“I’m 32 years old. I live with the woman I love and we can go anywhere we want to. We have freedom to express what we think and feel. In Israel, sometimes we take many of these simple things for granted,” said Adam Aloni, researcher at B’Tselem, an Israeli Human Rights organization.
The setting is Bozar, Center for Fine Arts, and the context is a panel discussion on the Six-Day War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank by the Israeli army: June 2017 marks fifty years since those events took place. Over the course of three evenings, writers, human rights activists and politicians from Europe, Israel and Palestine would remark significance of these 50 years, as well as its implications: on June 5th in Ghent (Vooruit); on 6 June in Brussels (BOZAR) and on June 7th in Antwerp (Elcker-Ik).
Aloni put the situation in the West Bank in context, with the three types of regions defined after the Six-Day War: areas A and B, which are densely populated areas and reside under formal control by the Palestinian Authority. These two areas are surrounded by area C, which is under full Israeli military control. Area C is about 60% of the West Bank and it surrounds all of areas A and B, which in the final instance, is controlled by Israel.
“The Likud government is controlling everything,” said Issa Amro, a Palestinian Human Rights activist and co-founder of Youth Against Settlements, a non-violent protest movement. “They even want to control what Palestinians say, what everyone in the world says about the occupation.” Though the occupation debate has mainly focused on the West Bank, Aloni chose to talk about Gaza. “In practice, due to the blockade there’s no source of drinking water there,” said Aloni. “A U.N. report shows that we’re heading for a humanitarian disaster, and by 2020 Gaza will not be livable by human beings.”
Brigitte Herremans, panel moderator and middle-east expert for Broederlijk Delen, noted that a recent poll in Israel showed that the majority of Israeli’s did not quite see the term occupation as appropriate. “Let me first say one thing. Israel is not a democracy. We Israeli’s like to tell ourselves it is but it isn’t,” said Hagai al Ad, human rights advocate for B’Tselem. “We vote for what matters to us, and we vote for Palestinians too.”
Afterwards, Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg and Israeli author Nir Baram, talked about the launch of Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, a collection of essays written by authors who visited the West Bank and Gaza, edited by American authors David Eggers and Ayelet Waldman.
Both Baram and Grunberg talked about what it means to be Jewish in the Twenty-First century.
“When I go to Israel and ask questions about the situation I’m always viewed as a self-hating Jew,” said Grunberg. “And in Europe, when I question why some people behave a certain way towards Muslims, especially after the terrorist attacks, some people say to me, ‘Come on. You are Jewish. You should know better than that.” “I was born in Jerusalem,” said Baram. “My mother, my mother’s mother, they were born in Jerusalem. I grew up in Israel and I love that land.” He paused. “It took me a while to be able to say it like this.”
Both Grunberg and Baram have first-hand experiences of the complexities that can arise within a Jewish family; Grunberg has a sister living in one of the settlements, Baram an uncle. “In the past we had many arguments,” said Grunberg. “But now I know it just leads nowhere. She’s still my sister and I love her, so I choose not to talk about those topics.”
When asked about possible scenarios for peace, Baram offered a two-state, one land scheme where both nations would have sovereignty but with free movement, which would allow citizens to visit both countries if so desired. “The problem I see in the Israeli left,” said Baram, “is that they don’t want to talk about ’48 and that is far from forgotten in the Palestinians psyche. Just ask them.”
Baram spent several months in the West Bank talking to over 500 Palestinians. “That’s what happened with Germany and Israel, wasn’t it?” he said. “Once Germany accepted what had happened during the 2nd World War, they had to compensate Israel and pay reparations. I’m not saying the same would have to happen with Palestinians but this is definitely something that needs to be talked about.”
Grunberg is not optimistic about the future and mentioned that in twenty years’ time the situation could well be the same. “For many Israelis and Jewish around the world there’s no real reason to change the status quo,” he said. “If you live in Tel Aviv, in New York, it’s great. And Israel benefits from the occupation, as simple as that.”
As a final remark, Baram mentioned that he was disturbed by the comments some people in the Israeli far-right are making after the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe. “I hear them say, ‘No they will know what it means to be under terror. What we’ve had to go through all these years. Perhaps they will now take serious measures.’” He shook his head. “I despise those comments. As if it could lead to any solutions. It’s just fuel to incite division in our society.”