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Israelis, those walls are your prison

Separating populations only puts up a barrier to seeing each other as human beings

It was obvious that some Israeli students didn’t like my statements. They interrupted my speech at the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) conference in Jerusalem last December, singing a national Hebrew song. They didn’t like it when I said that obligatory military service is a kind of slavery. A young Israeli student defended the Israeli military service system, urging that Israel needs its military service because all Arabs (including Egyptians) are anti-Semitic and want to abolish Israel. I asked him if he had ever visited Egypt. He said “No, but lots of people say so.” I advised him not to believe me or anyone, and to go to see reality by himself!

In Israel’s north I faced the opposite experience. I was hosted by a nice atheist Jew. He took me to the Lebanese border, where we could see the Lebanese people crossing by, just a few meters from us. My host kept greeting them “good morning” while the Lebanese seemed not to know how to react. I was a bit nervous trying to keep a low profile, so I asked my host to stop it. “How sad that we are living a few meters from each other,” he sighed “and we don’t even talk!!”

A few days later, an Israeli academic accompanied me to Ramallah, secretly because of the Israeli law that criminalizes visiting most Palestinian cities, including Ramallah. Israeli law also criminalizes visiting what’s called “enemy states,” which include Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. When we passed to the other side of the wall, he started speaking about the social impact of the barrier. “Palestinians and Israelis don’t and can’t interact anymore. The reconciliation process has stopped. My children can’t meet their Palestinian friends as easily as they used to,” he said. It’s no wonder Israeli society has been shifting to the right since these walls were built!

It’s sad that after the Egyptian revolution, Egyptians and Israelis lost the human contact they had in the past. There used to be around half a million Israelis visiting Sinai each year, and  some others visiting other parts of Egypt. Nowadays, the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv seems to be putting obstacles in giving visas, while Israelis themselves have become afraid of visiting Egypt, even Sinai for which they don’t need a visa to visit.

For Egyptians things haven’t changed that much, as it was always very  difficult for any Egyptian to get a visa to Israel, unless he was affiliated with the dictatorship. Now, after its embassy was burned down, Israel closed its consular section in Cairo, upgrading the visa application process from “very hard” to “nearly impossible.” Since my release from prison last year after serving a sentence for my blogging activities, I’ve been lobbying every side to reopen the Israeli embassy in Cairo, but sadly both the Israeli and the Egyptian governments seem to be uninterested in doing that.

Before I left Israel, Netanyahu was celebrating completion of the separation wall between Israel and Egypt. Now there are walls separating Israel from Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. His joy inspired him to announce that he will start building a wall on the last un-walled border (with Syria).

At the end of January, my movement, No to Compulsory Military Service, had a workshop in Berlin. We had an Israeli guest from the Israeli peace movement New Profile participating with us. At the end of the workshop he said that his dream is to walk on foot from his father’s city, Tehran, to his mother’s city, Tunis. Obviously, lots of walls need to be destroyed in the Middle East to make this dream possible.

I understand that most Israelis have very traumatic experiences from the second intifada. It’s sad to see how deep the marks left by those suicide bombers are. But Israelis must overcome it. Because, simply put, more Israelis lose their lives in traffic accidents than as a result of the conflict. Actually, Israeli victims of domestic violence in the last 39 years number more than Israelis harmed by the conflict in the same period. I’m not trying to minimize the conflict; I’m trying to put it in its real size.

If we want Palestinians and Egyptians to not believe that Israelis are “blood-sucking vampires,” and if we want Israelis to not believe that “all Arabs are terrorists,” both sides have to at least encounter each other in a regular daily manner. Meetings between citizens of both sides have to stop being a challenge taken on only by crazy or courageous people. The only way to fight conspiracy theories is for people to know each other on a personal level, and governments are responsible for creating the environment in which such meetings are possible.

Eastern Germans weren’t liberated until they stopped seeing the Berlin Wall as security and started seeing it as captivity; and the same was true of Russians with the Iron Curtain. Israelis have to see that their government has transformed Israel into a big prison, surrounded by walls from every side. Israelis have to break down their walls. I can’t promise them that they will find only good people on the other side. They will find only human beings, just like them.

About the Author
Maikel Nabil is an Egyptian activist, and the leader of the “No for Compulsory Military Service Movement.” He became the first conscientious objector to military service in Egypt in 2010, then the first conscious prisoner to boycott military trials in August 2011. He spent 10 months in Egyptian prisons last year (including 130 days on hunger strike) for defending human rights, and is nominated for the next Noble Peace Prize.