Personal impressions from a meeting of Israelis and Palestinians in Neve Shalom

Tali Latowicki, University of Ben Gurion, Ber Sheva, 8/5/2003

In the face of the confusion that many of the left are reporting today regarding their stance toward policies being adopted by Palestinians, and in the face of the militaristic consensus in the media, I feel the need to tell about my personal experiences from an encounter that was organized at the end of last week between Israeli and Palestinian teachers in Neve Shalom, an encounter that was shocking and left me with very difficult but clear feelings.

We were in fact three different groups — the Jewish Israeli group, the Arab-Israeli group, and the Palestinian group. The Palestinians, who were the majority, came directly from the fire zones - Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah - on roads that are not really roads and with great courage. It took some a full day to travel a distance that should only take an hour, from checkpoint to checkpoint and between the checkpoints, exposed to arbitrary delays and the usual abuse, even though they were equipped with the necessary documents and caring their small children with them.

All this is well known. When we sat down for the first meeting, the expressions of solidarity and empathy, in addition to the permanent feelings of guilt and shame, were already prapred on my face and on my lips. But what happened in the three days we were there caused me to leave differently than the way I came now I know I can feel what they feel, and I also stronger in my national identity, but I still convinced that the first step to a solution must come from our side.

First, it became clear that our empathy was taken by them, at best, as the basic minimum and absolutely not sufficient, and in the worst-case as only lipservice, as moral "showing off" without any cover. Again and again they emphasized to us that they are being killed there everyday, humiliated and abused, and are close to exploding — in both senses. Our empathy is perhaps good for us, so that we will feel that we are not part of the oppressive system, but we are part of it — and it doesn't matter at all what we think.

They had an extremely clear answer to our questions about what they expected us to do: refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Defend the lives and well being of the sons, husbands and friends by preventing them from going there. Support the refusers, distribute the shocking stories that they told us, in order that it will be clear to everyone that the Army doesn’t have a chance anymore of being seen as a body that has any hint of humanity. I will write about the stories later — if it's hard for someone, it's better that you don't read.

To those of us who tried to raise the double argument that, first, this is unlawful, and second, that if we refuse, we will leave the field to all the hooligans that enjoy "giving it to the Arabs", they replied that, first, they have never come across a soldier who helped, or prevented the abuse, and second, as such, we are simply helping and strengthening the occupation, even serving as a fig leaf for it. The "nice soldier" might be microscopic in reality, but is exaggerated through the Israeli mass media — enabling the Army to show off that it is still, in spite of everything moral, considerate, and humanitarian. No moral soldier can help them now, and in fact there is nothing human or natural, in their view, in this basic situation of checkpoints. Even if a soldier is very nice and lets them pass a checkpoint, there will still remain the burning humiliation of dependence on an 18-year-old who decides whether adults and parents can pass from point A to B in their own territory. Their response was unambiguous — there is no way that you can remain moral if you go to serve in the territories, and you cannot help us this way. The only way is simply to refuse, in order to accelerate the end of the occupation.

The checkpoint is, it seems, the symbol of the occupation and is described in all the stories that we heard as the main arena of humiliation and harm. The brother of one of the participants was shot in the back at a checkpoint, while he was carrying his baby in his arms, and this after he was allowed to pass. They simply indicated to him that he could pass, and then shot in the back. It's true, this is an extreme event. Many other times they simply throw tear gas after them, just for the fun of it. Other times a soldier refuses to let them pass and points toward the hills, a hint that they should go around that way. But it's clear to everyone that it's not easy to go through the hills, and the soldiers do not hesitate to shoot, without checking first if it's a teacher or student trying to get to the local school.

Perhaps there is nothing surprising anymore in these stories. But I learned something else, that perhaps I should have known upfront, but the personal encounter with people is of course completely different. I learned that the more you suffer, the less you are willing to listen to the other side, to understand them or try to compromise with their claims. I have Palestinian friends from beforehand, and their political stance is very clear and decisive — they are opposed to any form of violence from both sides, and their desires are limited to the conventional compromise, that is a return to the 1967 borders. But they do not live in Nablus or Jenin. The people I met at the end of the week came with images of relatives who are dead and dying, without being able to call for help, with very fresh memories of humiliation and shooting, from cities that have turned into destroyed areas, with children for whom this is the first time in several years that they are allowed to run around and play outside without worry. These people were much more desperate, much more angry and much more extreme. They described to us actions of the soldiers in the territories that were monstrous and inhuman. They said they have reached the points where they were capable of killing, they demanded that we understand that the suicide operations of terrorists are the only real protests left for them. They demanded from us, as Israelis, to understand the terror attacks, and they did not even try to justify themselves or to apologize for them.

For me this was, of course, very difficult and even disappointing. At first I could not help thinking of myself, and was hurt that they were unable to distinguish, in their desire for revenge, between opponents of the occupation and its supporters. In retrospect, and after personal conversations with a few of them, it's clear to me that the words were not personal, but it was an effort to explain general processes of the Palestinian society relative to Israeli society, and to justify things that the participants in the encounter were not personally capable — yet — of really implementing.

But the words were definitely frightening, and only sharpened the understanding that every day that we remain in the territories heightens the threat to our existence here. As long as the ruling idea here is that Jews should live alone, in their own state, separated from the whole Arab world around them while ignoring or evicting the owners of the lands — we will not have a moment of quiet or security. We must strive to come to a compromise with them, a true and honorable compromise whose point of departure is that the lands that we dwell in were formerly theirs. If we learn to live together with them — with Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Arabs — in a respectful and equal way, there is a chance that we will be saved. And there is no exaggeration in these words, now I know. (And the words are appropriate, by the way, also regarding the Bedouin citizens of the state, who are being evicted from their lands and going through a series of discrimination and humiliation that are likely to create one day another Intifada. And we don't learn).

Even when we tried to explain to them that the terrorists actions only strengthen the right-wing camp in Israel and Sharon supports for counter-terror, and that suicide bombers are not understood here as a protest against the occupation but solely as terror — even when we tried, in a hesitant, but still didactic tone, to suggest alternative, nonviolent ways to oppose the occupation — even then they kept saying that this is all that is left for them. Because if it's impossible to leave your home in order to call an ambulance to evacuate your dead brother from his house, then it's clear that it's impossible to go into the streets in a nonviolent protest. The soldiers simply shoot, and even if it's not pleasant to hear it, many times they simply shoot without reason. Perhaps the events of recent weeks clarify this point more than ever.

And between us, it is clear that these terror attacks, that seem to us like Satanic craziness, are the only way for the Palestinians to remind the average Israeli of their existence. Because if it will be quiet here, really quiet, the average Israeli will not care if several million people are rotting under closure. He will simply forget that they exist and will continue to live his everyday life. He will not have any interest in returning one meter of their land.

And just as some of them were extreme in their one-sided stance toward terror — that is to say, that it's allowed for them but forbidden for us — so some of them understood the return to the 1967 borders as a sacrifice that was too big on their part. As they see it, we compensated ourselves for our traumas at their expense, with settlements on land that is not ours. We conquered the lands, slaughtered or expelled its residents, and afterwards even widened the occupation in 1967, to parts who were not part of the war but became its victims. They still hold the keys to the houses from which they were expelled in 1948, and they want to return. Some want to return to the house itself, and some are willing to compromise for some sort of arrangement. But it's important we understand that even a return to the 1967 borders is understood in their eyes as a great compromise and sacrifice on their side, and it will not end the conflict if it is not accompanied by a real and just solution to the refugees problem.

Initially the encounter with these positions caused me almost to despair, but in the end, an understanding of the conditions in which they are currently existing leads to the understanding that their view of reality could not be different. They are not saints, just as we are not saints, and they are suffering more than us. It is impossible to expect from people who are living like prisoners on their own lands that they will come to us with open arms. And all this only sharpens the recognition that reconciliation and compromise are still, indeed, far off, but we must do everything so that the next generation, at least, will see that there are also other Israelis, will experience life outside of the ghetto, will begin to push forward the possibility of cooperation just as we're trying to advance it from here. To do this we need to get out of the territories now. Anyone who tries to justify remaining there on humanitarian grounds is coming from a patronizing and arrogant standpoint, and it's time that we abandon it.

The fundamental lack of symmetry between our situation and theirs was present all the time in the meeting, especially in their descriptions of the journey they had made to arrive here and the journey back to their homes. Sammer, a teacher from Nablus who arrived with his three-year-old daughter Dinah, expressed it in the clearest way. At the final meeting he said that he could not stop thinking about Dinah - now they were returning home, (given that they would get through the checkpoints peacefully) she would return to being a prisoner at home, not allowed to go out to play. Every time a helicopter passes above their neighborhood, he told, she covers her face with her hands and it's impossible to move them away. I invite you, he added, to return with us to Nablus now, to see how the soldiers behave with us at the checkpoints, to feel what we feel when at any moment it's unclear if we will be able to pass or if they will decide to shoot us.

This situation, to meet with people for discussion from a simplistic standpoint of equality, and afterwards to drive home and know that these people might not make it, or will be injured in the next shelling by the army, this is a situation that cannot be described in words, but what is certain is that there is no symmetry in it and it's high time we stopped seeking for it.

Anhar story can perhaps exemplify this the best Anhar was admired in our group by Israelis and Palestinians alike, because she found the strength to come to meet us, despite the fact that in a recent invasion by the army into Nablus, her brother and father were shot from outside while they sat in the living room of their home, and Anhar was not even able to call for help because of the curfew and the massive shooting by soldiers outside. So they died in front of her eyes and afterwards she was forced to remain with the bodies in the home for another week.

How would we react if something like this would happen to us? Anhar had no doubt what would have happened to her if she had gone outside. She saw enough times how soldiers simply shot people in the street. Then she told us that in one incident an elderly person was shot in the street and was left to bleed and die without anyone being able to evacuate him. Dogs began to eat him while he was still alive. Two weeks afterwards it was possible to approach the area to move him, but by then there was almost nothing left of him. Then she said that the dogs belonged to the soldiers and that they had set the dogs on him on purpose. I simply refuse to believe this story. But who knows when I sat alone with her and tried to explain to her how much the actions of the terrorists do not help, and she continually repeated to me "how would you feel if and what would you doand is what the soldiers are doing humane", I said to her that she could have decided to take revenge but instead of this she came here, and what she has done is the only thing that can really help. She said to me "you know why I didn't undertake an attack? Only because I can't even kill a chicken. This is the only reason. If I could do it, I would."

Anhar believes that attacks should be focused against soldiers, but because of the great difficulty in doing these actions, she explains, the attacks have spread to Israel. And this is a woman who came to meet with Jewish Israelis, who in spite of the hell she has been through, wants to believe that there is a chance to live here together one day. If these are people who come here, I was thinking to myself, what do those who don't come think?

And it not so hard to imagine. Even among us, and not just those who spray graffiti saying "Kehana was right", it's possible to hear many times people saying that Arabs are not human-beings, that they should simply disappear. But when we come to meet them we somehow expect that they will be more moral. But why? Have they experienced anything in their life that would cause them to think differently? I want to say it again — extremism is a result of suffering. If we want to come to a compromise with the Palestinians, and we recognize the fact that we cannot simply erase them from the face of the earth, we must stop the suffering. And not just passively. Because passive identification, from their point of view, is identical to the continuation of the occupation, and it doesn't matter if you cried when you heard the stories.

And if anyone believes, after all this, that they need to serve in the territories to defend the state, they don't understand that there is nothing that defends it less.