Over the past two weeks, watching the escalation of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories from my home in Florida has been horrifying and heartbreaking. I'm devastated by the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians, as I have been every time these clashes take place. But the level of intercommunal violence this month feels worse than anything in recent memory: street-to-street fighting, tear gas fired inside the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, waves of Hamas rockets fired at Israeli towns, Israeli airstrikes devastating neighborhoods in Gaza City.
One moment, in particular, stands out in my mind: Last week in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, a group of Jewish men set upon a car driven by an Arab man, pulled him out and beat him. According to Haaretz, the man survived, but in a widely shared video, you can hear commentators using the word "lynch" to describe the scene as it unfolds.
Any feeling person would have been disgusted and terrified, but as I watched the footage, I felt nauseous as I realized: He could be my husband.
I'm American Israeli; my husband, Mohamed, is a Palestinian from the West Bank. We met there, in Ramallah, but when we decided to marry in 2014, we knew the challenges we'd face legally, socially and economically. Because of Israel's prohibition of family reunification between its citizens and Palestinians from the occupied territories, there's a likelihood we wouldn't be able to legally live together inside Israel. Shortly after we married in Florida, I submitted our marriage certificate to the Israeli consulate in Miami to update my status, to no avail. If we ever wanted to live in Israel, other mixed couples told me, we would have to apply annually for a permit to reside together; and that even if granted, such a permit might not allow my husband to work inside the country. It's not clear that we would be able to live in the occupied territories together legally - in his family's building outside of Ramallah, in part of what's known as Area A. Not to mention the cultural taboo: When Mohamed told his parents that he intended to marry me, a Jewish woman who immigrated to Israel, his father rejected the match, meaning that we wouldn't be able to live in the family home anyway. We realized we had no choice but to leave the land we both love dearly. While my husband has been clear-eyed about the decision and has always said we won't be able to go back until there's peace, I've held onto the hope that we'll return and raise our two children there, among family and amid the olive trees, limestone alleys, foothills and sea that we hold dear.
But the fighting this month has left me hopeless. I now feel that our exile is permanent, that going back isn't an option; that my husband and our mixed children wouldn't be safe if we lived inside of Israel and that my life might be in danger in the occupied territories.
Of course, we weren't thinking about any of this when we fell in love.
We met in 2011, when I went to Ramallah for a story. A fellow journalist introduced us, and we ended up working together on the piece. We kept in sporadic touch over the next year and a half, with Mohamed serving as my interpreter for a couple of other articles, including a heart-wrenching story about Palestinian families who've been split between Gaza and the West Bank. Little did we know that a few years later we would end up in a comparable situation, with Mohamed forced to leave his extended family in the West Bank to start a life together with me.
By the time we began dating in early 2013, in addition to freelancing, I was teaching at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem, Al Quds University. I lived, for half of the week, in the Palestinian village of Abu Dis. I was in my third year of studying Arabic. I felt some level of integration into Palestinian society that made me feel that anything, including peace, was possible, if remote. And the early days of our relationship only reinforced that. At school, my students and I read centuries-old literature from Islamic Spain, a time and place where Jewish and Muslim cultures nourished one another, flourishing together. Outside of school, Mohamed and I had picnics in olive groves and sipped tea on a rooftop, overlooking the West Bank. From our spot, we could see all the way to Jordan. From that view, we couldn't tell where one place ended and the other began.
But at the same time, my courtship with Mohamed and my work at the university were characterized by limitations and inequality. I saw how Jewish settlers were free to move in and out and through the Palestinian territories and checkpoints as though the Green Line didn't exist while Mohamed had to either apply for a permit or sneak through a hole in the security fence if he wanted to spend the day with me in Jerusalem. I felt this when I traveled to the university in Abu Dis or to Ramallah to visit Mohamed, using segregated transportation to move through the territories that are ultimately controlled by Israel. At the university, I felt the pain of my students, some of whose fathers and brothers were imprisoned under administrative detention; some of whose homes had been raided by Israeli authorities; some of whom had been in cars that were pelted by stones thrown by Jewish settlers. On more than one occasion, Israeli soldiers made incursions onto campus, firing tear gas and breaking windows.
We've been in the United States together for more than six years; my husband is now an American citizen. We've built a life here - a home, a small business, children. And even though I grew up in Gainesville, in some ways, the United States has never felt completely like home. If, let's say, my current outlet decides it needs a foreign correspondent in Israel, I'd go in a heartbeat; if we decide we no longer want our children to grow up apart from their cousins; if we miraculously save enough money to retire; or if the laws in Israel change and we could live together legally and safely - and if the country stops its awful march to the right, we'd return.
But with each Israeli bullet or Hamas rocket, every report of destroyed Palestinian businesses or of a synagogue set on fire, all the ifs increasingly seem insurmountable.
A cease-fire has been in place since early Friday morning, but lasting peace won't hold without tremendous, systemic changes. We're beyond those superficial programs that bring Jews and Palestinians together in dialogue. Sadly, there aren't enough friendships across ethnic lines - and even if there were, friendship isn't enough. It's not even enough to love each other: Mohamed and I love each other, but to preserve ourselves and our marriage, we had to leave his homeland, my adopted country. We live half a world away, safe from the latest round bloodshed, but at root is the same issue: devastating and persistent inequality. Without addressing the laws that give Jewish Israelis privilege while stripping Palestinians of their human rights, there's no way for Jews and Palestinians to live together peacefully.
I've read a lot of thoughtful, intelligent analyses about the most recent escalation, pointing to the raids at Al Aqsa, the evictions of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah or the awful incentives of Israel's domestic politics. But all of these arguments trace back to systemic inequality, a two-tiered legal system that permits unchecked expansion of Israeli settlements and keeps Palestinians in a perpetual limbo of statelessness on their own land.
Yes, there's violence from the Palestinian side. And yes, Palestinians have, over time, missed opportunities to exact and to make concessions. But consider how the peace process has become a farce. Consider how Palestinian homes are punitively demolished. Consider the unequal allocation of water resources in the West Bank. Consider the shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem that can keep some Palestinian children out of school or forces their families to scrape together the money to pay for private school.
The list goes on and on.
Inequality is what allowed me, a Jewish woman born and raised in America, to immigrate to Israel while my husband's Palestinian brethren who fled or were expelled from the land can't return. It's why, as a mixed family whose story began there, we may never be able to return.
Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist.