Israel and the Palestinians must Face the Inescapable
Coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians is inevitable and, short of catastrophic developments, the two peoples are doomed or destined to live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. They must now decide on the quality of that coexistence. Do they want live with mutual hatred and fear while demonizing one another or do they want to live in peace and amity and realize the biblical prophecy of making their shared land the true Land of Milk and Honey? No peace will ever be forged, let alone endure, unless both sides understand and appreciate each others' fears, concerns, hopes and dreams. Only through direct social contacts and people-to-people dialogue will they overcome their mutually destructive perception of each other.
The Palestinians' perception of the Israelis as oppressive, uncaring people, determined to deny them basic rights, is anchored in their day to day experiences. As they see it, the continuing occupation, road blocks, humiliation and usurpation of land further diminishes any prospect for peaceful cohabitation. The Israelis are viewed as an enemy to be hated, resisted and undermined. As they see it, successive Israeli governments offered no reason for the Palestinians to change their minds and no cause to hope for a better tomorrow. And with a complacent Israeli public, what prospect is there for ordinary Palestinians to change their perception about Israel as an occupying, oppressive nation that continues its entrenchment in their land? Yet what effort have the Palestinians made to reach out to their Israeli counterpart and try understanding and appreciating their personal concerns and mindset that continues to feed into their inner tribulations and a sense of uncertainty and insecurity?
The Israelis, however, feel no better about the Palestinians. They see them as violent unrelenting people who will not settle for anything less than the utter destruction of Israel, especially when such a sentiment is on display by radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others. The Israelis' experiences give them no reason to trust the Palestinians. They view them with ridicule and disdain as backward people wedded to habits and traditions that prevent them from rising to civilians deserving of a better fate. The Israelis too, however, never really fully appreciated the Palestinians' plight, suppression and daily indignities and how these feeling manifest themselves, when in fact every Palestinian in the Occupied Territories wake up each morning living in subjugation in his own homeland.
If coexistence is inevitable, however, change of perceptions about each other become imperative. The need to hear each others' stories and life experiences, and the creation of human connection is indispensable to normal relations. Only the day-to-day encounter with each other in different setting can reveal the humanity that everyone shares. Listening to opposing views, understanding each others' pain and agony, and appreciating what the other is experiencing allow for a change of perception of each other. Indeed, being passionate about one cause, as both sides rightfully feel, does not preclude respecting the others' cause. Both must work peacefully to mitigate their differences; the inevitability of coexistence demands this. It is mutuality of respect, not necessarily an overall agreement that bridges the gap. Indeed, one need not change identity, cultural heritage or religion to live in peace as long as there is mutual acceptance and respect. The realization that the other is just a normal human being with feeling, hope and aspiration creates that human connection so desperately needed between the two sides.
Successive Israeli governments and Palestinian authorities have failed miserably for the past 63 years to advance the cause of peace. They have been engaged in mutual recrimination instead of facing the inevitable and charting a way forward to end the festering conflict that poisoned three generations of Israelis and Palestinians. They continue to be suspicious of each others' sinister intentions. The Palestinians accuse Israel of having a grand design to permanently occupy all of the land west of the Jordan River and the Israelis accuse the Palestinians of plotting to dismantle Israel in stages.
Regardless of the current political maneuvering and their consequences, the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians must free themselves of these embedded prejudices that the continuing conflict feeds into. They must now begin to build ties to prevent renewed cycle of violence. How else can trust be built, and to what end does one continue to fight those people with whom one must live indefinitely? The visible and the invisible walls between the two people must be torn down, but it takes determined people on both sides to do so. Both sides have the responsibility and the power to leave the past behind. Only the people can mold the present to whatever future they wish to have. Their governments, which failed them time and again by perpetuating mutual fear, will have no choice but to heed to their call. Peace and reconciliation must first be envisioned by the people because it can only come from the people. They must rise and demand change. Only they can bring an end to the dehumanization, mutual recrimination and the ever festering wrong perception of each other.
Past injustices and agonizing human tragedies and loses cannot be settled by acts of vengeance and retribution, which is the recipe of continuing cycle of violence, but by a dialogue and identification with each others' inner feeling, concerns and trepidations. Dr. Izzeldine, the Palestinian physician who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza had every reason to feel angry and hate every Israeli while seeking revenge. But he refused, "Many people" he said, "expected me to hate, my answer to them, I shall not hate, let us hope for tomorrow." Yitzhak Frankelthal, an Israeli father whose 19 year old son was kidnapped and then killed by Hamas did not seek revenge either instead, he established Parent Circle an organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who too lost a loved one to this senseless violent struggle, "I gradually realized," he said, "that the only hope for progress (to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle) was to recognize the face of the conflict." More and more communities like the Oasis of Peace, Neve Shalom, must be established, where Israelis and Israeli Palestinians choose voluntarily to live side by side. Neve Shalom remains the only place where their children live and grow together and foster relationship on which to build a new future.
Palestinians and Israelis must learn to overcome decades of mutual fear and lack of trust and together seek a new horizon. They must defy the present conditions that deepen their estrangement and begin to socially and openly connect. It is absurd that Israeli Jews can move everywhere between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River while the Israeli government deprive the Palestinians of the same privileges. Every Israeli who wants to live in peace must demand that this discriminatory law that prevents the Palestinians from entering Israel be annulled. Notwithstanding Israel's national security concerns, which must be considered, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could readily and easily receive security clearance and be allowed to see and mingle with the "enemy" only to realize that they are ordinary Israelis, not their nemesis, but simple people who yearn to live in peace. The same must also be applied to the Israelis who should flock into the West Bank the way they used to before the second Intifada and reengage the Palestinian people with whom they must coexist. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker peace activist said: "an enemy is one whose story you have not heard." If the Israelis do not take matter into their hands, who will? Who will bring an end to this debilitating anomalous existence that does nothing but breed more hatred and disdain?
The time has come for the people on both sides to tear down the shameful fences and walls and demand an end to this consuming madness. Only the people, Israelis and Palestinian alike, can begin to reconcile their national narratives and embrace the inevitability of coexistence to build a promising future for both people. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. His website is www.alonben-meir.com. A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on July 29th, 2011 and is available online here: http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=231464