In the West Bank village of al-Khader last month, an elderly woman wearing a traditional embroidered dress approached the group of Americans touring the area. In front of her stood a young child, looking timidly at the ground. His left eye had been shot out, replaced at Johns Hopkins Hospital by a glass replica that didn't match his natural color. He is 4 years old. Moments later, the boy was joined by a toddler with a pink scar above her left eye. Dressed in yellow pajamas with Teddy bear designs, she could have passed for an average American child, except most American babies haven't been shot in the head by soldiers. These were only a few of the horrendous sights I witnessed in the Palestinian territories last month as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Peacebuilders Delegation. The trip, an excursion premised on promoting nonviolence, highlighted the need for international observers in the region, something every involved nation except Israel and the United States supports.
It was my second time in the territories in less than a year. Learning firsthand about the Palestinian people has been both an honor and a blessing, but something most Americans fail to appreciate because of the pervasive stereotypes that afflict Palestinians in the United States.
Since my return, I have been met by neighbors with comments such as, "Don't they hate Americans?" and, "Weren't you afraid of terrorists?" These sensibilities denote a great need to demystify the negative assumptions that underpin American perceptions of the Palestinian people.
Amid the two recent suicide bombings in Israel, it is rare to see the word "Palestinian" in print without being followed by "terrorists," "extremists" or some other dehumanizing variation. The basic realities of Palestinian life must be understood if Americans are to approach the conflict fairly and with a proper context. In other words, either we acknowledge that specific historical and political realities lead to violent actions, or we suggest tacitly that these actions are a peculiar aspect of Palestinian/Islamic culture, in which case we are engaged in the most primal form of racism.
Reporting simple facts would help to clarify why Palestinians revolt, sometimes with violence. To imply that they do without reason or as the result of innate anti-Semitism not only projects ignorance, but also impedes a true peace based on mutual justice and recognition.
The most important fact is Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian land, which violates applicable international law. Israel repeatedly has been ordered by the United Nations to withdraw from the territories. An endless stream of Security Council resolutions since 1976 has identified Israel's illegal occupation as the primary source of conflict, and yet the United States has stood alone with Israel each time in blocking the implementation of any solution based on international stipulations to which both Israel and the United States are a party.
This is compounded by economic hardship in the territories, a direct result of Israeli closures and Palestinian dependency on Israel for goods and services. More grave are the indiscriminate killings of unarmed protesters, extrajudicial assassinations and daily humiliation at checkpoints and military posts. These conditions help to fuel the anger of an oppressed people, and if we are to talk violence they cannot be ignored.
Fundamentally, Israel is an apartheid state, as acknowledged by both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, two South African leaders well versed on the subject. Little outrage is expressed in the United States about Israel's divisive legal substructure.
When Afghanistan recently required Buddhists to wear a special patch, the response in the United States was extraordinary, and yet nothing is ever said about Israel's more explicit religious lines. Christians and Muslims are required to carry identity cards stating their religion, on which movement and privilege are predicated. License plates are also color-coded based on the driver's religion. Only Jews are afforded the full benefits of citizenship.
The most viable solution was perhaps articulated by the 4-year-old's grandmother in al-Khader, who, pointing at the gray military watchtower from which the children were shot, exclaimed, "We just want them to leave."
Palestinians do not hate Americans. Americans, in fact, like all foreign visitors to the territories, are afforded tremendous warmth and hospitality. Palestinians do take offense, however, at an American government that continues to aid Israel unquestioningly in its oppression of the Palestinian people and its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. We Americans should be offended, too.
Salaita is a doctoral candidate in Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org