“I read actually a good sentence just before we landed in a book about this conflict,” said Bar Galin, an Israeli resident of Jerusalem, while speaking at the Feb. 26 panel discussion “Our Narrative: A Dialogue for Peace,” organized at Goucher College by Goucher Hillel. “It says that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was very resilient on the issue of trying to solve it … something about this conflict doesn’t want to be resolved. But we still believe in conversation and dialogue.”
Galin, a former Israel Defense Forces soldier who currently works in tourism, sat next to his counterpart, Rowan Odeh, a Palestinian-American woman who, in addition to launching “Our Narrative” with Galin, organizes a leadership program to bring Israelis and Palestinians to work with Congress. They had come to Goucher to have an honest, open discussion on their personal views of the longstanding conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and to show it is possible to disagree while still sitting in the same room. They emphasized that the views they expressed were solely their own and that they have no current connection to either the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority.
Originally from the village of Huwara in the West Bank, Odeh immigrated with her family to the U.S. at the age of 3, living in Brooklyn. “I was the typical immigrant child,” she said. “I did my family’s taxes at age 12. I learned how to speak English on my own, and do well in school.”
Then came 9/11 and the “huge wave of Islamophobia that hit my community,” Odeh said. Believing that their 15-year-old daughter had become disconnected from her roots, Odeh’s parents decided to move back to Huwara.
Odeh recounted one particular experience while at her aunt’s house. “There were clashes happening outside,” she said. “What I mean by clashes, Palestinian kids, teenagers were throwing rocks and stones at Israeli soldiers, and Israeli soldiers were shooting bullets.”
“At that time, tear gas fell into my aunt’s house, and instantly our living room filled with smoke. Tear gas is not a fun experience. You can’t breathe. You can’t see.” Odeh’s relatives debated whether to open the windows, for fear the Israeli soldiers would grow suspicious of the house’s inhabitants.
Her aunt opened the window, and Odeh received her first “shock to the conflict. An Israeli soldier, who was a woman, [shot] a Palestinian teenager, man, I mean 17, and he just died instantly.”
“He was my aunt’s neighbor; his name was Mustafa,” Odeh said. The Israeli soldier “got high fives from the other soldiers. And at that moment I was so angry, to see that happening right in front of my eyes, but to also see the celebration that a life was lost.”
In Odeh’s view, the presence of Israeli soldiers takes a mental toll. “You’re always feeling insecure,” she said. “You’re always feeling humiliated. You’re always trying to walk very slowly at the checkpoint so they don’t think that you might want to do something. And you’re always scared for your younger brothers.” The IDF once arrested her 11-year-old brother, and she spent the night not knowing where he was.
Galin told the audience that his grandparents, Holocaust survivors, arrived in Israel during the 1948 war. His parents were both hippies, he said, who moved to a kibbutz, “met in a pool at night skinny dipping,” and raised Galin with “values of peace, of human dignity, of friendship, of partnership.”
Growing up in the time of the Oslo Accords, Galin was hopeful that there would finally be peace in the region. The peace settlement fell apart in 2000, and “it led to a wave of suicide bombers and attacks on civilians,” he said. Galin and his family were afraid to use public transportation or to even go on the street. When his “parents went to a restaurant in 2002, up north in the city of Haifa when they met my cousin, right when they exit the restaurant a woman came in, a Palestinian Arab [with] a jacket full of explosives. She was a suicide bomber. She exploded in that restaurant.”
When Galin was 15, he began to go to protests in support of disengagement from settlements in the Gaza area, in the hope withdrawal would lead to better relations.
Soon after, an election led to Hamas gaining control of Gaza, Galin said. “And this organization starts throwing rockets to the village where my grandmother lived, and I spent my whole summer with her taking her down to the shelter because she was deaf and she was not able to hear.”
Galin joined the army “with really mixed feelings,” he said, serving in the infantry in the West Bank and Gaza. Galin remembered one occasion at a checkpoint when a 13-year-old boy came with a knife in his pocket. Galin said they were supposed to detain the boy until his father or someone else came to pick him up. They decided instead to simply take the knife and send the boy back. A few minutes later, the boy returned with another knife, and Galin and his fellow soldiers arrested him.
After they both had the chance to tell their personal narratives, Odeh and Galin discussed their views on the conflict.
Odeh expressed her distress at the presence of Israeli settlements, such as in the city of Hebron. While making clear he did not approve of the settlement in Hebron, Galin was skeptical of the notion that leaving the settlements would improve the situation, citing the case of the Gaza pullout.
Galin, mentioning Israeli programs to improve the situation, asked Odeh why the Palestinians would not specify what their peace terms were, and what she wanted from Israel.
Odeh responded that she wanted Palestinians to have a full state, with control of borders, imports, exports, and natural gases. She wanted freedom of movement, no Israeli soldiers, and a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees, describing anything less as “giving us crumbs.” Galin responded that the Palestinians needed to be more willing to compromise for the sake of the negotiation. In the end, each expressed that the other’s side was the aggressor in the conflict.
Despite their political disagreements, it was clear that both Odeh and Galin cared for one another, and that open dialogue was the first step to a better future for both peoples.
“What we’re trying to do is give voice to both sides,” Odeh said, “so both narratives feel validated, and also give space for both sides to clash, to argue.”
“This is not a thing that happens often today, which is scary for me to think,” Galin said. “Not often Palestinians and Israelis are coming together and speaking. There is a wall between us. This wall creates a fact that we were both raised very, very close to each other but never met. We needed to go all the way, 5,000 miles, in order to meet each other, and be able to talk about hard issues, and issues that involve a lot of pain.”