Finding Peace in Palestine
by Pamela Olson
I stumbled into Palestine at age 23, young, impressionable, and naïve about the ways of the world. What I saw absolutely shocked me. The way Palestinians were treated was traumatizing to witness. It violated everything my heart had ever believed about fairness. The brutality of it—against the people, against the land, against common sense and decency—was breathtaking. And yet it was happening, and the people who were doing it were just people, not so different from myself. They just happened to be in a political and social situation where such brutality was acceptable.
What people in the US hear about is mostly the brutality of Palestinians—their rocks, their bombs, their angry demonstrations. Yet everyone I tour-guided in the West Bank (including Israelis and Americans) said the same thing once the situation began to become clear in their minds: “I can’t believe Palestinians aren’t more violent!”
This speaks of two things. One is the tendency of Israelis and Americans to project their own attitudes onto others. As regional and global hegemons, violence has often been ‘necessary’ to maintain Israel’s and America’s edges of power. So violence has become normalized in those societies. It has to, or they could not convince their citizens to perform and support such violence.
The second is the incredible ability of Palestinians to sublimate their anger and frustration and channel it into productive actions such as helping the less fortunate, engaging in non-violent resistance, or simply doing what they have to do to survive on land they have inhabited for centuries. This is a story rarely told outside of Palestine, yet it is seen constantly within Palestine.
I brought my American sensibilities with me to Palestine, and at first I had a hard time controlling my outrage. It was maddening to simply accept the conditions imposed on my friends without doing something, but in my angered state I couldn’t think clearly about what.
It was the Palestinians who convinced me, through their example, to calm myself as best I could rather than lashing out, at least at the beginning, and to keep learning and doing what I could day to day to improve things a bit (such as visiting injured Palestinians in hospitals) and try to educate my fellow countrymen about a situation about which most Americans are sadly ignorant, despite the fact that our government bankrolls an unjust occupation with billions of our tax dollars.
I started out working as a volunteer, then a journalist, but after a while I became frustrated. The statistics and anecdotes in my 800-word reports could never capture the full gestalt of the situation for people who didn’t already have a good understanding of the history, culture, and politics of the region. Most Americans in particular have a one-sided framework in their heads that distorts any attempt to explain a given situation.
I finally realized that if I wanted to reach people in a meaningful way, I would have to write a book that could take them through all the steps I went through, first to become intrigued about the state of affairs, then charmed by the region, then horrified about the situation, and finally confident enough to engage fully and fruitfully, with a kind of holistic understanding backed by years of research and soul-searching, always open to new information and analyses.
I tried to get that all across in 300 short pages targeted to American audiences (plus a sequel I’m working on that focuses more on the “special relationship” between the US and Israel and the intolerable situation in Gaza). I hope it can make some kind of contribution toward real peace—sustainable peace that includes enough justice and understanding to serve as a stable foundation for what comes after peace is made. I hope it can serve as a wake-up call to many Americans who believe the conflict is primarily about “terror” and “security,” who are comfortable with this framework, and who know nothing of Palestinian history, culture, or humanity.
It’s a small contribution in the grand scheme of this decades-long conflict, and it’s difficult to know if it will do any good. As Palestinian superstar singer and UN youth ambassador Mohammed Assaf said, “There are many ways to make a difference in life, but my way is as an artist.”
If you do what you love, with an intention of peace—maybe it’s the best we can all do.
I won’t lie. Sometimes it’s still very difficult to control my anger when another mother’s son or daughter is brutally taken from this world, or another piece of beautiful land is stolen and bulldozed into prefabricated settlements, and the killers and thieves escape any kind of justice.
But then I think of examples like the Palestinian family whose son was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during a Muslim holiday, who grieved as much as any family who loses a son, searched their souls, and donated the boy’s organs to Israelis in need.
And I feel deeply humbled, and like there are better emotions than anger to motivate a human being.
What were the experiences that shaped Pamela Olson’s understanding of Palestine? Read an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Fast Times in Palestine, showing her first taste of both the wonder and oppression of Palestine.
About Pamela Olson
Pamela Olson grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, and studied physics and political science at Stanford University. She lived in Ramallah for two years, during which she served as head writer and editor for the Palestine Monitor and as foreign press coordinator for Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi’s 2005 presidential campaign.
Pamela wrote an award-winning book about those experiences called Fast Times in Palestine.
Learn more about Pamela Olson’s work here. And check out Pamela’s website here.
About PD Lietz, Artist-in-Residence
The art for this piece was contributed by Writing for Peace Artist-in-Residence, Pd Lietz.
Pd Lietz is a widely published writer, photographer and artist who lives in rural Manitoba Canada. Ms. Lietz was awarded first prize United Kingdom Frost Photography International Competition 2011. Learn more about Pd Lietz here. View works by Pd Lietz here.
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