Unholy war in the Holy Land

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By Khaled Diab

Despite what religious fanatics believe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a “holy war” – far from it.

Photo: ©K. Maes

Photo: ©K. Maes

Wednesday 2 September 2015

The “hilltop youth” group suspected of being behind the arson attack which killed 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha and his father in the village of Duma, near Nablus, is out to overthrow the Israeli government and establish a Jewish theocracy based on Halakha law, the Israeli security services suspect.

The terrorists behind the attack seemed to follow a similar terror manual to ISIS – they not only burnt the toddler alive, they even reportedly stood around and listened to his helpless screams. “A modern cult of zealots, messianic and crazy, is leading us…toward a war of Gog and Magog – and the end of the Third Temple,” wrote Nehemia Shtrasler in Haaretz.

And the site the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe proposes for the Third Temple could spark a region-wide “religious war”, if Jewish worshippers continue to enter what Muslims call the Holy Sanctuary (Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews), Palestinian political and religious leaders have warned.

This raises the intriguing and important question of whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious one.

Reflective of the growing attention this question is receiving, the Palestine-Israel Journal, an academic publication dedicated to studying the conflict, organised a roundtable discussion on this very issue.

The panel in which I participated – which included Israeli, Palestinian and foreign participants from academia, the media, the clergy and the activist community – was sharply divided on the question. A straw poll I conducted of friends and acquaintances proved equally inconclusive, with the nature of the conflict being largely in the eyes of the beholder.

My own reading of the situation is that what we have in Israel-Palestine is essentially a secular nationalist conflict over land, injustice and, to a lesser degree, identity.

This is demonstrated in the PLO charter. While the document repeatedly mentions the words “Arab”, “Palestinian” and “nationalism”, it does not once refer to religion. The nearest it comes is to mention a “material, spiritual and historical” connection with Palestine.

The second most important political force in the Palestinian struggle after Fatah was, for decades, the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), founded by George Habash, who was born into a Christian family. Many of its members were atheists, the remnants of which tell their “comrades” in Hamas that “paradise is in this life, not the next”, echoing Leila Khaled’s view that “Palestine is paradise”.

Similarly, political Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl was a secular agnostic, and perhaps even an atheist. Israel’s founding generation were anti-religion and believed – wishfully, it seems, in hindsight – that Judaism as a faith was on the verge of dying, as the veteran peace activist Uri Avnery recalls.

Many Palestinians and Arabs find this notion hard to comprehend or swallow. “Judaism is a religion and Zionism sought to build a Jewish state, so to Israelis, this is a religious conflict,” Ibrahim, a friend, remarked. This position is also expressed in the PLO charter: “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own.”

In light of their dispossession, and the fact that Jews themselves cannot agree whether being Jewish is a question of religion or ethnicity, this confusion on the part of Palestinians is understandable.

However, unlike what many Jews and Arabs believe, this blurring of the lines between ethnicity and faith, though irrational to the rational mind, is not unique to Judaism, and has little to do with the “tribal” nature of Judaism, as an Israeli academic at the roundtable described it.

After all, the fact that most of the world’s religions are, to varying degrees, hereditary underlines that belonging to them is related as much to parentage as it is to faith. In addition, the notion of religion as “nation” is not alien to other religions either – in Islam, it is called “umma”. The religion-ethnicity pendulum tends to swing more towards the ethnic when a given religious group is a minority or feels threatened.

This was the case in South Asia. A year before Israel was created, Pakistan was carved out of India. Its main founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a staunch atheist who saw Islam in ethno-nationalist terms. “The Mussalmans are not a minority. The Mussalmans are a nation by any definition,” he told a  rally of 100,000 followers in 1940.

However, like Jinnah, Zionism’s political leaders were not beyond using religious symbolism and religious authorities to push their secular agenda. Herzl gave up his pragmatic willingness to establish a Jewish state anywhere, including in Uganda, in favour of Palestine because of its religious-historical importance to Jews.

In addition, Herzl forged alliances of convenience with William Hechler and other milleniallist Protestant “Restorationists” – the original Zionists – which left a bad taste in his mouth. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points,” Herzl confided to his diary.

Similarly, Palestinian secular leaders resorted to religious imagery and discourse – Islamic and, to a lesser extent, Christian – to resist Zionist expansionism and appeal for wider support. This is visible, for instance, in the adoption of the Dome of the Rock as a poignant symbol of the cause, the use of the religiously loaded term “Fedayeen” – which literally means “those who sacrifice [for God],” – to describe Palestinian fighters and even Arafat’s choice to call his movement Fatah (a reverse acronym of Palestine Liberation Movement), which in Arabic also means the early Islamic conquests.

That said, this is not a unique phenomenon. Whether oppressed or oppressor, conquered or conqueror, people tend to employ at least some religious discourse to justify or resist dominance, and where they don’t, nationalism itself is raised to a pseudo-religion.

However, over the decades, a parallel process has been taking place among Israelis and Palestinians. The 1967 war was a pivotal moment in this regard, the “miracle” of which brought religious Zionism out of the margins and into center stage. On the Arab side, the crushing defeat dealt a fatal blow to secular, revolutionary Arab nationalism, from which it has not recovered. Islamists have gradually been filling the void.

This reflects how the religious aspect of the conflict is as much a civil conflict within each society, sometimes more so than between them, a battle for the soul of both nations.

Despite the growing zealotry of religious fundamentalists, the secular foundations of this conflict remain unchanged: land, resources, rights and dignity. Yet, as the situations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen show, repeating the mantra of holy war enough can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must avoid this unholy outcome in the Holy Land.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 17 August 2015.

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Lost in confrontation in the Holy Land

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By Khaled Diab

As tensions mount, it’s hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians share a lot in common – even the dreams of their great writers.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Monday 10 November 2014

You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Passengers milled about noisily in search of space for their excess hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the perplexed cabin crew tried to gain order.

During take-off, an argument broke out between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, others were drawn into the altercation, each contributing their penny’s worth on whether or not phones should be switched off.

Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo or any other Arab capital but was destined for Tel Aviv.

What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about politically coloured perceptions than they are about social or cultural realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.

With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological chasm separating the two sides. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would hazard to say that, in many crucial respects, Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield, say Gulf Arabs or Diaspora Jews.

That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book: partly because of their close geographical and physical proximity but also because of their surprising social and cultural symmetry.

Confronted with a reality on the ground which conflicts with the simplistic prevalent political narratives, I wrote the book as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and miscomprehensions in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of organic, grassroots peace-building.

The manuscript was well-received by reviewers. One of my favourite responses I received was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappè. “I was deeply moved and impressed by the chapters,” he told me. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities… and impossible reality.”

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation, not to mention their almost innate distrust of authority. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Even Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals share some surprising traits, such as when it comes to their daydreams. One intriguing example is the fantasy entertained by both the late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz. “One of my recurrent fantasies… was to be a book, whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes,” Said wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

Echoing this sentiment, Oz confessed to me in his study that, as a child, he wanted to “grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival”.

This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of Western enlightenment in the Middle East.

When viewed dispassionately, these similarities, symmetries and parallels are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.

Add to this the fact that around half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible.

Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionist and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.

“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the accomplished Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic, who helped put the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the map of world literature, told me.

“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael.

But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such overlapping and interwoven proximity was too close for comfort for enemies who sought to take the Arab out of the Jew and the Jew out of the Arab.

But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.

Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.

This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.

Only last week, the Mufti of Nablus, Ahmed Shobashi, stirred up anger and calls for his resignation when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.

This incident illustrates how the differences within Palestinian and Israeli societies are often greater than the disparities between them. This is reflected in the sharp and polarised secular-religious and right-left divides. In fact, with attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife in both societies which manifests itself, for instance, in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists and leftists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism. That is not to mention the conflicts between the haves and have-nots and those in favour of justice and equality, and those opposed to them.

Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.

Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with al-Aqsa acting as a symbolic centre for the rising tensions.

With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.

The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.

Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will arrive in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.


Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

On Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intimate-Enemies-Israelis-Palestinians-Guardian-ebook/dp/B00OXQJYUE/?tag=smarturl-gb-21


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 November 2014.

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Israel and Egypt’s insane alliance against Gaza

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By Khaled Diab

Despite Egypt’s mediating role, it is no impartial broker on Gaza. It shares Israel’s view that Hamas can be crushed and suffocated into submission.

Photo: UNRWA

Photo: UNRWA

Sunday 10 August 2014

Egypt-Israel-Gaza is possibly one of the most bizarre and perhaps twisted love-hate triangles of recent times. Washington’s credentials as an honest broker have rightly been questioned over the years, and Egypt was traditionally seen as a welcome counterbalance to US bias, but can Cairo today be seen as a pro-Palestinian or even impartial broker?

Not really. For the past year or so, ever since Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi became the de facto leader and then president of Egypt, his regime has been an enthusiastic accomplice in the Israeli-led blockade against Gaza, completely sealing off the Rafah crossing and destroying hundreds of tunnels into the Sinai which provided the Gazan economy with some respite from the siege.

Taking a page out of Israel’s handbook, Egyptian officials leaked plans to Reuters earlier this year that Egypt intends to topple Hamas by, among other things, fomenting dissent in Gaza and backing Fatah.

On top of that, military-aligned television presenters and hosts have been ratcheting up the rhetoric and disinformation against Hamas in Gaza. Despite the continued presence of critical voices, including normally pro-regime anchors, this anti-Hamas propaganda reached fever pitch when hostilities began in early July.

Tawfik Okasha, the military junta’s leading TV cheerleader, praised Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and mocked Gazans on his show. “Gazans are not men,” he taunted live on air. “If they were men, they would revolt against Hamas.”

“Bless you, Netanyahu, and may God give us more like you who will rid us of Hamas, the root of corruption, treason and collaboration with the Brotherhood,” tweeted Azza Sami, a journalist with the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper.

Egypt’s stance has, unsurprisingly, met with much praise in Israel. However, this Egyptian-Israeli love affair has set alarm bells ringing even among normally staunch supporters of Israel. For instance, the conservative, generally pro-Israel Wall Street Journal ran a long feature on this “unlikely alliance” which laid much of the blame for the escalation to open warfare on the excessive “squeezing” of Hamas.

For their part, Palestinians have generally reacted with bewilderment and anger that a country they regarded as an ally has left Gaza to burn, regardless of what they think about Hamas. Many Palestinian I encounter ask me, with a tone of severe disappointment and betrayal in their voices, what Egypt’s game is and why it is allowing fellow Arabs to die in this way.

Some Palestinians and Arab sympathisers have gone so far as to see the hidden hand of conspiracy theories at work, and are convinced that al-Sisi and his regime are US and Zionist agents.

Despite the fact that the al-Sisi regime, under worldwide attack for its lack of democratic legitimacy and widespread human rights abuses, wants Washington on side, this is certainly not the case.

Egypt’s punitive approach towards Hamas is actually not all that new, though it has become far more severe. The Mubarak regime also distrusted and disliked Hamas and played its part in maintaining the Israeli blockade. Even Morsi, the Muslim Brother, did little to alleviate Gaza’s suffering, though he eased the blockade slightly.

The Egyptian president’s strident hostility towards Hamas actually stems from al-Sisi’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement he has persecuted since toppling his Brotherhood predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, following massive protests. The Egyptian regime has falsely alleged that Hamas was guilty of stealing Egyptian resources during Morsi’s 12-month term in office and is behind an insurgency in the Sinai.

This may partly be out of genuine conviction but is also certainly a political ruse to keep popular anti-Brotherhood sentiment and hostility high to justify al-Sisi’s self-declared “war on terrorism”, to manufacture consent, like in Israel, by creating a frightening common enemy, and to crush opposition.

Where once Arab leaders sometimes used Israel as an excuse to silence dissent and delay reform, al-Sisi has come up with a troublingly innovative new formula: blame the Palestinians. And a surprisingly large, if dwindling, number of Egyptians are swallowing the rhetoric.

With all this hostility in the air, Egypt has decided effectively to fight a proxy war against Hamas, by sitting on the sidelines and letting Israel bloody its hands in Gaza, with the trapped civilian population paying a deadly and heavy price, in the hope that its Islamist adversary will collapse.

However, Israeli-Egyptian calculations that Hamas can be brought down or tamed through violence are enormous miscalculations. Although Hamas’s resorting to rocket attacks after some two years of respecting a ceasefire were disastrous and stupid, and walked straight into the trap set by extremist forces in Israel, the Israeli-Egyptian pincer movement over the past year had so cornered the movement that it is now fighting an existential battle in which it has nothing left to lose and, as it sees it, everything to gain.

In addition, even if Hamas falls, there is no guarantee that Fatah will take over, and even if it did, many Gazans will view it as a traitor and collaborator. There is also a strong chance that more radical groups will take over control of the Strip.

With Egypt as mediator and Israel as protagonist on the same misguided line regarding the need to contain, and preferably, topple Hamas, I am sceptical that the current talks in Cairo will lead to a lasting and durable solution, since for that to happen, requires the lifting of the blockade and the reconnecting of Gaza to the West Bank.

The sad, ironic tragedy is that Hamas could have been “contained” without a single shot being fired now, or in 2012, 2008/9 and 2006. Yes, I find Hamas’s extremist ideology and its past of suicide bombings abhorrent, and, like Israel’s militarism, its swift recourse to violence despite its proven futility has been extremely costly. However, ever since coming to power, Hamas, burdened with the responsibility of governing under siege, has displayed far more pragmatism than Israel.

Hamas not only dropped its calls for the destruction of Israel from its election manifesto, the party has consistently indicated its willingness to accept a two-state solution along the pre-1967 borders. Before the latest conflict, Hamas even went so far as to cede political control to the PA and a government of technocrats in the desperate hope that this would lead to the lifting of the siege.

Despite all these clear overtures, Israel’s extremist, jingoistic government, desperate not to give up the territory in the West Bank conquered in 1967 and blinded by ideological hatred towards Hamas (which Israel once misguidedly supported as a counterbalance against the PLO), has refused to play ball and find a way to coexist.

If Israel and Egypt fail to find a way to live non-violently with Hamas, history will continue to repeat itself, each time more tragically than the preceding time. And Gaza will become not only the graveyard of innocent civilians but also the burial ground for the prospects for peace for generations to come.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2014.

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From the Chronikles – 2048: A peace odyssey

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By Khaled Diab

A century after war broke out, jubilant Israeli and Palestinian crowds celebrate each other’s independence as they march hand-in-hand into the future.

14 May 2048*

Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of their once-troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfilment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate independence day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Avivand Ramallah, walked out together onto a raised podium in jointly administered Jerusalem, the two nations’ spiritual and federal capital, for a celebration with thousands of revellers.

“Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day,” a clearly emotional Shalom V, the charismatic Israeli ex-prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. “I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people’s history. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th anniversary for their nation.”

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Palestinians and Israelis who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B, the popular Palestinian ex-prime minister. “Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. It has not been easy for my people, who have shown for decades fortitude and steadfastness in the face of adversity, to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren.”

Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the1967 war, Israel was strangling Gaza and repressing the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah were at war, Salama was on his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. The passionate young idealist, a doctor, was spurred by the images of Ariel Sharon entering the Holy Sanctuary with hundreds of troops to join the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

He was engaged in a number of gun battles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he’d critically wounded.

The Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not sympathise with Salama’s assertion that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers. “And if what you say is true, you’re my POW until the end of this war,” the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history – and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side.

In 2008, Israel’s 60th anniversary caused Shalom, then a junior Knesset member and historian, to suffer, in addition to his tearful joy, a crisis of conscience. He and Salama needed to reach out to the other side and started off a correspondence through which they became best friends before they ever met.

Together, they realised the explosive effect of the past and of ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common narrative which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic Israeli and Palestinian histories with more nuanced ones.

They also agreed to work together on “bread and butter” issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama’s release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a “collaborator”, but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of “individual dignity before national pride” won him many converts among the hard-pressed and downtrodden Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, and civil war. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so, winning Palestinians the hard-earned right to work and move freely across the entire land, which helped the two sides to see the human in the other. By around 2018, the movement they’d spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021.

The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away – and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit freely. Some Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations, such as Morocco, also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once-vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most of those who returned came from Europe or the US, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referenda were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then, to the surprise of many, for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel.

The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel’s joy – traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair – would also be that of Palestine’s, marked according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the former practice of using the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian nakba.

“Given the small size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option,” Shalom remarked at the time.

“In the past, we had our hands at each others’ throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand,” said Salama, independent Palestine’s first premier, as he and Shalom grabbed each others’ hands and raised them triumphantly in the air, hugging emotionally like the old comrades that they were.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

*This article was republished on 5 May 2014. It originally appeared in The Guardian on 23 April 2008.

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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Israel and Gaza: When attack is the worst form of defence

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By Khaled Diab

As the fog of war distort people’s vision and compassion, can Israeli and Palestinian reject the strategy of violence offered by their leaderships?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Just days before the current escalation in violence, I encountered a young Gazan art student living “illegally” in the West Bank because Israel would not allow her to change her address.

With her precarious existence as a kind of fugitive in her own land, which had made her unable to visit her besieged hometown for over seven years, and in light of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its 2008-9 invasion, I asked her how she felt about Israelis.

“I am a human and believe in humanity, regardless of religion, nationality or race. We are all humans. I will not let this affect me,” the art student said, surprising me with the simple intensity of her conviction, as her Jewish-American friend listened in, even though she did not understand a word of what we were saying.

As I watch with rising alarm the fog of imminent war distort people’s vision and compassion, I cannot help but recall this conversation. I wonder whether this young woman is managing to cling on to her admirable compassion and humility, when those around her are losing theirs, or has it too fallen victim to this senseless confrontation?

The first victim of war, it is rightly said, is truth, but its second casualty is humanity. The demonisation, hatred, vitriol and jingoism that has been fired indiscriminately and disproportionately in recent days has been troubling. Personally, though I have felt fury at Israel’s vicious “send Gaza back to the middle ages” military offensive against a captive civilian population – not to mention anger with Palestinian militants for also targeting civilians – I am determined not to allow this to darken my view of ordinary Israelis.

This latest conflagration confounded me but it did not surprise me.

It did not surprise me because we have been here before – in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008-9 in Gaza, to name just two examples, when the Cain of senselessness murdered the Abel of sensibility. The timing was also no big surprise. The smokescreen of military confrontation is a powerful political ploy because it can turn political villains into heroes and discontented citizens into loyal soldiers, silencing growing dissent in the ranks – although it can backfire or blow up in its user’s hands, as discovered by Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2009.

Although this brewing war is ostensibly about the security of Israel, it is, in reality, more about the insecurity of the Israeli government at the ballot box, faced as it has been with growing social unrest, economic dissatisfaction, widening inequality and increasing public fury at the fiscal black hole opened up by settlement subsidies. How else can we explain Israel’s infuriating decision to murder its “subcontractor” in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who was, reportedly, on the verge of sealing a permanent truce with Israel?

On the other side of the fence, Hamas has been facing growing popular discontent – with a recent poll suggesting that it would receive just 31% of the popular vote in Gaza, and considerably less in the West Bank, if suspended elections were held – particularly since the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, and especially amongst young people. Although it was elected for its apparent lack of corruption and cronyism, now that Hamas is the uncontested master of Gaza, it has been guilty of severe abuses of power and human rights violations. Hamas is also far less tolerant of dissent than Fatah.

Though the current fighting does not surprise me, it does confound me. It confounds me because if Israeli and Gazan leaders are truly sincere in their claims that they seek to defend their people, then why have they not yet recognised that attack is the worst form of defence, at least in this conflict?

What have Israel’s many long campaigns of violence against Hamas achieved? The previous Gaza war did not accomplish its intended objective of destroying Hamas, nor did it halt the flow of rockets into Israel. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the quotient of human misery in Gaza, and with it the measure of hostility and distrust towards Israel among Palestinians and Arabs. This current campaign is about restoring “deterrence”, we’re told, but the greatest deterrent effect it is likely to have is to deter even more of the world from viewing Israel with sympathy or compassion.

More broadly, Israel’s other attempts to destroy Hamas by other means have backfired spectacularly, and though they may serve the interests of extremists, they do little to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary Israelis.

Take the blockade on Gaza. While it has been very effective at increasing the destitution and despair of the average Gazan, it has done very little to weaken Hamas’s hold on power. In fact, tightening the screws on the Strip has led us from a situation in which Hamas had to share power with Fatah – and signal its willingness, now that it was actually in power, to act more pragmatically – to one in which the Islamist movement became the only show in town in Gaza and its position has re-hardened.

Hamas’s violence has also paid precious few dividends to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people in general. Though some see Hamas’s behaviour as a heroic form of resistance against the humiliation and oppression of occupation, what good has this supposed heroism done Gazans or the Palestinian cause? Ever since Hamas tacitly joined forces with extremists Israelis to assassinate the (admittedly flawed) peace process, Israel has seen to it that the situation of Gazans has deteriorated immensely.

That is not to say that resistance is futile. On the contrary, if Palestinians are to secure their human rights, resistance is necessary. But in a situation where they are by far the weaker party militarily, they will never be able to match Israeli firepower, so they need to unleash the most potent weapon in their arsenal: peaceful people power, which is more suited to the political nature of the conflict.

The relative potency of this weapon can be seen when you compare the peaceful first intifada with the violent second intifada: the first uprising effectively brought Israel to its knees, while the second brought the Palestinians to theirs. And since the second intifada died down Palestinian peace activists have been rediscovering and reasserting the power of non-violent resistance.

While non-violence has received a lot of attention in the Palestinian context, when it comes to Israelis, it has received precious little. This is reflected in the fact that while most Israelis agree, and urge, the Palestinians to abandon violence, they cling on to the right to use it themselves, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the previous Gaza war among the Israel public.

But the rejection of violence is as important a creed for Israelis as it is for Palestinians, even if they are militarily the more powerful. In this asymmetric conflict, there can be no winners because the more Israel destroys, the more it bolsters Palestinian determination to resist and the more it isolates itself internationally. More importantly, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately political, and not military, it cannot and will not be decided on the battlefield, no matter how long the hawks deny this basic law of nature.

Recognising this important truth, a  resident of a kibbutz near the border with Gaza urged the Israeli government, despite the rockets which have landed in her backyard: “If you want to defend me… try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney.”

In my view, the best way to defend the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is through a complete rejection by the public of violence, not only that committed by the other side, which is easy, but also, more significantly, that perpetrated by your own. Once the cycle of violence is broken for long enough, the two sides can gradually shift from resistance of the other to coexistence with one another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 November 2012.



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Principle and pragmatism demand end to Gaza blockade

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By Khaled Diab

Both humanity and self-interest should compel Israel to end its inhumane siege of Gaza.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Last Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of Israel’s imposition of a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. Although the land, sea and air blockade has not made Israelis any safer or enhanced Israel’s security, it has had a clear humanitarian and economic impact on Gazans.

Take Khaleel Zaanin, 45, a once-thriving Palestinian farmer who has been reduced to subsistence farming because most of his land (37 out of almost 45 acres) falls within the buffer zone, or access restricted area, which Gazans are not allowed to enter.

“I had a great business in citrus, my life was very good. I used to employ 30 workers and export to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank,” recalls Zaanin, who is one of a number of Gazans profiled by a coalition of international development agencies. “Now, I work by myself, just planting vegetables for local sale.”

Zaanin’s situation is hardly unique. In fact, an estimated 35% of Gaza’s already limited arable land and most of its fishing waters lie within the buffer zone. In addition, the Israeli blockade, through severe restrictions on imports and exports, has triggered the almost complete collapse of Gaza’s industrial sector.

One study estimates that the blockade costs Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, over half of whom are children, nearly $2 billion a year. This has created a dependence on aid where little existed before. A decade ago, only one in ten Gazans required assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees. Today, some three-quarters are dependent on aid for their survival.

The service sector has been affected just as badly as manufacturing, with perhaps the only people turning a handsome profit being those who run the smuggling networks. Small businesses have been hit hard, with many going under and even the most resourceful entrepreneurs struggling to stay afloat.

Consider Hind Amal, a divorcee and mother of four, who runs a beauty supply store as part of her grand plan to “move forward” and “be a provider and role model for my children”. Her business was such a roaring success after she first set it up in 2006 that she was able to pay back the loan she had taken out to set it up and turn a profit.

However, the blockade meant that she was unable to import the cosmetics her business sold and her customers could no longer afford them. With necessity driving this mother to invention, Amal started producing her own homemade cosmetics in a bid to keep her head above water and provide for her family.

Though the Israeli public tends to associate Gaza with dangerous men in beards and blood-curdling fanaticism, the vast majority of the Strip’s residents are very ordinary people living under the extraordinary circumstances of almost complete isolation from the outside world.

In fact, the hopes, fears and aspirations of the average Gazan are so mundanely human that it would be difficult for Israelis not to be able to relate to them. “My dream is for the Gaza airport to open again, to have open borders so we can travel,” admits Alaa al-Najjar (23), and not because he wishes to go on holiday or see the world, but “to get treatment for my brother whom I love very much”.

Like for Israelis, family is foremost in the minds of Palestinians in Gaza. “My dream was to give [my five children] a good and decent life. But I couldn’t do any of that,” says Jamal al-Za’aneen (60) who regrets that he was unable to help his children get married and find homes for themselves.

On the back of the blockade and following the pummelling Gaza received during what Israel calls Operation Cast Lead, the Strip is suffering a severe housing crisis. International organisations estimate that Gaza needs at least 71,000 additional housing units, mainly to accommodate natural population growth, but also to rebuild homes destroyed during Israeli military operations. For example, one recent survey found that 15,000 people who lost their homes during Operation Cast Lead remain displaced.

And it is this very tragic human impact of the blockade that should appeal to the common humanity that stretches across even enemy lines and awaken Israelis from their lethargy towards the crimes being committed in their name in Gaza.

Since Israel imposed its blockade, there has been a heated debate over whether or not it is illegal. Questions of legality aside, the real question should be whether or not it is just. As someone who opposes collective punishment, including the blanket Arab cultural boycott of Israel, I believe the blockade is unethical and immoral.

Of course, there will be those who will immediately raise objections and say that the embargo is only in place to protect Israel’s security. Though Israeli concerns over the safety of communities bordering Gaza are valid, how exactly does banning tinned fruit while permitting tinned meat and tuna protect Israel? Is the mighty IDF worried that Palestinian militants, short on rockets, will start firing expired peach chunks across the border?

There are those who argue that the blockade is in place to contain or even destroy Hamas. If that is the intention, then the plan has dramatically backfired. Tightening the screws on Gaza led from a situation in which Hamas won 44.45% of the votes and had to share power with Fatah to one in which it became the only show in town in Gaza. This is partly because, as Israelis well know from personal experience, a people which feels that it is unfairly under attack tends to close ranks and band together.

Additionally, economic destitution and despair usually lead to greater radicalisation and extremism, not the opposite. It is in Israel’s interest to live next door to Palestinians who are materially comfortable and in contact with the outside world.

Moreover, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, yet what effect have these had? Far more productive, as even a growing number of Israelis are now arguing, would be to engage with Hamas and empower the pragmatists within the movement who are willing to accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.

Israelis pride themselves on their sense of morality, which they believe the world unfairly ignores. Well, it is time for them to display this sense of Jewish integrity and demand en masse that their government lift the blockade. It’s the only principled thing to do – and it is in Israel’s own self-interest to boot.

In a short story by an Israeli boy from Sderot, he imagined accidentally flying his remote-controlled plane over Gaza where he inadvertently bombed – or, more accurately, bon-bonned – the Palestinians with his payload of sweets, which led to such joy that everyone dropped their weapons, and peace reigned.

Though this may appear “naïve” to seasoned and cynical adults, this boy had the right idea: the key to this conflict lies in human kindness not inhumane hostility.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 20 June 2012.

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Hebron settlers: Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians must accept Israeli rule but granting them equality would create the “tools for Israel’s destruction”, says Hebron settler spokesman.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Khaled Diab: Ok, let’s move on, we’ve been covering a lot of ground in the past. Now let’s look to the future. So, what in your view is the ultimate solution, what… Can there ever be peace between Arabs and Israelis and how can we achieve that?
David Wilder: [Laughs loudly] Look, I’ve learnt never to day never. Can there be peace? Yeah, sure, there can be peace. But there has to be a legitimate… There has to be an authentic acceptance of the legitimacy of the right of Jews to be here. And that doesn’t exist.

By the same token, shouldn’t there be an acceptance on the part of Jews like yourself of the right of Palestinians to be here too?
I don’t… I have never… I have been in this position for 17 or 18 years. I’ve never said that, for us to live here, the Arabs have to leave. They don’t say that about us. They say that, for there to be peace in Hebron, there can’t be a Jewish community here. I’ve never said that.

But I clarify that by saying, as much as I’ve never said that I believe in transfer, let’s just throw them all out. I think we’re not living in a one-way street. It’s a two-way street. In other words, if it’s considered legitimate to say that, in the name of peace, I have to leave, then it’s also legitimate to say that, in the name of peace, they have to leave. Ok, but I don’t see that happening. Not this way and not that way.

Like I said, I don’t have any problems living with anybody. If anybody wants, they can live here. I believe that they have to… The conditions are very simple. They have to, number one, accept legitimacy. They have to be willing to live within the framework of the state of Israel.

So you think here should remain part of the state of Israel?
Let me finish. And they cannot keep trying to kill me. In other words, today, that’s where the other one comes in [pointing to poster behind him]. You’re perceptive. You are, because most people miss it all. But today, I think, there are 22 Arab states that surround Israel. I’m not telling anybody… I’m not going to put a gun to anybody’s head and say they have to leave. But if they want to leave, they have somewhere to go.

If they decide that they don’t want to live within the framework of the state of Israel, then they have two choices, three choices. They can either continue to do it and not like it. They can try to physically rebel, i.e. continue the terror, continue to try to kill Jews. Or they can leave. If they want to leave, I’m not going to stop them. If they want to continue to try to kill us, then they have to know that we’re not going to turn the other cheek. Not me, it’s not my job as a civilian. It’s the job of the Israeli security forces to see to it, just as any security force anywhere in the world, is supposed to make sure that the state is safe for its civilians, that its citizens are safe, that’s why we pay taxes, and that’s why we go to the army, and that’s why we do what other citizens in any state have to do.

Do I think that they should remain within the framework of the state of Israel? Of course, I do.

So, you’re opposed to the two-state solution? Or would you be willing to live under Palestinian… in a Palestinian state?
I have a very cynical answer to that question because people ask me that question all the time. I say, of course I believe in a two-state solution, we get Israel and they can have Palestine, Texas. Of course, I reject the two-state solution. And I’ll tell you why I reject the two-state solution.

Would I personally… The idea of would we stay in Palestine, as such, is theoretical, I don’t expect it to ever happen.

But if you were given that choice.
Look, I speak as a representative for the Jewish community. That’s a question which has never been discussed publicly or communally, and I have… Somebody asked me that question last week, on camera. And a friend of mine was sitting there, and I said we disagree. We both represent Hebron and we disagree… we have differing opinions.

I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab. What would happen, I have no idea.

Why do I reject the idea of a Palestinian state? There are all sorts of different reasons. Let’s leave for a minute the religious reasons and the nationalistic reasons, both of which are for me real and legitimate. But let’s leave them for a minute. Let me ask you, ok, let’s just. You’ve just landed from the moon, ok. You don’t know anything, except that the way to peace in the Middle East is a two-state solution. So you take a look at a map. A map of Israel, a very simple map. And you see that up north, you’ve got these wonderful people called Hizbullah. And they’re sitting right on top of you and you know that they have chemical weapons.

Do they?
Oh yeah, unfortunately they do.

Israel has nuclear weapons, of course.
They have chemical weapons and they have missiles that can hit the middle of the country, and they love us. You come down a little bit and you’ve got the Syrians, and they’ve got the same thing plus. You come down a little bit further and you come to the state of Jordan. Today, Jordan is fairly stable. I hope it stays that way. With what’s going on in the Middle East today, it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen tomorrow. After Egypt has fallen and Syria is about to fall, and who knows what’ll happen there and what’s in store for Jordan.

And you come down a little bit further and you’ve got the Egyptians. And everything that I’ve been talking about as theory for the last 10 or 12 years is starting to turn into real life, ok, cuz who knows what will happen when the [Muslim] Brotherhood takes over, and things start to change there too. And it might not all change over night but, over a period of a few years, let’s see where it goes there.

And, of course, you come down to Gaza and you’ve got Hamas, with everything that they’ve got. And the only side that really looks like it’s secure is to the west, and there the only thing you’ve got is the Mediterranean. So, that’s Israel, we’re surrounded by lots of really good friends. And then, of course, we ignore the Iranians, who are still trying to put together a nuclear bomb to kill us.

Let’s say that that’s Israel. And then somebody comes and says, you know what, we’re going to take the state of Israel and we’re going to make another Arab state there. Ohh, good. Another people that love us are going to have another state. They’re going to make what we have a little bit smaller because what we have today is very small in any case. But we’re going to make it a little bit smaller. We’re going to create a situation whereby the border from the east to the west is about 10km [alternative view on defensibility of 1967 borders], ok, and we’re going to have an… And then they say but they’re going to be friends. They’re going to be Fatah. They’re going to be good friends. They’re the peace partner.

So, he goes on to the internet and he sees today, because you landed today from the moon, that… what he pulls out of it today, which I saw this morning, that it’s very much expected that, in the next elections, Hamas is going to take over everything, ok.

So, then he says, ahh, Hamas, they’re the ones shooting all the rockets into Israel. Ohh, good. So, then we have another enemy state. So, we have another state, they call it Palestine. It’s right there. And peace has arrived. For six months. And then some joker wakes up one morning. And he says, I don’t like it, it’s too quiet. We have to, you know, add a little excitement to life. And he takes out his little stinger, and he puts it on his shoulder and he goes outside, cuz he’s living up in Samaria in the hills, up there and he looks west and he has a beautiful view, every morning when he gets up, and he sees… He can see the Mediterranean, he see Netanya and he sees all the way down to Ashkelon, and in Ashkelon, he’s got a beautiful view, and every day, he really gets a kick out of watching the planes take off and land in Ben Gurion.

One day, he decides to cause a little excitement, and he takes out his new little missile, which he bought yesterday, and he shoots down an aeroplane. Or, I once wrote a sort of satirical article, in which the people have changed but the attitudes remain the same, then it was with Saddam Hussein, today, it could be one of the Ayatollahs who decide to go and visit their cousin Muhammad in Jordan. You know when kings come, they go with a big group, so he brings 50,000 soldiers with him, and when they come to visit the king, he takes them on a tour of Palestine, and he lines up the 50,000 soldiers on the border with Israel. And he says, why don’t you go and take a look in Israel too. And what do we do then?

You’re dealing with an existential threat to the only Jewish state which exists.

Well, let’s assume that you’re reading of the situation is correct. But let’s look at it from another perspective. How about those Israelis who fear the “existential threat” to Israel from demographics? For example, if Israel remains…
I understand, but it’s not true. Look, like we talked about earlier, you can play all sorts of games with numbers. And if you talk… I fully agree, if you talk to different people who deal with demography, you get totally different results.

If you want to know what my answers are. You can accept or reject. Write down the name Yoram Ettinger and go to his website and pull up his stuff. He does demographic work. He’s a very bright man. He’s done a lot of examination of the demographics here. And it’s all what we call… The idea of losing the demographic battle is all nonsense.

Even a few days ago, the Israeli bureau of statistics came out with a study, which I don’t have on the Web, I’m sure it exists, I’m sure it’s up there, but they just came out with a new study. They were asked to look 50 years into the future. And they came out with results according to the numbers that they have today. And Israel doesn’t come close to losing the demographic Israel that you have today.

There’s one other factor which I don’t know if they took into account there. The other factor is that, I think, in the next 10 to 20 years, you’re going to find a tremendous influx of Jews from North America and Europe into Israel.

Why do you think that? Do you think there’ll be rising anti-Semitism, or they’ll be drawn to Israel, or pushed out?
I think the primary reason they’re going to leave is that they’re going to be afraid, yeah.

So you see anti-Semitism rising again?
It already has. I think they’re going to leave and they’re going to come over here.

You mentioned earlier that you’re happy for your Arab neighbours, the Palestinians, to live here as long as they accept Israeli rule. But are you happy for them to live as fully equal citizens, in a secular state, rather than…?
That’s a very good question. And I’ll tell you very honestly. I had an opinion and, today, I’m not a hundred percent sure what I really, today, think has to happen. I really don’t know. There are several sides to the coin. And there are also very different opinions within what you would call the whole nationalistic, you know, camp, as such.

There are people who have said, no problem, make them all Israeli citizens, give them Israeli ID cards, let them vote, make them just like everybody else. Personally, I’m not a hundred percent sure. I really don’t know and my… The reason for my wavering is because I believe that democracy is wonderful. I grew up in a democracy, in the United States. Israel is not the democracy of the United States but it’s certainly more of a democracy than you’ll find in other places.

But I see democracy as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. And if it’s a tool, and when it’s used correctly, it’s a wonderful tool. When it’s misused, it’s extremely dangerous. And the best examples of that are Germany and Gaza. There were many people that were against the elections, and they took place and Hamas came into power. And there are people that are very concerned about… The only reason that Hamas hasn’t taken over Judea and Samaria is because the Israeli army is here. They work together with the PA to prevent that from happening. Otherwise, Judea and Samaria would’ve fallen a long time ago to Hamas, and people are very concerned about the upcoming elections, because they’re not interested in having Hamas take over here whatsoever.

If that’s the result of democracy and the same thing is true with giving all of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria and possibly Gaza Israeli citizenship, what happens then? If you’re creating the tools for your own destruction, I don’t believe in suicide. If I say go ahead and do it and the end result of that is the demise of the state of Israel, then why do it.

But the ironic by-product of what you’re saying is that you’re advocating, paradoxically and ironically, given the history of Jews, that Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, have to live as “dhimmis”?
You see, that’s why I said, I don’t know. I’m not saying today that I advocate this or that. There are major problems in all directions. And I don’t have the answers for everything. Look, you’re dealing with issues that are very, very complex. You’re dealing with religious issues, and nobody wants to compromise on religion. There’s never a people that want to compromise on religion. You’re dealing with political issues. You’re dealing with international issues. You’re dealing with things that touch on about every facet of life.

And, so, for anybody to say, well, I have the answer. We’ll just have to do this and everything will be okay. I wouldn’t take him seriously. There is no such animal. You’re dealing with very, very complicated issues. And I certainly don’t have the answers to everything.

I think that there are certain things that can happen and develop that can ease the situation. There are things that can cause it to erupt. There are things that can happen that can cause it to settle. To have all of the answers? I don’t have all the answers. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I can only do what I believe within the small framework that I have. Whatever influence that has, it has. And, you know, I do what I can do. I write. I take pictures. I talk to anybody who wants to talk to me. I talk to you. I talk to other people. And I don’t hide anything.

Part I – The art of peace

Part II – From secular America to religious Hebron

Part III – “We are not extremists”

Part IV – “I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down”

Part V – Palestinian people do not exist, are “PR bluff”

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Egypt, Israel and Palestine: towards the promised land of peace?

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By Khaled Diab

 It is high time for Israelis and Palestinians – with grassroots support from Egyptians – to unlock their latent people’s power and forge a popular peace.

Monday 15 August 2011

Although it has primarily focused on domestic issues, the Egyptian revolution has sent ripples of hope and shockwaves of fear across the Middle East. Not only has Egypt traditionally been regarded as the unspoken leader of the Arab world, the dramatic exhibition of people power in action has inspired ordinary people everywhere and terrified the region’s fossilised leadership. 

As Egyptians grapple to redefine their relationship with those who govern them, questions are being asked about how the revolution will affect Egypt’s foreign policy. One area of particular interest is how the ‘New Egypt’ will relate to Israel and the Palestinian struggle for statehood. 

Like other political elites across the Middle East, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – including both Fatah and Hamas – have been eyeing the Egyptian revolution with nervousness, because it threatens to upset the status quo on which they depend. But reality is gradually sinking in.

Many questions about the future remain. Can post-revolution Egypt play a more dynamic mediating role in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Will Egypt’s cold peace with Israel chill further? Will popular anger at Israel’s occupation spill over into Egypt ‘tearing up’ its peace accord with Israel, as many Israelis fear? Is the enthusiasm of some Palestinians that Egypt’s ’return to dignity’ will help their cause warranted? How will the Egyptian revolution affect Israeli and Palestinian politics and how the two sides relate to each other, and to Egypt?

I will seek to answer these questions, as well as to consider how Egypt can best walk the tight rope of championing the Palestinian cause and nudging Israel towards a just resolution of the conflict, without returning to the ‘bad old days’ of futile belligerence. I will also explore what role the largely uninvolved Egyptian grassroots and civil society can play in bridging the gap between the two sides.

Israelis: between fear and enthusiasm

First, I will consider the Israeli response to the revolution and how the revolution has played out among Israel’s political class, the general public and progressive activists. When the revolution first broke in late January, the initial reaction of the Israeli government and establishment was one of concern and even panic, though ministers and officials were initially ordered not to make any public statements on the issue.

This ‘wait and see’ attitude rapidly shifted when the Mubarak regime looked in real danger of collapsing. Israel’s hard-line prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu even toured Europe and the United States to try to convince Western leaders to prop up the collapsing and corrupt dictator, though he now, at least rhetorically, welcomes the prospect of democracy in Egypt.

So what was behind this diplomatic panic and why was Israel, which describes itself as the Middle East’s “only democracy”, so fearful of the Egyptian people’s democratic aspirations?

In Israel, like in the United States and some parts of Europe, Mubarak was seen as a ‘benign dictator’ who protected both Western and Israeli interests against the perceived threat of extremist Islamism and kept Israel’s western front, historically the most dangerous, quiet.

In addition, many Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have long been lecturing that the reason that peace has been elusive is not due to the Israeli occupation but to the absence of democracy in the Arab world. Now what if the dawn of Arab democracy arrives and Israel still fails to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world?

In addition, I suspect that the current extremist Israeli government, despite its rhetoric of wanting peace with the Palestinians if only there were a true “partner for peace”, feared the unknown impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Palestinian question. Would Palestinians follow the Egyptian and Tunisian examples of mass protest and disobedience? Would a revolutionary Egypt ratchet up the pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians or, worse, side more clearly and robustly with the Palestinians?

Among the general Israeli public who know little about Egypt and the Arab world, and understand it even less, the experts and officials who lined up to deliver dire warning that Egypt could well become the “next Iran” and tear up the Camp David peace treaty pumped up the fear level among a population which already felt isolated, surrounded and beleaguered.

A typical response was delivered by Israel’s president Shimon Peres in February. Expressing his feeling that Mubarak’s “contribution to peace will never be forgotten”, he warned that “”Elections in Egypt are dangerous. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be elected they will not bring peace.” 

At the time, I wrote that such fears were unfounded: that Egypt was no Iran and that the country was unlikely to renege on its peace treaty with Israel, though, given the plight of the Palestinians, “this probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier”. 

Since then, events seem to have largely confirmed my analysis. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force in the post-revolutionary landscape, it is by no means the only show in town, despite backroom deals between its leadership and the army’s top brass. In fact, a July poll showed that the Ikhwan’s approval rating stood at only around 17%.

In addition, now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism. Despite its official opposition to peace with Israel and its call for the Camp David agreement to be reviewed, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be up to “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”. 

And it appears that most Egyptians desire peace. Two recent polls (here and here) showed that, in addition to supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state, nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of maintaining the peace deal with Israel. 

But it would be a mistake to think that the Egyptian revolution lacks support in Israel. Not only have some in the liberal and progressive end of the Israeli media spectrum expressed support for the revolution, a number of voices in its more conservative reaches have also publicised their backing. 

Writing in The Jerusalem Post last week, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chastised Israel’s former deputy prime minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for expressing admiration for Mubarak. “The unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget,” he wrote.

More importantly, the Egyptian revolution and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general enjoy a surprising amount of grassroots support in Israel, especially among the young and liberal, with various groups releasing songs and letters of support. I have personally encountered numerous Israelis who wax enthusiastic about it. “[The Arab Spring] has made me more eager to dream that the borders will open one day,” Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli journalist, poet and activist told me over drinks. “And I feel that we can only learn from this fabulous, new, brave movement,” he added.

As if to confirm his point, Israel has subsequently been gripped by protests over soaring housing prices, centred on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, which has been described by some commentators as the country’s own “Tahrir Square”. Moreover, the protests provide a perhaps unprecedented opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians (both Israelis citizens and those in the West Bank and Gaza) to rally around a common issue – housing shortages – that affect them all.

Although the protests have so far remained apolitical, more and more Israelis are connecting the housing crisis within Israel to the generous state subsidies lavished on West Bank settlements and the high cost of maintaining the occupation.

By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together,” Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. “Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation,” they went on to caution. 

Palestinians: inspired but disillusioned

Palestinian reactions to the Egyptian revolution have been complex and divided, both at the official and popular level. Fatah, which received a lot of backing from the Egyptian regime, tried to walk the tight rope of supporting both Mubarak and the “legitimate demands” of the people. 

“We hope that Egypt manages to overcome this crisis while preserving its achievements and meeting the legitimate demands for democracy, political reform, and popular participation,” was Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s reaction in early February, according to the al-Ayyam newspaper.

 The extremist Islamist group Hamas, too, has been lukewarm about the Egyptian revolution. Although Hamas despised the former Egyptian regime’s hostility to the movement and Egypt’s collaboration in the blockade of Gaza, the secular nature of the youth spearheading the revolution and the sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood worried the Islamic movement. In addition, like the PA, Hamas also benefits from the status quo and has entertained fears that the Egyptian people’s example might inspire Gazans to rise up against Hamas and its increasingly repressive rule.

 Hamas witnessed an inkling of this possibility when a Facebook page calling for a ‘Day of Rage’ in Gaza against the Islamist movement attracted 10,000 members within only three days, despite the intermittent power cuts and relatively low internet penetration in the Strip.

This might explain why both Hamas and the PA suppressed, in the early days of the revolution, rallies in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.

However, at the grassroots level, the majority of Palestinians seem to feel solidarity with their Egyptian neighbours. Ever since I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, most Palestinians I have encountered have reacted very positively to the Egyptian revolution. Everywhere I go, I receive warm congratulations as if I was the father or the midwife of the uprising!

While out researching an article in a tiny Palestinian village effectively cut off from the outside world by settlements, the locals I met got sidetracked from talking about their demoralising plight to enthuse about the achievements of the Egyptian people. “You Egyptians have raised the head of every Arab,” Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, told me, in a typical reaction.

Even in the more glitzy surroundings of a luxury hotel in Ramallah, at an official celebration of the 23 July revolution hosted by the Egyptian consulate, Salam Fayyad launched into rhetorical acrobatics to pay tribute to both the 1952 and 2011 revolutions, even though the latter only came about because the earlier failed to deliver on its promises.

In addition to awakening hopes that the Egyptian revolution will lead Egypt to become more supportive of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the protest movement in Egypt has inspired some dedicated young Palestinian activists, under the umbrella of the so-called March 15 movement, to agitate for change

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

 However, their demands were not wholesale regime change, but reconciliation. “Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” Z, one of the young founders of the movement in Ramallah, explained to me.

That said, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population. “The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

This sense that whatever happens, the Palestinians are screwed might help explain why quite a few Palestinians I meet are despondent about the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution, with some expressing their expectations that Egyptian will revert to dictatorship. A few, probably drawing on their sense of powerlessness, have even expressed their suspicions that the revolution is not an expression of the will of the Egyptian people but a joint CIA-Mossad conspiracy.

Nevertheless, a number of observers believe that the Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement – despite its clear weaknesses – was partly a sign of the success of the youth protest movement. It was inspired, they say, by the fear that ordinary Palestinians would follow the Tunisian and Egyptian lead and rise up against the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. In addition, it has been viewed as an indication of the more robust role post-revolutionary Egypt can play in the Palestinian struggle. Similarly, Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing has been interpreted as an early indication of the New Egypt’s more sympathetic approach to the plight of the Palestinians.

 September: Palestine or the Palestinians?

We are only a few short weeks away from the moment of truth, when the Palestinian leadership plan to go to the United Nations and demand the world body’s recognition of Palestine as a state. 

It strikes me that Palestinians, disillusioned, demoralised and desperate are screaming out to the international community, and particularly the United Nations: “You got us into this mess. Now get us out of it.”

There are parallels to be drawn between this bid and the 1947 UN partition plan which paved the way, despite Arab rejection, to the creation of the state of Israel. However, this time around it is unlikely to serve the Palestinians as well because they are too weak, the Israelis too powerful and the international community lacks the wherewithal to impose a solution on the two parties. Besides, if we are to learn anything from the tragic past, it is that UN involvement with only one side’s support was disastrous, and there is no reason to think it won’t be again.

Personally, I can’t help thinking that, rather than grant Palestinians the statehood they desire, the unilateral UN option could backfire by ending in failure or resulting in a virtual but hollow state that enjoys the sheen of international legitimacy but does not actually exist on the ground.

And I’m not the only one with misgivings. Earlier this week, a young Palestinian activist told me: “I think that nothing will really change on the ground.” He added: “I am really afraid of the PA because they will not ask for a full membership of the UN and instead they will go for non-member status which will not help us in this movement but they will sell it to us as a victory.”

The main reason that Palestinians might shy away from demanding full membership is a function of the way the UN operates. For a country to gain membership to the world body, the UN Security Council must first recommend statehood to the General Assembly. And judging by previous and current form, Washington is very likely to veto any such proposal. In fact, some US officials have warned that Washington could withdraw its funding for the UN, if the proposed vote goes ahead.

Of course, there is a chance that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are actually not seriously contemplating going to the UN and are using this as a bluff to focus Israeli minds, lure Israel back to the negotiating table and force it to offer the Palestinians a viable state along the pre-1967 borders. But if that is the case, it looks like Israel has decided to call their bluff.

The Israeli reaction to possible UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is difficult to gauge but it is unlikely to be positive. The UN option enjoys the backing of some Israelis who see in it a ‘win-win’ solution for both sides. But such an enlightened Israeli view is a minority one, and the Israeli government and much of the public interpret the plan as an act of hostility.

Besides, previous declarations of statehood achieved little. Palestine, which has existed as a virtual state for decades, and is currently recognised bilaterally by over 110 countries, including Egypt, still remains a state-in-waiting. For example, the 1988 unilateral Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was made in exile by the PLO in Algiers, was little more than an exercise in symbolism.

The real gains for the Palestinian cause were being made, a quarter of a century before the ‘Arab Spring’, by the ordinary Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who rose up in the largely peaceful and leaderless first intifada, paving the way to the peace process and the two-state solution. 

New Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Until now, the impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been difficult to gauge. Nonetheless, a number of positive and negative ramifications can be discerned.

On the negative side, the upheavals in Egypt and other parts of the region connected to the Arab Spring have diverted much of the global interest away from the Palestinians question. It has also enabled Israel to more or less quietly create more ‘facts on the ground’ ahead of the Palestinians plan to go to the UN in September. This can be seen, for instance, in the accelerated rate of evictions, displacements and demolitions in East Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ of the West Bank this year.

On the positive side, Egypt has already taken some action that was aimed at improving the situation, such as brokering the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and easing restrictions on Gaza. More intangibly, the Egyptian revolution has provided both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership with a taste of what can happen when an unjust and untenable status quo is left to fester unattended for too long.

In the longer term, many commentators have expressed hope that a democratic Egypt can play a more robust and vibrant role as a peace broker and help mediate some form of reconciliation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Some more militant and extremist Palestinians hope, and many Israelis fear, that Egypt will become more hostile and belligerent in its support of the Palestinian cause and its opposition to the occupation.

Personally, I don’t expect either outcome is likely. However, a democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood might act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. That said, for many years to come, Egypt will be embroiled primarily in domestic affairs. This includes the construction of a new political system, fixing the economy, addressing inequalities, combating corruption, dealing with sectarian tensions, and more. Moreover, even a democratic Egypt will lack the clout to impose a resolution and Egyptians have learnt through long and bitter experience that belligerence leads nowhere.

So, it would perhaps be a mistake for those Israelis and Palestinians who pine for peace to await an Egyptian saviour. Instead, they should look to the more intangible support that Egypt can provide, namely that they need not await a foreign messiah because their true saviour is within themselves.

Egypt has provided Palestinians and Israelis, long cynical and disillusioned that the powers that be can bring about any meaningful change in their situation, with a dose of much-needed hope and inspiration, especially in their own latent powers as people.

People power: the missing link

I am a strong believer in the idea that ‘people power’ is the missing link in the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The vast majority of the discourse relating to the conflict focuses on a top-down solutions in which an international broker or brokers bring the two parties together to the negotiating table and lean on them until they kiss and make up and agree to live together happily ever after.

The trouble with this model is that it overlooks the fact that no external mediator enjoys the kind of clout or willpower necessary to push through a resolution. In addition, it ignores the glaring disparities in power between Israelis and Palestinians. It also turns a blind eye to the fractured and divided political landscape on both sides which makes reaching a consensus over the painful realities both sides must accept for the sake of peace a task of Herculean proportions.

This is particularly the case given the decades-long mutual distrust and loathing, which renders the necessary groundswell of popular opinion required to achieve peace impossible to attain.

I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just act as passive by-standers. Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation. And the best way to do this, as the ‘Arab Awakening’ is illustrating, is through mass, peaceful joint activism.

For many years, a minority of activists on both sides have joined forces and found common cause in opposing the occupation, settlement building, the separation wall and home demolitions and evictions. This needs to be stepped up and activists must find creative ways of inspiring the mainstream – they need to make their movement go viral.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, and the current housing protests could be a good foundation upon which to build such a movement.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to overcome their own apathy and passivity and help facilitate and mediate such a ‘people’s peace’. For the sake of peace and the future, Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and act in active and open solidarity with the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and export the spirit of their revolution to neighours who are in desperate need of it.

This article is based on a talk given by Khaled Diab at a conference on the future of Egypt organised by the International Peace Studies Centre which took place in London on Saturday 13 August 2011.
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Reinventing the Palestinian struggle

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By Khaled Diab

Inspired by the Arab spring, a new generation of Palestinians plan to fight the occupation with olive branches.

Friday 13 May 2001

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian struggle for statehood once occupied centre stage in the Middle East, especially prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

But the youth-led revolutionary wave rocking the region has captured the eyes and imagination of the world and diverted attention to many places that previously floated in the media backwaters or were simply uncharted territories: Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. For a few unprecedented weeks, Egypt even caused a total eclipse of the international media.

Amid all this tumultuous change, one may be excused for thinking that all is quiet on the Palestinian-Israeli front. But the conflict grinds on ceaselessly under the world’s radar and the factors that make it explosive continue unabated: settlement building, home evictions and expulsions in Jerusalem, a repressive Israeli occupation and oppressive Palestinian leadership.

So why haven’t Palestinian youth risen up like their counterparts elsewhere in the region to demand their rights?

Well, it is not for want of trying. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, and following the date-based example of counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world, a new youth movement dubbed by some as the March 15 movement has emerged in Palestine.

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

However, in contrast to other popular uprisings in the region, their demands were not wholesale regime change, despite the undoubted failings of both Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, and the absence of a democratic mandate for both parties.

“Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” explained Z, one of the founders of the movement in Ramallah, who wished to conceal his identity for professional reasons.

Some of the others involved in March 15 are also reluctant to reveal their identities, partly as an expression of the decentralised and “leaderless” approach preferred by Middle Eastern protesters tired of authoritarianism, and partly to avoid popping up on the radars of security services run by the PA, Hamas or Israel.

Despite its relative success on 15 March, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z, who is in his early 20s.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population, which the Arab spring is just beginning to chip away at. Most Palestinians I have met since I moved to Jerusalem a few weeks ago speak enthusiastically and excitedly about the Egyptian revolution.

“The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

And after two intifadas separated by the Oslo peace process, the net outcome for Palestinians has been to witness the gradual vanishing of their historic homeland and the space for a future nation spliced and diced into ever smaller portions, with many of the choicest cuts going to settlers.

Nevertheless, hope is emerging, Z insists. The surprise recent reconciliation agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas, which many reckon was partly due to youth activism, as well as the rapidly changing regional realities, has been a boost.

Z told me that a new generation of Palestinians, many of whom were born around the time of the first intifada, are ready to reinvent the struggle.

Drawing lessons from the failure of the violent second intifada and the success of the largely peaceful first intifada, as well as the now-proven power of mass, nonviolent protest to instigate change in the region, this generation of upcoming leaders plan to fight the occupation with weapons of mass disobedience. “We want to employ ‘smart’ resistance,” Z says.

“A moderate, peaceful intifada is coming. Can’t say when, but it is inevitable,” he adds confidently. “We’re trying to create a snowball effect. In Egypt, it took a decade to get to this stage.”

Palestinian activists, often in collaboration with the Israeli peace movement, have been quietly laying the groundwork for nonviolent resistance in recent years, as demonstrated, for example, by the constant stream of protests against house demolitions and evictions, and the Israeli separation wall.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of the joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, with large-scale joint action as the most effective way to end the occupation and bring about peace.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

But Z doesn’t believe there is much scope for broader joint action. “We have no problems working with Jews and Israelis. We’re against racial discrimination and so shouldn’t discriminate ourselves,” he says. “However, we don’t feel the majority of Israelis care enough or are interested in our plight to do anything about it. Besides, there isn’t enough mutual trust.”

Z and his comrades are busy formulating a post-reconciliation strategy that seeks, first and foremost, to strengthen the Palestinians internally and prepare them for statehood, and employ this greater unity and strength to bring the occupation to an end.

“We need new political faces and parties. We need renewal through youth,” Z says.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 12 MaY 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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