Love thy neighbouring enemy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Recognising the good qualities of the other side can be a first step to healing Arab-Israeli wounds.

Friday 2 September 2011

The recent coordinated terror attacks in southern Israel were a tragedy and my condolences go out to the bereaved families and friends of the victims. Continued violence is not the answer to this conflict, and targeting civilians is a war crime, and for good reason, regardless of who commits it or why.

While Israeli grief and anger are understandable, Israel’s predictable decision to respond to terror with terror is not, especially since, in this decades-old conflict, every ugly action is seen as a justified reaction to a perceived uglier precedent by the other side.

Bombing Gaza, like the cruel blockade against the Strip, is a form of indefensible collective punishment made all the more unjust by the fact that Israel decided Gazans were guilty until proven innocent, even though evidence is emerging suggesting that the unknown attackers were probably not Palestinians.

Equally predictably, Islamic militants in Gaza responded with a barrage of primitive and inaccurate rockets against civilian targets, another form of unjustifiable and counterproductive collective punishment.

In addition, Israel’s decision to trample over Egypt’s sovereignty, shooting dead a number of border guards in the process, was not only illegal but incredibly reckless. What if Egypt had decided to respond in kind and follow Israel’s example by crossing the border to apprehend the killers?

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about that because Egypt responded sensibly and called for an apology and a joint investigation into the incident – something Israel should have done after the attacks from Sinai.

What this futile and bloody exchange of fire illustrates is that an eye for an eye achieves nothing except to create the kind of blind rage that keeps the bloody cycle of conflict turning. That is why I believe that Palestinians and Israelis should reject all forms of violence and not just that committed by the other side.

The last few days have also set in motion an ugly war of words between Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians. With so much animosity and hate in the air, as an antidote, I would like to invite Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs to engage in a thought experiment in which they write a short passage on what they admire and respect about the other side.

Here are my suggestions.

Israelis
In a little over six decades of existence, Israel has built itself into a prosperous, democratic and technologically advanced society, not to mention a cultural melting pot. The successful revival of the Hebrew language, used only liturgically for centuries, also has to count as an impressive success story.

All of this is made the more remarkable by the fact that Israel has achieved this against the backdrop of being in a constant state of conflict and following the near-extinction of European Jewry.

While a number of Arab regimes traditionally used the conflict with Israel and other security threats to limit freedoms, Israel has managed to build a fairly vibrant democracy, especially for its Jewish citizens, despite the passage of some repressive legislation in recent years, such as the Nakba and the anti-boycott laws.

Moreover, despite the disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian-Israelis enjoy, unofficial discrimination notwithstanding, more or less equivalent rights as their Israeli compatriots and greater than most Arabs elsewhere in the region.

By Middle Eastern standards, Israel traditionally has an admirable record on freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent, though its media freedom ranking has taken a battering in recent years (93rd out of 178 countries) due to military censorship and restrictions on the movement of international and Israeli journalists. The gap between it and some of its Arab neighbours is also narrowing in light of the Arab Spring.

This respect for freedom of thought, along with a culture that prizes originality and creativity, has transformed this small country into the Middle East’s science and innovation powerhouse. One recent index ranked Israel 14th in the global innovation stakes, while another placed Israel in the top group of ‘global innovation leaders’.

On the individual level, though Israelis can behave with an overconfident swagger and be direct to the point of rudeness, there is a refreshing honesty in their manner and beyond this lack of surface gloss lies a keen sense of Mediterranean warmth and hospitality. Mixed in with this individualism is a traditional Jewish sense of solidarity that kicks in especially in times of need.

Palestinians
Steadfastness is perhaps the word that best captures the spirit of the Palestinian experience over the past 60-odd years, whether in exile or under Israeli control, and a sense of loss and irretrievably lost worlds, similar to that felt by the remnants of European Jewry, permeates through Palestinian art, culture and conscience.

Palestinians have been betrayed and let down by just about everyone, yet they remain resolute survivors and resourceful adaptors. This is reflected in the daily struggle of West Bankers and Gazans to live in dignity, and for the most part peacefully strive for freedom, amid the hardships and degradation of occupation.

Despite having to endure the double oppression of occupation and domestic repression, Palestinians demonstrate an admirable level of determination to advance themselves as individuals and as a nation. A number of prominent Palestinian tycoons, including the “Palestinian Rothschild” Munib al-Masri, have even taken a leaf out of the Zionist manual and are engaged in quiet background “nation-building” in preparation for their eventual independence.

This determination in the face of adversity is reflected in the fact that Palestinians, despite restrictions on their access to education, are said to be the most-educated people in the Arab world. This is particularly so in the Palestinian diaspora which is gradually growing to resemble its Jewish counterpart in terms of education and economic well-being.

For instance, without the massive exodus of Palestinian professionals, intellectuals and entrepreneurs to neighbouring Jordan, the country may have remained a backwater, rather than the relatively prosperous and modern society it has become. Prior to their expulsion from Kuwait, Palestinians played a pivotal role in that emirate’s development. Further afield, Palestinians in the United States, along with Arab-Americans in general, are the most-educated and best-paid minority, according to a recent survey.

Similarly to Israel’s political landscape, Palestinian politics, though less free, have traditionally been dominated by secularists, despite a parallel rise of religious extremism on both sides in recent years. One of the reasons behind this long secularist tradition is the pluralistic nature of the Palestinian population, which is not only divided between Muslim majority and a significant Christian minority, but is made up of numerous ethnic groups.

In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis have a proud tradition of integration and tolerance that, if utilised successfully, can bode well for a future of coexistence.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 August 2011.

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