The ‘non-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the two-state solution relegated to the dustbin of history, the time has arrived to consider equal citizenship for Palestinians and Israelis.

Thursday 4 October 2012

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has sincerely flattered none other than himself. When he surreally pulled out the cartoon bomb to illustrate the apparent threat from the alleged Iranian programme to build a nuclear weapon, he succeeded in becoming a parody of himself, triggering a proliferation of viral caricatures, such as the one mocking him as a “Looney Tunes” villain.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric was just as two-dimensional, casting Iran and its presumed allies in the role of the ultimate bloodthirsty, suicidal enemy bent on destroying civilisation as we know it.

“At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world,” he claimed rather implausibly, given that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the Iranian regime, despite its ill-informed and dangerous grandstanding, is developing a nuclear weapons programme, that it would be successful even if it were pursuing one, or that it would actually be stupid and suicidal enough to deploy said WMD. Meanwhile, Israel, despite its policy of ambiguity, is widely understood to sit on the Middle East’s only known nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu drew “red lines” all over the General Assembly, while conveniently overlooking the far more significant green line, upon which the future of his country truly rests. In fact, judging by the evasive passing reference to negotiations and “mutual compromise”, Bibi seems to rate Iran’s non-existent nukes as a greater threat to Israel than the ticking time bomb of the unresolved Palestinian question.

Cold-shouldered by Netanyahu and facing mounting unrest among his own people, PA President Mahmoud Abbas continued, for want of more imaginative ideas, his disastrous quest for UN recognition, as if the non-membership of a non-state would somehow help the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

“There can only be one understanding of the Israeli government’s actions,” Abu Mazen told the assembly, suggesting that “the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution”.

Judging by Israel’s deeds, which have left no more space to negotiate over, it seems safe to conclude that the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing beside Israel on the pre-1967 borders lies somewhere in the dustbin of history. While the Israeli leadership is content to “manage the conflict”, the PA is powerless to breathe new life into a defunct process.

So, what’s the answer? According to Abbas, a “new approach” is required. However, the new approach he outlined sounded suspiciously like the old one: that the ineffective and ineffectual international community can somehow be prevailed upon finally to rise from its lethargy and force Israel to commit to the pre-1967 borders.

He mentioned but did not elaborate on a far more promising and powerful track. “Our people are also determined to continue peaceful popular resistance, consistent with international humanitarian law, against the occupation and the settlements and for the sake of freedom, independence and peace,” Abbas concluded.

Personally, I believe we need to take this “new approach” to its logical conclusion. Rather than continue the decades-old futile efforts to accommodate two conflicting nationalisms in such a tiny space, it is high time for everyone involved to recognise that all attempts to partition and repartition this land simply have not worked and are unlikely to in the future.

Instead of fixating on borders and territory, as if soil is so much thicker than blood, the focus must shift to the people, whom for too many generations have been sacrificed in the cause of this holy land, as if it has more rights than they do.

Prioritising the people will necessitate transforming the Palestinian struggle into a mass, non-violent civil rights movement, in which Palestinians deploy all the tools of peaceful resistance at their disposal, and Israeli sympathisers force emancipation platforms on their political parties. In this context, the “land for peace” formula will be replaced by a “rights for peace” one in which full emancipation will be the central demand.

We need to form a Popular Front for the Liberation of the Palestinians to pursue the various civil rights Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are currently denied, deprived of or have restricted access to. These include the freedom to travel and to work everywhere, not just in Palestine but also in Israel, the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints, the dismantling of the wall, and the opening up of Israeli-only settlements to Palestinians.

But, first and foremost, all 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must seek full Israeli citizenship. For differing reasons, this bold proposal is bound to be anathema both to Palestinians and Israelis, as it will be seen to be sounding the death knell on their dreams.

For Israelis, it sounds suspiciously like the one-state solution which, to the minds of many, though there are a growing number of supporters, spells the demise of the century-long Zionist dream and the end of the Jewish state. For many Palestinians, though more of them support the one-state option than in Israel, the idea of becoming Israelis is tantamount not only to admitting the death of their beloved Palestine but to asking for the privilege to drive the final nail into the coffin.

Such worries reflect historical and psychological anxieties, heightened by the maximalist visions of extremists on both sides, rather than the glaring realities on the ground: that Palestinians and Israelis are effectively living in a single state, albeit one that is largely segregated and in which millions are disenfranchised.

To my mind, despite all the poetry of the land that has marked the Palestinian struggle, “Palestine” is far more than its olive and orange groves, it is, above all else, the sum total of its people. What better way is there to preserve what’s left than to protect the right of the Palestinians to continue to live there in full equality?

Likewise, it is the Israeli people who make Israel Jewish and so emancipating the millions of disenfranchised Palestinians will not make the state any less Jewish than it is today – only fairer and more just. Moreover, if maintaining a clear Jewish majority is truly the overarching aim of the Zionist project, then Israel should have allowed the emergence of an independent Palestine many years ago.

Personally, I am an advocate of a single, bi-national federation of Israel-Palestine because it allows both sides to have unfettered access to the land they hold so dear, while preserving their social and cultural identities and rights through, for example, elected community governments, one representing Jews and one representing Arabs wherever they may live on the land (and perhaps a third representing those anti-nationalists who wish to be defined as neither). Above this, an elected federal government would be responsible for common issues, such as the economy, defence, foreign relations and water resources.

But what I am proposing here is not a one-state solution per se. If anything, you could say it is the ‘non-state solution’, i.e. it is an ideologically neutral means of improving the reality on the ground.

Once everyone is emancipated, then the real work begins and a true conversation of equals can take place to determine democratically the future of the two peoples: whether they will continue together in a single, democratic state or opt for a magnanimous divorce brokered, not by outsiders, but one people to another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2012.

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School resumes with tough lessons for Bedouin kids

 
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By Khaled Diab

With their school slated for demolition, the children of Khan al-Ahmar wonder whether Israel believes that Bedouins do not deserve an education.

Friday 7 September 2012

Children line up for morning assembly at the threatened Khan al-Ahmar school. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In the twilight of the early morning, as the rising sun turns a nearby mountain a striking pinkish-red, Nujood emerges from the family shack ready for her first day back at school after the long summer holiday. The teenager is a member of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe which has lived in the West Bank since they were forcibly evicted from the Negev by Israel shortly after its creation in 1948.

Nujood greets us shyly as we sit with her father, Moussa, sipping sweet Bedouin tea in the family’s simple “garden”, the best the arid circumstances will allow. Despite the early hour, the 14-year-old, who is starting seventh grade, is excited about the prospect of resuming her education.

“I enjoyed the summer holiday but I prefer going to school to being on holiday because we study there and learn new things,” Nujood says in a barely audible whisper, betraying an attitude quite at odds with the mixed emotions with which I recall we greeted the new school year when I was a teenager.

We walk the short distance – past a herd of drowsy camels who follow us with bleary-eyed interest and a couple of donkeys apparently enjoying the splendour of the early morning light – to her modest school. Nujood, who is neatly turned out in a lime green striped uniform and white headscarf, tells me about her aspirations.

Shy Nujood overcomes her reserve to salute the flag. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“I want to become a teacher,” she says simply. Her reason? “I want to teach other [Bedouin] children because not everything is available here for them to learn,” she elaborates. Perhaps that explains why, despite her self-conscious bashfulness, she led the saluting of the flag during the morning assembly.

Her excitement at a new term notwithstanding, Nujood is apprehensive and worried, because her school – which she shares with around 100 other children, mostly of primary school age, from Khan al-Ahmar and other nearby Bedouin communities – may not stay open for much longer. In fact, shortly before the term began a nearby Israeli settlement unsuccessfully, for now, petitioned the Supreme Court not to allow the school to reopen, and it is only a matter of time before the Civil Administration – the IDF arm which governs the West Bank – will have to carry out the order to demolish the school.

The school, like 17 others in Area C of the West Bank, has had an Israeli demolition order against it since it was built, out of old tyres mixed with mud, with international assistance and local volunteer work, in 2009.

“When I hear they plan to demolish our school, I feel that they want to humiliate us and don’t want us to learn,” Nujood reflects sadly. “But we won’t let that happen,” she adds, though what more this embattled community can do to save this school is unclear, since the lawyer representing their case in the Israeli courts has reportedly exhausted all avenues and it is only international pressure and advocacy that seems to behind the ongoing stay of execution.

In addition, Khan al-Ahmar in its entirety and other Bedouin communities in the area are slated for demolition, and their 2,300 residents live under the constant threat of eviction.

Sandwiched between Kfar Adumim (population: 2,500) and Ma’ale Adumim (population: 39,000), the freedom of movement of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents has been severely curtailed. This is not only a harsh slap down for people who have for countless generations enjoyed the freedom to roam, but it also threatens the community’s traditional livelihood, which is based on herding. Moreover, the Bedouin complain that they can no longer reach Jerusalem, where they used to sell their livestock, nor are they allowed to work on settlements anymore.

The ostensible justification for these demolition and eviction orders is that the ramshackle collection of huts and tents that make up Khan al-Ahmar, like is the case with other Bedouin and Palestinian farming communities in Area C of the West Bank, was built “without a permit”. But acquiring such permission – according to the UN and international organisations, not to mention Israeli human rights groups – is nearly impossible.

For its part, the Israeli Civil Administration insists that it provides the Bedouin with alternative locations in which to settle, but the Bedouin say that these alternatives – such as the plan to move the 2,300 Bedouin of the Jerusalem periphery to a location near the stinking al-Abdali tip where the rubbish from the city is dumped – are not suitable and that they prefer to stay put because they do not wish to become “refugees all over again”, as numerous Bedouins in the area have told me.

The same applies for education, with the Israeli authorities insisting that alternatives to the Khan al-Ahmar and the 17 other schools exist or will be found. But locals are not convinced, saying that the closure of the school will force them to send their children to Jericho, as they used to before their modest and convenient local school was built.

Nujood remembers those days well. “My old school was hard to reach. I used to leave at dawn and come back at around 5pm,” she recounts. This left her with little time or energy to study and do homework, especially since electricity is a precious and rare commodity in Khan al-Ahmar, in contrast with the brightly lit settlements nearby. The journey was also a perilous one, with some children involved in road traffic accidents, including a number of fatalities.

The school, which is built of a mix of old tyres and mud, gives local girls a stab at an education.Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In this deeply conservative and traditional Bedouin society, the greater distance and risk would lead many parents to keep their daughters at home. In fact, though the school was ill-equipped for it, the secondary school class –constructed with flimsy chipboard and wrought iron sheets – was introduced at Khan al-Ahmar expressly to enable girls to continue their education.

But, unusually, as far as Nujood’s father is concerned, his daughter has a right to a full education, no matter the distance or cost. “Even if they demolish the school, we will carry on with Nujood’s schooling,” Moussa tells me. “I’d like Nujood to go as far in the education system as she wants.” He delivers a heart-felt plea to the Civil Administration and the Israeli public to think about how they would feel if the same were done to their children, before carrying out the death sentence on this school, which he helped build with his own hands.

The Bedouins of Khan al-Ahmar not only feel under attack by the Israeli occupation, but also have a sense that they have been abandoned to their fate by the Palestinian Authority, according to Eid Sweillam, also known as Abu Khamis, spokesman for Khan al-Ahmar.

“The occupation authorities do all they can to prevent the PA from performing its roles and responsibilities in Area C, and to restrict our ability to develop [it],” admitted Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad when I put the Bedouins’ concerns to him during a press conference he held at the school that same morning. “This does not mean that the PA has stood before the Israeli occupation with its hands tied. It has implemented hundreds of projects in what is called Area C.”

Boys page through their new school books in a makeshift classroom.Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Area C, which falls under full Israeli control, represents 60% of the surface area of the West Bank. It is currently populated by 150,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouins and poor farmers, and more than 300,000 Israeli settlers (from around 110,000 in 1993 and only just over 1,000 in 1972).

Despite the restrictions imposed by the occupation, the Bedouin insist that the PA can do more. “The most important thing that the PA can do in Area C… is to help us find alternative livelihoods and provide us with legal support,” suggests Abu Khamis.

Failing to act will not only hurt the Bedouins of Area C, but also the Palestinian national project, insists Abu Khamis. “We are the final stone keeping a contiguous Palestinian state together,” he says. “If these Bedouin communities are uprooted… This will split the north of Palestine from the south.” It would also cut East Jerusalem off completely from its West Bank hinterland.

This Israeli-controlled sector possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was supposed to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which the future Palestinian state would be established. But as more and more space is swallowed up by settlements and pressure grows from settler groups for Israel to annex much of Area C, this prospect is looking increasingly dim.

To deal with this challenge, Palestinians need to borrow from Israel’s handbook of creating faits accomplis, Fayyad stressed. “We are fully intent on building facts on the ground that are consistent with the inevitability of the emergence of the fully independent sovereign state of Palestine on the territories occupied in 1967,” the Palestinian prime minister said.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 September 2012.

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Nomad with nowhere to go [Video]

 
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Salama is young, unemployed and so cut off by Israeli settlements that he has almost nowhere to go and no friends to hang out with except his brother.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Picture what life must be like when you not only have no job and no prospects but your community also faces eviction. Imagine being unable to enjoy the freedom of youth because you’re hemmed in by Israeli settlements and need a permit to travel to nearby Jerusalem. Imagine how lonely it must feel to rarely get the opportunity to hang out with people your own age and so your brother has to double up as your friend.

And to top it all off, think how frustrating it must be if you’ve been raised as a Bedouin to value the freedom to roam, yet you’re stuck between the rock of a settlement on one side and the hard place of a military training zone on the other.

Welcome to the world of Salama (22), who lives in an endangered Bedouin community on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The young man proved a friendly and conscientious host during the long wait for his father to arrive, yet the dull drudgery and hardship of his life had instilled in him an earnestness and solemnity beyond his years.

Since finishing high school, he’s only managed to work as a seasonal labourer and, at the moment, he has no work, which leaves him with wide expanses of free time, but no wide open spaces to misspend it in.

“There’s no one else my age here, except for my brother, who is older than me. We keep each other company by hanging out together, telling each other things. There’s time to kill and we don’t know what to do with it,” he confesses. “I don’t have anyone else and nor does he.”

Salama is frustrated at how circumstances have conspired to stop him from making something of his life. “I try to do something for myself. At night, I ask myself, ‘What have I done today?” I realise nothing. The day has passed with nothing to show for it. Sometimes, I just want to do something, so I knock something down and rebuild it. I have all this energy and I need an outlet for it.”

He is also frustrated that he cannot do something meaningful for his country, especially at a time when youth in neighbouring Egypt are struggling to transform theirs. “I have too much free time. Take Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]… He must account even for bathroom breaks. Now look at me and all the free time I have,” he reflects, a pastime he has plenty of time for. “When you come home, you think to yourself, what have you done for your country? You eat, you sleep, you get up, you come and you go… That is the sum of your life.”

And even on the rare occasion he manages to go out with friends, the endeavour can be risky, even when visiting nearby Jericho, which he is allowed to do. Salama relates the story of when he got arrested during Eid el-Fitr in 2011 for allegedly bothering an Israeli girl.

He says that he did not bother anyone and that he has photographic evidence to prove it. At the time of the alleged incident, he was having his photo taken with a friend at a studio in Jericho. Salama claims that the real reason he got taken in was because he had answered back to the soldier. While arresting him, the soldier kicked him in the shins, Salama claims.

Although no formal charges were brought against him, Salama says he spent over two months in detention. “In prison, I truly felt the suffering of the Palestinian people for the first time. Before that I’d heard about prisoners and that freedom is a blessing. But I didn’t expect it to be like this. We were in a room that was 3m by 3m.”

And the wide expanses of time got even wider in the narrow confines of his cell: “At times I got so bored that I began to count the tiles.”

“In detention, you see terrible suffering,” Salama adds. “You meet people who say they’ve been here for a year. You ask them if they’ve appeared in court. They say, no.”

This experience makes him pine for liberty all the more. “Freedom is the foundation of a person. Without freedom, you are worthless,” he opines. “I have no personal freedom. I’ll tell you, if I go just outside, 50m down the hill, I reach the boundaries of the settlement next door, Kifar Adumim. I’m not allowed to enter it.”

After answering his numerous questions about my travels, I asked where he would go if he had the freedom to go where he pleased?.“My dream is to see our ancestral land [in the Naqab/Negev],” he replies.

And how about abroad, where he can shake of the restrictions? “When I have the freedom to travel at home, then I can think about going abroad,” he says.

Scroll up to the top of the article to watch the video (in Arabic).

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Peace in New Canaan

 
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By Khaled Diab

As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fail again, it is time to build a New Canaan of diversity, tolerance and peace based on reimagined identities.

Monday 30 January 2012

The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Jordan this month has resulted in deadlock and mutual recriminations over the issues of borders and security. Meanwhile, Palestinian youth activists have held numerous small demonstrations to protest against the talks in the absence of a settlement freeze and a clear vision of the future borders of an independent Palestinian state.

In a way, there is really little left to negotiate over. This was depressingly highlighted in the latest Peace Now report which said that the unprecedented rate of settlement construction threatened to torpedo the two-state solution. Personally, I think Israel blew that option out of the water some years ago.

Simply put, the scraps of land left over in the West Bank cannot be meaningfully weaved together to form the fabric of a feasible Palestinian state, while Gaza floats like a lone and isolated meteoroid in the Israeli cosmos.

Moreover, for Israel, evacuating the half million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to make way for a viable Palestine not only runs the risk of precipitating severe internal divisions and even conflict, it would also carry a substantial economic price tag.

Although the settlements are largely built on seized land, Israel has nevertheless invested, according to a comprehensive 2010 study, an estimated $17 billion in building homes and infrastructure in the West Bank, while the market value of these properties is probably several factors higher. That’s not to mention the enormous material and human cost of the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation.

The Palestinians, who have seen much of their homeland vanish to make way for Israel, feel that they have compromised enough by accepting a state on a fifth of historic Palestine and are in no mood to settle for less, even if Israel petrifies their dreams in concrete. In a last desperate bid to arrest this state of decline, the Palestinians have gone to the UN to seek symbolic statehood first.

But concrete walls and paper states are not the answer and will not resolve this longstanding conflict. A far better solution would be for Israelis and Palestinians to accept that they are stuck together on this increasingly indivisible land and to find creative ways to coexist peacefully and justly.

Instead of this generations-old and outdated nationalist fixation on ethnicity and the romanticisation land, it is time for both sides to shift their attention away from the soil and towards the people living on it, to create a society of equal citizens, regardless of whether they identify themselves as Israeli or Palestinian, or as Jew, Muslim, Christian or atheist.

For this to work requires the creative re-imagining of the current ethnocentric nationalism, and to remould it along egalitarian civic lines. An important psychological hurdle would be to end the negationist tendency on both sides, which only serves, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to delegitimise the claim of one side or the other to live on this land and, hence, breeds immense distrust.

Israelis, especially the right wing, need to accept that a Palestinian people exist and stop dismissing them as Arab newcomers, invaders and usurpers. In my view, describing the Arabic-speaking population as Palestinian is more accurate than saying they are Arab. The only true Arabs are the inhabitants of Arabia, while the rest of what we refer to today as Arabs are a diverse spectrum of Arabised peoples whose only universal denominator is that they speak Arabic, although most share numerous common cultural and religious features.

In fact, the idea of a unified “Arab people” as imagined by pan-Arab nationalism is every bit as invented and constructed as the idea of a “Jewish people”, as if sharing a common language, in the former, and a common religion, in the latter, somehow automatically instils its members with a unique essence.

Similarly, Palestinians, particularly the Islamists, need to accept that an Israeli people exist and that they are not merely European colonists. Even though Zionism was born in Europe as an ideology, today’s Israeli Jewish population is a diverse mix of Jews from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and this melting pot forged a distinctive Israeli identity which is neither here nor there.

Moreover, even though a lot of Israel’s behaviour is colonial in nature and the Zionist project involved the dispossession of an enormous number of people, Zionism was also a liberation movement for the Jews, who have suffered, despite a number of “golden ages”, marginalisation, discrimination and periodic persecution for centuries, with the worst example being the Holocaust.

Once the two sides have accepted each other, the next step is to create a hybrid cultural and national identity that is more inclusive of the other. This does not mean that Israelis and Palestinians need to abandon their respective identities. Instead, they should create a new, unifying meta-identity.

In this, both Israelis and Palestinians can build on their cultural tradition of diversity to expand their respective identities to encompass the other side.  In addition to a core that has remained on this land since the times of ancient Canaan, the modern Palestinian population is a melting pot of peoples from across the Middle East, Europe and even sub-Saharan Africa, as reflected in many place names, such as the Armenian quarter, and family names, such as al-Masry (the Egyptian). This malleable identity once also included the Jews of Palestine.

Likewise, the modern Israeli identity not only managed to assimilate diverse Jewish populations from around the world, it has also, albeit uncomfortably, managed to integrate the Palestinian population that remained within Israel after 1948. These Palestinian-Israelis offer a possible, yet incomplete, blueprint for deeper future symbiosis, as does the complex identity of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, who, though their heritage is both Jewish and Arab, have thus far not managed to bridge the contemporary chasm separating the two.

Politically, this supra-identity can be expressed in the creation of an umbrella state which I propose to call New Canaan, since Canaan is the original name of this land, and the identity of the original Canaanites is shrouded in mystery. I add the prefix “New” both because this union will be future-looking and because it will work to overcome the petty tribal and religious divisions, rivalries and conflicts that have marked this land since antiquity.

Within this federated state, where freedom of movement and equality will be guaranteed for all, cultural and social issues can be the preserve of Israeli and Palestinian community governments, while common issues relating to the economy, defence, foreign policy and the protection of fundamental rights can be handled by a joint bi-national parliament.

And to reach this secular “promised land” requires peace-seekers on both sides to embark on an exodus away from the captivity of their past towards the freedom of the future. It’s high time for Israeli and Palestinian doves of a feather to flock together against the hawks.

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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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Israeli freedom riders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Following the successful Palestinian ‘freedom rides’, it’s time for Israeli ‘freedom riders’ to cross the barriers between the two peoples.

Friday 2 December 2011

Drawing inspiration from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, a group of six Palestinian ‘freedom riders’ – dressed in the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – boarded an Israeli bus bound from the West Bank to Jerusalem.

Their mission: to defy the Israeli military’s restrictions on West Bank Palestinians entering East Jerusalem, as well as a general protest against the occupation and the limitations it imposes on their freedom of movement on the land earmarked for their future state.

Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed, at first spiritually, for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the ‘holy city’ carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” one of the freedom riders, Nadeem al-Shirbaty, who works as an ironsmith and activist in Hebron, told me.

After a number of failed attempts, the Palestinian activists, accompanied by a large pack of journalists, managed to get on a bus, but were blocked from entering Jerusalem at the Hizma checkpoint. “If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” another freedom rider, Bassel al-Araj, a pharmacist from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, confided to me on the bus while various police and army units standing outside debated what to do.

Though the protesters were ultimately dragged off the bus and arrested, they view their action as having been a great success because it drew international attention to their plight in a peaceful and non-violent manner. They vow to continue and scale up their campaign of civil disobedience.

In addition to the legion of journalists, a number of Israeli activists were also on the bus. They had come in solidarity with the freedom riders and to help spread the word, though they refused to comment on the record with me because they argued that this was a Palestinian action and they did not want to draw attention away from it.

But there is an Israeli angle. Despite the easing of the restrictions imposed during the second intifada, Israelis, with the exception of Palestinian-Israelis, are still barred from entering Area A – made up mostly of the major Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank – and Gaza.

Naturally, the restrictions on Israelis are far less severe than those suffered by Gazans, who live under a blockade, and West Bank Palestinians, who have to weave their away around settlements, settler roads, and land designated as ‘military areas’, not to mention the regular closures and curfews.

Nevertheless, I believe it is time for Israeli peace activists and concerned citizens to become freedom riders themselves to defy this unfair restriction which entrenches the segregated reality between the two peoples, enabling extremists to take advantage of the darkness and demonise at their leisure. It would also enable Israelis to express solidarity with their Palestinian neighbours and raise Israeli public awareness of the reality in the occupied territories.

Israeli activists I have canvassed generally reacted positively to the idea. The poet, publicist and social activist Mati Shemoelof said: “I think it is a really great idea that will help challenge the myths and misconceptions that Israelis have about Palestinians and highlight, through direct action, the reality of segregation.”

The myths and misconceptions that Shemoelof thinks Israeli freedom riders can counter include the widespread Israeli belief that Palestinians enjoy sovereignty but cannot govern themselves, which can help explain the paradoxical attitude that more than half of Israelis want to return the occupied territories but have not mobilised to do so.

Another common misconception is that Palestinians do not know the meaning of non-violent protest. “Most of the Israelis after the second intifada refuse to believe that the Palestinian can be our friends. They see them as Hamasnics. Israelis can’t relate to Palestinian life because of mass media demonisation.” This common fear is part of the reason why many Israelis, either explicitly or implicitly, support the draconian restrictions imposed on Palestinians and are not willing to travel to Palestinian areas.

One Israeli I spoke to insisted that any plans to organise Israeli freedom riders must be “coordinated with Palestinians and not seen as an Israeli civilian invasion of sorts”.

Palestinian activists I have spoken to say that all the ramifications and implications of the action, as well as its political messaging, must be studied carefully before they would be willing to lend their support to such Israeli freedom rides. They are concerned that such an initiative could be hijacked or misused by settlers and extremists to justify the occupation. “It could suggest that there is equivalence between the plight of Palestinians living under occupation and the situation of Israeli settlers,” one concerned activist said.

Naturally, there are Israelis who disregard the restrictions regularly. On the hostile side, there are the militant settlers out to perpetrate ‘price tag’ attacks on Palestinians and their infrastructure.

On the friendly side, numerous activists and well-meaning citizens travel to Area A without a permit. For example, Yuval Ben Ami, who blogs at +972, recently travelled quite extensively through the West Bank, including to troubled Hebron, where he was surprised by the warmth of the welcome he received from locals, but was eventually arrested by hospitable Palestinian police who plied him with sweet coffee and handed him over to the Israeli authorities.

Standing on the roof of a massive shopping mall, he reflects: “I am thrilled, slowly getting my bearings. The ability… to compare and contrast wounded Hebron with breathing Hebron, is priceless for me. I have never held a more powerful tool for understanding the meaning of the occupation and the actual extent of the damage it causes.”

Gershon Baskin, the co-founder of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information and a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, also travels regularly to Area A: “I do travel all over the West Bank and I never ask a permit for myself. I don’t think I flout [the restrictions] but I am not willing to ask for a permit for myself.” He expressed his willingness to participate in actions which challenge the system.

These piecemeal efforts to circumnavigate the restrictions will not challenge the status quo. What is required is a convoy of Israeli freedom riders travelling openly and conspicuously, with the bells and whistles of banners, placards and T-shirts.

It is my view that one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to peace is the absence of true human contact between Israelis and Palestinians – for whom the vast majority of encounters are negative ones between occupier and occupied – which creates fertile ground for fear, distrust and hatred.

Israeli freedom riders can help overcome this psychological barrier by crossing, in peace and compassion, the physical barriers separating the two peoples. Whatever ultimate resolution to the conflict prevails, the close physical proximity of Israelis and Palestinians will require close co-operation, and freedom riders can help drive the two sides a mile closer.

This article was first published by The Jerusalem Post on 28 November 2011.

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Avoiding the ultimate price tag in Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the rise in Jewish fanaticism, Israelis are faced with a paradox: peace with the Palestinians could stoke conflict within their own ranks but avoiding full-blown civil war requires an end to the occupation.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Once upon a time, the words ‘price tag’ evoked nothing more ominous in my imagination than something attached to the inside collar of a new shirt. But in Israel it has come to be associated with the destruction of Palestinian property, the burning of their fields, the poisoning of their wells, and the desecration of burial sites. 

And the standoff seems to be escalating, as demonstrated by the recent spate of attacks, such as the torching of a mosque, this time inside pre-1967 Israel. In fact, according to one estimate by the UN, ‘price tag’ attacks rose by a stunning 57% in the first seven months of this year. 

But it is not just Palestinians who have been suffering the wrath of these extremists. Increasingly, the price tagging movement has done the once unthinkable and targeted Israelis, both soldiers and leftist activists.

Political violence perpetrated by Israelis against Israelis has shocked Israel – which is hardly surprising, since the extremists have effectively placed their own compatriots in the enemy camp. It has also taken many Arabs by surprise, since one of the few things that Arabs admire about Israelis – even if it is begrudgingly or for the purposes of self-criticism – is how apparently tightly knit and unified of purpose they are.

Now that the unthinkable has occurred, could the unimaginable one day happen? Could Israelis go to war with each other?

In the past, despite the vast ideological, cultural and political diversity of its Jewish population, Israel was able to pull rank and manufacture consent surrounded as it was by enemies, both real and imagined. But as the threat from its Arab neighbours subsided and they began extending their hands in peace rather than rattling the sabres of war, Israel’s efforts to paper over its internal cracks and fault lines could not arrest the deepening divisions.

 In some ways, it can be said that Israel is already in a state of internal ideological warfare – a sort of quasi-civil war that has not yet turned violent, the ‘price tag’ campaigns excepted. This can be seen in Israel’s fractured political landscape and in the bitter division between secularists and religious Jews who have effectively ‘ghettoised’ themselves geographically. Contrast, for example, the relatively liberal, relaxed and hedonistic atmosphere of fun-loving Tel Aviv with the mini-theocracies that have emerged in pious Jerusalem.

There is also the tension between the geographical maximalist supporters of a ‘Greater Israel’ and the more pragmatic backers of the two-state solution. In the wake of the 1967 war, the Israeli political mainstream was generally reluctant to cede the territorial gains Israel had made, and they were helped in their resolve by Arab rejectionism at the time, which was intensified by the bitter and humiliating sting of rapid defeat.

Since the Oslo process began, the mainstream has largely been won over to the idea of ceding land for peace, though there are vast differences of opinion over how much land for how much peace should be exchanged.

This mainstream dithering, along with the need to maintain a consensus of sorts by following the path of least internal resistance, was exploited by extremists – right-wing revisionist Zionists in alliance with religious Zionists who, ironically, are the ideological descendants of the ultra-Orthodox movements who opposed Zionism on religious grounds but were ‘converted’ into a messianic movement by Israel’s spectacular military victories in 1967. In fact, many residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim are still opposed to the existence of Israel – as was advertised on a big banner ther just last week – and some refuse to speak Hebrew, which they see as too holy for secular use. 

Together, the different groups that make up the settler movement managed to pull off the feat of accelerating settlement activity in order to create ‘facts on the ground’ to the extent that more than half a million settlers now live on land which had been earmarked for the future Palestinian state, where the most extreme have enjoyed pretty much a carte blanche to live and act outside the law.

Emboldened by this sense of impunity, this hoodwinking and political coercion has now, with the emergence of the ‘price tag’ movement, turned into open and violent intimidation, in a classic case of ‘blow back’.

But what can be done to turn the tide?

Debate in Israel has largely focused on law and order issues, of catching and punishing the perpetrators of these violent acts and challenging their sense of impunity. Though necessary, this is only a case of attacking the symptoms and not treating the disease.

Undermining the increasingly fanatical settler movement requires an end to the settlements. The silent Israeli majority who have consistently voiced their support for the two-state solution – most recently in a poll that found 70% of Israelis support a possible UN vote in favour of an independent Palestine – must come out of their bunkers and be counted.

Now it is time for them to back up their sentiments with deeds. If the Israeli mainstream wishes to keep the two-state solution alive, now is the time to act forcefully and resolutely to abandon all the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are impeding the creation of an independent Palestine, or hand them over to Palestinian sovereignty where they can be opened up and transformed into mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

But such a course of action – which would not only bring about peace with the Palestinians but preserve Israel’s corroding democracy against this extremist onslaught – paradoxically carries with it the risk of escalating the ‘price tag’ campaign into full-blown civil conflict or war. Look what happened when Ariel Sharon, the one-time darling of the settler movement, tried to dismantle the relatively small settlements in Gaza, some will point out?

But this risk will rise with time, not diminish. For now, extremists willing to turn on their Jewish compatriots are a relatively small minority, but they are winning fresh converts constantly.

As numerous Israeli visionaries have warned for decades, the occupation is a corrupting, divisive and draining influence on Israel. If Israelis wish to salvage the secular and democratic nature of their country, and to live at peace, not only with the Palestinians but also among themselves, there is no more room for complacency and dithering.

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Race against space

 
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By Khaled Diab

Both time and space are  running out for the two-state solution. If Israelis wish to preserve the Jewish identity of their state, they need to act now to create a Palestinian state.

Monday 25 July 2011

Local children squeeze into the one-roomed school for the village's summer camp. ©Photo: Khaled Diab

Perched on a scenic hilltop named ‘Mont de Joie’ (‘Mountain of Joy’) by the Crusaders for its commanding view of the Jerusalem they were about to conquer, Nabi Samwil’s 250 or so Palestinian inhabitants have little to feel joyous about. They are cut off, by Israeli settlements and the separation wall, from the rest of the West Bank, while the West Bank IDs they carry deprive them of access to Jerusalem, even though Israel considers their village to be within the municipal boundaries of the city. 

“We’ve become like a tiny island,” describes Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, who lives with three branches of his family, i.e. 13 people, in a small house of about 120m2. “If a child needs a doctor, you have to embark on a very long journey to get to other nearby villages or Ramallah.”

 As he speaks, Barakat, who was crippled in a car crash in Amman, is sitting on his bed working on his computer, one of the few connections he has with the outside world. In addition to being a key advocate of the villagers’ rights, Barakat runs an NGO appropriately called, given the confinement of his village, Disabled without Borders.

One practical problem associated with their imposed isolation is getting relatives and friends from other parts of the West Bank into the village. Mohammed’s brother, Rebhi, who is a member of the village council, is somewhat anxious about a local wedding that is due to take place later in the week.

“The Israeli civilian administration insists on knowing the names of everyone who is coming,” he complains. “But you can never know who exactly is coming because each person you invite usually brings along their family and friends.”

The villagers’ woes don’t end there. Owing to draconian Israeli building restrictions, the bride and groom, like many other young people, are forced to abandon the village in search of housing elsewhere. Villagers report that only two houses have been built since Israel took over control in 1967, while numerous homes were demolished near the mosque and the tomb that is believed by some, despite the absence of archaeological or biblical evidence, to house the prophet Samuel. 

One of the sad consequences of this inability to build which I witnessed is that some two dozen children have to squeeze into the village’s tiny one-room school, which will soon lack a properly functioning toilet because the one they built has a demolition order on it. 

Isolated as Nabi Samwil is, it is not an isolated case – demolitions and displacements are a daily fact of life. This is clearly illustrated in a new report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which is due out on 21 July. Entitled Forced Out, the sobering document focuses on displaced communities in Area C, more than three-fifths of the West Bank over which Israel retains full civil and security control under the Oslo Accords. 

It documents how local communities – faced with restrictions on their movement, a freeze on building and settler violence and intimidation – are facing severe housing shortages, with many moving to Areas A and B as a result. Among the hardest hit are farming and Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, some of whom have even resorted to building concrete structures inside their tents to conceal them from the army. 

“While the intent behind the various policies applied by Israel to Area C is unclear, their effect is to make it impossible for many Palestinian communities to develop,” says UN Humanitarian Coordinator Maxwell Gaylard who expresses “concerns about demographic shifts and changes to the ethnic make-up of Area C”. 

Although Israel’s intentions are indeed unclear, the fact that a sharp increase in demolitions and evictions has taken place this year seems to suggest a bid to “create realities on the ground” before the Palestinian leadership gets a chance to go to the UN to seek recognition for an independent Palestine. OCHA’s records show that over 1,100 Palestinians have been forcibly displaced so far in 2011 in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Area C, which has experienced a massive upsurge in settlement building since the signing of the Oslo Accords, is currently home to twice as many Israeli settlers as Palestinians (300,000 as opposed to 150,000). Nevertheless, it possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was foreseen to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be established. 

However, with 70% of Area C currently set aside for settlements or the IDF, there is little room left for the two-state solution. This might partly explain why the Palestinian leadership, caught as it is in a race against space, has desperately resorted to the UN path, despite its slim chances of success. 

But it is not just Palestinians who should be worried about the changing reality of Area C and East Jerusalem, ordinary Israelis should be, too. If current policies remain unchecked, most of the Palestinian population will soon be living in a series of disconnected islands that will be impossible to join up into a coherent territory, leading to a de facto single Israeli-Palestinian state. 

Once they realise that their dream of an independent state is dead, Palestinians are likely to start focusing their attention on demanding equal civil rights and Israeli citizenship. This will leave Israel with a dilemma: either live up to its democratic credentials and grant Palestinians full rights and dilute the country’s prized Jewish identity, or continue an unsustainable and increasingly oppressive occupation, with all the disenfranchisement it involves, to hold on to this Jewishness. 

I am personally in favour of a single binational state made up of two non-geographical Israeli and Palestinian community governments which oversee the affairs of their peoples, and a joint federal government which manages common issues, such as trade, defence and foreign policy. 

Although a growing minority of Israelis supports this vision, most favour a state with a clearly Jewish identity which, by implication, makes them supporters of an independent Palestine on the pre-1967 borders. However, the current government, which holds the land to be holier than its people, is unlikely to take any meaningful steps to achieve the two-state vision. 

This leaves it up to ordinary Israelis to bring pressure to bear on the government to act now or risk forever holding back peace. Last Friday, some 4,500 protesters, mostly Israelis, marched through East Jerusalem to voice their support for an independent Palestine. The time has come for hundreds of thousands more to join them.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on Friday 21 July 2011.

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Jerusalem: the city where peace lost its way

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Although it is called the ‘House of Peace’, Jerusalem’s reality is that of conflict and dwindling hope. But can this divided city ever live up to its name?

Thursday 16 June 2011

There is something quite surreal about actually living in Jerusalem. It’s not just the historical and spiritual backdrop, but there are also the conflicting realities of one’s mundane domestic routines carried out in a bubble of relative tranquillity amid the wider context of tension caused by a rapidly changing geopolitical situation. 

When paths cross in Jerusalem. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

For instance, every morning my son, Iskander, and I walk through the old city to get to his crèche, where the Israeli soldiers with ridiculously oversized assault rifles slung over their shoulders have already become part of the ‘normal’ background, except when they stop you to check your ID. 

We pass within spitting distance of some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And, for someone who lacks religious conviction, the city’s catwalk of the assorted faithful – some of whom truly have their own crosses to bear while others are slaves to the bizarre fashion diktats of religion – is quite a sight to behold, especially when we arrived here around Easter/Passover time. 

In Hebrew, Jerusalem (Yerushalayim) probably means House or Abode of Peace, rather like Dar el-Salam in Arabic. And although peace is quite literally on everyone’s lips – Palestinians and Israelis meet and greet strangers and friends alike by saying salam/shalom (i.e. “peace”) – the hope that this wish will become a collective reality appears to be diminishing rather than growing. 

Despite the apparent tranquillity of this medium-sized town of colourful diversity, tension and apprehension stir just below the surface. Held in a vice by settlements and walls, Palestinian East Jerusalem, now living in almost solitary confinement from the wider West Bank, feels like a dying civilisation under siege, especially when compared with that more vibrant and dynamic upstart, Ramallah, the Palestinian equivalent of Tel Aviv. 

Even the apparently idyllic suburbia in which we live conceals the fact that it is on the front line of the battle for the soul of East Jerusalem. Although the area appears to be very Palestinian at first sight, there are four large Israeli settlements, as I learnt from my wife who researches such things, within easy reach, and we are a stone’s throw away from a section of the Israeli separation wall. 

As many soldiers as protesters in East Jerusalem. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When it comes to the Palestinians of Jerusalem, I sense that there is little optimism for the future, as demonstrated by the puny turnout to a Nakba day rally we encountered. This is perhaps unsurprising among people who feel like unwanted guests, even aliens, in their own hometown, which many have seen change beyond recognition in their own lifetimes. 

Take our still-sharp and lucid neighbour who is nearly 90. She recalls fondly the years when her family lived in a mixed neighbourhood in what is now Jewish West Jerusalem, and counted Jews among their closest friends and best neighbours. Then, in 1948, the year her son was born, this world, along with their home, was lost forever. 

Today, few Israelis and Palestinians interact on a personal level, whether in Jerusalem, where they live in close physical proximity, or elsewhere. This has led to a massive mutual distrust and dehumanisation in which the enormous diversity in world views, attitudes and beliefs on both sides are reduced to caricatures, stereotypes and simplistic generalisations. 

Jerusalem’s rapidly changing reality has left many Arab Jerusalemites with a sense of impending doom, the anticipation that their society stands on the edge of the abyss of oblivion. This, one Palestinian intellectual told me, has led many locals to abandon any hope for the future, after having held on desperately throughout the 1990s for peace and an independent homeland. A two-state solution has now become impossible, he concluded, and, with the Palestinians as the weaker party, a single state would result in them becoming “second- or even third-class citizens”. 

Personally, I do not share this sense of pessimism. Though extremely difficult, a two-state solution is not beyond the bounds of possibility, with the right political leadership. As for a single, binational federation (my preferred option), with the right legal guarantees and a vibrant civil rights movement, it can truly become a state for all its citizens. After all, the Arab citizens of Israel show, despite recent setbacks, that relative equality is possible. 

On the Israeli side, although a Jewish Jerusalem has largely been achieved and all that signifies spiritually and emotionally for millions of Jews, it is possibly only the settler movement that is truly rejoicing. Despite the official discourse of Israel having “no partner for peace”, many Israelis have awoken or are waking up to the realisation that they cannot have both settlements and a settlement to the conflict. 

In fact, the settler movement has, in its bid to cement the Israeli grip on Jerusalem and much of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), not only gone well beyond the call of duty to bulldoze the peace process by replacing the land-for-peace formula with a land-for-pieces one, but it has also alienated secular Israelis. 

An Israeli newspaper editor told me that Jerusalem had seen a major exodus of Israeli liberals over the past two decades to Tel Aviv and other liberal towns, where they are able to keep their distance from the stifling influence of the Orthodox community and live in a comforting cocoon of normalcy in which they can ignore the conflict and even convince themselves that it is not going on. 

This polarisation is visible in a multitude of apparently mundane phenomena. Take the controversial  Tiv Ta’am supermarket chain – which has been at the centre of the ‘Kosher wars‘ for selling pork and staying open on the Shabbat when most of the country comes to a grinding halt – has no branches in Jerusalem. 

The newspaper editor noted that the only liberals he still personally knew in Jerusalem were kept there by their work at the Hebrew University. Of course, there’s also David Grossman

We had dinner with a couple who belong to this ‘dying breed’ of secular Jewish Jerusalemites, worldly university professors who presented a thoughtful and sensitive contrast – and one that is sadly not encountered regularly by the average Palestinian – to the mindless ideologues carrying the settler banner ever deeper into ‘enemy’ territory, including inner city neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, such as Sheikh Jarrah

Sadly, all the signs are that the Holy City will continue in its unholy role as the symbolic and actual focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, although I doubt I will ever succumb to a secular version of the ‘Jerusalem syndrome‘, I refuse to succumb to despair and continue to hold out the hope and conviction that, one day, the right dynamics will fall into place for a just and lasting resolution. It happened in other longstanding and bitter conflicts, why can’t it happen in the House of Peace?

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