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Walls, Words,...

Walls, Words, Attitudes – or Radical Simplicity?

Written by Patricia Smith Melton - the founder, board chair, and former executive director of Peace X Peace.

“It’s simple, if you want it to be.” With those words Dr. Mohammed S. Dajani, head of the American Studies Institute at Al Quds University (Jerusalem), gave me a new schema to process the realities of Israel and Palestine—radical simplicity, not only as an external schema but also as an internal one. Dajani, a Peace X Peace Advisor, recently launched the Wasatia Movement whose concepts of socio-politico moderation are rapidly gaining advocates throughout the Palestinian Territories.

After my third trip to the region in January 2007, my commentary re-stated the complexities, and I can provide masses of conflicting “evidence,” un-meldable narratives, and mutating “facts on the ground” (my new favorite slippery regional phrase).

Yet, after my trip in June and July, it feels clean and accurate to cut through the complexities. The mantra I heard across diverse sub-systems of the Israeli and Palestinian societies is: Peace could be created in a day, if they wanted to.

Who is “they”? The governing bodies—specifically Israeli and Palestinian males at the top of hierarchical pyramids, most of whom are considered by the majorities in both populations as lacking in one or more qualities of integrity, power, or creativity.

Yet, most people say, “Everyone knows what is going to happen.” Eventually.

And what is this “what is going to happen”—even as armed conflict between Fatah and Hamas throws into jeopardy Gaza’s (and Hamas’) early inclusion in this “inevitability”?

Answer: A two state solution with borders more or less along the green line (the borders prior to 1967, when the Six Day War began Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza); East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; recognition by Palestinians of Israel’s right to exist and relinquishing of the “right of return” to their lands prior to 1948; dismantling of most, if not all, Israeli settlements on occupied territory; freeing of most, if not all, Palestinians held in Israeli jails; release of finances to the Palestinian Authority. Part of the package, it is expected, would be the dismantling of the 8-meter-high concrete wall separating the two areas.

Simple, isn’t it? Ask entire peoples to forgive each other for atrocious acts, work out details of prisoner exchanges and where each other’s citizens can live peacefully, get to the timetable and functional agreements, provide enough aid by Israelis and internationals to the moderate factions of Palestinian governing bodies so they are stable, and get down to the business of rebuilding a Palestinian state that is financially viable and moderate. Then, put this package together with even more wisdom—and prayers for grace—to find a working relationship with Hamas either separately (in Gaza specifically), or integrated into a Palestinian whole. (Of course, the women should be leading this; more on that below.)

One other key piece is that some textbooks on both sides need rewriting—in Palestine that Israel has the right to exist, and that it’s not heroic or divinely blessed to kill Jews, even if you kill yourself in the process; in Israel that Palestinians lived on the land for on-going generations before 1948 and that these people did not leave of their own volition unless fear of death spread as rumors of massacres is of one’s own volition. This problem is now receiving attention on both sides, including from Dr. Dajani, as educators confront the distortions. It is worth noting that Israel just authorized changes in the telling of the events of 1948 for the Israeli Palestinian schools, though not for the Jewish texts.

Getting to these “inevitabilities” does require pre-conditions: people need to talk to each other nicely, humiliation and confinement need to be lessened, and there must be funds to maintain day-to-day Palestinian infrastructure. Maybe not so difficult if people simply do what needs to be done?

Internally, I find “radical simplicity” an antidote to troublesome words, words that morph in meaning from one mouth to another or words used to create perceptions of “facts on the ground.” The hot spot word is still “occupation.”

Many Israelis never want this word used even as other Israelis, mostly on the left, advocate that in order to bring change for the better, Israelis must first acknowledge the reality of their relationship to the West Bank, which is one of domination. The word duel is about creating perceptions, i.e. facts, on the ground. Are the wall and Israel’s policies only about the Israelis’ right to protection or do they perpetrate punitive isolation and injustice? The virtual stop in suicide bombings can be used to support the argument that the wall and checkpoints are regrettable but necessary.      

Barbara Sofer, a well-known Israeli writer, works for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, at the Hadassah University Hospital at Mount Scopus (Jerusalem). She states it this way, “I don’t think there’s any (Palestinian) who needs to get to the hospital who can’t. I know it does take longer, and I’m very sorry it does take longer. I don’t want walls, I hate walls. On the other hand, I like feeling that I’m a little bit better protected. I hated going to work everyday looking right, left, and center. My office is in the center of town and there were at least twelve suicide bombers. My family was involved in a bombing.” 

(Whether everyone who needs to can get to the hospital is disputed by Palestinians, who repeatedly say that once there they are treated excellently and equally.)

Nomi Chazan, former Knesset member and long-standing advocate for the two-state solution, has a different perspective: “The wall makes me cry.” Chazan continues, “If somebody can convince me the present situation is acceptable and normal, and is good to Israelis, and protects my children and my great-grandchild, then I might change my mind. But since we have no evidence that the situation is acceptable to anybody, then it’s up to me to (work to) change it.… If there’s one lesson deeply embedded in us (as descendants of Holocaust survivors), it’s the injustice that exists in discrimination and lack of respect for the other, and absence of pluralism. Under no circumstances can we Israeli Jews allow anything like what happened to Jews during World War II to happen to anybody in this world.… and, by the way, a two-state has to be achieved. It doesn’t fall from the sky, it’s not rain. It’s something you have to build—hopefully it will happen, in the sense that we will do it.”

Walls, words, attitudes. Which form barriers? Which bring them down? Settlements are starting to be re-named “satellite towns.” An Israeli soldier killed on a mission is a “hero” at home and a “military terrorist” in the West Bank. A Palestinian “martyr” is anyone, including bystanders, killed by an Israeli. Children, everyone agrees, are “innocent victims.”

Now Israelis and Palestinians search for words to lead to best actions towards or with Hamas. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erehat at a forum held by the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Science, and Culture states the fight in Gaza to be a “coup d’etat” by Hamas. Whether his term is accurate or not, “coup d’etat” sets a framework in which Fatah (and others) have options for intervention. Words creating perceptions creating potential realities.

Actually, for it to be simple, externally or internally, you need to be able to forgive—a lot! The polls have shown for some time that most people, on both sides of the wall, are willing to try, and they are ready to move pragmatically to a phased two state solution.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, former foreign minister of Israel and ongoing peace negotiator, at the same forum, applied Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of small differences” to the failed state of communication between the two states. He says the governing bodies on both sides have failed the people and are systemically unable to come to agreements. That is, in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the people are ready, but top officials, held captive to habit, lack of imagination, and minority extremes, prolong the tragedy because of “small differences.” (Of course, for both settlers and some Palestinians that small difference may be your home.)

I spoke too, at this forum, seizing a moment to point out that since the system is broken and has failed the people, perhaps it’s time to turn to the women. It was a turning point as another woman then spoke of UN Resolution #1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, calling for women to be in negotiations and the implementing of agreements. (My paper now being given to policymakers around the world, “The Daily Power of Women in Peace Building,” is available here.)

Women (as authentic facts on the ground!) are the primary force that builds, educates, and moderates families and societies. Women, studies show, do not tend towards “fight or flight” when confronted with a stranger who frightens them but towards “tend and befriend” to reach across fear. Women are likely to focus on new possibilities rather than old grievances; women get down to the business of nurturing their families so their children have the best opportunities possible.

Sometimes there are answers in front of us that we do not see because we are in the middle of word duels. Sometimes the “people in charge” use words that obfuscate the real facts—that the people want peace and are prepared to find it together.

Of course, simple goodwill asks that people decide to talk with each other honestly, to work together, and to forgive—radical simplicity. In the Middle East it looks the same as most other places: peace building will have to be led by the people, by the women and men who step up to the responsibility.

By Patricia Smith Melton of Peace X Peace

Commentary and photo courtesy of Peace X Peace

About the Author: Patricia Smith Melton is the founder, board chair, and former executive director of Peace X Peace. Her vision of connecting women through the Internet as Sister Circles for direct private communication has guided the development of Peace X Peace and the Global Network in three years to more than 1000 women’s Circles in 65 nations. Smith Melton has a special interest in the Peace X Peace presence in Israel and Palestine.

Related Story: Interview with the Director of I am Palestine, Suha Araj