Surrealism or Realism? Israelis and Palestinian continuing to Search for Understanding and Peace

                                                         Gershon Baskin*

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Yesterday after the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, as the eyes of the entire world were glued to the television screens watching the scenes from Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the entire Arab world, we in IPCRI were sitting together, Israelis and Palestinians planning the work of our Strategic Affairs Department. In the surroundings from outside of our office on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem border we hear the continuous banging of the heavy machinery constructing the separation wall, ten meters high just 200 meters away from our window. Yesterday morning the noise of the machinery was interspersed with noise of gun fire coming from the Israeli army against demonstrators inside of Bethlehem near Rachel’s Tomb.

As we worked yesterday, taking periodic breaks to catch up on developments, we witnessed together with the whole world the continued calls by Israelis and Palestinians alike for more death, violence and destruction. One Israeli cabinet member after the other praised the assassination refusing to answer the questions regarding the likely aftermath of this violent act. Virtually the only criticism coming from within the Israeli government was the voice that said it wasn’t enough and now the other Hamas leaders and even Yasir Arafat himself were next in line. From the Palestinian side we heard the voices coming from mosques calling on every Palestinian to go kill Jews – “the Gates of Hell have been opened” we were heard from Hamas leaders. There are dissenting voices in Palestine against violence, but we didn’t hear them yesterday.

Through all of this we labored on discussing our upcoming meetings of our many Israeli and Palestinian working groups. We discussed our plans for our Israeli-Palestinian policy conference to be held in November. Our discussions were interrupted several times by journalists who wanted to interview us and get our opinions and analyses on the developments. As the day progressed and background noise calling for death and destruction became for me intolerably loud, I could hardly hear myself think. I kept thinking about all of the phone calls I have to make today to invite people to come to our working group meetings. I was imagining the responses: Are you crazy? Now you want us to come to a meeting with them? There is no one to talk to! What do you expect us to talk about? There is absolutely no chance to make peace with them! Didn’t you hear what they said on television? I can’t find the inner resolve to sit with them now! Etc. etc. etc.

9:00 - I am almost afraid to pick up the phone this morning to make those calls. This morning most people here are waiting for the next blow – where will it be, who will get hit, how many people will die? Most people, Israelis and Palestinians want the next blow to come quickly and with as horrendous consequences as possible – they must pay for their crimes! I look around me and I honestly don’t know which reality is real and which is surreal – mine or there’s? Is it sane or insane in these circumstances to refuse to accept violent death as a natural daily event? Is it sane or insane not to hate the other side? Is it sane or insane to believe that we can still talk to each other, that we have something in common to talk about, that we can actually do something together to change this reality?

9:30 am - One of our staff from Bethlehem just arrived to the office. She is a religious Muslim. I greeted her with surprise thinking that she won’t be able to get to work because of the tight closure enforced by the Israeli Border Police around the compound of our office. I greet her with the traditional Arabic greeting “al humdul-illah salame” literally meaning - blessed is your peace. She responds “what peace ya Gershon, the entire world is in ruins!” She lives in a refugee camp inside of Bethlehem just half a kilometer away from my desk.

This must be the only place in this land today where Israelis and Palestinians are sitting together, working together, thinking together, caring together, worrying together – all out of clear, coherent and rational choice. In between my thoughts and fears about the impending news of more violence, I am disturbed by the thought that we might remain the on‎ly group of Israelis and Palestinian sitting together in peace. I expect that our work will become increasingly difficult. It will become more and more complicated to find significant mainstream Israelis and Palestinians who will agree to participate in joint meetings or joint activities.

The continued Israeli attempts to weaken Hamas by assassinating the Hamas leadership is backfiring as Hamas public strength grows from attack to attack. Yesterday’s assassination of Sheikh Yassin may actually be the final blow to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. As the Palestinian Authority continues to lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public, it will become next to impossible to bring Palestinian officials to participate in any meetings with Israelis. As this trend continues, more and more Israeli officials will also shy away from talking with Palestinians. The second intifada has been until now characterized as an armed uprising as opposed to a public popular uprising. Now popular Palestinian resistance to the occupation is likely to experience a sharp rise. Israeli responses are likely to be more assassinations and more attacks and hardships placed on the Palestinian civilian population.

In the backdrop to all of this is a new generation of Palestinian and Israeli young people living in fear and breeding hatred. The collective memories and stories of this new generation of young Israelis and Palestinians is being filled with anger and deep desire to see the other side suffer.

11:00 am - We just now received word from the Israeli army that our requests for permits for Palestinian teachers to come to our office for a two day working meeting on peace education has been rejected. We were told that we should not expect any permits to be issued in the near future. Demonstrations are marching all over the West Bank and Gaza now. Hamas has insisted that Palestinian schools be opened and not included in the three days of strike and public mourning. Palestinian students are attending schools today and certainly learning about Sheikh Yassin. Israeli students went to school this morning despite their parents’ great trepidation about their security. All of Israel is on high alert against Palestinian revenge. Everyone knows the bombs will explode – where? When? How many people will lose their lives and how many others will be forever maimed?

In every corner of our office our people are busy at work, yet there is a deep sadness that lingers all around us. In one room they are working on our joint water conference to be held in October. In another room a joint team is working on the terms of reference for several new public policy joint working teams. In another room work is being done on the peace education curricula. For a very brief moment, it all seems so normal.

* Dr. Gershon Baskin is the Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI, Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information