Monday, December 3, 2001
Dear family and friends,
As you probably know by now, Saturday night's Jerusalem bombings were just the beginning. Sunday morning came news of a drive-by shooting near the Israeli village of Alei Sinai in northern Gaza. A few hours later all other news was superseded by an even worse atrocity, when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up inside a bus in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Other terror attacks - several shootings and another bombing - followed across the country. In less than 24 hours, twenty-six Israelis had been killed and hundreds wounded, many seriously.
Especially at times like this, after Israel has suffered such horrific terror attacks, people often make comments along the lines of "well, if only you guys would stop hating each other there would be peace" or "this conflict is about irrational hatred on both sides". The implication is that both sides have been active in fostering hostile attitudes and blocking reconciliation and that we are all equally to blame in the impasse.
I beg to differ. I belong to a generation which has been brought up to believe that peace is just around the corner. The Israeli-Egyptian peace accords and the first Camp David negotiations took place when we were in kindergarten. We were brought up with the idea that Egypt was Israel's new friend, and that soon the rest of the Arab world would follow. The Israeli song "Ani Noladati Leshalom" (I was born for peace), composed specially for Egyptian President Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, was an anthem of our childhood.
The generation after us has grown up with the idea that peace was even closer, that Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority were Israel's friends and that Jordan's King Hussein was a kindly uncle. This is the generation who grew up with the Oslo Accords process, begun almost 8 years ago. This is the generation of Israeli-Palestinian Seasame Street in Hebrew and Arabic, peace workshops and dreams of weekend shopping trips to Damascus or relaxing in Gaza City cafes with our new Palestinian buddies. Oslo, we were told, was the start of a new age of peace and reconciliation.
Israeli musicians, at the forefront of the peace campaign, brought us a plethora of peace songs, both writing new ones and reviving old ones. "Shir LeShalom" (song to peace), written decades ago, received a new lease of life as the anthem of the Oslo era. The song calls on Israelis to forget the many casualties of past wars, for the dead cannot return, and instead to cast our eyes to the future, to sing a song to peace.
School curricula, the media and popular culture reinforced this message. We were encouraged to understand the Palestinian side of things, to feel the Palestinians' pain, to learn their perspective on history as part of this historic reconciliation. Arafat, Erekat, Sha'ath and other senior PLO and PA officials became VIPs in Israel, members of the Israeli celebrity A list. Everyone from politicians to children's show presenters rushed to Gaza City to meet them and have their photos taken. It was taken for granted by most Israelis that Oslo would end with a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and that the two states would live side by side.
Yes, we suffered terrorism, indeed the Oslo peace process brought with it some of the worst terror attacks in Israel's history, but this, we were told, was the work of fringe extremists. Peace was just around the corner. Peace was the highest goal, superseding all other goals and it was there for the taking, just a few more Israeli concessions away.
The Oslo process brought a peace treaty with Jordan, flourishing markets sprang up in Palestinian villages and new joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones in border areas created new jobs. These were the images we were encouraged to put our faith in, and who wouldn't want to believe this rosy side of Oslo? Israel is a nation which has craved peace since its birth, when the armies of seven Arab states massed to crush the infant Jewish state one day after it declared independence. Oslo offered the hope that life would not always be lived from one Arab assault to the next. Oslo offered the hope of normal peaceful relations with all our neighbours.
Yet there was and is a dark side to Oslo, a side which the media, politicians and intelligentsia worked hard to play down. While Israeli schoolchildren were being raised on a peace curriculum, the nascent Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians' government in waiting created by Oslo, was building a state founded on hate. The new Palestinian Authority schools and youth movements teach a curriculum which presents Israel as the enemy, which drips anti-Semitism and encourages Palestinian youth to kill and die for the Palestinian cause. Summer camps for children as young as eight feature weapons drills and train them in guerrilla tactics for use against Israeli towns.
Official Palestinian television from its inception broadcast children's shows in which, against a background of cute Disney characters, little Palestinian boys and girls sang about their desire to be martyrs in the struggle against Israel and of how they hoped to die gloriously in battle. Suicide bombers are role models for Palestinian tots. Palestinian media and television, closely controlled by Arafat's Palestinian Authority, broadcast programmes filled with hate, holocaust revisionism, classic anti-Semitic stories about blood libels and Jews poisoning the water, and false histories denying that the Jews ever had a religious or national connection, or indeed any other, to the region. Palestinian songs, including those sung at public events attended by Arafat and senior Palestinian negotiators, featured verses about recapturing Haifa, Ashkelon, Petah Tikva and Safed - cities within the internationally-recognised boundaries of Israel.
The Palestinian Authority launched an all-out campaign to deny Jewish history. Suddenly Jesus was a Palestinian Arab - even though the Arab conquest of the region took place many centuries after the birth of Christianity, and Jesus was, of course, a Jew from Judea, as described in the Christian bible. Palestinian leaders claimed there had never been a Jewish Temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. At the same time they began destroying archaeological remains at the site - attempting to wipe out millennia of Jewish and Christian history in the region. Palestinian propaganda maintained that traditional Jewish holy sites such as Joseph's Tomb in Nablus / Shekhem, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem were "Zionist myths" and were in fact exclusively Islamic sites.
When in 1999 I took a tour to the Nablus region organised by the Palestinian Authority's tourism wing, the official Palestinian Authority guide omitted virtually all Jewish connections with the region, rewriting history to exclude the ancient Israelite period. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, the ancient city of Shekhem features pretty prominently in ancient Israelite history. All this formed the basis for a Palestinian campaign to portray Israel as a relic of European colonialism, a foreign interloper in the Arab Muslim Middle East, and so avoid according any legitimacy to our presence and the existence of a Jewish state here.
The Israeli public had looked upon the Oslo Accords as an historic mutual reconciliation in which Israelis and Palestinians accepted one another's legitimacy and agreed to historic compromises for the sake of peace. The Palestinians meanwhile looked upon it as the first phase in their victory over Israel. The Israelis had 8 years of peace education. The Palestinians had 8 years of war education.
When, during the summer 2000 Camp David peace talks, the Palestinian leadership decided to reject Israel's openness to painful compromises and willingness to reach a negotiated settlement - refusing even to respond with a counteroffer - the Palestinian people were ready for violent confrontation, which in their eyes had never ended. For them the Oslo peace process was a tactical move, not a rejection of their "armed struggle". So when Yasser Arafat began his latest war against Israel, the Palestinian people were well prepared.
The Israeli public, on the other hand, were not. Years of peace education, peace songs and reconciliation projects had left the Israeli public expecting peace, not another war. Israelis were looking forward to the day - some time soon, Prime Minister Barak had promised us - when Israeli men would no longer have to do military reserve duty. Suddenly, with Arab attacks on several fronts, many Israelis received emergency call-up papers. The dream of Oslo had turned into a nightmare.
Too late we now realise that peace was never even on the Palestinian agenda.
This is not about hating each other. This is not about a failed peace process. This is about a Palestinian leadership which never had any desire to change its ultimate goal of destroying Israel. There never was an intention on their part to commit to real peace. It was just a tactic, as the late Palestinian "moderate" Faisal Husseini put it recently, to bring an armed Palestinian army into the heart of Israel in the guise of the Trojan horse of peace.
And we Israelis fell for it hook, line and sinker. We wanted peace, real peace, Belgium and Luxembourg peace, so badly, that we were prepared to overlook everything, even to help arm a tens-of-thousands-strong Palestinian army. Now we're paying the price, and, sadly, so once again are the Palestinian people, led down the path to war by their leadership.
I remember the euphoria when this all began in September 1993 when I was 18. I spent Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, with friends in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Their parents took us on a nighttime walk over the roofs and walls of old Jerusalem and told us enthusiastically how finally this ancient city would know peace. They pointed out the Muslim areas which would be part of a Palestinian state and the Jewish areas which would remain Israeli and we would all be happy, having finally settled all the old disputes.
Walking down to Shiloah, the spring which fed ancient Jerusalem, for the traditional tashlikh ritual, we passed the Arab houses of Silwan, once a Jewish village, now Arab, which borders the southern edge of the Old City. The Arabs greeted us with shouts of Shalom and Salaam, and we responded with the Arabic Merhaba (hello). They waved Palestinian flags and we smiled back, confident that this was a sign that we were on the road to the longed for peace and reconciliation.
Little did we know that their aspirations and understanding of peace and ours were so different.
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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.