Column

05.18.12

Meet The Palestinians

Many Israeli and American Jews hold strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We study it, attend conferences, and are often told to expect only violence from the Palestinian side—yet there’s one thing many of us have never done:

Met a Palestinian.

On a very practical level, this is perhaps understandable: For some, there’s an ocean to be crossed; for others, walls and barbed wire. Possibly more difficult to cross are decades of fear and mistrust.

Yet it cannot be argued that human conflict is best resolved in the absence of information. Whatever one might think about this long war, surely Jews would be served by greater familiarity with the people on the other side of it.

Memoirs offer a small but powerful way to begin to bridge the gap, allowing a kind of intimacy between reader and writer that’s otherwise hard to find, and in the week in which Nakba Day was commemorated, it seems more appropriate to recommend the works of Palestinians speaking for themselves:

One such memoir is The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, by Sami Al Jundi and Jen Marlowe, the remarkable tale of a wannabe terrorist turned coexistence activist. 

Born in Jerusalem’s Old City, Al Jundi and his family were forcibly removed from their home during the 1967 War; the curiosity the boy initially felt toward Israeli soldiers (did they really have tails, as his friends said?) was replaced by anger as he watched his blind mother reduced to tears and his family scramble to find a new home.

His fury over the occupation led a teenaged Al Jundi to seek out the PLO—but his first real bomb exploded prematurely, instantly killing one of the young men with whom he was building it. Al Jundi was soon taken from the hospital by Israeli security forces, questioned, tortured, and sentenced to ten years in prison.

While in prison, his trajectory took a surprising turn: As part of a prisoner-directed study program, Al Jundi studied philosophy, literature, and history (including that of the Jewish people), eventually adopting the nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 

In the years since his release, he’s dedicated himself to reconciliation efforts, in spite of the frequent frustration and setbacks peacemakers face: “The circle of blood is continuing,” Al Jundi writes. “It is not acceptable… to just sit and watch it.”

Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I Shall Not Hate presents a very different life: Even as a child in a Gazan refugee camp, Abuelaish was certain that only by working together could Israelis and Palestinians stop the bloodshed. 

From working on an Israeli farm, through medical school, to eventually serving as the only Palestinian doctor in an Israeli hospital, Abuelaish has spent his life making connections—sending his children to co-existence events, arranging meetings in people’s homes, and traveling internationally to speak in support of peace. 

His convictions weren’t enough to protect his family in the course of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, however: Two days before the ceasefire, their home was targeted by an Israeli tank, and frantic phone calls with Israeli contacts proved fruitless. Finally, a shell ripped through one of the family’s bedrooms, killing Abuelaish’s niece and three of his daughters. 

“Schoolbooks, dolls, running shoes, and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap, along with the body parts,” he writes. “There was brain matter on the ceiling.”

Perhaps astonishingly, however, Abuelaish also writes about “the potential good that could come out of this soul-searing bad,” convinced that as a devout Muslim, the only choice he can make is to continue to try to bridge “the fractious divide that has kept us apart for six decades.”

Sari Nusseibeh’s Once Upon A Country is the best known of these books, not least because Nusseibeh writes of the conflict from a position of social prominence, and frequently from the thick of resolution efforts—despite a long-held desire for a life of philosophical contemplation.

Here’s a man who, as a child, would escape his father’s endless political salons to play with sticks, the same man who later escaped Yasser Arafat’s efforts to use his considerable talents and good name for the PLO chairman’s own ends. Both a nationalist and a humanist, Nusseibeh has always sought a two-state solution, and was a central figure in the first intifada, fostering the often-overlooked civil disobedience and nonviolence that initially undergirded that uprising

These same impulses have also led Nusseibeh to struggle against Palestinian corruption and extremism, to found a world-class university (al-Quds) on little more than scraps and abandoned buildings, and to continue to push for a just peace, even as years of failure have made the very notion seem preposterous to many.

“Over the past few years I’ve seen my share of smashed dreams,” he writes, “[but] I believe that human life is much more than the sum total of all our mistakes.”

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Do these three books represent everything there is to know about Palestinian existence or opinion? Not at all, no more than three American or Israeli memoirs could—but they do represent honest, humane voices that too often go unheard. 

They’re not necessarily easy reads for a Jewish audience, however. Events that we may remember very clearly are shown from an entirely different angle, often with the kind of human insight that threatens old certainties. 

But each author is painfully frank, about their people, the potential for peace, and their own limitations—and each has produced a book that is generous, human, and deeply moving.