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What do Israelis really know about Palestinian suffering?

Mass funerals for terrorists are no more a representation of Palestinian society than Israelis who dance with knives and glorify Baruch Goldstein are a representation of Israeli society. 

By Ksenia Svetlova

An aunt of Muhammad Abu Latifa cries at his funeral in Qalandia Refugee Camp in between Ramallah and Jerusalem, July 27, 2015. Abu Latifa was killed while fleeing Israeli special police commandos during an arrest raid on his home early that morning. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

An aunt of Muhammad Abu Latifa cries at his funeral in Qalandia Refugee Camp in between Ramallah and Jerusalem, July 27, 2015. Abu Latifa was killed while fleeing Israeli special police commandos during an arrest raid on his home early that morning. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Yoaz Hendel, a former director of communications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote an article in Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend supplement addressing a topic that has became popular, if not populist, in recent weeks: why Palestinians don’t experience bereavement. Or in other words, why are we better than the Palestinians and why are they worse than us. As Hendel, whose writing I love and try never to miss, wrote: “The difference between bereavements is obvious. There is a gaping chasm between Palestinian and Israeli societies.”

The first question that beckons is: How much do you really know Palestinian society, Yoaz? Because looking at Palestinian society through the prism of the 8 o’clock news on Israeli Channels 10 and 2 doesn’t constitute a deep familiarity. Neither does surfing through sites that collect evidence of the fact that “all the animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” (as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm). Neither do interviews with terrorists in jail (which are not conducted in Arabic) count as being an expert on the Palestinian issue. What do Israelis, the majority of them, really know about Palestinian society? When was the last time they visited an average Palestinian’s home for a family dinner? Listened to their conversations and were witness to entirely trivial situations, like sending kids to school or going to the grocery store?

Those who judge Palestinian society according to the military chronicle presented daily on the commercial airwaves are like tourists who want to travel to Israel but heard there are constant terror attacks, so the picture they have of the country is of the Qalandiya checkpoint, or dispersing a demonstration in Bil’in (since those are the images the foreign press generally broadcasts from here).

No one is disputing the fact that the Palestinian Authority names its plazas after terrorists, or that Palestinian movements organize mass funerals for terrorists and produce propaganda videos of mothers with glazed eyes saying they are happy their sons or daughters “committed a heroic act for Palestine” by committing a terror attack and becoming “Shahids.” It happens. It is part of the reality. But only part of it. Those who identify Muslim Palestinians with a culture of death forget — whether intentionally or out of ignorance — that the Spanish Falangists, on which the Phalangists in Lebanon are modeled (Israel’s primary allies during the Lebanon War) glorified the motto “long live death.”

The other half of the Palestinian puzzle 

As a scholar of the Middle East and a writer and commentator on Arab affairs — which includes Palestinians — for the last 13 years, I have witnessed, covered and investigated not only the wars and attacks, but also the other half of the Palestinian puzzle. The routine, the mundane day to day. The family living room at dinnertime, where they watch American movies and not Palestinian TV (in fact, I have never seen someone watching the Palestinian channel in their house), the morning chaos that goes with getting three or four kids to different schools, getting their lunches ready and making sure everyone has their books and notebooks packed. The pain and fear when Israel bombs Gaza, where relatives live, genuine concern for one’s safety. I interviewed mothers who escaped on foot with their children to protect them from bombings and those who locked their kids in the house during the Second Intifada so they wouldn’t go out and join a group of youth that may kill or be killed.

I was also witness to a funeral that wasn’t really covered by mainstream media in Arabic or English. A funeral for a nine-year old girl. It was in 2006, shortly after IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. I was shooting a story on the economy in Gaza. During the interviews I heard Israeli jets bombing Beit Hanoun, and the girl, who stayed home sick that day, was killed as a result of a direct hit to her home, of course by mistake.

We reached a two-story house and found a symmetrical hole going right through the middle of it. The Palestinian Red Cross had already transferred the remains to the morgue. There was still blood on the floor. We went upstairs with the girl’s father, who showed us from the riddled roof where Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists took up positions to fire rockets. The distance between their stations and the home was not big and according to the father, everyone in the area knew they were firing from there but couldn’t do anything to get them out of there, since Hamas members had already taken over the area. (This was half a year after they won parliamentary elections).  The father was chain smoking, his face was expressionless. The mother didn’t come out of her room, but you could hear her and her other daughter’s weeping loud and clear.

The al-Nada towers in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, had ninety apartments before they were destroyed in Israeli attacks. (Anne Paq / Activetills)

The al-Nada towers in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, had ninety apartments before they were destroyed in Israeli attacks. (Anne Paq / Activetills)

There were no representatives of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority at the funeral the next day, only relatives and neighbors. They did not wrap what was left of the girl’s body in green flags, but they did call her a Shahid. In Islam, anyone killed during a confrontation with the enemy — whether a victim or an armed terrorist, whether during combat, an attack or an air strike — is labeled a Shahid.

After the funeral I interviewed the father. He said this sentence, among other things: “I just want my daughter to be the last victim. I don’t want dead Israeli children or dead Palestinian children. I want it to end.” This pain is felt by thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. The vast majority. The theater staged by organizations when they receive the bodies of terrorists or others killed by Israeli fire or strikes has become very commonplace. But it is not the whole story, just like those who dance with knives or bow down in front of Baruch Goldstein’s grave are far from representing Israel.

The demonization of the Other is dangerous first and foremost for us. It endangers our humanity; it instills us with fear of the unknown. After all, they are different from us, they operate according to different and unfamiliar codes. This demonization is dangerous because it affects our choices and our worldview.

When it comes to realpolitik, the incitement and the funerals for terrorists are not a consideration. After all, we made peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt — where there is no shortage of incitement, prejudice and hatred for us. If we dream not only about a resolution and the defining of borders (and this is barely dreamed about), but also of a genuine reconciliation process, like in Rwanda, Liberia or Northern Ireland, one that will really put an end to the bloodshed, then we must drop our biases and predispositions and recognize that people are always people.

It’s easy to demonize and hate the Other — it’s even convenient. They are not like us. They are not human, so everything is allowed and all the means exerted against them are legitimate.  But it is much harder to find the commonalities, and work hard to build a foundation upon for a better future.

The writer is a Knesset Member with the Zionist Union, and an expert on Middle East and Arab affairs. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.  

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    1. Carmen

      What a pleasant surprise from an MK. Why not join the Joint List?

      Reply to Comment
    2. You touch the essential yearning of so many, on every side you can name : we just want this to end. For sure it is quicker (and possibly more materially profitable?)to build and exploit mistrust and worse. But ordinary people can turn this tide if determined to do so. It can start very simply, by a look, a single exchange of words … the revolution will be in the attitude behind your actions.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pál Prónay

      This is so patronizing. A slavic thief steals Palestinian land and then lectures to us about the suffering of Palestinians. Ksenia can go back to the steppes of Russia where she came from. That would alleviate a lot of Palestinian suffering

      Reply to Comment