HEBRON, Palestine—I recall the sermons in my religious services growing up. During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there were always calls for peace and prayers for Israel. A country symbolizing the triumphant conclusion to centuries of persecution, Israel was the home to my people—the Jews. And they had waited so long to return. It wasn’t until this summer in which I had the honor of doing so. Although I began my trip under the normal auspices of going on Birthright, my trip took me far from the comforts of Israel, into a land where few Jews go—Palestine.

Preparing to leave from Tel Aviv, I was nervous for the two months ahead. I had just finished participating in the Birthright program. After listening to the Israeli narrative of this land for two weeks, I was ready to see the other side that had been kept from me and other Jews for so long. Mentions of the West Bank were sparse during Birthright, and when it was discussed, the narrative seemed incomplete. I had loved my connection with the Land of Israel—the land of my origins. However, I was disturbed by the way people connected the Land of Israel with the State of Israel—the actions and policies of the current government—without true inner contemplation. Political doctrine was presented as fact.

Now I was going to the black part of the map.


I craved to see Palestine with my own eyes, but knew so little about the land. Before I went to teach English to Palestinians and work for an Nongovernmental organization in Hebron, I tried to research the Palestinian culture. But Google searches only yielded news clippings of terrorist attacks and violent clashes. All I had heard from Israelis about Palestinians was their supposed poor taste in clothing. As I crossed the Green Line to enter the West Bank, life in Palestine was a complete and anxious unknown.

The situation I discovered while living in Hebron in the West Bank for more than two months was shocking. Living there during times of peace (relatively speaking), a kidnapping and ensuing operation and ultimately war, I witnessed all the stages of the occupation. I witnessed inhumane horrors at the hands of what I had been told for so long was a benevolent government. They were horrors I had not anticipated to be so blatant in their nature and so extensive in their practice. Yet, the comforting light at the end of my journey was to have the opportunity to meet the people there who—in spite of their traumatic lives—only showed me love and hospitality.

There I was, on the other side of one of the biggest conflicts in world history, and all these people showed me was kindness. There was the husband and wife who, after feeding me to no end (an all-too-common occurrence), sent me on my way with a bag of peaches. The father, peering around the room, handed me an energy drink, desperate to give me anything. In one afternoon alone, four separate people on the street invited me to dinner that night. There was the taxi driver who took it upon himself to leave his shift to show me around the Old City and reveal all the secrets his town had to offer, and the restaurateur who took me in as I sought to break fast during Ramadan. As I finished the three-course Iftar, I asked him how much it would cost. He looked at me and replied, “No, Islam,” as he pointed to the sky.

These were people who often worked upward of 11 or 12 hours in a day to make not much money at all, and yet, here they were paying for my drinks, treating me to dinner and doing everything they can to make me feel welcome.

So how did a Jew from New York survive in a place in which the Anti-Defamation League found 93 percent of the population to be anti-Semitic? Aside from a group of trusted people, everyone in the West Bank thought I was Christian. I was racked with guilt of lying to people who had been so kind to me, yet I knew that if the wrong person had found out my background, there could be grave repercussions.

Ultimately, my identity would not have made a difference with most people. In conversations I had, people repeatedly stated to me that they were not anti-Semitic—they were only anti-Zionist. They emphasized all the two Abrahamic religions shared, and they always mentioned the American Jews who voiced opposition to Israeli occupation. The picture I was viewing was vastly different than the one that had been painted for me when I was younger. I realized that statistics like the ADL’s was the result of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Even when I encountered anti-Semitism, which I will never condone, I knew it was the product of experiences that span far beyond my 21 years on this earth. Their fleeting interactions with Jews have often ended staring down the barrel of a gun.

Wars do not happen without a systematic dehumanization of your enemy. In Palestine, this dehumanization is the same in peacetime as it is in the throws of battle. The Palestinians live under military rule. Israel Defense Forces soldiers can effectively do as they please. Even places Palestinians are technically allowed to go would sometimes be off-limits. I listened as my friend told me how his ability to go to the Dead Sea, inside the West Bank, was dictated by whether a soldier along the way decided to turn him back or not. And if my friend asserted his right to go? “I might be shot.”

Whoever by name controlled areas of the West Bank, it was ultimately Israel that had the overriding power. Checkpoints were everywhere—soldiers were as common as olive trees. Before I arrived, there had been a video of an identified soldier shooting and killing an unarmed girl, yet nothing happened. There is virtually no international media found in the West Bank. Israel largely keeps the foreign press out and demands self-censorship.

Most international reports on the West Bank are in fact reported from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. To read the news unfolding in front of me distorted by the media at home only affirmed that I needed to share what I experienced. Censorship is one of Israel’s greatest weapons—the reality does not match the story given to the public.


The wall that divides Israel and Palestine creates more than physical barriers.

A towering slab of concrete divides Israel and Palestine. The wall’s construction destroyed dozens of villages, has caused an endless economic depression and imprinted permanent psychological damage to the Palestinian people. Every time I mentioned going to Tel Aviv, guilt would seep through as people lamented their desire to just one day be able to see the ocean. It pained me as I’d pass Jerusalem from the other side of the wall and those around me would look on at the Dome of the Rock in the distance, wishing to one day pray there. It was always an awkward topic to mention my travels in Israel, having visited all these places as a foreigner. These places were a part of their childhood, yet now they could never experience what I did with such ease. The wall penetrated people’s minds and livelihood in so many ways, even in life-or-death situations. There was a boy who fell ill and needed immediate medical attention. His family drove to the wall to go to the hospital in Jerusalem. In spite of his critical condition, soldiers denied permission for him to go. He died at the wall. These stories are far from uncommon.

Visiting the wall was intensely emotional. In Bethlehem, people write down their experiences and tape them to the wall. The stories stretch for miles. Street art on the wall calls for freedom and justice, a world where they “build bridges, not walls.” Tears flowed down my face in a gentle stream. I came upon an inscription: “Judaism ? Zionism,” as a Crescent Moon and Star of David were drawn side-by-side. I collapsed to my knees. The messages in front of me were cries of desperation, of humanity. And yet, only on this side of the wall could these cries be heard.

Even in the West Bank, Palestinians struggle to move around. Checkpoints arbitrarily turn people back or detain them for hours on end, despite international law limiting detention without reason to 20 minutes. People are beaten and humiliated at these checkpoints. These are not defensive measures. They occur unprovoked and upon innocent bystanders. With checkpoints and limited roads available to the Palestinians, a 60-mile trip from Hebron to Jenin can take six hours.

Foreign aid workers are hardly welcome in the West Bank. The friends I had were forced to lie under the pretenses of their stays in Israel or face being turned away. Each time they leave, they fear they won’t be allowed back in. Suspicion of going to the West Bank leads to detention in the airport or on the border for hours, with the very possible result of being turned away. I knew an American lawyer who was stopped at Ben Gurion Airport. They demanded to look through her computer. Knowing her rights, she said no. They told her they would take her computer and send it back to her. When it was sent back, there was a bullet hole through it.

Members of Christian Peacemaker Teams—a human rights organization with funding from the United Nations—have had their credentials turned down at the border. Even when they get into the West Bank, there are risks. They have been arrested by the IDF for simply escorting Palestinian children to school to prevent violence from settlers and soldiers alike.

I cannot count the amount of times I witnessed and learned things in which I’d fall silent. I asked myself, ‘Why? What is the reason?’ The answer always was: there was no reason. I’ve witnessed what the government and thus media declare to be security measures. They’re not security measures. They're oppression.

The prisoners Palestinians refer to as “the kidnapped” are those who are under Israeli administrative detention. Administrative detention was a law carried over and expanded from the times of the British Mandate. It allows Israel to throw anyone in prison—in use, Palestinians—for up to six months without charges or due process. They simply renew the sentence every six months, making imprisonment indefinite. These cases are nonviolent in nature and are largely used as a measure to suppress political activism in the West Bank.

The first night I was in Hebron, I met a man who was in administrative detention for five years. He was silenced after being politically active on his college campus against the occupation. There were others I had met who had been imprisoned under similar terms. None of them committed any wrongful crimes.

I had tea in the home of another man who had been imprisoned under administrative detention for four years. Hamas had been helping to pay for his college tuition, so he was thrown in jail. What people don’t realize about support for Hamas in the West Bank is that it does not come out of a desire to kill all Jews. In times of relative calm, most support actually comes from Hamas’s social welfare programs, such as helping kids pay for school, running soup kitchens and organizing community activities such as soccer leagues. This dynamic changed as the war in Gaza began.

TIMELINE: Tensions boil over between Israel and Palestine

When the kidnapping of the three Israeli boys occurred nearby in Hebron, no one was celebrating. Everyone’s reaction to the news was that of fear. My American friends began posting links originally from the IDF showing photos of Palestinians on social media smiling as they held up three fingers to celebrate the kidnapping. However, the reality was that these photos had been taken a year before, when Palestinian Mohammad Assaf, contestant number three, was vying for votes on Arab Idol. When the boys were eventually found dead, the IDF resurfaced again with these false claims, which many Westerners came to believe. I could not believe the violent and ignorant cries against these people I had come to love.

Throughout the next two weeks of Operation Brothers Keeper, I saw human rights violations I could not believe were happening right in front of my eyes. I will corroborate what many reports say that Israel knew all along that the boys were dead. From the very first day of the operation, the field next to the hill I lived on in Halhul (just outside Hebron) had dozens of soldiers scouring the field. The field turned out to be where the bodies were later found. Israeli authorities have acknowledged Hamas’ leadership had nothing to do with the kidnapping. It was clear to all in the West Bank that the operation was collective punishment and an excuse to disrupt the recent unity deal with Hamas and Fatah.


Over the course of those two weeks, almost everyone in Hebron I know had their house raided. I don’t understand how the final figure reported was just a couple thousand homes and businesses. There was no reason for choosing the houses they stormed. It was simply: you’re Palestinian, so you’re a suspect. These raids were extreme, invasive and inhumane. My host family was a well-to-do family—my father was a doctor, and my siblings were all educated professionals. Yet, when they stormed my home, they broke my door and stole my mom’s jewelry. Property damage and theft was common during these raids. I’d watch soldiers go neighborhood by neighborhood. My friend told me of an innocent family he knew that was detained in one room in their house for 36 hours without food or water. One woman needed her medication, but was denied access by soldiers. She was hospitalized afterwards.

Hebron was on lockdown. No one from Hebron was allowed to leave the city for any purpose. Whether for business, flights—it didn’t matter. Millions of Palestinian dollars and experiences were lost. The area suffered tremendously. Soldiers were everywhere, roaming the streets and storming into local businesses and houses. Over the course of the operation, Palestinians were killed, injured and arrested without charges.

The night the bodies were found, I was walking back from the city to my house. I wondered why so many soldiers were there. After all, they had already been there for two weeks. Later that night, I needed to go back into the city to meet with a friend. I was warned not to go, as the soldiers were angry and had orders to shoot people on sight. I ignored these warnings. As I approached the scene from 50 feet away, all the soldiers began screaming and pointing their guns at me. I had four red lasers from their guns pointed at my head. I screamed I was American, and they told me to go away.

As I was walking home, I could hear gunshots and grenades. I wanted to see what was happening. I walked across my hill and went on the roof of an abandoned building that overlooked the scene on the street. Within a minute, a soldier saw me, turned, and pointed his gun, red laser at my head. I ducked down immediately and ran away. Had I not run, I likely would have been shot. Israelis later told me that military protocol in such situations call for multiple warning shots before shooting at a person. However, I had known Hebronites who had family members killed in the very same situation without warning. Protocol and actions seemed to differ.

A couple of days later was July 4. As my mouth salivated at the thoughts of barbecue back home, I walked through the bombed and destroyed home of a family nearby. It was the family of one of the suspects in the kidnapping. The house was barely standing. Over the past two weeks, the IDF had come to their home to systematically destroy it. They destroyed all the appliances in the house. The walls were blackened from the bombs that were detonated inside. The side of the house had been blown out and the walls looked as though they were moments away from collapsing.

The family’s son, the suspect, had run away from home a year before and had had no contact with his family since. Yet the IDF decided nevertheless to come in to destroy everything the family had built up for so long. To look into their eyes was to see confusion, despair and hopelessness. They were good people. It was a microcosm of the collective punishment the people I had lived with were going through. My stomach churned as I left their place. My body felt faint looking into the frail father’s eyes. His innocent eyes burned my own with the backdrop of the destroyed house behind him. I was able to hold off until I was home before crying.

When the war in Gaza commenced, things changed once again. Living near a checkpoint, there were clashes outside my house nearly every night. It didn’t take me too long to learn not to go to the clashes. Early on, I went to the one outside my house. It began with boys burning tires on the street and chanting calls for Mohammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy kidnapped, mutilated and killed in Jerusalem. Tear gas was then launched in our direction. With every canister that landed, people rushed to pick it up and throw it away before it did its damage. In spite of the devastating effects of a weapon banned by the Geneva Conventions for warfare, people would remain. After rocks were thrown—few, if any, would actually hit the soldiers—the soldiers began shooting. The one time I was stupid as to try to take a photo of the proceedings, a bullet whizzed right past me. There was no one else near me. They had seemingly targeted me for having a camera.

I had the terrifying experience of having people running away by my side get shot. Some were rubber bullets, but they were for the most part live bullets, especially where I was. I have witnessed soldiers aim at bystanders. As the clashes continued throughout the weeks, Hebron transformed into a battlefield. With black spots dotting the street, Palestinians hid behind scraps of metal with shouts organizing the boys armed with small rocks as they dodged and ran from bullets. Over this time, many Palestinians were killed, and many more were injured.

At one protest, a settler drove by and began shooting at the crowd. Settlers are Israeli citizens who live in areas throughout the West Bank that are subsidized by the Israeli government. There are 600 settlers living in Hebron, but the Israeli military controls 20 percent of the city for them. The United Nations uphold that settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlers consume a disproportionate amount of the region’s resources—40 percent of the West Bank is devoted to Israeli infrastructure. In the settlements, I’d see grass for the first time in weeks, and lush gardens supported with sprinklers. It was a slap in the face to the Palestinians who face constant water shortages, yet have their water tanks shot by IDF soldiers at night.

Many of the problems arose after 1994, when a settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on the crowd of Muslims praying at Ibrahimi Mosque—where Abraham and his descendants were purportedly buried—killing 30 Muslims and injuring 100 others. As a result of this, Israel decided to impose further restrictions and prevent any Palestinians from entering Al-Shuhada Street. Al-Shuhada Street was the central hub for commercial activity in Hebron 20 years ago. Now, it is empty, as only settlers are allowed. As Palestinians cannot drive or even walk through parts of the old city, in order to reach their homes, they often are forced to climb through windows and over rooftops.

Walking for the first time through Al-Shuhada Street was the most chilling experience of my life. As I reached the checkpoint and handed the soldier my passport, I came upon a ghost town. In this huge area, the shops were welded shut and the street was completely empty. As someone from New York, seeing a once-commercial hub completely empty—with the shops and houses boarded up as you faintly hear the echoes of the city nearby—was downright creepy, frightening even. Propaganda signs from settlers lined the walls slandering the “Arabs” and recalling the “liberation” of Hebron in 1967. A sign proclaimed, “There was never a Palestine and there will never be a Palestine!” Along this large area, I saw one settler riding his bike alone. As I walked around this giant expanse for the small amount of settlers, there was only one thought that reverberated in my mind: Lebensraum.

This was how it would have looked like if the Nazis had succeeded, I thought, if they had attained the living space they had wanted. As a Jew, I began to cry. The pain and suffering that had endured so these settlers could take over Palestinian homes and land, it all hit me with such force. I was walking through an Israeli-mandated ghost town. With soldiers patrolling the empty streets, it was insane to think this was once the commercial hub of the West Bank. The experience will haunt me forever.

The settlers are ideological extremists whose desire to cleanse the old city of Palestinians, supported by the soldiers, has no limits. There was one Palestinian man who was offered money by settlers to leave his home, which he refused. They proceeded to assault him, vandalize his home, and put a poisonous snake in his house. They later threw acid at his child’s face. I asked why the Palestinians didn’t go to the soldiers. The reply I got was a snort—“they’d only laugh.”

I met a family who lived across from settlers in the old city of Hebron. They tried making fixes to their roof. For this act, the soldiers expelled them from their home. Any Palestinian home within 100 meters of a settlement is not allowed to make any repairs to their home of any kind. If they are found doing so, they are forced to leave. Thus, Palestinians are either faced with a slow, humiliating expulsion, or, a quick one. The homes are subsequently taken over by settlers. This is one of many tactics to expand the settlements. Homes have also been taken over in order to serve as Israeli military outposts, and unfounded claims have been made for homes to have ties to medieval or biblical Jewish figures, which is grounds for Palestinian expulsion.

Every night, I would toss in bed, wondering when the world would wake up and realize—this wasn’t a political issue in the West Bank. It was a humanitarian crisis.

The violence I witnessed during my time shocked me, yet what shocked me further was how desensitized everyone around me was to it. The first time I witnessed violence, I was with my host brother and his friends. An unarmed man had been shot three times by a soldier nearby. We went to the scene as the ambulance took him away. After two minutes, everything was back to normal for everyone else. A man had been shot, and it was business as usual. As I remained solemn, those around me went back to joking around, living their life. After a moment or two, it was so casual to them. In general, the dark humor present throughout the conflict was a coping mechanism to help people live their lives. What was normal to them was unheard of to me. It was surreal how they were used to their friends being shot. And this is what they grow up in, I thought.

To understand the psyche of Palestinians is to understand people who have been treated inhumanely their entire lives. This was most important in experiencing the war while in Hebron. While minimal beforehand, support for Hamas grew tremendously during the war. This was something that I had great difficulty grappling with. I was a pacifist living in a world where all sides were resorting to violence. No actions were being taken that would lead to peace. Hamas propaganda videos aired on televisions via al-Aqsa station. In the nationalistic fervor on both sides, there was no capacity for self-reflection and criticism.

I recall a conversation I had with my host brother about this. I confronted him on his support for Hamas during the war. I told him that even though Israel was killing scores of innocent people and what they were doing was horrible, two wrongs don’t make a right. I insisted that Hamas, by sending rockets to Israel without discrimination—no matter how unsuccessful they were—was committing acts of terrorism.

He looked at me with his sad eyes, and replied, “Steven, I have grown up in a world in which I can sleep through bombs in my neighborhood, gunshots in my backyard. In my 30 years living, I have never been treated as a human being. Israel does not treat me as a human being. The international community does not treat me as a human being. No one has ever stood up for me. My dignity has been taken away, my humanity does not exist. This is the first time anyone—anyone—has ever stood up for me in any way. I just want to feel like a human in some way. I want peace, Steven. I don’t want anyone killed. But what is there for us to do? Every peace agreement we have, we only suffer more. We lose our land and our dignity. I just can’t take being treated like an animal any more.”

He spoke with desperation in his voice. I knew that his conclusions were wrong and would only hurt the Palestinian cause. The pacifist inside me screamed in pain. Yet, knowing what had driven this man to believe this—years of suffering and inhumanity—that is what made me truly realize the utterly sick, perverse ways of the system. It reminded me how Nelson Mandela, a symbol of liberation, carried out terrorist acts with the African National Congress in South Africa during apartheid, desperate for avenues to freedom. To see such wonderful people feeling obliged to support heinous acts was so sickening. Yet, I knew it was the inevitable result of brutal regime. History had predicted this.

Before my visit, I was never an active voice in the issue. I felt the issue revolved around impassioned arguments and biased beliefs. After seeing what I’ve seen and knowing the truth on the ground, I knew the conversation had to be shifted from debate to understanding the situation. People would argue with my experiences. For people to deny the truth as mere political argument was demoralizing. I felt helpless. Every night, I would toss in bed, wondering when the world would wake up and realize—this wasn’t a political issue in the West Bank. It was a humanitarian crisis. Arguing with those who were ignorant of the truth yet so sure of what they believed was maddening. When does the journey for truth begin and the quest for self-validation end? My faith in humanity was shaken, but I would not let it be destroyed.

SLIDESHOW: Steven's photos from his summer in Palestine


September TV: Palestine Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle

I understand the side of the Israelis. I had the experience beforehand of going on Birthright, and then periodically returning to Tel Aviv to stay with Israelis and former soldiers. I spoke with soldiers who had been stationed in Hebron. I understand being a 20-year old target in hostile territory with the fear of the unknown at every corner. I was with Israelis in Tel Aviv as sirens blared and rockets were destroyed above our heads. I sympathize with them just as I sympathize with Palestinians. I do not call myself pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. I favor no people over another. I am pro-justice and pro-peace. On both sides, paranoia and fear have driven many to have ugly views that does not bring people any closer. I have heard people say that Ariel Sharon is not a human being, or watched videos of Netanyahu that were clearly faked. I have listened to the Hamas propaganda music in the cars blaring.

Yet, I also listened during Birthright as speakers made Arabs into the enemies who seek to kill every Jew in Israel. I have lived through all my life the storyline of Israel, backs to the wall, fighting for its survival in the face of nefarious neighbors. Being there first-hand, I now know the truth and deceptions of these assertions. Having lived through this all my life, I recognize the propaganda, lies and half-truths that blind so many good people from the truth.

As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy once said, this is the only occupation in history in which the occupier thinks it is the victim.

As a Jew, I am in no way going against my people. The Israeli government is not my people. It is a government that acts on its own and does good and bad things. For a government to claim any official religion does not shield it of critical thinking by those of that religion. The fact that these horrible acts have been done in my name distorts even further the truth of the matter. As a witness to the truth, what the Israeli government has committed in the West Bank is not out of security, and not out of self-defense. It is done out of an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region. It is done out of an attempt to pacify a people who have been denied their rights and land they have lived on for centuries. It is a system in which people are segregated and given separate identification based on ethnic background, subjected to differing laws, given unequal access to resources and infrastructure and have their rights taken away. I don’t say this from what anyone told me—I don’t say this from what media outlets reporting from Tel Aviv told me, or what my Birthright leader told me, or what everyone told me growing up. I say this with my own eyes as the source.

This submission was one half of a two-part Towerview series dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Click here to read Elissa Levine's account from her summer in Israel.