Middle East - Israel and Palestine


A Holy and Bloody Land


Hostility has resurfaced between Israelis and Palestinians. Is the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with mutual respect now even further distant?




Two film clips strike the eyes and heart. Mohammad ad-Dara, 12 years old, crouching by his father, his thin face twisted in grief and terror, while the man desperately raises his hand in a pathetic attempt to stop the bullets. Father and son are smashed against the wall, seeking a useless shelter behind a metal barrel. His agony doesn’t last long. Machine gun fire bursts across the air. Thus the young Palestinian boy dies not far from his house in Netsarim, his head resting on his father’s knees, while his father attempts one last tender caress with his stiffened hand, his head frozen in an unnatural position by the bullets that have severed his spine. Not far away, a few days later, hundreds of shouting and menacing men surround a house in Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian police. Something is tossed out the window: it is the body of an Israeli soldier, captured and lynched by the Arab crowd. The soldier’s cell phone rings, it’s his wife. A Palestinian answers, “Your husband? I just killed him.” These are films that quickly traveled around the globe and spread the horror. Every war is atrocious, but in this war, these dead, there is something that touches us even more closely. Each of us belongs in some way to those stones, each of us in some way holds dear that land and the history that is carved into it. Israelis and Palestinians argue over the names to give these territories, but on one name everyone agrees, and even official treaties speak of it as the Holy Land.


A tower and a wall

There is another film that comes to my mind in recent days. They showed it to me one sunny morning in the main hall of a kibbutz, Hanita Kibbutz, founded in 1936 on the Lebanese border. An old Turkish law, enacted by the British-mandated government of Palestine, assigned the uncultivated land to whomever, in one night, could build a tower and a wall; it was called “the rule of tower and wall.” Projected on the screen, the silhouettes of the early colonists who build a stockade. The rabbi arrives with the scrolls of the Torah, and the Arab farmers sit at the table with the Jews; there is time for tea together. But it doesn’t last long. The scene quickly changes, rifles appear, and the colonists are already at war–a war that is not confined only to the old film. The beautiful sunny day of my visit, with the fiery red sunset, during which the boys and girls of the kibbutz prepared the room for the Sabbath, drew to a close with a night spent in the shelters while the Katiuscka, the terrible Palestinian rocket launcher, hammered the Lebanese border. That border has been Israel’s nightmare, and it is no coincidence that the army’s retreat from southern Lebanon, occupied for almost twenty years, marked the beginning of a new Intifada. But this new revolt is very different from the 1988 one. At that time, the Israelis understood that the enemy was not on the other side of the borders conquered in four wars against the Arabs. It was clear that peace had to be negotiated in order for the State of Israel to survive, and that the negotiations had to include the hated Arafat, leader of the Palestinian people, not just the Arab, Jordanian, Egyptian, and even Syrian heads of state. They had to negotiate with that people which should not have existed in those territories. Israel had to show it was stronger than its military capabilities.


Yad Vashem

There is a place that every Israeli citizen, every Jew who comes to the Holy Land visits with tears in his eyes. And where the goyim, non-Jew tourists enter with lumps in their throats. This is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, surrounded by a grove of six million fir trees, one for each Jew exterminated in the Shoah. This is the place of remembrance, shame, and anger. Israel, it was said, was born so that all this would never happen again. But now, many are saying in Israel, we have become a Yad Vashem with an air force. A museum frozen by its memory of the horror, forced into war, unable to trust in the peace negotiations, and capable of negotiating only with weapons in hand. The facts repeatedly dash the hopes of those who want peace. “Peace now” is the slogan. But how can one make peace in the land of peace? Many in Israel are convinced that the day they give in, even just a little bit, the final defeat will be inevitable and they will bear the responsibility in front of all the Jewish people, because the Holocaust could start again. Their formidable air force, their formidable military capacity are not enough to overcome this horror that is so deeply rooted. And yet, twelve years ago, in the days of the Intifada, this much was clear: Israel had to negotiate and had to give something up. Peace in exchange for land. Land for the Palestinians who are still living in Israel. Land for the Palestinians living on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, conquered, occupied, liberated–depending on the point of view–by the tanks bearing the Star of David when, in 1967, the Arab countries thought that they could finish off Israel. The Jordanian artillery was battering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, their howitzers installed in the Jewish cemetery not far above the tomb of Isaiah. Land for the half a million Palestinians who have been refugees for forty years, and for their children born and raised in Lebanese camps.


Jewish and democratic

This is a dilemma with which Israel has struggled since the birth of the country. “The Zionist Jews who founded Israel,” wrote the American journalist Thomas Friedman, correspondent in Beirut and Jerusalem for more than thirty years now, “when they thought about the kind of state they wanted to build, set themselves three basic goals: they wanted to create a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a large state, which would include all the historic territory of the Jewish people.” The trouble was that in those territories another people was also living: the Palestinians. In 1947 the United Nations assigned to the Jews half the territory, leaving a part to the Arabs. David Ben Gurion, leader of the Zionist movement, founder of Israel, commented very lucidly: We can choose two of the three goals. We can be a Jewish and democratic state, but not have all the land. We can be a democratic state that includes all the territories from the sea to the Jordan River, but then it cannot be only a Jewish state, because the rights of the Arabs must be safeguarded. Or we can be a large Jewish state, but limit democracy. Ben Gurion chose the first option: Israel was a Jewish state, it was democratic, it was settled in the ancient Promised Land, but not in all of it. When the Arabs attacked in June of 1967, hoping to sweep Israel away once and for all, Israel (David) miraculously succeeded in shattering the offensive mounted by the Arab countries (Goliath). The Israeli army, T’shal, spread through the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in Syria. Israel astounded the world, but the victory drove a wedge into the country’s security, the same wedge that still is a threat to peace today. How should the Palestinians in the occupied (conquered, liberated) territories be treated? The response was a limitation of the rights of the Arab population, who were left even without citizenship and forced to travel with safe-conduct papers and old Jordanian passports. Then there was the settlement of Israeli colonists. From all over the world new Jewish colonists came, moving into the houses and lands left behind by the Palestinians fleeing toward Lebanon. The spiral of terrorist attacks pushed Israel into increasingly rigid policies. They needed to negotiate a separate peace with their Arab neighbors of Egypt and Jordan and to conquer new territories in southern Lebanon to shield Upper Galilee from attack. These were the initial stages leading up to a crescendo of diplomatic and military operations.


War with rocks

Events culminated in the Intifada, when the “rock-throwing war” broke out in the heart of Israel, and no one felt safe any more. It was necessary to negotiate: peace in exchange for land. But hundreds of thousands of colonists have settled in the territories by now. Since 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire, half a million Russian Jews have settled in Israel. Giving up the territories means dealing with these Jews who have nowhere else to go. Giving up the territories to Palestinian autonomy means accepting, sooner or later, another state, with its army, guns, and air force. A state, an army, an air force that are Palestinian. The process toward autonomy set in motion after the 1994 talks is facing its greatest trial. The hopes that were dashed by the assassination of Rabin, the man who had pushed Israel along on the road to agreement most determinedly, a year later grow weaker and weaker. Both the Israeli Barak and the Palestinian Arafat know that they have enemies everywhere, especially at home. Withdrawal from Lebanon has been interpreted by Islamic fundamentalists as a sign of weakness, and the use of force as a sign of fear. The Palestinian police seem unable to guarantee to Israel the safety of the territories under their administration. The upcoming American elections heighten the uncertainty of the historic protector of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the United States. Assad of Syria is dead, Hussein of Jordan is dead. The old protagonists are disappearing from the scene. They promoted a balance made up of terror, war, and massacre, but also–and precisely because of this–were capable of gestures of reconciliation. They were the only ones able to guarantee a truce because they were able to keep the arms and terrorism of the factions and even internal tribal conflict under control.


The Band-Aid over the abyss

Two peoples continue to live side by side on the same land, the same Holy Land. One of them, the Palestinians, are full of hatred and desire for revenge where the most fundamentalist Islamic contingent is growing. The other, the Israelis, cannot forget. The writer David Grossman recalls his wedding: “An aunt who was an Auschwitz survivor came with a Band-Aid on her arm. It covered the tattoo of the concentration camps. She did not want to disturb the joy of the wedding guests. That Band-Aid is Israel; everyone knows that underneath is the abyss. If the Band-Aid is lifted off, everything can start all over again.” Thus every gesture of peace is charged with suspicion. Religion becomes intertwined with rancor. It is no coincidence that the spark which set off the latest skirmishes was the visit of the “hawk” Ariel Sharon to the spot that Jews call the Temple Mount and Arabs call the Noble Sanctuary, the Zionist leader walking on Islamic sacred ground, and the uprising continuing with Palestinians throwing rocks from this holy site onto the Jews praying at the Wailing Wall below. The Palestinians destroyed Joseph’s tomb at Hebron because it is written that where the bones of your father rest, there is your land. Every gesture takes on the resonance of other gestures, echoing across thousands of years of history. And the face of the boy killed in his father’s arms and the desperate cry of the wife of the soldier lynched in front of the TV cameras merge into one sole horror. Up there, right in front of the Hanita Kibbutz, on the Lebanese border, the Hetzbollah, the Party of God, the Islamic fundamentalists have written, “Today we liberated southern Lebanon, tomorrow Palestine.” A little to the south, in Caesarea of Philippi, rocks fly from the overpass onto the highway; in the secular city of Tel Aviv, Israeli extremists set fire to a popular Muslim restaurant. The negotiations are fragile, and every time someone brings up the taboo subject, the status of Jerusalem, the Holy City, a chill falls between Barak and Arafat. And the flames leap higher in the Land of Peace.