An overlooked obstacle to peace

In a small Palestinian village near Bethlehem, there are people who do not just want peace, but have created a peace of their own, albeit on a small scale.

West Bank security barrier wall 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
West Bank security barrier wall 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
With the dramatic news surrounding the recent Geneva agreements with Iran, talk has steered away from the waning Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But have no fear; the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is the problem that always finds its way back to the headlines.
That is probably because Middle East pundits and diplomats have an unshakable notion that just getting the two sides to sit down with each other is the only logical step. The truth, however, is that there are more troubling human rights problems on the ground that need to be dealt with before any talks can be fruitful.
In a small Palestinian village near Bethlehem, there are people who do not just want peace, but have created a peace of their own, albeit on a small scale. On a field trip to Palestinian villages as part of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Israel-Arab conflict program, I had the opportunity to meet leaders of the village, sit in their living rooms, and discuss their relationships with the Jews in the settlement next door. I was moved by the story of how these Palestinians formed their own small school so that their children would not be indoctrinated in the hostile environment of the school in a nearby town. I have seen how Israeli Jews have worked with the military authorities to ease building restrictions for the village.
These Israelis and Palestinians defy the polarized norm we hear about so often.
Recently, three men from this village, whose names are omitted to protect their safety, were arrested by the Palestinian Authority for the crime of forming friendships with their neighbors, therein violating a 2010 Palestinian anti-settlement products law. This law was intended to prevent supporting “cancers in the Palestinian body,” as one PA legal adviser put it, and is still in effect today. One of the arrested men was accused of renting land to Jews from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc for festivities for Succot, and the other two of renting the traditional tent and chairs needed for the celebration.
These arrests reflect an alarming policy of what has come to be known as “anti-normalization,” the staunch refusal to create normal inter-community relationships.
Although it is disguised here as a law, the law is not always just. This particular law crosses the line of typical boycotts aimed at protecting the rights of locals, and instead seeks to prevent social interaction altogether.
Such hostility is strictly enforced by the PA , as if keeping people apart and forbidding contact with one’s adversary is the road to peace. On the human level, this policy is not a safeguard, but a violation, of human rights.
This incident was reported by Palestinian news agency Ma’an, where it reads as an average crime beat reporting the arrest of local “suspects” of an accepted crime, further proving that such activity is not frowned upon in Palestinian society. But while these men sit in jail simply for merely renting to their neighbors, there has been no mention of their arrests by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the UN. While they occasionally address PA violations of freedom of speech or excessive force in suppressing protests, these organizations are, for the most part, too busy criticizing Israel.
As a mistakenly overheard Spanish-English UN interpreter exclaimed about this trend, “C’est un peu trop, non? [It’s a bit much, no?] I mean… there’s other really bad shit happening, but no one says anything, about the other stuff.”
This is sad but true – 21 out of 25 critical resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly this year were against Israel, while Syria burns, Iraqis kill each other and Egyptians are shot dead in the street. Only one condemned Syrian President Bashar Assad’s daily mass murder of civilians, and not one addressed the PA ’s role in perpetuating unrest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Choosing to ignore these violations sends an anti-peace message to the Palestinian people: that confrontation and strife – not moderation and normalization – is the goal.
This type of intra-community struggle is not talked about because it does not fit easily into the oversimplified mold people have created for an intricate conflict. It is not Israelis jailing Palestinians or Palestinians attacking Israelis; this is a Palestinian government suppressing moderate forces within its domain, while misleading the world into thinking it is seeking freedom for its people. The arrest of these men suggests otherwise.
It is clear when talking to human rights advocates like Bassam Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, that this is not an isolated incident.
His group is dedicated to “the monitoring of human rights violations committed by the PA ,” and has revealed a striking lack of freedom of speech that has left many journalists in prison.
While discussing the topic with the group from my program, Eid explained to me that the imprisonment and torture of Palestinians by their own supposed representatives is too often overlooked, and indicates that maybe the PA doesn’t represent the people at all. Numerous other Palestinian groups have spoken out on the issue, but their voices have largely gone unheard by the international community.
Admittedly, Israel has plenty to worry about – the conflict in Syria, tensions with the US, not to mention a glaring suspicion that the Geneva agreements will only delude the world into underestimating Iran. Three Palestinian prisoners in PA jail are, understandably, not at the top of the list of priorities. Nonetheless, it is important to address – and work towards peace in a realm outside American- structured diplomacy, and cultivate a relationship with the people who actually have an interest in being friends.
As for the attitude of the rest of the world toward the conflict, the first step is to recognize that this problem of PA human rights violations is indicative of a larger issue that undermines the precious peace process world leaders have touted for so long. While the PA makes motions towards negotiating, it is cultivating an environment in Palestinian society that does not promote the peaceful coexistence any solution must include. Israel’s talking point, “We have no partner for peace,” is indeed partially true – there may be a partner for peace, but it is definitely not the one the world is intent on talking to.
It is time to take a step back from negotiations and defend the people who are prevented, in violation of their human rights, from living peaceful lives side by side with their Jewish neighbors. Sure, these are just local residents who do not officially represent the Palestinian people, but small steps in the right direction are better than giant meaningless ones. Failing to support such moderate citizens means encouraging an unacceptable status quo, in which the PA continues to suppress the rights of its own people – especially those people who just want to live in peace.
That, more than anything, is a proven recipe for failure.
The writer was a participant in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’s Israel-Arab conflict program.