A study in contrasts: The Palestinian liaison to ‘interaction with Israeli society’

Muhammad al-Madani heads the Palestinian ministry for ‘interaction with Israeli society’ but his Israeli interlocutors claim he has little interest in their story.

December 3, 2016 05:54
Muhammad al-Madani

Muhammad al-Madani has met with thousands of Israelis of all persuasions with the aim of promoting the two-state solution. (photo credit: SABA HUSSARY)

LIKE MOST Palestinian Authority ministries, the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society is located in a spare, nondescript high-rise building on the outskirts of El-Bireh, just a five-minute drive from downtown Ramallah to the southwest, and a kilometer from the Jewish community of Beit El to the north. The building is marked by the bright yellow flags of the ruling Fatah movement, flying stiffly in the afternoon wind, but is otherwise indistinguishable from the residential buildings in the rest of the neighborhood.

For the past five years, the fourth floor of the building has seen a steady stream of Israeli visitors to the office of Muhammad al-Madani, the PLO official who heads the committee, but never as many as over the past two months.

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Prior to that, al-Madani travelled freely between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, using his VIP card to meet with Israelis of all political, social and religious persuasions. Since taking on the role of building bridges with Israeli society in 2012, Madani has met with tens of thousands of Israelis at parlor meetings, schools, pre-army academies, schools, universities and farther afield.

A decade after the outbreak of the second intifada and the construction of the West Bank security wall, the decision to reach out to the Israeli public was a strategic move on the part of the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership.

That freedom of movement was curtailed in mid-June, when new Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman revoked Madani’s VIP card, restricting his free passage from Palestinian-controlled territory into Israel. Liberman says the move was predicated on “professional considerations” ‒ that al-Madani was working to “undermine” Israel by interfering in domestic politics.

Madani laughs bitterly at the charge, saying the whole move was a throwback to an old-style, zero-sum Israel-Palestinian politic in which both sides felt any negative move to hit one side automatically meant a positive gain for the other side.

The 70-year-old Madani is a study in contrasts ‒ some would say contradictions. After his parents fled their home in the village of Kfar Sabeth, west of Tiberius, during Israel’s War of Independence (an older brother died in circumstances that are unclear during the war, and his father died a few weeks later, the result of a heart attack apparently brought on by grief over losing his son and home), Madani grew up as an Israeli citizen in Daburiyya, an Arab town located to the east of Nazareth, at the foot of Mount Tabor.

SOME OF his descriptions of growing up in Israel during the 1950s and ’60s seem almost idyllic, with seasonal work in the fields and orchards of nearby kibbutzim, and a doting mother who stressed the universalist values of charity and human dignity. Eventually, Madani attended night school in Tel Aviv to finish his high school matriculation exams.

“I never felt any racism or hatred from Jews at all,” he says.

But when challenged about his decision to join the PLO following the Six Day War ‒ a decision he says took a week to make after he entertained an uninvited, offhand invitation made by a stranger in a Ramallah café, in 1968, to join the Fedayeen, the PLO terrorist force operating at the time in Jordan ‒ Madani strikes a different tone.

“I didn’t experience my childhood as it should be… I suffered from racism. I remember working with laborers in a village called Yamma. I was talking with the owner of the construction site and he told me that all of us workers were slaves. It was a kind of watershed moment ‒ you get lost between your humanity and someone who rejects your humanity and refuses to share anything with you,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.

After joining the PLO, Madani underwent military training in Jordan. In 1968, he participated in the Battle of Karame, an IDF operation in southern Jordan to root out PLO terrorists, which left 33 Israeli soldiers dead and many dozens wounded. Palestinian forces also sustained heavy losses ‒ the battle left 128 Palestinians dead, but the battle ultimately entered the annals of Palestinian history because of the blows unleashed on the IDF less than a year after Israel’s lightning victory in the Six Day War.

From there, Madani steadily climbed the ladder of the PLO hierarchy, achieving senior combat roles in Jordan and Syria and eventually being promoted to command Palestinian forces operating in Beirut. He was among the senior PLO leadership kicked out of Beirut by IDF forces during the 1982 invasion (known in Israel as Operation Peace for Galilee). In 1994, with the creation of the Palestinian Authority, he moved first to Gaza and then to Ramallah.

Today, Madani’s activities focus mainly on meeting Israelis, listening to their stories and promoting the two-state solution favored by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and reporting back. He stresses that activities of the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society are coordinated and approved by Abu Mazen ‒ who he insists is “100 percent committed” to ending the occupation and to coexistence with Jews. Some of the Israelis who have met Madani tell The Report he has little curiosity about Israeli lives, often showing little interest in Israelis’ stories, focusing instead on conveying his personal story in the hope of drawing sympathy.

That feeling was not clear to this author, however.

True, a central feature of the story Madani presents is a defense of historic and current Palestinian positions ‒Yasser Arafat’s recognition of Israel in 1988; the Oslo Accords that Palestinians understood would lead to statehood; the notion that “getting back ‘stolen land’” is a human value.

But when asked what he’s learned from his encounters across the conflict line, Madani speaks passionately about the Israelis he has spent time with and their deep commitment to coexistence.

“My message to the Palestinian leadership is that there is a serious feeling on the other side that the Israelis want peace… [my meetings with Israelis have] enhanced my concept of understanding the human being, without regard for his religion, perspective or anything else… all of the people I’ve met on the Israeli side are concerned with peace,” he says.

Yet, although there is certainly a sense that while Madani is willing to entertain tough questions about his personal history and official Palestinian Authority behavior, it is equally clear that he is not willing to answer them. Asked how he reconciles the “universalist values” he learned at home with the terror he helped organize against Israeli non-combatants, Madani replies that he helped Armenians and Jews in Beirut during the early days of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975-76.

SIMILARLY, WHEN asked about the anti- Israel incitement that is rampant in Palestinian schools, graffiti, media and public sphere, Madani balks, once again. Pressed about Fatah colleague Sultan Abu Ein’s call to “slit settlers’ throats,” Madani insisted the comments were taken out of context.

And, when challenged about Palestinian Authority celebrations for terrorists, as well as about Abu Mazen’s regular accusations that Israel is committing “genocide” and other crimes against the Palestinian people, Madani seems not to understand the notion that, to most Israelis, a single PA glorification of a murderer speaks louder than a thousand statements about peace.

“Put yourself in Palestinian shoes: You see checkpoints everywhere. You are scared all the time that someone could attack or kill you, like the incident at Kalandiya Checkpoint [63-yearold Muhammad Mustafa Habash died of teargas inhalation during clashes between IDF forces and Palestinians there on July 1 – AF].

“Now, the IDF might have been right ‒ someone threw rocks at them. But if you don’t want people to throw rocks at you, why are you still occupying their land? If you want to solve things according to the concept of war, then both sides are doing the right thing. So, I can understand that the occupied are throwing rocks and the occupier is doing his duty to protect himself. “ But, ultimately, Madani stresses his belief that whatever the legitimacy of the Palestinian and Israeli narratives regarding the events of May 1948, the road to a peaceful future runs strictly out of the Israeli camp. Settlements, occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian people are the root of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, he says, adding that Israel has little to lose by making peace with the Palestinian Authority because the IDF is the strongest army in the region and that no Arab country would even consider fighting Israel.

“Look, even if according to the logic of religion and history we aren’t going to agree with one another ‒ ever ‒ each nation has a narrative, its own story.

“But if our generation does not make peace, the future conflict with Israel will be much worse, much more bloody than before. And it’s up to the Israelis to make peace. It’s in their hands.”

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