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Our dream of a future for both peoples is the victim of this tragedy

The writer is a retired professor of philosophy and held the post of the Palestinian Liberation Organization representative in Jerusalem

As someone who is one year younger than Israel and lived in Jerusalem for the longer part of my life, the horrors now being relayed about the suffering of Israeli civilians and the devastation of entire living quarters in Gaza make me feel estranged from myself.

I grew up believing that we Palestinians had lost most of our country to Jewish settlers in 1947-48 due to conspiracies and treacheries, rather than might or planning. So I was devastated in 1967 when I discovered that what I had believed to be a weak Israel mostly dependent on foreign powers turned out instead to be able to crush the forces of three major Arab countries in six days.

My shock quickly turned to wonder about the secret power Israel had. I took it upon myself to look inside the enemy, in case I could discover what that secret was. One thing that immediately struck me was the frugal way even their leaders lived. Another discovery was the government’s care for its people — including health, housing and national insurance right from the start — as well as a proud self-identity as Jews who cared for each other.

I spent time in a kibbutz listening to young and old, hearing their pristine love for what they believed would be the ideal state of the future. I couldn’t but be overawed. My enemy was a human experiment to admire. I decided to relegate the Palestinian tragedy I grew up with to an unredeemable past in my mind, one that must be replaced by Palestinians joining Israelis to build a mutual future together.

In time, I took up a teaching post at Birzeit university in the occupied West Bank. I was full of hope and resolve. My students at the time — all Palestinian — came from all over Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself. Many were not much younger than I was and had already spent time in jail for resisting Israel’s occupation.

A favourite topic of discussion was the Melian dialogue — the hard choice imposed by the Athenians on the islanders to either submit or die. Is history on the side of those who have power, or those whose cause is just? It wasn’t hard for most of the students to come up with their own formula: to fight however they could for justice.

As Israel saw it then, universities across the occupied territories became “hotbeds of nationalism” to be shut down (interestingly, recent Israeli bombardments in Gaza have also hit seats of learning). But resolve only strengthened. By the late 1980s, there was a popular eruption against the occupation, strategised by those very students and colleagues as the struggle for freedom and independence.

Israeli intelligence services quickly saw that this was a political struggle requiring a political fix, as did many who believed in a two-state solution. Eventually Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, were won over by the idea that the Palestinians had to be negotiated with, not crushed. This ended in the establishment of a Palestinian Authority as a potential government for a Palestinian state some 30 years ago.

Since then, the prospect of an end to occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel has rapidly deteriorated. The real cause was a clash between two irreconcilable doctrines — a twisted version of the horse and cart dilemma about which horse to put in front: Israel’s “security, then freedom for the Palestinians”, or the Palestinians’ “our freedom, then security for all”.

Did this clash hide a deeper denial of the reality that two peoples must share the same land — of the basic formula that 1+1 = 2? Perhaps. Is it accurate to say that the single-minded prioritisation of security killed the chances of peace? Maybe. In any case, it paralysed the negotiation process, reinforcing radicals and sceptics on both sides.

In Israel, this expressed itself in a tectonic shift in favour of extremists bent on “taking it all”, which has reared its head in the fight over judicial reforms (and democratic values). In Palestine, it took the form of a failed Authority project wrestling with a growing disillusionment with peace and a losing competition with the long-forsaken option of military struggle, now embodied in a Hamas-governed pressure cooker called Gaza. Last Saturday therefore was not an “if” but a “when” and a “how” shock. It will stay this way if that basic formula is still not grasped.

This week my mind has run through the long list of former students and colleagues who committed themselves to the prospect of peace-with-justice, and the long list of friends and acquaintances in Israel who shared the same dream and worked hard for it. I remember those allies along Gaza’s borders who grasped hands with us in the early 1980s. I remember the Israeli academics who joined protests against yet another separation barrier in the campus of al-Quds University. I remember the colleagues who spent their Shabats driving down to the southern hills of Hebron to stand by a shepherd community being harassed by Israeli settlers.

I think of good people from all walks of life on the other side of the divide who believed we could and must work together to build an ideal future for both peoples — and I cannot but feel that it is our dream that is the betrayed victim of this tragedy. Once again, the coverage reduces us all to perpetrators and victims, the endless shift from one to the other reflecting a blindness to that unresolved and shared human tragedy that was born in 1948, and which seems determined to keep haunting us. 

                

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