Hearing the other side, up close
While my day job in pro-Israel advocacy ensures my exposure to all manner of positive messages about Israel, I also try to get a more rounded and sometimes critical picture of events.
Recently, I had the opportunity to go on a day trip to the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem courtesy of a left-wing organization whose name I will not divulge. The first part of the day was a visit to the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, some 15 minutes northeast of Modi’in, over the Green Line.
The village is the site of weekly protests by Palestinians, left-wing Israelis and international activists aimed at the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish. In particular, the ownership of a water source in the area appears to be the flashpoint for the residents of Nabi Saleh.
Our small group arrived at the home of Bassam Tamimi, the leader of the village’s so-called “Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.” Perhaps it is a positive sign of change in our region that, where once I would have found it a discomfiting experience to be in the center of a Palestinian village, I no longer felt that my personal security was in immediate jeopardy.
Indeed, I could have no complaints about the hospitality that our group was shown, sitting with Tamimi and his family members. But more on that later.
I was more than prepared to listen to the issues facing Nabi Saleh’s residents, and I do sympathize with the military restrictions on Palestinian freedoms, although I believe they are a direct result of the Palestinian terror threat. That’s not to say, however, that Palestinian complaints can be automatically dismissed.
A Palestinian demonstrator hurls a stone at Israeli border police during a protest in Nabi Saleh. The Jewish settlement of Halamish can be seen in the background. (photo credit:Issam Rimawi/flash90)
I fully expected to hear things that would make me uncomfortable and even sympathetic toward the Palestinian plight, especially in the absence of any competing viewpoint: the psychological damage to the village’s children as a result of IDF arrests of their parents; kids unable to get permits to cross into Israel; the mere 11 hours a week of water from the taps.
As our Palestinian hosts explained their adherence to “non-violent protest,” how could one not feel sympathy towards them?
But the mood started to change as our questions moved away from the more immediate concerns and on to deeper political and ideological issues.
According to Tamimi et al, they drew a distinction between Jews and Zionists. Indeed they had the utmost respect for Jews (and Christians) with whom they were happy to share the land, everyone possessing equal rights — which I took to be a veiled desire for a one-state solution or an Israel that was no longer a Jewish state. We were left in no doubt as to their views on Zionism, which represented unbridled racism responsible for stealing Palestinian lands.
We were told that even Jews distinguish between Judaism and Zionism, the example given of the Neturai Karta, that bunch of extremists whose leadership even attended an Iranian Holocaust denial conference.
References were made to the occupation of 1948. Not 1967 — when Nabi Saleh fell under Israeli control, having formerly been occupied by Jordan — but the year of Israel’s rebirth. “Non-violent resistance” was a strategic choice while it was stressed that under international law, the Palestinians were entitled to use “all necessary means” to resist occupation. I remembered hearing similar sentiments from Palestinian terrorists after Israeli buses and cafes had been targeted by suicide bombers.
Clearly, whatever grievances the protesters of Nabi Saleh had with Israel, it wasn’t just over land issues or relations with the settlement of Halamish. It wasn’t over where the borders of two states should lie. The problem was with Zionism and Israel itself.
I can understand why a Palestinian would consider the creation of Israel to be their “nakba,” and I can also understand why a Palestinian could hold a narrow and inaccurate view of Zionism. I wasn’t shocked or surprised at what I heard. I was disappointed however. Disappointed that while Israelis have moved toward recognizing Palestinian rights and supporting a Palestinian state, these supposed Palestinian “moderates” had no interest in a reciprocal recognition of Israeli rights.
Just as disturbing was the reaction of most of the group of Jews I was with. Where I read between the lines and heard a refusal to disavow terrorism and the desire to see the end of Israel as a Jewish state, others heard a message of peace and reconciliation. This was probably based on the fact that these particular Palestinians were not resorting to the foul anti-Semitism of Hamas when it came to addressing Jews, coupled with a naive image of Gandhi-style protest on their part.
If this is the effect of promoting “non-violent resistance” to a group of left-leaning Diaspora Jews, then it is no surprise that this strategic direction of working through international forums and non-governmental organizations, and hijacking the language of human rights, is bearing fruit for the Palestinians. Clearly the strategic move away from suicide bombers garners far more sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
The leader of the organization responsible for the trip contended that the purpose was to expose Diaspora Jews to the “other side” of the story. I would argue that, when it comes to dealing with the issues on a micro-level, such as in Nabi Saleh, how often would a group of Diaspora Jews get to hear from the IDF or even the Halamish settlers?
I am in a privileged position of being able, by virtue of my own contacts, to get relevant information directly from the source. But I finished my visit to Nabi Saleh feeling cheated, not just for myself but mainly for the rest of the group who had not had the opportunity to hear from both sides in order to come to an informed viewpoint.
Instead, a group of Diaspora Jews has been exposed to only one side of a complicated narrative and will be returning to its country of origin with a distorted and negative story to tell, which was not the stated intention of the organization responsible for the tour.
While others may have left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, I finished the day more convinced than ever that it may be nigh impossible for Israel to reconcile with a Palestinian narrative that leaves little room for compromise on the real issues.