“I called the bank recently” is not a thrilling beginning to any story, but it provides a useful framework for what follows. I called my bank not from my home state but from Area A of the West Bank.
Now if you are like the poor, bewildered customer service agent on the other end, then you’re probably asking yourself “What the f*ck is Area A?”. Or perhaps if you are a more respectful sort you might apologize then ask without the profanity. I don’t know. I don’t know you.
Area A is part of three Areas (the other two being B and C) delineated by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. These Accords lead to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and allowed it varying degrees of power over certain areas.
The area meant to allow for independent control by the Palestinian Authority, also the smallest area, is Area A. It contains cities such as Nablus, Bethelehem and, the West Bank’s capital, Ramallah.
The other Areas aren’t terribly important to this story, but if you’re interested Wikipedia is usually a good place for the basics.
This is the first piece of background information you need. The second is the West Bank has a number of “checkpoints”, some permanently ‘house’ soldiers, others only in times of heightened conflict, which monitor the flow of traffic within the West Bank and between the Israel-West Bank border.
All right, back to the poor bank lady. You see, I was calling from Nablus with a dilemma: I needed to get on a plane in Tel Aviv and I didn’t know the rules for missing a flight due to military blockade. Just a day earlier, two days before my flight, a PA officer opened fire on Israeli soldiers stationed around Ramallah. Following the attack, Israel placed a blockade around the city, allowing only Palestinians to enter or exit. Unfortunately, I needed to go through Ramallah to get to Tel Aviv.
At this point I had a few options:
Option #1: Attempt to take a settler bus. This would mean finding a taxi willing to take me near a settlement, then walking over to the station with armed guards and convincing them that I belonged there. I’d done it before, but it wasn’t my favorite experience.
Option #2: Try to go around Ramallah. Another thing I’d rather avoid for the sake of my wallet and my legs.
Option #3 : Call the bank reservation center and see what would happen if I missed my flight.
As the beginning of the story reveals, I opted for #3. Unsurprisingly, the representative had never received a call quite like mine. Uncertain of the protocol, she called her advisers. Well, she called them after I attempted for the fifth time to explain that it wasn’t a connecting flight I was worried about, but getting to the initial flight. To her, the separation between the West Bank and Israel was a nebulous thing, something she’d spent five minutes in history class learning about when she was 17, if she’d learned about it at all.
The conflict in the region is a divisive one. For those of us not living in the region, our position depends largely not just the information given but how it is framed. Was that PA officer a distraught, mentally ill anomaly? The PA might have you believe so. Was the shooting the inevitable result of decades of oppression and unequal treatment? Some Palestinians, even some Israelis, might assert it was. Or was it part of a decades long siege, tinged with anti-semitism, that Israel, the democracy, must unflaggingly defend itself from? Certainly the Israeli government would prefer to frame it that way. Or perhaps attacks like these are a result of a cultural lesion on Palestinian society that is tacitly supported by the government? I’ve spoken to some Palestinians and Israelis who would claim this, too.
This conflict is often summarized in a few sentences, but it grows more complex as it accumulates history. When we subject Israel to censure, the oft heard response is that we are speaking about Israel as a single entity. In doing so, we categorize it as a “Jewish” state and, that is anti-semitic. While I disagree with the notion that criticizing the government of Israel is equivalent to criticizing all Jews (in fact I find the implication that the Israeli government somehow represents all Jews troublesome), I can see how continued focus on Israel might lead to unconscious anti-semitism in other areas of life.
The trouble is , and this is often given less attention, we speak of Palestinians as a monolithic entity with the same views, feelings, opinions just as often. There are two tropes: the helpless innocent, the aggressive terrorist.
When I return home I’m often asked: “What are Palestinians like?” The tone of the question depends entirely on which trope the person most subscribes to. For some reason, they are frequently disappointed when I inform them that mostly they are just people trying to live their lives, same as anyone else. Those who concern themselves with politics have vastly different opinions. I often illustrate this by telling people that I heard a wide-reaching spectrum of opinions on President Obama in the same day.
So often people who have never visited the West Bank or Israel find it difficult to grasp this notion. I can’t say I blame them. The number of people, and therefore opinions, in the world is incomprehensible. We must simplify to understand.
Palestinians, much like other people, have these problems with simplification too.
“People eat bugs in Taiwan,” One such Palestinian, whom the others call ‘nerd’ proclaimed. Then, as if expecting me to confirm it threw in a “Don’t they?”
“Er, not really,” I said. “It’s not usual.”
“There you have it. People eat insects.”
“No. They really don’t.”
“Do they eat frogs?” another inquired.
I then found myself relaying the same information to them :Taiwanese people are mostly just trying to live their lives and aren’t really that strange.
This proclivity for stereotyping that which we don’t understand is typical. The inquisitiveness is normal. While such stereotypes are annoying, Taiwan does not face ones as often which lead people in regions far from their own to suggest wiping them out. It leads to otherwise empathetic people to dehumanizing an entire nations and ethnicities.
Am I suggesting that every one learn the difference between Area A or Area B? No.
Instead I only hope that we cling to the small inkling in the back of our head which informs us of the humanity in others. If we can cling to that then a little knowledge could help us to strengthen it.