Inside the Mind of Israel/Palestine
How can both sides be wrong/right at the same time?
LONDON — Once again the world watches as, once again, Israel/Palestine explodes. The conflicts there sometimes are forgotten, but they never go away, and, of course, there are many explanations for what's happening. Perhaps too many.
As somebody who used to be an Islamist, once rejecting Israel’s right to exist and wanting to fight against it, what follows is a conversation I have had in my own head over many years. This will be an uncomfortable conversation for many to read. For that I apologise, but welcome to my head:
I am a Palestinian. This will be uncomfortable for you. Allow me to explain to you why we are so angry.
I am an Israeli. This will make you angry. Allow me to explain to you why we are so uncomfortable with you.
You usurped our ancestral land of Palestine. You imported foreigners from Europe to take our villages. In your wake you left millions of us homeless and stateless. You have ignored multiple UN resolutions that specifically categorize you as an occupying power, and that recognize our right to nationhood. You took 60 percent more than the UN originally promised you in 1948, and still now occupy many areas beyond the so-called 1967 green line. As an occupying power you have no legitimacy in our lands. We do not recognize you.
Before the 20th century, there was no such identity as “Palestinian.” You were Arabs living in the Levant. We gained UN backing to declare the state of Israel in 1948. Arab states declared war against a UN-backed Israel in 1948, and lost. Jordan and Egypt then took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively. Why didn’t they grant you citizenship then, or declare a Palestinian state for you when they had control? Instead they declared war against us in 1967, and again in 1973, trying again to take our UN-backed state from us. They lost, every single time, and we took the West bank and Gaza instead. This was war. Put simply, we won—thrice—against all Arab states put together. We do not deny your right to statehood now, but till this day you deny ours. We cannot negotiate on those terms.
Yes, to this I agree, Arab monarchs and dictators have repeatedly let us down. They have used our cause to stifle any internal dissent by labelling it a Zionist conspiracy, and refused us dual citizenship in the process. But if it was simply a matter of recognising your right to exist, why do you continue to support the building of illegal settlements deep into the West Bank?
We are prepared to swap lands with you in Judea and Samaria—like for like—in order to contain most of those settlements, but we need you to recognize our right to exist for us to do that, so that the final peace deal is not legally disputed. How can we trust you not to turn Jerusalem into a bloodbath when 64 percent of that city’s inhabitants are Jews? Then there are the Jews in Judea and Samaria. Arab citizens live relatively well in Israel, but we do not trust you with the welfare of Jews in Judea and Samaria.
Judea and Samaria? You even change the names of our lands. It’s called the West Bank. Palestine’s issue is not with Jews, but with your occupation. If the illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank were prepared to accept the authority of our government, we could easily grant them Palestinian citizenship just as you have done with Israeli Arabs. The reason you cannot “trust us” with them is because they refuse to accept the legal writ of the Palestinian Authority. They are religiously driven fanatics who believe in Greater Israel. How would you feel if Israeli Arab Muslim fanatics refused to accept your writ deep inside Israel? Of course there would be tension. Instead, those Arabs have integrated relatively well there, though with room for improvement.
Yes, Israeli Arabs have integrated relatively well. Though I suspect that’s as much to do with us as it is them. Both sides deserve credit for that, don’t you think? I should return later to your statement that Palestinians don’t have a problem with Jews per se. But on the intransigence of these settlers you may have a point. They can be incredibly stubborn. But if you ask those settlers to accept your writ, why do you continue to not recognize Israel? It’s the same UN you refer to that grants you, and us, this same right to exist. You cannot have it both ways. Look, Egypt struck a deal with us and we returned the Sinai. We have been at peace ever since.
Occupiers get to make no demands, why don’t you just withdraw, and we’ll recognize you?
But we tried that in Gaza in 2005, and you kept firing rockets at our villages, deliberately trying to kill our civilians. Withdrawal from the West Bank is even more dangerous because in Jerusalem we live side by side.
Withdrawal from Gaza? You “withdrew” from Gaza yet failed to recognize our democratically elected government there. Then you imposed a blockade around our sea, and controlled what our population has access to via land. Gaza is nothing more than an incredibly dense prison camp. What choice do the people of Gaza have but to continue the resistance?
What democracy in Gaza? Palestinians haven’t held elections in Gaza since the 2007 civil war, in which Fatah and Hamas began to kill each other. This left 260 Fatah and 176 Hamas Palestinians dead. Hamas is in charge now in Gaza. But Hamas is nothing but a jihadist terrorist group that encourages the killing of civilians as legitimate targets. How can we trust any Palestinian self-governance in the West Bank, if Gaza has become nothing but an Islamist dictatorship?
And you don’t kill civilians? How many did you kill during your bombardments of Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014 respectively, targeting hospitals and schools?
We only strike military targets, and we define those as those places from where Hamas military operations against us are launched. We do not have a state policy of deliberately aiming at your civilians and children, killing them because we think it’s inherently good to kill Palestinian civilians. Hamas has this policy against Israelis. How do you justify this?
Justify this? You have killed far more civilians in Gaza than those Hamas rockets have killed in Israel. By your own figures, Operation Cast Lead in 2008 caused 295 Palestinian civilian deaths, and three Israeli ones; Pillar of Defense in 2012 led to 57 Palestinian civilians dead, compared to your four and for Operation Protective Edge in 2014 you agree that of the 2,125 Gazans that you say were killed, 50 percent were civilians.
On this scale, there really is no use saying you did not target our 2,000 dead, while we targeted your three, and so you are morally better. A dead person is a dead person.
OK, so I can see how the scale of those figures would not be comforting to you, and why you would be angry. Of course you must feel the pain of those dead no less acutely than we feel the pain of our lost ones. But I ask you to consider that the only reason you even know those figures is because we are a democracy. We publish our mistakes and try our hardest to avoid killing civilians. We are transparent. Even our former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been tried and convicted for corruption by an Israeli Supreme Court panel headed by an Arab judge named Salim Joubran. You see? An Arab judge indicted a former Israeli PM. We govern by the rule of law.
However, Hamas knows no such thing. It deliberately selects schools and hospitals from which to strike at our civilians. They have no respect for life and no rule of law. Look to 2012 when Hamas summarily executed eight Palestinians they accused of being collaborators, dragging their bodies in the streets with motorcycles, and look to 2014 when Hamas executed 23 Gazans. I know it must be painful for you, but please understand that we are not trying to kill your civilians, we are trying to stop Hamas killing ours.
But you too have your terrorists. Last July Mohamed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teenager who was kidnapped and murdered in a suspected revenge killing by Israeli extremists, was burned alive.
That’s burned alive, just as ISIS does.
Then, two Palestinian homes were set ablaze in Duma, Occupied West Bank. The arsonist left graffiti on the walls reading “revenge” in Hebrew. This attack killed most of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old baby boy called Ali. According to the UN, at least 120 attacks by Israeli settlers have been documented in the occupied West Bank since the start of 2015. And a recent report by Yesh Din, a human rights organization in your own country, showed that more than 92.6 percent of complaints Palestinians lodge with the Israeli police go without charges being filed. In fact, wasn’t it an Israeli terrorist who killed your former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin?
Yes, we too have our terrorists. And for those civilian deaths, and others, I am terribly sorry. I can only express the utter disgust with which many of us view these killings. In fact, we all protested the murder of that baby. But our law hunts our terrorists down, arrests them and convicts them. Our prime minster, media, and politicians condemn them. We do not celebrate these terrorists. I just wish sometimes we’d see protests in Palestine against your own terrorists, too.
In fact, in the wider world, we see far fewer protests against massacres by Arab and Muslim groups, or states. Why this incessant obsession with Israel alone?
Instead, in Palestinian society what we see is widespread anti-Semitism and a celebration of murder and suicide operations. This month, when two Israeli settlers, a husband and wife, were shot dead in their car in front of their children we didn’t see any Palestinian protests. What we saw instead were sermons by preachers like Muhammad Sallah “Abu Rajab” at the Al-Abrar Mosque in Rafah, inciting further violence against “the Jews” with impunity, while perversely wielding a knife and flailing madly during what was meant to be a religious sermon in a mosque. “Oh men of the West Bank, next time cut them into body parts,” he said. “Some should restrain the victim, while others attack him with axes and butcher knives.”
Yes, perhaps we Palestinians should be louder in our public protest against these fanatics, and we do tend to overly generalize about “the Jews.” Our terrorists tarnish our national identity just as Jewish terrorists tarnish yours. And I do concede that we should protest our terrorism as loudly and publicly as Israelis have been seen to protest theirs. Better leadership would help here. The internationalization of the Palestine problem, especially its hijacking by jihadists, has made it harder for a rational conversation to be had. Selective outrage is a real challenge for our communities. But similarly, your society does not protest the mass killing I referred to above of our people, by your military machine.
We understand that our military can make mistakes, and it scrutinises itself regularly. But you must admit that our society does not generally glorify and revel in your death. Where this happens it is frowned upon. Not celebrated. We regularly treat Palestinians who are sick. Look at the case of this woman who brought her son to our hospital for treatment. After Israelis treated and saved her son Muhammad, a journalist asked her if she would still like to fight Israel, she replied, “Life is valuable (for you) but not for us. Life is zero. That is why we have suicide bombers, they are not afraid (of death)… All of us, even our children are not afraid of death. It is natural for us.” He then asked, “Would you want your son to be a martyr?” and to his shock she replied, “Of course… if it’s for Jerusalem, no problem.” And you wonder why we cannot trust you? We just saved her son’s life in our own hospital, yet this is how she talks about us while being interviewed immediately afterwards?
Yes, this is somewhat demotivating for you, I see. And allow me to personally thank your many humanitarian doctors and medical staff who work tirelessly to save human life. But please do not humiliate us with your benevolence. We are a people with nothing. What we had in Gaza has now been bombed to oblivion. Can you not see that this is what happens to a society that has given up hope? Occupation is by definition a military operation. And military operations brutalize society. Ours are a people who have known nothing but the yoke of an army boot since 1948. Your illegal settlers are ensuring that the facts on the ground swing in favour of a Greater Israeli. We feel we have nothing left to do but to fight. We have given up, and many of us believe that a two-state solution is no longer even viable.
But a one-state solution would mean a return to Jews as a minority inside their own state.
That’s secular democracy for you. One man, one vote.
No, it’s not. No nation, not even the most mature European secular democracies, would accept an overnight influx of immigrants to such an extent that they immediately become a majority. Can’t you see the problems the immigration debate is causing in Europe and America now?
So you’re arguing for a two-tier state in Israel, one in which Israelis control and Palestinians serve, an apartheid? This is why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining ground.
Absolutely not. Look to those Israeli Arabs, Muslim or not, who by your own admission are relatively well integrated. Albeit with lots of room for improvement, Arab Israeli Muslims like Lucy Aharish serve as TV anchors, and supreme-court judges like Salim Joubran, and government ministers like Raleb Majadele, even some of our most vocal international critics like Arab-Muslim Rula Jebreal, carry Israeli citizenship. But Israel was founded after the Holocaust as the last safe haven for Jews in the world. We still have actual Holocaust survivors. We can never again place these survivors into a minority context and expect them to trust wider society as they trusted Germany. It’s incredibly traumatic for our collective psyche. Our issue is not with Palestinians, but with Palestinian immigration (or as you would phrase it, the Right to Return). We have mosques inside Israel. A vast majority of Arabs, when surveyed, would prefer Israeli citizenship to living under the Palestinian Authority. There is no Apartheid. The BDS movement rests on a flawed analogy with South Africa and promotes nothing but the further breakdown of mutual trust.
I do admit that I feel incredibly uncomfortable when BDS is used to boycott Israeli artists, filmmakers and academics, especially when they are often the critical, centre-left, voices—Arab and Jewish—from inside Israel. But then why, if you are still keen on a two-state solution, does Netanyahu not stop these illegal settlers turning the West Bank into a colony of Greater Israel?
Yes, I agree, something needs to be done about that. These settlers must withdraw, I concede, and Palestinian statehood is a right I’ve already accepted. But just like you, we seem beholden to the public opinion of a traumatized people. And our religious-right preys on this, just as yours preys on Palestinian fears. Our society has completely stopped trusting anything you have to say. And democracies are especially vulnerable to public trauma in this way.
Yet… you and I seem to have gone from mutual mistrust and anger to...
…a general agreement that bold leadership is needed on both sides to turn our respective societies away from victimhood and self-pity and towards a path of dialogue and reconciliation.
Yes, it seems so. You seem to have many facts at your disposal. Forgive me, I haven’t had access to the English language, international standards in schooling, nor the outside world. All my life, I have been stuck in Gaza. But for now I must go. Please don’t tell Hamas we spoke. They’ll string me up as a traitor. And please don’t tell the IDF that my husband is a member of Hamas, they may “accidentally” bomb my family.