Let the people speak

15 years after peace deal, why do Israelis and Jordanians have so little contact.

By HANI HAZAIMEH
March 17, 2010 13:00
Rabin, Hussein and Clinton at peace summit

Rabin Hussein peace 311. (photo credit: .)

 
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It has been more than 15 years since the peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordan and yet the goal of living in harmony seems more elusive than ever.

While there are relations between the upper echelons, with political ties in some areas, on the ground – the place where it matters the most – there is still little recognition of the other side’s
legitimacy as a nation.

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This lack of understanding and acceptance appears in many forms. My first encounter with Israeli journalists as a participant in a European Union-funded conference last year was certainly tainted by lack of previous contact. Both sides know very little about each other
and rely on distorted images promoted by local and international media, which have served only to incite anger and reinforce negative perceptions.

Simply by reviewing Jordan’s media over the past few months, it becomes clear that the human aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict is seldom reported on, and that shared challenges faced by both sides of the Jordan River are played down in favor of rhetoric and scandals
demonizing the other side. I can imagine that a similar scenario prevails in Israel.

The 1994 peace treaty clearly stated that both countries must take steps toward normalizing ties in all areas – social, cultural and economic – not just political. However, the focus on political developments at the expense of all other issues has lead to deteriorating relations to the point where they are now worse than before the treaty was signed.

WITH THIS in mind, you might be wondering why I, as a Jordanian, would bother writing this article at all. Despite the frustration that currently exists around Arab-Israeli relations, there is still a small ray of hope that could bring true peace between our two nations. I
believe that this light might even be bright enough to guide us towards coexistence – two peoples living side by side in harmony. It might also help us all look through the media and acknowledge our common humanity.

I can provide no better example than the first time I swam in the Mediterranean Sea off the Tel Aviv coast. It was late September 2009 and I felt as safe as can be, floating in the waters of my supposed enemy’s country. It was not what I expected at all, especially since the trip, my first to Israel, was arranged to expose Israel’s unjustified unilateral measures in east  Jerusalem and their ramifications on the peace process. The trip also was aimed to expose me to the miserable lives of the Palestinian people in Israel.



For most Jordanians and for the wider Arab world, the fact that I left Israel with a completely different perspective of Israelis would be received with shock and dismay. But that is only because they have not had an opportunity for direct dialogue or face-to-face contact with
Israelis.

Had they experienced what I have over the past 12 months, they too would view the “other” in an entirely different way. Human contact is the only way to clear the foggy skies of mistrust. It is the only hope to live in peace.

So, how could it happen that a Jordanian – whose country has fought several wars with Israel – find himself walking in the streets of west Jerusalem or eating in a restaurant on  en-Yehuda or shopping in Tel Aviv? Even as a child I was taught that Israel was the greatest enemy of the Muslim and Arab world, and I certainly never imagined that one day I would be sitting opposite an Israeli having a normal conversation.

However, this is exactly what happened a little over a year ago in January 2009 as a  participant in an EU conference in Madrid. Caught up in the thrill of being in Spain, I suddenly found myself seated directly opposite a group of Israeli journalists.

Personally, I was more intrigued than beleaguered by their presence even though the other Arab journalists –participants from Syria, Egypt and Palestine – were angered by their presence. Faced with pressure from my Arab colleagues, I had to be careful not to seem too friendly.

However, as the days passed, I realized how much we had in common both as journalists and as human beings and our differences quickly faded away. The fact I had more in common with some of the Israelis than with the other Arabs led me to ignore my colleagues’ angry glances and enjoy the time we had together.

OUR MEETING in Madrid just happened to coincide with Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, which stirred hatred in the hearts of people on all sides. Many people were repulsed by a war where women, children and innocent citizens – those that had nothing to do with the conflict – paid a heavy price.

It was then that I realized much of today’s conflict has actually been fueled by local and international media, whose only interest is to report the dark side of humanity – killings, arrests and other stories that stir hatred and provoke violence in the region. Media cove rage in this part of the world is biased at best, with most outlets seemingly intent on portraying a negative image of both Arabs and Israelis alike.

The Madrid conference offered me the unique opportunity to talk to Israelis, discuss with them the struggle over land and power in our region. Some of them agreed with my views, others did not, but we all could see that there are no winners in war.

One of the journalists I met at the conference was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post, a newspaper perceived by the vast majority of Arabs as a far-right medium. Maybe it was this reason that compelled me to talk to her and discuss what was going on in Gaza or to try to understand what Israelis think about us, the Arabs. I was surprised to discover that she was led to believe that Arabs, in her words, “are not like any other people.” She even admitted to staring at me and my Arab colleagues just to see how we acted.

It was a funny notion, but I did not blame her for her curiosity. Her thoughts and impressions were no different than the rest of the people living in the Middle East. We have all been manipulated by the media and by our upbringings to the point where we are no longer sure if the other side is human.

Since the conference, the two of us have stayed in touch and even visited each other’s country. This has brought us closer to understanding the difference between the political rhetoric and dynamics of our countries and what every day citizens really believe. I have discovered the common ground we share as Muslims and Jews living in the Middle East and have realized the importance of working together for the sake of future generations.

After hours of discussions – and the occasional respectful disagreement – the two of us have agreed to work together to address the disparities between our communities and to highlight the commonalities we share as people. We are preparing a joint-project to try to change the mind-sets of people in our countries and correct the common misconceptions on both sides.

I truly believe that if we can make this change, then anyone can. Both of us grew up under the shadow of mistrust, but at the end of the day we just want to live and enjoy our basic human rights – a common humanity that is stronger than any propaganda. It is a huge task, but if we are to truly realize the peace treaty that was laid into place 15 years ago, then none of us have a choice.

The writer is a reporter and editor at The Jordan Times in Amman.

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