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The Human Experience

The male soldier’s glasses were so black that all I could see in them was the reflection of the scene behind me. Outlines of women’s heads covered in Hijabs lined the rows leading toward the back of the bus. Upwards of seven to ten children were fidgeting in their seats. Some were accompanied by their mothers, others not, as they made their way to school. A female soldier walked up and down the aisle, checking bags and asking for identification. The male soldier stood at the front of the bus in silence - his hardened 23-year-old face showing no expression as he clutched his automatic machine gun. The bus driver, who I had been talking to only moments prior, waited patiently to proceed through the checkpoint we were stopped at. My coworker and I had gotten onto the wrong bus, and found ourselves heading deeper into the Shuffat refugee camp. We were on our way to a meeting that was being held only a couple of miles to our west. After realizing that we had gotten onto the wrong bus, the Palestinian driver quickly made arrangements for us to make it to our destination on another bus traveling on its way out of the camp. And as I sat in the small seat, trying to figure out whether I was awake or still asleep from the night before, the women and children sitting in the rows next to me waited patiently. For them, this was just daily life.

In moments like these, all narratives about one-state or two-state solutions, analysis of Netanyahu’s recent speech to congress, discussions of what went wrong in the previous peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, or the latest efforts by humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding programs to provide food and health programs to those living in Gaza fades into the background. They almost seem as though they must exist in some parallel universe where reason and semi-rational thought exists. Talk of 1967 borders, peace talks at Camp David, and the first and second Intifada, seem entirely irrelevant at this very small moment in time. All that I can think about is the three year-old sitting five feet from me, and the strength of his mother who is holding onto him.

While the lessons of the past couple of weeks are many, the one that has hit me the hardest has to do with the human experience. As a student of international relations and conflict management, we are taught that the world can be broken down and analyzed on a number of levels – geography, identity, history, economy, law, governance, etc. This being said, I truly believe in the power of this type of analysis. To understand the world on a large scale, we must learn to think critically on a number of levels, and analyze life across both short and long time horizons. Quantitative and qualitative analysis allows us to paint a picture that is relatively easy for others to digest. Two sides of the picture can be explained in words, and history can be walked through to tell the story of how we got where we are today. However, the danger of such analysis is that we run the risk of talking about groups of people in general terms, and using blanket statements to explain what happened to them as a whole, possibly to the detriment of the individual. Historical narratives and truth run the risk of becoming defined by those with the loudest voice, and explanations of policies as being justified by the need for security are met with understanding by people around the world.

But when you physically immerse yourself in the details of the painting, individual human beings, as opposed to top down policies, begin to take shape. The numbers and data-sets turn back into life. Government policies (or lack-thereof as the case may be) are lived experiences. We become living and breathing people again, as opposed to news blurbs, failed agreements, or chapters in a book. At 10am on a Saturday morning, sitting in a bus designed for one of two groups of divided people carrying women and children, and being policed by kids younger than myself who are armed with enough weaponry to wipe out an entire neighborhood - life goes from relatively digestible on paper, to what feels to be entirely inhumane and absurd.

As the soldier’s walked off the bus, the driver rolled us through the gate, past the rubble, past the uncollected trash, past the closed down shops, the lines of people waiting to cross through the gates of the checkpoint in either direction, up the bumpy and broken street, and back onto one of the main throughways on the east side of the city. Soldiers holding even more heavy artillery patrol the streets. Two lives located just miles from one another feel as though they should be worlds apart. The women and children stopped at different bus stops, smiling and laughing as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. Just another day in East Jerusalem...

Some have said to me - “that’s just war.” I haven’t figured out an appropriate response to that comment yet…

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