The first thing that caught my attention about Mohamed was his watch. It was a very old wristwatch, showing the exact 6 PM of a hot and heavily humid Tel Aviv Sunday afternoon. We were a group of sufficiently crazy Latino-Israelis gathered for the first time in our lives for a face to face sit-down with a current member of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which, according to Mohamed is “the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.
To be honest, I arrived half an hour early because I wanted to have the time to make some notes and jot down a few questions I didn’t want to forget to ask, although my main intention was simply to listen – an excellent practice all too often forgotten in today’s society. After all, it is not every day that you get the chance to have a friendly sit-down with your enemy, and I wanted to be open and willing as well as prepared and focused.
When he got there, all suited up despite the heat, I noticed the watch. It was an old leather strap watch that reminded me of the one my great grandfather always wore until he passed away in 2009 and left it to me. It’s no small thing that I mention this, as my great-grandfather was a role model for me and my family, a true social activist with more than 75 years of political activity in the Argentinian Communist Party. His values and integrity are an unbreakable part of my core beliefs and remain with me till this very day as I look back on my fifteen years in this politically overheated Israel and I ask myself how much have I really done for peace on this land.
Mohamed approached me and, in perfect Spanish (he lived in Madrid for 14 years), said hello and thanked me for showing up to the meeting. I immediately reciprocated by extending my wishes for a followup meeting on the other side of the Green Line. And so, feeling perfectly comfortable with his presence, we joined Diego – who knows Mohamed from his political work in the Labour Party (Avoda) and arranged this encounter – and got a table at the famous bar, Mike’s Place. This being our first time meeting, and with no time to find a quieter place, we all agreed it was symbolically empowering for Israelis and a Palestinian to discuss peace in an establishment that was partially blown up in a suicide bombing attack in April 2003.
We ordered some beers as Mohamed took off his jacket, which had a small Palestinian flag pin. “I will probably exaggerate a little bit when I speak about my people, because each one of us defends his cause,” he said, “but I want you to know I am a fierce defender of the Israeli cause; if it is not solved, ours will not be solved either.” These, his first words to us about the conflict, did not surprise me at all since I have been saying the exact same thing for the past 15 years, just from the other side. His words also offered the first indications of the authenticity and coherence of his character: here is this man that came all the way from Ramallah, carrying his flag on his chest, unapologetically breathing and speaking his Palestinian truth, in order to come and sit with us because “you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends” and because “peace will be made by the people, and signed at the negotiating table by governments forced to bow to the will of the people.” His idea, shared by most attendees at the meeting, is to build bridges between the two peoples that allow us to begin to humanize the other side. Because that’s what it’s all about, starting to see the other as a human being, breaking all myths and leaving aside stereotypes; to stop listening to the all too familiar, all too failing narratives on both sides because “otherwise we will never move forward.”
At the same time, he didn’t doubt that “the majority of the people of Israel wants peace, they just don’t know which type of peace,” and he also claimed that “Arab-Israelis must be a bridge themselves” between the two societies. I myself have to sadly say, especially after the last elections, that I have no certainty at all as per either factor in this equation. Nowadays, I personally can’t be sure that most Jewish-Israelis want peace and support a two-state for two peoples solution, and I know even less about how the roughly two million Arab-Israelis in the country – always too quiet on this matter — would feel and act about it.
But one thing I am one hundred percent sure about after the more than two-hour friendly gathering we shared: when you look someone in the eye, and he looks back at you, with honesty and courage, trying to set aside everything we allegedly know about the other, our differences seem rather small and the similarities are inescapable.
There was one thing that did surprise me, and it was that Mohamed did not avoid answering a question that gives me a chill: Why does the PA pay salaries to Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel? And I must acknowledge that his answer revealed an angle I hadn’t quite considered in the past: “Out of the roughly seven thousand Palestinian jailed in Israel cataloged as having ‘blood on their hands,’ those who really have it are around two hundred. Everyone who throws a rock is a terrorist, but when a father goes to prison, an entire family is left bankrupt, because that father was his sole source of income. The child that sees his father being taken by Israeli soldiers at 2AM to maybe never see him again, will never recover from that trauma. The PLO helps that family. We don’t want that kid growing in hatred.”
This was the first encounter of, I hope, many more to come, in Spanish, English and Hebrew. Personally, I left with more certainties than doubts, with a renewed hope I confess I was beginning to lose and with an open invitation to Ramallah, a dream that will hopefully come true.
I headed back home thinking that this could very much have been the beginning of a great friendship.
*Mohamed Amer Odeh is the Embassador of the PA for Latin America, he works constantly with local communities along the Latin American Continent and is a Speaker for President Mahmoud Abbas
*Diego Sciretta is a pre-candidate for MK at the Labour Party and founder of Tribu13 (Tribe13), an organization that seeks to set an agenda of social justice within the laborists and is organizing these encounters under the name “Enemies for Peace” in the country