In Jerusalem last week with my Princeton University students, I hailed a taxi one day from my hotel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The driver asked whether I would need him for the rest of the day. "If you can take me to Ramallah," I replied, "that would be great. Otherwise, no thanks."
My driver's reaction was symptomatic of what I was hearing from many Israelis. "Ramallah!" he gasped. "Why would you go there? They're all rich and spoiled and hate us. They build big houses and then complain that we don't treat them well. You shouldn't go there."
The current spasm of violence in Gaza had not yet begun -- his concern was not due to current events, but a general disapproval of ever venturing into the West Bank. I tried to explain the poverty rampant in Palestinian society and especially the dismal conditions in the refugee camps, one of which my students and I had visited the previous day. Yes, there are some wealthy Palestinians, but most do not live all that well under occupation. Settlements are a particular problem. We rode the rest of the blessedly short trip in silence.
Later that week, my students and I took two taxis from the hotel to Abu Dis, a West Bank village just outside the security barrier that surrounds Jerusalem. What should have been a 15-minute ride took about 40 minutes, as the taxis had to travel in a wide loop to circumnavigate the wall. As we approached the office of the Palestinian official we were to meet, the driver in my taxi started to laugh. "My friend [the second driver] is in a panic. He doesn't want to be here. He's scared and doesn't want to go further."
Indeed, when we reached our destination, the second driver took off in a flash, clearly feeling imperiled to be driving in a Palestinian village, even one just minutes from downtown Jerusalem.
The ongoing conflict in Gaza, of course, is only going to deepen such fears. As Israel and Hamas pummel each other in yet another sadly predictable spasm of violence, their political visions seem as irreconcilable as ever. It is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The two sides live so near each other, yet can seem so far away.
But while achieving a lasting peace may seem impossible at the moment, the Gaza conflict drives home once more why the United States cannot walk away from this part of the world. Gaza will be a periodic war zone unless a way is found to move Israelis and Palestinians toward reconciliation and peace.