I recently joined an 18-strong all-party delegation of the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Friendship Group on a trip to the West Bank. We arrived on March 31st, the day after the first march on the Israel/Gaza border, so the trip was timely and important. The delegation included: Green Party leader Elizabeth May; former Bloc Québécois interim leader Mario Beaulieu; prominent New Democrat MPs Guy Caron, Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, and Peter Julian; a group of (more than usually) left-leaning Liberal MPs; and me – a self-identifying Zionist, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and a proud Conservative.
I didn’t mind being the odd man out. I am a contrarian by nature, and I enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions others did not. The invitation to participate in this trip was a sort of personal challenge. I felt I would gain more knowledge and credibility on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by digging deeper into the Palestinian experience.
My core reflection in the aftermath of the trip is that the entire situation is deeply tragic. Some of my parliamentary colleagues were quick to blame Israel for every problem. It seemed to me that what we witnessed should trigger our empathy, but also invite us to think through the conditions necessary to end the tragedy and secure a durable solution.
My grandmother was part-Jewish and lived in Germany during and immediately after the Second World War. Obviously she was relieved by its outcome, but her suffering didn’t end with the allied occupation of Germany. After the war, she remembered being chased by drunk Allied soldiers intent on finding someone to rape. She got away, but only to watch from her hide-out while others fell victim.
Occupation can be just and necessary, as was clearly the case in post-war Germany. But the experience of occupation, even when just and necessary and even when occupying authorities do their best for the people, is not something I would wish on anyone. It entails a fundamental loss of personal, community, and national autonomy which frustrates the well-intentioned and radicalizes those who are not. Occupation can engender a vicious cycle in which it creates animosity that undermines long-term security and makes continued occupation necessary. Breaking out of that cycle requires risk and creativity on both sides. Clearly the status quo in the Palestinian territories is not a permanent option.
One anecdote from our trip will, I hope, illustrate this dynamic. We visited a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) girls’ school and met with a group of students who constituted the “School Parliament”. One was wearing a t-shirt featuring a picture of her cousin, who (we were told) was killed by the Israeli Defence Force. The school is just a few hundred metres from an Israeli settlement, so I asked if the students had any interaction with the Jewish young people living nearby. They emphatically said they did not nor did they want to, as their teachers nodded approvingly. The shirt and the conversation spoke volumes about the isolation between Palestinians and Israelis, isolation that clearly obstructs understanding and peace.
We learned that some of the students throw rocks at the Israeli settlement during their breaks, and sometimes Israeli soldiers respond with tear gas, which then prompts complaints to Israeli authorities by school authorities. I asked administrators if more could be done to prevent students from throwing rocks and was told it is hard for schools anywhere to police their students when they’re off school property. Given the regularity and proximity of these events, though, I felt that more should be done. In any country, modest sanctions by schools and parents prevent the escalation of bad behaviour which could eventually lead to the need for law enforcers to intervene.
These are understandably frustrated young people; they are born and raised in “refugee camps” which have existed for decades and where buildings are made of stone, but their parents still do not own their homes and their opportunities are limited. The United Nations administrators and teachers who run the camps and schools do not appear to see it as their responsibility to discipline students who engage in violence, or to challenge their charges to see Jewish people as anything other than occupiers. I don’t blame the kids, but there is clearly a problem with the system.
Many Palestinian politicians, it must be said, have staked their careers on the pursuit of peace – at least up to a point. There is significant security cooperation with Israel, and numerous officials told us they were prepared to compromise on certain key issues. But their overarching narrative still sees the existence of Israel as a “painful compromise”, not the legitimate expression of Jewish self-determination in their historic homeland.
Of course, the area is also the historic homeland of Palestinians, hence the need for negotiation and compromise. But as long as the prevailing Palestinian narrative continues to see Israel’s existence as the result of “painful compromise”, it will be difficult to move forward. Israelis and Palestinians must both recognize the legitimate connection of each to the land and to an identity that flows from it. A common and reconciled narrative is the necessary basis of a durable two-state solution.
The difficulty of achieving this was illustrated to me during our visit to the West Bank city of Hebron. It is a tense place, with “urban Israeli settlements” right inside the predominantly Palestinian city. There is a deep historic Jewish connection to Hebron – Jewish patriarchs are buried at the site of a present-day mosque, and Jewish settlers think of themselves as restoring the historic Jewish community that was violently displaced in the early 20th century – but our Palestinian guides acknowledged none of that. Peace cannot be advanced by either side perpetuating a narrative that minimizes the legitimate and long-standing historic attachments of the other.
Palestinian elites we met in the West Bank consistently professed a strong desire for peace and willingness to compromise on fundamental questions. But the perpetuation of irreconcilable narratives that we observed on the streets of Hebron and the UNRWA school clearly stand in the way of peace. Ordinary Palestinians that have not been conditioned by their society and their leaders to understand the Israeli position might well turn against their leaders in the event of an (inevitably difficult) final status agreement. That is probably why, in the past, Palestinian leaders have been reluctant to actually sign on the dotted line when given the chance.
While in Ramallah in the central part of the West Bank, we attended a Palestinian cultural event. Some elements of the evening were joyful, featuring lively dancing and people genuinely having fun. But the event began with two long political speeches. It ended with a violent video showing alleged Israeli military action, and awards presented to Palestinian families who had lost a family member in confrontations with the IDF.
The Palestinian Minister of Culture at the event referred to culture as a form of resistance to occupation. I wondered, can’t people just enjoy a night out? The preoccupation with occupation seems to risk crowding out the celebration of beauty as a thing of value unto itself. I noticed that many of the people actually left after the cultural program, before the final round of political intrusion. It was heartening for me to imagine that, notwithstanding the views of the Minister, a simple night on the town was precisely what many people wanted.
The cultural night probably stuck out to me the most in terms of the internal challenges posed to the concept of Palestinian nationhood. A nation must be defined by its culture, not by its politics. Culture, the unstructured space of life which exists prior to and independently of politics, is the primary glue that binds people together as communities and nations. Within any nation people disagree about politics, but still have a shared experience of the valuable and the beautiful which defines the objectives and the parameters of politics. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture. Culture ought to constrain politics, not the other way around. Recognizing the power and importance of culture, authoritarian regimes always try to subvert and control it. True patriots, on the other hand, fight for the preservation of a space of life independent of politics.
In the Palestinian context, it seemed that culture was also partially subverted, though not necessarily by authoritarianism. The subversion of culture to politics promoted by an “anti-oppression” movement worked in a similar way to cultural subversion by political oppression. For their own sake, I believe that Palestinians need the natural separation between culture and politics.
Our trip to the region did not include a stop in strife-torn Gaza. One of my fellow Parliamentarians argued for a visit on the grounds that there is a cemetery where 23 Canadian peacekeepers are buried. As much as the rest of us were interested in visiting this cemetery, we had no desire to enlarge its population. Thankfully, reason prevailed, though the volatile situation in Gaza regularly came up in conversation.
My recurring thought was that Gaza is a counter example to all that we were being told about the harms of occupation. There is no occupation in Gaza, and yet Hamas relentlessly funds and directs violent protests and attacks against Israel, marshalling an indistinguishable conflagration of civilians and militants to march on the border. In the midst of Hamas rule, few Palestinians would choose to live in “free” Gaza over the occupied West Bank.
I came away from the trip convinced that Palestinians have an opportunity to take the future into their own hands, but in a different way than they have in the past. They should seek to engage Israelis in dialogue about perceived injustices, and commence immediate bilateral negotiations without precondition. But more importantly, Palestinians should look for opportunities to put aside the question of the conflict and begin building the state they want. They should convene democratic elections, if only in the West Bank initially. There is legitimate concern about a potential election win by extremists like Hamas. But such an outcome is far from inevitable, and only becomes more likely the longer democracy is denied. Further, it could be of limited impact if the government is constrained by the checks and balances of a healthy functional democracy.
Palestinians should seek to regularize the status of refugees in Palestinian areas, while of course still pursuing full clarification of their status through negotiations with Israel. There should be greater interaction and people-to-people ties between Palestinian and Israeli communities, especially among youth, and the education system has to be purged of militancy and grievance propaganda. Economic conditions can be improved through the development of a free and open economy that is attractive to investment. The framework of the Oslo Accords provides the foundation to move aggressively on all these fronts.
The most exciting and encouraging stop on our trip was Rawabi, near Ramallah. This is a new private sector-built Palestinian town designed to provide housing options and economic opportunities to the middle class. The people we met there were upbeat, funny, and optimistic. They were also critical of the Israeli presence in the West Bank – arguing that their project had been made more challenging by the occupation. But they were not consumed and defeated by it, and this is exactly the point: you can have your political views while still working to improve your situation. You can also be proudly nationalistic without denying the legitimacy of other nationalisms or the need to reconcile your people’s narrative and aspirations with those of other peoples.
Finally, it is worth noting that no Palestinian we spoke to supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions program advocated by some western progressives. (Many did advocate selective boycotts, but not the blanket approach of BDS). The economic interconnectedness of Israel and Palestine presents immense opportunity for both sides, and BDS would hurt both.
I have always supported a two-state solution which recognizes the legitimacy of the Palestinian and Israeli desires for nationhood and the legitimate connection of both peoples to the land. This trip gave me a deeper appreciation of the continuing work of nation-building that is required. I hope that all of those with the power to do so will support this vital work.