Palestinian exiles: When home becomes a foreign land

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By Khaled Diab

While Palestinians living in the diaspora are physically separated from Palestine, those who remain in the homeland often feel a sense of psychological or spiritual alienation, not to mention an overwhelming dream to roam free.

Palestinians are nostalgic for a disappearing landscape and the days they could roam free.
Image: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Exile is an integral part of the modern Palestinian experience. It is so pervasive and all-encompassing that Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as the national poet of Palestine, asked in a later poem, written after decades of internal and external banishment: “Without exile, who am I?

“I became addicted to exile,” he elaborated in a 2000 interview with The New York Times. “My language is exile. The metaphor for Palestine is stronger than the Palestine of reality.” Mourid Barghouti, the Palestinian poet, echoed the sentiment in his memoir of exile and return, I Saw Ramallah (2000). On his arrival in the West Bank, after 30 years of banishment, he was moved to remark on how Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land.”

This gradual transformation of the Palestinian homeland, from a fixed physical location to a metaphysical space, echoes (up to a point, at least) the centuries-long relationship of Diaspora Jews with the Holy Land – a place from which they could draw a sense of spiritual belonging, especially at times of exclusion and persecution.

While Palestinians living in the diaspora are physically separated from Palestine, those who remain in the homeland often feel a sense of psychological or spiritual alienation. They feel disconnected from, and disenfranchised in, a land increasingly alien to them, as Israel expands into most of the available space around them.

This sense of metaphysical rather than physical exile might explain why Raja Shehadeh’s chose Going Home (2019), “a walk through 50 years of occupation,” as the title of his latest book – with its echoes of the title of his first book, Strangers in the House (2002).

“I continue to be troubled by a recurring dream in which, for what seems to be an agonisingly long time, I search for but cannot find my home,” writes Shehadeh, a prominent human rights lawyer and co-founder of al-Haq, the independent Palestinian human rights organisation. “For someone who has lived the majority of his life in the same small city, who owns a property in it, to feel in my subconscious that I am bereft of a home is a strange affliction.”

This sense of insecurity in Ramallah, where the Shehadeh clan has lived since it was said to have been established as a small town in the mid-1550s, stems from the tumultuous changes that have occurred to the physical and political landscape surrounding the author since his birth, and prior to it.

Born in 1951, Shehadeh did not have first-hand experience of the war of 1947/8, unlike his parents and grandparents. Although his father had been born in Ramallah, he built a life for himself as a successful lawyer in Jaffa, and considered the vibrant coastal town – back then, the more glamorous neighbour of the upstart Tel Aviv – his home. Shehadeh’s parents left Jaffa and all their possessions in 1948, “never to return except as wistful visitors.”

“How utterly miserable it must have been for my father to have been forced to return to… the provincial life of Ramallah. But for me, it was the only life I knew,” Shehadeh reflected in his earlier Palestinian Walks (2007), while standing on what had been the old British Mandate road running from Jaffa to Ramallah – the very same road that his parents used when travelling to their summer home in Ramallah, and along which they fled Jaffa in 1948.

“I wonder now how my mother must have felt about ending up living next to a cowshed,” Shehadeh writes in Going Home, “after leaving her glamorous life in the affluent and cultured city of Jaffa, where her husband had a flourishing law practice.”

But the glorified village that Shehadeh’s parents were forced to move to was itself to change almost beyond recognition, as the boy matured into adulthood and Ramallah matured into Palestine’s de facto capital, in the years following the Oslo accords and as Jerusalem gradually became off bounds to Palestinian aspirations.

The first change in Ramallah was a demographic one. Attracted by new opportunities or pushed away by the conflict, much of Ramallah’s original population, which was predominantly Christian, moved abroad. Not long after, Palestinians from across the West Bank and beyond made Ramallah their home after the city became the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

For the Shehadeh family, emigration was never an option they considered. “My family considered emigrating only once, when the Jordanian authorities’ harassment of my father became intolerable,” he notes.

Israel’s conquest of the West Bank in 1967 bolstered the Shehadeh family’s resolve to stay put and safeguard their homeland. Shehadeh’s lawyer father was one of the first Palestinians to advocate a two-state solution. “My father fantasised about a new era of peace with Israel with a Palestinian state next to it,” Shehadeh recalls. “He strongly believed that it would happen if his advice was heeded. But it did not come to fruition.”

What did come to fruition, eventually, was a measure of autonomous rule in two enclaves, Gaza and the West Bank. Separated by a mere few dozen kilometres, the two might as well have been on opposite sides of the world, with the West Bank further intersected and dissected by settlements and the infrastructure of occupation.

In addition to the injustices that the settlement enterprise imposed on Palestinians, Shehadeh, a keen walker and lover of the hills, personally experienced it as a blight on the sublime beauty of the landscape. “No visitor would now sigh, let alone fall on his knees, as many a conqueror and pilgrim in the past had done, upon beholding the Old City nestled between the hills,” he observed in Palestinian Walks, describing a rare visit to Jerusalem, which he approached from the nearby  sprawling settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. “Now contorted, full of obstructions, walls and ugly blocks, it is a tortured city that has lost its soul.”

This disfigurement is compounded by the jarring architecture of the new settlements and the unchecked urbanisation of the recently rural hinterland. True, this process may have unfolded without the occupation, as the experience of many rapidly developing societies around the world demonstrates. That said, even though ageing in a world changed almost beyond recognition is tough anywhere, for older Palestinians like Shehadeh it presents an additional challenge: the present has become, quite literally, a foreign place, over which they exercise almost no control.

Israelis are familiar with the Tel Aviv “bubble”, that social and cultural forcefield the city has built around itself to shield it from the conflict. Palestinians have their own equivalent in Ramallah; from its elevated location in the central West Bank, Tel Aviv (and Jaffa) can be spotted in the distance, glimmering and unreachable.

The parallels between Ramallah and Tel Aviv do not end there. Both cities grew from modest beginnings: Tel Aviv played second fiddle to the larger Jaffa, and Ramallah was hidden in the shadow of Jerusalem, before the two matured into major cities.

Despite these similarities in terms of (relative) prosperity and an over-abundance of hipsters, Ramallah and Tel Aviv differ in certain key respects. The Tel Aviv bubble is porous and as soft as silk while Ramallah’s is more like a padded cell in an asylum, one that cannot easily be exited.

Tel Aviv’s inhabitants not only have access to the beach and the sea, they are also free to roam within Israel and beyond (with Ben-Gurion Airport conveniently located just outside the city) – even though many avoid the more conservative Jerusalem like it was a contagion.

In contrast, the bubble that surrounds Ramallah is not entirely of its own making. Ramallah is “a city of illusions inhabited by aspirants, poised to take off but prevented by the forces of circumstance and misfortune,” Shehadeh describes in Going Home. It is a place where “there is no joy; pleasure is blunted by the sad events and incessant bad news that envelop us.”

It is true that the unending conflict and the worsening humanitarian situation feed into widespread distress and unprocessed trauma. But it is a mistake, in my view, to say that Ramallah, or Palestine as a whole, is a joyless place. Far from it, as I discovered during my years in the Holy Land. In a multigenerational conflict, people learn not to wait for better times; instead, they try to make the most of the times that they have, despite and because of the conflict.

People joke. People hang out with friends. People celebrate feasts and festivals. People date. People go to parties. People kick their legs to the dabke (a traditional Palestinian dance)—some even see it as a dance of liberation. People get engaged and married. They organise elaborate weddings, with enormous guest lists to match. One of the more bizarre trends of contemporary Palestinian weddings are the pyrotechnics. One would assume that people living in a conflict zone, where menacing bangs in the night are commonplace, would find fireworks traumatising. But in the summer, one can hear their pops and bangs on an almost nightly basis in some parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

All too often, the boundaries thrown up by the Occupation get in the way, preventing friends and families from seeing one another, especially during periods of curfews and closures. But many do their damndest to circumnavigate these restrictions. Even though most of our friends and acquaintances in Ramallah and the West Bank were prevented from visiting Jerusalem as a matter of course, some did find creative ways to sneak in from time to time, even if only to attend a party.

Suad Amiry, the Palestinian architect turned author, is one hilarious voice who has succeeded in bringing to vivid life the dark comedy that runs through the quotidian struggle for normalcy. In her breakthrough book, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law (2007), Amiry directs her sharp wit at the Occupation. During Ariel Sharon’s reoccupation of Ramallah in 2002, she found herself stuck with her mother-in-law, who “still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us.”

Bored rigid by the curfew and feeling defiant, her Ramallah neighbours climbed up on to their rooftops in the middle of the night and started to drum furiously: a spontaneous rave, of sorts, against the Israeli war machine. Elsewhere, Amiry recalls the tragi-hilarious need to pose as her pet dog’s chauffeur in order to get into Jerusalem. While Nura, the canine, had a pass to enter Jerusalem, her mistress does not.

During the curfew I experienced on my first visit to Ramallah, plain-clothed armed men roamed the streets. This group would not let me photograph them until they heard my Egyptian accent – which proved to be a useful passport wherever I went over the years.

Her account triggers memories of my first visit to Ramallah in 2007, not long after the Second Intifada had petered out. There was a small-scale conflict spluttering between different Palestinian factions, and one attempted to impose a curfew while I was there. But the owner of the bar I was drinking at simply told his punters to stay put and pulled down the shutters; we continued to drink and chat, minus the view of the street.

That said, no matter how much escapism one can harness, there is no escaping the ultimate reality of the deepening and tightening occupation. The current topography of the conflict, not just the mushrooming settlements but also the walls and barriers, was an everyday part of the landscape for me. I was even exposed to it from my front porch, which overlooked the breathtakingly stunning Jordan Valley, from where I could see with my naked eyes three countries (Israel, Palestine and Jordan), the Dead Sea and at least half a dozen political subzones.

But this reality was once inconceivable for those old enough to remember how things were, people like the Palestinian great-grandmother who was once my neighbour and recently passed away in her mid-nineties. “I never imagined the West Bank could be closed off from Israel,” Shehadeh admitted in Palestinian Walks.

I encountered this sentiment repeatedly amongst older Palestinians, and from their Israeli peers too. They recall with wonder how once it had been possible to savour, relatively unhindered, just how small and diverse this land was; Israelis going to shop and eat sumptuous fish in Gaza, Palestinians enjoying the nightlife of Tel Aviv. Once, it was not at all unusual for Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to have Jewish Israeli friends. The very oldest can recall a dim past when Arabs and Jews were both known as Palestinians and when “Arab” and “Jew” were not regarded as mutually exclusive terms.

Today, the most common encounters for West Bank Palestinians with Israeli Jews are with soldiers and settlers. Even though the settlers live in visible settlements, for Shehadeh and most Palestinians they have a kind of invisible presence: a creeping encroachment that swallows up Palestinian land and the land earmarked for their unborn state, an almost intangible apparition that nevertheless requires the very real and raw presence of the military to sustain it.

Shehadeh recounts the very first time in his long career as a human rights lawyer that he encountered hardcore ideological settlers in this case, a group who had managed to seize private Palestinian land in the village of Beit ‘Ur. “I had heard and read much about the crazy settlers and their even crazier rabbis,” Shehadeh recalled in Palestinian Walks. “At the settlement headquarters, I was expecting to meet devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired, who were forcing us to a confrontation and many years of bloodshed.” But in place of these deranged fanatics, he met a group of “earnest-looking men” who “seemed amiable” and “fully committed to what they were doing”.

“Their enthusiasm was contagious. Had I not been on the other side, I could have fallen for it,” Shehadeh admitted. “What surprised me even more was the lack of guilt they exhibited towards me… They cared little about the Palestinians in Beit ‘Ur, who had been in the village for centuries… Nor did they have any qualms, as I discovered later, about using any sort of trickery or deceit to get their way.”

In an effort to flesh out the human from the political and to understand better the psychology of the different players in the conflict, when I lived in Israel/Palestine I went out of my way to meet settlers, even the most radical and extreme. The weirdest of all these encounters which I recount in my book, Intimate Enemies (2014) must have been with the Beit Romano settlers in the old city of Hebron.

Despite its reputation as the most extreme of all the settler groups, David Wilder, the leader of the local settlers and my host, insisted that his community was not extreme but “ideological.”

David Wilder

In conversation, it was clear that this eloquent American-turned-Israeli, whose surface calm was akin to a powerful volcano just before an eruption, regarded everyone else as extreme not just his Palestinian neighbours, but also what he believed to be the leftist-liberal Israeli political establishment. To place him on the political spectrum, suffice it to say that he considered Fox News to be part of the liberal media. His enthusiasm about his cause was as impassioned as the settlers Shehadeh had met in Beit Ur. Despite his initial reluctance to let me visit his community, once I was there, he could not stop talking.

The fundamental, ultimate, singular issue for him was that as Jews, he and his community had the right, indeed the duty, to live in close proximity to the second holiest site in Judaism the Cave of the Patriarchs, which had been closed off to Jews since the Crusader era. As someone who believes in freedom of belief, tolerance and multicultural coexistence, I could not and would not challenge his right of access to this hallowed site, believed to be the final resting place of the founding fathers of the Jewish faith and their wives—even if it struck my atheistic mind as little more than a superstition, certainly not something that justified the imposition of such human misery. The trouble, for me, was not the adherence to this fundamental religious right. Rather, it was the fundamentalist, rigid, intolerant, uncompromising vision that surrounded this stance, and the stifling, suffocating reality it had spawned.

When Shehadeh met the settlers of Beit Ur, he had been struck by the void vis-a-vis the Palestinians where he had expected some form of a conscience to reside. In Hebron, Wilder was similarly unfussed.

A blind Palestinian walks past a checkpoint in the old city of Hebron.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The impact of Jewish settlement in Hebron did not trouble him in the slightest. The paralysis forced upon communal life in the Old City, the loss of livelihood for hundreds of business owners, the daily violations to the human rights of local Palestinians; all this meant nothing to him. As someone who is troubled by the plight of people on the other side of the planet with whom I have nothing in common and who may even be regarded as my enemies, it was frustrating to see such hostile indifferences to one’s immediate neighbours, many of whom I had met. The contrast between Wilder’s tone of calm reason during our meeting, and his community’s habit of throwing rubbish and other projectiles at passers-by in the old city beneath or the bizarre phenomenon of the nearby Palestinians houses that had been partially taken over by settlers – a room here, a garden there.

In fact, Wilder seemed to regard the Palestinians of Hebron as the settlers on his people’s promised land, the real interlopers. While showing me around the settlement, he pointed to a nearby hill which, he said, had been empty when he had first moved to Hebron. But now it was full of Palestinian homes, which he described as a “settlement.” These were not only a demographic and security threat in his opinion, but also an obstacle to the expansion of his community.

Wilder’s stance was that Israel must rule the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. If Palestinians could not live with and accept Israeli rule, they could leave and settle in another Arab land. However, he was opposed to granting Arabs equal rights to Jews, thereby demoting the Palestinians to permanent second-class status. Equality, in his view, was tantamount to “creating the tools for your own destruction [and] I don’t believe in suicide.”

Wilder even appeared indifferent to the fact that each member of his small community required two or more soldiers to protect and secure their presence amidst the understandably hostile local population. Judging from my observations, many of these young, apparently secular conscripts wanted to be anywhere but there, most especially during the settler community’s weekly “tour” through the Qasbah of Hebron’s Old City the participants heavily armed, the route cleared of Palestinians. On one of the occasions when I stood close to the settlers, wrapped provocatively in a Palestinian keffiyeh, in silent protest against this thuggery, the panic in the eyes of the unit commander was visible. Perhaps figuring that I could be reasoned with more than the zealous young members of the settler group, he implored me apologetically to move a little further away.

Maybe it is unsurprising that Wilder and the settlers seemed unconcerned even about the moral distress and stress that his community’s presence in Hebron caused the young conscripts, given what struck me as a cavalier attitude to their own children. Watching young kids from the settlement playing outdoors on a climbing frame, I realised that I simply could not fathom how parents would voluntarily expose their children to the undoubted trauma of living slap bang in the heart of enemy territory, isolated from their co-religionists and co-nationalists.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

As Hebron clearly illustrates, immobility or limited mobility is a daily frustration with which Palestinians struggle. “I drive around all day in my car, yet feel confined, as though I am going in circles, in a world that keeps on shrinking,” one taxi driver told Shehadeh in Going Home. The exchange echoes conversations that I have had myself. However, there is one sense in which the Palestinian territories have grown. The walls, barriers, bypass roads and checkpoints have turned journeys that once took minutes into epic tests of patience and perseverance. Other journeys, such as travelling between Gaza and the West Bank, have become almost impossible, with many Gazas effectively “exiled” in the West Bank and West Bankers “exiled” in Gaza.

The Oslo Accords may have finally allowed for the word “Palestine” to appear on vehicle numberplates. But rather than roaming independent and free, Palestinian cars are confined to an even narrower closed circuit of roads.

The geographical paralysis with which Palestinians must contend daily was a constant cause of discomfort and guilt for me during the more than five years I lived in Jerusalem. Almost nowhere in Israel or Palestine was off bounds to me, though some places, such as Gaza, were harder to access than others. In fact, as a foreigner I had, in a way, even greater freedom than Israeli Jews, barred from entering Gaza and strongly discouraged from visiting Palestinian towns in the Oslo Accord’s Area A (areas under the Palestinian Authority’s full civil and security control). This meant that I had the rare privilege of being able to see the territory in its entirety, and to meet a cross-section of the population, representatives of the political divides that run like seismic rifts through this land.

This freedom gave me a keen understanding of the confined and crippled dream of roaming free. Mobility has become a key aspiration for Palestinians, reflected in the growing focus on freedom of movement as a political demand. This aspiration to break free of the straitjacket imposed by the Occupation manifests itself in numerous forms: local farmers and activists marching together to reach farmland or to harvest olive trees seized by settlements; the Freedom Riders movement; demonstrators risking life and limb to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank; the weekly “Great March of Return” in Gaza, during which scores have been killed and thousands injured while challenging Israel’s almost hermetic closure of their territory.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When Shehadeh was younger, his neighbours considered his pastime of taking long walks through the hills a practice once known as sarha (rambling aimlessly) as dull, even passé. Today, despite and because of the mobility restrictions and barriers, not to mention the risks involved, rambling, hiking and rock climbing are very much in vogue amongst the urban and hip.

“When I look back now on all those years in the eighties when I could walk without restraint, I feel gratified to have used that freedom and taken all those walks and got to know the hills,” Shehadeh wrote in Palestinian Walks. “Now when I walk in the hills I cannot but be conscious that the time when I will be able to do so is running out.”


This essay first appeared in the Tel Aviv Review of Books in the winter 2019 edition.

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Lieberman, Netanyahu and Dr Strangelove

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The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister is like the plot of a nihlistic black comedy.

Image design: Khaled Diab

Image design: Khaled Diab

Thursday 9 June 2016

To Arabs, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister sounds like it could be the plotline of a 21st-century Israeli adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s classic, Dr Strangelove, but without the laughs.

After all, this is a politician who has casually suggested, on a number of occasions, that Israel should bomb the Aswan High Dam, reportedly for what he perceived as Egypt’s  support of Yasser Arafat and the, at the time, hypothetical redeployment of Egyptian troops to the demilitarized Sinai.

If I were someone who took the statements of politicians at face value, then this threat would terrify me. If by bombing, Lieberman meant the destruction of the dam, then that would likely lead to the certain death of millions of my compatriots, including family and friends, who would be swept away in a huge tsunami-like tidal wave.

Even though such destruction is impossible short of multiple nuclear strikes, engineers say, this has become Lieberman’s most famous and infamous outburst in Egypt, given its genocidal implications, with most articles in the Egyptian media about his new position mentioning it.

Another Egyptian media fixation is on Lieberman’s brief “career” as a nightclub bouncer, suggesting that Moldovan immigrant is some kind of brainless thug. While certainly thuggish, he is highly intelligent and shrewd. After all, his stint as a bouncer was while he was a student at the Hebrew University and he guarded the doors of a student club.

Lieberman, whose writer father imbued him with a love of Russian literature, once reportedly dreamed of becoming a poet. And like numerous frustrated artists before him who turned to extremist politics, one can only wonder how much better things would have been for Lieberman and the world had he made it as a writer.

Of course, few Egyptians have taken seriously Lieberman’s threat to undam the forces of annihilation on their country. However, the fact that Lieberman’s past statements are coming back to haunt him reflect that words are not just empty sounds that travel no further than the echo chamber of Yisrael Beiteinu supporters.

His bomb-laden bombast is, nevertheless, more than simple bluster, it reflects a deeper malaise: Lieberman’s ideological and instinctive hatred of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. This is reflected in his consistently hawkish stance, which seems, for instance, to have tipped the balance towards outright war in Gaza in 2014, through Lieberman’s rivalry with Netanyahu and his constant mockery of the prime minister as a weakling unwilling to use sufficient force.

And it is this radical streak which troubles Egyptian and Arab commentators the most. Lieberman has, over the years, demanded that Israel go to war not only with Gaza, but also to exercise extreme violence against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Palestinian prisoners. He has also advocated the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their towns to a future Palestinian state, demanded professions of “loyalty” from Arabs in Israel and suggested that those who are “disloyal” should be beheaded.

This has raised fears among many Arab observers that Lieberman will exploit his defence portfolio to advance a belligerent, militaristic approach that will pull Netanyahu’s already extremist government to the outermost reaches of the far-right.

Some analysts are convinced that by handing over Israel’s army to Lieberman, Binyamin Netanyahu is deftly torpedoing the latest Arab peace overtures, this time coming from Egypt, not to mention international efforts, namely from France, without putting himself directly in the firing line.

Just days before the announcement was first made, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi extended a hand to Israel, promising a “warmer peace” if Israel would only “resolve the issue of our Palestinian brothers”.

This led some commentators to view the apparently unhinged choice of Lieberman for the defence portfolio as a move intended to humiliate Sisi and the Arab League. “[Israel] is sticking its tongue out to all the Arabs,” Hassan Nafie, an Egyptian professor of political science, was quoted as saying. “Israel sees peace initiatives as coming from a position of weakness and surrender.”

However, for many Arabs, and especially Palestinians, Lieberman is simply a case of “business as usual”. “They are all Lieberman,” wrote Palestinian journalist Awni Sadiq in reference to Netanyahu and his far-right coalition.

Some see any change of personnel as irrelevant because Netanyahu, the nearest Israel has come to a dictator and whose endless tenure reflects the wisdom of term limits imposed elsewhere in the world, ultimately calls the shots. “At the end of the day, it is Netanyahu who decides more than anyone what is Israel’s policy in war and in peace,” wrote Ashraf al-Arjami in the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.

While I comprehend the depths of Palestinian disillusionment at settlement expansion, movement restrictions and the long series of extremist governments from which this attitude emanates, I can’t help feeling that it is misguided. Although it is possible that it will be business as usual and, charged with actual security authority, Lieberman will learn to temper his ultra-extremism, but we must not underestimate his potential to cause enormous damage.

With the defence ministry at his mercy, Lieberman may well exert every effort to neutralise the Israeli army’s newfound role as pragmatic moderator and conscience to a civilian leadership that has lost its grasp of reality and now occupies a (self-)destructive bubble.

This is reflected in Lieberman’s bill to reintroduce the death penalty for Palestinians convicted on terrorism charges, while his open support of a soldier caught on film murdering in cold blood an incapacitated stabber in Hebron suggests that the practice of extra-judicial execution of Palestinian attackers is likely to escalate under his watch.

As we approach the second anniversary of the last Gaza war, and as tensions between Israel and Hamas rise, another war could be in the making. And, sadly, with Lieberman at the helm, the devastation and bloodletting of the next bout could potentially make the 2014 war seem like a minor skirmish.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 2 June 2016.

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The Hitlerisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu’s allegation that the mufti masterminded the Holocaust mark a troubling escalation in the Nazification of the Israeli-Palestinian war of words.


Thursday 5 November 2015

When Binyamin Netanyahu repeated his claim that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1937, was the actual evil mastermind behind the Nazi Holocaust and Adolf Hitler was some clueless anti-Semite who just wanted to “expel the Jews”, I wondered what the Israeli premier’s feverish mind would come up with next.

As the conflict escalates once again, perhaps Netanyahu will mobilise the big rhetorical guns and start arguing that Hitler himself was actually an Arab called Abdul, not Adolf – after all, he was short and dark and sported the kind of moustache popular with a certain type of fez-wearing effendis of the time.

Joking aside, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at Netanyahu’s remarks. I also don’t know which is the more terrifying prospect: that Netanyahu made the remarks cynically, as a calculated propaganda move against his enemy, or that he actually believed the nonsense he spewed.

Amin al Husseini with Adolf HitlerNow, to my mind, there is no doubt that the mufti of Jerusalem was a nasty, power-hungry fellow who was ruthless with his domestic opponents and willing to collaborate with the Nazis in the misguided belief that the Germans would liberate his people, even if it meant putting his hands in those of one of the most murderous regimes in history. But he wasn’t the only ultra-nationalist to do so – surreally, some rightwing Zionists sought Nazi support against the British in Palestine.

Claiming that Haj Amin somehow engineered the Holocaust is, in the words of Israeli historian Tom Segev, a complete “fairy tale”, as the vast majority of historians agree. To make the point absolutely certain, German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s spokesperson went to the extraordinary length of reiterating his country’s culpability.

“All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilisation that was the Holocaust,” Steffen Seibert pointed out, reflecting  a historical maturity lacking in Netanyahu’s worldview. “This is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten.”

Not only did Netanyahu’s remarks anger Palestinians but they also enraged Israelis and Jews everywhere. “Netanyahu has said something so profoundly toxic he might have brought the whole Jewish world down on his head,” tweeted British novelist and journalist Linda Grant.

So, why did he do it? Was there method to Netanyahu’s madness?

An eternal, diehard optimist might say that, in these troubled, polarised times, Netanyahu was seeking to help Israelis and Palestinians to find common ground by selflessly opening himself up to universal contempt and mockery.

Many commentators view Netanyahu’s remarks as a cynical, calculated attempt to ratchet up anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab sentiment in the West at a time when Israel’s credibility is taking a battering.

Arab- and Muslim-baiting is also a tried-and-tested Netanyahu tactic to contain domestic opposition and browbeat the Jewish diaspora – albeit one which has backfired dramatically in this instance in mainstream society.

However, to the ultranationalist and settler core of his support base, this is likely music to their ears – and a way to rally around their common distrust and hatred of Arabs at a time when those very Arabs are revolting.

Rightwing Israelis have scurried to the embattled prime minister’s defence. One writer claimed that Netanyahu was actually “remembering the Jewish dead who were murdered by Hitler and the Mufti who were co-partners in the Second World War Jewish Holocaust”.

Viewing the Palestinian national movement as just a manifestation of classical anti-Semitism and a natural extension of Nazism, settlers are able to dehumanise and demonise their Palestinian neighbours, whom most insist are not “Palestinians” but generic “Arab” usurpers.

It also enables them to find a moral justification for the suppressive colonial architecture propping up their settler movement by blaming the victims and delegitimising their aspirations and grievances.

Extremist ideological settlers I have met make a big deal of apparent Arab bloodlust and how they would all be exterminated if ever Israel let its guard down. In Hebron, for example, the settlers there, known to be among the most extreme and religious, have a monument to this supposed blood-thirstiness, in the form of a “museum” dedicated to the 1929 Hebron massacre, which totally de-contextualises the events, giving the impression that it was some kind of Palestinian Kristallnacht.

Betraying this deeply ingrained distrust, fear and hate, one of the settlers, originally from America, described, in a form of twisted logic, the growth of the Palestinian town across the hill as “settlement building”. “When I first came here, those hills were bare,” he told me. He also rejected the two-state solution as “an existential threat to the only Jewish state which exists” and granting full citizenship and equality to Palestinians as “creating the tools for your own destruction”.

Being in bed with extremist settlers and ultranationalists for so long has warped Netanyahu’s already distorted worldview, as have the delusions familiar to Arab despots who have been too long in power. This is reflected in the (d)evolution of his mufti myth. “The story of the mufti is also not new to him,” Segev explains. “But the exact dialogue between the mufti and Hitler that Netanyahu presented this week goes far beyond anything even he has claimed before.”

Far more dangerous than Netanyahu’s propaganda is the fact that he and much of his support base is increasingly growing to believe the lie, drawing absolution from its comforting embrace.

Palestinians are not immune to this phenomenon either. Some also depict the Israelis as Nazis out to commit “genocide” against the Palestinians. This too is warping their view of the conflict and their image of Israelis.

To counter this danger, I propose a pre-peace accord, that Israelis and Palestinians will solemnly swear never to liken the other side to Nazis or the Fuhrer. If they ever hope to resolve the conflict and live in peace, they must first understand one another, not as two-dimensional evil villains, but as human beings.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 22 October 2015.

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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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Hebron settlers: Palestinian people do not exist, are “PR bluff”

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By Khaled Diab

Hebron settlers criticise Arabs who deny Israeli identity, yet reject the existence of a Palestinian people and say historic Palestine was mostly empty.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Khaled Diab: I notice you have a map of Palestine behind you. I wondered, is that an ironic gesture? Because I haven’t heard you mention Palestinians once. You only refer to “Arabs”.

David Wilder: You’re very perceptive. You’re very, very up on it. That’s very good, because I always tell people. I always know the people, you know the journalists who come in, when they’re awake, when they look at my wall and see that and they ask me that question. And you’ve added to the question because you’ve said I don’t mention Palestinians, because most people don’t even see it. So, you’re alert. That’s very good.

You know who printed it? Who printed the map?

Well, Israelis don’t usually put that sign on maps. It was printed in Bethlehem by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Palestinian Authority. What’s it a map of? It’s a map of the state of Israel. But it’s Palestine. Tel Aviv is Tal al-Arabi, and Ramla is al-Ramla, and Lod is al-Ludd. In other words, this is Palestine according to the Palestinian Authority. But it just happens to be a map of the state of Israel. That’s why I have it there.

Well, how about we look at it from the reverse, Israeli maps of Israel also deny the existence of any Palestinian entity.

Well, first of all, I think that the official line is that what they… Look there are different official lines, ok. But the one that’s used for world consumption is Palestine is Judea and Samaria, Gaza, right? It’s not Tal el-Arabi.

So, first of all, the official line is supposed to be that Palestine is Judea and Samaria. This is something else. I mean this is what they say to other people, ok, but it’s usually not publicised as such. Number two, I think that there are probably a lot of Israeli maps today, not the ones that I would print, but… that show Judea and Samaria as a very separate entity.

In terms of Palestinian entities as such, so far there isn’t a state of Palestine.

Yes, but do you think there’s a Palestinian people.

That’s a whole other issue. I have no problems talking to you about that too.

So you want to talk about the Palestinian people.

Yes, especially since you have another poster behind you which says, “Don’t the Arab states have enough land of their own?”

You probably saw what Newt Gingrich said the other day.

Yes, I did.

It probably didn’t go over really, really well, but he could’ve been quoting me. I mean, look…

Because for me, as an Arab, I see a distinct Palestinian identity, culture, history, and so on. So, I want to see how you view it.

I’ll put it very simply. When was the last time there was a king of Palestine or a Palestinian parliament or a Palestinian who won the Nobel prize or a Palestinian anything? Look, historically, just historically, ok… I can’t say forget the politics because it’s all politics.

But if we just take historical facts, ok. You may have even studied more history. I used to study history, but you may know more history than me. But where does the word “Palestine” come from?

Well, it comes from the Romans and the Philistines.

So, like I said, you’re up on your history. Ok, because most of the people when I ask them that question, they don’t know anything about the Romans. But the word “[Syria]Palestina” of course came from the Romans 2,000 years ago. It was a 2,000-year-old term that was used when they threw the Jews out, after the destruction of the Second Temple.

But they didn’t throw all the Jews out. A lot of the Palestinians around now were probably Jews once.

Hang on a second. Hang on a second. So let me evolve what I’m trying to say. Again, I don’t expect you to agree with me. I’ll explain to you where I’m coming from. Palestine came from [Syria]Palestina [see history of the term “Palestine”]. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple, and they wanted to create an entity which didn’t have any Jewish identity to it. They took Jerusalem and they changed the name of Yerushalayim to Aelia Capitolina. They threw the Jews out of Jerusalem, all of them out of Yerushalayim, and they changed the name to Aelia Capitolina.

Why did they do that? It’s very simple. I mean, simplistically, you want to create a new identity, you change the name. I mean, it doesn’t have the same association any more. It has a different association to it. Rather than have Israel, Yisrael, which has a Jewish identity to it, they changed the name to Palestina. They took the Palestina from the Philistines who died out a thousand years before.

Or they were integrated into the other peoples of the region.

Whatever, but there were no Philistines anymore. The Philistines died out during the days of King David. You didn’t have them during the days of the Roman conquest. So, all of a sudden, you have Palestina, the same way you, Aelia Capitalina. And it stayed. Over the next 2,000 years, I don’t even remember, but I can pull it out for you… there were about 14 or 16 different peoples that ruled in this little piece of land, which you can call Palestina or Palestine or Israel or whatever you want.

But ruled as part of an empire.

But there was never a… during that period…

But the local people largely stayed the same, more or less. There was some immigration, obviously…

You had different local peoples, depending on who was here at any given time. In the time of the Greeks, it was Greek. In the time of the Romans, you had Romans. You had local people but you didn’t have a whole lot of them. We’re talking about 2,000 years ago. We’re talking about 1,500 years ago. The populations around here were much smaller and very different.

The last empire to rule here was the Ottoman Empire.

Well, there were the British, don’t forget them.

That’s post… I’m talking about before them. Before then, you had the Ottoman Empire that ruled here.

In terms of different kinds of populations, you know what, I’ve seen different historical documents that say different things. One of the best, one of the more popular items, is, which I’m sure you’re probably familiar with, was… which I have actually here on the iPad, which I pulled off… is Mark Twain’s book. You know Mark Twain.

Yeah, of course, I know Mark Twain.

So, he wrote about his visit to the Holy Land [Innocents AbroadZionist perspective, Palestinian perspective]. There was nothing here, it was desolate. There were people. There were Bedouin. There were people here and there.

But there were plenty of urban populations too.

But he writes about it being desolate. You’re talking about the late 1800s. And he says… he came here expecting one thing.

But then the early Zionists came here and said, “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man”.

Hear me out. Hear me out. First of all, when the early Zionists came here, there was nothing here either [See “A land without a people for a people without a land“].

But they said, the bride is beautiful but she’s already married.

Look, I don’t see too much of it today but… I saw commercials, things they used to put on television, in Gaza, about what the Jews had done. They showed pictures up north of beautiful houses, lawns, and everything, and then the Jews came, and then it’s all black, the screen is black and everything is destroyed.

Up north, for example, if we’re going to take the area of the Galilee. When Jews started to come over in the late 1800s, early 1900s, it was all swamps. There was nothing there. People died in droves trying to dry out the swamps. There was nothing there. It wasn’t green and beautiful and lush. There was nothing, literally, nothing. There was no industry, there was no fruit, there were no vegetables, the land didn’t grow anything, the trees didn’t grown anything. It was very, very sparse.

But going back to the Palestinian people. There were people here. There was no, never any such Palestinian entity whatsoever. When the British received the mandate from the League of Nations after World War I, that mandate called for them to develop a national home for the Jewish people, which included southern Lebanon, parts of Syria, all of what’s today called Jordan, of course, Judea and Samaria, coming all the way down. Of course, they changed their minds and they went in a different direction. But that’s what the original mandate called for.

The Palestinian people, as such, never existed. It’s probably the biggest, most successful PR bluff that the world has ever swallowed. What is today called the West Bank. What is the West Bank? The West Bank is the western side of the Jordan River. The Jordanian people never existed. There was never a Jordan. It was a creation of the British. The British created it. Ok, they had to have a place for a king, and they didn’t have any place to put him, so they created a monarchy, they called it Jordan and they put him there, so that he’d be happy and he’d have something that he could do with himself, until they killed him, until he died.

But there was never a state of Jordan. The people that lived on the eastern side of the Jordan River and the people that lived on the western side of the Jordan River were identical. They were the same thing. They were Arabs.

On the eastern side, there were mostly Bedouins. On the western side, they were mostly urban populations. They were very different.

No, they were not. Today, not things that I’ve written, things that have been written by many other people. 75%, and again, the numbers aren’t necessarily from today. The numbers that I remember, in any case, that 75% of the population of what’s today called the Kingdom of Jordan is identical to the Arab population we have today in Judea and Samaria.

The fact that Arafat was able to create a… I mean, let’s put it this way, ok. If there really is this thing called Palestine, and there really is this Palestinian people, then where was the demand for it, let’s just say from 1948 to 1967, when Israel wasn’t here. Israel wasn’t in Hebron, Israel wasn’t in Bethlehem, we weren’t anywhere in Judea and Samaria. We weren’t in Gaza. So where was the demand then, by the same people, for Palestine.

There was a demand but it was put down by the king of Jordan.

No, there never was a demand because it didn’t exist.

Ok, let’s take a different tack. Ok, now, you clearly don’t believe that a Palestinian people exists.

As such, yes.

So, what you’re saying is, you’re denying… you’re in denial of their identity. And yet you’re also irked by the fact that there are certain Palestinians who deny an Israeli… that there is an Israeli identity. Should it surprise you that if you deny them their identity… Should you expect them to accept your identity?

Look, there are very different goals. We have very different goals. My goal is to live. And I don’t have any problems with other people. Ok, you can be my next-door neighbour. I don’t care, as long as you don’t try to kill me. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s you or Muhammad or Ahmed or Youssef or Dawoud or whoever. I don’t care, ok. But there has to be an acceptance of some kind of legitimacy. And that doesn’t exist amongst the other side. They refuse to accept the fact that I have a legitimate right to be here whatsoever.

Whether or not they accept… I mean, look, again, we can talk on two different planes. We can talk on the theoretical/ideological plane. We can talk on an actual plane, ok. The fact is the Jews and Arabs lived in Hebron for hundreds of years together. The relationships weren’t always great, and the people that ruled, there was no IDF and there was no state, ok. And the relationships weren’t always great. And there were Jews who were killed and they were heavily taxed. And they were treated as dhimmis.

When the relationship started to improve in the early 1900s, in Hebron, that improvement led to…

Look, today, look, I’ll give you a few examples. When I lived in Kiryat Arba, there were Arab workers. They used to, in the afternoon, lie down on the grass in different parks and go to sleep. And lo and behold, if they went to sleep, they would wake up. If I did that somewhere else, I don’t know if I would wake up. I might wake up without my head. Today, in Hebron, you have a situation, and I’ll show you in a little while, the city is divided. They can come over here. They do go through a security check, to make sure they’re not bringing over a gun or a knife to try to kill me. But they can come on this side. I can’t go on that side. It’s true I can’t go on that side because, number one, Israeli law outlaws it. But if I did go over there, they’d kill me.

You believe that?

Oh, yeah, no doubt about it. It depends who caught me, who got to me first. There are those that wouldn’t. It doesn’t happen frequently, but there have been kids who have wandered over, one way or another, and somebody found them and brought them back.

Arabs are not inherently evil because they are Arabs. But today there is a political conflict going on and, if they wrong person finds you, then they chop off your head. That’s number two.

Today, in Israel, you have Arabs in the Knesset. You have people like Ahmad Tibi, who is not a real strong supporter of Israel. But he sits in the Israeli parliamentary body. He’s a legislator. He can try to put laws through. He has legislative immunity, parliamentary immunity, which I don’t. But he works with the PA and he works with people that are against the existence of the state of Israel. But he sits in the Israeli Knesset.

Abu Mazen has said more than once that, in the state of Palestine, there won’t be any Jews. Because there are some people that say, just like there are Arabs that live in Israel, there are people who have citizenship, they have good jobs, they have Israeli ID cards, and they can vote in Israeli elections, they can go to school, they get the same healthcare as everybody else gets…

But Arafat accepted that Jews in the West Bank could choose to stay or leave.

I don’t know what Arafat said. Arafat is dead. Unless, you know, they want to bring him back. Abu Mazen has said that… well, you know people say it, people here in Hebron say, well, I’ll just stay here under it.

And he says time and time again, the Palestinian state will be Judenfrei. There will be no Jews here. Jews cannot live in Palestine. We have to establish our identity. A Jew in an Arab state is a dhimmi, and they treat him that way.

Arab states have secularised.

Well, it’s going back the other way. And an Arab in a Jewish state today has a lot of rights that, first of all, he doesn’t have in any Arab state, ok. Arab women are allowed to drive in Israel. They don’t get lashed.

If you have Arabs sitting on the Knesset. Look, you even had a guy who had to flee Israel because they were about to arrest him for treason, but they kept paying his pension, ok. It’s absurd that my taxes that I pay, part of my taxes go to pay people that are enemies of the state of Israel, ok.

I’m sure you remember Faisal al-Husseini.

Of course, yes.

He was considered by the world as the Palestinian statesman. He was a spokesman and he was a statesman and he was a diplomat and he was very highly respected, right. That’s what I recall, before the peace process got into full swing.

He died post-Oslo. The last interview that he gave before he died. I think he gave the interview in Egypt, then he went to Kuwait and he died there. If I recall correctly, he had a heart attack. The last interview that he gave, he said that Oslo was a Trojan horse designed for us to get our foot in the door. And he said clearly in that interview, and I have copies of it, he said, of course all of Palestine belongs to us. Palestine? Israel belongs to us. Of course, it’s all ours. But this is our way in.

Ok, this was the statesman, this was Arafat’s righthand man. He was, you know, one of the people that Oslo was based on. You know, peace. But it’s a Trojan horse. So, when I try today to look, and you say… Well, if I deny their existence, why shouldn’t I expect them to deny my existence? It doesn’t begin. It doesn’t begin because it’s not just only a Palestinian identity, it’s a whole ideology.

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 VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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Hebron settlers: “I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down”

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By Khaled Diab

 Hebron settlement is as important as Tel Aviv, Israel is obliged to protect it and what Arabs lost in war should not be returned, says spokesman.

Monday 9 January 2012

Khaled Diab: What I’m gathering from what you’ve been saying is that you feel there’s a lack of understanding, comprehension and empathy and, even sympathy, towards your community and its aspirations. But how about if we turn the tables, do you feel your community understands and comprehends and empathises with mainstream concerns, such as, for example, you said that you were about 800 people here, yet you need several hundred, or a couple of thousand, soldiers to protect your presence here? Quite a lot of mainstream Israelis are relatively bitter about that. And how about the wider concerns, that your presence here has a humanitarian impact on the Palestinian population of Hebron.

David Wilder: That’s a big question, so let’s chop it up. Let’s start with the first part of the question. In terms of the military. First of all, it’s important to understand that the community here is here with the… the community here was re-established with the express consent and approval of the Israeli government. In other words, it’s not a pirate community. So, it’s real, it’s official, it’s not, you know, where somebody came in and they put up a tent, and then we grew and reached…

But the early settlers after the 1967 war, weren’t they like that?

We first came back… we came in 1968. People rented a hotel and then the Israeli government moved them to a military compound, and they lived there for two and a half years. After that, Kiryat Arba was established by the Israeli government, by Moshe Dayan, and they moved up there.

In 1979, a group of women and children moved into Hebron, to Beit Haddasa, which was a Jewish building, it was built by Jews in 1893 as a medical clinic which was used by both Jews and Arabs in Hebron. At that time, it was empty. The prime minister then, Menachem Begim, wasn’t overjoyed that they were there but he didn’t throw them out. He made their living conditions extremely difficult, but he didn’t expel them.

In 1980, following a terrorist attack here, when six men were killed, the Israeli government voted and re-established officially a Jewish community in Hebron. And a lot of, not all of, the buildings… but some of the buildings here, the rebuilding or the renovations, were done with funding from the Israeli government. So it’s something that’s real and official, ok.

The fact that there are people who don’t like it, you know. I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down and throw everybody out? No. I like this; they like that.

In terms of the military presence here, the Israeli military, or the Israeli government, has policies whereby they protect Jews wherever they are. And there are Jews here, so they also have to be protected. When I came to Israel in 1974, you didn’t have in Jerusalem security guards at bus stops, checking people getting on buses to make sure they’re not carrying bombs to blow up people on the bus. It’s a tremendous outlay to have security people at bus stops, you know, but Israel did it because it was a necessity. And the same thing is true in Hebron.

First of all, I’m not responsible for the fact that there are only 850 people here. The property that we have is full. If we’re allowed to build in Hebron on the property that we own, then we could have more people here. If we could buy from Arabs that want to sell us property, we could have more people. But as you’re very much aware, PA law says that Arabs who sell property to Jews will be summarily executed – it’s a capital crime [Ed: the PA has not actually executed anyone for this offence]. And they do it, so most Arabs, they’re not looking, you know, for all those virgins up there in the sky, so they don’t do it, because they’re not really interested in getting killed. It’s a very difficult procedure.

The military that is here have several different functions. They’re here to protect me, for sure. They’re also here to protect you, and all the other people that come here to visit, because we have a lot of people that come in to visit. Today, there’s a group of 400 people here.

But, as far as I’m concerned, the most important role of the military here has absolutely nothing to do with us. When Hebron was divided in 1997, the Hebron Accords, Israel pulled out of most of the city. It was given entirely to Arafat, and we pulled everything out. When we did that, the other side of Hebron turned into a terrorist nest, and you had people running around Israel from Hebron blowing themselves up, in Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva and Haifa. There was a soccer team, a football team, in Hebron that they all turned into suicide bombers. There was an article about them in Newsweek.

In other words, when there was no Israeli intelligence, no Israeli security, on the other side of the city, it just, you know, it turned into a breeding ground for terrorism. And the same thing happened in Jenin. It happened in other places. And it cost us. It cost us a lot of lives. The Israeli military, as far as I’m concerned is here at least as much for, if not more, to protect the people in Tel Aviv than they are to protect me. Because if they can prevent someone from building a bomb and getting out to Tel Aviv or wherever they want to go to blow themselves up, then that’s certainly no less important than making sure that I’m safe and you’re safe. And that takes soldiers, you know.

Well, you can say that, if we pulled out of all of Hebron. Great! Well, then let’s just look at… if we want to learn a little bit from our recent past, we did that in Gush Katif. We pulled out of Gush Katif and we got 10,000 rockets back into Israel from what we gave them.

And you regard that as a pullout? I mean, the military is still in there.

They pulled out. They pulled out entirely.

Yes, but the military presence of Israel is still there. There’s the whole no-man’s-land. There’s the perimeter. There’re regular raids. The borders and economy are controlled by Israel.

No, no, of course not. The only reason you have raid is stop them throwing rockets at us. When we pulled out, the idea was… the Europeans invested a lot of money there. The Israelis who were down there, they had initiated and developed tremendous flower industries and the Europeans bought a lot of the hothouses that they used, which were… I don’t understand the field at all, but they were very sophisticated… So that the Arabs who then inherited what we left would be able to use them, and they destroyed them. They took them apart; they destroyed them.

When Israel pulls out of areas, they’ve turned into terrorist bases which have wreaked havoc in Israel proper, ok. I’m not talking about what they try to do in Hebron. I’m talking about what they try to do to people in Tel Aviv – and that, I think, is a major reason why the military is here and why the numbers have to be where they’re at.

So that’s the first part of the question. The other part of the question is dealing with… you asked me about, you know, well, there are people that don’t like us here… So, there are people that don’t like us, so what?

The concept of Hebron – i.e. Jews with horns and tails who breathe fire and eat one Arab for breakfast and two for lunch and three for dinner with the blood dripping off from your moustache from the one you’ve just finished – that’s the vision that people have. And they come in and it’s not like that. When I used to give tours… I still give tours but a different kind of tour… We would start in Kiryat Arba and the bus would come in and I’d just go around Kiryat Arba in the bus before coming down here into Hebron. And I used to watch people’s faces, and they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe they were in Kiryat Arba, because Kiryat Arba is a settlement, and you know what a settlement is, a settlement is some tents, right? But that’s what people thought, that was the vision they had.

And a lot of Israelis who come in, not for a political tour, they can ask questions if they like, but forget the politics, just the historical element, the religious element, what Hebron means to the Jewish people, whether you’re religious or you’re not religious, it doesn’t make any difference. Everybody has a heritage, and they see it and they hear a little bit, and all of a sudden (clicks fingers): this isn’t what they taught me about Hebron. And it’s a totally different image. And that’s when mainstream Israelis who say may be we shouldn’t be here start saying, may be we should be. And we’ve had that happen.

It happened not so long ago. A major Israeli television entertainment personality was here and, after he was here, he said, yeah, there are problems with the community here and there, but we can’t leave Hebron, you know, and that happens when people see it, when they’re here, when they start to feel it a little bit. And we see that happen time and time and time again. It’s not an isolated kind of a thing.

To touch on something you said in passing about the taboo amongst Palestinians towards selling property to Israeli Jews. How does the community here and other groups among the Jewish community feel about selling land to Arabs, Palestinians? Look, if a Palestinian came and asked to buy your land…

Ok, look, there’s a major difference between what I like and what I don’t like and what is legally acceptable. I can say that I don’t like it, I can even oppose it, but the Supreme Court just ruled, up north in one of the moshavim, that when they had a tender to buy property, there was an Arab couple that wanted to buy and the community wouldn’t let them, the Supreme Court said you have to let them, you have to sell it to them, cuz they’re no different than anybody else.

Legally, according to PA law, which is based on Jordanian law, an Arab that sells property to a Jew is to be killed. Israeli law doesn’t say that. There can be reasons why yes and why know; there can be security elements; there can be all sorts of elements.

We used to have here, many years ago… They were building outside here, and there were Arab workers. One day, an Arab came inside here, with a gun, and he pulled them all together and told them if you come back here tomorrow, I’ll kill you. That was an Arab telling the Arabs. The next day nobody showed up.

In other words, there can be differences of opinion – pro, for, against, whatever – and that’s all legitimate. But when you take that and legalise it, and you say the law is…

But isn’t there a law, a form of legalisation, that says Israel officially owns all the land of Israel, like the Israeli government…

I wish that was true, but it’s not. I mean, you can ask me religiously what I believe, but in terms of what’s on the books, the president of the Supreme Court ruled, much to my own personal differing of opinion or opposition, but she’s the president of the Supreme Court, not me – at least, for a little while longer, she is. She ruled that any land that’s not registered as being owned by the Israeli government or the state of Israel belongs to the Arabs. Now I don’t know where she gets that from. But it’s just the opposite of what you just said.

There is land that’s owned by Arabs, I know that, and there’s land that isn’t. There’s land that’s owned by Jews, that’s owned by Arabs, there’s state-owned land. In any country in the world, there’s state-owned land.

And you think land captured by conquest is legitimate property?

You’re asking about…

Like what, for example, the international community regards as occupied territory?

Like the Jordanian conquest of 1948. The land that they took in 1948 by conquest. Is that legally theirs or not?

Or the land that Israel took in 1967. I mean, in all cases.

First of all, you see one of the anomalies of the conflict today is that there’s almost a given that violence, or different levels of violence, committed by one side is legitimate and accepted and understood and justifiable, and from the other side it’s not. There are consequences. If somebody declares war, or forget the war, if somebody walks into my office, and I start beating them up. You walked into my office just now and you said, my name is Khaled, and I jump on you and start hitting you, and you sue me, ok. You sue me for a million shekels. You take me to court. Then I’m going to have to pay the consequences for beating you up. May be you beat me up too. But I have to pay for what I did. It’s my problem. It might have hurt you, but I have to pay the consequences for what I did.

If somebody starts a war with you, then there are consequences for that. People can’t declare war and figure that even if they lose, they’re not going to have to pay a price. You know, when you say, as Nasser said, we’re going to throw them into the sea and, you know, he made a pact with the Syrians and the Jordanians, and he said, you know, let’s finish them off.

In 1967, the prime minister was Levi Eshkol…

But didn’t Israel start the 1967 war or don’t you regard that Israel started it?

I don’t know. The history books that I have say that Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran. That’s an act of war. The United Nations left. You know, that’s an act of war. The fact that he closed the Straits of Tiran, that he put a blockade on Israel, and said we’re going to throw you into the sea, formed a military pact with the Syrians and the Jordanians, I think that’s pretty much an act of war.

When Levi Eshkol was prime minister and he sent representatives from the state of Israel, including Golda Meir, to Hussein in Jordan saying to him, we don’t want anything, just leave us alone – we have enough to worry about up north and down south, just leave us alone. We’ll leave you alone, you leave us alone. And his response was to start shelling Jerusalem. He started shooting missiles from Jordan into Israel.

So, what, he thought he was going to do that and we were going to just ignore him? May be he thought that we would be finished, that they would defeat us and he would get everything. He wouldn’t just have East Jerusalem, he would get West Jerusalem too and a little bit more. But it didn’t work like that. You can’t start a war and expect that, if by chance you lose the war, it’s not going to cost you anything.

We came into Judea and Samaria and Gaza as a result of that war. And we stayed. Today, when people talk about the Geneva Convention and civilians and all of that, there are many different responses to all of those questions. The first one is, of course, if you want to say that we’re not allowed to be here, or that we’re occupying this, then who’s the legal owner, so to speak?

In other words, back in 1974 or 1975, Hussein relinquished all claims to Judea and Samaria. He said, I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s not mine any more.

But he relinquished them to the Palestinians, not to Israel.

No, he said, it’s not mine.

And he voted for the Palestinians, the PLO, as the representatives of the interests of the Palestinian people.

But that doesn’t mean just because he said so that it belongs to them. I mean, like, you know. The questions involved… I mean, legally, I don’t have any problems with international law. I mean, there are no problems. But if we take a place like Hebron, ok, and we take… I mean, right now, there was a… You know, for 700 years, Jews and Christians had no access to Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Is that true?

Oh, yeah, unfortunately it’s true. In the year 1267… In 1260, the Mamluks pushed out the Crusaders. The Crusaders came in about 1100. And, ironically, the Crusaders in Hebron threw out the Jews. It was the first time I know of in a long, long time that there hadn’t been Jews in Hebron.

In 1260, the Mamluks threw out the Crusaders and let the Jews back in. The Mamluk emperor was a guy called Baybars and he closed off Temple Mount and, as an aside, he closed of Machpelah. He said, it’s a mosque. And for 700 years, we couldn’t go inside. There used to be stairs on the eastern wall. Jews could go up to the seventh step. That’s as far as we could go. They started to let Christians back in in the early to middle 1900s. Jews couldn’t go in. And for hundreds and hundreds of years, there were stairs on the eastern wall and Jews could go up to the seventh step.

And it’s only since we came back, is that side accessible to anybody. Anybody who wants to can go in. There are different sides, and this for this, and that for that, but anybody that wants to can go inside, with very, very few exceptions. Today, and you can read it, I’m writing about it now, the Arab mayor of Hebron… I say it to people all the time, but nobody really believes it, but now he’s said it… He said it, you know, and it was printed by, in Time magazine, by a writer who’s not a big friend of ours, so if he writes that’s what they said, then I think he’s accurate. The Arab mayor of Hebron today says that if he ever controls it, he won’t let Jews back in. He says it’s a mosque, always has been, always will be. He said, you know, we’ve been there as a mosque since, you know, 1260 or 1400 or whatever date.

If we’re not here, then there’s no access. It’s gone.

So, you feel yourselves to be guardians of the Jewish heritage of Hebron?

We… Let’s put it this way, if there wasn’t a Jewish community in Hebron today, it doesn’t matter whether I’m here or somebody else is here, if there wasn’t a Jewish community in Hebron today, Machpelah would’ve been lost a long time ago. We would’ve lost Machpelah in 1997. Arafat demanded it then, and they wouldn’t give it to him. And the people who wouldn’t give it to him weren’t rightwing extremists like me, they were leftwing extremists. Bu they were the ones running the show, and they took to Arafat the numbers, and they said this is how many Jews are visiting and how many Arabs are visiting. We can’t give it away, we can’t give it to you, there are too many Jews that go visit, and those numbers keep growing.

Part I – The art of peace

Part II –  From secular America to religious Hebron

Part III – “We are not extremists”

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

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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Hebron settlers: “We are not extremists”

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By Khaled Diab

The Hebron settlers feel demonised by the mainstream media, and say reports of settler violence are exaggerated and some are even “black flag” ops.

Tuesday 4 January 2012

Khaled Diab: You just mentioned the media. How do you regard the mainstream Israeli view, especially the liberal view, of your community?

David Wilder: How do I view their view of me? You need a double mirror for that. Look, the media is very left wing, as a rule. There are always exceptions to the rule. You have journalists, you know, and politicians who take a different path. But as a rule the media is extremely leftwing. And, as such, they look at us as rightwing extremists who are, you know, a bone in the throat of peace. To put it very generally.

And they express that. You know, we work with them. We work with the media and try to influence however we can. Sometimes successfully, sometimes less successfully. But it’s very obvious that the media is generally, not just here, but the world media also is. In the United States, the big media, whether it be the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN. Perhaps one of the exceptions is Fox, which is a little bit more moderate. But they’re usually, generally, very liberal, very leftwing.

So would you say you get a more sympathetic hearing within Israel or in the United States?

The difference between the United States and Israel in terms of media is that in the United States you have much larger media. First of all, in Israel, if you look at television, you’re talking about government-licensed media. There’s very little private media, and the private media that was on our side, you know, shut down. Ariel Sharon shut it down.

In the United States, you have much larger, much freer media. Anybody who is able to – I don’t know what the criteria are – can get a licence. Anyone who has the money can open a radio station, or a newspaper, or a television station, or go on cable, or whatever. And so, in terms of sympathy, as such, among the more rightwing media in the United States there’s much more sympathy. If you go down to the Bible Belt and here some of the talk shows, they’re very conservative.

Do you feel things have shifted in the past few years, with, like, Netanyahu and his government? Do you feel they’ve become more sympathetic in the media to you?

No, the media hasn’t become more sympathetic to us. There are people every once in a while who, you know, stop and do a little bit of introspection; they sort of look and try to examine where they are and where they are coming from. And every once in a while you can get somebody in the media or even a politician.

The head of the Labour party today, Shelly Yachimovich, who used to be on the radio. She wasn’t a very good friend of ours when she was on the radio. Today, she states that she opposes… she disagrees with our ideology, but she also comes out and says that people that are settlers are good Israelis just like everyone else. She doesn’t try to demonise us just because we live here. She can say I disagree with them; I want to throw them out, but they’re not bad people.

But have things change in the media as a result of Netanyahu’s government?

No, because he’s also considered to be rightwing, despite the fact that he also has Barak in his government. He’s considered to have a rightwing coalition, so the media, they don’t like him anymore than they like us. He’s not going to be a cause of them moving in our direction – to the contrary.

Newspapers like Ma’ariv and so on, you don’t find they’re sympathetic?


Ok, you say that the Israeli media often labels you as “extremists”, what do you think of that label?

It’s not just the Israeli media. Years ago, I don’t know if you remember, there was a… When I started working here, almost 18 years ago, the New York Times correspondent, the head of the New York Times, he was a guy called Serge Schmemann. I don’t know where he is today; I see his name every once in a while, but he’s not here, thank God. But he didn’t like us. He was very leftwing and he was very anti people like me in Hebron. And when he used to write in the Times about Hebron, he always prefaced the word Hebron with extremists. It was almost like one word.

He was here once with one of his editors and I asked him, in front of his editor, why he always wrote that. He didn’t like that. He said, well, you’re zealots and you’re doing this and that. I said but you never write that. You always write we’re extremists. He said, yeah, well, everybody knows what I mean.

I mean, you know, we don’t think about it. You know different words have different connotations. And in the media, when you say something enough… When you write something enough times, then people start to believe it. Because, you know, he writes it again and again and again, so it must be true.

When I think about extremism, I think about the Red Brigade, you know, Hizbullah, organisations that go out and kill people. You know extremism, that’s how I read extremism.

So how would you describe your community? What words would you use?

I think… What I’ve used in the past is to say that we are ideological, that is, we live an ideal, ok? You can agree with my ideal or you can disagree with my ideal. That’s legitimate. I don’t have any problems with that. People can think different things, and whatever.

It’s also like when the Israeli media talks about religion, religious people, so you have… they can talk about Orthodox religious, then they talk about Ultra-Orthodox. So what’s an Ultra-Orthodox? What makes somebody more Orthodox than somebody else? We all do the same thing: we keep kosher; we keep the Sabbath; we do this and we don’t do that. So why is that Ultra and this not? Usually, it’s the way people dress. If he’s got a hat and a long black coat, then he’s Ultra. If he just has a knitted kippa like mine, then… But there’s no real difference between them.

The same thing is true with extremism. The fact that I believe that people should live in Hebron. We have over half a million people that visit here every year, so they’re all extremists. The people that come to visit Hebron from the United States, whether they be Jewish or Christian, or whoever they are, Israelis or whatever they are, are they extremists because they come to visit or because they support us, ok, give us money? So what makes me extreme? Because I live a particular ideal that somebody else disagrees with?

How about if your ideal, the majority of people disagree with it, would that make you extreme or not, do you think?

No, why, I mean the ideal of democracy is that you can have a majority and a minority. The fact that you’re… Take the… I mean, I don’t know how it works in England, but take the American Supreme Court, and its nine justices. You have a case which is decided eight-to-one, is the justice whose one vote is against that of the majority extremist because he disagrees with them, even though there are eight against one? No.

Look, it’s semantics which is used as a tool to create an impression on others. That’s what media does.

All right, you mentioned, connecting violence to extremism. That’s, in your mind, the defining factor. How about the violence that’s perpetrated by settlers, like, the “price tag” campaign, and so on. Do you think of that as extremism?

Errr, yes. Yes, it certainly is. I think that extremism can be also measured… if you have a norm, what that norm, not just ideologically, but also… and you can have ideological extremism also. But I think that that is considered by your normative Israeli, on whatever side of the fence he is, as very extremist.

And do you think that it’s a manageable, containable problem, or do you think it’s spinning out of control?

I think the “spinning out of control” is a media spin. I think, again, what we’re seeing today is use of what a few people are doing as a tool to try to blow it up. In Israel, as in most other places, I suppose, but I see it here, you have all sorts of different types of violence. There’s leftwing anarchist violence, which has been going on for a few years, down, every Friday, in Bilin. You have all sorts of different places where you have violence against Israeli soldiers which is perpetrated by Israelis and foreigners and all sorts of people, and every once in a while it makes the news when somebody gets hit by a rock. But, as a rule, they ignore it because it’s leftwing violence against Israel.

What’s the difference between leftwing violence against Israeli soldiers and rightwing violence against Israeli soldiers? They’re both violent; they’re both against the same body. This one is taken and turned into major headlines for a few days and the other one is ignored. You know, they’re both wrong, ok. But one is used for the purpose of delegitimising us and the other one is ignored because part of the media agree with what they’re doing, so, you know, let’s just leave it alone.

You don’t regard what happens in Bilin as non-violent protest?

It is violent. What I’m saying is that the same kind of violence. You can have two different groups that are perpetrating the same kind of violence, and one of them is turned into a major media event, and the other one is ignored.

You have a small group of people today, which is very frustrated.

Are they young or old?

They’re young. People, once they get to my age, they don’t have the energy to suffer like that anymore.

And what frustrates them, would you say?

Policies which they believe, not only are they wrong but destructive, and they see people being thrown out of their homes. They saw what happened in Gush Katif. They see the results of what happened since then. They see it happening again, starting on a small scale and moving up, possibly, to a very large scale. And they see all the warnings that are used to try to prevent that from happening, I don’t know if it’s falling on deaf ears or just not being listened to. They don’t know how better to express themselves to try to get something done.

It doesn’t necessarily justify the violence, but I don’t think… I think what we’re seeing today is still… Let’s put it this way, you don’t need a large group of people… you don’t need a whole lot of people to break into a mosque and write something on the wall. You need one or two people. And there are people who are doing it. Eventually, they’ll stop. I don’t know how or when.

It’s reaching a stage, though, where it’s turning off a lot of people that might sympathise with their belief and the ideal, or the opinion behind it, but once you start to express it, as what happened yesterday in the Israeli army base, people start to say, you’re starting to cross red lines. But, again, I don’t think it’s the… you’re not reaching a stage today where it is out of hand.

Israel’s security forces, whether they be police or army or intelligence, is very large, it wouldn’t surprise me, for example, I don’t know that it is, I don’t have any factual evidence on our table here, but we have seen in the past, provocations, when Israeli intelligence has used people as provocateurs to do things like that, in order to be able to reach a particular goal.

So you think some of this violence is self-inflicted by the…

I think. I don’t know that it is, but it could be. We’ve seen it before.

How about the contrary allegations, that the security forces have been increasingly infiltrated by religious elements and they’ve risen up the ranks, and so on?

I sort of don’t really agree with the word of “infiltration”. You understand the intrinsic contradiction in that, you know, not yourself, coming from where you’re coming from, but you hear this obviously on Israeli radio from Israelis. So I understand where you’re getting it from. But the built-in contradiction is that when religious Israelis didn’t go to the army, they were put down as not caring about the state of Israel and not willing to defend the state of Israel and they’re not willing to put their lives on the line just like everybody else.

So when religious Israelis do go into the army and they are willing to work very hard, and they’re willing to go to officer school, and they are willing to do what everybody else does, it’s said that they’re infiltrating the army and rising in the ranks. If you go into the army, if you send intelligent people into the army, and they’re motivated, then, you know, they can rise in the ranks just like everybody else.

So, on the one hand, they’re saying that the religious people are taking over the army. On the other hand, if we don’t go into the army, they say, ahh, they’re not going into the army, they’re not really part of the state of Israel.

I think that people who receive proper education and they understand, ideologically, the importance of the state of Israel, and they also understand the issues that we have to deal with today, you know, the security issues that we have to deal with, I understand that we need an army and people should understand that, if there’s equal service, or something equivalent to equal service, then you go to the army. Everybody does it – you go in for a year and a half, three years, you can go for five years. And it’s very widely accepted and it’s done.

So, you know, when religious people don’t do it, they’re accused of not caring and not taking on community service the way they should, and when they do go into the army, they say, ooh, they’re infiltrating.

So you feel that your community is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t?

Well, we’re not talking about Hebron specifically, but on that particularly issue, yeah, that’s an apt description.

Part I – The art of peace

Part II –  From secular America to religious Hebron

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”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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Hebron settlers: From secular America to religious Hebron

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By Khaled Diab

What motivates an American Jew from a secular background to move to Israel and become a religious settler in Hebron?

Tuesday 4 January 2012

David Wilder in his office. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab: Can you introduce yourself?

David Wilder: My name is David Wilder. I work as a spokesperson for the Jewish community here in Hebron. I grew up in the States. I’ve been in Israel for over 35 years. I’ve been in this part of Israel for over 30 years. I lived for a number of years in Kiryat Arba. I moved down here 13 years ago. I’ve been working here for 17-plus years.

What motivated you to move from the States, first, and then to move here?

When I was in university, I had the opportunity to participate in a one-year programme. I had an idea about going to Israel from almost as a child. But I never came over here. I didn’t grow up in a religious background.

So your parents were secular?

They were what we call in the States Reform Judaism – what would be called here secular Judaism. But the idea to come to Israel had been floating around. The idea of being able to come for a year in university, get credit for it, be far away from home, have a good time, learn something, and be in Israel at the same time, you know, it was appealing. I came over in 1974, so we’re talking a year after the Yom Kippur war. Israel was, you know, something in the news, it wasn’t something, you know, hidden away.

So that awoke your Jewish identity or something?

I don’t think that that did, but it wasn’t… it was tangible, it was something. It wasn’t some concept. It was real. And the idea of coming over was, you know, appealing. And I was accepted to a programme, so I came over to Jerusalem. I was at Hebrew University, primarily with Americans, that’s the kind of programme it was. I didn’t know any Hebrew.

And over that period of a year, I don’t know, something shifted. Because my expectation was to come for a year, go back, finish, graduate and go to law school. You know, I sort of had it all set out. But something clicked and pushed me in a different direction. To tell you exactly what that was is very difficult. But that’s what happened. I went back and graduated, went back and finished my last year.

When I graduated, I came back, and stayed. I became involved in different things. Very slowly, over a period of time, I became more religious, having become introduced to religious Judaism, which I didn’t know anything about before. I was introduced to a woman, an Israeli, we got married.

Was that an arranged marriage or was it a love marriage?

Both. Arranged marriages have a connotation of you meet on the day and you get married. We didn’t do that. But many times, you’re introduced. The fact that you’re introduced to someone doesn’t mean you have to marry them. You can be introduced to 50 people before you find someone you want to marry. But I was introduced to somebody and we somehow hit it off. I still don’t understand why she liked me but that was 32 years ago and we got married, and the rest is history, as they say.

And you’re still together?

Oh, yeah.

And she’s a naturalised Israeli like you?

She was born here. Her father was born in Turkey and moved to Cuba and came to Israel in the 1930s. Her mother was born in Jerusalem and her family was originally from Greece. She’s Sephardi and I’m Ashkenazi. So we’re a mixed marriage, you could say.

And she also shares your religious convictions?

Yeah. We have seven children. Four of them are married and another one is getting married soon. Two are still at home. And a lot of grandchildren.

How many exactly? Do you know?

At the moment, we have 17 grandchildren. I have one daughter who goes in twos; she has two sets of twins. That pushes the numbers up.

So you’ve created your own veritable mini-tribe.

It’s a “hamoula” [clan]. Yeah, you could say that. But look, we’re a small family in Hebron. There are families with 11 kids. I think there’s a family here with 13 – 13, I think, is the largest in Hebron.

What motivated you to move to Hebron rather than stay in Jerusalem?

We were looking to contribute where we felt we could contribute. You know, do something, the idea that, if you believe in something, don’t just talk about it, do it. So we were looking for a place to live on something of a permanent basis and, actually, we sort of fell into Kiryat Arba. We knew somebody who lived there and they told me about an apartment. We didn’t have any money, and it was very cheap.

We wanted to try to do something. You know, we were both young. I was studying. I was learning Torah at that time, and I continued for a number of years. And we moved there and we’ve been here ever since.

And do all your kids and grandkids also live around here or have they moved away?

My grandchildren live with their parents.

Yeah, I know…

I’m old. I’m not that old.

No, no, I understand. My kids are like this: one of my daughters lives here in Hebron. My eldest daughter lived here for 10 years after she got married. Her husband is a rabbi. He teaches in a yeshiva. They wanted to live where he teaches, so they moved down about 20, 25 minutes from here, in the southern Hebron hills, still in what’s called Judea, about 20 minutes outside of Be’er Sheva. I have son that lives 10 minutes outside of Hebron, in Beit Hagai. And another daughter who lives in Samaria.

Tell me a little bit about your community here. How big is it?

We have here, today, in Hebron… Ok, let’s define terms. There are different ways of defining Hebron. And that’s also in terms of numbers and things like that. You know numbers, anyone can do anything they want with numbers. I’m sure you’re aware of that. So to try to keep things as straight as possible.

In Hebron itself , today, there are four Jewish neighbourhoods; there are about 90 families; there are about 300 children; there are about 350 guys in the shiva – 850 Jews in Hebron. In Kiryat Arba, there are about 7,500 people. Now if you drive around Kiryat Arba, on the perimeter of Kiryat Arba, there’s a fence, on the eastern side. One side of the fence is Kiryat Arba, the other side of the fence is Hebron. So there is a question which I’ve asked numerous people and never gotten a good answer: if you count that side of the fence as Hebron, then count this side of the fence as Hebron. Ok, you can say that Kiryat Arba is a neighbourhood of Hebron, but it is a separate municipal entity, ok?

The two communities are very interdependent. I mean, we don’t have room here for anything. We don’t have here a post office or a supermarket or schools, because we don’t have any space to put them, or the room we might have, we can’t use. So all that is in Kiryat Arba. Hebron is the basis, you know, it’s where it started.

If you’re talking about the greater Hebron region, we have close to 10,000 Jews. If you’re talking about Hebron proper, where we are today, then you’re talking about 850 people, plus-minus.

You were talking about how you’re very interdependent with Kiryat Arba, but are there differences in the make-up and attitudes between the people in Kiryat Arab and the people here in Hebron?

Look, Hebron, Kiryat Arba, separately or together, they are not a kibbutz, ok? I think that the basic general attitudes; there’s a very strong common denominator, for the most part. But this isn’t necessarily ideological. You have, I don’t know, it’s very difficult for me to try to guess percentages or statistics. You may have people who live in Kiryat Arba because it’s cheaper than living in Jerusalem. If someone wants to buy an apartment and an apartment in Jerusalem costs a million shekels and here it costs 100,000 shekels, then your mortgage is a lot lower here than it is there.

But I think, for the most part, there is a strong ideological common denominator. But just like anything and everything else, there are differing, you know, different issues, there are different opinions. And your opinions can scale that way, that way, in any given direction. You know, it depends on what you’re talking about. There are things that people agree about. There are things that people disagree about.

And between Hebron and Kiryat Arba, they’re not, you know… Both communities have a stigma, a stereotype, or a brand, or whatever word you want to use to describe it which may, many years ago, have been accurate, but today… It’s good for the media, you know, when they want to smear us.

But, in truth, it’s very difficult to characterise any real, major, you know, characteristic.

Look, in Kiryat Arba, you have Russians, you’ve still got Ethiopians, though there are less Ethiopians today. You’ve got people they call “manashey”, you know, that have been brought over from India and Pakistan. You’ve got Ashkenazi, Sephardim, you name it, you’ve got it. And you’ve got people from France, and you’ve got people from the States, and you’ve got Israelis. And, on a smaller degree, you’ve got the same here in Hebron.

I don’t have the stats for voting. You know, here you vote for parties. But I don’t have stats from the last elections, but most people vote here for religious parties.

Part I – The art of peace

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”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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Hebron settlers: The art of peace

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By Khaled Diab

The settlers in Hebron are widely regarded as the enemies of peace. That’s why I, as an Egyptian, decided it was essential to get to know them.

Tuesday 4 January 2012

The Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Sanctuary. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Meeting outside the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, aka the Sanctuary of Abraham, seemed to be not just convenient but symbolically fitting. After all, it is this holy site which is the main reason why a few hundred religious settlers stubbornly insist on remaining in Hebron, despite being labelled as an “obstacle to peace”, not only by Palestinians and the international community, but also by many Israelis, including descendants of the city’s original Jewish community.

My guide and interlocutor was David Wilder, the veteran American-Israeli spokesman for the settler community in Hebron. With his long, flowing grey beard, Wilder had something of the patriarchal look about him, while the gun holstered on the side of his trousers bore a silent testimony to the Wild West Bank lifestyle of the settler community here.

Owing to unforeseen illness and a trip to the United States on Wilder’s part, it had taken several weeks for me finally to get this audience. During the long wait, I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that Wilder was not exactly wildly enthusiastic about a visit from an Egyptian journalist, who was likely to be, at the very least, unsympathetic, if not outright hostile, towards his community.

But persistence ultimately paid off, as undoubtedly did the curiosity factor, which some Israeli friends suggested would prove irresistible, although others worried about the prospect of potential hostility. Personally, I expected civility but didn’t rule out other possibilities.

As we headed to and entered Wilder’s office in his battered old car, he was curious to learn more about me and what had motivated me to make this visit.

Ghost shopping street in Hebron. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Part of my motivation was undoubtedly curiosity. I have visited the Palestinian side of Hebron on several occasions, both with a Palestinian human rights group and on my own or with friends. I have seen for myself the massive humanitarian impact, including the complete closure of all businesses on al-Shuhada street and in parts of the old city’s souq in the Qasbah, not to mention the severe restrictions on movement this draconian security entails. I have also spoken to Palestinians affected by the settler presence.

And now I wanted to see how the other side lived and what made them tick. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says that if you know your enemy and you know yourself, then you can win a hundred battles without suffering a single loss. I don’t know if this is entirely the case or not, but in the Art of Peace to which I subscribe, knowing the enemies of peace, not just its friends, is essential if we are to find a way to end the battle and cut our losses.

Besides, I’m not one who likes to make easy and lazy judgements and I am a passionate believer in the idea that everyone has the right to have their case heard. With this in mind, I decided that it was important for me to cross the line, and it was a little surreal to see the inside of the settlements that stood behind the thick gate outside which I had stood.

An elderly Palestinian walks past a Hebron settlemet. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

On a couple of occasions, I have stood outside the gate of the Beit Romano settlement to protest the weekly Shabbat “Qasbah tour” which leaves from there, because of the heavy Israeli military guard it requires and the barring of Palestinian entry to the old city during the tour.

It is called a tour but it is more like a tour of duty. First, an advance party of heavily armed and nervous IDF soldiers, some looking little older than child soldiers, leaves the settlement, pointing their rifles in all directions in an absurdist mime. Their mission: to check the route. Some time later, out come the “tourists” and their “guide”, surrounded on all sides by even more IDF soldiers – all provided courtesy of compulsory national service and the Israeli (as well as American) taxpayer.

The last time I did it, I even draped a Palestinian keffiyah – one that was actually made in Hebron and not in China – which I had just purchased from a shopkeeper who had seen his business reach near collapse due to the closure of most of the shops on his street. This acted as a provocative red rag to the younger settlers on the tour and the beleaguered Israeli soldiers guarding them had a hard time keeping them away from me, which led them to implore me to move away, which I refused to do arguing that I had as much right to be on this street as they did. Reflecting on this incident, I wondered what Wilder would make of it.

Beit Hadassah in Hebron, which once housed a clinic and now contains a museum dedicated to the 1929 massacre. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I toured Jewish Hebron with Wilder, I figured that I must have been the only Arab there and wondered what the settlers would make of me if they found out that I was an Egyptian, especially given the regular reports of settler violence and attacks against Palestinians and their property. I saw a couple of yeshivas, an archaeological site which seemed to confirm the Biblical narrative in Wilder’s view, and a historically de-contextualised museum dedicated to the tragic 1929 Hebron massacre.

In visiting the Jewish settlements of Hebron, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of what motivates a small group of people to live amid such hostility and exist in self-imposed isolation, not only from their physical neighbours but also from their co-religionists and compatriots.

The long, in-depth conversation I had with Wilder, who is an eloquent and passionate speaker, was enlightening, and that is why I have decided to serialise it in full. To me, it not only revealed a group of people with a worldview that is so completely different to my own that I felt I had indeed landed there “from the moon”, as Wilder invited me to do at one point.

One major impression I got from our conversation was not only the sense of divine entitlement and righteousness the settlers possessed, but also their rather paranoid narrative of victimhood and historical grievance, some of which is justified, despite the substantial power they yield. They feel not only hated by the Arabs, but misunderstood by Israelis and unfairly labelled as extremists. They criticise and lament Arab rejection of their presence in Hebron and their identity, yet they reject Palestinian identity and, judging by Wilder’s discourse, are opposed to granting them equal rights.

Although I do not believe in God-given rights, given the religious importance of Hebron to Jews and given my unwavering belief in multiculturalism, I believe that a Jewish presence in Hebron is necessary. However, that presence must be one built on equality and justice, not on segregation, oppression and occupation.

Informative as my encounter with Wilder was, it did not increase my optimism for the future. Following our encounter, I was left with the impression that the situation in Hebron, and the West Bank at large, is as intractable as ever, with the ideological settlers holding the Palestinian and Israeli public to ransom.

Nevertheless, I am still convinced that it was a useful exercise, that it helped humanise the situation and that it is through continued dialogue that the walls of prejudice and distrust can be gradually broken down to lay the groundwork for peace. In addition, the first step to resolving a problem, no matter how insoluble it seems, is through building a deeper understanding of the situation and the key players.

Now this preamble has gone on long enough. I’ll let the interview with Wilder speak for itself and you can make your own mind up about the thorny issues it raises. The interview will be serialised over the next couple of weeks, so do check back for the latest instalments.

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”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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