Trapped by multiple narratives
OpinionGuest Columnist

Trapped by multiple narratives

Reflections from a recent trip to Israel

Laptop, Computer, Desktop PC, Human Hand, Office / soft focus picture / Vintage concept
Laptop, Computer, Desktop PC, Human Hand, Office / soft focus picture / Vintage concept

We recently visited Israel, accompanying four members of Congress — Jan Schakowsky (Illinois), Peter Welch (Vermont), Andy Levin (Michigan) and Deborah Halland (New Mexico) — and 11 J Street leaders. Our goal was to see and hear a wide range of views on the political relationships between Israelis and Palestinians.

We did not visit historical, cultural and artistic sites except insofar as they shed light on the current political relationships between Israel and the Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We visited Yad Vashem and the Yitzhak Rabin museum to remind us and further educate us on the history of Israel and its origins in the Holocaust. We met settlers, leading Knesset members on the right and left, Palestinian Authority leaders, representatives from the Israeli Defense Forces, past members of security organizations Shin Bet and Mossad, leaders from NGOs from Israel and the Palestinian areas, and our current U.S. Ambassador, David Friedman. Most of us had visited Israel many times before.

The words we heard most frequently were not “peace,” “security,” “occupation” or “two states for two peoples.” The most frequently heard word was “narrative.” Every group and every occasion had a narrative. What do we mean by narrative? Everyone has their own unique view of the situation they face, guided by the history of their situation as they tell it. Hence, narrative. In our current times, narratives become valid accountings for those telling their story. All “facts” are viewed through a narrative lens.

Some narratives we heard: Palestinians are terrorists. Palestinians are freedom fighters. The West Bank is Judea and Samaria is Areas A, B and C. Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria are realizing the historical Jewish relation to Israel. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are taking lands that have been in Palestinian families for hundreds of years. These lands are seized by occupiers. These lands are taken lawfully. Palestinian villages have no access to water because they have not properly applied for a permit. These villagers are being driven from their homeland.

Sadly, we are trapped by multiple narratives.

The many people we met, on all sides (there are not two sides; rather there are as many sides as there are narratives) are captive to these narratives. We would like to step back, set aside the narratives and focus only on what we saw and can agree that we see. Just the facts on the ground.
We visited the city of Hebron in the West Bank-Jude
a and Samaria-Area C. The city is divided, with one section exclusively inhabited by Israelis. It is completely separated by soldiers, barbed wire and other modern military methods from the other sectors of Hebron, inhabited by Palestinians. The Palestinian residents who had previously lived close to the Israeli residents were moved to other Palestinian sections of Hebron. There are a significant number of Israeli soldiers patrolling the area to maintain separation, eliminate hostilities and keep the situation nonviolent. Each side tells a complex, aggrieved narrative about what happened in Hebron in the 1990s that resulted in the current set of arrangements. But the facts on the ground in the moment are clear: Two groups are kept separated by physical and military means from each other.

Between 200 and 1,200 Israelis reside in roughly 20% of the city and roughly 200,000 Palestinian Hebron residents live in the remaining 80% of the city. All movement into and out of Hebron requires movement through checkpoints with permits. One’s lawful movement is dictated by one’s status. Palestinian Hebron residents are governed by Palestinian Authority law and Israeli military law, while the Israeli residents are under Israeli civil law. Same space, different status. Those are the facts on the ground since 1994.

We visited a small village called Susiya in the West Bank-Judea and Samaria-Area C. The villagers are historically (since at least since Biblical times) known as “cave dwellers.” They live in caves sometimes and at other times on their land. No matter where they want to stay, Susiya villagers have to receive permits from the Israeli military to stay there or receive water. On the day we visited, we watched as a waterline was being excavated 100 yards from their homes, to which they do not have access. Susiya will need a permit from the Israeli Water Authority for a connection to available water.

There are now separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians, resulting in two separate highway systems in Judea and Samaria-the West Bank-Area C. There are checkpoints throughout. Israelis and Palestinians are governed by different laws and rules.
We were a few miles outside Gaza at an Israeli moshav (a cooperative town) and every house has a safe space they can access within seven seconds if there are rockets flying overhead from Gaza. Rockets flew overhead three days after our visit.

The IDF maintains security in the West Bank-Judea and Samaria-Area C using walls and fences, checkpoints, travel restrictions. They enter Palestinians’ homes at night. This is a publicly stated IDF security policy. No Palestinian can enter Israeli towns/settlements without a permit.

While in Susiya, Rep. Andy Levin tweeted about the water situation, wondering aloud why they could not get water in Susiya when water was being delivered to nearby houses. Levin was inundated by tweets, reflecting all the narratives we have studiously avoided here. He became popular/vilified very quickly as the Twitter onslaught began. The narrative arrows and plaudits came flying from many directions, including from the Israeli administrative authority COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) responsible for the West Bank. COGAT said: “We were surprised to read @AndyLevin‘s tweet. The pipe is part of a major water infrastructure project for the region and will serve all populations in the area, mainly the Palestinians. We regret that your hosts mislead you and misrepresented the situation.’’ No one tweeted, including COGAT, that if for whatever reason there is no water for these people, something should be done to address their basic human need for water.

In these several examples, we present the facts on the ground we and the members of Congress saw. In Hebron, Israelis and Palestinians live in radically different circumstances with far different resources and security arrangements. In Susiya, Palestinians simply can not get access to water. Near Gaza, rockets fly overhead and everyone has built a safe space in the event of rockets from Gaza. If you ask what is happening here and elsewhere, you plunge into a world of competing narratives. But in all these cases, the facts are clear.

For all of us, these facts were difficult to grapple with emotionally. Whatever your narrative, the facts are challenging.

It is hard enough to change facts; it seems to be much harder to change narratives. Whatever the narrative, we must engage with these facts. People are living next to each other completely separated from each other. Maybe when we truly engage with the facts and strip away the narratives, there may be some hope of creating a common and better narrative. With that, maybe the facts can change for all for the better. pjc

Mark Fichman is an emeritus associate professor of business at Carnegie Mellon University and is active in J Street Pittsburgh. Ruth Fauman-Fichman is an anthropological archaeologist who is currently an interpreter at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.