Dallas Smith's Blog

Ten Days in Israel

This blog includes a lengthy consideration of the Israeli history of its military occupation of Palestine.

A new apartment building in Jerusalem


Background Context for this Blog

This blog was written during our ten-day visit to Israel.  My wife Susan’s sister Aliza has lived in Israel for decades.  In our thirty-five years of marriage, Susan and I have visited Israel at least a dozen times.  Israel is a dynamic society of high-achieving hard-working people.  The cliché is that Israelis transformed the desert into a garden.  Every time I visit, I see new roads and new high-rise apartment buildings.  Israel has the most advanced military capability in the Middle East, supported by the $3.8 billion in annual US foreign aid, the most that the US gives to any country.  Israel welcomes Jews to immigrate to Israel, no matter their prior nationality.  There are many expat Americans, Brits, Australians, Russians, and Ethiopians among the largest immigrant groups. 

Unfortunately, Israel suffers from its history, which also affects its relationships with the countries that surround it.  Judaism is the official religion of Israel, which leads to a double-standard in terms of how the laws and customs apply to Jews and the Israeli Arabs.  Wikipedia states that 21.5% of Israel’s population are Arabs, mostly Moslems, though with some Arab Christians and Druze.  The largest problem is in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank (of the Jordan River), which were acquired in the 1967 war with Israel’s Arab neighbors.  The dream of Palestinians for their own independent country (known as the “two-state solution”) seems more unattainable than ever.  I will attempt to outline my evolving thoughts on the plight of the Palestinians.

An artistic wall on the outside wall in Susan's sister's hometown of Rehovot

The Biblical Conflict Between Israelis and Arabs

“The children of Abraham are spoiling their father’s garden.” – spoken to me by an Indian friend

The origin of the conflict between Jews and Arabs is recounted in the bible’s story of Abraham (patriarch of Jews and Arabs) and his wife Sara.  According to the bible, Sara was “barren”, i.e. without child.  She urged Abraham to impregnate his servant Hagar, leading to the birth of Abraham’s first son Ismael.  But then a miracle occurred and Sara became pregnant in her nineties, resulting in the birth of Abraham’s second son, Isaac.  Hagar and Ismael were banished into the desert by Sara.  Ismael is regarded as the father of the desert Arabs.

The Islamic version of this story is that Hagar was Abraham’s wife, rather than his servant.  (Muslims are allowed multiple wives.)  Ismael was the “first-born” and thus by law should inherit the land owned by his father Abraham.  This version of the story is graphically represented in an exhibit in Istanbul’s historic Topkapi museum.  According to Muslims, the story, as told in the Bible and Koran, supports their view that the desert lands of the Middle East, the traditional home of the Arabs, were given by God to the Arabs.  Meanwhile, the traditional Jews believe God promised them the land of Palestine, which encompasses today’s Israel.  This biblical story explains thousands of years of religious conflict that continues unabated today.

Here are just a few of the highrise apartment buildings under construction in Israel. These are in Jerusalem.

Perhaps all people on earth are victims of past history.  But this is especially true in the Middle East.  Jews and Muslims coexisted for centuries (albeit with periodic conflicts).  But the 20th century witnessed a dramatic escalation.  The Zionist movement to establish a Jewish “homeland” has roots in the 19th and early 20th century.  Following the holocaust of World War II which resulted in the murder of six million Jews, the (new) United Nations designated the state of Israel within historical Palestine as a homeland refuge for Jews, particularly the Jewish survivors of Hitler and the war in Europe. 

The establishment of the state of Israel was opposed by the surrounding Arab states, leading to the first Jewish-Islamic war as soon as the new state of Israel was declared.  Horrific massacres occurred on both sides.  Arabs in Israel were encouraged to leave Israel, thus clearing the battlefield for the expected Arab victory.  Instead, the Jews successfully defended their new country.  Half a century later, Arab refugees still live in squalid camps in Lebanon and Jordan, where they have been used as political pawns in the continuing conflicts with Israel. 

The Arab nations surrounding Israel initiated the 1967 Israeli-Arab war when they surprised Israel on the holiday of Yom Kippur.  Israel won that war in six days, acquiring Jerusalem, the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank (of the Jordan River), the Gaza strip, and the Sinai Peninsula.  Israel eventually signed a peace treaty with Egypt which returned the Sinai to Egypt.  Israel also signed a treaty with Jordan which gave Jordan the right to manage Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem (e.g. the Dome of the Rock, which is said to be where Mohamed ascended to heaven).

In 1993, Israeli-Arab negotiations led to the Oslo Accords which outlined a plan to proceed to a “two-state solution” of Israel and a Palestinian state side by side, in which Israel would exercise military control to prevent the Palestinian state from launching attacks on Israel.  East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza were expected to comprise the Palestinian state.  The Oslo Accords were signed following horrific terrorist events, such as the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes, the numerous hijackings by PLO terrorists of airplanes, the 1985 Achille Lauro Italian ship hijacking, etc. 

Unfortunately, though the US and some Israelis retain the hope for the “two-state-solution,” the prospect of an independent Palestinian state appears to me for all intents and purposes to be dead.  I haven’t met any Israelis who currently support the idea.  Half a million rogue Israeli settlers have slowly encroached on Palestinian lands in the West Bank, creating Israeli “facts on the ground” that make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.  Many Palestinians have given up the dream of their own state and want to leave the West Bank.  Israel encourages this emigration. Since Palestinians in the occupied territories are “stateless”, they have no passports and cannot travel freely.   

Israelis refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, the Jewish tribal names that refer to this territory as part of the traditional land promised to Jews by God.  But the Israeli government has hesitated to formally annex this territory, fearing that this “greater Israel” would lose its predominant Jewish character.  Currently, Palestinians do not have the right to vote.  Their plight has been compared with (former) South African apartheid, as encroaching settlers have seized what was previously Palestinian-owned land, even building roads restricted to Jews from which Palestinian traffic is banned.  (Similar exclusive roads were built in colonial India by its British rulers.)

Approaching a minor border checkpoint from the West Bank into Israel

The Current State of Affairs

Here is my view of Israeli politics today.  The new government coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu is dominated by a coalition of extreme right-wing parties who want to suppress the Palestinians more than ever before.  There is a movement to make it easier for West Bank settlers to obtain gun licenses, to “inundate Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria with guns.”  There is a movement to allow the legislature to overrule adverse rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.  The immediate effect would allow Netanyahu’s government coalition to throw out the court cases for bribery and corruption against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  But the more drastic effect would be to prevent the court from protecting the property rights of West Bank Palestinians.  Actually, the Israeli courts have mostly allowed West Bank settlers to seize Palestinian land for their “illegal” settlements, which have mostly been legalized by Israeli courts.  These settlements are deemed illegal by the UN and international law.

Israel has witnessed an increasing number of murders of Jews and Muslims recently.  The Israeli army conducts frequent raids in the West Bank, the home of Palestinians, resulting in 150 Muslim deaths in 2022 and 30 Jewish deaths in revenge killings.  In January 2023, there were already thirty-three Muslim deaths and seven Jewish deaths.  The cycle of revenge violence is accelerating at a rate higher than in recent years.

Typical West Bank residences. Notice the solar-powered water tanks on practically every building.

Recently, a 21-year-old Muslim man killed seven Jewish worshipers in front of a Jerusalem synagogue, in revenge for the Israelis killing nine Palestinians in a recent raid in the West Bank town of Jenin.  The Muslim shooter was killed at the scene.  Afterwards, the Israelis arrested forty family members of the shooter and sealed the family’s house for imminent demolition.  The Israeli government reasons that punishing the family members of a terrorist by arresting them and destroying their homes will serve as a deterrent to other potential terrorists.  The opposing view is that such heavy responses only raise the level of hate and encourage more terrorist revenge acts. 

Punishing an entire family for the actions of one member is against international law, being deemed illegal “collective punishment.”  But Israel does not respect the United Nations because it has been condemned by numerous symbolic votes deeming the taking of land from the proposed Palestinian state to be another form of collective punishment, against international law as applied to occupied territories seized in wars.

Israel has hesitated to formally annex the West Bank due to the fact that making it part of Israel would dilute the dominant Jewish population by Arab Muslims who have a higher birth rate than Jews.  The West Bank is governed by the Israeli military.  There are around six hundred military traffic checkpoints throughout the West Bank that delay and impede the movement of Palestinians.  Some Palestinians, such as nurses, work in Israel.  Transiting the checkpoints into Israel can often take hours.  Severe medical cases in the Palestinian territories are brought to the more advanced hospitals inside Israel.  But delays at the border control points have resulted in acute patients dying in their taxis due to being delayed at the border crossings.  The current trend is an evolving apartheid-like situation where the West Bank Palestinians are forced into ever diminishing territories while having no voting rights within their territories.  The cliché is that Israel must decide whether it prefers to be a democratic state or a purely Jewish one.  Current realities do not allow it to be both. 

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are trending toward starting a third intifada/uprising, a general rebellion.  The previous two intifadas resulted in many deaths on both sides.  But people with nothing to lose but their lives are willing to martyr themselves for their cause.  In what is for me a sick reaction, some Israeli politicians hope there will be another intifada, so that they can “mow the grass,” which means to use Israel’s overwhelming military power to kill many more Palestinians than the Palestinians can kill Israelis.  This has been the sad history of previous outbreaks between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, in which jet planes drop bombs on Palestinian cities that launch crude homemade rockets into Israel.  In past conflicts the number of Palestinian deaths have been ten times as many as Israeli deaths.

Here are two newly constructed highrise apartment buildings one block from my siser-in-law's apartment.

I’m sorry to write such a negative description of the current situation in Israel.  Israelis are very defensive about criticism by people who don’t live in Israel.  I can understand this attitude.  Jews have been historically the most persecuted people in history.  They say that outsiders don’t understand what it’s like to suffer terrorist attacks and to be hated by all of Israel’s neighbors.  Many Arab maps don’t show Israel as existing at all, under their desire to push all Jews “into the sea.”  Since World War II, all Israelis embrace the slogan “Never again!”

If there were an easy solution to this curse of history, somebody wiser and more powerful than I am would have proposed it.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most intractable conflicts in the world today and in history.  Nobody wins in this conflict.  It is even more tragic in my opinion because, as bad as the situation has evolved since the founding of Israel in 1948, it seems that in the near future the situation will likely get worse before it gets better.

Award presented to Susan during the conference

A Hopeful Event

I would like to conclude this blog on a more positive note.  Susan and I attended the tenth conference of Middle East Nurses United in Caring.  This annual conference was conceived by American nursing pioneer Dr. Jean Watson.  She posits that nurses of all nationalities are united because they share their goal of being healers.  Working as nurses to save lives counteracts the typical political differences that divide people.  This year’s conference was in the Palestinian territory near the town of Bethlehem.  We met nurses whom we had met in previous years, as well as new attendees.  Over the years, strong personal and professional relationships have been established among the Israeli and Palestinian nurses. 

Together, they have formed an NGO (an internationally recognized Non-Government Organization) that promotes cooperation and shared trainings between Israeli and Palestinian hospitals.  This coming May, the two leading Israeli and Palestinian nursing representatives will address the United Nations to report on this work. We are proud to be personal friends of these nurse leaders from Israel and Palestine.  The nurses who attend this conference labor under negative peer pressure that condemns them for “collaborating with the enemy.”  They have mostly met “under the radar” in order to avoid the backlash from those who oppose any reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

Middle East Nurses United in Caring

Attending this year’s conference was the first time that Susan and I had ever visited the West Bank.  My prime “takeaway” is that “Palestine”, the nation of Arabs living within the territories controlled by Israel, is its own country with its distinct society, regardless of whether Israel recognizes it or not.  Wikipedia lists 4.43 million Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.  They have no place to go beyond where they currently live.  I hope that Israeli society can face the reality that continuing oppressive military control will only continue to cause great damage to both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Israeli cuisine: Great fruits, vegetables, and spices in the Rehovot souk (market).

Winter vegetables and fruits
Dried fruits
Olive Heaven
Halva (sesame) deserts

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