Earlier this month I participated in a daylong visit with Palestinians sponsored by Encounter, a nonpartisan educational organization that provides Diaspora leaders with exposure to Palestinian life. The eye-opening experience reinforced for me the idea that both sides to the conflict have a narrative that may provoke in the other uncomfortable feelings, defensiveness, and even anger. But if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever to be resolved peacefully, each side’s narrative must be heard — and then set aside — so an agreement can be negotiated.
The day, July 7, began in Bethlehem at the home of Ali Abu Awwad. Ali runs an organization called Jubur-Roots, whose mission is to develop nonviolent Palestinian leadership. Ali was raised in a political family with ties to the PLO. As a younger man, he was involved in what he calls “resistance against the occupation.” He was arrested and imprisoned, though he did not elaborate on exactly what he did that led to his arrest.
Ali said he was never able to imagine the pain of Israelis who were victims of Palestinian violence. However, after he met and talked with Israelis who had lost someone to the conflict, he founded Jubur-Roots and today works to build a movement of Palestinians who seek a nonviolent approach to conflict resolution. He talks openly about the corrosive effect of occupation on both sides. He told a story about waiting for two hours to get home at a checkpoint in the West Bank during a cold and driving rain. When he finally reached the checkpoint, Ali related, the soldier asked him, in a tone he regarded as sarcastic and cynical, “How are you?” Ali answered, “I’m fine. Not only am I dry and warm inside my car, but soon I’ll be home with my family, and you will still be standing here at this checkpoint making all these people suffer.”
Ali suggested that his response to the soldier put a human face on the ugly routine of making people wait countless hours through checkpoints, and he spoke of the need to understand each other’s suffering.
Hamed Qawasmeh works for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and lives in Hebron. Using maps and statistics, Hamed talked about how the area in which a Palestinian state could be developed is rapidly shrinking due to the creation of military zones, nature reserves, closures that create isolated pockets of habitation, and the separation barrier’s path through Palestinian villages. Hamed, less than objective at times, used phrases like “the settlement of Gilo” to refer to a thriving town on the outskirts of Jerusalem that, by all accounts, would remain part of Israel in any future agreement. Hamed explained that a drop in violence resulted not from the separation barrier but from a new Palestinian attitude that violence is unacceptable. When asked why the population of Christians has decreased in Bethlehem, Hamed answered that Christians were not persecuted by Muslims but chose to move to other countries for better economic opportunities.
We spoke about Israel’s offer to establish a Palestinian state on 96 percent of the West Bank 15 years ago, and I asked Hamed if he would accept the deal today if Israel were to make the same offer. He immediately answered that he would not, since any deal that does not include Jerusalem is unacceptable to Palestinians. He sees negotiations based on the pre-1967 borders as representing a massive Palestinian compromise and does not think any further compromise is called for.
Sam Bahour, a business consultant who lives and works in Ramallah, spends his time helping Palestinians develop businesses in the West Bank. He spoke openly about the destructive effect of occupation on creating a thriving economy in the West Bank. He views business development as a nonviolent means of resistance. He feels that the occupation is like “a boot on the neck of the Palestinians.”
I asked Sam if he felt that the sole cause of Palestinian resistance is the occupation, or if Palestinians and the Arabs reject the very idea of Zionism. He answered that without a doubt Arabs reject Zionism, saying that “there’s Judaism, Zionism, and Israel, and there’s a reason there are three separate words for each idea.” He states that Zionism is an ideology that Arabs need not accept, that Judaism is a religion, and that Israel is a political entity with which they must contend.
All the presentations I heard reflected a Palestinian perspective. There was no discussion of Israel’s security and no mention of concerns that Hamas militants would rapidly supplant Fatah leadership in any future Palestinian state, turning it into a launching pad for attacks against Israel. No words were spoken about how removing checkpoints or the security barrier could result in suicide bombers regularly entering Israel.
Nor did we hear a word about a Palestinian education system that teaches children that Jews are inferior to other humans, about the demonization of Jews in the Arab press, about the glorification of violence against Israelis, or about the honoring of terrorist thugs with bonuses and streets named after them. There were many references to the illegality of settlement construction, but no mention that, after Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze, Mahmoud Abbas refused to come to the negotiating table for the first nine months of the freeze. Those points are not part of the Palestinian narrative. As a Zionist and a supporter of Israel, it wasn’t always easy for me to hear their version of the story.
My Encounter left me fearful that the conflict won’t be resolved any time in the foreseeable future. Still, I won’t abandon the hope that both parties will find the courage, and identify the leadership necessary, to reconcile.