country, which can lead to making one group the cause for your lot in life and create all types of reasons to limit their freedom because you see it as a direct threat to your own.

Cecil continues:

In other words, through decades of abuse and the slow ethnic cleansing of simply making life unlivable, there are other ways to try to disappear a people than killing them at once, and Israel has for nearly 70 years been pursuing policies intended to do just that because they believe all of the land where Palestinians have lived for generations belongs to Jews, based on a thousands-year-old claim in the Bible.

This violence directed at the Other, any Other, is what results when the most unimaginable generations-old festering wound of the Holocaust ceases to be healed—picked at over and over again by leaders who draw power from Jewish fear and trauma.

As my colleague and travel partner, Jack Jenkins, senior religion reporter from ThinkProgress wrote:

Much has been written about the various causes of the fighting, during which Palestinians are frequently shot dead, often after attacking Israeli soldiers and citizens, usually with knives. Some argue the attackers, many of whom are teenagers or even children, are inspired by anti-Israeli messages shared on social media, or religious militants such as ISIS who have endorsed the stabbings.

As analysts furiously debate the immediate catalyst for the attacks, there has been less focus on another factor that — while perhaps not the spark that lit the latest blaze — undoubtedly created the conditions for tension in the first place. Israel's longstanding occupation of the West Bank territories, including the construction of settlements the United Nations deems illegal and whose legitimacy the United States government rejects.

What I learned on my journey is that terrorism has multiple faces and characteristics and yet we in the west only get to hear one side of the story.

It reminded me and not in a good way about the fight for black liberation in our country. The stories are not the same by any stretch; but the desire by some to ensure and create a living hell for others is quite apparent.

What we need to ask ourselves is not whether we should care about those whose faces we may never lay eyes upon and whose stories we may never be fortunate to hear first hand. The question instead is this: Is freedom, dignity and liberty the foundation for our humanity? And if so, isn't it our moral obligation to question when we see the fabric of this humanity being tested?