A few weeks ago I was gladdened by the reports telling the story of thousands of Palestinian families making their way through large holes in the security barrier, under the silent watch of the IDF, to take their children to the beach in Tel Aviv. These were people having a good time, cooling off; so many seeing Israel, and the sea for the first time ever or in decades. Overall they were having that elusive positive experience in Israel for once. This type of interaction lowers the flames of extremism and xenophobia that foster violence.
Inspired by that story, I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, under the title “Welcome to Israel.” But recent developments have at the very least tempered, if not yet crushed that original sentiment. Mere glimmers of the harsh reality this country has known for decades have come back to the fore just this week. Two separate stabbing attacks were deemed to be acts of terror by Palestinians from the West Bank. In now bitter irony, Prime Minister Netanyahu Wednesday tweeted the relatively positive news that for the first time in 56 years in Israel, no civilian had been killed in a terror attack in a 365 day period. While I wasn’t aware of that statistic, I still knew it in my gut. It has been a remarkably less violent year than many we’ve known in the last two decades, and it is really something you can feel. But that streak ended almost at the exact moment the Prime Minister was bringing attention to it.
Rabbi Shai Ohayon z”l, father of four children aged 4-13, disembarked from a bus, and was walking on a sidewalk along a busy Petach Tikvah thoroughfare, when a 46 year old Palestinian from the Nablus area decided he’d make the right target for the large kitchen knife he carried with him into Israel that morning. The stabbing was brutal and deliberate. Ohayon, an unsuspecting victim, and lifelong adherent to the study and teachings of Torah, had no chance of surviving its ferocity. In line with the cold and calculated slaying, the murderer rose to his feet, and began to walk nonchalantly down the street as if nothing had happened. It was the type of cunning evil deceit that among the creatures on this planet, only humankind is capable of demonstrating. In this case, a bystander who happened to witness the swift and shocking killing was able to catch up close enough and alert police who surrounded the suspect… found to be still in possession of the blood soaked blade.
This terrorist didn’t sneak through the dead of night to cut a hole in the security barrier. He is one of around 120,000 Palestinians that reportedly enter Israel each day from the West Bank these days, legally permitted to work and come and go. Recent reports say that at least another 30,000 cross illegally each day as well. To obtain and hold these permits, one must undergo extensive security screening by the Shin Bet, and submit to ongoing checks. While unusual, its not unprecedented that a Palestinian with legal work permit has committed an act of terror. More than once it has been the few that have horribly ruined it for the many in Palestine.
I recall in 2001 upon my arrival in Israel, hearing about the country before the Second Intifada, already so altered from essentially one year prior. Before I arrived, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians came in and out each day. It was unfathomable to me and so many others already that year, so plagued by the murderous terror rampage unfolding in virtually every city in the country. Those were mass casualty terror attacks. Blowing full buses and restaurants to bits produced a sharp reaction within Israel. Eventually the Second Intifada pushed the country to actually build a massive wall around itself and withdraw many Jewish communities behind it, all just to keep Palestinians from being able to kill Israelis at will.
Israeli policies, and the very security barrier itself (semi finalized when I was assigned to guard it in 2004) are the result of terrifying experience, and in line with the short term, survive ‘til tomorrow, stop the bleed strategy often required. That adaptable survival ability has always characterized this place.
But after this week, in spite of all the human instinct to block off the perceived dangers from the “other,” to put up that desperate wall, to fall back to where we perceive to be the defensive lines… we have learned that coexistence is the only way. Israel’s general success story was highlighted by the authentic, warning, and highly impactful words of freshman Israeli lawmaker Tehila Friedman this month. If you haven’t yet, you should listen to her inaugural speech on the Knesset floor.
Separation only perpetuates conflict. Much of the world’s history has shown us that when two sides are codependent yet autonomous, they’re much less likely to reach the levels of violence and extremism we’ve come to at times here.
Allow me to share one informative experience I had while in IDF uniform that showed me how cut off our two peoples had become by that point of the Intifada. Conducting a late night surprise road block, as part of a small combat squad deployed to a rural Palestinian road outside Jenin, we set up our mobile barrier, on alert for militant activity, and took up our strategic positions to stop and search vehicles of a certain model, according to the intelligence. A match to the description suddenly emerged from the quiet darkness, and we sprung into rehearsed action. My squad leader and I approached the vehicle, while our comrades watched over us from commanding positions out of sight. Two middle-aged men sat in the front, with looks on their faces confirming that we had so far been successful at least in our element of surprise. We had them step out, show us identification, and did a rapid but thorough check of the car’s interior, while we radioed the ID numbers to the Shabak guys.
Time crawls, and you can feel every second when you are holding someone at gunpoint. But that night it didn’t take long to get the word that these were not our intended targets. However, in that perceived eternity as we waited on the side of that dark West Bank road, one of the two temporary captives suddenly spoke to me in struggling English, clearly not knowing Hebrew. He made an attempt at a smile, and said simply and directly to me “I am a doctor, and he is an engineer. We only want peace.” It was an unsolicited, and genuine appeal. It spoke volumes to me of the desperation of those who did not want to fight a war with us. Like so many other experiences as an IDF soldier in the contested territory, it showed that in those days many average Palestinians did not encounter or interact directly with any Israelis aside from those ambushing them on the roadside with guns raised in the middle of the night. His effort to communicate with me wasn’t an act of fear. These two were so desperate to express their desires for peace that they had no choice other than the face-painted soldier who emerged from the dark. But I’m glad they did. It really hit me then, in that moment, and stuck with me ever since.
I’ve long believed a large part of the State of Israel’s success, with all its disparate parts, is the melting pot of national service, of doing one’s part, army or otherwise. But the army is just one example of the fundamental truth: get together, get to actually know each other, and you find you have much more in common than not. Anywhere. That’s humanity. So in the simplest, yet most complex sense, seeing Palestinian families entering Israel to go to the beach, and really anywhere else, is on the path to coexistence.
The stabbings this week test us once again. The terror is continuing its work on our greatest sensibilities and human rationale. But Israelis have become good at shaking off that dilemma for the sake of continuing to live life free of fear, and to strive for coexistence.