Time's running out!
Ali Abu Awwad, a tall Palestinian with thick curly hair, who once spent four years in an Israeli prison, talks intensely with Shaul Judelman— a Seattle-born Orthodox Jew who now lives in a nearby settlement. Along with Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi from another neighbouring Jewish settlement, Abu Awwad and Judelman are the co-directors of Roots, an organization dedicated to teaching nonviolence. The friendship of these natural-born enemies— in one of Israel's deadliest conflict zones— challenges the usual assumptions about Palestinian-Israeli relations.
"Don't be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli," Abu Awwad says. "Be pro-solution."
Here, in the midst of the Jewish Gush Etzion settlements, Abu Awwad along with the two Israeli settlers have created a centre dedicated to just that.
It is a place where Israelis and Palestinians meet and where, in Abu Awaad's words,"hate and suspicion are challenged and the enemy is transformed into a neighbor and a partner."
The area around the Gush Etzion security checkpoint is tense. Since October 2015, 21 Israelis have been wounded and three killed in attacks by Palestinians in the area. Seven Palestinians have been killed in the same period—all attackers, according to the Israeli government— and one wounded by soldiers.
A few days before my visit, three people were killed and five others wounded in a shooting and car ramming attack in the Gush Etzion region, just a few hours after a stabbing attack killed two in Tel Aviv. The assailants in both incidents were apparently detained.
The area has a long history of conflict and is hotly contested. Located about 20 km south of Jerusalem, the 80,000 Israelis in Gush Etzion's 22 settlements live in uneasy proximity to 250,000 Palestinians.
In the past three years, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have come together to meet on Abu Awwad's land. For most, it is the first time they have ever had a real conversation with “the other," one where they are mutually able to share their stories and their pain.
After meeting like this, says Abu Awwad, "they are never the same."
The making of an awakening
Ali Abu Awwad was born in Halhoul, in the West Bank. Raised in a politically active family, Abu Awwad's mother, Fatma, recruited and organized for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. She brought Awwad along to demonstrations from a young age.
"She was close with Arafat himself, and she was leading a Fatah movement in our region," recalls Abu Awwad. "She collected many people to the First Intifada to become activists."
On a trip to Jordan with his mother when he was 10 and his sister was six, his mother was arrested at the border. The authorities tried to send the children back to their village in a taxi, but they refused to go. "We stayed at the junction and started telling people that our mother was arrested," he says. "People told my father, and he came to pick us up. Even to him we tried to refuse, because we said 'We are waiting for her. She said that she will come soon.' We were just kids, you know?"
She spent two months in prison. At age 17, Abu Awwad was in the house when Israeli security agents from the Shin Bet beat her up in a back bedroom.
"One of the officers who was in charge of the area here, he took her to the bedroom and I heard my mother screaming because he was beating her, and I remember myself jumping up and yelling, 'Remove your dirty hands from my mother,' then the soldier stopped me," he recalls.
"My father actually slapped me on my face when I jumped up, because he knew that if he hit me, it would save me from being arrested or badly beaten. I was so upset with my father but he was trying to protect me."
Ali's mother would be sent back into prison for another four years. His father respected his mother's views but was not himself an activist; he supported the family by working with a company that dealt with the Jewish National Fund.
Because of the Israeli occupation, as Abu Awwad noted in a TED Talk, “I grew up in an environment where my childhood was forbidden. My dreams were surrounded. My rights were not there."
"If you grow up in such an environment," he continued, "do you really need a special curriculum for hatred?”
By age 15, he had been trained by local fighters to use a Kalashnikov— though, he says, he has never actually fired one in conflict.
Abu Awwad himself served two sentences in prison. He was first arrested at age 17 while in the middle of studying for his secondary school exams, after an Israeli helicopter observer reported seeing him throw stones. He refused to pay the fine, saying that while he was a stone-thrower, he hadn't been throwing stones that day. He spent three months in prison.
Eight months later, he participated in the First Intifada. He was arrested and found guilty of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and for being part of a military cell. He admits to throwing stones at Israelis. The Molotov cocktails, he says, were thrown at Palestinian collaborators.
His mother was already in prison. He was sentenced to 10 years in an Israeli prison, where he says he endured periods of torture as authorities tried to get information about his mother's activities. For five weeks he was forced to stand from seven a.m. to five p.m. with his hands roped behind his back and his head covered.
"I used to get beaten once or twice a day by Israeli Intelligence, when they [interrogated] me. Sometimes they used to put their knee on my stomach and, you know, beating me... I was hoping that I would die rather than give any information about my mother, or continue facing all that I was facing."
He served four years. While he and his mother were in the Israeli prison system, they asked to see each other and prison authorities refused. But after a 17-day hunger strike, the officials allowed them to visit. The success of their hunger strike was a turning point. He realized that nonviolent protest along Gandhian principles might be a better way to defend human rights than violence.
He studied avidly in prison, reading not only Gandhi but the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. He calls his time in prison "the best university you can imagine." Palestinian political prisoners had created five committees to lead and manage the life of prisoners in terms of their education, management, security, negotiation and involvement in national issues.
"So, I was part of a very independent body, like a government. There was a spokesperson for the whole prison. The Israeli authority was not allowed to talk to any prisoner without going to the spokesperson. We had a library. We have to sit twice a day in a circle to discuss issues. No one was allowed to swear. I did it once and I wash the dishes for three days, as a punishment... even the Israeli jailers respected, deeply, the Palestinian political prisoners. And the only way that I felt dignity actually was to be part of that body."
He was released by the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993, which saw the historic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Soon after he was recruited as an officer in the newly established Palestinian security forces.
The Oslo Peace Accord called on Palestinians to transform themselves from "a people of revolution to citizens." But the continuation of the Israeli occupation confused this process, as Abu Awwad told The Times of Israel:
“Suddenly, I had to work against the people I was once associated with, the people who had fought against Israel. So I arrested Palestinians who used violence; I arrested them and interrogated them because I supported the accords and was convinced that it was the right thing to do, to live up to the agreements we had signed."
"On the other hand," he continues,"we weren’t able to bring the people to a place where they would define violence as a crime. Violence was still seen as revolutionary action against the occupier. The Palestinians hadn’t been given a state, and the extremists used that fact to prove that there was no peace with the Israelis."
He resigned from the security forces in 1997. "I was ashamed of being part of that system. I arrived at the conclusion that the peace forces will not be real or effective. So I was ashamed because, on the one hand you are fighting your own nation to secure Israel, but on the other hand you cannot give the Palestinian nation any rights."
It was around the same time that Palestinian extremists began carrying out horrifying suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, primarily on buses. “Suddenly, the Palestinians began to react in increasingly violent and cruel ways," recalls Abu Awwad. "People lost hope, even though they had initially supported the agreement.”
On October 20, 2000, during the Second Intifada, Abu Awwad says he was shot in the leg by an Israeli settler as he stopped by the roadside to change a tire. The hollow-point round hit Abu Awwad in the knee and exploded, shattering the bone and cartilage.
He was evacuated to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, where he received terrible news. His brother, Youssef, an employee of a company that worked with the Jewish National Fund, had been shot at a military checkpoint.
Youssef was not involved in political movements, according to Abu Awwad. He says that the shooting resulted from a verbal altercation with a soldier, after Youssef told a group of Palestinian children to stop throwing rocks at the soldiers at a checkpoint.
"The soldier started throwing small stones on his car, teasing him," says Abu Awwad. "Youssef gets out from the car again and he started arguing with the soldier, asking him, 'Why are you doing this to me?' The soldier said, 'You are trying to show yourself as a hero here.' I think the soldier couldn't understand how a Palestinian can make these kids listen to him and stop throwing stones and the army, with the whole power and force behind it, cannot do that."
The soldier told Youssef to "shut your mouth," says Abu Awwad, "Youssef said, 'I will not.' 'I will shoot you.' 'You will not shoot me.' Then he shot him, 70 centimetres away from his head."
Abu Awwad says that bystanders told him that even the officer in charge of the army unit took the soldier aside and yelled at him. "He slapped him in his face. This is what the people told us. He started shouting at him that there was no reason to kill this man."
Abu Awwad felt a searing grief, he says, and unbearable loss.
He recounted his thought process at the time in his TEDx Jerusalem talk:
"How many Israeli mothers have to cry to experience the salty taste of my mother's tears? And how many dead people and how many graves have to swallow Israeli bodies to tell Israel that my brother didn't deserve to die?"
But time, experience and education had changed him. He knew that the punishment that he contemplated inflicting would not help.
"Thinking about revenge is easy, which is normal, but whatever I did, he was not going to come back," he says. "There is no limit to revenge."
It's a simple phrase that sums up decades of conflict between Israel and Palestine.
When Yitzhak Frankenthal— an Israeli Jew whose son, Arik, a 19-year-old soldier, was kidnapped and killed by Hamas operatives in 1994— called to ask if he could visit him, Abu Awwad was suspicious and reluctant. Frankenthal had founded the Parents Circle Families Forum, which brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to the conflict.
Frankenthal said he would like to visit the Abu Awwad household.
“I was shocked that such a group even existed on the other side, because they were our victims — we had killed their children,” Abu Awwad told The Times of Israel. “And yet, they were prepared to come visit the home of [my mother], who was considered the devil incarnate when it came to the struggle against Israel."
He was also shocked that an Israeli would ask for our consent over the phone to enter their home. "Israelis had always been present in our home, but they never asked for permission."
“An Israeli mother who had lost her son held my mother’s hand and both of them cried wordlessly,” he said. “It was the first time in my life that I saw the other side as human beings. I saw different representatives of the Jewish people, of Judaism, and of Israelis. It had a huge impact on me.”
That was when he realized there was another face of Israel, he told The Times. "I couldn't imagine that Jewish people had tears or feeling, then suddenly, you see a victim and you realize that you are not the only victim. Then my whole world changed. I became an activist for nonviolence and reconciliation and I realized that my real enemy is not the Jewish people. It's their fear. The fear of the Jews is our biggest enemy and the daily suffering of the Palestinians under the military occupation is the biggest enemy for the Israelis."
Abu Awwad and Judelman are two sides of the same coin. Close in looks and in age; both fathers; both of a philosophical turn of mind. One is a Jewish settler who defied international agreements to settle West Bank lands, and was once blind to the consequences this brought to the people around him. The other a Palestinian who once threw stones at soldiers and settlers to expel them from this land, and Molotov cocktails at Palestinian collaborators, not caring if it maimed or killed people.
Judelman has been to his share of funerals. Watching friends and neighbours die has made him understand the importance of the right kind of education. "We're creating curriculums against hatred," he said.
About the young Palestinians who are "out here throwing stones and stabbing people, that's our youth at risk," he said. "Two generations of young people who have never met the other side. The only image my kids grow up with is Palestinians as terrorists.
"The only image Palestinian kids grow up with is Israelis as soldiers. A lot of what we’re doing here is getting people to simply see the other side. There’s an asymmetry to the conflict of military power, but in terms of fear, totally equal. Fear is an equalizer here."
Judelman, Abu Awwad and Schlesinger talk to many young Israelis on their way to the army. Most have never met a Palestinian in their life, he said. They come to hear Abu Awwad or others tell their personal stories. The message Abu Awwad conveys is to be aware that soldiers will represent Israel to the Palestinians in the communities they police; everything they know about Jews will come from them.
The three men also talk with Israeli generals about how they’re designing policy— providing military officials with information to help them, in Judelman's words, to "open their minds and think bigger." And they engage local leaders. Seventy mayors, as well as heads of schools, social workers and politicians have worked with Roots in the last year, he said, as well as many Jewish settlers.
"Who is our target audience?" asks Judelman. "As far right as I can go."
Occupation, wall, conflict: the Israeli perspective
Avi Melamed, formerly an Israeli senior official on Arab affairs and now an independent Middle East intelligence analyst, is the author of Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, published by Harvard University Press in 2009. (His new book, Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Place on Earth, will be released in February.)
According to Melamed, the 2002 decision to build the Israeli Security Fence—also known as the Separation Barrier, the Separation Wall or the West Bank Wall— was triggered by a decade of suicide bombings.
According to Melamed, there were 160 attacks in all, the majority launched by Hamas from two West Bank towns: Tulkaaran and Nablus. Islamic Jihad and Fatah carried out the rest, he says. Jerusalem suffered the most— 30 suicide attacks— because, Melamed says, the city is ensconced amid a large Palestinian area located to the east and southeast.
Three-quarters of the victims were civilians; the rest were security personnel. Melamed says the worst year was 2002, when almost 90 per cent of a decade's-worth of killings took place, and four hundred people died in 60 attacks.
"Ninety-nine per cent of the suicide bombers came from the West Bank, not the Gaza Strip," says Melamed. "The reason is that between Israel and the Gaza Strip there is a border line, that was agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians when they signed the [1994 Interim Agreement]. It’s structured like a border. You will find Israeli posts scattered along the border, fences, military towers, intelligence. But that was not the situation in the West Bank where there was no physical obstacle and there was a free flow of Palestinians coming into Israel."
The attacks, Melamed says, were mainly planned by Hamas, which remains openly devoted to the destruction of Israel.
The Dolphinarium discotheque suicide bombing was particularly brutal. Close to midnight on June 1, 2001, Palestinian Saeed Hotari detonated himself outside a nightclub in Tel Aviv. He killed 21 teenagers and four adults, and wounded another 80 young people. Most of the dead were girls whose families had recently immigrated to Israel from Russia.
Construction began on the wall in 2002. It is ultimately intended to run for 690 kilometres.
"Has the security wall been successful? Objectively speaking yes," says Melamed. "Following the building of the fence, we have witnessed a dramatic downsize in the number of suicide bombing attacks. Once you build an obstacle between you and someone who is trying to break into your house, it makes it more difficult to break into your house. It’s not to say people can’t break into your house, but it’s more difficult."
Other analysts have credited the wall with contributing to a reduction in attacks, but have also attributed the statistical drop to sporadic truces, as well as increased coordination between the Israeli military and intelligence forces.
While in earlier years the wall appeared to have resulted in as much as a 90 per cent drop in attacks on Israeli citizens, statistics of attacks from 2014 lower that drop to 50 per cent.
Barriers can only do so much. And new problems have taken the place of the old. The wall cuts through neighborhoods and communities, in some cases separating families. Palestinians report feeling 'caged in' or 'imprisoned' by it. What used to be a half-hour drive from Hebron to Bethlehem now takes 90 minutes, because of a new route which forces Palestinian traffic to stay behind the wall and through various checkpoints.
Melamed himself is not overly concerned by the downside. "Here is a basic single fact about this fence. This fence can be removed. Life taken can never be brought back."
"If you ask me, personally, I believe maybe you and I will be able to see this wonderful day when there will be no fence," he continues. "But I don’t find the fence to be something negative. There is something good about the fence. It defines identity. It says this is my lot. This is your lot. We know exactly which one has what. The fence is not to say we are disrespectful one to the other. The concept of a fence is not all negative."
The West Bank is under military occupation by Israel, which subjects it to additional bureaucratic measures which are perceived by locals as punitive. Life there is made more problematic by what many described to me as weak and corrupt leadership by President Abbas.
But only disparate patches of the West Bank are under jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (area A). The majority of the West Bank is under Israeli authority (area C), and some small sections are under joint authority (Area B).
This helps account for the chaos in the West Bank, I was told, including the difficulty faced by Palestinians travelling around the region, and the difficulty of the Palestinian Authority in having any cohesive effect.
Also, there are now over 400,000 Israeli settlers who live in the West Bank. The Jewish settler population has doubled in the past two decades, surging in recent years at more than double the population growth rate in Israel itself.
Before this trip, when I read the term "Israeli settler," I imagined rough-hewn people working the land and living like American pioneers. But settlements are generally the kind of condominium developments you'd see in the suburbs of any major city. There is not much in the way of hard-scrabble agrarianism. What most settlers share is the religious conviction of their right to live on heavily contested land. They wear it like armour.
Some Israelis see the West Bank settlers as an unjustifiable source of conflict. But the right-wing Israeli government led for the last 10 years by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provides them with military protection. Netanyahu has taken the country further and further towards hard-line policies and right-wing nationalism. He managed a surprise re-election in 2015 — capturing only 23 per cent of the vote— by forming a coalition that moved the government even further to the right. While, on the left, people despair over Netanyahu's politics, and some work tirelessly for change, others see 'Bibi' as the strong leader necessary to protect them from the hostilities broiling around them. Bordered by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, some of Israel's enemies are external as well as internal. While Egypt and Jordan now officially recognize Israel's right to exist and co-exist, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Syria do not.
“After nuclear negotiations, the Zionist regime said that they will not be worried about Iran in the next 25 years,” Ayatollah Khamenei wrote. “I am telling you, first, you will not be around in 25 years’ time, and God willing, there will be no Zionist regime in 25 years. Second, during this period, the spirit of fighting, heroism and jihad will keep you worried every moment.”
Across the line
The journey from Gush Etzion into Israel, to the other side of the wall, is like crossing from Mexico into Southern California. The contrast is striking: from the developing world into the developed world within a few seconds. Indeed, blink as you're racing towards Tel Aviv on the superhighway and you could easily mistake the setting for San Diego.
Once in Tel Aviv it's possible to stroll around and let the occupation, the wall, and the checkpoint killings and reprisals be no more intrusive than background static. Like an earthquake in San Diego, terrorism here is always possible. Meanwhile, life goes on. Kids play soccer, couples walk arm-in-arm, friends chat at outdoor cafes.
In Tel Aviv I do see streets clogged with protesters, but not against the occupation. Instead they are opposing a deal Netanyahu has made to grant offshore natural gas exploration rights. Environmental issues are as much, if not more so, at the forefront of Israeli discussions as the realities of terrorism and military occupation.
Israel is struggling with unique and significant environmental issues, like the evaporation of the Dead Sea (occurring at a rate of nearly 1.45 meters per year) according to EcoPeace Middle East, a joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian effort to preserve the region’s natural landscape.
EcoPeace, which has offices in Amman, Bethlehem, and Tel-Aviv, is itself a microcosm of coalitions that reach across the divide, describing itself as "a unique organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists."
Their primary objective is "the promotion of cooperative efforts to protect our shared environmental heritage." In so doing, they seek to further sustainable regional development and "the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace" in the region.
On display at a meeting of Israeli social impact entrepreneurs I attended in Tel Aviv were companies succeeding in solar energy, water desalination and other innovations. The keynote speaker was venture capitalist Ibrahim AlHusseini, a Palestinian living in America whose fund invests in companies trying to mitigate and reduce climate change effects with energy-efficient solutions.
But even if they are only discomfiting background static for many in Israel, history and struggle, violence and loss, and the imbalance between the Israelis and Palestinians always edge back to the forefront for Israelis and visitors alike.
In September of 1993, Rabin, then Israel's prime minister, and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat's agreed to the Oslo Peace Accords. Clinton called the deal 'a brave gamble.'
On November 4, 1995, the Oslo Peace Process was near implementation and the prime minister went to an anti-violence rally of 100,000 Israelis gathered at Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square. After joining the crowd in singing the well-known Israeli song "Shir LaShalom" ("Song for Peace")— which dwells on the impossibility of bringing a dead person back to life and, therefore, the need for peace‚ Rabin walked down the stairs of the hall toward the open door of his car. Yigal Amir, an ultra-nationalist, right-wing Israeli, angered by the peace accord, shot Rabin three times in the back.
Arafat reportedly wept when he heard the news of his former enemy's death. Kings of Israel square where he was shot was later renamed to Rabin's Square.
The loss of Rabin— just as a process towards a state for Palestinians and a state for Jews was about to be realized— still hangs heavy over Israel.
Twenty years and two Intifadas later, the Israel West Bank Barrier has gone up and divisions have deepened. Potent extremism among Arabs and Jews remains a destructive and destabilizing force. Most Arabs and Jews exist not at the murderous periphery of extremism, but in the middle. So what do people want? It depends on who you ask.
From a middle-of the road Palestinian perspective, most told me they want basic rights and freedoms. Zionism, and the British partitioning of Israel in 1948 is referred to by many Palestinians as al-Nakba, which means "the catastrophe."
Rejected by other countries, after World War II Jewish Holocaust survivors poured into the state of Israel from across Europe. War erupted as surrounding Arab states attacked the new country. But the Israelis won, and hundreds of thousands of Arabs were left stateless in their own territory or fled into exile. The situation has grown more tense and violent, rather than less, over the years.
Today, Palestinians want to see an end to the military occupation of the West Bank. Whether they live in one state, or two, they want full citizenship. They want decent infrastructure and economic opportunity. They want to be able to travel freely. They want the separation wall to come down.
Middle-of-the-road Israelis want to live in peace. They want Palestinians to gain full rights, and they don't want to send their children into the military so that they can guard settlements in the West Bank that they view as destabalizing civil society and Israel's future.
They want a Jewish state where they can live as a majority and determine their own future. Most I spoke with think this should happen through the two-state solution. They want hostile Arab countries to acknowledge the existence of the Jewish state, and for their leaders to call for an end to terrorist attacks on Israelis.
I meet with Efrat Elron and her brother, Amir, on the terrace of Suzana on Shabazi Street. It's a popular restaurant in the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood, a short walk from the Mediterranean beaches and boardwalk that make Tel Aviv such a popular tourist destination— and so expensive to live.
Efrat is head of the international team of Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI). The organization consists of former colonels, generals and other top security officials, as well as former diplomats and civil servants and current academics and leaders in the business world. It is an a-political movement of some 1,800 Israelis committed to promoting a Regional Peace Agreement between Israel, the Palestinians and the Pragmatic Arab States and encouraging the Government of Israel to take initiative, according to the group's website.
"Our members come from the Left, Center, and Right of the political spectrum and from a variety of backgrounds and sectors: business, diplomacy, security, academia, media, and social activism. We believe the only way to find peace and two states for two people is through a regional agreement for every possible reason. Its the only way Netanyahu and the pragmatic right would opt to move forward and out of the stalemate. We work very closely with Israeli politicians as well a large network of Arab former officials and civil society leaders and official representatives of the international community. There is a lot of enthusiasm across the board about our proposals" Efrat says.
Koby Huberman is the co-founder and CEO, and Yaakov Perri, Yuval Rabin and the late Amnon Lipkin Shahak (a former IDF Chief of Staff) are all co-founders. Yuval Rabin is the son of Yitzhak Rabin.
A smaller few believe that Palestinians should be fully absorbed by Israel into one state. They believe that Palestinians who left lost their lands should be welcomed back into Israel— even though by those sheer numbers it would mean Jews would become a minority in Israel.
"We should not in the process lose our humanity"
Huda Abuarquob is the regional director of the Alliance for Mideast Peace, which describes itself as "a coalition of over 90 organizations building people-to-people cooperation, coexistence, and reconciliation."
Abuarquob says violence has erupted on the fringes of the Palestinian people and yet punishment, via the wall and other measures, has been collective. She speaks about her frustrations, and apologizes for being passionate. "Palestinians can’t drive in Israel. Palestinians can’t live in Jewish neighbourhoods. I have to get a permit every three months to meet with peacemakers."
In short, she's not an Israeli citizen and has none of the rights of citizenship. Since Palestine isn't a state, she isn't a citizen there, either. Like over four million other Palestinians, she is stateless. This could be solved by the "two-state solution," but since Rabin's death, the negotiation process has stopped in its tracks. None of Israel or Palestine's leaders have been willing or able to get it moving forward since.
"If it isn't going to happen at the governmental level, then it has to happen at the grassroots level," Abuarquob says. "It's time to take the peace process into our own hands."
She believes that the world has a wrong perception of Palestinians as an inherently violent, militant people and that this stereotype needs to change. "Palestinians are not violent by nature. Most of us are determined to work together and we are determined to live together with Israelis. We're the majority but we aren't reported about in the media.
"[We are using] the power of nonviolent resistance to regain our humanity. If we are a people fighting for our rights we should not in the process lose our humanity."
But then, she admits, "not all Palestinians are eager to see the humanity in Israelis."
Some Palestinians take the position that they will never live side by side with a Jewish state, or accept the loss of territory brought about by the British mandate of 1948. A wealthy Palestinian living in Jordan told me that "a third Intifadah" is absolutely necessary, and other Palestinians I spoke with in the West Bank say that many wealthy expatriate Palestinians often fund groups whose goal is to disrupt any moves toward peace.
"They’re for no relation, no relationship with Israel at all. They have no clear vision," says Abuarquob. "They’re specifically focused on attacking any groups that do Israeli-to-Palestinian, people-to-people actions. They have lately resorted to violence. My job is to engage with them, so they understand there’s a new way. Many international organizations here are being intimidated by their rhetoric. They're mostly elite Palestinians, economically independent."
Most Palestinians want peace, says Abuarquob. She is currently helping organize a joint Israeli-Palestinian group called Women Wage Peace, which last summer held a 50-day fast in front of Netanyahu's official residence.
"It's becoming very popular in Israeli society. We don’t label ourselves as leftists. We’re done with those labels. We have women from settlements coming, and I managed to get [the group] support, including from powerful women in the Palestinian streets," she says.
"Right now there’s a vacuum. There’s no third voice. I’m the third voice, to bring together people and 90 organizations focused on building relationships between the Israelis and Palestinians. What we need to do is create a community of these organizations that is capable of being a movement but can be a voice. Stop with the dominant narratives, the white flag stories. It’s time for the people to take the lead, to give up on government and systems and create our own systems."
She notes of the spate of knifings of Israelis by Palestinians that for many, "terror speaks louder than logic. When the Israelis are as afraid of leaving their homes as we are, it’s equalizing. It makes us feel we are equal to the oppressor. But it means we are identified with the oppressed. We refuse to change that and liberate ourselves but when we do, we liberate the oppressors."
"The Israelis most know are soldiers and Netanyahu, and I don’t think that’s fair to Israelis," she says. "[Those who want peace] are the majority, I assure you. It's not sexy to the world media, so you don't hear about us. But that's how it is."
"Everyone can have access to a knife"
"The Middle East is burning, and it’s exporting the war," says Aluf Benn.
Benn, wiry and intense, is editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Israel's left-leaning newspaper of record, which he describes as "the liberal voice of Israel for years and the oldest that exists in Hebrew."
He is referring to the spate of random stabbings by mostly young Palestinians, attempting to murder mostly Jews dressed in religious garb—acts apparently incited through social media. "Once again, Israelis were taken by total surprise as if the occupation was some nightmare from long ago."
"When people were stabbed within Israel, there was two weeks of total fear. I live in Jaffa, and you could see that over that weekend, Jaffa was full of police, no shoppers came to the stores." However, he says, life resumed as normal in only ten days.
"Most Israelis live in splendid forgetfulness. Gaza is seen as some ocean somewhere in the Pacific, and this is the way most Israelis would like to think about the Gaza. The West Bank– most Israelis would like to not to think about it or hear about it. The occupation has this nasty characteristic of reminding us about it every now and again through rounds of violence."
We're talking the day after the ISIS Paris terrorist attacks, and I ask how they relate to the politics here in Tel Aviv.
"How does it manifest locally? [Some people think], 'Now they’ll understand us, these European hypocrites who suck up to the Palestinians so they can be friends with the Arabs. Now, they will support us.'"
Benn is not sure that is true. "The Europeans will be more attentive and understanding to Israeli counter-terrorism but not to the settlements."
"Everyone can have access to a knife," he says. "That’s why it’s so scary. You don’t need an organization for stabbing your neighbour. Of course, the Palestinians are responsible for the violence. Whoever stabs someone with a knife is responsible. But the question for Israel is not whether this or that stabber is a bad guy or a good guy. The question is, "Is there a policy that might reduce the motivation of that person?'"
Benn tried to deconstruct the reality of Netyanhu for me, a politician he describes as more moderate than his belligerent, hard-line public face— a stance Benn believes he has taken to keep his coalition together.
"Netyanhu says, 'The Palestinian state will not happen under my watch. At the same time, I support the concept,'" says Benn.
"If we go back to 15 years ago, the majority had consistently said 'We support the two-state solution.' But will it happen? Now the same people say 'no.' Why? 'Because we offered the sun the moon and the stars to the Palestinian people and it didn’t happen, therefore it’s not going to happen.'"
Benn believes that Netanyahu's position on Palestinian relations "pretty much reflects public opinion. Israelis say we have no partner, and [a solution] is not going to happen because of Palestinian intransigence. They don’t feel responsibility. Even though they don’t like the settlements, Israelis don’t want to hear about them, they don't want to think about them. They feel powerless to do anything."
The Forgiveness Project
For the hawks in Israel and Palestine, aggressive policies are driven by fear and revenge. Going beyond these twin emotions, says Robi Damelin, is the deep cultural work that needs to happen for things to change. Damelin works with the Forgiveness Project and is part of the bereaved parents group that drew Awwad's mother Fatma into its fold after his brother's death.
"Forgiving is giving up your just right to revenge," says Damelin.
Damelin lost her son, David, when he was 27 and a soldier in the Israeli military to sniper fire in Gaza. She's part of a group of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost children or relatives in the conflict. She has a broken heart and a powerful voice.
"Please don't take sides," she says, echoing Abu Awwad. "Don't be pro-Palestine or pro-Israeli. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. What you do by taking sides is you import our conflict into your country. Please don't do that."
She says the long-term goal of the bereaved parents group is to "create a framework of a reconciliation process to be an integral part" of any peace agreement.
"We’ve had agreements," she says, referring to that historic tableau of Rabin and Arafat meeting as President Clinton beamed over them. "They stood on the White House lawn and shook hands."
"What did they expect?" asks Damelin. "People to start dancing in the streets? The leaders of the Intifada thought they would be a state, where they would be a member of something."
She notes the recent upsurge in violent riots in Ireland. "It’s happening there as well, in Belfast. The children of the Irish Catholics are trying to take up and be heroes like their parents because they never had a reconciliation process."
"There must be reparations, there has to be an apology, there must be many admissions of guilt form both sides. It isn’t black and white. There’s a lot of grey in the middle of all this."
Damelin says that her group has talked with almost 25,000 Israeli students. "When you go into a classroom of kids who are 17, which is the age when they’re about to go into the army and you ask, 'Who of you has ever met an Arab?' Not one. 'Who of you has visited the West Bank?' Not one."
But, she says, ask 'Who of you has been overseas?' and many have. Distant nations are far closer to the reality of most Israeli youth than the Palestinians next door.
"That’s why I say we have to talk to the settlers. If you exclude people they become more radical. If you talk with them, suddenly there’s a narrative they’ve never heard of, from the Palestinians. It’s extraordinary. They don’t all become Gandhis, but they get some idea of the humanity of the other. When you see the humanity on the other side, that’s the beginning of the end of conflict."
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is a Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. He's originally from Brooklyn. If you wanted to paint a portrait of a quintessential settler, you could easily choose him.
I meet Schlesinger at the Roots gathering place. The campfire crackles and the smell of smoke infuses the evening air. Dogs bark and nip at each other over bits of food from the chicken and rice dinner. Across the yard, a few sheep lay down to rest.
At the age of 18 Schlesinger came to the West Bank because he wanted to be part of what he calls "the recreation of the Jewish people."
"We’re back and there’s no other place I’d like to be. After I say I’m a Jew and I’m a Zionist and I’m a settler—that’s the word people know from the media— I say the place I live is not the West Bank. It’s nothing other than Judah and Samaria.
"I don’t mean to make a political statement, I mean to make a religious statement, because that’s what the Bible calls it. Judah is the area that the tribe of Judah inherited."
Schesinger leans forward. "When we walk out of the gate, we walk out with our Bibles and we learn on the land, we feel this connection to the past," he continues. There is no other place I would rather be. I’ve merited to come back to the land that is the promised land for the Jewish people."
He pauses and takes a deep breath.
"And I believe the power of the story I’ve told you which is my story and my identity, has absolutely blinded me to the story of the Palestinians. For 30 years of my life I lived right here but I never met a Palestinian. I passed them on the street but I never saw them.
"Because my narrative was so strong I didn’t realize other people were here."
Hanan Schlesinger now has my full attention. He's definitely not the irrational extremist he seemed to me at first.
He tells the story of a personal turning point. He was driving around Pastor Bob Roberts of Keller, Texas who was visiting his settlement to see the extent of what the Jewish settlers had managed to create. Schlesinger picked up a hitchhiker, then he picked up another. When he let them out, the pastor marveled, "Hanan, you’re such a nice guy! We don’t pick up hitch hikers in Texas."
Schlesinger told the pastor he picked up "every person" who stuck out their thumb. But as he said the words, he realized he was lying— to the pastor, and to himself. He didn’t pick up Palestinians. They were invisible, not part of his world.
Later, at the invitation of Pastor John Moyle of the Oakbrook Church in Reston Virginia, he attended a small gathering of Palestinians and Jewish settlers on the land that would later become Roots.. Pastor Moyle was instrumental in introducing Ali and Shaul and remains active in advising and helping Roots.
"My wife asked me to reconsider – it might be dangerous, she said – but I went anyway," he wrote in an essay. "My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills."
There he met and heard the stories of many Palestinians, including Ali. He tells this story of his "journey towards the other" on the Roots website.
"Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart. For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious."
After three hours of talking and sharing food, says Schlesinger, he began to see Palestinians as human beings.
"One Palestinian man – who turned out to be a very close neighbour, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homes – told me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kippah and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kippah and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, 'You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!'"
Abu Awwad's stories of Israeli military raids, prison time and human rights violations hit home, he says.
"It began a process of changing me. I couldn’t believe the first time a Palestinian took out a smart phone to show me where he lived, and I heard talk about living under occupation. 'Did you tell me occupation?' I’d never heard anyone use that word. For the first time in my life I heard someone say he lived under an occupation that [was] my occupation. Up until that point I didn’t know that in the fulfillment of my dream, my triumph was someone else’s tragedy. That was very painful to hear."
He went home that day and paced back and forth in his study. The inner conflict in him made him feel physically ill, he says, as he tried to reconcile the realities of where he had chosen to live. He went to the Internet and searched "Israeli occupation"— the kind of thing an Orthodox Jew wouldn't generally be reading. A lot of what Schlesinger read was venomous, to say the least, towards West Bank settlers like him.
He talked at length with Abu Awwad about what he was reading. In the process of reexamining his identity, he says, he came to understand that although his truth was "deeply true," he had to integrate two truths: the Jewish truth and the Palestinian truth.
"As long as I was living my life ensconced in my identity, deep in my Jewish soul, without considering the other truth," says Schlesinger, "then I was living in falsehood. I had to make room in my soul for another truth, the Palestinian truth. That doesn’t make my connection to this land any less strong or true, but it has to be balanced by an understanding of another truth."
This is now the core of what he calls his spiritual journey: "To meet the other, to bring the other into my soul, to identify with the other... If you come to realize that your truth is trampling on the rights of another nation, something has to change and you have to learn how to live out your truth in a way that’s in harmony with the other truths of the other people."
His new perspective alienated some of Hanan's friends and community. One of his best friends no longer speaks to him. People whisper that he's a traitor. He wishes that weren't the case, he says, but it doesn't stop him.
"It’s not only about opening your heart to understanding of the other, it’s about learning to live your life differently."
Once they were soldiers
To a visitor, it feels as if Abu Awwad and his community provide a spiritual and psychic force field through which the outside hostilities and random violence don't penetrate. But memory penetrates.
Shay Davidovich is co-director of the group Breaking the Silence (BTS). BTS is made up of former soldiers, veterans of the Israeli military who, as their website puts it, "have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life."
Davidovich's stories of his time as a soldier echo Abu Awwad's claims of having a childhood that was "forbidden."
Davidovich talks about the first day of his military service assignment, when he arrived in the West Bank to do "settlement protection."
This sounded like a reasonable thing to do. He had grown up in Arial, one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank, population 20,000. Most Israelis know about Arial, which, Shay says, looks like an American suburb. "Everything is green and beautiful. Swimming pools. Country clubs. Whatever you think of when you think of suburbs."
But when he arrived in the area called Soucia, things quickly went downhill.
"We get to the settlement and one of the settlers there, he is the commander, he’s our boss, he tells us where the post is, and where the Palestinians can walk and where they can’t walk. After a very short briefing we take shifts. I volunteered to take the first shift, but honestly when I started my shift— I'm wearing my vest, gun, ready to face my first terrorist—what I saw was different from what I expected to see: the place was quiet, peaceful, very nice."
A couple of hours later, he says, the commander who had briefed his unit called him to his car to tell him a Palestinian is walking next to a settlement and we have to check it out.
"We get to a hill, he pulls over, pulls out his gun and I do exactly what he does. We started a pursuit of a target that I don’t see with my own eyes, but I expect to see terrorists. And it takes me a minute to see a target. I see a boy. He was completely naked and he’s in rain boots and he’s running away from us hysterically crying."
Davidovich "froze on the spot," he recalls. "I had no idea what the hell is going on."
The boy disappeared behind a rock, and then he and the commander returned to their vehicle.
"He drives me back to the military post and drops me off and says 'Great job,' and drives away. I’m standing in this quiet beautiful place thinking what the hell just happened. Chasing after a naked five-year-old kid with a loaded gun is incredible to me. It started off a long process of asking questions."
Growing up, Davidovich says, his parents were very political. They were active in the Likud Party, "a very right-wing nationalistic party," and involved in the nineties in opposition to the Oslo Agreement. Like Abu Awwad he was often "gathered up and taken to protests" — but in Davidovich's case the protests were against Rabin, and against evacuation of settlements on the West Bank.
Davidovich's disturbing experiences continued. "We had to protect Palestinians from settlers who attacked them. This was something I never heard of before. We would have to stop settlers from going down to the Palestinian village and attacking them with rocks. We would laugh and say, 'We are here to protect the Palestinians from the settlers.' It was very disturbing."
The theory behind the work of occupation forces, says Davidovich, is summed up in the phrase "making our presence felt."
"In order for us as soldiers to make sure all Palestinians don’t resist our control, we need to make sure they feel our presence twenty-four-seven. Always here behind their back watching them. If they feel that, they’ll be afraid to attack."
Davidovich discusses the situation in the city of Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the area. "There's an Israeli settlement at the heart of the city. There are 750 settlers there, and guarding them are 650 soldiers. They live in what used to be the heart of the city, the main market was there. A thousand Palestinians were there, but left. It’s a post-apocalyptic world. The streets are empty, the buildings are empty."
But he says, there are still Palestinians that live there, and the army has three patrols that walk the Palestinian streets.
"Five or six guys in three patrols making their presence felt. How do they do that? Let’s say it’s a night shift, 2 a.m. I’m the commander here and it’s my order to make my presence felt. I have no intelligence. We walk around, knock on the door very very loudly, no need to be polite. Gather the family at 2 a.m. and ask who they are. Start searching the house, go room by room, closet by closet, and look for a weapon. Go into every storage space."
The army finishes that house and goes to the one next to it and repeats the process. If any people are walking the street at 2 a.m., the army stops them, puts them up against a wall and searches them.
"Glow stick, break it and throw it on a rooftop. Creating a sense that the army is all around you," says Davidovich. "These patrols are just one way of doing that."
One of the other ways, he says, is the practice of mock arrests.
"We go in the middle of the night, go in the house, blindfold him, take him for interrogation and take him in... We do this on a Palestinian we know for sure has nothing to do with terrorism, we know for sure he’s not going to pose a threat on us. We go to the guy, arrest him, blindfold him, handcuff him, take him for a ride around the village."
"I think for most Israelis, the idea that we control Palestinians— this is the only way for us to feel secure ourselves. First we need to acknowledge we’re just not here for security. We have to be honest with ourselves, we put half a million people behind the green line [of the internationally recognized border] not because of security but because we think the land is ours."
On this day at Roots, Davidovich has been joined by another former Israeli soldier, Palestinian business leaders, young Israelis, other Palestinian friends of Abu Awwad, and a group of American progressives. The Americans have come to assess Abu Awwad and ways to help his organization to bring more Palestinians and Jews together—particularly the Jewish settlers, whose growing presence on land granted by the Oslo Accords to Palestine enrages Palestinians and dismantles a twenty-year-old dream of peace.
In the words of Sam Bahour, a prominent Palestinian American, that dream is like "milk on a shelf going bad."
Last January, the Israeli government accused the group of being traitors for speaking out about their negative experiences. But Amos Harel in Haaretz depicts the government's accusations against the organization as "McCarthyesque attempts to silence it."
Serving hope— and believing in each other
Abu Awwad notes the long historical context for the Jewish people, including the Holocaust and wars with Arabs, as inextricably woven into the ongoing struggles for peace.
"I think the Jewish nation feels like they are the most lonely nation on the planet, that no one cares about them. They see the Palestinians and the Arabs that don't want them, and the whole world criticizes them, and the historical catastrophes that the Jewish people worked through— these are what make the Israelis fearful."
"So my way and my approach to freedom— I always say that the Palestinian freedom has to pass through Jewish hearts, not Jewish bodies."
But this, he says, is "a big challenge for me, because Israel's politics don't show us the Jewish fear. They show us the Jewish power."
When asked what makes him hopeful in the current situation, Ali Abu Awwad pauses for a moment, then reframes the question.
"What motivates me is my belief more than my hope. Part of the problem is that when we talk about hope, hope is important for sure, but hope has to be served. Serving our hope means to be believers of each other. Believers that we are capable to achieve our vision together, and believers in the other as a partner, not as an enemy."
Abu Awwad is currently planning to build a centre to train Israelis and Palestinians in nonviolent processes. Undergoing such processes is critical, he says, before political solutions can be reached.
"My hope is to see Israelis and Palestinians running this piece of land together as brothers and sisters. So nonviolence doesn't mean that our anger disappears or our pain disappears. Nonviolence means to adopt that anger and pain and to control it for a good future for the next generation, and to be responsible for it— not to be occupied by the pain and the fear.
"Nonviolence is to be able to see that our humanity is something that's irresistible."
Beyond the wall
Ali and those working alongside him are deeply enmeshed in the most intransigent questions of war and peace. No matter the historical quagmire, they refuse to accept that people cannot discover common humanity. And they have good historical evidence on their side. Not just in Israel. But in the world.
“The majority of people really do want peace, even though I don’t think the majority are ready to live together. If you have a million Israelis in Jerusalem who want peace and even 100,000 Palestinians, this can work. But we know there are people who want to damage these prospects. Even with 10,000 Palestinians demonstrating nonviolently, it only takes one person with one bullet to turn that into a mess. So, we are running workshops to train people in how to be non violent even when receiving violence,” Abu Awwad said.
That might just sound naive if history hadn't proven the power of nonviolence. This is, after all, the way Dr. Martin Luther King changed the course of American history. Through disciplined action, carefully trained activists were able to end the brutality of institutionalized discrimination for the children and grandchildren of American slaves. It required many years of grass-roots organizing to meet violence with non violence, and to find those brave men and women who could commit themselves to enduring brutal beatings by police without fighting back. Likewise, Gandhi's followers gained independence for India through nonviolence, which involved very disciplined training for men and women to face British batons and bullets without responding with violence, even under brutal assault.
If asked the question bluntly, most of us would say we long for peace, not just for ourselves but for others, for everyone. But at the same time, we reconcile ourselves to things as they are. We succumb to the enormous momentum of history. We allow obstacles like the arms industry, the gun lobby or political gamesmanship to convince us that matters are hopeless. Abu Awwad is inspiring. He has the ability to encourage and catalyze a movement. He has had every reason imaginable to give in to a bitter hatred. But he hasn’t.
Abu Awwad believes Israelis and Palestinians must engage in a process, a long process, before any political solutions can be reached. He thinks this will take careful planning and training to get people to listen to each other, to know each other as neighbours as they once did before conflicts ignited and spread. He doesn't believe it will happen quickly. But the process, he says, must precede the solution. Building trust between people at a grassroots level is the first and indispensable step towards change.
Beyond the wall, Israelis say they have no partner and a two state solution, or any form of peace, can’t happen because of Palestinian intransigence. Just last week, Hamas released a video urging young people to carry out suicide bombings on buses in Tel Aviv. It isn’t an intifada until ‘the bus roof flies,’ the Hamas "music video" says, according to the Times of Israel.
The cycle of violence seems poised to continue. Hopelessly. And forever.
There are many people living on both sides of the wall who've lost hope. Of Israel electing a government that will reengage in talks with Palestinians. Of the wall coming down. Of Palestinians gaining full rights in their own state. Of Israelis living free from the hostilities of neighbours who vow to "drive them into the sea."
They have lost hope for an end to security checkpoints and the interruption of free travel for Palestinians, for an end to rock throwing and Molotov cocktails, for an end to collective punishment and the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, for an end to random violence by Palestinians against Israelis, for parents to stop losing sons and daughters and an end to the grinding displacement and brutality of life in a conflict zone.
But Ali and those around him left me feeling the situation isn't hopeless. There are Israelis and Palestinians working for peaceful solutions on both sides of the wall. They aren't just dedicated, they're skilled, organized and deeply committed to history's lessons on nonviolent liberation. Their movement is growing. And although that physical wall remains, every day they reach across it, and everyday more and more people have that ground-shifting realization that they had just simply never had a real conversation with anyone on the other side.
That's a credible reason for hope when it is systematically propagated the way Roots and others are doing. It is a murderously troubled land, but the ground can shift.