Above the Fray: The inevitability of coexistence

Being passionate about one cause, as both sides rightfully are, does not preclude respecting the other's cause. It is mutuality of respect, not necessarily an overall agreement, that bridges the gap.

Neveh Shalom (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Neveh Shalom
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
Coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians is inevitable and, short of catastrophic developments, the two peoples are doomed or destined to live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. They must now decide on the quality of that coexistence: do they want to live with mutual hatred and fear while demonizing one another, or do they want to live in peace and amity and realize the biblical prophecy of making their shared land the Land of Milk and Honey?
No peace will ever be forged, let alone endure, unless both sides understand and appreciate each other’s fears, concerns, hopes and dreams. Only through direct social contact will they overcome their mutually destructive perception of each other.
The Palestinians’ perception of the Israelis as oppressive, uncaring people, determined to deny them basic rights, is anchored in their day-to-day experiences. As they see it, the continuing occupation, road blocks, humiliation and usurpation of land further diminishes any prospect for peaceful cohabitation. The Israelis are viewed as the enemy to be hated, resisted and undermined. In their view, successive Israeli governments have offered no reason for them to change their minds and no cause to hope for a better tomorrow. And with a complacent Israeli public, what prospects are there for such a change?
Yet what effort have the Palestinians made to reach out to their Israeli counterparts and try understanding their personal concerns, the mind-set that continues to feed their inner tribulations and sense of uncertainty and insecurity?
The Israelis, however, feel no better about the Palestinians. They see them as violent, unrelenting people who will not settle for anything less than the utter destruction of Israel, especially when such a sentiment is on display by radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others. The Israelis’ experiences have given them no reason to trust the Palestinians, whom they view with ridicule and disdain as backward people wedded to traditions that prevent them from rising to peoplehood and a better fate.
Yet the Israelis, too, have never fully appreciated the Palestinians’ plight, the suppression and daily indignities of waking up each morning subjugated in one’s own homeland.
If coexistence is inevitable, changes of perception become imperative. Hearing each other’s stories and life experiences – the creation of human connection – is indispensable to normal relations. Listening to opposing views, understanding each other’s pain, and appreciating what the other is experiencing allows for a change of perception. Being passionate about one cause, as both sides rightfully are, does not preclude respecting the other’s cause. It is mutuality of respect, not necessarily an overall agreement, that bridges the gap. Indeed, one need not change identity, cultural heritage or religion to live in peace, as long as there is mutual acceptance and respect. The realization that the other is just a normal human being – with feelings, hopes and aspirations – creates the connection so desperately needed between these two sides.
Successive Israeli governments and Palestinian authorities have failed miserably for the past 63 years to advance the cause of peace. They have been engaged in mutual recrimination instead of facing the inevitable and charting a course to end the festering conflict that has poisoned three generations of Israelis and Palestinians. They continue to be suspicious of each other’s sinister intentions. The Palestinians accuse Israel of having a grand design to permanently occupy all of the land west of the Jordan River, and the Israelis accuse the Palestinians of plotting to dismantle Israel in stages.
Regardless of the current political maneuvering and its consequences, the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians must free themselves of these embedded prejudices. They must now begin to build ties to prevent a renewed cycle of violence. How else can trust be built?
The visible and the invisible walls between the two peoples must be torn down, but it takes determined people to do so. Only the people can mold the present to whatever future they wish to have. Their governments, which have failed them time and again by perpetuating mutual fear, will have no choice but to heed to their call. Peace and reconciliation must first be envisioned by the people, because it can only come from the people. They must rise and demand change. They alone can bring an end to the mutual dehumanization and recrimination.
Past injustices and agonizing human tragedies and losses cannot be settled by acts of vengeance and retribution, which are the recipe for a continuing cycle of violence, but by dialogue and identification with each other.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian physician who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza, had every reason to feel angry, to hate every Israeli and seek revenge. But he refused. “Many people,” he said, “expected me to hate. My answer to them: I shall not hate, let us hope for tomorrow.”
Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli father whose 19-year-old son was kidnapped and then killed by Hamas, did not seek revenge, either; instead, he established Parent Circle, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost loved ones to this senseless violent struggle. “I gradually realized,” he said, “that the only hope for progress [to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle] was to recognize the face of the conflict.”
More and more communities like the Oasis of Peace, Neveh Shalom, must be established, where Israelis and Arabs choose voluntarily to live side by side. Neveh Shalom remains the only place where their children live and grow together and foster relationships on which to build a new future.
Palestinians and Israelis must learn to overcome decades of mutual fear and lack of trust and together seek a new horizon. They must defy the present conditions that deepen their estrangement and begin to connect socially and openly. It is absurd that Israeli Jews can go nearly everywhere between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, while their government deprives the Palestinians of the same privileges. Every Israeli who wants to live in peace must demand that this discriminatory law preventing the Palestinians from entering the country be annulled. Notwithstanding Israel’s national security concerns, which must be considered, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could easily receive security clearance and be allowed to see and mingle with the “enemy,” only to realize that they are ordinary people who yearn to live in peace.
The same must also be applied to the Israelis, who should flock to the West Bank the way they used to before the second intifada and reengage the Palestinian people with whom they must coexist. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker peace activist, said: “An enemy is one whose story you have not heard.” If the Israelis do not take matters into their own hands, who will?
The time has come for the people on both sides to tear down the shameful fences and walls and demand an end to this consuming madness. Only the people can begin to reconcile their national narratives and embrace the inevitability of coexistence, building a promising future for both people.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.