At a time when peace in the Middle East seems near impossible, there is a different way to a peaceful solution.
“Governments have had their chance and failed, so too have the economists,” according to Aharoni, founder and president of The International Forum for the Culture and Literature of Peace (IFLAC. “Now it’s the chance of a third way, in which the individual can play a part in changing the world and moving beyond war.”
In London this weekend Aharoni opens an International Conference on Conflict Resolution Through Culture along with representatives of what many would see as opposing sides— Dahlia Rabin, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defence and Sa’ida Nusseibeh head of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) in London and sister of Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority’s Political Representative in Jerusalem.
IFLAC is a peace group that fits the Aharoni model, but it’s only one of about seventy in Israel alone. There are also thousands of individuals protecting human rights, trying to achieve coexistence, and taking a stand for peace. In the main they are unseen and unheard. As the situation deteriorates, it’s as well to remind ourselves that there are pockets of sanity in the seas of madness and apathy. Here is the story of a random few, far from the camera’s eye, who prove that there are Israelis and Palestinians who can and do live together.
Palestinian Salim Shawamreh is one who does tell his story on camera. At one time Shawamreh had no ambition other than to build a family home on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As a construction supervisor, he saw no problem in fulfilling his dream. Yet he has little to show for years of hard work except a carousel of slides of his thrice-demolished house. On the plus side, he has the staunch support of many Jewish and Arab friends, such as Jeff Halper and his co-activists from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). The friendship between the two men is a flame of hope that, as individuals, the two peoples are being thrown together despite, or because of, their leaders.
With little faith in politicians, Israeli Professor Haim Gordon and his wife Rivca have made it a personal mission to keep the press and sympathetic members of Israel’s Knesset abreast of the plight of the residents of Gaza. Even in terror-torn, impoverished Gaza, the Gordons say there are those who want to talk peace.
Gordon lectures on the Philosophy of Education at Ben Gurion University and with Rivca co-edits Struggle, a newsletter on Israeli democracy. They see the growing number of officers and soldiers refusing to serve beyond the green line, where they could be forced to obey the kind of orders that Gordon terms ‘war crimes,’ as a major turning point. This pair practise what they preach— Rivca Gordon’s son is one of the officers on the refusal list.
“The two people don’t live this closely,” Gordon says, touching his fingers together and quoting Yasser Arafat. “But this closely.” He interlaces the fingers in a tight clasp. This is the most extreme variation on a theme that I will repeatedly hear, ‘either our peoples learn to live together, or we die together.’ Haifa, the largest of Israel’s multiracial cities, shows the former is still possible.
Haifa is a tolerant home to people of more than half a dozen faiths—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Ahmeds, Bahais, Bedouin and Druze. Despite the city’s harmony, Haifa has not been immune from the carnage of the suicide bomber. Most shocking of all was the explosion of a crowded bus in December in Halissa, a quiet Arab-Jewish neighbourhood.
Soad Shahade, like all Israelis, “lives on her nerves in a crazy country.” She also heads the Haifa branch of LENA – The Bridge: the League of Women for Peace, sister organisation to IFLAC.
“Something new happens every minute in Jerusalem,” she says. And with two of her daughters living and working in Jerusalem, she should know. “One of my daughters works in an office that has been right in the thick of the suicide bombs,” she says. Soad Shahade is not Jewish, but like every Israeli parent, will be on the phone to check her daughters are safe whenever terror strikes.
Shahade talks of herself as being a Catholic Arab Palestinian Israeli. It’s difficult to understand how she manages to unify so many conflicting loyalties. But she appears at ease with this cumbersome identity and gets on with bringing Arab and Jewish women together.
Even her seemingly unlimited optimism is frustrated by “leaders on both sides who are stuck and will not understand that force is not the way forward. Force only sharpens and polarizes the problem.”
She has connections with Beit Hagefen, the nearby Arab Jewish Centre that was in the vanguard of cultural exchanges with Palestinians, Jordanians and Moroccans. But that was in the heady days when peace was in the air. Director Dr Moti Peri maintains telephone contact for the future. “Once or twice, while talking on the phone to someone on the West Bank, he would suddenly exclaim that a tank was approaching his house. I could clearly hear the tank at the other end of the phone line,” he recalls. “But most of all the economic situation is eating away at people’s hope. It’s only when people have a secure income that there is less cause for violence.”
Although the Arab members of his staff outnumber their Jewish colleagues two to one, Peri has only a weak command of Arabic. “It’s an example of the failure of Israel
’s education system,” he offers in explanation of this lapse. He is determined that Beit Hagefen will not fail its audiences who are spoilt for choice of activities.
Sam Bahour, an American Palestinian living on the less troubled side of Albireh-Ramallah in the West Bank would side with Moti Peri on the economic issues, if only they could meet. He too is an individual on a mission.
Born in America to Muslim-Palestinian and Christian-Lebanese parents, he wanted to play his part in re-building Palestine as much as the World Bank wanted to recruit him.
With his background, people like Sam Bahour could make all the difference to the area’s economic development. He is managing the building of an American-style shopping plaza in Ramallah that includes the largest supermarket in the Middle East and a play centre for children. But who knows whether others will follow this project. His frustration is clear, “Direct occupation must end so we Palestinians have the economic freedom and stability to attract investors and trading partners.”
Many Israelis agree with Sam Bahour that the occupation must end, not all can shake free of the fear that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal might further escalate terror and violence.
Sam Bahour sees a different scenario, “There will be a toning down period but after so much destruction, re-construction would have to start immediately. Within six months this sector and then tourism would take off.” Visions of a brighter future do not eclipse the shortcomings. This businessman knows that Palestine is short on human and financial resources and that’s there a big jump from the grade D government they have to the grade A they dream of. But job stability is the best way to ensure that peace grows out of the formal peace agreement that will come. Bahour is emphatic. “Palestinians and Israelis now know one another so well that we are best equipped of all the peoples in the Middle East to live together. But the relationship must be an equal one, based on mutual respect, recognition and separate economies.”
Dr Ben Mollov talks of the national awakening that both Judaism and Islam have in turn experienced. He’s a lecturer in Political Science in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University. Mollov believes that Islam and Judaism have more in common than any other pair of religions in the world; that Islam grew out of Judaism and is still influenced by aspects of the older religion, and that the two religions’ awakenings are complementary to one another. Indeed, Islamic national reawakening—the desire to return to the land, to establish a democratic society—emulates the Zionist dream.
Sam Bahour and Dr Mollov are, unbeknown to one another, living proof of the theory. Each uprooted themselves from their American birthplace to rebuild this old-new land that both hold so dear.
When the two peoples do get together with mutual respect, as they do at Beit Hagefen, the results are positive. With only fifty staff, the Centre is playing an important role in Haifa’s tourist revival, at a time when most Israeli hotels are empty. Peri proudly talks of their role in guiding Haifa’s ‘Human Mosaic’ holiday weekend which includes the Coexistence Walk, a route of brightly painted yellow footsteps that crisscross the Nisnas Valley, leading tourists to the homes and galleries of local Arab and Jewish artists.
The pinnacle of Beit Hagefen’s activities is the Holiday of Holidays Festival – four consecutive Saturdays when tens of thousands of people fill the narrow alleys, art galleries, church halls and restaurants of the Nisnas valley in celebration of Christmas, Chanukkah and Ramadan. Visitor numbers were high last December and still there were those who publicly decried the festival, calling it an empty showcase that did not reflect reality. Those for whom coexistence is a reality, such as Soad Shahade, were just too busy making the festival a success to pay attention to the critics.
All the way downtown, with a tiny budget and no publicity machine, Grace Shehade, and her late husband Kamil, typify the many Arabs of Christian faith working to build interfaith coexistence, and a better society. Given the keys to an abandoned Greek Catholic Church in a run-down area of Haifa in 1982, they transformed the ruins into a halfway haven for released prisoners, a centre that has helped many people back into society. The Shehade family, and the House of Grace staff host hundreds of Muslims, Christians, Druze and Jews for communal meals during Ramadan, and even greater numbers of children of all three religions at the annual Christmas party.
When Kamil Shehade died in June 2000, thousands turned out for the funeral procession. They undoubtedly admired the man; it is not unreasonable to assume they were also supporters of his passion for a better society without regard for race, faith or creed.
Are Aharoni, Bahour, Gordon, Mollov, Peri, Shahade, Shehade and Shawamreh creating a culture of peace? Each would say the steps they are taking are small and that progress to coexistence and peace needs immediate and massive support from both peoples. But their lives and actions do lend real weight to Professor Aharoni’s premise that it is individual people, not leaders, who are our only hope for a peaceful world.