When I was a kid, my father used to tell me stories of past Jewish-Palestinian coexistence.
“My mom had a Jewish neighbor in our hometown—Yaffa. She was her best friend,” he’d always say. (The name of the Jewish woman is unknown to my father, unfortunately.) “When my mother went on trips to neighboring towns, she would always leave her kids under the care of her Jewish friend, and vice versa.” Their friendship transcended religion and ethnicity. “During World War II, the Jewish woman hid her kids in our house, to protect them,” my father recalled his mom saying.” And when the Nakba began, she warned my mother about the Zionists and their plans to massacre and expel Palestinians,” he continued. My father followed his story by emphasizing that Jews, Muslims and Christians lived alongside each other in historic Palestine as one people, not divided factions.
These are mere glimpses of the “good old days” that the elderly remember so vividly, of home, harmony and coexistence; the days before political and ideological strife broke those bonds and drew dividing lines with people’s blood.
But what about now? Can Jews and Palestinians (Christians and Muslims alike) really coexist in the Holy Land, after 68 years of Nakba?
Many people hammer this question the moment they hear it, given the bloody history of the conflict. “How could we coexist with ‘them,’ after all they’ve done to us?” They respond. This sentiment is especially true with young people in Palestine. The unfortunate truth is, they see Jewish-Palestinian coexistence as a delusion, a utopian fantasy, because they base their answers on the current reality: the occupation, recurring military assaults, injustice and denial of basic rights.
However, to actually answer this question, we must confront it with an eye on the past and a vision of what the future could be.
Before the first intifada
A.Q. is a middle-aged man. He lives in the Deir Al-Balah refugee camp. During the first intifada, he was part of Fatah’s youth movement. Part of his duty was to paint Palestinian symbols and slogans on the walls of the refugee camps (an act outlawed by Israel at the time), distribute nationalistic leaflets, and call for and enforce boycotts and labor strikes against the Israeli occupation. Prior to the intifada, A.Q. often threw rocks at Israeli soldiers and their passing military jeeps, while at the same time working for Israelis in construction jobs within Israel proper, like many Palestinians in Gaza during that period of time.
“In the morning, I would go work under an Israeli boss, then at night on my way home, I would throw rocks at Israeli soldiers,” he recalls. Then he laughs, adding, “I threw rocks until my arm went numb.”
But, I ask, “Isn’t this a contradiction? Why would you work under one Israeli, then throw rocks at another?”
A.Q. explains that he worked in a Jewish Israeli-owned business because he needed to earn money; his relationship with this boss was in the context of an employer and an employee, while his relationship with Israeli soldiers was one of an occupier and the occupied, an oppressor and the oppressed. “The two are very distinct,” he explains, saying it is the same as not liking some things about your company but being friendly with your co-workers. “Palestinians and Israelis who worked together used to invite each other to dinners and weddings in the 1970s and ‘80s, and many still remain in touch to this day.”
A ray of hope
M.D. is a recent graduate of Al-Azhar University in Gaza. A couple of years ago, she participated in a program called Paths to Peace at New York University, where she spent a year studying the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and debating it with Palestinian and Israeli students.
Like the majority of the young Palestinian generation in Gaza, the only Israelis M.D. had seen previously were heavily armed soldiers, always hidden behind tanks and F-16s, bombing, murdering and maiming Palestinians. “I considered Israelis monsters,” she says. “Growing up in Gaza, all I saw was death and suffering caused by Israelis.”
At New York University, for the first time M. D. met and interacted with Israelis not as killing machines, but as human beings. At first she did not feel comfortable. “I ignored the Israelis completely, I couldn’t bring myself to say a mere ‘good morning’ to them,” she recalls.
Then, in one of the courses, one Palestinian student from Jerusalem gave a presentation about the discrimination Palestinians face there, how Israeli laws privileged Jews over non-Jews, making Palestinian life unbearable. Surprisingly, this came as a shock to the Israeli students; they had been so disconnected from the occupation that they did not understand its reality and consequences. “This angered me,’ M.D. says. “How could they not know what they do to us? How brainwashed could they be?” But the experience also gave her a glimmer of hope. “After a series of presentations and debates, one zealot Israeli changed sides, stating that the Israeli army does not represent her anymore. Another came to the realization that the Jewish dream came at the expense of the Palestinians. Maybe if more Israelis know, things can change.”
Separation and fear mongering
Today, Israelis and Palestinians are more separated than ever. The occupied Palestinian territories are carved up like Swiss cheese, completely controlled by the Israeli military. There are more than 90 military checkpoints and hundreds of physical obstructions that dissect and separate cities and towns, making it difficult for Palestinians to travel within historic Palestine; it also makes it hard for the two peoples to interact. Then there is the landmark of the occupation, the segregation wall. The wall cuts through and grabs Palestinian land, and is up to 28 feet (8 meters) high and 280 miles (450 kilometers) long. Nothing goes in or out without Israel’s permission.
This Israeli-made reality provides a fertile soil for hatred, resentment, brainwashing and fear mongering against the unknown “other,” more so today than ever. Israeli politicians know it and they exploit it to their advantage, to prolong the occupation and keep Israel-Palestine an apartheid state that privileges Jews and subjugates non-Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is probably the best example of this, spreading anxiety and stoking dread, a true fear monger.
Back to the question: Can Jews and Palestinians coexist today in historic Palestine? In today’s reality, under the status quo, absolutely not. Peaceful coexistence is impossible in the presence of military occupation, discrimination, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. The only way to bring about coexistence is to resolve the root causes of the conflict: the occupation and refugee crisis. Thus, to achieve a just peace, Israel must abide by international law and the United Nations resolutions, specifically, UN Resolution 242, which demands an end to the occupation, and UN Resolution 194, which grants the Palestinians their right of return.
One step forward toward this vision is interaction and integration. Jews, Christians and Muslims living in historic Palestine must intermingle, so they can humanize each other. This would force Israelis to stop being disconnected from the reality they impose on Palestinians and realize the consequences of their government’s racist policies.
I am always delighted to see Israeli organizations such as De-Colonizer, which works creatively to overcome Zionism in Israel. Another such Israeli organization is called Zochrot, which works to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustice of the Nakba, to bring the Palestinian narrative to the Jewish Israeli society.
My hope is that, when my children, or the children of my children, get to experience peace in their land, when they go to school with Jewish kids, when they play and laugh together, when they learn about the atrocities of the past in their history books, they will look at each other and say, “How could they? How dare they?” Just as we now do with the Holocaust.