Lessons Learned on the Road to a Resolution
of the Conflict between Jews and Palestinians

Presentation to the Annual Meeting of the German Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, in Bendorf, October 1998

By Secretary General of NSh/WAS, Rayek Rizek

In preparing this paper I was asked to provide an account of the attitudes of Palestinian youth living in Israel today, exactly half a century after the decisive war that saw the birth of Israel as a Jewish State, and the exile and humiliation of the Palestinians.

A serious approach to the subject would require research, survey and analysis, and unfortunately this goes beyond what is possible for me at present. So, by way of compromise, I will talk about my own experience as a Palestinian growing up in the Jewish State, and the lessons I have learned from living in very close contact with my Palestinian and Jewish neighbors in Wahat al-Salam / Neve Shalom.

I was born in the city of Nazareth in 1955, where I grew up and lived all of my life before the age of university. Nazareth, like the rest of the Galilee, had been under Jewish control since the war of 1948. Though a Jewish enclave, known as ?Upper Nazareth? was established, the lower city remained entirely Arab, unlike the situation of other cities such as Jaffa, Ramle and Haifa. As such I had few contacts with Jews as a child, and little cause to think about my identity as a Palestinian. Only when I was 10 years old did I have an experience that made me ask my first questions about my identity. The experience came as a result of my being a member of the Christian community.

During the 1950?s an agreement was reached between Israel and Jordan that allowed Palestinian Christians who had become Israeli citizens to cross the border for a four day pilgrimage to the Old City of Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian control since 1948.

My parents would go there for the Orthodox Christmas ? the 6th of January - every year. In 1965, for the first time, I accompanied them.

I remember leaving early in the morning and crossing the border at the Mandelbaum crossing point, a military compound where Israeli and Jordanian police, situated in separate rooms, reviewed the documents and belonging of those attempting to make the crossing. Not everyone was allowed through ? even Christian Arabs were often refused an exit permit since they were seen by the Israelis as a security threat. This first experience of a border invoked my first questions about identity. Why should we need a permit? Why were some people refused? Why did we need to be checked by police on each side?

When we reached the eastern part of the city, my parents met with relatives who had traveled for this reunion all the way from Amman, Damascus and Beirut. They had seldom had the opportunity to meet since 1948; Palestinians living in Israel were especially cut off since Israel had no diplomatic relations with any Arab country.

My parents answered my youthful questions of that time in the best way they could. My mother, especially, would talk and show pictures of relatives she had known in Haifa, and of how, during the 1948 war, these people had hastily bolted their houses and businesses, to depart for safer ground. They left with the belief that in a few days or weeks the fighting would be over, and they could return to their homes. They had no conception that this would prove to be a lifelong exile. Hearing these stories gave me my first understanding of what it meant to be a Palestinian. I came to understand how my reality, my history, and my obligations differed from those of the dominant Jewish society in Israel.

Like other Palestinians, my parents were extremely cautious in talking about our identity. Many were afraid to even mention the past to their children. I was constantly warned never to discuss these matters outside of our house, with anyone.

After the 1948 war, only about 150,000 Palestinians (Moslems, Christians and Druze) remained in what had become the State of Israel. Until 1966, these were subjected to strict military rule. This meant that without the permission of the district military commander, nobody was allowed to leave his town or village even to work his own lands, which may have been a short walk from the house. This permission was rarely granted. People were prohibited from convening public meetings, from publishing newspapers, books or other publications. Rumors were deliberately spread of the existence of collaborators, so that it would not be wise to trust anyone, not even one?s closest neighbor or friend. In fact, any person who dared to pass criticism about these conditions was subjected to protracted house arrest, imprisonment, or interrogation. On the other hand, getting on good terms with the authorities had clear rewards.

It was an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and uncertainty, where the entire Arab population found itself disconnected from its roots and relations among the Palestinians living in exile (who numbered 1.2 million in 1948).

The psychological effects of this situation were so strong that parents refrained from describing to their children anything about their past, their people, or their true identity, for fear of troubles that they or their children might experience as a result.

Whereas parents were intimidated into silence, the educational system proved to be highly articulate on the question of our place in the Jewish State. The schools conditioned us to accept our new reality and identity. The history of the conflict was taught from a Zionist perspective that denied our historical rights in Palestine and asserted the rights of the Jews. The struggle of our people was de-legitimized, while the struggle of the Jews was justified. Our reality as a distinctive group of people who had lived in this land for thousands of years was denied. It was discounted that over this time we had developed a unique culture and identity, and had all the characteristics of a distinct people with full rights to our own nation. On the other hand, the right of Jews to immigrate from every continent was emphasized and seen as self-evident. It should be mentioned that on all of these points, this was the same education that was given also to Jewish school children.

With regard to the conflict, we were taught that our people had been the ones who had made all the mistakes. We had stubbornly refused all compromise and had fought without reason or justification other than hatred of the Jews. We deserved all that had happened to us, and should blame only ourselves for our lot. Any reconciliation would depend upon our apology, recognition of Jewish rights to this land, and on proving our good intentions.

Due to the fear-induced reticence of parents and the distorted reality presented through the schools, we grew up as an ignorant, self-accusatory, generation lacking in self-respect, cut off from our roots and our past, and confused about our identity. This reality was totally opposite to the one experienced by the rising generation of Jews.

In 1966, military rule was finally terminated, yet its psychological effects linger till today. The biases of the school curriculum remain intact, as do many other subtle influences on our society.

In 1975, at the age of twenty, I had a second awakening. This was when I traveled to the United States to continue my studies. There I met other Palestinian students of my generation from the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait. This was the first time that I had spent much time with Palestinians outside of Nazareth.

The encounter shocked me. I saw how much alike we were, despite being born and raised in different parts of the Middle East. I learned that we all went through similar experiences of feeling unwelcome and were subject to harassment, wherever we lived. I learned that we were similarly ignorant about each other?s reality and fate. I learned that we all had relatives scattered around the Middle East and that it was difficult to meet with them due to bad relations between the nations of the region and because we were Palestinians. Every time we wished to cross a border we were suspected and subjected to interrogation. I learned that none of the Palestinians I met felt at home in the country where they had lived their lives, especially those who lived outside of Palestine.

This experience strengthened and clarified my identity and angered me because I realized the extent of my people?s tragedy, and the enormous price we had paid for defending our rights by resisting the plan to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. This plan had received an official stamp in 1919, with the Balfour Declaration. Palestinian Arabs understood that they would be its victims, as was borne out in 1948. Since that time the majority had to endure a miserable existence in refugee camps around the Middle East, where they also suffered persecution and massacre.

The Israeli position on the Palestinian tragedy is to lay the blame upon the shoulders of the Palestinians themselves, for their failure to accept the UN Partition Plan of 1947. Yet if anyone believes that this plan was a fair solution, they should try to see it from the point of view of the Palestinians. At that time there were 1,200,000 Arabs and 500,000 Jews in Palestine. According to the plan, the Jews would be given 55% of the best land (including much of the coastal plane and the water sources) for a separate state. The land intended for the future Jewish state currently contained 500,000 Arabs. These would somehow have to reconcile themselves to living as a minority in a state whose national character, culture and symbols would all be Jewish. To prevent the emergence of a binational state, they would be recognized as members of their respective religious communities, rather than as a national group, in the same way as are Palestinian Arabs living in Israel today. The remaining forty five percent of the land, which was at the time inhabited by 700,000 Arabs and some 10,000 Jews, was intended for the Arab state.

If this proposal were fair, one can ask why it is no longer seen as viable to the Israelis. Today Israel is unwilling to relinquish to the Palestinians more than 9% of the total area of the West Bank to the more than two million Palestinians who live there, since 120,000 Jews have deliberately dispersed themselves (often in tiny settlements to maintain a symbolic presence) all over this territory. It should be noted that the West Bank itself constitutes only 25% of former Palestine. In the Gaza Strip, over which Israel has no historical or religious claims, the story is even worse. More than a million Palestinians must squeeze into less than 60% of the land, since Israel demanded the rest for 6,000 Jewish settlers.

The third experience I would like to discuss is my move to the Jewish-Arab village of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom in 1984, two years after my return from the United States. Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam was (and remains) the only village where a group of Arabs and Jews had chosen to live together, rather than having been thrust there by historical circumstances. The radical idea of moving to the village was largely my wife?s. In Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, for the first time, I came into close contact and interacted with Jews. I mean not only those who lived in the village, but the thousands more who came as parents of school children, participants in binational workshops, or simply as hotel guests and visitors.

Though today the village has grown to some 30 families, half Jewish and half Palestinian, it was then still very small. Before our arrival there were only six families, only one or two of these Palestinian. The village was still finding its way, and there were many conflicts over the kind of community we would like to be. Very quickly, I found myself in confrontation with some of the Jewish members over the question of my identity as a Palestinian. In Israel, the standard term for us is ?Israeli Arabs.? The meaning is that ethnically we belong to the Arab nations outside of Israel, while we owe our citizenship and allegiance to Israel. There is no place in this definition for our Palestinian nationality and culture.

Another question was the significance and role of the village. Was it defined simply by the issue of coexistence between Arabs and Jews within Israel, or should we be more vocal in addressing the issue of Israel?s relations with the Palestinians as a whole? I could not accept anything less, since as a Palestinian I felt that I had a duty to struggle for the cause of the Palestinian people as a whole. I could not accept being defined simply as an Israeli citizen. I was unable to celebrate with my neighbors Israel?s Independence Day, and it became clear to all of us that it would not be possible to commemorate this occasion together as a community, on any level. In talking about the struggle of the Palestinians, I was unable to avoid referring to the PLO and its leaders as the legitimate representative of my people, though the organization was still seen as a rabble of terrorists by the Israelis. Later, when the Intifada came, I saw this as a natural and legitimate extension of the struggle. On all of these issues I often found that I had to defend my positions, and that though everyone in the community wanted peace and reconciliation, my identity and perspective as a Palestinian, was often little understood by my Jewish neighbors.

In general, Palestinians in Israel know more about Jewish society than Jews know about Palestinian society. This is partly because the majority Jewish culture is so dominant, but especially because Arabs are much more fluent in Hebrew than are Jews in Arabic. Jews are unable to independently understand the statements of Arab leaders, read Arab periodicals, etc. So the situation is hardly symmetrical.

As a child, I had not been taught to hate the Jews, but I had also not learned to respect them, since they were the direct cause of our tragedy. Now, in spite of this, I learned to understand their human needs, which were very similar to my own. I was no longer able to judge them collectively, since I discovered that I could find many partners on their side who sought a humane solution to the conflict. Yet it has always seemed to me that the negative feelings of the Jews towards the Palestinians, acquired through their education, go much deeper than do ours towards them. Even those in favor of concessions to the Palestinians find it difficult to let go of this deep negative conditioning in regard to us, and take for granted their superiority in almost every aspect of life. Whereas we had acquired all the traits of a colonized, defeated people, and the educational curriculum had sought to eliminate any remaining national pride or identity, the Jews had come to accept unquestioningly the superiority of their culture, their values, and their society. They have greater self-confidence, national consciousness and group cohesion, but little tolerance for opinions, behavior and traits that diverged from their own.

In many ways I envied them. I wished that I and my people could gain a little of their confidence, sense of security, and group solidarity, not to mention a national home of their own where they could develop, produce, think, and educate their children without the influences of distortion, fear, or intervention.

In telling the story of the development of my sense of identity as a Palestinian, and the development of my relationship with the Jewish people, I have identified three experiences which were influential in my own life. Yet it is true that these experiences are not entirely characteristic of Palestinians in Israel as a whole. Everyone has his own story, and few Palestinians have lived in such close proximity to the other people. So the question may be asked, what development has there been among Palestinians as a whole over this last fifty years?

They, like me, have had to grope for their identity by informal means, without any support from their educational system, or much assistance from their elders, who had suffered humiliation and intimidation. The development of their self-identity has therefore been slow - in fact it has yet to reach maturity. Till today, more than half of the population vote pragmatically for Jewish parties that routinely deny Palestinian identity, merely in exchange for election promises. Like me, Palestinians who went on to higher education either attended Israeli universities, learning in Hebrew, or went abroad. Neither framework offered them much opportunity to sharpen their political opinions or develop their national consciousness.

Yet there has been a development in national consciousness among Palestinians in Israel all the same. After the revoking of military rule, it became possible to publish newspapers again, and though these were carefully monitored by the authorities, there was more opportunity for self-expression. The period after the 1967 war brought the opportunity for increased contact between Palestinians in Israel and those living in the West Bank and Gaza. This resulted in the development of greater solidarity with the (usually much worse) plight of their compatriots there. The struggle of Palestinians on the outside became a source of inspiration. The Intifada boosted self-confidence. Among the important developments has been the growth of an active Palestinian leadership comprising mayors, Arab members of the Knesset, intellectuals and others. This leadership has helped to create a public debate on many aspects of our position as Palestinians in the Jewish state (the degree to which we should be willing to participate in institutions such as the military, what means we should use in order to further our equality as citizens, the extent that we should show solidarity with Palestinians on the outside, as against proving our loyalty to Israel, etc).

Today, there is a feeling of greater empowerment among Palestinians in Israel. Actions by the authorities seen as harmful to Palestinians, such as further land grabbing, are countered by strikes or even riots ? as happened recently in the city of Um al-Fahem. The population is coming to understand its power to resist oppression, even where the retaliation may be brutal.

In the wake of the Intifada and the Oslo agreements, Palestinians in Israel are asking themselves serious questions about their own future and identity. The Oslo process leaves them outside of any solution that may be found between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians in Israel realize that their future is here in Israel, but on what terms? Will they always remain a second class minority? Is it not necessary to look towards a more comprehensive solution that will recognize also their national needs, as a part of the Palestinian people?

In order to consider these questions and look towards the future, it is necessary to see what lessons can be learned from the historical events of the past fifty years and today?s realities.

The lessons I see are as follows:

  1. The Palestinian question has been, and remains, at the heart of every war fought between Israel and the Arab nations. There will be no resolution of the conflict, or peace in the Middle East, until a fair and just solution to this problem has been found.
  2. No resolution based on the use of force can provide a lasting stability. The reality today is one of latent instability, with the constant threat of further conflict.
  3. It is certain that the conflict cannot persist in the same way for another fifty years, since, with the build-up of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons all over the Middle East, future wars will result in disastrous consequences.
  4. Israel?s military might and stock of nuclear weapons provide no deterrent for the outbreak of violence within Palestine itself.
  5. The Palestinians have proved that despite their military weakness, they will always remain a destabilizing factor until their problems are addressed.
  6. Despite the exile of a majority of Palestinians in 1948, the population balance between Jews and Palestinians within the same territory (including Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza strip) is approaching equality.
  7. The Palestinian Diaspora has by no means relinquished its just demand to return to Palestine.
  8. A solution on the basis of partition seems as impossible today as it was in 1947. For most Palestinians, the minimum acceptable portion of land would comprise the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The Israelis, on the other hand, call for continuous settlement expansion, and insist that no settlement will be under Palestinian authority. Furthermore, it is evident that no Israeli government will be able to evacuate a settlement.
  9. The struggle of Palestinians within Israel for recognition as a national group is complicated by the fact that most of the Jews continue to see the Palestinian minority in Israel as a potential threat and source of danger, due to their natural sympathy with their people?s cause. Our struggle for equality is understood as an internal threat to the character of the Jewish State.
  10. In a land that is so small, it is necessary for reasons of ecology, protection of the environment and proper management of natural resources (especially water) that Palestinians and Jews will work together to find cooperative solutions to these issues.
  11. Economically the two peoples are, and are likely to remain, mutually connected and interdependent.

I believe that it is now imperative to work towards a resolution of the conflict informed by all of the above points. The dangers are so large that all hope depends upon acknowledging the facts of our coexistence, overcoming hostilities, prejudices and inequalities, and adopting a more constructive approach to the situation that has arisen.

The Oslo process has taught us that efforts towards peace cannot be confined to the political arena, since advancement in the process can be stymied when popular feeling goes against the making of further concessions. It is therefore necessary to provide a solid social and educational base for the political process by working diligently towards a change in consciousness at the grass roots.

Living in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom has shown me that, given a solid framework, where the two sides agree to work together without demanding of each other to relinquish parts of their identity or aspirations, even the most serious difficulties can be addressed and eventually overcome. I am not implying by this that the community presents a model that can be applied wholesale in the Middle East. The majority of Jews and Palestinians will always prefer to live separately, for cultural and social reasons, rather than live in a framework that forces them to live and work together so closely. Yet the success of any attempt to find a solution to the conflict depends upon absorbing much the same lessons learned here by our experience of close cooperation.

It will be necessary to work together with the other side, and to become intimate with their needs and positions, rather than to pretend that it is possible to dictate a solution based only upon the perspective of one?s own side. Just as in building a community, success will depend upon the solid persistence in one?s efforts over the long ? term, despite opposition.

Many of the obstacles on the road to coexistence can be traced to the negative conditioning we received through the prejudices and distortions instilled into us by parents and teachers. The only hope to overcome these obstacles is to establish an educational system that will strengthen our understanding of our own cultural and national background, without denigrating the national identity of the other people. Our educational system must lay the foundations for true equality, regardless of our nationality, religion, culture or gender. It must impart humane, rather than dehumanizing values, since as human beings we all share the roles of parents and children, with similar dreams, wishes, worries and ambitions. It must teach a more balanced and objective history of the relations between the two peoples, since this is not a conflict between sheep and wolves, or good and evil-minded people.

Our educational system must break down the walls of ignorance by creating a truly bilingual society, since if one group is deprived of access to the linguistic resources of the other, there is an undervaluing of its culture. Hearing the other language produces frustration or deep suspicion. Palestinians routinely learn Hebrew as the majority language in Israel. It is time for Jews to learn Arabic in the same way.

Our educational system, finally, must impart mutual respect instead of hatred, and a mutual acceptance of our rights, history and pain, instead of denial. Our dehumanizing educational system must be transformed, or we will pass on to our children a worse reality than the one we have known ourselves.

Fifty years have passed since an event occurred which one side celebrates with fireworks and festivities as the birth of a nation, and the other side remembers darkly as the Naqba, the Catastrophe. Over the intervening half-century, both sides have known a rich variety of experience that has formed their national consciousness and character. Much of this experience has centered on a conflict between each other as two groups that lay claim to the same land. As in real life, the lessons derived from similar experiences can produce different results. One man may turn his acquired anger into hatred, the other may be motivated to seek a solution that offers peace. In my life I have tried to draw the right lessons from my experience. The success of the two peoples in resolving the conflict depends also upon drawing the right lessons from the experience of the past fifty years.

 


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