A dose of human color in our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

by Madeleine Stokes
February 3, 2015

Stokes Blog picture
Picture courtesy of Madeleine Stokes

As the bickering between Netanyahu, Abbas and Obama continues, I’m reminded of my recent spring in “the Holy Land” where I learned how ineffective and petty this political façade is to the lives of the people who live there. In March of 2014 I was sitting in a hole-in-the-wall falafel shop in Nablus, West Bank, with a mouth-full of hummus, trying to reconcile the beauty I saw around me with the highly public and melodramatic rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Amidst the international craze over the “peace process,” life in the West Bank continued as usual; life in Tel Aviv—where some of my relatives live—continued as usual. Everything continued as usual, because locals have learned that high-level political squabble rarely has any bearing on them. Now back in the States, I continue to be flabbergasted by how stark the disparity is between the drama and politics captured on front pages of newspapers and the reality, aspirations and needs of people on the busy streets of this controversial strip of land.

I decided to spend some time in Israel and the West Bank after two years working in Lebanon, in order to refine my Arabic and my understanding of the conflict. I settled in Nablus, considered “the conservative heartland of Palestine” by one of my close friends and Arabic counterparts, and known for its central role in the beginning of the Second Intifada. Having Israeli family on “the other side” during my stay in Nablus was an important balancing factor and I understood that visiting them would be an important rite of passage in my personal and political assessment. Some of my family live in Tel Aviv and consider themselves to be far left and “open-minded.” They helped me understand their version of what it means to be Zionist, one that is focused on civic duty and pride that rejects the more aggressive stances that I had come to know. They compared their version of Zionism to patriotism in the U.S. I realized that their effort to reconcile being Zionist with the uglier Zionist schemes that have disadvantaged Palestinians, isn’t much different than my own efforts to reconcile my civic responsibility and freedoms as a U.S. citizen with my country’s deleterious “freedom” campaigns abroad.

My relatives who live on a Kibbutz in the Upper Galilee identified with the more traditional definition of Zionism, which jived less well with me, but I attribute this to the divides that have been put in place (by politicians and negotiations) that stifle exchange and understanding between people. Nothing had a greater effect on me than the conspicuous physical divides. Let me paint a picture. After landing in Tel Aviv, I made the arduous and circuitous journey to Nablus. It took the larger part of a day, though if man-made barriers weren’t there, it would have taken under an hour. It began with one comfortable and quiet Greyhound-like bus ride to Jerusalem. There, I transferred onto the tram to get to the East (Arab) side of the city, where I boarded a tattered and lively Palestinian bus. With Arabic crooning from the speakers, we traveled under the shadow of Israel’s version of the Berlin wall—this one towers unambiguously, three times higher than that 30-year iconic one—through a snake like checkpoint line into the distinctly more chaotic, grittier pseudo-capitol of the West Bank, Ramallah. There I was herded onto another bus for the final hour-long ride, through biblically-reminiscent and stunning rolling hills of rocky terrain and wild flowers, arriving—finally!—in the heart and soul of the West Bank: Nablus.

The long journey and the two mountains that frame this cultural capital provided some symbolic shielding value, because, on this side of the border, all the countless diplomatic encounters related to the peace process that we all read about daily had little bearing. Secretary Kerry’s statements appeared as headlines on the local papers in the balad, the center of town, but generated few onlookers. It’s not that the conflict doesn’t exist: confrontations between young, local Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents continue on a daily basis across the West Bank, and Israeli army incursions occur nightly. I noticed, however, that residents were tired of disappointment from highly anticipated negotiations. I learned quickly to stop asking what their opinions were of the peace process, always the same dreary response—“al-mufawadat faadieh” (“the negotiations are hollow”)—followed by a mocking giggle at the stupidity of the question.

Why wait for negotiations, they wonder. Some problems have improved despite stalled peace talks. The last of the terrifying Israeli checkpoints were taken down two years ago and life and vigor has been restored in the city. In the Old City, stability has re-infused the celebrated souk, the market. During the Second Intifada, the Israeli army would shut down the Old City searching for the shabaab, the young guys of the Resistance, who were hiding in its cobbled alleyways and shadowy side streets. Today, it’s the center of town, crowded and bustling all day, housing the old soap factory and overflowing with local favorites like dates, spices and herbs, olives, cheeses and fresh local produce. On every street corner, one can spot groups of people standing with plates in their hands, relishing the dripping and saccharine, cheesy pastry called knafeh, for which the city is known around the region. These simple and traditional pleasures are what infuse spirit into the city and why, despite a threatened future and lack of mobility and opportunity, thousands of students from all over the West Bank flock to Nablus to study at the beautiful An-Najah University.

Tradition hasn’t just meant delicious delicacies; it represents the Palestinians only possible form of peaceful resistance. The resurgence of traditional values and lifestyles, therefore, has been deliberate and politically relevant. It’s not a secret, for example, that Palestinians have prioritized strong and large families to bolster this resistance and to support their national aspirations. Rejection of alcohol is another symbol of the city’s return to tradition and conservatism. During visits across the wall to some of my Israeli relatives, I heard stories of their times in Nablus before 1967, when alcohol used to be served freely. Today, it’s only indulged in behind closed doors and you can only find it in the ancient, Samaritan town up the mountain, where an old community of Jewish Palestinians is making a fortune on their liquor monopoly in the area. Rejection of foreign traditions, like alcohol, seemed to me an organic response to forced isolation and an unacknowledged form of resistance.

One advocate of tradition and religious life, a souk acquaintance of mine, had spent 17 years in Israeli prisons, a consequence of his participation in the First Intifada—he was a “truck driver.” I learned all about his story during lunch at his family’s dar, house, in the Askar refugee camp just outside of the city, where he was currently (and happily) occupying his role as grandfather. Prison time is commonplace for Palestinians. It’s like joining the army; it’s a Palestinian rite of passage. Yet, after 17 years, enough for his kids to grow up, he was done with the armed resistance. “All I want is to be able to work, support my family and for my children to be safe,” he said. I heard this sentiment echoed throughout the city. Nablusies have found some sense of patience and agency to endure the thorny road ahead in the absence of progress in the official efforts addressing the conflict.

So, among these Nablusies that took me in, I didn’t discover the security threats or terrorists that are a main priority in the negotiations. To the contrary, I was stunned by how much warmth, comfort and love embraced me there. It’s important to allow these doses of humanity and reality to define the way we see these types of conflicts as outsiders, when we are looking in from afar. Middle East practitioners should stop separating local realities and large policy discussions. Shouldn’t the former inform the latter? Clearly, these big political discussions, which only include the highest levels of power, miss the crux of the matter: the support that people need in their everyday lives and their aspirations. It’s probably time to take some lessons from the streets—from the anecdotes I have outlined—from those who receive nothing positive from a persistent conflict and who know very specifically what they need to be happy and free. Perhaps negotiations need to start at that hole-in-the-wall falafel shop.


Madeleine Stokes is an international program manager recently relocated to Washington DC. Prior to her return to the States, she lived in Beirut for over two years, working on grassroots empowerment and democracy building in Lebanon and Syria. As Program Manager for a Damascus-based NGO, she helped develop innovative local governance and civic engagement approaches, as well as advocacy and dialogue initiatives on the ground and around the region. She then spent four months in Israel and the West Bank, perfecting her Arabic and gaining insight into the most controversial conflict in the region. In addition to her unique world view and ability to form dimensional human synergies across divides, she has developed and presented policy memos to local and international actors and is a published author.