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'Don't talk about us without us': Two activists - one Israeli and one Palestinian - share their perspective on the conflict

Activists Anna Garbar and Rawan Odeh speak to journalist Hannah McCarthy.

Anna, left is an Israeli activist and Rawan is a Palestinian activist.
Anna, left is an Israeli activist and Rawan is a Palestinian activist.
Image: Hannah McCarthy

THE LONG-RUNNING CONFLICT between Israel and Palestine has erupted once again with devastating consequences for people in the region.

At least 200 Palestinians and 10 Israelis have been killed, according to authorities in Israel and Gaza.

Years of mounting tensions over illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory came to the fore when settlers attempted to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Sheik Jarrah in East Jerusalem earlier this month.

Israel security forces then deployed military-style tactics including stun grenades and rubber bullets against Palestinians celebrating Ramadan at the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

After Israeli forces failed to withdraw from East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, Hamas, the Islamist group which has governed Gaza since 2007, launched rocket attacks into Israeli territory. Israel has responded with extensive airstrikes on Gaza.

Anna Garbar and Rawan Odeh are the co-directors of New Story Leadership (NSL), a charity based in Washington DC that develops young Israeli and Palestinian leaders and ensures that their perspectives are heard by policymakers in the United States.

In this interview, Anna, an Israeli, and Rawan, a Palestinian-American, share their perspectives with TheJournal on the recent violence in East Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as the many misconceptions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Are you surprised by the recent outbreak of violence?

RO: It’s sad to say that I’m not surprised. People in civil society groups have seen this coming for a long time due to the Israeli government’s ongoing policies against the Palestinian people, particularly in East Jerusalem. It’s not one incident or one policy but a series of events that has led to this escalation. I believe this time around it was provoked by Israeli policies.

AG: I’m not surprised. Many people have seen this as a dormant conflict and that something has suddenly happened but for us, it has always been there. It’s an escalation but we feel it every day.

RO: This situation is very different though – it’s not the usual “Hamas-Israel fire a few rounds of rocket fire and then there’s a ceasefire”.

We are seeing an unprecedented time where Arab citizens of Israel are being lynched in the streets. We are seeing synagogues and mosques being lit on fire. It’s looking more like a civil war and that’s really scary and different.

Part of why it’s different is that people are calling for peace, but we were never at peace. The peace that the international community and the United States are calling for sounds a lot like keeping the status quo of the Occupation; that means discrimination against East Jerusalemites and the evictions from their homes, the blockade in Gaza and Palestinian citizens being treated as second class citizens. For real peace to come, we need to address the structural imbalances that exist.

Israeli settlers claiming the homes of Palestinians in Sheik Jarrah fuelled part of the most recent outbreak of violence. Could you explain how these settlers are viewed by Israeli and Palestinian communities?

AG: There are different types of settlers but the settlers who are causing the really big issues are the ideological ones. They know that they are going outside of Israeli borders and they choose to do so because they believe that the land belongs to them. They don’t care about Israeli law or about the Israeli government, but they are willing to do anything to get the land that they believe is theirs and defend it.

The Israelis who choose to live within Israel’s border have a problem with that because they make a choice to live within Israel and follow the law. Settlers are breaking Israeli law by living outside of the borders but, for some reason, we choose to protect them at any cost. As an Israeli, that bothers me.

Why are their lives more important than mine? Israelis are hurt now because of something that was instigated by settlers, so that is really infuriating to me as an Israeli.

RO: I myself am from Area C of the West Bank in Palestine. When I lived there my family had to deal with settler violence on a daily basis. For Palestinians, we see settlements as an impediment to our statehood and as an impediment to our sovereignty.

Often, the justification for the occupation of our people is the protection of a select group of ideological settlers.

What was really dangerous with the Trump administration’s policy on settlements in the last few years was the blurred lines on them being illegal. As a result, we haven’t really seen the Biden administration come out against the illegal settler movement.

To Palestinians, we are seeing our land being taken away and any possibility of statehood being taken away. It is really confusing because we see the European Union and the United States promoting the two-state solution when the very obstacle that is not allowing that to happen is being ignored.

What do you find are common misconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

AG: When the conflict escalates, there is often a conversation about violence on both sides. And it is true to an extent that there is violence on both sides, but Israelis have shelters, Palestinians do not. Israel has heavy military power, Palestine does not. The two positions are not comparable.

In Israeli society, there is a tendency to overexplain and say: “we must defend ourselves” and “when we attack, we always tell them to leave the house,” but where would the Palestinians go? And because they left, they have no home now. So, you can condemn violence on both sides, but you have to recognise the power imbalance.

RO: Often when we talk about Palestine and Israel, the majority of Palestinians, Israelis and peace activists condemn violence. Gazans should not be bombed, most of them are civilians living their lives.

But what we do when we talk about Gaza is that we fail to recognise that there are two million people there – children, women, and families – who are sick and tired of the siege.

When Hamas isn’t launching rockets, everyone ignores that it is a humanitarian crisis; that it has been a decade of Gazans not being able to leave and having less than 1% drinkable water and no electricity. These conditions need to be improved and a lot of the Israeli policies are preventing those from being resolved.

When you push a people into a corner where they can’t breathe, they can’t leave, they don’t have electricity, they don’t have jobs, what’s the response? How can Palestinians defend themselves? That’s something that I ask everyone to think about.

What’s Israel’s responsibility with the power that they have? Lives are being lost and [the Israeli Defence Minister] Benny Gantz is saying that he is going to put “long term quiet” in Gaza and I’m unsure that firing rockets is the right way to achieve that.

In their statements condemning the recent violence, many political leaders have prefaced their condemnations with a statement that they don’t support Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States. What’s your view on this language and Hamas generally?

RO: I don’t believe in Hamas’s tactics. I think that both Hamas and the Israeli government are using this as an opportunity for political gain. I don’t think the end game is for both sides is to reach a sustainable and just position.

For many Palestinians, especially those who are facing forced evictions in Sheik Jarrah and those who are being lynched by settlers in Israel and are experiencing Israeli brutality in the West Bank, they don’t feel like they have someone to go to. Who do they go to and say: “our lives matter?” Who do they go to and demand justice? The Palestinian Authority doesn’t have that credibility and the danger for Palestinian society is if Hamas is the only one that they see taking a stand.

It’s up to the international community to take a stand and say: “yes your lives matter and you have a right to live in peace and security,” so that we don’t breed the type of extremism that we’ve seen on both sides.

AG: It’s very difficult to have a conversation when you are always expected to start with statements like ‘Hamas is doing something that is not ok’ and ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’. Like, of course, but why do I need to start with that in order to make sure that everyone else is listening to the rest of the sentence? We can’t have a real conversation about the problem when we have to stick to these scripted talking points that were expected to always say.

RO: The frustration that I’m hearing from Anna, I see it on my side. If politicians that came out against the violence in the US Congress and in the European Union only started talking about the violence the minute Hamas started firing rockets, they already started three steps down from when the violence actually began and escalated.

We have to start at the core, and the core begins with a people that have been oppressed for over 70 years by occupation while the world has turned a blind eye and said that the two-state solution is coming come. But it hasn’t yet and as a result, it has created an influx of violence.

We can’t begin the condemnation of violence three steps ahead; we have to start at the core: Palestinian families in East Jerusalem facing eviction because of a Jewish American organisation that wanted to use a loophole in Israeli law to give a group of settlers the homes of these families.

Under international law, East Jerusalem is not recognised as sovereign or as part of Israel. Who do we go to demand our rights?

The United States plays an influential role in the politics of the Middle East. How do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perceived by politicians in the United States?

RO: There is not enough contact between the people on the ground and the politicians in the United States. NSL has coordinated meetings with Senators and Congressmen next week to make sure their hearing directly from Israeli and Palestinian activists experiencing the rockets, the arrests and the police brutality.

Most of the information also comes from lobby groups which are often not representative of the region and that is precisely the problem we are trying to fix. We always say: “don’t talk about us without us.”

US Congressional members need a lot more interaction with people who are experiencing the violence and there is a huge opportunity now for the United States to take a stance against violence and injustice.

AG: A lot of times a group from Congress will listen to Jewish American groups but will rarely ask Israelis for their views.

Many Jewish Americans have very strong ideas about what should happen in the region, but they don’t experience the conflict. To me as an Israeli that is a problem as they are making a decision for me as an Israeli without experiencing what I experience.

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And then when they have a platform, they don’t highlight that distinction and speak as if they are Israelis. Their message then can become quite misleading and inaccurate.

In your view, why does the United States tend to adopt a pro-Israel stance in relation to the conflict?

RO: There is a lot of history behind it, but one reason is which group is represented and has access.

Under the Trump administration, the Palestinian Representative Office in Washington DC was closed. When Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinian consulate, which was the communication channel between Palestinians and the United States, shut down. When you don’t have a channel, you’re not really hearing directly from the people on the ground and the government about what’s going around

There’s also the question of organising and lobbying. The Palestinian government has been very weak in its diplomatic efforts. The Arab and Muslim populations in the United States have not been extensively mobilising and organising in the same way that the Jewish American population have been for Israel.

Lobbying groups play a huge role; they are on Capitol Hill every single day advocating for a strong US-Israel relationship (I’m referencing AIPAC in this case) and there is no Palestinian counterpart to this at all.

In fact, I would dare to say that the only organisation that brings Israelis and Palestinians specifically to Capitol Hill is we at NSL. Otherwise, there just isn’t an entity or forum for that.

What can other countries do to help bring an end to the violence?

RO: As a Palestinian American woman, I want to offer my gratitude and appreciation for the Irish government in terms of the stances it has already taken with justice and a just peace.

I would urge Ireland and members of the European Union to really take a stance on Israel and Palestine from a human rights perspective, that’s really been missing from the conversation. There is a lot of taboo around it but Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have to be held accountable in term of human rights. When we look at it from that perspective, it’s no longer taking a side, it’s taking the side of human rights and that’s what’s missing.

I know Ireland, France, Germany and Sweden say they stand for human rights but when it comes to our conflict, that becomes a contentious thing.

AG: Try to avoid statements like “I stand with Israel” or “I stand with Palestine”. If you really care about the people in the region you shouldn’t choose a side, you should think about how to find a solution for them.

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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Hannah McCarthy

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