June 14, 2007
Combining fact and fiction confuses peace event
On June 5, the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, two years after standing side-by-side with friends in Gush Katif in an attempt to ward off the evacuation of Gaza, I attended an Israeli-Palestinian peace event marking "40 years of war and occupation" at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque. |
I have not converted to the left; I applaud the achievements of the Six-Day War, yet I cannot deny that the situation in the West Bank - Judea and Samaria - the territories, is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians live in a virtual cage, and Israeli soldiers spend the best years of their lives checking Palestinian identity cards at checkpoints to sift out terrorists.
I decided to attend the event with an open mind, to approach it as an opportunity to learn more about the occupation, to show my solidarity with my leftist brethren and to express my appreciation for their humanitarian instincts. While we may disagree on how to end the occupation - I believe in Palestinian disarmament, not reckless Palestinian empowerment --we agree that the status quo is untenable.
The event was like an annual conference for anti-occupation groups. Card-carrying far-leftist organizations were represented by different booths: IPCRI, Machsomwatch, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din, Combatants for Peace, Students for Equal Rights and the Arab-Hebrew Theater.
I arrived a little late, as people onstage were reciting testimonies of acts of Israeli aggression in the West Bank. One man described a group of maverick settlers grabbing an old Palestinian man's cane and beating him, sending him to the hospital. An Israeli border policeman described the mutual hatred and distrust he had witnessed at checkpoints.
But probably the most moving testimony was that of a Palestinian woman named Jamilla. Wearing a beige hijab, she emotionally described how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) once prevented her from passing a checkpoint while she was in the middle of labor contractions - she gave birth to a boy in a car, only to watch him die on the way to the hospital.
I was deeply saddened and hurt by these stories and grateful that they were being told. We can't afford to hide from the truth, and I intended to confront my settler friends about such events, because I thought they would share my sadness.
In the middle of the courtyard, Machsomwatch (an organization that monitors IDF behavior at checkpoints) had created a makeshift checkpoint for people entering the Cinemateque building, where films documenting Palestinian hardships were to be shown. I waited inside the caged corridor leading to the revolving metal exit, and Jamilla was standing just in front of me.
We were trapped together, and I felt a need to say something, to apologize for her baby's death. I knew at the height of my anger during the intifada - when a terrorist attack hit my favorite cafe and a friend got moderately wounded in another - I might have been guilty of bashing Palestinians, calling them horrible names and wishing upon them ugly things, but no one deserved her kind of suffering.
After all, we are all human beings, created in God's image.
I mustered my courage, tears forming in my eyes - this was a big moment for me - and I said: "I'm sorry about what happened to you." She nodded sympathetically, and I continued, "Not that sorry is the right thing to say. I don't know what to say."
She continued to nod, and I asked her how many children she had. Then she perked up and said: "It was an act!"
"What?" I asked, stupefied.
It turned out that some of the people who gave "testimonies" were actors from the Arab-Hebrew Theater, reciting monologues based on real-life testimonies. Jamilla was not an Arab but an Israeli, because Palestinians generally can't enter Israel and "play" themselves.
She said she didn't know whether the exact story she told was true but that similar things have happened.
At that moment, I really wanted to cry. My moment of reconciliation and empathy was killed and with it my open mind - I didn't want it to be played with.
Waiting at the fake checkpoint actually became strangely enjoyable as I watched thespian "soldiers" in army uniforms dramatize the "humiliation" at the checkpoints. When it was my turn to pass, I went up the steps and they shouted, gruffly: "Don't move!"
"Don't smile!" one demanded.
Finally, I showed them my press card and passed through. One of the soldiers eventually smirked, too, and I told him that I write for a Los Angeles paper and joked that I can make him famous. It was all sadly comical, defeating the purpose of the installation, at least for me.
I remained outside and passed by the booth of Combatants for Peace, an organization consisting of IDF soldiers and Palestinian Fatah fighters now working toward peace through nonviolence.
A handsome 28-year-old Israeli student, Yonatan, a former tank officer who refuses to serve in the territories, told me that the organization was founded to bring together the "fighters" of Palestinian and Israeli society, considered the elite of their respective communities.
"Israelis should meet Palestinians and not rely on what they see on television," he said.
Taking his encouragement, I jumped at the chance to speak with a Palestinian member of Parents' Circle - Family Forum, which had an adjacent booth. The organization fosters dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis who lost family members in the last round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Dark, thin Ibrahim Halil, 41, spoke fairly good English as we sat on plastic chairs in the courtyard. Finally, I got the chance to meet the "Palestinian future," the "moderates" with whom we'll eventually make peace and live side by side.
He joined the organization because he believes that "the most suitable meeting ground for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians are those who are paid the highest price." As a group member, he enjoys easy access into Israel from his agricultural village near Nablus. He told me that his 3-year-old son was run over by a settler a few years ago. I tried to believe him, but my radar was up. I was no longer sure what was fact and what was fiction.
"Was it done on purpose?" I asked.
He said Israeli police determined it was settler "misbehavior." The settler was arrested and taken to jail, but he didn't know what happened to him.
"I don't care about this issue too much," he said. "When I ask about why it happened, I don't care about the answer. I know he was killed because he was a Palestinian, and that Israelis are killed because they are Israeli."
I think to myself that if my son was killed, I'd get my facts straight before I cry "bloody murder."
"Do you support a two-state solution?" I asked.
"I don't know if it's a two-state solution for two people or one state for two people," he replied. "I just want Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace."
If it's a one-state solution, I wondered, what kind of "one state" he would want?
"What about Hamas?" I probed.
"There's a big change taking place in Hamas today," he said. "Six years ago, if you told Hamas you met with Israeli people, they'd harm you or kill you. Now Hamas knows we meet with Israelis, and no one harms anyone."
I was not entirely comforted. I recalled a conservative propaganda movie about Islam warning people of taqiyya, the Muslim "mitzvah" of deception, in which militant Muslims put on a peaceful disguise for Westerners.
"Isn't Hamas a religious movement?" I asked. "It doesn't say anywhere in the Quran to blow up children and old people." What about men and women, I wondered, but I stopped myself from challenging him further about the Quran and jihad. I tried to keep the conversation friendly. It was time for me to "act," too.
He spoke endearingly of Hamas, saying how it has provided social services to needy Palestinians, the main source of their victory in the elections.
"Is Hamas a [peace] partner?" I probed further.
"For sure," he said confidently, his eyes lighting up. Hamas, he said, is open to negotiating with Israel, but "the [foot]ball is on the Israeli side."
An Israeli woman briefly interrupted us, patted Ibrahim on the back, and said in a heartfelt way: "Thank you for coming. You're so brave."
"Thank you, thank you," he muttered. I noticed he didn't look her in the eyes.
"What's your attitude on terror?" I asked.
"I'm against terror," he said, clinching it with, "I'm against terror on both sides: Israeli and Palestinian."
Good. That's good, I thought.
I asked him about rocket attacks on Sderot, but I anticipated his clichéd, inaccurate response, riddled with moral subjectivism: "I had a meeting in Bethlehem [with Palestinians] about this issue. We said, 'When we throw rockets on Sderot, we succeed in killing six to seven people, but at the same time, we lose 600-700 people in Gaza. We are against rockets on Israelis and against tanks in Palestinian cities, where people only fight with stones."
Sorry, I thought to my myself, but they're Qassam rockets, not just stones anymore.
Earlier I had asked the refuznik, Yonatan, what he thought of the event. He said it was impressive, "but the problem, of course, is that we're preaching to the converted."
Well, I was open to some proselytizing, but I wasn't converted. I was open to preaching - but honest , thoughtful preaching - not acting, not plays, not slogans, not stereotypes, not oversimplifications, not half-truths.
I left the event feeling I had just watched a predictable, third-rate propaganda movie, one that was filled with stock characters, hackneyed scenes - and bad acting.