‘I Am A Human Being’
“What is the ultimate goal? Peace is the ultimate goal. We want to live in peace,” said Jamal Juma, coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign in East Jerusalem.
“I want to be able to raise my children and to feel that they are safe and secure in Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel],” said Rosalie Mark, a mother of five from the Israeli settlement of Maale Chever, not far from Hebron.
It sounds so simple and obvious on the surface. The two sides have similar aspirations of peace, security and success. But both Juma and Mark said it is deep-seated naiveté to believe that this conflict could be easily solved — especially in the next several months. And that is not only because it will be a challenge to determine who gets what land, but also because of the lack of trust in leadership on both sides and the lack of trust between Jews and Arabs.
A Christian Arab, Qumisyeh is a biologist and medical geneticist, educated in the United States, who taught for years at Duke University and then at Yale. He works at Bethlehem University, a school that Israel shut down for two-and-a-half years based on intelligence that it was breeding terrorism.
“The students and faculty had their classes in a clandestine way and graduated students,” Qumisyeh, speaking from his home in Beit Sahour, said with pride. “Even now I have students from East Jerusalem who brave checkpoints daily to get to classes. And even under this occupation, we have developed a master’s program in biotechnology. … Palestinians live, eat, enjoy art and music, get married, have children and have an education; Palestinians are some of the best educated and most productive people in the Middle East.”
He described the Palestinian people as “remarkable in their resilience, resistance and persistence.”
Life in Bethlehem is not easy. Qumisyeh told stories about Israelis who burn Palestinian crops, about confiscated agricultural land, about crowded neighborhoods — refugee camps — within the city, where residents live like sardines, dependent on water tanks filled by the Israelis to drink and wash. He bemoaned the state of travel; Palestinians can’t use the same roads, can’t fly out of the Israeli airport. Because they have to travel through Jordan, it takes an extra day.
In Gaza City, a short distance from Bethlehem but a world away in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, journalist Mohammed Omer tried to put his life in perspective. Educated at Columbia University, he described his home in Gaza City as “back to the donkey days” and as “a sanitary disaster.”
“You cannot describe the panic of a family as water is coming in their house, the result of a sewage system that cannot take all the rain water,” said Omer, who was talking on a cell phone as it charged on a temporary electrical grid.
Omer spoke strongly about what he termed Israeli human rights violations and the perceived heavy-handedness by a security-conscious Israel on the other side of the border. He acknowledged that Israel’s security concerns are legitimate; he placed some of the blame on Israeli leaders.
“You cannot live in a place like Gaza. … You have F-16s over your head, drones hovering overhead, Israeli warships on the beach. The Egyptians are closing the borders. In the East, you face Israeli bulldozers and tanks. In the North, there’s the Erez crossing, and you cannot get through. What do you expect for the future of these young men and women? They sit home. There is no prospect for work,no economy. They have a good education, but you cannot get beyond it. … There is a frustration within the whole population.”
For many Jews raised with the value of tikkun olam, hearing these accounts is nothing short of unsettling. Mark, however, has a different perspective.
Earlier this year, she left her community to drive her children into Jerusalem. She almost didn’t make it.
“There were seven masked teenage boys who came running at our car with softball-sized rocks in their hands, and within a split second they launched them at our car and you heard, ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ And all of a sudden, glass was shattered all over the place,” recalled Mark. “It was my biggest fear becoming a reality. My first thought was, ‘Are the kids OK?’ And when I arrived in Jerusalem all I could think about was, ‘These people are trying to kill me. What did I do to them?’”
Mark describes her hillside town as beautiful with a view that on a good day stretches as far as the Dead Sea. But she lives in fear. It was only about two years ago, for example, that Palestinian cousins Hakim and Amjad Awad infiltrated the town of Itamar and brutally murdered nearly the entire Fogel family — parents Ehud and Ruth Fogel, along with three of their young children, Yoav, 11, Elad, 4, and Hadas, 3 months old.
Since 2001, more than 12,800 rockets and mortars, an average of three attacks every day, have landed in Israel, according to the Israel Defense Force. Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, terrorists have fired more than 8,000 rockets into Israel, and more than one million Israelis are living under threat of future rocket attacks.
“The pullout from Gaza led to more death [on our side],” said Israeli journalist Aryeh Savir.
Savir, whose wife recently gave birth to their fifth child, said his greatest focus was on making a living to support his family. He surmised that this was likely the case for most Palestinian people, too. But he said that in his work, he’s witnessed deep-rooted anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment among many Palestinians, echoes of things taught to them in school, broadcast on TV and published in their media.
“They have been educated to hate Jews; Jews are pigs, are monkeys, they are Satan. This is 20 years of education by the Palestinian Authority,” said Savir. “On a person-to person basis, they are as good as any other people.”
But their collective aspirations put him ill at ease.
“As a collective, their so-called national aspirations pose a threat to me, to my nation and to my country. In their world, there is no living side by side; there is us or them,” he said.
Though they committed to the Oslo peace process years ago, the Palestinians have yet to reform their charter negating Israel’s right to exist.
Savir, however, acknowledged that generalizations come easy to those who don’t interact with each other.
“When we read newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio, we get a one-sided story,” agreed Rizwan Siddiqi, president of the Howard County Muslim Council. “When people look at or listen to those things, it creates a perception about the other — whether right or wrong. Interaction is the only gateway to hope, to healing those perceptions.”