Friday, November 2, 2007

Both Sides are Human

In Humanity Lies Hope For Peace
By Hilla Medalia
In The Boston Globe,
Opinion November 1, 2007
DELEGATES FROM Israel and a consortium of Arab states will meet in the United States this month with the hope of devising an agreement - or at least the DNA of an agreement - that will lead to the formation of a Palestinian state and, theoretically, stability in the Middle East. It is the first such US-led summit in years, and regardless of the outcome, it will be a historic event.

History, unfortunately, has not favored success when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The road to peace is littered with numerous failed plans that have left in their wake a sea of bitter cynicism, and a resignation that this is a road that will forever stretch beyond the horizon. One can't be blamed for believing this summit will be no different.

The cynicism is understandable, but perhaps this is because, in both the United States and Middle East, much of what we know, or what we think we know, about the conflict is filtered through the lens of politics, which is too often framed by zealots and violence.

This leads both sides to assume that the general population of the other shares these extremist beliefs and desires nothing less than their complete subjugation, if not annihilation. At the very least, the average citizen's voice is overwhelmed by the deafening power of extremism. If you set aside the political rhetoric, however, and listen to what the average Israeli or Palestinian truly wants, you'll find that their desires are not so different. Opportunities for such dialogue, unfortunately, are rare.

I grew up in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, no more than 16 miles from Tulkarm, a Palestinian refugee camp, but until three years ago, I had never set foot in one of the camps that are the crux of the hostilities. The closest most Israelis - other than the army - get to Palestinian life is what they see in the media, which focuses almost exclusively on military activity and civil unrest.

I entered one of these camps, Deheisheh, not with a machine gun, but with a camera, to film a documentary about the mothers of two teenage girls: Rachel Levy, an Israeli, and Ayat al-Akhras, a Palestinian who killed Rachel, herself, and another bystander, and injured dozens of others in a suicide bombing several years ago. A neutral Christian Palestinian peace worker had to negotiate my entrance into the camp.

Simply bearing witness to life inside Deheisheh was a remarkable education. I was able to see Palestinians not as a political or military entity, but as ordinary people going through their daily routine - shopping, going to school, coming home from work - albeit in markedly oppressive conditions. The experience was short lived, however, and the political reality of the conflict brought home when we were detained within an hour by the Palestinian Authority and then released back to Israel."

Several weeks later, we arranged a meeting between Rachel's mother, Avigail, and Ayat's mother, Um Samir. Avigail had sought the meeting in an effort to understand why her daughter had become another of the countless victims of the Palestinian terrorist campaign, and what motivated Ayat to feel justified in killing innocent people. The mothers "met" via a videoconference, since a face-to-face meeting had proved impossible.

Their exchange was tense, and understandably, fraught with grief and an array of complex emotions. Both arrived with agendas to uphold and negative assumptions about the other. They could not agree on the morality or immorality of what Ayat had done. But they did understand each other as mothers who were devastated to have lost their daughters.

Most important, after four hours of often circuitous, heated dialogue, neither of them wanted the conversation to end. They stayed as long as the video conference schedule allowed, and then left reluctantly. Regardless of the hostility, they had seen each other in a way that Israelis and Palestinians rarely do - as human beings - and they did not want to let that go. It was too precious.

Herein lies the seed of hope for peace, or perhaps just a seed of hope for hope. When the US, Arab, and Israeli leaders meet at the upcoming summit, they might bear in mind that they are not representing political or military factions, but mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons who yearn to have their humanity recognized.

No comments: