The wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem pictured on February 7, 2012. Oren Ziv/Activestills

One line of graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem simply said, “I want my ball back.”

Wanting your ball back could be a metaphorical statement that, for Palestinians, simply expresses a desire for normalcy and to have a Palestinian state that is fully under Palestinian control. It is a desire, for example, to not depend on Israel to supply and control your water. That water is now delivered only at specified times and then stored by Palestinian families in their roof top water tanks, always hopeful that their limited supply lasts until the next distribution date.

Water scarcity is one of the reasons why toilet paper is customarily deposited in a trash receptacle and not flushed. It’s why ice is rarely supplied with drinks. It’s why anyone selling yard supplies would go bankrupt. And it’s also why several Palestinians told me when I visited Bethlehem last year that the next uprising in the West Bank may be over an Israeli plan to further limit the frequency of water distribution.

On the other hand, an Israeli may interpret the statement differently. “I want my ball back, ” could be seen as a hostile statement that threatens to take Israel into a Third Intifada if Palestinians still harbor a desire to, as one Israeli told me, “wipe Israel off of the map.” I clearly heard both conciliatory and extremist views during my visit.

Then there are the balls thrown or hit over the security walls near Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, and other parts of the West Bank. What happens and how quickly can depend on whether you’re in Area A, B, or C. But that’s only the outrageously ridiculous present day mix of Palestinian and Israeli West Bank administrative, police, and military control. (And make no mistake: Israel still maintains overall control.)

“I want my ball back,” is actually scribbled about halfway up a twenty-five foot high concrete security wall that separates an area in Bethlehem where Israel and Palestinians exercise dual security control. That wall, like many of the security walls, is festooned with barbed wire, cameras and watch towers, along with artists’ renditions of community life and other meaningful and not so meaningful messages – “Jamie was here in ’08″ likely doesn’t need much interpretation, nor does “Let me out.”

The security wall is directly across the street from a Palestinian home. That home, like several others near the barriers, must abide by some unusual restrictions. Because those homes overlook Israeli security positions, upper floor shutters must remain closed at all times and residents are not permitted to have roof access – where they occasionally need to check on their water tanks – unless special permission is secured through Israeli security. Businesses that used to operate from these homes have been severely impacted, if not destroyed, by the location of the wall.

Getting a lost ball back is certainly a much smaller problem than trying to travel outside of Bethlehem into Jerusalem. The six miles might as well be 6,000 miles for the vast majority of Palestinians located in the Bethlehem area. Several Bethlehem residents estimated that between 60 to 80 percent of them are now unable to get a permit to travel into Jerusalem, a place that, prior to the Second Intifada in 2002, they were able to freely access. Friends or family in Jerusalem or the rest of Israel are now virtually off limits. Palestinians no longer can get out, and Israelis are not permitted in. (Unless Israelis have special permission they are unable or restricted in their travel into what are known as A and B areas of the West Bank. These are the areas, like Bethlehem, where Palestinians exercise either full or partial security and administrative control.)

Those Bethlehem residents who do gain access into Jerusalem – typically for jobs – have a twice a day journey that is, on average, two to four times longer than my 30 minute journey through the multi-layered Israeli checkpoint control. Plus, while I can drive through the checkpoint, permit holders must walk through and then take a special bus into Israel. In addition, non-permit holders can’t travel out of the West Bank through the Tel Aviv airport, located about an hour away. They must instead take an eight to ten hour (or longer) drive to leave out of Jordan.

It is impossible to travel in the West Bank and Israel without contemplating the depressing (and shared) lack of vision and leadership. Virtually everyone has a historic grievance or fear. Both groups can tell you with (what they feel is) certainty why the situation is what it is today, but the type of visionary leadership necessary to help people see past their current situation, and consider the possibilities for a more hopeful tomorrow, is woefully lacking. Many Israeli and Palestinian leaders insist on beginning an analysis of today’s issues by starting with self-serving history lessons that wander through thousands of years of rulers, wars, and competing claims on the land.

But Palestinians and Israelis don’t need historians wearing leader costumes. They need real leaders who can acknowledge a shared awful past and then make the type of tough decisions that can move their people forward. Israel’s self-destructive settlement and security policies move both Palestinians and Israelis backwards. The Palestinian leadership’s divided governance and conflicting statements on violence and Israel’s legitimacy move both Israelis and Palestinians backwards.

And while trying to prove who was in historic Palestine first or lived there longer, what the population was by decade, who didn’t offer enough in peace negotiations or who missed an opportunity, which Jewish or Palestinian group of militants qualifies as freedom fighting patriots or as terrorists, whether it’s the Palestinians’ fault for the mess we have today because they didn’t accept Israel’s founding or whether it’s Israel’s fault for playing the role of occupier, whether the displacement of the Palestinians was self-induced or caused by Israel’s actions and policies, or whether Jordan is really Palestine or whether Israel should ever have been created, may get us a scorecard, it doesn’t get us to a resolution.

And that hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. Neither will ultimately have as much economic, political, and social success without the other succeeding, nor will either be as safe and secure. A strong Israeli economy and a growing Palestinian economy will inevitably help lead to less violence and a relaxing and eventual elimination of the heavy security presence that Israel now imposes. That will, in turn, further rev the economic engine and better ensure a more stable security situation.

The Israeli narrative is that the violence has created the need for West Bank security barriers and various travel, economic and political restrictions. For Palestinians, the narrative is that the Israeli actions have too often been overreactions, severely impacting economic growth. When violence has occurred it has been viewed as primarily a result of, and reaction to, Israel’s own role in the violence of occupation as well as the various restrictions imposed on the Palestinians.

Yet, if Germany and Israel can be friends and key trading partners only sixty-six years after Nazi Germany, there is no logical reason Israeli and Palestinian leaders can’t find enough common ground to succeed as well. It may take a combination of different leadership, a younger generation of Palestinians and Israelis who no longer will tolerate stasis, and supporters who recognize that zero sum game advocacy is ultimately self-destructive. Plus someone on the other side wh0 is finally ready to play ball.


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