Last night, at an undisclosed location in the West Bank (I’ve been waiting my whole career to say that), a group of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including the author, sat down over hamburgers, beer, and baklava in order to trash out the politics of one of the thorniest conflicts on the planet.
It’s probably fair to say that this, alone, represented a significant shift from most of our mid-week routines and dining habits.
After enough years of living in this part of the world, a subtle sort of ennui over the conflict eventually settles over life.
As day to day living goes on — with its doctors’ appointments and kid pickups and work meetings—the conflict (mostly) fades, conveniently, into the background. Until rockets rain down on your city, forcing you into shelter, or the IDF enters your village in the middle of the night, piercing the evening quiet with shouts and stun grenades.
But for most denizens of this land, such moments of stark in-you-face encounters with the conflict are (thankfully) fairly rare.
For the most part, its ugly manifestations doesn’t arrive on your doorstep (if you live in Hebron or the Shuafat Refugee Camp that might be different. But most people don’t).
Instead, it’s a dislikeable but ongoing facet of living in a part of the world contested by two different peoples. A conflict that most rational actors would rather didn’t exist or which would at least reach a speedy resolution. Sort of like the permanently dreary weather in Ireland. Without the politics part and the rockets and the humvees.
Against the backdrop of such boredom — and the longtime moribund state of the peace process — it’s easy to become jaded.
Eating hamburgers and knaffe with some likeminded and agreeable Palestinians is a fun way to spend an evening — something foreigners often fail to grasp about the conflict is that Israelis and West Bank Palestinians enjoy scarcely any interactions — but on a day when stray Gazan rockets landed near Tel Aviv and the IDF returned with attacks on positions in Gaza, do such well-intentioned acts amount to anything other than a tiny drop in the ocean of hatred and ill-will?
The Details Missing From Both Sides’ Narratives
To answer my own question “probably not.”
But it would be a mistake to deny that small personal investments of time and effort cannot at least ameliorate the plight of living in this part of the world even, if only, for the participants themselves.
The meetup — facilitated by a Jewish activist known only by his kunya of ‘Abu Jibreel’ — reinforced, for me, that black and white views and divisive narratives are at the root of so much that is wrong in this part of the world.
That even token gestures of coexistence — like eating a burger — can thaw at least some of the ice that has frozen over relations between Jews and Arabs. And perhaps, with more positive developments on the political front, bode the way for a bright future.
I’ve already aired my views about hasbara here — typically described as pro-Israel advocacy although its apologists are ever-quick to remind that its literal Hebrew translation is more like “explaining.”
As a once-aspiring journalist (I now work on what journalists call the “dark side” of communications), I positively hate it.
For its selective distortion of facts. For its relentless focus on glorifying Israel and casting the Palestinians as the unending baddies — as if it were laying out the plot line to an old-time Western and each side had to reach caricature level proportions before the audience could be satisfied that they’d gotten their money’s worth.
But above all, for its gross simplification of the conflict here and for its unapologetic belief in the idea that hate must be confronted with a furious avalanche of state-sanctioned and funded propaganda. Even from a perspective within the pro-Israel camp, I see its activity as unconstructive — even, in fact, harmful.
Equally, the information emanating from the pro-Palestinian camp is scarcely any better — in fact, it’s typically worse.
Official Palestinian news sources effectively serve primarily as mouthpieces for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the most virulent and violent constituents of the Palestinian cause, furthering blatant lies and inciting violence against both Israel and individual Israelis.
Context gets thrown out the window — or sacrificed on the altar of portraying Israel and Jews as quasi-demonic entities intent on causing the maximum amount of harm to their neighbors on the other side of the wall (it’s never mentioned that it was constructed for security). It reaches comic proportions, too. A picture of Jews quietly visiting the Temple Mount and abiding by the Waqf’s onerous restrictions is routinely described as a “raid” — conjuring the idea of hordes of religious fanatics trampling footloose over Muslim holy sites.
But most unfortunately, perhaps, the narratives of both governments — Israel and the PA — are argued strongly enough by themselves that they have succeeded in spawning worldwide networks of ‘Friends of’ organizations who have made it their life’s mission to convince the ambivalent majority that what they thought about the Israel-Palestinian conflict ain’t really so — and only if they could read this leaflet or come to this lecture they might cast the shadows off their minds. The world is therefore constantly being evangelized by not one but two false dogmas about the same tiny patch of land. It’s no wonder that most roll their eyes at mention of the conflict here.
This propagandization of the conflict (I made up that word, by the way) is unhelpful on many levels.
But majorly so because it obscures what Irish documentary-maker Nicky Larkin called the ‘Forty Shades of Grey’ which he sees as being inherent to the conflict (Larkin came to make the documentary as a committed Palestinian activist but came to the conclusion that both sides commit a lot of wrong; hence the work’s name).
At every meetup I’ve thus far participated in, it’s those shades of gray — and the mutual ignorance that comes from living in close proximity but worlds apart — that emerge shining most strongly.
When attempting to organize one of the first meetups, our organizer, Abu Jibreel, suggested, naively, that we meet in a café in Jerusalem. (West Bank Palestinians require a special permit in order to visit Jerusalem and, these days, the Israeli Army isn’t exactly giving them out like candy. The idea was thus a non-runner).
In response, a Palestinian suggested that we venture into Ramallah instead. (Equally problematic. Israelis are legally prohibited from visiting cities located in area A. A recent torching of a car carrying Israelis who accidentally strayed into the city reinforced the necessity of the ban).
On a more subtle level, each meeting is filled with lots of little learnings.
Each glimmer of information may not— in its own right —provide fodder for the next Hollywood blockbuster. But cumulatively they cast some much-needed humanity on what — for almost everybody on each side of the conflict — would simply otherwise simply be the “other.”
Last night, for instance, I learned that the northern city of Tulkarm is considered one of the more conservative Palestinian cities.
Somebody’s mother wanted their daughter to marry only somebody from the same town. Palestinians learned of the various levels of kosher certification, a concrete manifestation of the fact that even Israel’s Jewish population is divided on many levels. We got to know one another. We… co-existed.
The last time I checked Google News, last night’s meetup hadn’t, unfortunately, succeeded in bringing about the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nevertheless, it did succeed in bringing together 10 Israelis and Palestinians who otherwise would have remained unknowing but mortal enemies, seeing one another perhaps only through the lens of international news coverage about the hapless state of the dispute between these two peoples.
For that reason, if only, it was worth braving last night’s rain to enjoy some burgers, beer, and good company.
To protect the identity of the participants some insignificant details have been changed.