'So this is occupation,' I mused, staring down at the large DENIED ENTRY stamp on my passport.
The Israeli authorities were denying me entry into the West Bank. They gave no reason, but I had little doubt that Israel's Interior Ministry had learned of my enrollment at Birzeit University in the West Bank, where I had been studying Arabic since August. The university had warned me that Israel would not issue visas to international students for study in the West Bank, and students admitting that their destination was the West Bank would be denied entry.
The border crossing was a true "Aha" moment. It was the first time I felt the frustration of not having control over my life. As an American, I take freedom of movement for granted. Yet one of my country's closest allies was refusing me entry, not into its own land, but into a place where I was welcome. I heard many such stories during my time in the West Bank. My neighbor recounted his attempt to see his parents – a journey that required him to pass through an Israeli checkpoint.
"Where are you headed?" the guards demanded. "To [my family's village]," he answered.
"Where is that?"
"Near [a larger town]," he replied.
"And where is that?"
"In the north."
"And where is THAT?"
"In Palestine," he said.
"What did you say?" the guards bellowed. "This is Israel, not Palestine.... You're not getting through until you say, "In Israel." My neighbor never saw his family.
Israeli authorities maintain that checkpoints are essential security tools to keep would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from killing Israeli citizens. Yet this incident occurred at one of the many checkpoints located within and throughout the West Bank itself, not on the border with Israel. So, in telling these stories, Palestinians echoed a common refrain. "Are we terrorists? No! We're regular people wanting a normal life, wanting to see our families."
As a US official who liaisoned with Iraqi politicians in Baghdad for nearly two years after the US invasion, I had had my fill of complaints about the occupation. Many of us believed that our main problem was one of semantics. In May 2003, the US presence in Iraq officially became an "occupation," negating what we had earlier deemed "liberation." That stigma dogged us even after Iraqis gained sovereignty in June 2004, and I found myself dismissing the Iraqi leaders' references to occupation as demagoguery.
I also noted that Arab/Iraqi news programs regularly panned from American troops and tanks in Iraq to similar scenes of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories. There were other similarities: The checkpoints and barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank match the checkpoints and wall surrounding the highly fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
At the Israeli checkpoint, I experienced what occupation meant from the Arab perspective. It is not just semantics.
•To Arabs, "occupation" means that a foreign power is depriving Palestinians of basic freedoms.
•Through its unwavering support for Israel and its illegal (per UN resolutions) occupation, America is complicit in depriving Palestinians of freedoms its Declaration of Independence holds as "unalienable."
•In Iraq, the US use of the term "occupation" feeds Iraqi fears that the US presence is not about supporting human rights and democracy. Militants assert that the US intends to occupy and take over Arab lands.
For the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war are two sides of the same coin – and it's American credibility that's getting flipped.
President Carter has outlined a solution and the role America can play in it. In his new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Mr. Carter writes, "There will be no permanent or substantive peace as long as Israel is violating key UN resolutions, official American policy, and the international "road map" for peace by occupying Arab lands and oppressing the Palestinians." He adds, "American leaders must be in the forefront of this long-delayed just agreement that both sides can honor."
In playing such a vanguard role, America would not only do justice to the Palestinian people, it would take a stand for its core values – and take a giant leap in restoring its credibility within the Arab world.
• Janessa Gans is founder and president of The Euphrates Institute.