Monday, 30 April 2007

Dare to dream!

Casting our scepticism about the near-term future aside, please feel free to share your dreams of what kind of Israel and Palestine you would like to see in the more distant peaceful future.

Still to come...

My trip is almost at an end but the writing isn't. Travelling around and writing so much has proven quite a daunting challenge. There are still some encounters which I haven't written up yet, but I will do so in the coming days. In addition, 'Without a road map' will not end with my departure, as I intend to pursue further and develop certain avenues - both intellectual and practical - which have arisen during my trip. I also intend to return - next time with my wife - to talk to more people, see the things I missed out this time and hopefully provide a tiny ray of hope and inspiration. So, don't forget to subscribe to this blog to receive information on future updates.

I have decided to take a break from writing today to recharge my batteries a little. But still to come:

* Conversation with Uri Avnery, Israel's leading peacemonger
* Tea at the Resistance Cafe in Hebron (featuring hardcore settlers)
* Verbal pub brawls and raising the bar by propping it up
* Is a two-state solution still feasible?
* Al Haq and human rights in the Palestinian territories
* Reflections on Israeli society
* Lessons learnt from the 'Without a road map' tour

I'd like to thank everyone who has been following my daily encounters and musings. It really helped spur me on. Wish me luck on the way out. Apparently, I can look forward to questioning at the airport.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Tuning into peace in stereo

By Khaled Diab

All for Peace is the only joint Palestinian-Israeli radio station around. This unique media voice is 50% Israeli and 50% Palestinian. Likewise, the content is also balanced equally, and the gender mix is finely tuned.

"Our main objective is to disseminate information that does not fall within the agendas of both people's media - which are, on the whole, too nationalistic," Faris Arouri, the station's public and international relations coordinator, told me. "We seek to spread accurate information about life on the other side because there are a lot of misconceptions, particularly on the Israeli side, because they are the dominant power."

The most troubling misconception on both side, as Faris puts it, is that "the Israelis fear we want to drive them into the sea; we fear they want to drive us across the Jordan". But minefields of misperceptions in terms of culture, society and religion litter the chasm between the two peoples.

The station, which goes out in 107.2 fm, has seen its mission evolve from directly striving for peace to building the solid ground on which it can take root. "At first, it was about convincing people of the need for peace. Now it's about giving hope. We always endeavour to give unbiased coverage."

Civil society, which does good work but is often overlooked by the mainstream media, has pride of place at All for Peace.

The station has been a success, attracting some 40,000 simultaneous listeners at peak moments, and a total of around 100,000 listeners per day.

One of All for Peace's most spectacular scoops was a conversation it broadcast between Noam Shalit, the father of the abducted Israeli soldier in Gaza, Gilad, and the Popular Resistance Committees Spokesman Abu Mujahad.

"After their conversations, each side said that only dialogue and prisoner exchange would secure Gilad's release. The father even said that if Israel attacked Gaza to try to rescue his son and his son died, he would hold his government responsibile for Gilad's death," noted Faris.

But the station's greatest achievement, according to Faris, are not spectacular scoops but the gradual demystification of the other side. "The biggest success of the station is that it gives people on both sides the chance to humanise one another, instead of focusing only on the suffering and agony."

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos

Guns and wreaths and the face that failed to launch a nation

By Khaled Diab

On a twilight stroll through the still rather deserted town, everyone we came across was incredibly friendly, warm and welcoming, striking up conversations as we walked past and the children asking me to take photos of them. Our 'outlandish' appearance and my accent meant that our progress through the streets was rather slow at times, as we stopped to chat and press the flesh.

Ramallah today has grown to merge with a neighbouring village. Once it was little more than a village itself, but the 1948 refugees made its population swell. It is surrounded on just about every visible hilltop by settlements, some of which are so close to Palestinian homes that all that separates them is a thin brick wall or they can actually see each other through the windows. This leaves very little wiggle room for the increasingly crowded town to expand and the locals told me this makes them feel trapped, surrounded from all sides by Israel.

The closures, restrictions on movement, the difficult economic situation and the encroaching settlements have led to a gradual depopulation of the area, according to one local I met. Usually, the ones who can leave are the more educated and cosmopolitan, and that is one reason why the Christian population in Palestine has dropped significantly.

A little out of the old town, we heard a series of loud gunshots. A little further up the road, a couple of men were emptying out their guns into the open air to express their grief at the death of their fallen comrade whose wake had just taken place in a nearby building. "There goes a week's wages," Tom observed, having earlier explained to me how expensive bullets were because they were often purchased on the black market.

When I pointed my camera at the two men with the guns, their colleagues who were standing behind us tsk-tsked and told us to stop, and not to shoot. Not really in the habit of defying (or even being near) men with smoking guns, I lowered my camera carefully as if it were a weapon.

The Egypt card had served me well so far, so I tried to reassure them by saying: "Don't worry, I'm Egyptian - I just want to take a photo."

To my utter surprise, the demenure burly man who had just been communicating to me with steely coolness softened dramatically and he became all welcoming. "Go ahead and take your photo," he said in the same sort of voice as an Arab offers tea to his guests. To help faciliate my task, he called out across the street to the men with the guns telling them to fire their guns for the Egyptian. One of them was grumpy and unco-operative - probably didn't like doing tricks for strangers - but the other one was only to happy to oblige. Unfortunately, his gun kept jamming or a car would pass in front of the camera, so it took a few attempts and the result still wasn't perfect.

Following the fireworks display, we walked around the posher part of town. Ramallah has a fair amount of ostentatious wealth floating about, judging by the fancy houses and flash cars about. The Edward Said Conservatory, Tom told me, has built up quite a reputation and graduates talented musicians. Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim still comes to perform there at least once a year, infuriating the Israeli right.

The city has a few gaping craters where buildings were demolished by the Israelis, such as when they destroyed a police station after the lynching of a couple of their soldiers on a mission. Many of the walls and shop fronts bear posters of some of the thousands of political detainees being held by Israel.

We went to the 'Muqata'a', which had variously been a British camp, an Israeli prison, the PA's nerve centre, and became an Israeli prison again when Arafat and a group of his dedicated supporters were besieged there. It's interesting that both sides have their own conspiracy theories about his death: some Palestinians think the Israelis found a way of poisioning him and some Israelis believe he died of AIDS and was a closet homosexual.

Rebuilding work was well advanced and a lot of the destruction that Israel had wrought on this symbol of Palestinian weakness, hopelessness and fortitude. A small mausoleum is almost complete for the face that tried, but failed, to launch a nation.

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos

The refreshing taste of revolution in Ramallah

By Khaled Diab

On Friday morning, I set off to Ramallah. While I was waiting for the bus driver to return from Friday prayers, a group of young lads hit off a conversation with me.

They had got to Jerusalem by jumping out of the minibus just before the check point and taking back routes. On the journey back, there would be no problem because the Israeli military didn't really care who entered Ramallah.

Like so many other Palestinians I have come across, these younguns informed me eagerly that they loved Egypt and Egyptians - believing the celluloid myth that we are all friendly, kind-hearted, care for others and have a wicked and biting sense of humour.

In fact, travelling around this land has made me somewhat self-conscious because I seem to draw attention as if I were some kind of minor celebrity - nothing major, just someone who features in a crappy soap opera about a bitter, generations-old feud between two families: a rich and powerful one and its poor cousin.

The boys who worked at a shopping mall in Ramallah joked with me about their dead-end lives, smoking, Egypt and wanting to get out of Palestine. "Take me to Europe with you. Everything here is so messed up - the occupation is humiliating and the PA are pimps!" one of them maintained.

A do-good busy-body type standing near by decided to give them his Shekel/Dinar's worth. "How are we ever going to build a country, if every young person wants to get out and is going to bad mouth it?" he asked, although he was not actually interested in a reply.

I could not really blame the young men for wanting to flee the misery and madness around them - who wouldn't? In most of the Occupied Territories, if I recall the stats correctly, unemployment is running at over 50%, the majority of the population lives under or near the poverty line and they can barely move from one town to the next without an Israeli permit.

Just before I got on the bus, I got a message from Tom, my Belgian friend who lives and works in Ramallah for a Palestinian NGO, informing me that there had been a gun battle the previous night and the city was not only quiet because it was Friday but was also dead because of a curfew on shops and businesses.

When I arrived, Tom led me through Ramallah's semi-deserted streets. Most of the shops were shut, or had their shutters down but were working surreptitiously behind doors left ajar for their customers. The so-called 'strike' was apparently by order of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Tom suggested that we sit out the strike in his favourite cafe. En route, we chatted about his work and life in Ramallah.

Inside the cafe, we met a group of his NGO friends, such as Gareth, an Irish lawyer with Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation, and Emma, a Palestinian-Brit with Save the Children.

First bottle up against the wall

With the cafes shutters down, it felt like we were in a kind of American prohibition and clandestinely drinking a toast to the revolution of Palestine's best beer. Al Taybeh, whose slogan is 'taste the revolution', is a quality local poison and a successful Palestinian export.

When I told one of the punters that many Israelis find it hard to believe that Palestinians drink alcohol, he retorted: "They'd better believe it. Israeli beer is so bad that even Israelis don't drink it. Our is good enough for us and good enough for export."

He said that the Israelis lived a few kilometres up the road yet they knew very little about the realities of Palestinian society. To him, this was proof of a willful ignorance - he believed Israelis would rather not know because that makes living with the occupation easier.

We sat around discussing Israeli abuses of human rights, the security wall, Tom's theory that an Egyptian pyramid could not have been possibly built in 20 years (at which point, we all got out our phone calculators to disprove him). Gareth provided us with access to his on-brain log of weird legal precedents under eccentric English common law.

The cafe's colourful Palestinian owner gave me his political punditry on everything from the Sykes-Picot agreement to the wall in Israel and now in Iraq. "Who are the Israelis trying to kid?" he asked eagerly, his eyes blazing with excitement. "The man who shot the policeman yesterday was a car smuggler. If criminals can get around the wall, do the Israelis really think it will keep out a determined killer? The wall is about land, not security."

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos.

A chain of peaceful voices

By Khaled Diab

East Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel is a favourite gathering point for civil society and that is where I was due to meet with representatives of the fledgling umbrella alliance of Palestinian and Israeli peace NGOs.

The Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum does what the label says: it brings together over 100 Israeli and Palestinian civil society organisations striving, either directly or indirectly, for peace. Its name might be a bit of a mouth full and may need to be reinforced with a media-genic and shorter alternative, but its mission is an important one.

Nancy Sadiq of the Palestinian Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy (Panorama) and Yael Patir of the Peres Centre for Peace are in charge of the day-to-day coordination of the initiative. Traffic is a problem in some megalopolises but this part of the world has its own unique mobility problems.

Nancy and her colleague, who work and live in Ramallah, were delayed for around an hour longer than expected at a checkpoint for reasons unbeknown to them. Nancy has a special longer-term pass that allows her to make the 15-km journey to Ramallah. Her colleague is not so fortunate and was only issued a two-day pass.

While we were waiting, Yael filled me in on the purpose and activities of the forum which was officially established in January 2006 after a long process of negotiations between its various member institutes.

“The idea of the forum is to bring together civil society from both sides to build understanding,” she explained to me. “We also want to join our voices together to make sure we’re heard.”

The forum pursues a bottom-up approach to peace-building and focuses more on the socio-economic aspects than. "We are a coalition that is targeted more at the grassroots. We try to minimise political activism."

The initiative received funding fromp the European Union for its first two years. "We don't see this as a temporary project but something that is here to stay," she explains. "But funding will be a major challenge."

The forum's activities to date have included written support for the Arab peace initiative. "We issued a joint statement supporting [it] which we sent with Abu Mazen [aka Mahmoud Abbas] to the Arab League summit. We also published an advertisement in the paper." They also issued a joint statement in support of non-violence, Nancy explains when she finally manages to join us.

The platform does not plan any major activities for the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, because many of its member organisations are already planning large events. Instead, it will provide them with support.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the first intifada. "On the Palestinian side, we are discussing the possibility of organising events to mark this date focusing on the non-violent aspect of that conflict," describes Nancy.

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Strolls of faith for the faith challenged

By Khaled Diab

In Jerusalem, within the space of a few hundred metres, you can stroll between the holiest sites of the three monotheistic religions - in a kind of short-distance leap of faith!

A couple of friends have referred to my trip as a 'political pilgrimage'. And pilgrim was how I felt negotiating the narrow streets of Jerusalem.

Without prior warning, my path crossed that of Christ. You can say I found Jesus... And his location was the second station of the cross - where Jesus actually picks up the cross - on the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Grief) - that route so gruesomly depicted by Mel Gibson in his controversial and fundamentalist The passion of the Christ. Inside a Franciscan church built on the supposed spot, a group of melancholic pilgrims sang hymns and a priest said something in Latin, before a Jesus stand-in lifted the cross on to his shoulder and carried it into the chapel with the faithful following him grimly.

On hallowed ground

A couple of hundred metres along, I saw the golden-coloured Dome of the Rock rise above the buildings. For Muslims, the Al Aqsa Mosque is not only the first qibla towards which the earliest Muslims prayed before it was switched to Mecca, it is also a potent symbol of the Palestinian struggle.

Entering the complex required a rite of passage, you could say. At the gate was a Palestinian policeman and two Israeli soldiers. I realised immediately by the way they looked at me that I had not chosen the most appropriate clothes for the occasion - long shorts and a fireman's shirt! The Palestinian policeman asked me if I was Muslim. I told him that I was. He asked me my full name and, as it had a Mohamed in it, that was the first proof of concept.

Then he asked my nationality, so I told him I had dual Belgian-Egyptian nationality and I handed him my passport which he handed to the Israeli guards who started flicking through in search of my stamp.

The policeman asked me if I intended to pray inside. I said that I intended to look around and might return the following day for Friday prayers, whereupon he set me a surprise quiz. He asked me how many raqaa's there were in each of the five daily prayers. Being faith challenged and having not prayed for years, I confused one of the prayers - which caused him to look sideways at me with suspicion. "Look, I'm not very religious, okay?" I said to him. I remembered the comment of the older Palestinian man I'd met earlier who told me that when he was young people of different faiths would visit each other's places of worship.

The Israeli soldiers did not know that you could enter the country without a stamp on your passport and were also suspicious at first and radioed to ask their superior. One of them saw the Ethiopian visa in my passport and asked me if I had been to "E-tee-oh-piya". Seeing from his face that he was of Felasha descent, I said I had and asked him if he was Ethiopian. He proudly informed his comrade that I had been to his great country - a description which didn't seem to impress the other soldier - and proclaimed confidently about me: "He's a good man!"

Inside the complex, I was enawed, although I suppose some more faithful soul might think that the opportunity was somewhat wasted on me. That's not to say I didn't feel anything spiritual. No one can be among so much history and symbolism- both above and below the ground - without feeling a sense of humility.

Many of the faithful inside the complex gave me funny looks because of my clothes and I had apparently become something of a celebrity among the security dotted around the grounds. "Are you the Egyptian?" I was asked several times.

One disapproving stiff came up to me and held me by the elbow. "Tell me brother, why are you wearing that? You are inside a holy area, you know."

"What's wrong with it?" I returned. "My shorts are shari'e (legit according to Islamic principles)." Having no adequate response, he turned away without another word and marched purposefully off.

The compound was much larger than I had ever imagined. When you hear about the politicised nature of the Al Aqsa Mosque, you hardly expect the tranquility you encounter inside and all the families sitting around enjoying picnics and the children playing football. One little three-year-old girl decided that I was her friend and took me over to meet her parents after I took a photo of her. I chatted with them for a while. The father told his daughter that I came from the country of Ehab Tawfiq and Amr Diab. I asked him if she could sing any songs. He said that she couldn't as she was only three but she had learnt some of the Quran. She recited the Fatiha with all the rolled 'r's turned into 'l's.

Under the Temple Mount is the Western Wall, the most sacred site for Jews. After another longer security check, I entered. It's not quite as spectacular as I imagine the second temple which stood on the site until it was destroyed by the Romans was. Modest or not, the Jews there stared at the wall with intense reverence, with the orthodox ones unwilling to take their eyes of it or show disrespect so they walked blindly backwards.

It felt surreal to be among all the bizarre fashion sense of the Hessidic and other orthodox Jews. There are the curls, the string which dangles around their trousers, apparently because God ordered Moses to do so, and the piece de resistance, the weird miner's lamp contraption they wear on their heads. This apparently symbolises the way that Moses was unable to look directly at God's aura. The swaying backwards and forwards while reciting scripture reminded me a lot of young Muslim children who go to the kutab (Quranic school).

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Holy nargela smoke in Jerusalem

By Khaled Diab

In eastern Jerusalem, I walked into a local cafe in search of locals. I ordered tea and a shisha, or nargela as the Palestinians call it (water pipe). It was the first time I had smoked this particular type of tobacco (me'asel for those in the know) for many long years and it brought back dim memories of misspent afternoons at uni smoking and playing backgammon. But this particular hang out specialised in cards.

Dressed in khaki shorts and a Canadian fireman's shirt, I did not quite blend in with the mainly middle-aged and over clientele and drew a lot of attention, particularly when I took out my camera to take a photo.

The first vibe I got from them was suspicion - which seems to be a common currency in all the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, where some orthodox Jews seemed to be sussing out whether I was an Arab and some Palestinians seemed to be sussing out the opposite. A casual exchange of jokes broke the ice hanging in the warm, smoke-filled air, my Egyptian accent reassuring the punters.

Fouad, a 68-year-old Jerusalemite, introduced himself as an amateur photographer and asked me all kinds of questions about my digital camera, explaining that he preferred film and a professional photographer friend had suggested he stick with it.

What happened to the Arab dream?

My Egyptianness released a strong current of nostalgia in Fouad. He started telling me about his Egypt connection, that his grandmother was born in Port Said. Then, with a wistful look in his face, he recalled with pride the days of Nasser, the larger-than-life, charismatic Arab superhero of his generation. "There will never be another leader like him. How can any of the pimps (me'araseen) who currently pass for Arab leaders ever compare to him?"

"Do you know about Nasser? Your generation has lost touch with the dream he represented."

"Of course, I know about him. My parents are both committed pan-Arabists."

We spent some time discussing Nasser's multiple identities as a dictator who listened to the mood of his people and the Arab world, visionary leader and shortsighted populist, fantacist and realist.

"What happened to the Arabs? What happened to our dreams of union?" he asked rheotrically.

"They were pipe dreams, built more on slogans than institutions. The Arabs were too weak and divided and outside powers were frightened of the implications of such unity."

'Israel came to me'

Fouad told me about his life as a born and bred Jerusalemite with a Jordanian passport. That he was discriminated against and given a hard time by some segments of Israeli officaldom.

"'When did you come to Israel?' army officers ask me," he gave as one of many examples "'I didn't come to Israel', I respond. It was Israel that came to me."

But the daily trials and tribulations are not what irk Fouad the most. "I want my dignity and identity back. I am not a Jordanian; I am a Palestinian. I did not come to Israel; I was here before Israel."

He expressed his heart-felt conviction that the Israelis do not want peace because they are not willing to pay the price - this could be seen in Israel's constant obstructionism and encroachment onto Palestinian land, he argued. "There's always some excuse or other not to negotiate. Look what they're doing now with the Arab peace offer?"

"We Palestinians can and are ready to live with a state on the pre-1967 borders but will Israel allow us to have it?"

"Do you think armed struggle is useful or the Palestinians should adopt non-violent?" I asked.

"Both have their function and Palestinians use both."

"But Israelis use Palestinian violence to justify their intransigence and the Palestinians have lost a lot of sympathy on the international stage."

"I really don't know if it would make any difference to Israel or whether it would simply come up with another excuse."

"You said Palestinians 'accept' a state on the pre-1967 borders. So, this is not ideal?"

"No, it isn't."

"What is the ideal solution in your mind, if you had complete freedom to propose any solution?" I asked.

"Zionism is a racist ideology which robs me of my history. I think what we need is a single country for all its people. We all lived together before. We all still live relatively well together here in Jerusalem. We can live together again. To make sure the system is fair to everyone, we can have something like in Lebanon."

Striking a nostalgic note in Jerusalem

By Khaled Diab

Yesterday evening, I walked into a shawerma joint, and an accidental 'Aywa' ('Yes' in Egyptian) led the owner to ask me if I spoke Arabic. When I answered in the affirmative, he and his friend sitting by the counter welcomed me warmly. At first, I could not figure out whether these guys were Palestinians or not, until I realised the friend was wearing a kippa or yarmulka.

Murad (Mordechai is his Hebrewised name) is an Iraqi Jew who speaks fluent Arabic with an Iraqi accent and does passable impersonations of the Egyptian and Palestinian dialects. He was born in Baghdad and fled there in 1951 with his parents just before a law was passed to stop others from leaving. He recalls his childhood there with nostalgia.

"Baghdad is my birth place. It has a special place in my heart," he told me theatrically, his hands gesticulating musically. "I miss our house there. I wish I could go back and visit it, if it is still standing."

And it is not just the current occupation and anarchy - which sadden Murad and which he opposes - that are holding him back. He and the Iraqi Jews he hangs out with are also casualties of the conflict as they were not allowed to re-enter the country. But he is determined to visit his beloved Baghdad at the first possible opportunity.

Murad is a musician who plays the Arabic oud and sings old Arabic classics at weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. I was surprised that there was a demand for Arabic songs among Jews, but he reassured me there was. Showing his age, he told me that he had desire to listen to modern singers whose songs had become too shallow and too short, in his opinion. He longed for the days when an Umm Kalthoum concert would last an entire evening and she'd only get through one song!
He recalled with nostalgia the old greats of Arabic music like Umm Kalthoum, Farid el-Atrash, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Egypt's most famous Jewish singing giant, Leila Murad.
Murad has been to Egypt several times and he recounted several long tales of adventure in Cairo and Alexandria. "I love the Egyptian people," he told me. "They're so friendly and funny. When they find out I'm an Israeli, they called me ibn 'ami [cousin] and khawaga [slang for foreigner who speaks broken Arabic]."

One interesting story was when he and a group of Israeli friends went to Egypt in 1987. While they were there, the Palestinian intifada broke out and one of his friends was terrified and did not want to leave his hotel and the others said they would not say they were Israelis. But Murad went out courageously for a walk and joked with the local,s as is his apparent forte. And surprisingly none of the people he came across who asked him his nationality expressed any hostility towards him, except to say it's bad what's happening to the Palestinians.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

A peaceful oasis in the desert of war

By Khaled Diab

Jerusalem is the most potent symbol of the chasm dividing the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Just outside the holy city with its unholy politics, a group of dedicated Israel Jews and Palestinians decided they did not need to wait for their leaders to deliver peace for them to live side by side peacefully in a three-decade-old joint community.

When I learnt about the village before I came, through a friend, Tom, I decided it was a 'must see' on my tour. Debby, an American Jew living here who was also part of the METalks forum, has also been meaning to go there, so she tagged along (I should say, gave me a lift). En route, the topic drifted towards co-existence and the separation wall.

Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom (Peace Oasis) is perched on a beautiful hilltop overlooking lush green valleys. It was set up by a colourful Dominican monk called Bruno. This monk started life as an Egyptian Jew in Cairo. In Europe, he not only decided to convert to Christianity but also took a vow of chastity and poverty. He moved to the Holy Land and joined the Latruin monastery. Today, it is home to 50 families, half Jewish and half Palestinian, most of whom are successful professionals working outside the community. The oasis has its own school, hotel, conference facilities, and even a meditation dome overlooking a stunning valley.
Convinced that one of the biggest obstacles to peace was the lack of contact between the two peoples, he persuaded his brethren to give over some land for a village where Israelis and Palestinians could live together as an experiment in co-existence and a model for the future.
Avoid Utopian visions
Rita Bolos, the village's visits director, talks me through the oasis's reality and mission, as well as the situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, in between the chirping phone and the traffic of staff passing through her office as they finalise preparations for a big conference.
"The residents of the oasis came here believing that we are all humans and need to live side by side. We, Arabs and Jews, know it isn't going to be easy living here with this conflict blazing around us," she told me. "We live in equality and respect. We didn't come here to change Jews or for Jews to change Arabs, but to show we can live co-habit and empathise."
The community is not without its tensions, but all issues are debated and resolved democratically. At first, the oasis was under a lot of pressure from sceptics to deliver some sort of harmonious, ideal republic. "Because we were under a lot of pressure from outside, we were in a hurry to create a utopia - to show the outside world that life could be harmonious. But today we are more realistic and taking it one step at a time," said Rayeq (whose manner is as tranquil as his name suggests, despite the suggestion of inner turmoil), the village's ex-mayor, as he painted on the terrace of the only cafe in town.
"Most of us came here convinced that our narratives were the right ones. Now we've learnt to empathise with the other side," he added. "All the difficulties we, the founding generation, had are not visible among the new generation. They get along very well."
State of pragmatism v states of mind
For Rita, their community is living proof that a confederated binational state is not only feasible but desirable. "I think a single state would be richer and more attractive for all its citizens," she explains. "Because I believe in a single state, I see the oasis as a model for this. Other residents who believe in a two-state solution live here to build the bridges necessary to reach peace."
"For it to work, it has to be a completely secular state in which religion is an issue in the private domain," she noted.
Rayeq, who also supports the idea of a bi-national state, explains his vision. "Israel confronts the same multi-ethnic challenge facing a number of other countries," he says, giving Lebanon and Iraq as examples. "We need a system in which all the ethnicities are represented proportionally and justly. Minorities should also have their rights protected by law. The constitution should protect all groups and provide them with fair political representation."
He advocates the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian parliaments where each group will be able to vote regardless of where they actually live in Israel-Palestine, rather like in Belgium. The Israeli government would run affairs in the Jewish majority areas and the Palestinian government would run things in the Palestinian majority areas and they would manage Jerusalem jointly.
Put down your weapons now
Rita is a dedicated advocate of non-violent Palestinian resistance. "The only losers in violent resistance are the Palestinians themselves. My resistance is to raise my family and give them the best education I can," she said. "If I were a Palestinian leader, I would collect all the weapons and melt them into a massive statue dedicated to peace."
Rayeq agrees. "The Palestinians have been calling for armed struggle for 60 years. This has got them nowhere. This attitude needs to be changed."
Rita also talked at some length about the situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their Palestinian brethren in the Occupied Territories, the refugee camps there and in other Arab countries. She told me that Israeli Arabs definitely have a better life than the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and they have more freedom than the citizens of many Arab countries. Nevertheless, they are not full citizens and the system piles many subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles in their path, particularly when it comes to education, employment and buying land.
She had harsh words for Israels treatment of Palestinians in the refugee camps and cities of the West Bank and Gaza, but she had equally tough words for the Arab worlds treatment of Palestinians. "Palestinians are oppressed generally throughout the Arab world and not just in Israel," she described, although she acknowledged that other Arabs had also shown generosity - but not enough considering the close emotional ties every Arab feels for the Palestinian cause.
She criticised the refusal of some Arab countries to integrate their Palestinian population with the excuse that this was keeping the Palestinian cause alive. "If they want to keep the Palestinian cause alive, then the Arab League could've created a special status Palestinian passport or write 'of Palestinian origin' on their new local passports," she suggested. "Even if you keep them in refugee camps, keep them there humanely."
She expressed frustration that Lebanon, for instance, often refuses even to let Palestinian refugees out of their camps which have turned into towns in their own rights. She also found it unacceptable that most Palestinian Christians had, she said, received Lebanese citizenship, but not the Muslims.
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Stuck in the wilderness

For years, everyone has been asking: “Where did peace go?”

Well, I think I have been able to locate that elusive creature – but he is not in the best of shape. At this very moment, Shalom/Salaam is stuck at the border, insisting that he is not carrying a bomb.

“Are you carrying a weapon?” a string of Israeli officers ask him.

“Bro, I come in peace,” replies Peace, with his long, centre-parted hippy hair and Jesus creepers.

“But can you guarantee that you will stay in peace?”

“Just sign a peace deal and you will see the difference.”

“But can you guarantee that the Qassam rockets will stop? If we pull out of the West Bank, might the Palestinians not want more and use violence to try to get it. Israel is such a small country – at some points it is less than 10km wide. It is vulnerable to these rocket attacks.”

“Of course, Israel has the right to live in peace,” Shalom/Salaam maintains. “But even Hamas, because its charter does not recognise Israel’s right to exist, has indicated that it would accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 border. Besides, the Arabs have offered you a comprehensive peace deal and Syria wants to negotiate. What are you waiting for?”

“But it is impossible for us to evacuate the 400,000 people living in the biggest West Bank settlements. The political price inside Israel would be too high.”

“Why didn’t you think of that before you built them on occupied land.”

“At first, we wanted to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Arabs. But, in Khartoum, in 1967, the Arabs issued their famous three ‘No’s. After that, the extremists hijacked the settlement process and built thousands of homes on the seized land.”

“But Peace comes at a price, you know,” Salaam/Shalom says, hiding, behind a melancholic smile, his feeling of being undervalued and unappreciated all these years he’s been living in exile, out in the cold. “I’m not cheap you know.”

“We can give them an equivalent amount of land in the Negev or southern Israel.”

“So, you want to give them desert in return for fertile land?”

“Water is not an issue. We can supply them with water to meet all their needs.”

Many Israelis, even my open-minded hosts, seem to be under the conviction, to varying degrees, that there is no clear end in sight, that whatever Israel does will not be enough, that as soon as Israel pulls out of the West Bank, rockets will rain down on its head every day.

©Khaled Diab

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Why do Egyptians never come here?

Late on Monday evening, Zipora was hosting two good friends whom she described as "very left wing".

They had a long series of questions about politics and society in Egypt for me - and since not many Egyptian pass this way, I felt obliged to answer them all conscientiously. However, the question that seemed to trouble them the most was ‘Why do Egyptians never come here now that we have peace?’

This reminded me of how, in an earlier conversation, Zipora had told me that her family had lived here for seven generations, and she remembered with nostalgia the time when Jews and Arabs lived together peacefully. And her parents and grandparents, were constantly going to Damascus and Beirut on holiday.

Zipora's radical Kibbutz friend - who was not the type to mince her words and was so avant garde that the cavalry could not see her for the dust - seemed a little sad and disappointed by this dashed hope. She recalled fondly President Anwar Sadat's spectacular visit to Jerusalem and she had thought that, after the peace deal, she would get to meet thousands of Egyptians.

I had to spend some time deconstructing Sadat to temper their enthusiasm for the man, for, although he delivered peace, he became something of a despot at home and Egypt was at its corruptest during his watch.

I can sympathise with how lonely it must be for progressive and liberal Israelis who want better ties with their neighbours but find that their neighbours seem only to want a cold peace. I tried to explain that, for many Egyptians, it's nothing personal and a lot of Egyptians profess to wanting better ties with our 'cousins'. However, many ordinary Egyptians feel that schmoozing with Israelis would be a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and say that they refuse to normalise relations on all levels - economic, political and even personal - until a fair peace deal is reached and the Palestinians gain their rights.

I had used an analogy with Amos earlier which I reapplied here. In the morning, he had explained to me that Israel so its function as a safe haven for all Jews to protect them from persecution wherever it may occur in the world, and he gave me some examples of how seriously the government took this pledge. I pointed out to him, that many Arabs share the same sense of solidarity with their 'Arab' brethren in other countries. "If a country were mistreating or persecuting Jews, would you want Israel to continue to have normal relations with that country?" I asked Amos earlier and our friend now.

She nodded earnestly in understanding. "Then, Egyptians won't be coming for a long time," she said, a little sadly. "Perhaps we won't be around long enough to see that day."

Personally, I believe that Egyptians, diaspora Palestinians and other Arabs need to 'normalise' cultural relations with Israelis, reach out the hand of compassion and begin a heartfelt dialogue. We can hold off from economic and political normalisation until there is peace, but each one of us is responsible for giving that process a friendly shove through communication.

Pleasure spiked with pain

Khaled Diab
In a Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song, Anthony Kiedis sings about how he likes pleasure spiked with pain. That crossed my mind as an apt description of this time of year in Israel and Palestine.On Sunday evening and Monday morning is Memorial Day, while on Monday evening and Tuesday morning is Independence Day for the Israelis and the Nakba (Catastrophe) for the Palestinians.

On Monday morning, Amos and I set off to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. “To truly understand Israel,” he told me, “you have to understand the painful history of the Jewish people in the diaspora.”

To get there, we took the train to Tel Aviv. The carriage was packed full of young male and female soldiers, many casually donning their scary-looking M16s. It is a constant source of surprise to me just how militarised this society is. At times, it seems like there are more people in uniform or carrying a gun that the opposite. A sign of this is how routine and unremarkable the question everyone is asked at the security check outside every station, many supermarkets and public area: “Are you carrying a weapon?”

On the train, we talked about this suffering. With Anat, Tzachi and other Israelis and Jews, I have discussed the question of Jewish persecution and suffering. While I am painfully aware of the extent to which Jews have episodically been oppressed and persecuted, with the Holocaust the crowning achievement of anti-Semitism, I feel it is important for some Jews to take a more balanced view of their history. It has not all been ugly – the Jews have had periods of great integration and prosperity since ancient times.

In addition, other migrating peoples, such as the Roma, have also faced persecution. In fact, you don’t have to leave the supposed comfort of your own home to be oppressed, put down and persecuted. I gave the example of Egypt, which lived under foreign rule (which was sometimes benign but often cruel) for more than two millennia, longer than the Jewish diaspora. Or the fact that the Inquisition was targeted at much as the Muslims and Arabs of Spain as it was against the Jews.

The diaspora is a subject which has interested me for some time, so I didn’t learn anything revalationary, except perhaps for the fact that, according to one display, Egypt had 1 million Jews out of a population of 8 million in the first century. It was perhaps befitting that while we were on the final leg of our tour around the museum, the sirens marking the end of Memorial Day sounded.

Amos had wanted to take me to see one of the largest settlements built in the Occupied Territories, but decided that it was too hot and we would go back later.

One people's poison is another's meat

In the afternoon, I caught up on some much-delayed writing, while Tzachi hosted his young boys’ school friends in what turned out to be an exhausting – for parent and offspring alike – inflatable pool party.

On Monday evening, the dark clouds of mourning over Israel’s skies are dispelled and the country is bathed in the moonlight of joy, as people partake of the Independence Day festivities. “The swing from utter misery to euphoria is a hard one to make," Anat admitted to me.

But the dichotomy between the two days is not the only contrast. It is nearly 60 years since the 1948 war and 40 years next month since the West Bank and Gaza were occupied. In Jerusalem, there was to be an alternative Independence Day celebration, which I had been invited to, that also commemorates the ignored aspect of 1948, the Palestinian Nakba, when the Arabs lost the war with the Jews and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were either forced out of their homes or fled out of fear. Yesh Gvul, a group of Israeli refuseniks, were holding their tenth Alternative Beacon Lighting ceremony in Jerusalem that evening.

In the evening, we went to a local Independence Day celebration. The fair, with its charcoaled meats, hustle and bustle, and children carrying flashing toys, reminded me of muwlids in Egypt. The actual ceremony began by commemorating veterans from previous wars with a beacon-lighting ceremony, followed by some singing, a fireworks display, then more singing. I was reassured and heartened to see that kitsch and bad taste knows no borders. Tzachi jokingly warned me not to circulate pictures of this event because it would shatter the illusion that Israel was a slick and well-oiled machine.

Back home, they put the children to bed and Tzachi informed me that he would be playing his favourite computer game, World of Warcraft. Tzachi, who had been calling all my ideas for peace ‘great but Utopic’, shared his own zany, leftfield peace vision with me, a sort of ‘make virtual war, not war’ idea. “Everyone in the Middle East should join an online, multi-player combat computer game. They’re so addictive that people will forget about conflict and become friends.”

©Khaled Diab. Text and images

Monday, 23 April 2007

Peace begins at school and at home

Khaled Diab

After visiting the elders, we went to a nearby town to meet some of the area's youngest citizens. We visited a joint Jewish-Arab school which Tzachi and Anat were considering sending their children to. The school's head teachers, Yochanan Eschschar and Noha el-Khatieb, kindly gave us a tour of their experimental establishment.

The school is still a young one, with only 200 kindergarten and primary school pupils, half of whom are Jewish and the other half Arab. Each bilingual class has two teachers, one Jew and one Arab, and the lessons are conducted in both Arabic and Hebrew. It being Memorial Day, the children were encouraged to work on activities and project in which they learnt about each side's pain and suffering, particularly with Independence Day around the corner for Israel, which is regarded as the nakba (Catastrophe) by Palestinians.

"We handle this sensitive subject by accepting the idea that there are two narratives, both of which are valid to their people. And we encourage both sides to be aware of the other's pain," Noha explained. "We want to encourage these children to set off together into the future," Yochanan continued.

But with only a handful of cash-strapped schools like this across the country, the difficulty of attracting Jewish children (who have so many options and whose parents fear Palestinian-Israelis) to study with Arabs, enlightened education like this will have little impact, despite its potential. "It's a drop in the ocean," Amos kept repeating sadly.

Hopeful conversations
In the evening, Amos and Tzachi decided to launch an oil-fuelled kite which took off and travelled for kilometres, with father and son chasing after it like maniacs afraid it would land somewhere and start a fire. Luckily, it touched down somewhere safely.

During dinner, the air-raid siren which goes off to inform Israelis that Memorial Day has begun went off and everyone stood up to stand silently for two minutes in private contemplation. I used the moments to reflect on my unusual day and the fact that I was here in Israel during its most intensely emotional time.

Before, during and after dinner a diwan­-style or round table debate started up between me and several generations of Israelis – my hosts, Anat's father, a recent arrival from America, an immigrant from Colombia and a young Israeli couple at university. It was incredibly constructive, informative and entertaining for all involved and we all came away with the impression that if only the rest of the world could communicate like this.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Don't grieve me alone

Khaled Diab

"The Jewish people have suffered for 2,000 years and now we'll make you suffer with us," was Tzachi's friendly introduction to the coming Memorial Day ceremonies that evening.

And pain, grief and loss were all around and almost tangible on my second day. In the morning, Amos and I went off to a nearby Arab village, Meyser. There, we met with the town's unofficial council of elders, the local senior citizens' club, some of whom were friends with Amos.

We started by chatting about their activities and the importance of sport at their age. They told me how things were gradually getting better over the years for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. But they also complained about how difficult it was for their community to send their children to university because of the cost and some bureaucratic obstructionism. "Many of our children go to Jordan or Europe to study because it is easier," one of them told me.

On the way, Amos had told me about all the left-wing Kibbutzim in the area and how good their ties were with the local Arab population. The subject with the elders soon switched to the sense of grief they still feel at the loss of their land, being as they were from the 1948 generation.

"We miss our confiscated land," one of them asserted. "The memory of our loss is alive in our children," rejoined another.

"My father's land is 250m down the road from here. They told me that you're father isn't here and so it is not yours."

The others went on to list the various legal tricks that they claimed were used to dispossess them of their land.

"Our youngsters need houses but they cannot get permission to build in the village," the oldest of the elders, who had been nodding off in a corner under the apparent weight of his kifeya, suddenly piped in.

They also complained about how they are neither her nor there. "Here we have Israeli identity cards but are not considered full citizens. In the Arab world, we're seen as Israelis. Neither side accepts us," one described.

But the conversation ended on a note of hope.

"The Jews around here are from Argentina and South America and so they have an 'eastern' outlook and it makes it easier for us to live together."

They discussed an experimental council of eight Jews and eight Arabs which went some way towards building bridges between the two communities.

"There are joint Arab-Jewish schools in some villages which is promising for the future generation," one of the old men observed.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Disappearing in a blaze of Zionist glory

By Khaled Diab
When I first arrived in Israel, the blue-and-white Star of David flags everyone seemed to be flying on their cars and even their houses for the forthcoming festivities added a touch of the unreal to my surroundings. It was a clear indication, in case I needed one, that I had arrived in Israel – and at a hugely patriotic moment.

But that slight sense of oddness was as nothing compared with the total freakishness and quirkiness of going to the Palmach House which charts the course of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war from the perspective of that Jewish militia. My hosts had decided that it was a good idea to get an idea of the official patriotic Israeli narrative of that war which led to Israel's independence.

When we walked in and I saw an entire platoon of famously trendy IDF soldiers (Anat tells me they were young recruits in the tank corps), I began to have my doubts. They were here to learn why they had joined the army, but why was I? Well, to learn more about how the other side thinks. The young guide, who sounded incredibly proud of her role and deferred greatly to Amos, the veteran, found my presence rather novel, and it also stumped her. "You're from Egypt?" she exclaimed. "We've never had anyone from there before... Where should I start, then?"

Neither novelty nor weirdness begins to describe the sensation I felt as we stood around – 20 or so young male and female soldiers, my hosts, and myself, the lone Arab infiltrator into the 'enemy camp' – waiting for the tour to begin. I don't think any of the soldiers realised quite who I was, although some did cast a couple of curious glances my way, since I was the only non-Hebrew speaker there. Now I've seen the IDF at play, it will be interesting to see them at work when I go to Ramallah in a few days.

For those who are not aware, the Palmach was one of the precursors of the IDF. Short for Plugot Mahatz (Strike Companies), it was the regular fighting force of the Hagannah, which was originally set up by the British to fight Rommel but went underground when the British tried to disband it.

A balanced piece of history, the museum was not. An emotive and tear-jerking narrative with a plot and high-tech wizardry, it certainly was. Amos was the first to get emotional, having been a Palmach veteran of the war himself – and one soldier even milked him, I assume, for stories. As we progressed through the museum, Anat and Tzachi began to hug each other, as did several of the soldiers.

As for me, there were a couple of moments which struck a minor chord - that emotive was the display. But being an Arab and a person who is averse to nationalist narratives composed as a symphony for the heartstrings. To me, the gaps in the story were as telling as what it mentioned, such as when one of the commanders was asked "What should we do with the Palestinian refugees?" To which he gave the cryptic answer, "I'll leave to each of your better judgements."

Of course, patriotic military museums rarely give balanced narratives, and this one was no exception. However, it was interesting for me to see just how convinced Israelis are that they are the plucky, underdog David pitted against the Arab Goliath.
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

At home with the Zionists

Khaled Diab
When I was a young child, I had no conception that teachers had lives outside of the classroom. The idea that they could have a family or go to sleep or to the toilet like us seemed a little far-fetched. To many Arabs, Zionists do not really exist outside the political sphere, which is where they commit a lot of sinister acts.

Of course, in the early days of the conflict, it was a simpler age, and Zionists were invariably portrayed as comic book villains – and how many of those have time to fit in a family, do the cooking, shopping and cleaning, in between all that villainy and political manoeuvring? Today, many more species of Zionists have been discovered by Arab political zoologists, but they are still, in the Arab psyche, essentially a dangerous and possibly deadly political animal which roams the Palestinian territories and occasionally neighbouring countries.

Given this backdrop, you can imagine how bizarre and surreal it felt to find myself coming down to breakfast in an authentic Israeli Zionist household! This weirdness was accentuated by the fact that it wasn’t so weird – that once you move beyond the conflict, you notice how they are just folk like us, as the Americans would say.

In Israel, they like to say that whenever you bring two Jews together, they will have three opinions. Well, after some empirical observation, I have come to the conclusion that if you throw an Arab or two into this mix, you're guaranteed hours of political debate for the whole family.

Jam and Jerusalem is what women’s church groups are all about, jam and politics was what breakfast turned out to be. In fact, within less than 10 minutes we were deep into political debate. As if subconsciously starting at the beginning, we talked, at first, about the early settlers in British mandate Palestine and the war of 1948. Amos recalled how good relations were between many of the early settlers and the local Palestinian population.

But already points of long and debate were emerging out of the woodwork to surround us: how militant or peaceful were the earlier settlers; who was David and Goliath in the first Arab-Israeli conflict?

Collective ideals
Amos, a one-time kibbutz member and veteran of the 1948 war was passionate about the subject – and, although I was dubious about quite a few of his assertions, I found the new perspective it offered me enlightening. He so warmed to his subject that he drove us to a local Kibbutz so that I could see its history and values for myself.

Amos and Zipora told me about their early life, their schoolwork, their reclaiming of desert land, their move to Argentina to teach there for a while, their artwork, and more.

Over the years, I have heard a lot about kibbutzim, mainly from friends who had been on holiday in Israel and worked and lived on a kibbutz and from some of my readings. But this was the first time I had seen an actual one. The film about the kibbutz’s history was created in the form of a silent film with a semi-humorous narrative. Amos showed us around the grounds and told us about the harshness, discipline and hard work of the early kibbutzim communities. He also reminisced about the communal ideals of the early kibbutzim which have been lost as the different camps privatise.

From a different age
Anat’s grandfather in Netanya is a Tunisian Jew and he took the opportunity of my presence to speak some Arabic and reminisce about life in Tunisia when he was younger, when Arab and Jew lived in peacefully alongside one another and intermingled. But he spent more time wanting to learn about Egypt and in particular the Egyptian dialect.

Dinner was at a friendly Palestinian-run restaurant where they did not expect an Egyptian to be coming for dinner and I had a chat with the owner. During our walk along the beachfront, on the way to and from the restaurant, and over dinner, the spicy issue of debate was the one-state solution which was greeted by scepticism by both Anat and Tzachi. He thought that it sounded nice as a vision and it could be one of several options but it was the least likely. Anat began to warm to it when I explained that there was no reason for a bi-national state to lose its Jewish identity; this would just be enlarged to encompass the Palestinian one, particularly if this is done within a looser federal system.

Meet the family
Anat and Tzachi
Anat is the founder of METalks, an initiative which encouraged Israelis and Arabs to dialogue directly during the conflict in Lebanon. She runs her own internet business. She has a degree in international relations and English literature. Tzachi has just retired from the military to spend more time with the family and to follow his dear wife's orders. He decided that it's not good to spend too much time away from the kids. Tzachi has a first degree in physics and an MBA.

Amos and Zipora
Amos is what is known in Israel as a 'pioneer', being of the founding generation of the left-wing Kibbutzim movement. He is a veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. His early career was dedicated to journalism and writing, but he turned to teaching after a theatre production almost ruined him. As a teacher, he has taught thousands of Jewish-Israelis and Palestinian-Israelis. Zipora was a teacher who taught literature. She met Amos on the Kibbutz. She is a painter and sculptor, and the cool matriarch of the household.

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Checkpoints in the air

The older woman sitting in my row on the plane to Tel Aviv snatched a few glances at me which ranged between the furtive to the curious. She was obviously trying to figure me out. But as the flight progressed and we exchanged a couple of brief pleasantries, she seemed to relax. She settled into her ‘light’ reading for the flight, some book on the global ballistic missile threat, her liver-spotted hands turning the pages like they were part of some gripping yarn.

She should meet Katleen, I thought to myself, who has spent a few very long and tiring weeks collating cluster munitions casualties from around the world, and is now on her way to Geneva to navigate the political minefield of landmines. Katleen, that delicate, gentle, sensitive soul, having to tally up the dead and maimed.

For my in-flight reading pleasure, I decided to steer away from one of my favourite pet subjects, since I would soon be getting an intense dose of it. Instead, I started reading Will Self’s Book of Dave. This bizarre novel is about how a book written by a London cabbie which spawns a new and rather brutal religion when it is discovered a few hundred years later in a semi submerged England, called the Ing Archipelago. But considering where I was heading, I suppose this made oddly appropriate reading.

The airport of Dave
Flying over Tel Aviv, one could see how wealthy the city looked – at least from the sky – with its glitzy beach front and twinkling high-rises. So, here I finally was, an Egyptian in the Land of Milk and Honey; the Holy Land… also the land of intractable conflict, shattered hopes, dreams and nightmares, and broken promises.

As we neared David Ben-Gurion (a man who symbolises radically different things depending on where you’re from) airport, I braced myself for the inevitable, given Israel’s famously edgy and nervous security services.

My arrival in Zion was to be treated as if I were Pharaoh’s envoy (by the way, I think my ancestors get too bad a wrap in the Biblical version of the world – but that’s for another time). No sooner had I stepped off the plane than a young woman intercepted me to ask me the purpose of my stay, whether I knew anyone in Israel and who I would be staying with. When she said: “Have a nice stay!”, I was pleasantly surprised and skipped off (figuratively) to passport control.

But it just seemed that my official welcoming party was running a little behind schedule. As the man behind the desk repeated the chorus of questions, two men – one slim, the other burly – interrupted the fairly friendly passport control officer in mid-sentence to launch into their own tough heavy-metal rendition of the same chorus of questions. Improvising with their own duet, they requested my boarding stub – which I couldn’t find – and asked where I’d been sitting on the plane.

In what approximated VIP treatment (or would that be Very Dangerous Person), they relieved me of my shoulder bag, laptop and camera and asked me to follow them. Over the next two hours, I was promoted through the ranks as one confounded officer handed me to the next, each of whom would ask me the same basic chorus of questions before breaking into their own solo to ask me such things as whether I had family in Israel or the Palestinian territories and which other countries in the Middle East I had visited. The last one actually smiled a few times and seemed suitably impressed by my long list of media contacts and the fact that I had once worked for Reuters!

Exhausted, bored and a little annoyed that I was the only passenger left, I wondered how they could possibly perceive me to be such a threat that they needed to question me so many times. I could understand the frustration at the recurring-dream nature of the questioning that prompted Souad Amiry, Palestinian architect and writer, once to insist that she had been dancing when asked why she had visited the UK – which do not go down at all well with her inquisitor. “I have always had the impression that the occupation has caused both the Israelis and Palestinians to lose their sense of humour,” she wrote in her book Sharon and my mother-in-law. By the way, I will be meeting her later in my trip.

I sat patiently biding my time until they assigned an escort to help me find my abandoned rucksack, which first had to be X-rayed before I was set free. Outside, I was made to feel more at home. My taxi driver, a good-humoured Sephardic Jew originally from Morocco, spoke good, if highly accented Arabic, and his every other word was a heart-warming cuss. En route, he scanned through the channels to find Arabic radio stations playing all the mouldy Arabic oldies like Umm Kalthoum - he even, in his gritty, tuneless voice, attempted to sing along for my entertainment. I arrived at Pardes Hana and Anat, my host, was still up awaiting my arrival.

Tomorrow read all about life in an authentic, real McCohen Jewish household.

Friday, 20 April 2007

A dose of Belgian pragmatism

Khaled Diab

My last hours in Belgium before I depart the calm serenity and measured reserve of this green and temperate land for the intensity, passion and madness of the ‘Holy Land’.

Sitting amongst quiet and sleepy commuters on the train this morning, I was struck by the idea that Belgium and Israel-Palestine have quite a lot in common and that the Israelis and Palestinians could learn a lot from my adopted home, namely the Belgian sense of pragmatic compromise.

Both Belgium and Israel-Palestine are about the same size geographically, have a similar population density, and are made up of two main communities. While there is no raging conflict between Belgium’s two language groups, there are major tensions. However, there is such a commitment to consensus politics that the term ‘Belgian compromise’ has become a term recognised internationally.

Despite its lack of a strong national identity and the gradual rise of the far right, Belgium has held together remarkably well – and this has mainly been a result of the country’s pragmatism. This has led to some pretty convoluted arrangements, and making a cup of coffee in the corridors of power requires long-winded political horse trading – ­but rather that than violent conflict.

Interestingly, while Jerusalem currently divides Israelis and Palestinians, Brussels cements the Belgians together. Perhaps declaring the Holy City the capital of the two peoples would have a similar bonding effect for them.

The Palestinians and Israelis on their own internal turf have shown that pragmatic ability to compromise, as their coalition governments show. And Israel’s settlement building activity reveals a talent for creating complex realities. However, it is an absence of pragmatism that hobbles the conflict, as reflected in Israel’s dependence on its military might, its insistence on unilateral solutions (even during the Oslo years) and its ‘take first, give later’ approach. Then, there’s Hamas’s insistence on not recognising Israel formally, even though it recognises it in all but name – and, earlier, all the years wasted by the PLO in refusing to face a similar reality.

Of course, in Belgium, there is not the massive imbalance in power and no long-standing history of violence between Flemings and Walloons. But Israelis and Palestinians could do well to inject a dose of Belgian pragmatism into their relationship.

©Khaled Diab. Text and photo.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Emotional battlefields and conflicting sentiments

By Khaled Diab
There is just over a day to go before my great voyage into the well-known yet enigmatic begins! Needless to say, I am incredibly excited about my trip - I'm sure it's going to be intense every step of the way. Climbing down from the ivory tower of political observation and punditry to walk among the flesh-and-blood realities.
For me, this trip is special in oh so many ways. This is the first time in my life that I will travel through a land that has so much personal resonance for me. Its political, psychological and emotional significance is immense and its intractable conflict played a big part in shaping my political consciousness.
For Jews around the world, Israel has a special place in their heart. For Arabs, Palestine has a similarly symbolic status - being the first and longest-lasting shattering of the Arab dream of independence. For me, growing up in a politicised and intellectual household meant that the Palestinian cause and the sorry state of the Arab world was branded into my consciousness from a young age. I can recall all the passionate debates that occurred from my earliest childhood between my parents and the intellectuals of the Arab diaspora in London - and the special status the Palestinians enjoyed in these circles.
After 11 September 2001, the whole Western world said "We are all Americans now!" After the mass displacement of the Palestinians in 1948 and then 1967, the Arabs expressed a similar sentiment.
The plight of the long-suffering Palestinians touches most Arabs deeply not only because of the obvious desperateness of their situation, but also because of how much it resonates with the situation closer to home. The high hopes once attached to Arab independence and pan-Arabism have soured, and the oft-corrupt political leadership in many countries can sometimes feel to the average citizen as foreign or contrary to their interests as the Israeli occupation.
Let your feelings show
I have to say that the last couple of weeks since I booked my ticket have been intense, and my day job writing about the intricacies of EU policy has seemed that much less exciting in the last days! On the outside, I still appear the same cool, level-headed sort of guy I usually am(in fact, more so, in my effort to keep it all in check). Inside, there are tumultous waves washing through my soul. The excitement has kept my mind buzzing and my brain whirring like a maniac. Actually, there is a general state of high alert at home, with my dedicated, overworked and underpaid Katleen putting in 15-16-hour days in a race against the clock to produce her second report on the global impact of cluster munitions (not the most fun subject). And she'll be in Geneva discussing landmines while I negotiate a veritable political minefield. In fact, I already feel emotionally drained (not to mention surprisingly fresh and alert) and I haven't even got on the plane yet!!
After so many years as a journalist, I have become quite accustomed to putting my personal feeling in the back seat, taking a step back and looking at things from multiple perspectives. Many of the articles I have produced about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been impersonal political analyses. In my other writings about the conflict, I have tried to be as even-handed as possible and to empathise with both sides.
But I am glad that, given the personal importance of this trip, I am not covering this it in my previous incarnation as a wire journalist, and the linguistic, emotional and political shackles that would've imposed on me. Some friends who are still walking the high wire of news agency work regularly complain to me about the impersonalness of it all! But I want to get up close and personal: meet real Israelis and Palestinians; see how things look from where they are standing.
I'm glad that I'm financing this trip myself so that I need not follow anyone's agenda but my own. I'm also pleased that I've set up this blog which will allow me to reflect at some length - annoying as it may be to the reader - on my voyage to discover that most known of unknown lands and the most familiar strangers in the world to me.
©Khaled Diab

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Latest suicide attack raises major security concerns

From Without a roa...

Khaled Diab
No, this is not yet another tragic news item about the latest carnage in the Middle East. It is about the man who shot dead 32 people on a US campus before turning the gun on himself. Police are calling it the deadliest shooting rampage of its kind in American history.
This massacre has come at an interesting moment for me. Some family and friends have expressed mild concern about my imminent trip to Israel and Palestine because I would be going into a conflict zone. I reassured them by pointing out that I was far more likely to die under the wheels of a car in Cairo than I would be to get caught in the crossfire during my trip.

But this latest shooting spree reminded me that there is one conflict zone that is far more dangerous than many of the world’s most troubled hotspots – the American urban jungle. And the randomness of the wacko with an automatic weapon or the stray bullet in a ‘drive-by’ is, in many ways, just as terrifying as any terror attack.

In fact, during a visit to Washington, DC, I realised that this one-time ‘murder capital’ of the world was once the most dangerous city in the world, until George W Bush invaded Iraq and passed on the crown to Baghdad! Perhaps rather than invading other countries with a reckless gung-ho attitude, he could’ve cleaned up the mess just a few short blocks from the White House by addressing the lax gun laws, socio-economic equalities and cultural attitudes that fuel violent crime in the USA. No matter what the gun lobby says, firearms do kill people.

In 1998, Washington, DC, reached the staggering height of 69.3 murders per 100,000 residents, according to an international survey by the UK Home Office. In that same survey, I was glad to learn that Brussels (where I work) came bottom, with only 0.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants!

This time the perpetrator was a South Korean but all the sad examples that have come to pass in America in the last few years alone – Columbine, the Washington Sniper, etc. – reveal that a depressing pattern. It is the place – and the easy access it affords to those of an unstable disposition – rather than ethnicity that counts here.

Comparative carnage
To compare the US situation with Israel and Palestine, I got out my calculator, looked up some stats and did the maths. I found that it is statistically more likely for the average person to get killed in an American city than in an Intifada-related incident. In the USA, according to the American Bureau of Justice, cities with a population of over 1 million had a murder rate of 13.2 per 100,000 per year.

Based on a rough estimate of about 4,000 dead Palestinians and 1,000 dead Israelis during the Intifada between 2000 and 2006, and a total Israeli/Palestinian population of nearly 10 million, that would work out at a political murder rate of 8.4 per 100,000 per year on average.
This is not meant to belittle the suffering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflicts. But violence-wise, it is fairly low-intensity, compared with many other troubled areas of the world. The trouble with Israel and Palestine is finding a way to divide up the land equitably between a people who have trouble getting over the loss of what had, since time immemorial, been theirs and another who have trouble giving up enough of what had, for centuries, been their unattainable dream.

©Khaled Diab for text and Katleen Maes for image.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Landmarks on the ‘Without a road map’ tour

The plans for my trip are really taking shape and it looks like I’ve got a hectic time ahead. Some landmarks to look forward to include:

Road to Jerusalem
My trip will take me to Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Pardes Hana, Galilee and the Golan, Jerusalem, Ramallah and el-Khalil/Hebron.

The real McCohen!
Penetrating deep into ‘hostile’ territory, your intrepid journalist will stay for some days with several generations of a ‘real’ Israeli family in a small town not far from Tel Aviv. And they have stated it as their express mission to show me the human and peaceful face of Zionism. They also want to see Israel through me eyes.

Meeting the peacemongers
I will meet a number of prominent Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, including that ‘godfather of shalom’, the veteran activist and writer Uri Avnery. I will also meet representatives of Gush Shalom, the Panorma Centre, the Peres Peace Centre, an Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGOs Forum, a group of refusniks called Yesh Gvul, and much more.

Visions of the future
Too much of the conflict is about letting the past paralyse the present. I will ask ordinary Israelis and Palestinians about their personal visions for a peaceful future.

Life under occupation
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I will visit Ramallah and el-Khalil (Hebron) to see how ordinary people lead their lives.

Oasis of peace in the valley of conflict
Neve Shalom/Wahet el-Salam (Peace Oasis) is an experimental community where Palestinians and Israelis live side-by-side in the same community, are educated together and work together. It provides an alternative vision of what Israel-Palestine may one day be like. I am currently arranging a visit.

Journos and Jerusalem
No busman’s holiday would be complete without meeting up with fellow hacks from various wire services and newspapers. They will include Guardian columnist Seth Freedman and Alex Stein, the founder of False Dichotomies.

Cyprus: the Promised Island and the world's first Zionist?

Khaled Diab
Almost four hundred years before the creation of Israel, Cyprus was on the cards as a Jewish colony and safe haven for Europe's persecuted Jewish minority.
I found this little nugget while brushing up on my history in preparation for my trip to Israel and Palestine.
The idea was the brainchild of the colourful Jewish financier and statesman Joseph Nasi (1524-1579), one of the 16th century's top movers and shakers. Born as a 'New Christian' or Conversos in Portugal half a century after the start of the Inquisition in neighbouring Spain, he was a 'secret Jew' or Marrano. As the Portuguese Inquisition kicked off in earnest around 1536, he fled that and moved north to the Habsburg Netherlands and settled in Antwerp, where he was very successful and much respected, until the Spanish Inquisition caught up with him there, whereupon he moved to France and Venice.
But, like many Jews of the time, he settled in the far more tolerant Ottoman Empire and became one of the Sultan's most influential advisers. He also openly professed his faith for the first time in his life. What I find interesting about his life story is how different Jewish attitudes to Arabs and Muslims were back then – and vice versa.
Nasi is best remembered for starting the first resettlement programme of European Jews to Palestine, when the Ottoman sultan appointed him Lord of Tiberias (in Galilee) and allowed him to set up a small colony there of a few hundred Jewish families.
But Tiberias was actually a consolation prize offered by Sultan Selim II, who was not too keen on Nasi's Cypriot designs. At the time, the majority of Jews saw Palestine as a pilgrimage destination, at the very most, and believed they would only 'return' there with the coming of the Messiah. For uninformed Christians and Muslims, Jews do not believe the 'anointed one' has arrived yet.
But what if the Sultan had reacted favourably to Nasi's plan. How different would subsequent history have been and how different would today's geo-political landscape be? How long would the colony have lasted? How would the native population have reacted? Would there have been a local 'intifada' against the colonists? Well, as it so happens, when his negotiations with the local Jewish community were uncovered, the non-native Jewish population of Famagusta was expelled in 1569 - native Jews were allowed to remain.
Would Cyprus have attracted Jewish immigration? I suppose 'Next year in Nicosia' would not have quite the same ring to it in Jewish ears as 'Next year in Jerusalem'. But there had been a large Jewish community there since Greek times and Jews were facing persecution in many parts of Europe, so these may have been major selling points for the colony. Would there have been a long and bitter conflict, like the one currently plaguing Israel-Palestine and, if so, how would it have been resolved? Would Cyprus have joined the EU as an island divided along a different Green Line? Would the subsequent colonisation of Palestine have taken place?
The original Zionist?
Binyamin Ze'ev – better known as 'Theodor' – Herzl is widely regarded as the father of Zionism. But given his various attempts at establishing Jewish colonies, does Nasi deserve the title of the first 'Zionist'? Both men were motivated by the persecution of their people: the Inquisition for Nasi and the pogroms in eastern Europe for Herzl, as well as the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France.
"We Jews are even now constantly shifting from place to place, a strong current actually carrying us westward over the sea to the United States, where our presence is also not desired. And where will our presence be desired, so long as we are a homeless nation?" he wrote in Der Judenstaat, the first book on Zionism.
However, Nasi had just about managed to keep one step ahead of being personally persecuted himself and seemed to be driven mostly by the pragmatic need to protect his people and give them somewhere where they could practice their faith in peace. He also set about avenging his near persecution and that of his people by stirring up trouble against the intolerant Spanish, such as encouraging he Calvinists in the Netherlands to revolt against Spain and promising the Ottoman support, as well as
On the other hand, Herzl was a comfortable member of the European intelligentsia – German-speaking Jews of his time were well integrated and more often than not part of the affluent middle and upper classes. Of course, he revealed a certain amount of pragmatism in that he was ready to form his Jewish state away from Palestine: the Jewish State is conceived as a peculiarly modern structure on unspecified territory," he wrote in Der Judenstaat.
But it was Palestine which he yearned for, in a secular manifestation of the Promised Land: "Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency," he extolled. In addition, his ideas were effused with the 19th century brand of cultural chauvinism, racism, imperialism and disregard for the will of the local population. "We should there [in Palestine] form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism," he said in the same book.
Although the only Arab character in a novel he wrote was grateful for the then fictional Jewish colonisation of Palestine, Herzl's memoirs reveal a darker intention for the local population of whatever piece of land would become the Jewish state: "Spirit the penniless population across the frontier by denying it employment… Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly," he wrote in his diary in 1895. Of course, this kind of cavalier attitude towards the will of the native population was fairly common in pre-20th century colonialism (including the Arab and Muslim variety). But it find its most perfect implementation in the near wholesale erasure of the native population of many parts of the Americas.

We are living with the consequences of Herzl's unrestrained drive to build a Jewish nation at any cost and the tragic near-extermination of European Jewry in the first half of the 20th century.

Written on 12 April 2007

©Khaled Diab