On a recent field trip with my students in what some people call the West Bank and others call Samaria, we noticed a roadblock preventing access to a Palestinian Arab town we often pass through. Later on, when the roadblock was lifted, we spoke with Israeli soldiers at the Tapuach checkpoint, where a 25-year-old Arab man with 12 pipe bombs underneath a long coat was apprehended, prompting the earlier roadblock.
Events such as these take place more often than generally acknowledged. The reality is that at any time and place there are people determined to fight, harm and kill Jews. This truth is difficult for many, especially those who identify ideologically with the left, to acknowledge. In fact, just a few days after this incident at Tapuach, another man was killed after he opened fire on a group of soldiers there.
While hateful incitement is ongoing in Palestinian Arab society, we need to recognize that Israeli Jews are also subject to feelings that are not always warm and fuzzy or conducive to coexistence. I am no longer surprised when I often hear otherwise intelligent, cultured people reflect the flip side of Arab intolerance. From passive remarks of disrespect to more active expressions of contempt, hearing what is no less than Jewish racism in action should, but does not always, make all Jews feel uncomfortable.
Being targeted as an object of hate does not mean that one must hate back in return. And being a proud Jew, proud Zionist and strong defender of Jewish rights in a Jewish Israel does not mean that you must dislike Arabs to achieve those goals.
Buried deep beneath the headlines are Palestinian Arabs who are eschewing the language of hate and the tactic of violence for a far more refined, and perhaps far more threatening and challenging form of confrontation. Young Arabs out of the political limelight are meeting with Israelis, including “settlers” (they don’t like the term) and right-wing activists, on a regular basis. They discuss, argue, think and try to make sense out of the riddle of the seemingly insoluble dilemma of the Israel-Arab dynamic. And unlike some of the dialogue of the past, these interlocutors have been exposed to threats and harassment from their fellow Palestinian Arabs.
While violence as a tactic still seems to be all too accepted, what if a move from active resistance to active dialogue leads to more and more Palestinian Arabs really saying no to confrontation and yes to “let’s talk?” What can we expect then?
This change of attitude, which we claim we want to see, won’t be easy for either side. On the same field trip where we encountered the roadblock, we also met with a local activist, Ahmed, who told us of the harassment and violence some of his fellow villagers are subjected to by Jewish residents of neighboring communities. “They burn our schools and chicken coops and cut down our trees,” he said. The young Israeli guard assigned to our bus suspiciously eyed Ahmed, a man I have known for years. I have sat with him in his home, in his village, arguing about who is right. The guard fidgeted in his seat and at one point was belligerently “in his face” as Ahmed spoke. Ahmed’s discomfort was clear, as he urged the bus driver to drive faster.
Once we reached the outskirts of what used to be the Hawara checkpoint, he nervously wished us a “Shabbat Shalom” and left the bus, an hour earlier than scheduled. When I went out after him, he was shaky and said that he was scared that the guard would call some settler friends to harass or harm him. “Nonsense,” I said, but I couldn’t persuade him to rejoin us. Ahmed was acting like so many Jews act, fearful and convinced there was good reason for his concern.
A bit later we stood overlooking the city of Shechem (Nablus) and came across a group of Jewish West Bank residents from the community Ahmed had spoken to us about. When I asked them about the burning of schools, the cutting of trees, the accusations of violence, they admitted and justified the actions. No denial, no excuses. So, was Ahmed right to fear what may happen to him?
A few weeks ago I asked a Palestinian Arab acquaintance what his friends talk about when discussing “the situation.” Well, he said, you Israelis cannot be trusted, you want everything, you brought this all upon yourselves, you only understand force and you can’t be reasoned with. There never will be a solution and there never will be peace.
Mutual respect is difficult to build and more difficult to earn. With what Jews have gone through, it is easy to be skeptical and fearful. But at some point we may face the question of what to do “if.” What if “they” really want a solution, what if they really don’t want everything, what if they really abandon violence and what if they really can be reasoned with?
Unlikely perhaps, but it may be more fearful to think about what we would do next.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where he directs the Israel-Arab studies program.