Israel & Palestine: Two Views from the Middle East

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Tel Aviv skyline from the domestic airport plane window
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Tel Aviv suburb taken enroute to Eilat

Welcome to Israel

Arriving in Israel less than a week ago for a short visit on the way to the conference in Jordan, their first question was: “What the _______ (insert appropriate word of your choice) is going on in the US?” To which we replied, “What the ______ is going on in Israel?” It’s complicated. I hardly know where to start. But we have to start somewhere, to bring attention to what’s going on in these turbulent times.

In our American politics, “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are terms that encapsulate two opposing attitudes toward the reality of abortion. A similar Israeli verbal dichotomy is described below.

In a conversation with our Israeli hostess (a lovely woman, originally from Australia, that we’ve known for years), we happened to mention the “West Bank”, referring to the Palestinian territories that have been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war. She answered that she doesn’t use that term, preferring “Judea and Samaria,” the ancient Jewish names for the West Bank. I asked, “Does this mean that you think all this Palestinian land belongs to Israel?” She answered, “Yes.” Religious Jews consider the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean to have been given to the Jews by God (in Jewish tradition G-d). And so I continued, “Does that mean that all of the Palestinian Arabs are actually Israeli Arabs?” She didn’t have a clear answer.

Even the word “peace” is unacceptable to both sides in public political dialogue. To the Israelis, the word “peace” means acceptance of a Palestinian state. To the Palestinians, “peace” means continuing the endless fruitless negotiations with Israel while West Bank land continues to be seized for new Israeli settlements.

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Dr. Jean Watson lights a new candle for peace, using the same small candle that she takes around the world to symbolize spreading peace.

This encapsulates the Israeli dilemma. Despite fifty years of talk about a “two-state solution” of Israel and Palestine co-existing side by side, public opinion on both sides is beginning to doubt that this will ever happen. Israel continues to build settlements on land seized by the Israeli military for “security reasons.” Meanwhile, illegal settlements are established by militant settlers on hilltops throughout the West Bank, whose presence changes the “facts on the ground.” Roads are built that are only accessible to settlers, bared for use by Palestinians. There are hundreds of Israeli military security checkpoints throughout the West Bank that make life miserable for Palestinians traveling from one town to another. As Palestinians see their dream of their own country slipping away, part of them just want to live in peace as long as they are granted the same rights as Israelis, while another part resists Israel at every opportunity, often violently.

I grew up in the racially segregated South. I can’t help but observe similar attitudes mirrored by Israelis toward the Palestinians, that I experienced by whites toward blacks as I was growing up in Georgia. Similarly, there is a blanket fear and loathing of the other side. There is a two-tiered legal system for Israelis and Palestinians. For example, Israelis bulldoze Palestinian houses that are built without permits. (Israeli permits for Palestinian house construction are rarely granted.) But Israel rarely bothers the militant settlers’ illegal outpost buildings. The settlers are mostly heavily armed, whereas the Palestinian farmers are not. The settlers illegally chop down the Palestinian olive trees and prevent the farmers from cultivating their fields, which may have been the source of food for their families for generations.

Many Israelis would like the West Bank Palestinians to simply emigrate into Jordan or Lebanon. (This ignores the fact that there are still refugee camps of Palestinians in both those countries dating back to the establishment of Israel in 1948.) The birth rate of Palestinians is higher than that of Israelis. So, if Israel eventually annexes Judea and Samaria (the Palestinian West Bank), the Jewish residents of the (currently) Jewish state of Israel could be outnumbered by Muslims. Thus, it’s said that, absent a Palestinian state, “Greater Israel” (which includes Judea and Samaria) can be either Jewish or democratic, but not both.

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Attendees to the 5th conference of Middle East Nurses Uniting in Human Caring

This is the fourth time that Susan and I have attended this international conference in Jordan, Middle East Nurses Uniting in Human Caring, led by American nurse pioneer Dr. Jean Watson. Dr. Watson says that when nurses from any countries are in the same room, they all share the same values. They are healers. They are the saints of patient care. And so, which region needs healing the most? The Middle East!

Thus Dr. Watson worked with Israeli nurses and their Palestinian colleagues to bring nurses together from Israel and the West Bank, as well as surrounding countries. Jordan is the one neutral country that Palestinians are able to visit, since they are not given passports by Israel. It is very difficult for Palestinians to travel to any country except Jordan. This year’s conference was the best-attended yet. It was a wonderful gathering of nurses determined to stand together, not as Israelis or Arabs, but as one voice speaking together on issues affecting healthcare in the region. They intend to form an NGO (non-governmental organization) to work under the auspices of the UN and other international organizations.

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Outline of goals for the proposed NGO

Unfortunately, both the Israeli and Palestinians are compelled to convene for this conference “under the radar.” There is such a strong sentiment against “collaborating with the enemy,” that the conference is not publicized outside of the network of like-minded nurses. Publicity could cause professional problems on either side. The attendance of foreigners from the US, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the UAE, and other countries, gives international “cover” to the potential charge that this is an Israeli-sponsored event, which would prevent Palestinian nurses from attending. Yes, the Israeli nurses do most of the organizational work. But success is measured by nurses of surrounding countries showing up, especially Palestinians. Dr. Watson’s fame within the international nursing community also lends great credibility to the conference.

A similar situation arose when noted conductor Daniel Barenboim created a symphony orchestra comprised of young Jewish and Palestinian musicians. They had to travel to neutral Austria for their rehearsals, due to violent threats from those who objected to any collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, even music students.

A wonderful Saudi healthcare official attended this year’s conference. I have had a generally negative view of rigid Saudi society, but this man gave me hope. He spoke of the challenges facing immigrant nurses (many from India and the Philippines) in learning to work within the traditional strict Saudi Muslim culture. His attitude was open, optimistic, and hopeful, and because of meeting him, so is mine.

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Our visiting Saudi official
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The topic of the Saudi presentation

A UN-WHO official from Gaza showed a disturbing film of everyday living conditions in Gaza. 80% of Gazans depend on foreign assistance. The unemployment rate is the highest in the world. Only 5% of the water is potable. One third of the children are malnourished. The presence of United Nations aid is crucial to avoiding a looming human catastrophe. However, because of the high birth rate, the population continues to overwhelm available resources.

There is no end in sight to Israel’s total blockade of Gaza. The people of Gaza elected Hamas (designated a terrorist organization) in a democratic election, because Hamas opposes Israel (unlike Fatah, the West Bank party which cooperates with Israel). And so, the people of Gaza are stuck in this crowded open-air prison. It’s a pressure cooker that will eventually explode. The last war with Israel was in 2014 in which 2200+ Gazan’s were killed, 11,000+ were injured, and 150,000 were left homeless as a result of the Israeli bombing (which was the response to small homemade rockets fired into Israel). Everyday living conditions in Gaza are much worse than the West Bank. It’s no wonder that for many Gazans, their life purpose is to seek revenge against Israel. Yet, in the US, there’s a total news blackout from Gaza. We have no American journalists living there. The only accessible source of reportage from Gaza in the US is (Qatar-based) Al Jazeera.

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Looking north over Aqaba, Jordan, from our hotel balcony

During the conference, there were a dozen or so short presentations by the mostly Israeli and Palestinian nurses, about various healthcare issues, from mental health, to family planning, to cultural barriers to health education and delivery. These nurses seek to create a continuum of care from Palestine into Israel, because acute Palestinian patients often must be transported into Israel for advanced care that is unavailable in the Palestinian hospitals. What became ever more clear during these presentations is that the issues facing the Jewish and Arab populations are identical. Israeli nurses are very proud of the fact that they treat all patients with equal attention and care, even if a would-be Palestinian bomber happens to be in the bed next to a wounded Israeli soldier.

In this age of ever-advancing medical technological advances, there is an emerging world-wide healthcare system. Integrating this system across national boundaries is a challenge for the ages. When I travel, I would hope that in the event of a medical emergency, that whatever doctor would treat me in whatever country, would be able to access my records from the US over the internet, and hopefully have the latest medical techniques and drugs available to treat me. Creating an integrated health system among Middle East nurses within Israel, Palestine, and surrounding countries would be a very positive force for peace in the region. With wounded soldiers and refugees spilling out of Syria and Iraq, the surrounding countries are already treating the sick and wounded generously, without discriminating against them because they come from an “enemy” country.

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Looking south across the Red Sea inlet to the border area of Israel and Egypt

To be involved with the Middle East Nurses Uniting in Human Caring makes me feel like I am at the heart of one of the world’s most troubled regions. Susan and I contribute scholarship money that enables some of the Palestinian nurses to make the expensive trip from Palestine to Jordan for the conference. The burdens of war, ongoing conflicts over land and water, and the fifty-year occupation of the West Bank by Israel, negatively affects the healthcare systems of both Israel and Palestine. These brave nurses can’t solve the problems of their respective societies. But by working together, they provide a model of reconciliation, collaboration, sharing resources, and tangible progress between Jews and Muslims. This is Dr. Jean Watson’s dream. I’m proud to support it in every way possible. I invite anyone reading this blog who might feel similarly motivated to help to contact me to discuss possibilities.

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My main role is to bring music at the beginning of every session

 

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