11/20/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's Your Occupation?

While the Holy Land's troubles are no joking matter, sometimes a little humor can help defuse the tension. I couldn't help but chuckle at this joke: An Israeli diplomat, when filling out the customs form upon entry in the USA, misunderstood one of the questions, Where it said "Occupation?", he wrote, "No, just visiting."

Israel needs to protect itself. That's obvious and understandable. And there's a terrible history of terrorists, desperate extremists who will die to kill, and countries that swear they will not rest until Israel is pushed into the sea.

At the same time, one thing that virtually all visitors to Israel and Palestine eventually grapple with is the irony of Jewish people who were so cruelly treated through history -- and especially during the horror of the Holocaust -- now playing the strongman.

As observers from a distance, we can't really get an honest picture of the reality here. I might see a news clip of Palestinians destroying a synagogue. It looks so hateful. And then I learn that during a land swap, Israel agreed to give back land upon which they had built a luxurious modern settlement. And, before retreating, they destroyed every building in the settlement except the synagogue. When hardscrabble Palestinians, so poor and needy, walked into their land, they saw only rubble except for one building -- and they got mad and destroyed it. It's ugly both ways.

Today, I sense a commitment among Palestinians to grow beyond violence. (They really have no choice.) In fact, the main job of Palestinian security forces is to support the Israeli forces in keeping angry, pent-up teenagers calm and out of Israeli prisons.

On the other side, among Israelis I met in Palestine (mostly security forces), I noticed a kind of occupier's vengeance. It's something most Israelis would not condone, but it's done in their name nevertheless.

Israelis believe Palestinian children are taught in school to hate Jews. And Palestinians believe Jewish children are taught to hate them. I asked a Palestinian if schoolbooks teach children to hate Jews. He said, "As a parent raising my family under Jewish occupation, it's my challenge to teach our children not to hate Jews." I hadn't considered that angle. But just being a tourist here for a week, I can understand the toll it must take on any "love thy neighbor" person to live in a land where they say, "Mere existence is resistance."

While edgy political art is commonplace here, I was particularly struck by this mural (in Bethlehem) of a little Palestinian girl shaking down an Israeli soldier. It was only later that I learned it was by the famous British street artist Banksy.

I'll continue this Holy Land series until tomorrow. Then, to celebrate my homecoming, I'll give a live, free slideshow lecture on Thursday, November 21st at 7 p.m. P.S.T. in Edmonds, Washington. You can attend in person (registration required)...or watch the live webcast from anywhere in the world (no registration required). Learn more at Rick Steves - Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today.