I want to tell you two stories. They are very different. But together they make one coherent point, rarely discussed in our media: the solution to the grinding Israel-Palestine conflict is not the problem.
Let me take you to the old center of Hebron, Palestine. One long street, Shuhada Street, runs down the spine of the city. It's about fifteen feet wide, dusty and deserted. The green metal doors of shops are sealed shut with melted padlocks. It's almost 40 degrees; sweat drips down the faces of the few people you can see. In a small, air-conditioned office off the street sits David Wilder.
David is an American born Jewish settler, who's lived in Israel since 1974. He is a prominent activist and spokesperson for the Jewish settler community. David believes an end to the conflict is possible. 'Perhaps today the most realistic thing, if we are dealing here with realistic things, with visible on-the-table solutions, is to give them [Arabs] Israeli citizenship.'
It is surprising to hear an eminent member of the Orthodox community advocating peaceful coexistence in one state. To put this into context: two sets of peoples, the Arab Palestinians and Israelis, have been at war, on and off, for over fifty years. I point out that the international community would demand, if there were to be one state, that Arabs and Israelis had equal rights. David responds, 'the bottom line is: I don't give a damn what the international community thinks. I don't care what they think and I don't believe for one minute that they really care about us.'
Let's leave David's office. As the door opens, a wave of dry heat hits you. You have to squint to make out the group of ten soldiers on their midday patrol. Cross the street, dodging the stray dogs, and directly opposite sits the house of Issa Amro. Issa runs the organisation Youth Against Settlements, who coordinate non-violent protests and a plethora of other educational classes. He has lived in Hebron all his life, but was turfed out of his home in the 1967 war. He too is a respected leader of the Hebron community.
He too believes a political solution is possible, 'I can live in one state, with equal rights, or I can live in my own autonomous state. So long as the apartheid ends, I do not mind.' I explain that the Orthodox Jewish settler, who Issa knows only too well, wants the same thing. Why, then, has it not happened? 'He does not understand me. He believes God gave him this land and that if I am here the second Messiah will not come. The international community don't understand him - or me.'
This is the crux of the conflict. Internationally the solution is clear: the UN, EU, US, PLO and Israel have all been in favor of a two state solution for over twenty years. Both Issa and David, each of them religious fundamentalists, profess to see a way out of the tumult. What then exacerbates the conflict?
The answer can be found embedded within David's responses:
'I come at this from the basic tenet of faith...in the end that's the core of the conflict. That's why the Western World will never be able to understand. People that don't have any kind of religious faith say, 'They're nuts, they're crazy. We're back in the Middle Ages'.'
At home the conflict is portrayed as essentially a conflict over boarders. In one sense, this is true: two distinct sets of peoples lay claim to an area of territory. But to accept this view uncritically ignores the power that the fundamentalist religious lobbies wield on both sides.
Methodical Zionist settlers are a powerful force in Israeli society. Israeli government has long been accountable to them. They will continue to ignore international condemnation for as long as they believe the international community does not understand the foundation of their claims - faith. This is why David, 'does not give a damn about what the international community thinks'.
The bulk of Israeli media are with them. The West Bank is no longer referred to as 'Palestine'; rather, terms like 'Greater Israel' or 'Israeli Territories' disguise a shift in perception of legitimate boarders. One Tel-Aviv based accountant, expressed surprise that my guidebook separated the territories of Israel and Palestine: 'In my head and on the maps I see, the whole region is Israeli territory. It's interesting for me to see a Western map.'
Islamic fundamentalists agree with Zionist settlers on one point: property rights are God-given. But Jews and Christians have the wrong God. Issa Amro believes, 'this land was given to me by Allah.' This is the line taken by Hamas, democratically elected in Gaza and enclaves of the West Bank. Through the creation of expanding welfare schemes Hamas secure democratic support, without having to convince the public of their theological rhetoric, which most Palestinians (and Israelis) instinctively recoil away from.
Come back out onto Shuhada Street: David's house, on your left, and Issa's house, on your right, are separated by four Israeli soldiers with state-of-the-art machine guns. The reasons for this are of course complex; I do not profess to be an expert.
But you cannot understand the conflict without understanding the role played by powerful religious lobbies, whose claims are based not on reason or evidence, but faith.Underneath David and Issa's purported support for a solution lies a more complex truth: both believe the land they inhabit to be God-given. As you stand in perhaps the most symbolic street in Palestine, bear this is mind as you puzzle through the absurdity of a street, fifteen feet wide, separated by soldiers.