Listening to Palestinians

12/14/2010 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Now that the Obama administration's efforts to reach an agreement between Israel and Palestine are finally moribund, it is worth stepping back to ask what is really going on in this troubled part of the world. Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires not only a grasp of cold facts and statistics, but an understanding of the daily experience of the real people who live on each side. American news media heavily emphasize Israeli perspectives, but provide few opportunities to hear directly from Palestinians. To help counter this imbalance, I am posting video clips of some of the Palestinians I spoke with on a recent trip.

I begin with Joyce Ajlouny, who gave me a tour around Ramallah one morning. Joyce is the head of the Ramallah Friends School, a renowned K-12 coed Quaker school established in the 1800s. Her family is one of the original seven Christian clans that established Ramallah in the 1600s. Joyce's stories about her life were so riveting that I pulled out my camera, put it in video mode, and kept filming as she talked. Joyce was speaking informally and candidly just to me, but later I got her permission to share this video with a wider audience.

What does occupation mean?

I asked Joyce what living under occupation meant in terms of her daily life. In this clip, she begins by describing her early experiences of life under occupation (her brother being beaten up, her husband detained by soldiers in the middle of the night, her friend shot), and ends with a discussion of how the situation has changed since the Oslo accords of 1993 (Palestinians now control their educational system, but confiscation of water resources and land continue). Terraced hillside, olive trees, and new construction on the outskirts of Ramallah can be seen out the window as she talks:

What does Israeli settlement building mean?

The centerpiece of the Israeli occupation is the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. These settlements are connected to Israel proper by a network of roads cutting through the West Bank--that only Israelis are allowed to drive on. Joyce pulled over at one vantage point outside Ramallah to show me a settler-only road (visible in the valley in the clip), the Israeli settlement of Dolev (on the upper hillside to the right; the further one to its left is Talmon), and a large agricultural area that is controlled by the settlement, all built on confiscated Palestinian land. Across the valley on the ridge at the left you can see the Palestinian village of Al-Janiya, one of the oldest villages in the Ramallah district, with historical ruins dating back to the Romans.

What are Palestinian refugee camps; how did they come to be, and what are they like today?

During the 1948 Israeli war of Independence, which Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "catastrophe," over 700,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel, and never allowed back ( These refugees moved to camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding countries, where many of their descendants still live today. Sixty-two years after the Nakba, these people have become the largest and oldest refugee community in the world (7 million worldwide). Am'ari is one such camp in the West Bank, just outside Ramallah. Am'ari's original tents were erected in 1949 and later replaced by cement block shelters, and still later by multistory buildings as families had nowhere to build but up. Whole families of ten or more often live in a single room. The camp is administered by "UNRWA," the UN refugee agency. Here is Am'ari:

We spoke with some kids in the camp:

Detentions without charge or trial

I spent a day visiting Birzeit University near Ramallah, one of the best universities in Palestine. Faculty members described trying to run lab courses when the Israeli authorities would not allow the most standard lab equipment to be shipped to them. Birzeit students are routinely picked up by the Israeli army in the middle of the night and held under 'administrative detention," that is, without charge or trial, for periods of months to years. (For more information and statistics on Israel's administrative detentions, see the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem: Israel justifies these detentions in terms of "security." Who then are the people detained? I asked Fardous Salameh, a recent graduate of Birzeit, if it is students suspected of having ties to Hamas who are detained. Her answer:

Hebron: seizures of land, obstruction of daily life.

Sofia Hasan, a fourth-year student of economics at Birzeit, described the situation in her home town, a village just outside Hebron in the south of the West Bank, where her grandfather lost all his land because it was near a settlement, and where the main street of the village was closed for 15 years to protect one settler who had a small piece of agricultural land in the village:

Some of my colleagues and I took a tour of Hebron. Our Palestinian guide showed us the house he was born in, and the location of his father's shop (next door) in the center of the old city of Hebron. Once a bustling and vibrant commercial center, the entire area is now boarded up and nearly empty, closed by Israeli military order. Today a few hundred settlers live in Hebron, protected by thousands of Israeli soldiers, and the Palestinians who remain are ensnared in a web checkpoints, closures, curfews, and roadblocks. Our guide referred to this regime as a "transfer policy, to make life harder and harder so the Palestinians will plan their future outside this area. Maybe now you can stay," he mused. "But your children? You will plan a future for them outside this area."

Are these policies really in the service of Israeli security?

Israel argues that most of its occupation policies are necessary for security. But many Palestinians, like our guide in Hebron, believe that the real purpose of these policies is not to enhance the security of Israeli, but rather to convince Palestinians to leave. Joyce makes this point at the end of the first clip, above, which is worth replaying:

What are Palestinians telling us?

Although these clips represent just a small sample of Palestinian society, a clear message nonetheless emerges. The Israeli occupation remains a salient part of the texture of everyday life, even in relatively privileged parts of the West Bank, where Palestinians endure countless humiliations and roadblocks (literal and figurative). Israel argues that the occupation is necessary for its security. But Israel can only attain lasting security by making peace with Palestinians. And the first steps toward peace must surely include an end to land seizures, arbitrary restrictions of movement, and imprisonments without charge.