Can They Ever Be Friends?

BRUCE WALLACE December 20 1993

Can They Ever Be Friends?

BRUCE WALLACE December 20 1993

Can They Ever Be Friends?


In the face of intensifying violence, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization are getting ready to implement a historic accord. Can the dreams of peace become a reality? On both sides of the conflict, courageous men and women are working to keep the hope alive.


The horrors of history still crowd their way onto the canvas that is present-day Israel. Randomly, monstrously, terror still stalks Jewish victims, adding to the toll of Jews killed through the ages simply because they were Jews. In April, 1979, the darkness found Semadar Haran.

What happened to Haran, a young wife and mother of two daughters, is steeped in the worst nightmares of the Holocaust. Under the cover of night, four teenage gunmen landed by speedboat on the beaches of Nahariya, an Israeli resort 12 km south of Lebanon. In this “Zionist” town, as the Palestinian liberation Organization (PLO) called it, the mission was to “emphasize Arab rejection of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.” The method was to kill any Jew they could find.

The gunmen burst into Haran’s seashore apartment building, exploding grenades and blasting open doors with automatic weapon fire. As other residents and an Israeli policeman returned shots, the terrorists dragged Haran’s husband, Daniel, and four-year-old daughter, Einat, towards the beach as hostages for their escape. When they discovered that Israeli security forces had destroyed their boat, the gunmen killed Daniel and Einat. Haran had escaped detection by pushing her twoyear-old daughter, Yael, into a closet, where they remained throughout the ordeal. Terrified that the infant’s cries would betray their hiding place, Haran took a desperate risk: she smothered her child’s face with a pillow to keep her quiet. Already weakened by asthma, Yael fell unconscious and died.

But Semadar Haran is a remarkable survivor. She still lives in Nahariya. She is a student now, has remarried and has children again: daughters aged 13 and six. Staying in Nahariya, she said, “was a way of saying to terrorists, You can’t win,’ rather than, We can kill more of you than you can kill of us.’ I will not be pushed out of here. Frightened, yes. But not pushed.” No one pushes Semadar Haran. Despite her own trauma and threats from Israeli hawks, she is a defender of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The deal, signed in Washington on Sept. 13, has been under assault ever since from violent extremists and nervous moderates on both sides.

Without preaching, without political ambitions or the need for the solace of public vigils with other victims of violence, Haran—like many courageous men and women on both sides of the 45-year-old struggle—pleads the case for breaking the grip that death and vengeance hold over the Middle East. “I don’t forget what happened to my family,” she told Maclean’s. “I had beautiful daughters, a good marriage. But

there is a moment when you decide if you are going to be guided by anger and bitterness, or rise above it and make a place for hope. I never felt better to hear of some Palestinian mother’s grief— that’s what fuels the cycle of violence. You just hope that choosing peace rather than revenge—something that is so hard for me to do—will one day come naturally to my daughters. I believe the desire to live in peace is a natural emotion, our natural condition.”

The spirit of Semadar Haran burns with many Israelis and Palestinians in these troubled days. The Israeli-PLO negotiations appear, finally, to have brought peace within reach. Under the accord, Israeli forces were scheduled to begin withdrawing this week from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho. But as the deadline approached, the violence intensified, offering a reminder that

vengeance and hatred are at least as seductive as the prospect of peace.

The numbing procession of shootings and stabbings is perhaps inevitable in a land where a historic struggle between two peoples is overlaid with tens of thousands of personal grudges. Many Palestinians and Israelis have suffered the loss of friends and family, gunmen and innocents alike. For every Semadar Haran willing to negotiate with the enemy, there is another who will not sleep peacefully until his or her own trauma is avenged.

On a November night four years ago, two of Abu Khalid Al-Hammuri’s sons fell to Israeli army bullets. Army spokesmen said that Nadal, 19, and Samir, 20, disobeyed commands to stop throwing stones at soldiers near their home in East Jerusalem. Palestinian witnesses responded that the soldiers had actually ambushed the brothers, who—like many Palestinian youths—had suffered repeated harassment by Israeli soldiers. “Peace is not possible because the Jews will always break their word,” said AlHammuri. From his comfortable living-room in East Jerusalem he can see the power of the occupier: the army barracks down the road and the Jewish settlement built in a traditionally Palestinian neighborhood. “I do not believe in Arafat, only in God,” he said. “My sons are remembered, and we will fight on.”

Not everyone wants to fight on. There have always been Jews willing to share their homeland with the Palestinians. And there are Palestinians, some of whom helped to foment the intifadeh, who have put aside their ambition to cast the Israelis into the sea. They are hoping to acquire through negotiation what they could not attain by force: a state of their own alongside Israel. On both sides, these sentries for peace risk being called traitors to their own people. With each new atrocity, each outrage committed by the hardliners, their credibility is called into question. But their perseverance offers hope for those who want to believe, as Semadar Haran does, that the search for peace truly does guide the human spirit.

Neema Il-Helo has paid an enormous personal price on her path to peace. She began her struggle against the Israelis as a 14-yearold, smuggling weapons and throwing hand grenades at Israeli soldiers. The clashes took a physical toll: a grenade blew off her right hand and blinded her left eye when she was 20. She has been jailed five times for a total of 14 years, mostly for her part in organizing the intifadeh in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp, where she lives. And now, at 41, she is taking what she sees as another huge risk: arguing that dialogue with the Israelis is the best way for Palestinians to achieve their goals.

“As politicians, we’re trying to give the Israeli and Palestinian people a chance to forget the past and become friends,” said Il-Helo, sitting in the bare offices of the recently founded Palestinian Democratic Party, which supports the peace process. Although the party is small, H-Helo’s reputation as an activist on behalf of Palestinians—and Palestinian women in particular—gives it clout out of proportion to its size. “Politics was really weak in Gaza when I started; every refugee here wanted to return to his land and the armed struggle was the only option,” she said. “But we lost a lot of years waiting for the Arab world to come to our res-

cue. We should have thought as Palestinians first, and as Arabs and Muslims later.”

By her own account, Il-Helo began to consider a two-state option in the late 1970s. But it was not until the 1980s, when it became clear that Palestinians would have to wage the struggle for independence on their own, that her nationalism crystallized. “Neema knows that the best way, the only way at this time, is through dialogue,” said Jemila Elaiwa, 41, a close friend of Il-Helo. “The world has changed and everyone is talking about peace. It’s not difficult to continue our struggle through stones and war. But we prefer to live in two states and have good relations with Israel.” Waleed Zagout, a thin, intense 32-year-old and Il-Helo’s colleague in the Democratic Front, agrees. He is a delegate to the peace process, and has travelled to Oslo and Ottawa for negotiations on the future of Palestinian refugees. But participating in a peace process while arrests and bloodletting continue in the territories taxes his commitment.

Zagout lists a brother killed in Lebanon, another deported from Israel, his mother once jailed and his two sisters under house arrest—evidence of the cost of being an activist in the Gaza Strip. “And still the answer is not revenge,” he said. “If we think only of revenge we will never achieve anything. But even those of us who are negotiators ask ourselves, ‘Do the Israelis really want peace? Are they honest?’ Real peace will come when the last Israeli soldier leaves here.” Beside him, Il-Helo nods her head. “For now, we negotiate,” she said. “But we watch and we wait.”

Few people have waited for peace longer than Gideon Rafael. Now 80, he was present at the birth of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, as one of three members of the coun-

try’s first foreign office. “I received the telegram from [U.S. president] Harry Truman that recognized the existence of Israel,” recalled Rafael, dressed in a suit and sitting in the living-room of his Jerusalem home. Born in Berlin in 1913, he was 20 when he walked across a bridge and out of Nazi Germany into France. A year later he migrated to Palestine, determined to be a farmer. Instead, he found himself helping other Jews flee Europe’s storms, and later joined an intelligence unit that fought the Nazis across the Middle East.

He has been involved in eveiy war since. As a diplomat, he was part of the United Nations’ negotiations that founded Israel. He was his country’s ambassador to the United Nations during the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. And when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack in October, 1973, he “pulled strings” to join the army as a 60year-old private, shuttling ammunition to the Golan Heights. Before that, he had been a lonely irritant to the Israeli establishment, warning against the peril of a pending invasion. “The most painful thing is if you have foresight, if you are convinced that certain things are going to happen, and you talk and talk and talk but you can’t break the wall of those who have the power to make decisions,” he said.

Rafael blames both sides for the intractability of the conflict. In his view, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza poisoned relations to the point where negotiations were all but unthinkable.

“Occupation is the most undignified situation for any person and any people,” he said. “It creates a mountain of distrust, and peacemaking requires the creation of trust.”

But in the next breath, Rafael faults Palestinians and the Arab states for rejecting successive peace overtures. “This process is hard for many Israelis to stomach,” he said.

‘The Palestinians come back after waging bloody war for 45 years and say, ‘Now, we want partition.’ It takes some cheek to do that. If they had won these wars, there would have been no discussion about partition.” But Rafael argues that the peace process, now begun, is irreversible. “This is a moody area,” he said, serene in the com-

fort of his own rationality. “But the violent acts we see are the convulsions of peacemaking, not the convulsions of war.”

Elias Rishmawi was arrested again last week. Israeli troops took him from his home in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour at 1 a.m., for what military sources said were “security reasons.” Rishmawi is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that believes that Arafat settled for too little from the Israelis.

But unlike many PFLP members, Rishmawi says that he does not advocate violence. He was a leader of the intifadeh in Beit Sahour, but instead of hurling stones he launched legal challenges in the Israeli courts. Beit Sahour gained international attention in 1989 when its residents staged a tax revolt against the military authorities. Arguing that they were being taxed to subsidize their own oppression, the residents collectively stopped paying. In retaliation, the Israelis imposed a curfew that forced residents to stay indoors for 10 days, and twice staged tax raids to confiscate property. “The Israelis believed that they could destroy the economy of the occupied territories and drive us away through taxation,” Rishmawi, a softspoken pharmacist who is one of the largest medical suppliers in the West Bank, said in an interview before his latest arrest. “They wanted to drive out capital, drive the wealthier, educated people away.”

Rishmawi’s family roots stretch back 300 years in Beit Sahour, a largely Christian community of 12,000 people near Bethlehem, known locally as the Japan of the West Bank because of its relative affluence. The intifadeh in Beit Sahour has been almost exclusively nonviolent. While other communities played host to rock throwing, stabbings and shootings, Beit Sahour residents established discussion groups with Israeli peace activists, meeting in houses on both sides of the so-called green line, which divides the occupied territories from pre-1967 Israel.

The Israelis responded swiftly to Rishmawi’s tax revolt, jailing him for 10 days. “My struggle started at that moment,” he said. After that, Israeli soldiers ignored a restraining order and destroyed his inventory of medicines. Together with other merchants, Rishmawi has taken his challenge to the Israeli Supreme Court. So far, they have achieved modest success, forcing the Israelis to make public their records of spending on West Bank services.

“For too long we made things easy for the occupier,” said Rishmawi. “Going to an Israeli court was not acknowledging the legitimacy of the occupation—it was a way to create a dialogue between equals.” Rishmawi remains critical of the deal cut by Arafat, accusing him of running a corrupt organization and insisting that any resistance to the occupation is legitimate. But he has chosen the path of dialogue and legal writs. “We have come out of the intifadeh as a nation, a people, ready to die for that,” he said. “By making it clear to the world that Palestinians were resisting the occupation, we started to get back our dignity and pride.”

Most Palestinians believe that it was the intifadeh that finally drove the Israelis to sue for peace. In fact, a host of powerful forces pushed both sides into negotiations. The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the Middle East from a global flash point into a regional conflict, and robbed the PLO of an erstwhile ally in Moscow. Arafat, weakened financially and politically after supporting Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, had to temper his ambitions. But the intifadeh also extracted an enormous price from the Israelis, producing not only enough casualties to dampen enthusiasm for military service but also an anguished domestic debate over the morality of occupation.

‘The public is finally realizing that occupying the territories did not bring security,” said Galia Golan, an activist with Peace Now, Israel’s most prominent peace group. For Peace Now, the solution to the conflict has always involved the exchange of conquered territory for a peace agreement— and an end to the policy of establishing Jewish settlements in the territories. “I have had many crises over the years when I thought that 140,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank were going to make compromise impossible,” she said. But even Golan agrees that the role of peace groups has been modest. “It was the intifadeh that changed public opinion,” she said. “It’s the parents who are saying, ‘I don’t want my kids to get killed.’ ”

In a country where every teenager is conscripted into the army, the push for peace is grounded in realism rather than abstract debate. “How can I take the risk that my daughter will go to the army where she might get killed?” asked David Zohar, the first Jew to settle in Jericho, scheduled to be turned over to PLO rule under the accord. “I have to remember every minute that she said, ‘Dad, I don’t want war. I want peace.’ ”

If Zohar is convinced of the need for compromise, he is less certain that any future Palestinian state will be a happy place to live. Sitting on the terrace of his roadside café, within sight of the Dead Sea, Zohar worries that Palestinian rule may mean totalitarianism, as a small circle of PLO cadres seek to profit from foreign aid and the fruits of cheap Palestinian labor. “They talk about police, police, police,” said Zohar of the PLO leadership. “I don’t hear them talking about economics or industry.”

But on the other side of the country, in a seaside suburb off the hard streets of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian political economist Fawaz Abu Sitteh is thinking about just that. He predicts there will be economic growth when Palestinians are finally allowed to sell their fruits and vegetables in Israel, something which is now strictly controlled by the Israelis. And he has bigger dreams: of building a harbor, of forging

trade links with Arab countries, of the boost that will come when Palestinian expatriates return armed with capital and business know-how.

Abu Sitteh is himself a former expatriate. He lived in Germany for 10 years but returned to Gaza in 1982 to care for his parents. “Every day I ask myself why I came back,” he said, sitting on the front lawn of his spacious home overlooking the Mediterranean. “I ask if my children will have happy futures or if they will blame me for staying.” Abu Sitteh has five brothers, all of whom live outside Israel and the territories. He expects that, like most expatriate Palestinians, they will be leery of returning

to the economic squalor of Gaza. “It is understandable to choose the easy way out, but it weakens us as a people,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t resent my brothers for leaving; there was no opportunity here. But I will be

angry the moment that one of my brothers has a chance to work here and refuses to come home.”

Abu Sitteh knows how hard it is to convince other Palestinians to talk with Israelis rather than attack them. “People say, ‘Go ahead and try. If you hear an echo on the other side, we will support you.’ ”

Amos Oz has also been listening for an echo—but from the other side of the green line. Israel’s most prominent novelist, Oz has been a longtime advocate of a two-state solution. “The cause of the peace movement here was a funny one because for a long time we were advocating a solution which no Palestinian statesman or intellectual would consider,” he said in the booklined study of his home in Arad near the Dead Sea. “Up until 1988, their attitude was that Israel ought to go away, like a nightmare or a mobile exhibition.”

Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Oz began to examine the legitimacy of Palestinian claims in the 1960s. “I owe this ethical exercise to my line of work as a storyteller,” he said. “I get up every morning and start putting myself under the skins of other people, including the skins of some terrible characters. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no telling who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It is a tragedy in the true sense—a clash between right and right.”

Oz refuses to see himself as an Israeli version of Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “The government never tried to silence me or shut me away or send someone to beat me up,” he said, cigarette smoke wafting around him. “But there was a certain amount of social isolation. My kids suffered

at school. They were the kids of a traitor.” Gradually, however, the views of many other Israelis began to gravitate towards his own. For some, the turning point was the 1978 Egypt-Israeli accord, a land-forpeace agreement that worked.

For others, it was the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles demonstrated that the occupied territories—viewed by many Israelis as a necessary buffer against aggression—offered no defence against surface-to-surface missiles.

But Oz is also angry at the years and lives lost before Arafat and his supporters finally began seeking to end the conflict by peaceful means. “They have wasted so much time,” he said bitterly. “Everything they are asking for now, the bargain they are ready to settle for, is only a fraction of what Israelis were willing to give Palestinians with peace, dignity and honor, 45 years ago, five wars ago, 150,000 dead ago.” Those dead are the tragic consequence of the road not taken. But the other path, violent and well-travelled, still beckons to people on both sides of the struggle, always tempting.

With ERIC SILVER in Jerusalem