Finding the Center

08.17.13

Palestinian and Israeli Citizens Bypass Their Governments in Search for Peace

Teachers, business leaders, and even ex-soldiers have started dozens of new bipartisan NGOs--some Palestinian, some Israeli, and some both—and all committed to replacing ‘Us v. Them’ with ‘Us and Them.’ By Evie Salomon.

Empathy is not a common trait between Israelis and Palestinians. They have a stake in the same piece of land, and two completely different justifications for it. Even their history books tell different stories. According to a five-year study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks conducted by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, children on both sides of the conflict, starting at about age five, are taught wildly different versions of the same historical events, with each side’s version ignoring the other side almost completely.

“The other is just not there,” says Sami Adwan, a Palestinian who along with an Israeli and an American conducted the three-year study. Each side’s history books, he points out, ignores the religion, culture, economy and daily activities of the other. Israeli history book fail to mention the Palestinian Nakba; Palestinians omit the Holocaust. They are not even represented on each other’s maps.

“There’s no description of them as individuals,” Adwan says. “There’s no description of their suffering, and in that sense, education continues to be used as a means to garner more support for political ideology.”

The Council initiated the study to combat the logjams and stalemates that the region’s competing ideologies so frequently create. Other projects include a young religious leaders program to build mutual acceptance and respect between the two factions. But by far the most interesting thing about the joint Israeli-Palestinian Council is that it is not unique.

‘I never looked at an Israeli as a human, I looked at them as the enemy that needs to be thrown out of my country.’

In the last 10 years, dozens of NGOs have begun popping up in the region; some of them run by Palestinians, some by Israelis and some—like the Council—as partnerships between the two. But all of them are committed to going beyond political processes to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations, whether it’s through institutions such as schools and business enterprises, or even groups composed of ex-military personnel.

Some are small grassroots efforts, such as Hand in Hand, a chain of four Arab-Israeli schools that teach both Arabic and Hebrew.

“This is a bilingual school, but Arabic and Hebrew are not just languages, they are nationalities, religions,” says school Principal Hassan Agbaria. “Both narratives exist here in the school, and we try to show that they can live together each beside the other, and everyone can choose their identity.”

On a grander scale, there is the Breaking the Impasse Initiative, an organization of 300 Israeli and Palestinian business leaders advocating for a two-state solution. With support from the  World Economic Forum, and tacit nods of approval from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Initiative is busy proposing ways to stimulate the Palestinian economy and integrate Israeli and Palestinian industries.

“I’ve spent more time with more Palestinians in the last six months than I have throughout my entire life,” says Initiative board member Moshe Lichtman, the former head of Microsoft in Israel. He says the collaboration is the first of its kind for Israelis and Palestinians.

To fully grasp how these various operations work, it’s necessary to match faces to organizations. Here are two portraits, one Palestinian, one Israeli. They document the very different ways in which two individuals grew to understand the people they’d once considered enemies. More importantly, they illustrate the powerful transformations both made in going from extreme nationalists willing to fight on the front lines for their country, to peace activists working to bridge understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mohammad Dajani:

Mohammad Dajani’s story started in 1948 in Jerusalem when he was two years old and Israel was on the verge of earning statehood. In the midst of the conflict, Dajani’s grandfather sent his family to live in Egypt. When they returned, they discovered that they had lost their home in West Jerusalem.

“That has caused a lot of anger at Jews, at Zionism,” Dajani says. “I remember my grandmother, every time something happened at home, if I fight with my brother, she would say, ‘Don’t fight your brother,’ she would say, ‘Go fight the enemy, the enemy are the Jews.’”

Dajani’s attitudes grew more extreme as he got older. After the 1967 Six Day War, he left the Arab Nationalist Movement and joined Yasser Arafat’s militant Fatah Party to fight for the Palestinian cause. He received military training in Syria and Jordan, and from there went on to lead Fatah’s international public relations, recruitment, and placement and then organized and participated in violent demonstrations and boycotts.

Such radicalism earned Dajani a spot on Israel’s most wanted list and a revocation of his Israeli citizenship.

“I never looked at an Israeli as a human, I looked at them as the enemy that needs to be thrown out of my country,” Dajani said. “If I couldn’t do it, then my vision was, we should walk in the temple and destroy it on their heads. That was an ‘us and them’ education that I had.”

Dajani continued working with Fatah for eight years until he noticed the leadership was riddled with corruption. Disappointed, he left to study government, politics, and economics in the U.S., but his westernized education was only the beginning. The real change occurred in 1993, when his father was diagnosed with cancer and Dajani was granted a family reunification visa. Once home, he started attending his father’s chemotherapy sessions.

“I realized that the doctors in the hospital were not treating him as an Arab, they’re treating him as a patient,” Dajani said. “It helped me to look at Israelis in a more humanistic way.”

A few months after his father’s death in 1995, Dajani’s second transformative experience occurred, when his mother suffered a heart attack while the family was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Panicked, Dajani’s brother made a quick decision to take the Ben Gurion Airport exit to seek help.

“I was very skeptical they would give help because she is Arab and they are Jews and it was security, but immediately they cleared one of the security gates and called two ambulances and they started operating on her there,” Dajani said.

Hours passed at the hospital before the doctors broke the news that Dajani’s mother had died on arrival.

“We said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us before?’ They said, ‘We were afraid of your reaction, and we thought you would blame us as the cause of your mother’s death.’”

But Dajani said he did not feel any anger towards the doctors he had witnessed helping his mother in her final moments. On the car ride home, Dajani said, he couldn’t help but think of his grandmother.

“I wish her mother would have been there to see that,” Dajani said. “It was her mother all the time that incited us to be against the Jews. So these experiences have helped me move from ‘us or them’ to ‘us and them.’”

Years later, Dajani was inspired to pursue a more inclusive narrative, and so in 2007 he founded the Wasatia Movement (wasatia is Arabic for moderation), a political and social organization that uses the Koran’s teachings to promote balance and negotiation rather than religious extremism.

The effort is slow moving, but it has not gone unnoticed. Dajani has hosted conferences, seminars, and published articles in Arabic-language newspapers as well as The New York Times to promote Wasatia’s call for a two-state solution and the separation of religion and state. Though he has gained recognition, some of it has appeared in the form of death threats, and his email and website are hacked regularly.

Dajani remains undeterred.

 “Many Palestinians will tell you they are for peace one minute and the other minute they say Haifa or Jaffa is Palestinian and they don’t see how these two things conflict,” Dajani said. “I don’t want them to sit there and weep over the past. Respect the past, but don’t let the past be an obstacle to the future.”

Adi Mazor:

Adi Mazor grew up in the city of Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city outside of Tel Aviv, known for its crime and poverty.

“I was very afraid of Arabs when I was little girl growing up in Lod because that’s what I was taught,” she said. “They are the bad guys and I am the good guy, just like that.”

Mazor was 17 when the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, and shootings and bus bombings were commonplace. That was the year, she says, when her fear of Arabs morphed into a deep-seated hate.

Upon turning 18, she enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), just as her father had done, and she eventually transferred to a combat unit in the West Bank—one of the most respected areas of front-line service in the army. 

“I loved the army, I was very proud of myself that I’m in a combat unit, serving my country,” she said.

But the job still presented challenges. While patrolling at a checkpoint at the separation wall outside the Palestinian village of Kalkilya, she was ordered to toss a stun grenade at children throwing stones. Although Mazor didn’t see any rock throwing, she obeyed the command.

“At first, I was very proud of myself,” she said. “It was the first stun grenade I was throwing as a soldier. I looked at the pin and I said, ‘Wow, this is a nice souvenir of what I just did, I should keep it.’”

But pride quickly turned to guilt.

“I was back in the Hummer and suddenly I saw the faces of the Palestinians from the other side,” she said. “They were so shocked and scared of what I did, and suddenly I was so ashamed. I looked at the pin again and I threw it out the window.”

It was then Mazor realized she was no longer the “good guy” in the story she’d learned growing up. 

Despite her struggles in the army, Mazor continued promoting the narrative she believed in—she got a job leading West Bank heritage tours--government-funded trips that bring young Israeli students into settlements and Jewish heritage sights, all to promote Zionist ideals.

“Some teachers told us, ‘Why are you not talking about Palestinians?’ And I remember I said, ‘What why? Finally we’re talking about Judaism and Zionism, and now they want to ruin that and talk about something that is not connected?’ I was very angry at them.”

Mazor went on to become involved with several other Zionist movements, but it wasn’t until she moved back to her hometown of Lod in 2011 that her views took a drastic turn. In Lod, she joined a Zionist organization called Ayalim, which focuses on reviving and renewing Zionist values in distressed neighborhoods.

The Ayalim program gave Mazor funding to open an after-school program. Ironically, only Arab children were showing up. Mazor suddenly found herself working with the very people she had once feared as a little girl.

“It was so funny--only Arab kids in the program and we celebrate Hanukkah? And when Ramadan came we didn’t do anything,” she said.

Mazor realized that in promoting one group of people, she was excluding another.

“I didn’t see it when I was in these other movements because it was not in front of me,” Mazor said. “And in Lod I could see it so clearly. It was the main twist of my thinking on the situation.”

Now 30, Mazor is a member of Breaking the Silence, a network of former Israeli combat soldiers whose goal is to expose Israeli citizens to the realities of West Bank occupation. With BTS, Mazor will be leading tours in the West Bank—a job similar to the one she had held earlier—the only difference is that these tours will include the stories of the Palestinians she had once failed to recognize.  

“It’s hard to know that all the things you’ve done for years are not really relevant to the values you believe in,” Mazor said. “But the bottom line is that there are holes in the story and no one tells you that, so I started to find the parts of the puzzle myself.”

The organization has a network of 700 former IDF soldiers, many of whom are anonymous. Together, this group has published testimonies of their service in the occupied territories. But in attempting to bridge understanding, BTS has been called a smear campaign by the IDF. Nevertheless, Mazor continues to speak out even if it means going against everything she once believed in.

“When you break the silence, you betray your country, that’s how people see it,” Mazor said.  “Here in Israel, people say ‘Aw, what are you talking about? You are Jewish, you need to take care of your country, your people,’ but I really believe that we are all humans.”