Mid East News

Peace Breaks Out in the Middle East

by Sam Hine

Enough bad news. Ever since the outbreak of the recent Palestinian uprising, the media have flooded us with body counts, graphic images, dire predictions, and the inevitable biases and polarized opinions that only fuel the flames of anger, mistrust, and despair. Surely, we are farther than ever from the peace that so recently seemed so near.
So they say. True, if peace was merely the product of the political wrangling, coercion, and compromise called a “peace process,” there would be little reason for hope. If peace in the Middle East depended on military leaders and politicians, then we might never see peace. But on the ground the people who should be making headlines—the little people quietly working for cooperation and understanding between Jews and Arabs, or working to change the hearts and minds of their own people—show us that despite the odds, the real peace process is alive and well.

It starts with little deeds that shatter stereotypes, like the Palestinian teens who came upon a Jewish settler who had strayed into the heart of Hebron. Weeping and shaking, the settler expected to share the fate of soldiers caught in Ramallah only days before. Instead, he was comforted and escorted to the nearest Israeli army roadblock.

Sometimes simple deeds make big waves. You may have heard of Omri Jadah, the young Palestinian who didn’t weigh religion and nationality when he dove into the Sea of Galilee in August to rescue a drowning Israeli child. He heaved six-year-old Gosha Leftov safely into a friend’s arms, only to be caught himself by the strong undertow and dragged to his death. He left behind a wife and two children, with a third on the way, but his sacrifice touched the hearts of Jews and Arabs alike. “He saw a kid drowning. It wasn’t an Israeli kid or a Palestinian kid, it was just a kid,” said Tim Rose, publisher of the Jerusalem Post. “We would all benefit if that kind of thinking could percolate up.”

Hamas kidnapped and murdered Yitzhak Frankenthal’s son, an Israeli soldier, in 1994. Today Yitzhak brings together bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents to issue a joint call for peace. During the recent unrest he was unable to organize an emergency meeting in Israel because Palestinians cannot enter Israel and Israelis cannot enter Gaza. Undeterred, Yitzhak convened the meeting in London. As far as Yitzhak knows, this was the first time in the history of wars that bereaved parents from both sides, while their peoples continued fighting, came together to project a genuine, warm reconciliation. Their message was clear: “We, who paid the dearest and most painful price of all, sit together discussing peace. We lost a child yet we do not seek revenge – only peace. If we can sit and talk, so can anyone.”

As long as deaths on “our” side are tragedies while “their” deaths are merely statistics, the violence will continue. Thanks to Seeds of Peace, an American organization that brings Arab and Israeli youth together in a summer camp in Maine, one Arab death opened young Jewish eyes to the reality of the situation. Like other participants, Asel Asleh, a student at Elias Chacour’s integrated high school in Ibillin, kept in touch with his new Jewish friends once he returned to Israel, emailing, phoning, and visiting regularly. When Asel was shot in the neck near his home in Arabeh, Galilee, his Jewish friends across Israel knew he hadn’t been throwing stones.

When Noam Kuzar, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, was called on to help repress the uprising, he took responsibility for his own actions. He simply refused to go, and was sentenced to 28 days in jail. Noam hopes others will follow his lead, and doesn’t seem to mind scrubbing floors for the rest of his active duty. “People ask me why I’m there cleaning and why I’m not in my fighting unit. I get to talk to people in the army about it quite a bit.”

Dalia Landau of Ramle offered to give her house back to the Arabs that were evicted in 1948, even though it had been her home since childhood. She and her husband Yehezkel agreed with the original Muslim owners, the Al-Khayri family, to make the house a daycare center for local Arab children, and Ramle’s only Jewish-Arab community center. Open House now also offers a summer camp for Arab and Jewish children, a tutorial program, and classes in language, computers, parenting, swimming, and creative arts. With Michail Fanous, a Palestinian Christian, as co-director, Open House stands as a shining example of cooperation between the country’s three religions. In the wake of the recent violence, Yehezkel says, there is much fear and hostility to overcome. “But at least there was no fighting in the streets between Ramle’s two communities, as happened in other mixed cities. I’d like to think that what we’ve been doing in the last ten years helped to calm the atmosphere.”

Yacoub Munayer, an Arab, experienced firsthand the eviction from Lod and Ramle in 1948. Josef Ben-Eliezer was one of the Israeli soldiers who drove them out. In the book Why Forgive? Josef tells how he was forced to flee Germany and then Poland as the Nazis advanced. He escaped to Palestine in 1943. Determined never to be trampled on again, he joined the Israeli army. Then unexpectedly, on that day in Lod, his childhood in wartime Poland flashed before his eyes, and he relived his own experience as a ten-year old boy driven from his home. Recently, Yacoub heard Josef’s story and extended his forgiveness, and the two reconciled in Lod.

Many Palestinians are Christians, firmly committed to the nonviolent gospel of their Prince of Peace. In some areas, they have effected a decidedly more nonviolent approach to liberation. Palestinians also bring to the table an age-old process of nonviolent conflict resolution called sulha. The goal of sulha is to restore honor to both the offender and the offended though a process of forgiveness and restitution, mediated by respected local leaders, that eventually brings both families together in a mutually beneficial final resolution. Elias Jabour, a respected mediator in his local community, says, “A civil court can only satisfy one side; somebody always loses. Making the Arab sulha satisfies all parties—all are happy in the end.” Sulha can only be set in motion if the offender seeks it, and if the offended party promises not to seek revenge. Applying this wisdom on a daily basis to current conflicts is Zougbhi Zougbhi, Executive Director of the Bethlehem-based Wi’am Center for Conflict Resolution.

Shulti Regev, a Jewish Kibbutznik, has put together a proposal for a “Public National Committee for Sulha and Reconciliation in the State of Israel.” Reminiscent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the body would hear testimonies, appeals and complaints, offering a foundation on which to rebuild trust. Respected spiritual and civic leaders on both sides have expressed support and willingness to serve on the committee. “Politics is not always the most efficient means of addressing such a depth of hostility among people who must continue to live together after mutual hurt,” Shulti says.

Peace will be born in places where all sides can come together safely on neutral ground. Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem has filled such a role for over 25 years. Jonatan Peled, a Holocaust survivor, is spearheading another venture. He recently left a job directing the Re’ut-Sadaka (Friendship) Jewish-Arab youth organization, in order to establish a permanent “Friendship Village,” an education center and farm available to multicultural youth groups throughout Israel as well as youth living in other areas of social and ethnic conflict. The Arab town of Shefa-Amer, between Haifa and Nazareth, has donated land to establish the center. “The basis for building trust is knowledge of the other,” Jonatan says. “Such knowledge can only be achieved through acquaintance, dialogue and learning. In other words, a vital precondition for the establishment of a real peace is mass education toward a culture of peace.”

Another man who knows that tolerance and understanding must be learned is Nafez Assaily, a Sufi Moslem who runs the Library on Wheels for Nonviolence and Peace. The library serves children in villages throughout the West Bank who have no access to public libraries. Besides providing books that promote peace, coexistence, and nonviolence, it distributes educational materials to kindergartens lacking proper supplies, and even offers financial support to families unable to afford children’s school fees. Although the uprising and border closures block his library from many Palestinian towns, Nafez is optimistic. “These violent demonstrations and the reactions of Israelis are signs that they will sit at the table in the near future to discuss peace in a serious way, because both sides understand the price they paid.”

To achieve that elusive peace, we must start listening to those who haven’t been heard. As elsewhere, women have been conspicuously underrepresented in negotiations determining their fate. One organization out to rectify that situation, Bat Shalom, has teamed up with its Palestinian counterpart, the Jerusalem Center for Women, and released a petition calling on Palestinian and Israeli women to lead the way:

The men tell us not to be scared. They tell us to be strong. We are scared, and we want them to be scared too. We do not want to be “strong”. We don’t want them to think that they are strong enough to make the other nation disappear or go down in defeat and disgrace…There are too many men with too many egos involved in burning this piece of land. They talk of a security based in might. We know that security means being good neighbors. Without forgetting the wrongs of the past, nor the unequal distribution of power, we will focus on how to live here in peace. We do not want the next generation of children to wear uniforms, to go to war. We want them to know self-determination and dignity, without the need to fight for them.

Despite its “honest broker” pose at the negotiating table, America bears responsibility for the role its military aid plays in this confrontation. One of the few American Jews to speak frankly about his own guilt is Rabbi Michael Lerner of San Fransisco, editor of Tikkun Magazine, a bimonthly Jewish critique of politics, culture and society. In a widely reprinted opinion piece, he wrote:

For every outrage on one side there is a story of outrage on the other. For me, that doesn’t justify either side—both are wrong and both sides need to atone. I have to take responsibility for my side, my community, my people… To me, Israeli deaths are a personal tragedy. But have we not yet learned that in God’s eyes every human being is equally treasured? As a religious Jew, I know that God and the Torah are served best when we insist that every human being, including our enemies, be seen as equally valuable to God and equally created as embodiments of the divine.

As a result of his stand, Rabbi Lerner has received death threats and had so many subscriptions cancelled that Tikkun’s financial base is jeopardized. (To subscribe, call 415-575-1200.) In Israel, too, a few religious leaders are showing the way. Rabbis for Human Rights, comprised of 90 Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis, has been instrumental in blocking home demolitions and supporting displaced families. During the height of the recent unrest they accompanied Palestinians who had come under fire while trying to harvest their olives.

And every day, prayers for peace rise to the God of three religions, such as this one from a Palestinian pastor: “My brothers and sisters, it is my prayer that what we suffer as a nation will not harden our hearts, but keep them tender and ready to forgive. Lord, help us not to be preoccupied with our own present suffering and unable to see the suffering of people in the rest of the world, even the suffering of our enemies.”

Wherever our allegiance or sympathy lies, and whatever our prescription for change, the fate of this very special piece of land concerns us all. Its suffering may be far from over. But next time your blood boils at the latest news, remember these peacemakers and many more like them, who reject the destructive urges of anger, tribalism, and fear. Remember their actions and words, which even in these difficult times are moving a violence-torn region slowly and surely toward peace. So can yours.

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