Mike Prashker is an Israeli educator, social entrepreneur, writer and public speaker. He founded MERCHAVIM – The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel in 1998 and directed the NGO for 17 years. His book A Place for Us All: Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel (Alouette 2017) is published in a single volume in Hebrew, Arabic and English. This diary was written after four days on the West Bank as part of a delegation of Jewish-Israeli leaders.
I went over to the ‘Other Side’ with concern and trepidation.
The concern was for my physical safety. Time spent in parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem carries a degree of additional risk for Jewish-Israelis, their motivation for being there notwithstanding.
My trepidation was that the experience would leave my Jewish-Zionist Israeli identity and my faith in the possibility of a two-state solution, on which that identity significantly rests, in tatters.
I have spent my career promoting a more cohesive Israeli society. In 1998 I founded Merchavim, The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, to work for an Israel that provides all its citizens the best prospects for a more successful shared future. Such a country must not only aspire to be ever fairer to all its citizens but do everything possible to build peaceful and sustainable relations with its neighbours, should they too be willing.
This vision is grounded in my Zionist commitment to strengthening Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People, both Jewish and democratic.
I have long believed that given Israel’s bloody history and unrelenting social and geo-political challenges, its successes and virtues far outweigh its failures and flaws. On the plus side is a long list of achievements in areas including education, science, technology, culture, agriculture, public health and the economy. While far from perfect, Israel’s unbroken democratic trajectory from establishment until the present both facilitates and crowns these achievements.
But together with all the positives are many blemishes.
Most glaring are the consequences of more than 50 years of varying degrees of control over five million stateless Palestinians in the territories captured by Israel in 1967. Territories subsequently settled in what the international community overwhelmingly judges to be in clear contravention of international law.
I feared that time spent exploring the realities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would undermine my assessment of Israel’s overall record and my hopes for a two-state solution.
Like many, I have always reasoned that given there are roughly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, in the absence of a two-state solution, Israel would be inevitably destined for the unthinkable and unworkable. That is, to become a single state, either Jewish and non-democratic, or democratic and no longer Jewish. In either tragic scenario the future would almost inevitably be one of interminable inter-communal civil strife.
My visit was part of an initiative to encourage Jewish-Israelis to reengage with the realities of life on The Other Side given its incontrovertible impact on Israel’s future. Numbering around 40, the group reflected a wide spectrum of beliefs, both in terms of political views and religiosity. After four full days, I returned home to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, forty minutes’ drive, and a world away, with much to consider.
Preparations for the trip clarified the statutory distinctions between Palestinian East Jerusalem neighbourhoods (both within and behind the separation barrier), and between Areas; A, B and C as set out in the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
These distinctions have profound day-to-day consequences for the approximately three million Palestinians who live within and between them.
In their different ways, our Palestinian speakers described a regional hierarchy. The approximately two thirds of the 350,000 Palestinians residents of East Jerusalem who live within the separation barrier are, relatively speaking, best placed. Next come the 95 per cent of West Bank Palestinians who live in Areas A and B. Area A covers 18 per cent of the West Bank, includes all the major Palestinian towns and is formally under full Palestinian Authority (PA) military and civil control. Area B covers 22 per cent of the territory surrounding the major towns. It is under Israeli military and PA civilian control. Ranking lowest are the five per cent of Palestinians who live in Area C. Area C extends over fully 60 per cent of the West Bank. It is under full Israeli military and civil control and is home to the major settlement blocks.
In East Jerusalem
Our time in East Jerusalem was characterised by broad contrasts.
We heard candid, fraught and frequently cynical analysis while enjoying fine hospitality in a comfortable and spacious home just off Salah Al-Din Street, close to the Ministry of Justice –referred to by our hosts as ‘The Ministry of Injustice’.
The home of our hosts was spacious and comfortable. As residents of East Jerusalem within the barrier they are permanent residents of Israel, have welfare benefits and freedom of travel and employment within Israel. But even with these advantages they share the indignities of Palestinian statelessness and elements of Israeli control.
Together with their strident condemnation of Israel came harsh criticism of the historical incompetency and corruption of their own (long non-elected) political leadership in Ramallah and Gaza. Gaza was not a central topic throughout our visit. But when asked, our interlocutors were clear that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem and the West Bank would never consider an agreement with Israel that excludes Gaza.
We asked our hosts if they would accept Israeli citizenship, for which residents of East Jerusalem can apply under Israeli Law. One answer stuck with me: ‘I will not request it, but I will take it if offered by Israel.’ On reflection, I understand this position as the expression of both a need to preserve dignity and one of considered caution.
Receipt of Israeli citizenship for East Jerusalem permanent residents includes a comprehensive list of conditions, all entirely reasonably from my Israeli perspective, including an oath of loyalty to the State of Israel. Any request might well be rejected and making it carries inherent personal, political and symbolic Palestinian concessions and risk in exchange for potentially far-reaching pragmatic benefits.
Time spent in the contested East Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah was jarring. Throughout the visit I felt like a detached and embarrassed spectator in a nasty and superfluous neighbourhood dispute.
Silwan is a world away from my largely secular and comfortable life in Israel’s coastal strip and even remote from my frequent work and personal visits to Jerusalem. But the current house-to-house battle between Palestinians and Jews over Silwan real-estate has ancient roots in the land which is now home to the century old conflict to which I am party.
Perched just south of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, the area has great Jewish significance. It is the site of the City of David and the Pool of Siloam which was built by Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE and which, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, was the site of ritual purification for pilgrims before their steep ascent to the Temple.
Today, Silwan’s narrow, steep, and broken-down alleys are decorated with the white, green, red and black iconography of Palestinian resistance but also show signs of a growing Jewish presence. While Palestinian life continues, small numbers of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers are individually escorted by armed guards between their fortified synagogue and their fortress home in Beit Yonatan. Clearly, what looked to me like a spiteful and sado-masochistic land-grab is to these settlers a profound act of Jewish return.
Both the settlers and their private guards were uncommunicative. So too were the Palestinian residents, until they saw our host who is a prominent neighbourhood activist.
Equipped with a thick file of dog-eared court papers relating to the residents’ struggles against eviction by settler NGOs, he conveyed equal measures of resignation and determination regarding the outcomes. Our host was attentive, except for a break to speak to his son who he subsequently told us – in a matter-of-fact way – was in an Israeli jail having recently been arrested for stone-throwing. His young daughter ran over excitedly to grab the phone to speak to her big brother.
The contingent of border police was clearly well acquainted with our host.
I engaged the young Jewish and Druze officers the best way I knew, by telling them that my son was a recently released combat soldier. A degree of trust earned, I asked what they made of the battle over Silwan. They shrugged.
Sheikh Jarrah was less run down but no more peaceful. The disputed history of who owns what is too tortured and disputed for me to attempt to unravel here. But suffice it to say that we sat in the small back garden of elderly Palestinians who have lived in the same home for over 50 years. They were recently joined by an uninvited Jewish-American new immigrant who now resides in the front part of the disputed property. The uneasy cohabitants do not talk, both by inclination and court-order.
Music blared throughout our visit and apparently through much of the day and night from the nearby tomb of Rabbi Shimon. It was impossible not to surmise that its volume and duration are as much to torment the Palestinian residents as to celebrate the Rabbi’s memory.
On the day of our scheduled visits to Ramallah and Bethlehem in Area A the IDF did not allow us entry, citing security concerns. Possibly related, there was a fatal stabbing of a Jewish-Israeli by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem that very evening.
Like all the major Palestinian towns, while ostensibly under full PA military and civil control the degree of Palestinian control is in practice limited. Most visibly, freedom of movement is under full Israeli control through a network of checkpoints and barriers to, from and between Areas A, B, C and Jerusalem.
Unable to enter Area A, we met a series of speakers – a sociologist, a business-leader, a peace activist, and the founder of an NGO – in a restaurant in Area B.
The sociologist and businessman conveyed mixed messages of hope and despair. Hope in a young, increasingly educated, creative and motivated generation that wants to get ahead. A generation that is, for better and for worse, more individualistic, materialistic, and despairing of its political leaders and national aspirations. Like their parents, they have no experience of life without elements of Israeli control and the indignities, inconveniences, fears and limited economic, travel and life opportunities that accompany it. Both speakers despaired that Israel would ever – and this expression was heard too frequently to expunge however uncomfortable – ‘remove the boot of occupation from their necks’.
Sophisticated observers of trends within Palestinian society, several speakers told us that the next generation is increasingly interested in a one-state solution. Why not, when they see the democratic freedoms and opportunities of Israel’s two million Arab-Palestinian citizens and are increasingly despairing of the occupation, their own leadership and national aspirations?
The veteran peace activist and the NGO founder were residents of the Dheisheh and Aida refugee camps respectively; two of three camps in the Bethlehem area.
Both conversations were by turns painful, touching, informative, hopeless, and hopeful. Like many we met, the peace activist had spent time in an Israeli jail. He had also lost his father in the conflict. As our intertwined histories would have it, his family ended up in Dheisheh after being displaced in 1948 from a village that stood on the site of what is now the Israeli town of Tzur Hadassah, home to a member of our group.
I had assumed that Dheisheh and Aida remained refugee camps after more than 50 years entirely out of Palestinian political cynicism. The reality it turns out is more mundane. Most residents lack the financial means to buy anything outside the camps, given that house prices in Bethlehem are sky-high by comparison. Both speakers hoped that by investing in their children’s education the next generation will one day have the option of moving out.
Like many founders of NGOs everywhere, the NGO leader had established an organisation out of personal need. Mother to a child with severe disabilities she was determined to create the best day-care possible. Originally funded entirely by a group of mothers of children with a range of disabilities through a catering cooperative, the agency now cares for more than 40 people. Trained professionals and student volunteers come from the surrounding universities. Conditions are apparently cramped and basic. But if love and compassion are the main factors in helping the most vulnerable, the centre’s residents are in the best of hands.
We toured different parts of Area B. The large Bir Zeit University campus on the outskirts of Ramallah looked impressive. We drove by new residential developments, a modern shopping mall and into the car park of The Palestinian Museum, set in extensive and well-tended sculpture gardens.
For whatever reason, at least on that day, the Museum did not want an organised Jewish-Israeli tour, even though it figured on our itinerary and had welcomed previous groups.
Our Palestinian security contingent which accompanied us throughout the trip was on edge. They apparently decided that time off the bus to visit the sculpture gardens through which groups of young Palestinians were strolling was not well-advised.
But the visit was not entirely wasted as the museum car park made a lasting impression! Not because of the cars – there were very few due to covid restrictions – but because of the brilliantly simple innovation, which I have never previously seen, of shaded parking constructed from elegant solar panels.
We could do with lots of that energy-generating shade in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation that could make it a win-win.
As in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, I experienced moments of shame in Area C, which I know were shared by other group members.
Approximately 150,000 Palestinians live in Area C, under full Israeli civil and military control. They are the generally very poor. Many are Bedouin herders, some live in broken down villages like the one we visited in the shadow of the well-established settlement of Alon Shvut. Others live in still more remote encampments, compromised of shacks, tents and even some in caves.
I gained the impression that all our group, including residents of nearby settlements, were horrified by the squalid conditions in the village we visited.
Every aspect of the lives of the Palestinians in Area C is under the control of the IDF’s Civil Authority. For over 50 years they have been systematically denied the rights to build virtually anything. Planning permission is so reliably denied that the residents have given up requesting it. In a grotesque ritual, they consequently build ‘illegal’ structures that are routinely destroyed by the Civil Authority only to be re-built and re-demolished.
Unfortunately, the only ‘logic’ I can ascertain for the planning policy and conditions we witnessed is that they are part of a concerted effort to ‘encourage’ the five per cent of Palestinians who subsist in area C to relocate to either area A or B. Given that they are extremely poor, even if they were forced or persuaded to move, they lack the means to do so because of much higher property prices in areas A and B. Likewise, the cash-strapped PA would doubtless be loath to take on such a significant welfare liability or to lose a potent symbol of deprivation.
It was during our time in Area C that we witnessed some of the daily inconveniences and indignities of the labyrinth of permits that regiment Palestinian lives.
One of our speakers, an elderly historian, could not continue the bus-ride with us as he lacked a necessary permit to cross a checkpoint. A young educator accompanying us to visit his grandfather’s childhood mosque – still standing in the heart of the old Malcha neighbourhood of Jerusalem – was visibly nervous as we approached the checkpoint into Jerusalem. His permit allows him to cross into pre-1967 Israel a limited number of days a month for specific work purposes. He was doubtful that accompanying us to his grandfather’s childhood home would qualify.
Even as we understand the imperatives of security – and this article comes to publication at a time when 14 Israelis have been murdered within the Green Line in a wave of terrorist attacks mostly originating in the West Bank – many of us admitted to feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed when soldiers boarded our bus to check all our ID cards and Palestinian permits. We felt so before our Palestinian hosts, for ourselves and for the soldiers who could have been our sons and daughters.
While we did not witness it, I have no reason to doubt the peace activist from Dheisheh who recounted the tears of his daughter when the family was turned back at a checkpoint on what was to be her first trip to the sea. She, a seven-year-old child, lacked the appropriate travel permit.
None of us – and some had served as senior officers in the IDF and held senior positions in various branches of government – felt reassured that some of the Kafkaesque consequences of the permit regime serve any genuine security purpose; quite the contrary.
Beautiful but scarred landscapes
We enjoyed beautiful landscapes on our travels, but they were often scarred by the ugly aesthetics of the infrastructure of Israeli control.
Junctions, bypasses, tunnels and watchtowers are unequivocally and necessarily designed to provide protection to the settlers. More ambiguous is whether they were collectively designed to promote or undermine the viability of a two-state solution based on the principle of separation which was the underlying logic of the Oslo Accords. More probably they are a convoluted expression of both, given their evolving development over more than 50 years of changing Israeli governments and fluctuating policies.
The purpose of the eight-meter-high border wall – the great majority of its length is in fact a two-meter steel fence – is also open to evolving interpretation depending on perspective, memory, ideology and current events. If completed as planned, the barrier will extend over some 700 kilometres, roughly twice the length of the green line. The 500 kilometres already constructed encompass all the major settlement blocks while excluding as many Palestinians as possible. Potentially, the barrier will enclose over 300 square kilometres of land beyond the green line, encompassing up to 10 per cent of the West Bank.
The aesthetics of the wall-sections are in stark contrast. ‘Our’ side, constructed predominantly near population centres and main roads like Route 6, is clad in warm Jerusalem stone. On ‘their’ side the concrete is exposed, except for the graffiti of protest and resistance made famous by Banksy.
The barrier’s meaning is complex and disputed.
Its construction began after the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 over a traumatic five-year period during which more than five hundred Israelis died and thousands more were injured in over 150 suicide bombings primarily originating in the West Bank.
It was an awful time of pervasive fear for every Israeli and the barrier felt to many like a vital security measure. Additionally, with its early sections built along the green line it appeared to be a hopeful harbinger of a two state-solution.
But today, given its growing length, composition and path, its meaning feels more nuanced. In addition to serving security goals at certain points of friction, the barrier is also by all appearances part land-grab, part demographic engineering and part economic and political expediency.
When it comes to economics, the barrier’s relatively flimsy design along its steel fence sections, facilitates the routine passage of tens of thousands of illegal Palestinian workers through easily cut breeches. This supplies the Israeli economy with relatively cheap manual labourers and generates the flow of hundreds of millions of shekels into the Palestinian economy annually. This infusion of much-needed income into the West bank is generally viewed by the security establishment as a net security gain for Israel. Hence the barrier’s porousness delivers economic benefits for Israeli industry and for successive governments minus the political liability of formally approving increased Palestinian employment quotas.
When the security-economic calculus breaks down and Palestinian terrorists exploit the breeches as they have in recent weeks, the politicians can conveniently lay blame at the door of the security establishment.
In retrospect, the barrier has also – maybe above all else – allowed Jewish-Israelis to ignore the Other Side, morally, psychologically, geo-politically and physically. But as so bloodily demonstrated during the current cycle of terrorist attacks, the realities of The Other Side will never ignore Israel.
As was paradoxically understood and opposed from its inception by some Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, right-wing Jewish ideologues, settlers and Palestinians on the Other Side, the barrier was also about the physical separation of two peoples from landscapes, towns, memories and religious sites they both call home.
A Strategy for the Perplexed
When not listening to Palestinian speakers, we spent time as a group and in informal conversations reflecting on everything we had seen and heard.
These conversations often revealed shared bewilderment at the geo-political and ideological entanglements we were encountering. There was also a good deal of guilt that, while we were all busy looking any other way, a reality had taken shape that many of us found so morally troubling and strategically self-defeating.
While frank, our conversations – especially with those we sensed held substantively differing positions – were guarded, cautious and polite. Just like Israel’s current coalition government, our group apparently understood that its continued existence depended on avoiding the toughest topics.
In the face of such perplexing complexity, it is no wonder that Jewish-Israeli society has been drawn to Dr Micah Goodman’s concept of ‘shrinking the conflict’. Certainly, improving the lives of Palestinians currently living under various degrees of Israeli control in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza makes excellent moral, security, diplomatic and economic sense. But it is critical for Israel that this represents only the next step to create conditions more conducive to ending Israeli control over Palestinian lives, not to interminably managing them.
As feared, the trip strengthened my impression that a two-state solution based on the Oslo paradigm of separation is already far beyond improbable. We saw some of the scattered settlements which are home to over one hundred thousand of the most ideological settlers. Many of these settlements were expressly positioned to undermine the possibility of separation and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government having the will or power to remove them.
But unwilling to give up on a two-state solution, the trip prompted me to begin to consider some variety of the two-state confederal models that are now garnering increasing interest. The European Union (EU) which was established to put an end to centuries of conflict is often cited as a model that can provide hope, a political road map and a rebuff to accusations of naivety. In this last regard, it is however essential to acknowledge that entry to the EU was reserved for democracies and it is unclear that any form of stable and sustainable Israeli-Palestinian confederation is feasible without that common base-line.
However distant a prospect this might seem, it is critical that Israel explores – and is seen to exhaustively explore – every avenue to ending its control over five million Palestinian neighbours in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Realistically, given that a two-state solution is critical to Israel’s Jewish and democratic future and cannot be achieved through separation, cohabitation through some form of two-state confederation looks to promise the best available way forward.
In addition to the hard facts on the ground, the deeper truth is that the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river is small and its inhabitants – Jews and Palestinians equally – have genuine historical connections to it all. Hence cohabitation rather than divorce is seemingly the just as well as the only possible way forward.
Inter-connected and inter-dependent
The group naturally spent considerable time reflecting on our relations as Jewish-Israelis with Palestinians on The Other Side. However, we spent negligible time considering our relations with Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and how these relate to broader Israeli-Palestinian relations. Indicative of this blind-spot – and as is still frequently the case among Jewish-Israelis – the terms ‘Israeli’ and ‘Jewish’ were sometimes conflated in our group conversations, as if these are coterminous rather than over-lapping categories.
Going forward, it is essential to acknowledge and address the inherently inter-connected and inter-dependent natures of the ‘internal’ shared citizenship (also often referred to as the ‘shared society’) issue and the ‘cross-border’ issue.
Around 20 per cent of Israel’s 9.2 million citizens are Arab-Palestinians, most with family and all with friends and associations in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. From a social cohesion perspective, it is unrealistic to expect that Jewish and Arab-Palestinian Israeli citizens can continue to shape and sustain a more successful shared Israeli future without forging sustainable relations with Palestinians on The Other Side.
This view was shared by many of our Palestinian speakers. Encouragingly, they broadly agreed about the importance of the extensive work underway to strengthen civil, political and economic partnership between Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. Like me, they believe that despite the intermittent setbacks, strategic progress has been made over the past 20 years and that this partnership, critical in its own right, is also an essential step towards building trust and cooperation towards broader accommodation.
Albeit for very different reasons, their assessment is evidently shared by some Jewish-Israeli ideologues and politicians on the far right. Completely contrary to the political thought of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, elements of today’s hard-right view growing partnership and normalisation between Israel’s Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens as a strategic threat. The most extreme have repeatedly demonstrated that they – just like Palestinian rejectionists who share the fear of normalisation – are ready to undermine such progress through incitement and violence both within Israel and across-borders.
Powerful and Needy
One of the recurring requests among many of the group was for reassurance from the Palestinians we met regarding their recognition of Israel’s right to exist at all, and as national homeland of the Jewish People in particular.
Given the glaring military, economic and political power disparities this neediness was revealing of the Jewish-Israeli psyche of vulnerability deeply grounded in modern Israeli and historical Jewish trauma.
This fragility should not be mocked or dismissed. Its roots are as real as its geo-political consequences. The cumulative effects of generations of trauma on individual and group behaviour are well understood and cannot be dispelled by data regarding military superiority.
Those who expect Jewish-Israeli exceptionalism in the face of trauma are on dangerous ideological ground.
Such dismissiveness is predictable from antisemites who routinely condemn Jews for being somehow different. It is more insidious when it comes from Jews who are consciously or inadvertently adopting a tainted narrative of Jewish exceptionalism and moral superiority by asserting that ‘given our history – we Jews should know better’. Ironically, many of the same self-proclaimed progressive critics can be relied on to ‘dignify’ the trauma and threat – whether real or simply ‘experienced’ – of countless other communities, just not those of Jewish-Israelis or Israel.
In any case, the argument – often made from a safe distance – that given its military superiority Israel will eventually prevail in any future conflict and should hence be expected to take far-reaching risks for peace, is insensitive and unfair. It chillingly dismisses the existential loss, pain and trauma that the slightest miscalculation will inevitably cause any number of individuals, families and Israeli society as a whole.
Nothing on the Other Side assuaged my long-standing moral concerns about Israel’s continued control over the lives of millions of stateless Palestinians.
This reality challenges my Jewish-Zionist and democratic values and vision for Israel’s future. It also flies in the face of my assessment of Israel’s long–term security, economic, diplomatic and other interests, including its relationship with large parts of world Jewry.
The issue of morality is inextricably connected to that of responsibility; and on this issue, my position is quite different from that of Israel’s harshest critics.
Clearly, degrees of responsibility are in turn intrinsically related to degrees of power, with the more powerful bearing more responsibility. In this regard, given that the State of Israel and Israelis have far more power than the Palestinians, Israel bares a greater weight of responsibility for ending its control over Palestinian lives and land.
In this regard, it seems all too clear that Israel has overwhelming responsibility for the miserable living conditions we saw in Area C, each arbitrary and heartless element of the permit regime, every illegal act of cruelty and humiliation by members of the security forces and all terror inflicted by extremist settler elements on innocent Palestinians.
These are all subjects about which our diverse group seemed to be in full agreement. They are shameful, damaging and demand immediate redress. It seemed that a significant majority of the group shared a sense of shame for having been so ready for so long to ignore these addressable wrongs committed in our names, conveniently hidden out of sight on The Other Side.
When it comes to the settlements about which our group certainly did not agree, Israel and all Israelis – whether we support or oppose them – also clearly bear full responsibility. By no stretch of the imagination was Israel invited by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to settle in the lands captured by Israel in 1967.
But contrary to the view of Israel’s harshest critics – and, paradoxically, much more closely aligned with many of the Palestinians who briefed us throughout our visit – Israel and Israelis do not bare exclusive responsibility for the continuing conflict and occupation; only full responsibility for everything within our power to end them.
The history of the peace process is long, winding and tortured. In his highly recommended book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – What Everyone Needs to Know, (Oxford University Press, 2019) Professor Dov Waxman (full disclosure, Professor Waxman is a relative and friend) provides a ‘partial list’ of 27 peace plans dating back to 1919. But any reasonable assessment of its accumulated failures must conclude that there is more than enough responsibility to go around.
To deny any degree of Palestinian responsibility – past, present and future – is not to commit the wrong of moral equivalency. It is rather to deny the agency of Palestinians and to infantilise them is the worst orientalist tradition. Conversely, attributing full and exclusive responsibility for the lack of a peace-agreement to Israel is, much like dismissiveness of Jewish trauma, to attribute a degree of power to Jews that is highly suspect, whatever the source.
The collapse of the July 2000 Clinton talks at Camp David, in which according to Waxman Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered ‘approximately 91 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and parts of East Jerusalem’, is just one prominent case in point. But when it comes to Palestinian responsibility, certainly as it effects Jewish-Israelis’ current appetite for risk-taking, the history of Gaza, since Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, is a stark case in point. After all, and as our Palestinian hosts in East Jerusalem and the West Bank substantiated, what happens in Gaza is necessarily intimately related to the consideration of any future settlement for Israelis.
While it is true that Israel still exercises significant control over Gaza, it is equally true that Israel holds zero responsibility for the university campuses that have not been built and the attack tunnels that have been dug, since its withdrawal.
Anyone who knows anything about international development and has an eye for a ‘sexy’ project, will know that in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal, a long list of prestigious Western universities would have jostled to build the biggest and best international campus in the Strip. Governments, philanthropists and international agencies would have competed to lay the cornerstone. Israel would never have dared or wanted to undermine such investments and all they would have heralded for the future of Gaza’s two million residents and Palestinian-Israeli relations.
But it is a matter of record that Gazans collectively chose Hamas, militarisation and violent confrontation. To believe that Palestinians in Gaza – just like Palestinians living under the long non-elected PA – are powerless to choose their leaders and shape a better future is not a position of empathy, but rather of contempt.
Ultimately, the critical question of moral responsibility for Israel and Israelis is the same as it is for Palestinians: Whether we are each ready to do everything within our respective degrees of power to reach reasonable accommodation and share this precious land?
I returned home from the Other Side exhausted and energised in equal degrees.
As a Jewish-Israeli committed to Israel as national homeland of the Jewish People, Jewish and democratic, I had belatedly stared painful and complex realities in the face. As a social entrepreneur and educator working to strengthen the cohesion of Israeli society, I have since begun to recalibrate change-strategies and plan accordingly.
Moving forward – most realistically to some version of a two-state confederal solution – will be a long and painful road with many tortuous steps along the way for all those living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Success will depend on courageous leaders and a decisive majority of both peoples taking their full measure of responsibility for shaping a shared future in our precious land.
For Jewish-Israelis, taking a hard and honest look at life on The Other Side is as good a way to start as any.