Opinion

03.29.12

Terrified of Each Other

With a new month comes a new poll of Israelis and Palestinians on a variety of issues. All the usual suspects dominate the executive summary: whether Israelis believe in the viability of two states, what they think about an attack Iran or a settlement freeze. 

The poll tells the story that many of us expect from the populations caught in the depression and pessimism of the present. But the really frightening statistics come in the penultimate questions.

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Palestinian girl covers her face to protect is from tear gas (Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images )

Any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with any number of states, depends on the populations’ sense that they are safe as they go about their daily lives. They need to feel that their next door neighbors will not try and destroy them. To the question, “to what extent are you worried or not worried that you or a member of your family could be hurt by Arabs in your daily life?” 54% of Israeli Jews responded that they are worried or very worried. For the Palestinians, 75% are worried or very worried that, “you or a member of your family could be hurt by Israel in your daily life or that your land would be confiscated or home demolished.”

The daily fear of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians infects over half of the populations. When we look at what they believe the intentions of the other are, we find that 50% of Israeli Jews believe that the Palestinians are out to destroy the Jews in Israel and take over the country. 62% of Palestinians believe that Israel is out to take over the entirety of the Greater Land of Israel and expel all Arab residents.

Whichever end of the conflict/occupation you are pursing these figures present the most significant challenge facing anyone who sees an end to the status quo. Yet if we look at what topics of conversation are dominating the various civic spheres in each country we can’t help but expect that these figures will continue their upward climb.

In Israel the newly minted leader of the opposition Shaul Mofaz will attempt alongside Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich to capture the social protest vote that shook Israel over the summer. The protests focused internally on Israel’s own social justice issues while ignoring the wider conflict. It is this very lack of focus on security issues that has felt like a breath of fresh air to many in Israel and opened up new avenues of productive debate.

Yet nothing about this conversation speaks to the raising tide of anger within the occupied territories, strategic options about Gaza nor the wider regional shifting picture all of which creates a blanket of fear and pessimism across the society. The welcome distraction of socio-economic conversations gives suspicion and fear space to go unchecked.

This might work in Israeli society, but Palestinian society cannot escape the realities of the occupation so easily. The civic space in Palestine is dominated by an increasingly bullish anti-normalization campaign that is effectively clamping down on any discourse that does not follow its rules for joint Israeli-Palestinian work.

And normalization is a tough thing to get around when you’re a Palestinian. It is defined as “he participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.” Avoiding contact with Israelis that does not actively “resist” or “expose” the occupation keeps the conversation within the small circle of activists in israel who already agree with each other.  It stops a wider Israeli audience from exposure to Palestinians. While one can understand the desire to avoid normalization of the occupation, closing down all interaction between the populations (except under maximalist Palestinian prescriptions) furthers the gulf between the societies.

Further, as the Israeli economy continues to grow in excess of the OECD average, BDS victories should not be seen in damaging Israel’s economy, rather in furthering the reach scope and power of its sister movement, the anti-normalization campaign.

Neither protests nor innovative peace-making projects will find success while the momentum on each side turns us and them inward rather then looking outward, towards the other. Until the populations can focus and reflect on the other side, the despair and fantasim of the present will continue.