Misconceptions And Expectations About Palestine

I had dinner last night with my host, a local VC, and my friend from MercyCorps who does work in Gaza, and we had a very interesting discussion about outsiders’ perception of Palestine versus reality.

My friend from MercyCorps is preparing a “one pager” she’s going to use for fundraising, and I read through it to offer a second set of eyes. The stories of the help they’re providing and the impact they’ve had was great, but the most powerful part was simply a list of facts about Gaza.

Before reading the fact sheet, I had an image of Gaza. A mid-sized town, maybe 30k-50k people. Mostly one or two story buildings, most dilapidated and largely in ruins. Very little electricity, very poor education system. The only pictures or videos I’ve seen of Gaza were of bombs and missiles raining down, the city tinted green by night vision cameras.

But I was completely wrong. Gaza has a population of 1.7 million people. There are several universities there. And of those university students, 60% are women (and that includes in subjects like Computer Science). And apparently, they have great internet there.

But the last two facts really blew me away:
1) The largest company in Gaza has only 40 employees.
2) Most Gazans have never been further than 25 miles from home.

Just let that second one sink in for a minute.

My friend told me a story of how recently one of the CEOs in her accelerator got a permit to go to Jordan, but due to some road and checkpoint closures, got stuck somewhere in between for a few days. He had no idea what to do - he didn’t know anyone, he didn’t know how to get around, he didn’t know how to keep busy or find a grocery store. He had no idea how to operate and was in a completely foreign place… only 50 miles from home. He’d never been allowed to leave Gaza before.

During the meal, the topic turned to my perceptions of Palestine, before and after visiting. I hadn’t yet digested my thoughts about it, but I explored the topic as I talked and I realized I actually had quite a few preconceived notions.

1) I thought the checkpoints were going to be much more complete. As I wrote in <a href=”” http:=”” sett.com=”” zacharycohn=”” observations-on-life-in-palestine””=”“>Observations</a>, I didn’t even notice we went through a checkpoint in my taxi ride from the airport. I imagined that every road in and out of town had a huge wall with a massive gate, and a thorough examination and interrogation.

2) And to continue that, I imagined that going through one of those big checkpoints would be a much more serious situation - even for me (as a white, Caucasian, American). But when I through Kalandiya Gate to go salsa dancing in Jerusalem (which was <a href=”” http:=”” ad009cdnb.archdaily.net=”” wp-content=”” uploads=”” 2012=”” 09=”” 1347667100-3-women-going-though-qualandia-375x500.png””=”“>exactly what I imagined the checkpoints</a> would be like), they only wanted to see my Israeli visa stamp I got at the airport then waved me through. No questions, no talking, nothing.

3) Before coming here, I expected less of a city and more of a town. Ramallah is probably one of the few exceptions, but it is very much a bustling city.

4) I expected more traditional (stereotypical?) middle eastern dress, but most people here dress like any Westerner would. Jeans or slacks and button up or a nice t-shirt are pretty standard.

5) The VC brought up this popular misconception, which I didn’t even realize I had. Most people think of Palestine as “this side of a line” while Israeli is “that side of a line,” and the major disagreements are primarily around where that line is. But the mixture of Palestine and Israel is really more like swiss cheese.

This map explained away my first misconception - how could Israel completely wall off every part of Palestine if there are chunks of Palestine everywhere?

It also explained why the geopolitical issues here are so complicated. It’s not as simple as “draw a line here and while no one might be happy, we’ll call it fair.”

Additionally, it makes sense why travel is so difficult for Palestinians. They might have family 15 mile away, also in Palestinian territory, but they can never see them if they can’t get a permit to leave their particular town because they have to go through Israel. If your family is in a part of Palestine farther away, you might have to go through 5, 10, or more checkpoints.

I try to be very aware of how my perceptions and expectations are formed. CNN and Fox News don’t do a great job at presenting the reality of a situation on the ground. But even if you’re careful, you’ll still have misconceptions. My best advice is to get as much information as you can from people who live and breath what you want to learn about every day. The differences will surprise you.

Leave a comment and tell me some of your perceptions of Palestine. I’ll respond back with how accurate or inaccurate they are, and it’ll give me some good questions to keep asking people.

I don’t know why, but I am utterly fascinated by this sink I found the other night. I walked up to it, then froze. Where does the water go? Won’t it pour all over me if I turn the faucet on? I actually opened up the Level app on my phone and measured the counter, which confirmed that it was slightly tilted. The gap at the base of the counter turned out to be the drain. I think the lack of an obvious drain, which temporarily broke my expectations of how sinks work, is what was so fascinating here.

Written on January 8, 2013