Ethar El-Katatney

Reaching Across the Divide

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on August 17, 2008

Reaching Across the Divide
Cover Story
Egypt Today
August 2008

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Photo Credit: AP

Voices from peace activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By: Ethar El-Katatney

This past May, Israelis celebrated the 60th anniversary of the establishment of their country. At the same time, Palestinians solemnly marked the expulsion from their homeland in what they call the nakba, or catastrophe.

Since then, one of the most hotly-debated issues in the world — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — has dominated Middle Eastern politics, brought down governments, sparked armed conflict and affected the very core of life in the region.

Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have all gone to war with Israel since its inception. Both Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreements with Israel — the only countries in the Arab world to do so. Israel’s continued occupation of the Golan Heights has kept the region on edge, as well as the face-off with Hezbollah in Lebanon and an escalating war of words with Iran.

While the second intifada, or uprising, by the Palestinians has ostensibly subsided, it seems little or no progress has been made in reaching an official settlement. At press time, an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was tentatively holding in the Gaza Strip, while the construction of both Jewish settlements and the separation wall in a West Bank plagued by roadblocks and checkpoints continued unabated.

Egypt has opened its border with Gaza twice this year to allow Palestinians to seek medical attention and buy necessities unavailable since the Israeli blockade. All the while Qassam rockets launched from the Gaza Strip have turned nearby Israeli cities into ghost towns.

But rarely do we hear from the Palestinians and Israelis working for change on the ground. The peace process is generally shown as being the work of diplomats, statesmen and Israeli, Palestinian and even US leaders — many of whom are out of touch with the daily struggle of the citizens of both lands.

Many major issues remain unresolved: The status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders, security and the equitable division of resources and water.

Egypt Today speaks to youth on both sides at a recent conference in Norway — site of the failed 1993 Oslo Accords.

Raya Epstein

A 23-year-old sophomore at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Raya Epstein, studies Judaism and education. A Reform Jew — only 0.3 percent of Israeli society — she was born and raised in Israel to American parents who immigrated to Israel in their mid-30s. Epstein is a member of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), a joint Jewish, Muslim, Christian organization that aims to build peace and reconciliation. She served as a soldier in an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) intelligence unit.

I’m proud to be an Israeli, proud that there’s a homeland for the Jews [after 2,000 years] and that it’s called Israel and it’s in Israel. I’m proud to be an Israeli because I love my country. As a soldier, I defended my country from the countless enemies that surround it. I love my people of Israel, their culture, their history and their hot tempers. I’m in love with my faith and my language — it’s my identity and I’m proud to be able to share it with a country.

[At the same time], I have a lot of criticism towards my government and as much as I am proud to have participated in the IDF, I don’t really support my government. It’s a personal conflict I am in.

There are key issues I disagree with like the [occupied] territories, separation, roadblocks, targeted killings. On the one hand they’re a means of protection [for Israelis], on the other hand they’re creating an enemy, creating even more animosity and hatred. It’s distorted, an evil circle that will continue to circle itself over and over again until someone wises up and realizes that this is not the way to go.

Israel calls itself a Jewish democracy, which is a complete paradox within itself. If I could, I would erase the Jewish symbols and laws, and have it be a country for all of its citizens [to identify with]. I think I would be happy to give up my nationality if it meant maintaining my faith.

I don’t know if you can call me pro-Palestinian. I’m a Zionist and I don’t know if those two can go together. I’m pro-humanitarian. I don’t prefer Palestinians to Jews, I just think it’s obvious that they deserve a state of their own immediately. It’s obvious they are being discriminated against. I don’t think there’s a contradiction between being a Zionist and believing the Palestinians should have a state.

But unfortunately my way of thinking is not the majority viewpoint. I wish I represented my country because I believe my way of thinking would bring people together faster and in a more genuine way.

Unfortunately, [our] society as a whole is very segregated. It’s easy for Israelis to be pro-dialogue, but not necessarily [easy] for Palestinians. Those [Palestinians] who cooperate or have friends that are Jews are considered traitors to the Palestinian [identity] — even if they have an Israeli identity card, speak fluent Hebrew and study in Hebrew-speaking universities. And so these Arabs try to not become totally self-hating or self-denying Palestinians. They have to preserve some sort of sanity or identity of their own, and one way to do it is to socially separate themselves.

When there’s an oppressed and an oppressor, the oppressed can fight as much as they want and beg for independence, but it will always be the man in power who will liberate. So [in this case], the Jews have a moral responsibility to make this [liberation] happen. But we need a partner to negotiate with.

Theodor Herzl (founder of the Zionist movement in the 1920s) s “If you will it, then it is not a dream.” And I really believe in that, because I’m young and energetic and optimistic enough to believe this — that a solution can and will be found.

Ruth Pliskin

Twenty-six year-old Ruth Pliskin is a self-described secular, left-wing Jew. She was born in the US, but her family moved to Israel when she was just one month old. She returned to the US briefly to study television and psychology at Boston University. Pliskin joined the IDF as a translator, and later began to work as a journalist. She’s now a project manager and foreign relations assistant at the Geneva Initiative (GI) — a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort that suggests a detailed model for a peace agreement to end the conflict.

I grew up in a town in the south, near Be’er Sheva, surrounded by desert — a little oasis. [It] is located right next to a Bedouin village by the name of Tolshiva, and when we lived there, every Saturday we would go [to the village] and talk and drink coffee and eat fruit with the Palestinians. The Israeli and Palestinian communities, as you know, are very separated. So I was privileged to not have [experienced that] when I was younger. It all seemed very natural to me.

I didn’t have that thing a lot of Israelis have because of the separation and [because of the] conflict where they think they should fear Arabs. I never had that. I never feared getting on buses during the bombings.

I was always on the left; my parents were “peace, peace, peace.” But really getting actively involved in politics allowed me to discover just how much of our narrative is skewed, and how it forgets to mention all of the things that resulted in the Zionist movement — things that no one would be proud of.

I worked at a newspaper for a year and a half, which got me closer to the conflict than I ever have before. I started going to protests but [I didn’t] feel that I was really doing anything. Eventually I joined the Geneva Initiative.

It shouldn’t be hard to make peace. It is hard because the conflict is difficult, but it shouldn’t be because the solution was worked out 41 years ago [with the Geneva Initiative] — how this can be solved in a way that doesn’t include sending an entire people into the sea, as extremists on either side would want. It is also clear that [if this Geneva Initiative solution] brings an end to the conflict, two-thirds of both populations would support it.

The majority on both sides wants peace, but on either side the majority thinks the other side doesn’t want peace. It’s frustrating to see that things are not going anywhere, that even with negotiations there [seems to be] no change on the ground, and [consequently] no support among the people. One of the greatest obstacles to actively getting the public behind peace is [convincing them] not to look at who did what. It’s very easy to say ‘I shouldn’t work for peace because the other side doesn’t want it,’ which I think most Israelis will tell you without really knowing what Israel has done to not make peace possible at various stages of negotiation.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is probably the one thing I’m most passionate about. [And that means] getting the heck out of this bad situation, even if it did bring about a really good thing that saved so many Jews: our own state.

So until the conflict is resolved, I can’t raise the Israeli flag. I look around on Independence Day, when people hang flags on their balconies and on their cars, and it bothers me. I feel angry with those people, and in my head I call them fascists. They are celebrating a state that hasn’t completely come into being yet, because it hasn’t [been able] to settle all the problems with its establishment.

I work in a peace initiative, [and] I think the combination of journalism and political advocacy has made me a political animal. I don’t think the solution will be justice, which would mean rewinding things — and I don’t know where would you stop rewinding [in order] to get justice.

But it’s possible to at least create a reality that everyone can live in. The more urgent it becomes, the easier it’ll be to do it. That’s the only thing I find hope in: the fact that we’re so nearing catastrophe that someone will have to do something.

Ido Wakrat

A recent graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 23-year-old Ido Wakrat studied Computer Science and Mathematics. He was born in Haifa to an Israeli mother and an Egyptian father who came to Israel when he was young. Wakrat is a member of Children Summer Villages (CSV), an international organization that aims to promote education and inter-cultural understanding between Palestinian and Israeli children.

I am a bit more left, or [more] liberal than the country’s policy is, but at the same time I feel good about the country’s policy. I don’t agree with everything they do, but I think what they are doing is [for the most part] humanitarian and not crossing big lines. I would, however, like Israel to be more peace-oriented and open to negotiation.

I don’t think we don’t want peace, but one of the problems is that the government is not very stable and doesn’t really have control over what’s going on because of all the different parties.

I don’t really interact with Palestinians, but there are Arab Israelis in the area. I lived in a dorm that had nine rooms, and all of my roommates were Arab Israelis. For me, it’s okay to have them as roommates. [But] even though I don’t think I have prejudice, I don’t approach Arabs as much as I approach Israelis, although I would like to. If I was an Israeli citizen [but not of Jewish descent], it would be horrible.

I don’t feel that Palestinians have more right to the land than Israelis, but I think we don’t live there anyway so why not give it to them. There are so many different types of thought among Israelis, though the stereotype is that we are these aggressive, bloodthirsty people who want to kill all the Palestinians. There are some Israelis that are more pro-Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves, and there are some that just want to bomb them.

I feel bad for Palestinians because they live in really bad conditions and they have to [cope with] roadblocks. Their lives aren’t all that great. On the other hand, I want them to take responsibility for what happens inside [the Palestinian Territories] and not elect somebody like Hamas. When they did that, I thought “What on earth do you think you’re doing? You’re suffering way more than we are while the conflict continues, so why do this which will only make it last longer?”

I’m sure most Palestinians are brainwashed and don’t understand how much better their lives could be if we had peace. Others don’t feel like they have anything to lose, so they don’t see what they can gain.

But then you have the center [of both societies] that wants peace, though it depends on the price they are willing to pay for it. I think the majority of [the people] are willing to have peace, depending on how much of our land we’re willing to give. We’ll have to wait and see.

Faris Arouri

Twenty-six year old Faris Arouri was born in Jerusalem but lived in exile with his parents from the first intifada in 1987 until the Oslo Agreement was signed in 1993. At 26, he’s an economics graduate of Birzeit University in the West Bank. Arouri has been involved in politics ever since he started university, where he was an activist. After he graduated, he worked with a number of different grassroots and society organizations with aims ranging from direct action against occupation to peace-building like the GI.

In 2005, along with a group of youth activists, he started an independent group titled The Peace and Freedom Youth Forum (PFF). One of their most controversial projects is Write on the Wall (, where customers pay 30 (LE 250) online to have a message written on the separation wall being built in the West Bank.

When anyone hears the name of our organization, we get a look of ‘oh, peace.’ We say well, peace for us isn’t limited to the mainstream concept of peace, which automatically means [peace with] Israel.

We acknowledge that peace with Israel is important, but for us as youth our main focus when it comes to peace is within the Palestinian community, with the environment, the society itself and in individual freedom.

My father was a political activist; my family is full of political tradition. So when it comes to both politics and activism, I started much earlier. I was privileged to have been exposed to many things and have been taught early, [because] that’s not the general case in Palestine.

Palestinians aspire for things that are taken for granted by many other people. We live with insecurities and uncertainties, which make me grateful for what I have. But it makes me angry that concepts like equality and human rights, are applied based on where you’re born. The issue in Palestine was never a religious one; it was always about human rights, colonization and liberation. Now it’s mostly about human rights, which has become more important to Palestinians than statehood.

I believe all the procedures that Israel is implementing under the label of security are not about security at all, but about separating people. They know that as long as Israelis don’t know what’s happening on the other side, they won’t care much and won’t put pressure on the government. [Because] the only factor that plays into Israeli [government] considerations at the moment is Israeli public pressure internally.

[But] we should not boycott the Israeli individuals that support us, as few as they now are. Otherwise, it’s very hard for those individuals to get up on their feet, especially after the Israeli government managed to brainwash Israeli society, and redefine [Palestinians] as fanatic Muslim terrorists that want nothing but to fight.

Most Palestinians have [also] fallen into the trap of thinking of Israeli society as a unit — much like the West thinks of Muslim [society] — thinking of all Israelis as the soldier. We need to rehumanize ourselves.
But that is in no way a call for normalization or for participating in joint Israeli-Palestinian projects just for the sake of the projects.

Joint projects can be beneficial or harmful. One needs to consider both their aims and their topics. I can’t understand the promotion of a joint poetry project between youngsters. If the aim is for youth to meet and have fun, this is a nice, utopian idea, but it should come after a resolution has been reached. Before I get my rights I shouldn’t be forced to act nice. After all, we are enemies and will be enemies like the French and Germans until the conflict ends.

[And because of this] joint projects are delusionary, a waste of time and money and harmful to the Palestinians’ cause in both the eyes of the international community and the eyes of the Palestinians themselves. We’re meeting [Israelis and Palestinians] simply because the situation is not normal, not to pretend things are normal. We admit that the occupation is the problem, and the relationships can’t be normal while occupation is still there.

I don’t see any solution in the near future. The Israeli people want peace but the Israeli leaders can’t sell them peace when their opposition is simply better at opposing it.

Mayadah Tarazi

Mayadah Tarazi was born in Jerusalem, but she has neither a Palestinian nor Israeli passport. Instead, Tarazi has a temporary Jordanian travel document, which Jordan issued to Palestinians when it was in control of the West Bank from 1948 – 1967. At 26, she’s an administrative assistant at the Young Women Christian’s Association’s (YWCA) Palestinian branch. A Greek Orthodox, she has been working in YWCA since she was 19, and traveling on exchange programs with them around the world. The document allows her to travel but does not give her Jordanian citizenship.

Palestine is my nation and my country. I am a Palestinian, Christian Arab and I am very proud to be Palestinian — even though I have no proof that I am in fact Palestinian.

In the way we live now, we don’t have one good day. As long as there are checkpoints, barriers and Israeli soldiers everywhere, our lives cannot be normal. I don’t want to leave my country but sometimes [I feel like I] get to a certain stage where I can’t take any more. But I will never leave; we will soldier on. Who will we leave our country to?

My house is close to both Ramallah and the separation wall, and has been there since 1995. It used to take me 10 minutes to get to Jerusalem, now it can take 90 minutes. The wall is almost up and will block us completely, but I can’t leave my home.

In 2000, on the last Friday of Ramadan, [the Israelis] refused to let people go pray, so there was a gunfight [between Palestinians and the Israeli army]. My mother was in the house cleaning when the Israelis shot a bullet that shattered the window, causing a fragment of glass to land in my mother’s eye. We sued the Israeli army, but she lost the case and received no damages. She is now blind in that eye.

I don’t really deal with Israelis, and will keep it that way until a solution is reached. I began attending a social group of both Israelis and Palestinians last year, but I didn’t like the idea and couldn’t continue. I don’t like Israelis, even though I know [there are] so many that don’t hate us. I can deal with them as humans and citizens but I can’t deal with the army. I can’t even bear to see them. When an 18-year-old Israeli soldier shouts at an 80-year-old [Palestinian] woman or hits a 70-year-old [Palestinian] man, it disgusts you. When you see this situation, you hate them; you can’t interact with them.

I’m not at all optimistic about the future. I feel things will deteriorate even more. We [Palestinians] can never plan ahead — maybe a curfew will be announced, maybe roadblocks will be put up. Our lives are on hold. We have to live minute by minute.

Amira Gaber

Twenty-one year old Amira Gaber is from Abu Ghosh, a primary Muslim village of 5,500 near Jerusalem. She is one of around 1.5 million “Arabs of Forty-Eight” — or descendants of those who were not expelled with the creation of Israel. Muslim, Christian, Bedouin and Druze they constitute about 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population and hold Israeli passports. Gaber is a second year pharmacy student in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and volunteers at the ICCI.

I am a Palestinian, [but] I travel with an Israeli passport. I don’t feel any conflict about using it; it only allows me to move within and outside of the country. I have no loyalty to Israel.

We [all Palestinians] are living under occupation, but in various forms. The Palestinians living in Gaza live more difficult lives than we do [as Arab Israelis]. The friends I have living in Ramallah, for example, live the things I only hear about or see on TV. But as Israeli citizens, [Palestinians] are also subject to racism. Instead of having to constantly stop at checkpoints, I am denied some of my [civil] rights.

Arab Israelis aren’t treated like the [Jewish] Israeli citizens. As Arabs, we’re looked at in a demeaning way. You’ll be sitting in the bus talking on the phone in Arabic, and everyone looks at you as if you are a terrorist who is going to kill them. There is racism in the entire country — in education, in everything.

We were taught in schools that all follow an Israeli curriculum. You have to learn the language, the religion and the history, which is a narrative told from [the Israeli] point of view. But that’s the reality. They fear that Arabs will advance, so they try to hold us back.

Things are deteriorating by the day. We haven’t seen any progress — just violence, killing. There will be no [good] result from this on either side; no one is agreeing on anything. There is no Palestinian state and even Israelis are living in fear, building walls to protect themselves.

[Israelis] are sick of the situation, too: Seventy percent of them are not optimistic about the situation. The second intifada and the war in Lebanon ruined the Israeli economy, because most of Israeli citizens’ taxes to go toward the army, and not on things like education. The population is not happy with the status quo. They dislike their government, they insult the president and they want change.

There’s a saying that goes: “Every population has a nation except the Palestinian, his nation is inside him.” And it’s true, who am I? I’m circling around myself. I can’t identity with my [Israeli] nationality. We have no foundation, [Palestinians] are refugees around the world. My dream is to live in a country just for me — to have rights for every citizen like any other country. et


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