Middle East


A Canadian tries to find reason amid the hatred

ANNA PORTER August 5 2002
Middle East


A Canadian tries to find reason amid the hatred

ANNA PORTER August 5 2002


Middle East


A Canadian tries to find reason amid the hatred

TEL AVIV’S DAN HOTEL is one of the

loveliest in the world. It’s not the rooms, or the marble-tiled lobby, lighting or restaurant. It’s the view that does it. The smooth sand beach stretches the length of the city all the way to ancient Jaffa. Children play in the waves, women in tiny bikinis parade in the shallows, men strut along the boardwalk. The blue sky and waters of the Mediterranean are in stark contrast to the words of our introduction to Israel from Michael Keren, professor of political communications at Tel Aviv University and the first of many people we will meet during five days of a crash course in what is behind the headlines of the Middle East disaster. “We inhabit a world of desperation,” Keren says. “A world of fear and horror—especially terrible now after the euphoria of imminent peace.”

There are five of us: Na tional Post columnist Robert Fulford, his wife, author and freelance writer Geraldine Sherman, author and TVO interviewer Irshad Manji, Anna Morgan of the Canadian Jewish News, and myself. The Canada-Israël Committee provided the opportunity and I jumped at it. For some time I had been deeply concerned about the rise of antiSemitism in Europe and Canada, much of it couched in terms of disgust with Israel and its policies dealing with Palestinians. I had been amazed how world opinion had swung against Israel; how the September, 2001 Durban conference on racism had been turned into an anti-Semitic rally; why the Canadian Labour Congress had, in June, voted to censure Israel; why newspapers, the BBC and CNN slanted stories in favour of Palestinians even when they were covering the latest suicide bombing. I wanted to see the place behind the headlines.

Keren is a dove. For years, he worked with the peace effort. “We were working

toward running joint programs with a university in Gaza, good meetings, finding common ground,” he says. “My brother, who is a doctor, had opened cancer detection clinics in Nablus. But it’s all over now. Jews being killed in the street brings back terrible memories.” Keren links his hands together as he lays them on the table in the hotel restaurant. He has not touched his food.

Memories. Close by, at the beach-side Dolphinarium nightclub, a suicide bomber killed himself and 21 people, mostly teenagers, in June last year. Journalist Hirsh Goodman tells me about another suicide bomber who blew himself up near his fiveyear-old’s kindergarten last November. Goodman’s son watched in horror as a decapitated head sailed through the air. Novelist Orly Castel-Bloom says an anxious goodbye to her 16-year-old daughter every time the teenager goes to school. She has to travel by bus—a favourite target of suicide bombers, and Orly’s new novel, written since the second Intifada began, is aptly entitled Human Parts.

There have been 61 suicide bombings in Israel since the second Intifada began in September, 2000, almost all committed by younger Palestinians. In all, more than 570 people have died in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks, including almost 70 children. And the Palestinian Authority and Hamas continue to encourage suicide bombers and heavily armed killers to slaughter Jews. On July 16, nine Israelis died when Palestinian fighters opened fire on a bus near Nablus, and the following day three people died in back-to-back suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. The Israelis hit back last week when an F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on an office complex in Gaza City in an attempt to kill Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, a leading proponent of suicide bombing. The attack was successful, but it also killed 14 other people including nine children, leading to international condemnation.

The killings only added to the anguish on both sides of the Israeli border. “How do you bring up your kids in a world like this?” asks Mark Heller in the cafeteria of Tel Aviv’s Museum of Art, where European Impressionist works rub shoulders with trauma-filled paintings by early set-

tiers. Heller is a principal research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center specializing in Arab-Israeli relations. He has been researching pluralism and individual rights in a “civil society.” But, he asks, how do you have debates over pluralism and civil rights when you are afraid to let your children ride the bus to school, when suicide bombers are glorified in the West Bank and Gaza, when the Arab world is unwilling to accept even your right to exist?

Michael Keren says that Israel has offered peace to the Palestinians, and he can’t fathom why people would rather blow themselves up than have their own sovereign state. But some observers have an explanation for why Israel is losing its case in the media: the Palestinians glory in displaying their dead, while Jewish culture does not play up Jewish carnage. “Imagery always trumps ideas,” Keren says. The next day, there is a Reuters photograph on the front page of the Jerusalem, Post showing two young Palestinians kneeling, their hands tied behind their backs with white kerchiefs covering their eyes, while an armed soldier looms over them. It was probably greeted with howls of outrage around the world. But how many would have read the accompanying story that identified the two young men as terrorists, caught with Kalashnikov rifles, grenades and flak jackets on their way to slaughter Israeli civilians?

On Tel Aviv’s Sheinken Street, where young people used to gather late into the night, the outdoor cafés are closed or quiet. There are armed security guards at the entrance to the street and in the doorways of the more popular stores. When I walk by in the evening, they look up warily. Do the bombers target the young because they want Israelis to suffer the greatest possible pain? Or do the young target the young?

IN RAMALLAH, we sit across the table from three Palestinian intellectuals. His rage palpable, Ali Jirbawi holds onto the tabletop to steady himself. “Over 35 years you lose your sense of human dignity,” he says. “That’s the context for suicide bombers. We have lost our hope for the future, while they think they can sip coffee in their favourite haunts?” Why was peace rejected by Palestinian Author-

ity Chairman Yasser Arafat during the July, 2000 negotiations with then-prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David? “It was never offered,” Jirbawi says, with such conviction one almost believes him. (In reality the deal fell apart when neither side could come to an agreement on the issues of Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees who still insist that they have a right to return to their homes in Israel.)

Abdel-Malik Al-Jaber, a businessman with a Canadian passport, has not given up on the principles of the peace process. He came back with his McGill Ph.D. to start a business. But he, too, says he does

not believe Israel’s offer of 95 per cent of the West Bank was genuine. They are not about to withdraw the settlements, he says. “After the first Oslo peace accord was signed in 1993, Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza doubled,” Al-Jaber says. “They built highways and bridges. They would leave all that behind?”

Raja Shehadeh, in contrast to the others, is quiet and composed. He is a lawyer and writer, and reads from his most recent book, Strangers in the House. The passage he has chosen tells of how Israeli bulldozers have devastated the olive groves of Palestine. “The Jews talk of building a civil society,” he says. “Here, we have no rights and no civility. What there was leading up to Camp David has now been destroyed. We are under occupation.” Does he have

hope for the future? Only if the Palestinians can find new leadership that can implement decisions and policies, he says, and only if the Israelis start dismantling the settlements. “Put it to a vote on both sides of the divide,” Shehadeh adds. “Both our peoples would choose peace over settlements and suicides.”

Mark Heller disagrees with the contention that Israel is not about to give up the settlements. Even now, Ariel Sharon’s government would withdraw from some of the territories if it meant the end of violence, he says. Heller speaks of the ongoing conflict partly as a culture clash between Israel and the Arab world. “Precisely because we seek to have a civil society, because we favour the modern over the traditional—with few exceptions—they think we do not belong in this part of the world,” he explains. “Yet geography is destiny. This is our home.”

But Palestinian leaders have created their own narrative: one that denies Israel’s right to exist and insists that the whole territory belongs to them. All of them—Arafat would not agree to a peace that did not include the return of Palestinian refugees. There are now 3.9 million refugees and their descendants living in towns and refugee camps on the West Bank and in neighbouring countries. Arab countries endeavoured to keep them there rather than allow immigration and dispersal, as Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization rose to power on promises to return refugees to the land they fled in 1948 when the combined armies of Transjordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq marched on the newly created state of Israel, and were defeated.

Reading the daily papers, how many people really know the complex history of this place? Why, after 1,900 years of exile, Jews still see this as their natural homeland? How many attempts there have been at peace? About the Six Day War? How many people know about the Oslo accords, and who said what about Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and the refugees? That the return of so many refugees would effectively mean the end of Israel, accomplishing without a shot what successive wars of aggression and terror have failed to do?

How much are the Israelis we met willing to do for peace? Mark Heller would

‘Give the Palestinians hope. Give them some compensation-so long as they acknowledge our right to live in peace’

contemplate unilateral withdrawal from parts of the occupied territories, dismantling of the outlying settlements, building a wall to separate Israel from its enemies. Michael Handelsaltz, a columnist with the daily newspaper Ha’aretz, would go even farther. “Give the Palestinians hope,” he says when we meet him at the Café Cigar in Tel Aviv. “Give them some compensation—so long as they acknowledge our right to live in peace.”

Novelist A. B. Yehoshua is another beleaguered supporter of the peace initiatives. Now, Yehoshua would have a border dividing the land along pre-1967 lines while keeping some of the major settlements and Jerusalem. Shut the gates. Post guards. Leave the Palestinians to their own devices. There seemed to be no end to his logic, until I saw Jerusalem. How do you divide an ancient city where Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived cheek by jowl for centuries? The city is holy for all.

FROM THE OLD CITY of Jaffa you can see Tel Aviv’s modern skyscrapers in the distance. The muezzin’s call competes with the sounds of nearby dance music. It’s young Israeli music, or old Arab music on speed. We sit in the garden of the White Cabin restaurant, eat Arab delicacies, hookah-smoking guests at the next table, clouds of bugs flirting with the lights.

Motti Lerner, a famous Israeli writer and a strong supporter of the left, is telling us that the Israeli judiciary has been co-opted by the government. “There should be courts of appeal that work for all sides,” he says. “If you occupy land, you have to provide a system of justice.” Because Israel has invaded the Palestinian territories in the name of self-protection, it must take responsibility for another people’s needs. “With the whole infrastructure of Palestinian society destroyed, who is taking care of them?” Lerner asks. “Imagine a Palestinian family with 10 children in two small rooms, in the heat of the summer, no

schools, no lights, nothing works. Israel must not lose its humanity. If it does, what are we about?”

On the dirty, heat-baked streets of Ramallah, Lerner’s words become real. We arrive when the curfew has lifted for just a few hours to allow people to shop. With our Canadian clearance, we are allowed to drive through. One of the drivers, Guy, an Israeli born in Jerusalem, fought for three years on the Lebanese border and lost his two best friends. Our other driver is an Arab Israeli, born in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He points to Israeli-owned houses on nearby hills, and tells us of the daily humiliations Palestinians must face.

Later, we have a chance to look at textbooks used in Palestinian schools. They praise Palestinian fighters. Jews are portrayed as dangerous enemies of Allah, greedy land grabbers. Early readers are shown pictures of Israeli bulldozers flattening Palestinian olive groves. In one of these books, Witness to History: The Plight and Promise of Palestinian Refugees, there is grateful acknowledgement of the “valuable contribution” Canada has made to the “production of this publication.” How much have our taxpayers contributed to this propagation of hatred? I didn’t have a chance to ask Steve Hibbert, the Canadian representative to the Palestinian Authority, who is housed in a building close to Arafat’s headquarters, about the books, but hope to find out.

ON OUR LAST DAY in Jerusalem, we meet a former Montreal rabbi, Professor David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute. “I can’t give up hope because my grandchildren’s lives are on the line,” he says. But more people will die, he says, because the Arab world has not yet accepted that the Jews are here to stay. Hartman was once asked by Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority representative in East Jerusalem, whether he would consider working for the PA. He said, of course, “but only when I hear Arafat say this one simple sentence: the Jews have come home.” Then he smiles and looks at each of us, in turn, as if to make sure we are listening. Jews are stubborn, he says, and will not give up. “This is the last stop in Jewish history—it’s where we belong.” füll