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My Middle East Vacation

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I just returned from two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I also walked about 20 feet into Lebanon behind a convoy of Caterpillar D9s and artillery. This was my second trip to the region and it was much less assuring than the first, which was also at a bad time - August, 2001 - the height of the second Intifada. More than ever there is a failure among Israelis and Palestinians to think in terms of solutions, to take the fear and anger of the other side into account, and to take responsibility for their own actions. Both sides feel they are the victims. The problem with being a victim is one can use it to justify almost any action and at the same time no responsibility needs to be taken.

Before I even left I interviewed a human rights worker from Ramallah. She told me not to bother with the Israeli side. Her basic idea was that the Israelis didn't have a side because their suffering was irrelevant in comparison to the Lebanese and the Palestinians. This is one of the first lines of defense for Palestinian activists who aren't really looking for a solution. They dismiss Israeli complaints as immaterial. They insist that Israelis aren't suffering. But they are.

I spent four days in the north of Israel, visited the cities of Safed and Kiryat Shmona, two of the most heavily bombed cities in Israel. Both are basically deserted. The people that were left, less than ten percent of the population, talked only about fear. A man in Safed said I was playing "Russian Roulette" walking down the street, even though the bombing in Safed has killed only one person. The people that have stayed all talk about close calls, near misses, they talk about never knowing when the next missile will come or where it will land. They talk about being surrounded by people who want to push them into the sea. They sleep in bomb shelters at night. And they are angry. Anybody that dismisses this fear and anger among Israelis is missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle because it is the catalyst for Israeli military action, disproportionate or not.

Many Isrealis also feel cheated by concessions they have made in the past, particularly the full withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 (don't tell me Shaaba Farms is part of Lebanon, it is not). That withdrawal was unilateral with no concessions demanded of the other side. Non-the-less Hizzbulah continues to attack and harass Israel saying that Israel still controls part of Lebanon despite the fact that the UN has declared that piece of land, Shaaba Farms (AKA 3 acres and a goat) part of Syria.

I was shocked in Gaza when interviewing the Gazan head of a major UN organization (his counter-part was back in Scotland, everyone with a passport has left Gaza). He referred to the Qassam rockets launched by Hamas toward Israel as "firecrackers". It's true that they are tiny compared to the artillery barrage unleashed on Gaza but they are still responsible for eight deaths. They are not firecrackers, the are provocations and the people that launch them have a responsibility and the government of Gaza, controlled by Hamas, has a responsibility to stop the firing of Qassam rockets, also by Hamas.

The Israelis I spoke to were just as bad when characterizing the Arabs. Over and over I heard "The Arabs only understand force." But this has been proven false, particularly in Gaza where there is only six to eight hours of electricity a day. Where more than half the population relies on the UN for shelter and food. There are 1.4 million people in Gaza, the most densely populated area on earth, an area twenty-eight miles long surrounded by an electrical fence. They are citizens of no country. Israel controls all access into and out of Gaza. People who are dying are not being allowed into Egypt for medical care. There is no import/export. All borders are closed. The Gazans are bombed continuously. The Isrealis destroy their homes, sometimes for punitive reasons but usually for strategic reasons. None of this has done anything to stop Gazans from launching their little rockets at Israel. Clearly, the Arabs are not understanding force. Israel's policy of anger and retribution toward Gaza is a failure by every practical measure. It's a policy of retribution that has little to do with military success or the return of the kidnapped soldier, Cpl. Shalit.

Any real solution between Israel and Palestine and Lebanon is going to have to address real grievances on both sides and these are grievances that protesters in America should also consider. Anyone who really cares about Lebanon should also prefer that Hizzbullah be disarmed, there is no place for their militant fundamentalist state within a state. I'd like to see signs that said, "Israel and Syria out of Lebanon!"

Similarly I'd like to see Pro-Israeli groups take a stand against the "Security Barrier" which has already devastated the Palestinian economy even further and is much less about security and much more about stealing land in the West Bank and creating new facts on the ground, the main result being the non-viability of the Palestinian state.

At the same time, if you seek the establishment of a Palestinian state but don't accept Israel has a right to exist then you should know that when you look in the mirror you are seeing someone who is not truly interested in peace. Because peace requires compromise on both sides. If you demonize an entire population, ie: Arabs only understand force. Israelis are opportunists. then you are not looking for a solution. People kept telling me that Israel should never have been formed, that they had no right to a state in the Middle East. If you think there can be peace without recognition of Israel then you are delusional at best.

And I think there are good solutions out there, for example a Mid-East Economic Union. That may be a distant dream right now but it's the kind of thing we could move toward if we could recognize the fear, anger, and basic humanity of both sides. But first we'll have to move away from blame and start talking about what is possible. We have to recognize that even though the damage may not be proportional the fear and anger is probably much closer to equal. Each side needs to take a look inside and see what they are willing to give.

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Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, most recently My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up