Friday, September 14, 2012

Coming Face to Face with the Men on the Walls

Martyrs'  Square in Old City, Nablus

Upon the walls of the ancient corridors of the West Bank’s city of Nablus hang banners of young men pictured holding machine guns. These are Nablus’ martyrs, men—often only months out of adolescence—who died for the cause of establishing a Palestinian state.

To many Palestinians, these men are heroes, making the Ultimate Sacrifice in hopes of establishing a free and just land, bidding a final farewell to this world with the pull of a string and the detonation of a belt. Some see their cause as noble, affording them a special place among God’s chosen.

In my country, government leaders have shown no hesitation in calling the acts of violence committed by these men “terrorism.” Their targets were usually civilians, their tactic to breach security at the Israeli border and find a crowded place with the goal of killing as many civilians as possible. Terror reigned. Men, women and children died.  

Yet in the streets of Nablus, I met some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever known. I was daily beckoned by shop owners to share a cup of tea and discuss life in the West Bank and beyond. From the people I met, I developed a nuanced understanding of terrorism and terrorists, peaceful Muslims who want to live a righteous life, as well as those who explain “just” warfare in religious terms—a tactic utilized by different religious peoples for centuries. I learned that many Palestinians see the actions of the Israeli military in the West Bank as “terrorism.” I looked up the definition of “insurgent”—the term most often used by the U.S. media to describe Iraqi and Afghani militants—and realized that in these countries, rebels probably justify their behavior by calling U.S. efforts "terrorizing" as well.

Terrorism does not arise out of nowhere. It has its basis in ideas, ideas formulated over time that inform the way one views the world.

As I left Nablus behind to begin my work in Israel, I wondered what ideas informed those young men pictured on the posters. What did they grow up hearing? What ideas informed their thinking?

It took me a while to post my final entries from my time in the Middle East in part because I needed to process all I had seen, experienced and learned. I realize the issues I am discussing in my blog posts are controversial, and that no one is without biases in how they interpret "the facts." My primary aim is to introduce those reading this blog to some of the complexities of the conflict, ideas espoused by locals and the international community, and—ever important to me—the prospects for peace.

I left the Middle East with more questions than answers, as I imagine you will notice in this short essay and the ones to follow. I hope these entries will provoke thought and discussion rather than offer generalizations about complex problems. I traveled to both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, worked for peace with Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis, and made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. This was a unique opportunity afforded by my American passport, and one I do not take for granted as most living in the midst of the conflict never get to experience “the other side.”

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