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Prisms of Enlightenment: Understanding Palestinian humanity and agency is key toward resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict

Author Marda Dunsky writes that since Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience was first published in 2021, facts on the ground in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip between Israelis and Palestinians have brought more of the same—only worse. But a flurry of recent developments in the region offers glimmers of hope.

Stories from Palestine puts voices of Palestinians speaking about their everyday productive and creative pursuits at the forefront, interweaving their narratives of lived experience with historical background and contemporary data to contextualize and represent Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.

Superficially, the events in and around the Palestinian town of Huwara on Feb. 26, 2023, typified the bloodstained call-and-response of the Israeli occupation. Four days earlier, the Israeli army had raided the nearby West Bank city of Nablus and killed 11 Palestinians. Four days after that, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israeli settlers as they drove through Huwara.

But the Israeli response that followed, which made headlines around the world, was different in degree if not essence. Mobs of Israeli settlers went on a five-hour rampage, attacking Huwara and nearby villages. They threatened the lives of Palestinians with guns, with Molotov cocktails and burning tires, and with knives and stones, killing one Palestinian and injuring approximately 100. With what the New York Times reported as “systematic ferocity,” they burned and vandalized at least 200 buildings and scores of vehicles while Israeli soldiers stood idly by.

Dubbing the attacks a “pogrom,” an editorial by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a resident of Huwara who said many Palestinians ran out of their homes “for fear of being burned alive.” Haaretz quoted a member of the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, from a centrist party who said, “Make no mistake about the identity of the rioters. These aren’t people who went crazy, they are backed by politicians.”

Since April 2019 Israel has held five elections, most recently in November 2022, due to unsustainable governing coalitions. The elections have bolstered the power of ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious political parties, in the process intensifying the danger faced by Palestinians living under occupation. 

A video captured in Huwara on the day of the settler rampage showed “a crowd of Jewish settlers [who] stood in prayer as they stared at a building in flames,” the Associated Press reported. “And earlier, a prominent Israeli Cabinet minister and settler leader had called for Israel to strike ‘without mercy.’”

The Dynamics of Occupation

May 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence and what for Palestinians is the nakba, or tragedy of their lost patrimony in Palestine, where they comprised a two-thirds majority prior to May 1948. June 2023 marked the 56th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. Including Israel’s continuously expanding settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and its annexation of the Golan, the occupation is considered illegal according to international law and consensus. 

But the occupation continues, a continually exploding tinderbox with Huwara only one of many recent manifestations to attract global media attention. In 2021 the Israeli military repeatedly raided the Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, attacking Palestinian worshippers with live ammunition. Nearby, Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem neighborhoods including Sheikh Jarrah protested—and they continue to resist—expulsion from their homes. Retaliatory Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza reportedly killed at least three Israelis; Israeli airstrikes killed dozens of Palestinians in Gaza. In 2022 the killing by an Israeli sniper of Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh as she was reporting from the West Bank reverberated around the world, with live footage showing Israeli police attacking her funeral procession in east Jerusalem. 

For decades, mainstream media reporting of this entrenched conflict has focused on violence and geopolitics, even as more space has opened for Palestinian voices to be heard and considered via reporting by news outlets and international human-rights organizations. Since 2021 the Israeli rights group B’tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations “Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967” have all equated the Israeli occupation with apartheid.   

What often gets lesser attention in the telling, though, is the individual and collective agency exercised by the 5 million Palestinians living in villages, towns, cities and refugee camps across the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Theirs are also stories of scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, writers, farmers, and curators of Palestinian community and culture who are pushing forward in their daily lives under the extraordinary circumstances of occupation. 

Like humanity around the world, of which they are a part, Palestinians strive to express themselves, to create, to produce, to excel. As Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience aims to show, they continue to confront the occupation by doing just that.

Glimmers of Hope

The United States celebrated its emergence at the end of the Cold War three decades ago as the world’s sole superpower, declaring a “new world order” informed by a pax Americana. But it has failed to bring peace to the Middle East and its environs, instead engaging in long-term military regime-change wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

U.S.-brokered bilateral peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2014, with successive Israeli governments moving continually to the right over the decade since. On July 24, in spite of months of widespread popular protest, the Knesset passed a bill to overhaul the judiciary, the first step in limiting the power of the Supreme Court to overturn government actions and appointments it deems “unreasonable.” 

Even as these undemocratic trends and dynamics of the occupation intensify, the U.S. continues to empower Israel militarily and shield it diplomatically, and the Biden administration continues the U.S. push for normalization between Israel and Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia

However, a flurry of recent developments in the region hints at prospects for rebalancing modalities and prospects for peace. 

With China rising and Russia resurgent, today the United States finds its former position of dominance in the region challenged if not compromised. China, which since 2013 has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure development across the Global South, has made significant political inroads as well, brokering a landmark reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. In June Iran announced plans to establish a regional naval alliance with Saudi Arabia that would include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Iraq as well as India and Pakistan, reportedly in coordination with China

Saudi Arabia, a key strategic U.S. ally in the region, is poised to lead the Arab world, bolstered by the kingdom’s liberalizing domestic social reforms and the readiness of new would-be allies to collaborate on economic and development projects. In June Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan signaled to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken not only that the kingdom no longer considers the longtime alliance to be the only game in town, but also its support for the Palestinian cause.

While Saudi Arabia is seeking U.S. aid to develop its nuclear program, Bin Farhan said, “there are others that are bidding.” He also rebuffed U.S. pressure to normalize relations with Israel, saying it would have only “limited benefits” without first “finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people.” Time will tell whether and to what degree Saudi resolve will hold up.

The Power of Empathy

“This is the tax for living in Palestine,” Ammar Damedi, 37, a gold trader in Huwara, told the New York Times after the February attacks, his arm in a sling after being injured by a stone thrown by a settler. The Times report continued:

His own compound was testament to the violence. Settlers smashed most of its windows, burned several cars, and stole electronic equipment and perfume before setting a guesthouse ablaze. Children had to take shelter in a bathroom for several hours, family members said. The family cat was burned alive, they said.

… The Damedis recounted how four generations of the family had taken shelter in bathrooms and bedrooms to avoid stones being thrown through their windows by settlers. But worse is to come, predicted Jamelah Damedi, 59, Ammar’s mother.

“You haven’t seen anything yet.” 

The Times report on Huwara evokes sympathy for its Palestinian interlocutors. But like most media reporting of the conflict, it focuses on Palestinians who seem to be mired in a landscape of constant oppression and suffering.

Sympathy requires the emotional capacity to understand what other people feel and to see things from their point of view. Empathy goes a step further and requires the capacity to imagine oneself in the shoes of others. But how can readers and viewers who haven’t experienced daily indignities of racism, disenfranchisement and oppression consume news about international conflicts with empathy? 

And how can peace be made if policy makers do not have empathy for those who are engaged in conflict—especially those on the weaker side of a power imbalance deliberately engineered by a third party, to which the policy makers belong?

While reporting and writing Stories from Palestine, I was constantly reminded of my own privilege and humbled by the challenge of trying to imagine myself experiencing the circumstances that Palestinians so patiently and graciously shared about their lives with me.

I heard many powerful stories. I realized that I was experiencing a defining moment when Areej Al-Madhoun, a computer and electrical engineering student who sat for four interviews with me remotely from her home in the Gaza Strip, told me:

You get a call that tells you your best friend has died. Your school is not there anymore. Your family are not well. When I leave my home, I don’t know what the situation around us will be.

But I still bring my books, my laptop. I study, I work hard, because I have a dream. If you are under war, do you focus on your dreams? Or think about if there is any chance for having a better life?

And each time I feel what an unfair world this is, I say that there’s no problem, keep doing well, you can do it.

And I just might tell myself that I am Palestinian.” 

Through Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience, I hope that readers may find their own such defining moments toward new ways of seeing and understanding the Israel-Palestine conflict.

View the video slideshow about Stories from Palestine here.

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