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America in Israeli Eyes - After September 11

I just returned from a two-week trip to the States. I was very nervous about going, but that had nothing to do with flying. I quite like to fly. Friends and family in the States warned about long airport lines due to increased security, but El Al's security has always been tight -- and flying on an Israeli passport substantially cuts time off the security check. I also knew that El Al's gate would probably be far from others in the international terminal (usually near the airlines flying to Northern Ireland), so that I wouldn't be going through security with anyone but my fellow passengers. Flying El Al was important to me, as I wanted to be booked on an airline that would fly me home in the event of any deterioration of the situation in Israel.

What made me nervous was the fact that I didn't have an inside understanding of what it meant to be living in the U.S. two months after September 11. I can tell you what it meant to observe the one-year anniversary of the Intifada, but I am not sure that I even know the appropriate name for September 11 -- although I think that "September 11" is the name I have been hearing, sort of like Israelis calling the current cycle of violence "hamatzav" -- "the situation." The name encompasses everything -- facts, feelings, moods, implications, issues -- yet is so wondrously vague to allow you to avoid confronting how the present is affecting us and what the future holds.

Despite my distance from the events of September 11, they certainly caused me to feel very American, and I found myself responding quite defensively to what I perceived as less-than- tactful Israeli reactions to the attacks. Many first reactions were along the lines of, "Perhaps now they will understand what we go through here" -- an expression of thinly veiled frustration and despair over this year of Intifada. The second reaction that raised my American hackles was, "Something like this could never happen in Israel." Many were asking the question of how the terrorist attacks were pulled off -- especially the attack on the Pentagon, given the advance warning time. Most reasonable people and radio analysts, however, eventually noted that in Israel, almost every single flight is international, with all the border protections in place, while in the United States, the sheer number of domestic flights boggles the Israeli mind.

These reactions were only part of the story, of course. Many friends and members of my partner Gonen's family immediately called to see whether my family and friends stateside were safe. Many other Israelis were simply doing what I and their American counterparts were doing, trying to contact loved ones who live, work or were visiting in Manhattan and D.C. In an Israeli radio interview, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kirtzer expressed (in fluent, if accented, Hebrew) how overwhelmed and grateful he and his country were for the numerous messages of support and condolences he received from Israelis, both public and private citizens. That was an important Israel-America moment for me, together with the fact that Israel was the first country to declare a day of national mourning in honor of the victims of the attacks.

My own biases emerged as I resisted accepting as true the pronouncement that "the world will never be the same as the result of September 11." To me, this proclamation seemed to express willful ignorance of the fact that the world has been affected for a long time by fundamentalist forces similar to those that caused the devastation and horror of September 11. Religious fundamentalism is an integral part of life in the Mideast and other areas of the world, particularly where economies are in ruins and the gap between rich and poor is huge. Not seeing its potential for destruction of human life and democratic values seemed to me like negligent blindness.

Then I remembered that what is normal in Israel should be absurd: the reality of seeing soldiers and police officers in public areas, of opening my backpack for inspection upon entering stores and my car trunk for inspection before being allowed to enter the mall parking lot. People should not have to be checking their mail for anthrax or worrying whether it is safe to attend the World Series. Israeli gas mask companies should not be busy filling orders for the United States. While some Israelis expressed hope that Americans would now have a greater understanding for how we go about daily life, no one here wants the American way of life to change. Fundamentalists may see that way of life as the epitome of moral degeneration, but most Israelis see it as something to achieve.

If September 11 "changed the world," much of the change seems to have passed over our little corner of the Middle East. More than one year into the Intifada, we are not closer to returning to the negotiating table. If the Palestinians thought a violent uprising would bring Israel to its knees and bring gains at the negotiating table, they sorely misjudged Israeli character -- the same character that put Ariel Sharon in power because he promised greater security for the country¹s citizens. The matzav ("situation") for me has become a daily series of news reports about whether we are really experiencing a ceasefire. It means listening more closely to the news because my brother-in-law, Yochai, is serving three weeks in the reserves in one of the more dangerous outposts in Gaza. It means sighing with relief when Gonen's reserve unit gets reassigned to the Lebanon border instead of Hebron, its original destination. It means hearing three shots fired on my street and finding out it was a motorcycle backfiring. It means being awakened by a real bomb a couple of blocks from our home.

It also means wondering where the cycle of assassinations on both sides is going to lead. Just before Knesset Member Rehoboam Ze'evi was killed, a ceasefire had actually been holding for about a week. The killing of Ze'evi was in retaliation for the Israeli killing of the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa. In the latter case, Israeli leaders killed a political leader who supported terrorism; in the former, the Islamic Front killed a political leader who advocated transfer of Palestinians from Israel. One does not even have to enter into a debate about the morality of such assassinations; it is enough to acknowledge that neither side has tactically gained from the policy. Meanwhile, the cycle of violence is creating a generation of Palestinians -- and not a few Israelis -- who are seething with hate.

There has been a severe worsening of the regional economy. In Israel we are experiencing our worst unemployment ever, while the Palestinian economy is in shambles. It will take years to rebuild what has been destroyed. A few stories will perhaps tell more than statistics.

We have four regulars among the visitors who live in the area of Bethlehem who come to our door asking for money. One I find rather annoying because he lies about returning money that I don't expect to see and makes spiteful comments when he thinks I haven't given him enough. Another, who comes a couple of times a week, we nicknamed "Hashakeyt" -- the quiet one. I don't speak any Arabic and he doesn't know English or Hebrew, so we communicate with a lot of hand signals. Mostly he gives me blessings for children, holding one hand waist high and pointing skyward with the other. Sometimes he brings a present of beautiful grapes or grape leaves. On those occasions, he insists on not taking any money. Gonen knows some Arabic, so it is nice if he is home to say a few words. One time he learned that Hashakeyt's wife and daughter were killed in a crossfire between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

Fatma, the only woman of the quartet, comes on Friday afternoons, about once every six weeks. She likes to come in and put her feet up, as she suffers from all sorts of ailments, including a bad knee and brain tumors. During the summer, we gave her a radio we weren't using, so that her three unmarried daughters would have something to do when they weren't in school.

One day in September, Fatma came by, very upset, because she didn't have tuition money for them. With tzedakah I had been given to pass along, plus some of our own money, we realized we could make it happen. When I came back from my recent trip to the U.S., Gonen told me that Fatma's house had been destroyed in the crossfire when Israeli forces entered Bethlehem in retaliation for the killing of Ze'evi. This week we learned that her house is being rebuilt while her family takes shelter in a church.

Hassan is our most frequent guest, coming to our house a few times a week. Every other week he sweeps outside, an arrangement designed to make us both feel better. He has eleven children, five boys and six girls ranging in age from seven to twenty-six. Three are married. He tells me that I should have children, they are a blessing, but that two are enough. On particularly bad days, Hassan greets me with, "Yesh harbeh balagan" -- there is a lot of mess or trouble. One of Hassan's many problems is that he is unskilled and basically unemployable. We give him all sorts of things we don't need, figuring he can either use them or sell them. Over the course of the year, he has revealed a great sense of humor: He asked us what we were planning to get him for our wedding, and whether I had brought him a present from America. Hassan is also very good at asking: After I give money, he asks for soap or tuna or toilet paper. I have learned to keep a well-stocked home.

There are other things I have learned over the course of this year. It took me until the observance of the one-year anniversary of the Intifada to acknowledge the truth of what many were saying, that the Intifada broke the Israeli left. The real jolt for me came with the publication of Shlomo Ben Ami's conclusions drawn from the Camp David talks. A year ago, I shared in RT the Palestinian perspective of the deal offered by Ehud Barak as insulting. Ben Ami revealed that while Barak's first plan was, indeed, unrealistic and insulting, in the course of the talks, Barak became courageous and even offered sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem. To that offer, there was no response, not even a counter-offer! Ben Ami concluded that Arafat lives in a world of myths and is incapable of signing a final agreement. The Palestinian national movement, he asserted, simply wants to break Israel's neck. It cannot sign because it has no vision of how it wants its own state to look. This disabled the left from calling for renewed negotiations and was a factor in allowing Sharon to insist upon an absolute ceasefire before serious talks resume.

Over a recent, intimate Shabbat dinner, I had an opportunity to question a government insider who put things back into a more balanced perspective. He confirmed that Barak, when first elected, had treated Arafat contemptuously by devoting all attention to an agreement with Syria and abandoning the Palestinian negotiations. Furthermore, Arafat made it clear before Camp David that the both sides' preparation for the summit was sorely inadequate, making it impossible to sign a comprehensive agreement. Arafat only agreed to go because of American and international pressure. Once there, Barak dictated the rules of the negotiations as well as their content and made a crucial mistake in thinking he could resolve the issue over Jerusalem.

How was this report encouraging? It indicated to me that there are members of the Palestinian negotiating team, apart from Arafat, capable of finding a reasonable solution. This means that one can still be a leftist -- which essentially means being optimistic -- if only as a long-term proposition.

Dominating the news these days is the arrival of U.S. General (retired) Anthony Zinni as a negotiator promising to deliver a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. News of his first talks today, however, was interrupted by a terrorist attack in Afula that killed two and injured fifty-one. Most of us can¹t help but ask what General Zinni can accomplish that no one else has managed to date. I can't even keep the names straight of the peace and truce agreements proposed: I think Tenet came after Mitchell, which came after Sharm-el-Sheikh, which came after Madrid, which came after Oslo II, which came after Oslo I. I suppose I should be thankful for the announcement that General Zinni will be following the outline of the Tenet agreement instead of trying to come up with something new. But if General Zinni achieves his objective, will the ceasefire then be called the "Zinni Agreement" or "Tenet?"

Skepticism aside, when you don't have access to an inside source, the real news is what you have to listen for very closely. Following the Israeli army entrance into the six Palestinian cities after the killing of Ze¹evi, there were some interesting developments. While it took quite a long time for Israel to complete its withdrawal (the army withdrew from Jenin only in anticipation of General Zinni's arrival), there were significant gains in specific areas. In Bethlehem, Palestinian and Israeli security leaders were able to achieve a local ceasefire that enabled the Israeli army to withdraw relatively quickly, notwithstanding outbreaks of violence there. This was a clear statement on the part of Bethlehem's Palestinian leaders that a return to an interim state of autonomy is the most likely to end the cycle of violence.

Another piece of news came from my friend Roni, a doctor from Germany who came to Israel when I did in 1997. He is currently doing his army service, stationed in Ramallah, in a special track for doctors. A few months ago, Ramallah was one of the more dangerous places to be stationed. At Thanksgiving dinner, Roni said that not only is Ramallah quiet, but that the Palestinian security forces, for the first time, are arresting terrorists and making a point of not releasing them. This is an important demonstration, at least in Ramallah, that someone is serious about the ceasefire. There seems to be a change in the strength of Palestinian voices for stopping the Intifada and returning to the negotiating table to get on with the business of living.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of work to do. While the government types are busy negotiating agreements to implement agreements, those of us in the human rights camp (I am active in Rabbis for Human Rights) need to focus lest our country lose its soul on the way to peace. The difficulty is that a human rights campaign is a hard one for which to write a slogan. Nonetheless, there is finally talk of launching a campaign that will attempt to change centrist Israeli public opinion. The more radical demonstrations, while important for influencing international opinion and showing Palestinians that there are those serious about ending the conflict, actually backfire in terms of moving the Israeli public. More resources need to be dedicated to the laborious and less glamorous work of a public campaign. Ideas (and resources) will be accepted with gratitude.

 

Type: RT Article

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