One of the first things that strikes anyone who’s traveled in Muslim/Arab cultures is how similar they seem to Israelis. Tell an Israeli or a Palestinian that and expect an angry tirade inches away from your face but all the same it’s true.
Arabic and Hebrew sound alike, both harsh, throaty languages and hundreds of their words and grammatical structures are virtually the same.
A little less than half the Israelis have grandparents who came from Arabic countries in the first place. These Sephardic Israeli have golden brown skin, eat Arabic food and listen to music that sounds like a hit from Egypt.
They’ve lived side by side peacefully for more than a 1000 years and their religions both come from the same father figure, Abraham. Both also have fundamentalists who cover their heads and hide their women from the godless crowds. The latter are usually to be seen shepherding huge families around both sides of the border.
Perhaps the most striking similarity is how they both deny any similarity and are ready to fight for it. The irony has been noted before that the Palestinians should now be homeless and unwanted wherever they go at the hands of the Israelis, who were persecuted for so long themselves. Israelis don’t see it this way though. The Palestinians have been effectively demonized or demeaned in the Israeli media so that no one loses any sleep over their current situation. In fact no one knows anything about their current situation – ask an average Israeli to describe living conditions in Ramallah or a refugee camp and they won’t have more than the faintest idea.
One of the most common complaints and also most accurate is that the Palestinian leadership is corrupt. The money that arrives from Europe for hospitals and schools goes into the coffers of the leaders who are interested in one thing only: power. The Palestinian people are so loyal to their leaders that after the death of Arafat, the candidate standing against corruption lost to a man standing next to Arafat in all his campaign photos.
You cannot hope to understand any of the situation from reading a newspaper or journal abroad. To understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you have to know the people involved and grasp the energies at play here. Yet it’s such a tangled mess that the more you learn the harder it is to really understand anything at all.
What is clear is that until recently, the Palestinians were seen as less than human by most Israelis. The 1967 war brought the occupied territories and a flood of cheap labour and the Palestinians came in to do all the shitty jobs. It was only after the first Intifada that the PLO was even acknowledged as anything other than a bunch of mutinous Arabs and, if nothing else, that much Arafat managed to do for his people (before robbing them blind).
For a time it looked like there was going to be peace with the Oslo agreements and then came the assassination of the dove leader, Rabin. Many like to mythologize Rabin now and bemoan that the peace process fell out of sight then. There’s no way of knowing what could have happened but what’s clear is that successive Israeli governments under Netayou and Barak failed to come through with their part of the deal. The pressure built and built until the second Intifada broke out when Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The outbreak of the second Intifada and the atrocities that occurred crippled the Israeli left and the talks of peace. In particular the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob was a deep psychological blow to even recognizing the Palestinians as humans who could be treated as such. Add to that the suicide bombers taking out buses and nightclubs and all sympathy, understanding and responsibility evaporated to be replaced by rage, hate and scorn.
There’s so much propaganda around on both sides that hardly anyone has any idea what’s going on. The events of the past are all interpreted to suit the psychology of the present and most Israelis find it impossible to believe that they have ever done anything more than fight for their own survival. Naturally, Israelis only get to see the situation down the barrel of a gun during their two or three years in the army – and that’s not an easy position to be in and also see the other side.
Arafat and Sharon are gone but the daily suffering and humiliation of the Palestinians continues. They continue to lose land to the Israeli security wall and have their homes demolished by the army each time an impressionable youth is talked into blowing himself up in Israel.
Israelis can’t understand how anyone can have such little respect for life as to blow himself up and take civilians and children with him. You can’t talk to these people, they say.
Palestinians can’t understand how anyone can have such little respect for life as to make them live with constant checkpoints, deprive them of their land and access to water, cut down their olive trees and demolish their homes. You can’t talk to these people, they say.
It’s easy to be wise as an external observer. The fact is that when you suffer personal loss in a conflict then it becomes a daunting task to be able to feel any empathy for the other side. Your own scarred emotions drown your reason and the relentless propaganda on both sides feeds the whirlpool of anger and hate that sucks everyone down.