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Fw: FreePalestine! The end of empathy

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  • Abeer Dabbas
    ... From: Sirius To: anseif@birzeit.edu Cc: FreePalestine@yahoogroups.com ; TIKKUN-ISRAEL-Open-heartedness@yahoogroups.com ; Marjorie Wright ;
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 4, 2002
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      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Sirius
      Sent: Sunday, February 03, 2002 10:53 PM
      Subject: FreePalestine! The end of empathy

      Israel's Leading Newspaper
      Sunday, February 03, 2002 
      The end of empathy
      My opinions, which seem to me to be representative of the peace camp, enable me to engage my Palestinian friend in dialogue and to show that I am sympathetic about the impossible conditions of her life in the territories. But all this falls by the wayside when I probe beneath the surface to the heart of things: her position on the peace process, on Israel - and on me 
      By Anat Balint 
      The young woman across the table from me in the lobby of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem politely insists on picking up the tab for the cappuccino we just drank. This same young woman, just a few days before this, was sitting with the mother of a suicide bomber - Nabil Halabiya, who had blown himself up in the heart of Jerusalem [in the pedestrian mall, on the night of December 1, 2001] - and gently stroking her forehead. The mother, a cardiac patient, had been hospitalized at Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem for respiratory distress after hearing of her son's death. And Dr. Samah Jabr, 25, a medical intern at the hospital ("that Palestinian friend of yours," as a few of my friends call her), was there at the mother's bedside, making an effort to contain her own sorrow at the young man's death while attempting to offer the weeping mother some support. Eventually, the nurses asked her to leave the room.
      I sit there, looking at Jabr, trying with difficulty to reconcile the contradiction between the friendly chat we are having and her empathy for suicide bombers. Nevertheless, the fact is, we're talking. After more than a year of nearly total estrangement between us, I sent her an e-mail and suggested that we meet. She agreed immediately - on the condition that the meeting would take place in "neutral territory." As things stand these days, nothing can happen without some kind of prior negotiation.
      Samah Jabr and I first met at a regional seminar in Jerusalem in 1998. The several dozen participants hailed from Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There were many such programs during that period. She came up to me, wearing traditional dress, introduced herself and immediately began a friendly, inquisitive conversation that went on for several evenings and covered a lot of ground: feminism, Judaism, God, career, psychology, homosexuality and, of course, the Palestinian situation.
      She was very outspoken, strong and assertive in her opinions yet, at the same time, gentle, sensitive, courteous. The first jolt came when she was trying to explain that she could understand suicide bombings. I stared at her in shock.
      "Not that I encourage such things, but I can understand the motivation," she said, qualifying her comment when she saw me turn pale.
      We stayed in touch. The columns she writes in pro-Palestinian publications come to me by e-mail - columns for The Palestine Times, for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Early on, she was writing a personal column called "Fingerprints" in the Palestine Report, an Internet magazine. After that, her writing began appearing in print publications and on additional Web sites, including the Media Monitor Network, which collects and publishes alternative information on conflicts around the world. Until about a year ago, we were in contact by telephone and also met in person a few times.
      'I'm the elite?'
      I asked to see Jabr after I read her column about the mother of the suicide bomber in Jerusalem. In that piece, she described people's responses from around the world, condemning Palestinian aggression and expressing their identification with grieving Israelis. In the column, she asked where the Palestinians' story is - the story of that mother and of all the other Palestinian victims she sees daily at the hospital. These people, she wrote, are suffering from a terminal illness: despair. It was the mention of despair on her part that enabled me to identify once again with the things she was saying.
      Jabr writes fluently, with emotion. She has a knack for telling you about the little things in her own life, with the fury that rages within her and the resulting political messages. Last year, in a readers' poll, she won a prize for the best column on the Al-Aqsa Intifada from the Media Monitor Network, besting the likes of Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi, Ha'aretz journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, and Columbia University Prof. Edward Said.
      Samah Jabr only recently completed medical school, a member of the first graduating class in medicine at Al-Quds University, and began her internship at Al-Makassed Hospital, where she encounters intifada victims from her own side. Before that, she was an active and involved student: a member of the student government, a representative of her school at an international conference of the Association of Medical Students, and winner of several stipends for study and research in the United States and Britain.
      She was raised in Jerusalem but doesn't speak Hebrew, and her acquaintance with Israeli society is entirely from the outside. She's an observant Muslim. Her hair is always covered with a white scarf, the hijab, and she is careful to dress modestly. When I ask if it would be accurate to describe her as part of an elite of some kind, she laughs. "What is this notion of `elite,'" she asks. "It's something Israeli, right?" She is prepared to agree that she's been better off than most of her compatriots.
      Jabr's father is a professor of educational psychology, formerly at An-Najah University (in Nablus) and now at Al-Quds. Her mother is an elementary school vice-principal in Shuafat in East Jerusalem. Her older sister is an intern in obstetrics and gynecology at a hospital in Jordan; a younger sister is studying dentistry. Two others who are both teachers are working toward master's degrees, one in education and the other in computers. The family's only son recently completed engineering studies at Bir Zeit University. Her family has been living in Shuafat since Samah was a child, and residence there entitles her to an Israeli ID card as a citizen of Jerusalem. The family also owns a house in Dahiyat al-Barid, between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
      Aging because of pressure
      How has your life changed since the outbreak of the current intifada?
      Samah Jabr: "My own life and the lives of the people around me are entirely devoted, all the time, to the struggle against the occupation. This past year, I did nothing whatever for fun. I didn't sleep enough; I didn't spend time with my family; I was under constant pressure, all the time. It was a very difficult year, and I feel as though I've been aged by it and am still aging.
      "The political situation has tremendous influence on our private lives, and I hate that. When I go outside, I risk interrogation and humiliation at every roadblock. Just to be kept waiting for so long is humiliating. When they drag someone, older than you are, by his shirt and beat him right in front of you, it's humiliating. Even when it's not against me personally, just watching it is a humiliation that drains all my energy and ruins beautiful moments in my life. It exposes me to the ugliness of the reality here.
      "When I am not studying or working at the hospital, I get together with friends who want to be supportive of the Palestinian cause and the intifada. Some of them have Internet sites that aim to bring the Palestinian perspective to the rest of the world. I devote considerable time to this. I've given things I've written to these sites, and I've organized activities with them.
      "I have been in contact with a Christian Palestinian group from Sheikh Jarrah called Sabeel [`The Way']. We spent a few months trying to work out a nonviolent strategy of resistance that could end the occupation. They are in contact with Christians abroad and we wanted to explain to them how to aid the Palestinians, and how to raise awareness internationally about the reality of life in Palestine."
      To get to the hospital at 8 in the morning, Jabr leaves home at 6 A.M. - for a trip that would take 20 minutes were it not for the Israel Defense Forces roadblocks. Her family's house in Dahiyat al-Barid is located in what is designated as "Area B" under the Oslo accords, where "Israel has military control, and as far as I know, the [Palestinian] Authority has charge of civilian matters. But we don't really get any services at all, so I don't know who really controls my area."
      Near her village is the Al-Ram checkpoint; the next roadblock is near the Neveh Ya'akov suburb of Jerusalem ("If you get up really, really early, you can avoid it"), and from there, she passes additional roadblocks "at Sheikh Jarrah or at French Hill." Getting into Jerusalem is by no means the only problem. To get to her bank branch in Ramallah, or to meet friends, she has to cross the Qalandiyah checkpoint, a trip that takes between one and two hours.
      "The Qalandiyah checkpoint is the worst. I go by taxi to the roadblock, and then I have to walk a few hundred meters to cross it on foot and get into a taxi on the other side. We walk on a muddy, dirty path. I arrived there recently on my way to Ramallah, on the day of the suicide bombing in Haifa, a day after two bombings in Jerusalem. There was a woman with four children in the cab with me. The driver let us out and she asked me to help her little boy, three years old, to get past the checkpoint. I carried him and we went along past the roadblock. The soldiers began shooting tear-gas canisters at children who were throwing stones on the other side.
      "The child I was carrying in my arms was very frightened and peed all over my clothes. I stood there completely soaked with his urine. I was on my way to a meeting at a Palestinian NPO that had announced a competition for writers, and I simply could not go in that condition. I had to retrace my path and go home to change my clothes."
      Immigrants and occupiers
      Jabr's story draws me yet again into the usual dynamic of our conversations. My opinions, which seem to me to be representative of the peace camp, enable me to engage her in dialogue and demonstrate empathy about the impossible conditions of her life in the territories. But all this falls by the wayside when I probe beneath the surface to the heart of things: her position on the peace process and on Israel, and the way she feels about me as an Israeli.
      "The Oslo accords are shameful for the Palestinians and their cause," she says. "And I'm against them. Israel is trying to have her cake and eat it, too. This agreement gave Israel the authority to exist on 78 percent of Palestinian lands, and thereby, the Israelis received moral legitimacy to exist."
      When you talk about 78 percent you mean 78 percent of the entire country, right?
      "Yes, I am speaking of occupied Palestine. All of it. I'm not one of the people who count only the territory conquered in 1967 as occupied Palestine. I relate to Palestine as it was during the British Mandate. That's the Palestine I'm relating to."
      And it is all yours?
      "It is Palestinian land. It is mine, and it also belongs to the Jews who lived here before 1948. It belongs to the people who lived here. It doesn't belong to immigrants."
      I'm an "immigrant"?
      "You were born here."
      I was born here, but my parents are immigrants. They came here in 1950.
      "Then your parents are occupiers. You were born here. That's what's sad about this situation. A long time has gone by, generations have been born here and created a huge mess. I think that a person belongs to the land on which he was born. I don't think that every Muslim has to go to Mecca because it belongs to him. It is an Islamic site, but that doesn't mean that we have to go there and set up a state. I'm against a Jewish state; I'm not against the Jews who live in Palestine. I'm prepared to view them as guests in my country."
      So what will happen to me?
      "You were born here. Immigrants weren't born here. There are a lot of Israelis who are immigrants. They're occupiers."
      So if I was born, here, I'm not an occupier in your view?
      "You belong here, but you've supported the occupation during your lifetime, and that makes me sad. The Israeli army is committing crimes against the Palestinians. You're surprised that I see it that way? Nonetheless, I still think you have the right to stay."
      What about my mother? Can she stay here in Palestine? Will you invalidate her citizenship? Expel her?
      "I'm willing to negotiate her remaining here. As for you, you have the right to remain here."
      As what? As a temporary resident? Just a resident? As a citizen?
      "As a citizen. You were born here."
      So, what in your view is the path to a resolution of the conflict? That we give up our state?
      "That is definitely my fantasy. I think that a binational state in all of Palestine is the only solution here. Not separation, but a binational state in which each individual enjoys his rights, each one has the right to vote. We're not yet a majority here, and even if we were, so what? We are the original citizens of this region. The Israelis invaded. It's only natural that we be a majority."
      Do you realize that what you are proposing is something I cannot possibly accept? It doesn't take any of my needs into account. Your position is what leads to this despair and hopelessness in our region.
      "You're speaking from a position of power. You were a soldier and you still think from the standpoint of an occupier. You're a Zionist. You talk from a position of power and not as a human being. You aren't seeking to resolve the conflict, but to keep the lid on it."
      I want to resolve the conflict in some way that also takes my needs into account.
      "That's what's impossible, to meet the needs of the Zionists, the conquerors, the soldiers, and at the same time, to give the Palestinians their legitimate demands. What you describe as a need, in my view is covetousness."
      So it's not legitimate for us to want a state, but it is legitimate for the Palestinians to struggle for that?
      "Yes, because we are a nation. We are people of different religions who were born here and it's our legitimate claim to have a decent life here."
      And we are not a nation?
      "You are people from different nations."
      `Poor Israelis'
      Holding a dialogue with Jabr is hard. It's hard because it leaves the Israeli dream, the dream on which I was raised, suspended in thin air in terms of understanding the other side's humanity, feeling our commonality, seeking a resolution through dialogue and getting to know one another. Each time, I discover yet again that she has no understanding of how threatened I feel by what she is saying, despite her desire to come to know the Israeli side.
      Are you able to see things from the perspective of the other side, my side?
      "I don't imagine that Israelis have an easy life. It would be a mistake to think so. But I don't think I'm responsible for their sorry situation. They're not living in dire straits, and in any case, I'm not responsible for privileges or pleasures they may be lacking. I and my people are not responsible for the situation with which the Israelis are now dealing. Israelis are the ones responsible for that."
      So, therefore, you refuse to understand the Israeli point of view?
      "I understand that there are basic differences between the way I see the situation and the way they see the situation. Let's take the example of a new immigrant who decided to leave his home in Europe or America and come here, and now he's complaining that his children can't roam around freely, go to birthday parties and eat ice cream. They're stunned by this. I'm stunned that they're stunned. What exactly are they thinking, while they're keeping us locked up in prisons, surrounded by roadblocks? It actually surprises them that someone would oppose this situation to such an extent that he would try to do exactly the same thing to them? To limit their freedom?
      "That's how I think about the situation. I am incapable of thinking, `Oy, the poor Israelis, they are afraid to move around freely.' I'm amazed that they're surprised, that they don't see the direct connection between the outcome and their behavior."
      Do the Palestinians bear no responsibility for opting to use violence and terror, or for the existence of the suicide phenomenon within Palestinian society?
      "Responsibility rests with the Israeli side. If individuals within Palestinian society commit inhumane acts, it's because of the inhuman conditions we're living in. It's a response, not an initiative originating with us. There are individuals who have chosen this path. Others try to create an alternative, nonviolent resistance. It's not a strategy set by a government chosen democratically. It's not like a strategy adopted by the government of Israel. You're comparing apples and oranges; the two things are entirely different.
      "I don't encourage that path, but I understand where they're coming from. I see the [perpetrators of] suicides as victims, I don't see them as criminals. They're victims of the reality in which they're living, of the ideology they've adopted as a consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
      Tel Aviv is ours
      When Jabr sits facing me now and says these things, I almost cannot believe that exactly two years ago, she was walking with me through the streets of Ramallah, taking me to her favorite cafe to smoke a nargileh; that a few months later, she was an overnight guest in my house, before she flew to London to undergo training as part of a scholarship she had won. What was entirely natural then, now suddenly seems naive.
      Do you remember that visit to Tel Aviv?
      "That was a great evening. It was very interesting to walk around with you, especially in Tel Aviv. I liked the way you live, because there's a lot of personal freedom. I value freedom and am looking for a climate that will give me more of it."
      To me you looked very surprised, suspicious.
      "I wasn't suspicious. When I sat with you on the terrace of a Tel Aviv restaurant and ate breakfast, I thought how very strange it is that I, a woman wearing a hijab, am sitting here on a terrace in Tel Aviv, in a place where a lot of people live, who can all see me through their windows. I thought that it was an interesting situation. I thought that they are probably looking at me as a foreigner."
      Were you envious?
      "No, not at all. I liked it there. I know the place and I feel that I belong there."
      Even though you felt that your appearance made you very conspicuous and foreign?
      "I feel that the atmosphere is Palestinian. To walk on the coast, to walk through the streets, it seems Palestinian to me."
      "Palestinian"? What was Palestinian about the restaurant where we sat, the way people were dressed, their faces?
      "No, not the people. The feeling. I felt that it was my land. In America, I feel foreign, in Britain, I feel that I don't belong; in Tel Aviv, I feel that it's an Israeli version of Palestinian land. Haifa and other cities, too."
      Wouldn't you agree that Tel Aviv is more like New York than like Ramallah?
      "Of course, that's nothing new for me. But I look around in Acre, in Haifa, in Tel Aviv with the same passion - the passion I feel for these places is what I feel about Palestinian land. It was interesting to walk around in these places with a friend."
      My apartment doesn't exactly look like a Palestinian apartment, does it?
      "No, and you don't look Palestinian."
      So you are choosing to ignore all these facts?
      "No, I'm not ignoring them. I'm dealing with them. But just because you live there, because you look European, because your neighbors don't speak Arabic - all that doesn't mean that I'll abandon the whole area and decide that it's not Palestinian land. It doesn't mean I'll be less passionate about Tel Aviv than about Jenin."
      In what way has knowing me changed how you look at Israelis?
      "Before I met you, I had the fantasy that liberal Israelis are really liberal. After I got to know you, it became clear to me that liberal Israelis can be Zionists."
      So what's the bottom line?
      "I met an interesting young woman and was curious to talk with her, and at the same time, I found it sad to see that - my God! - these are the liberal Israelis on whom we have pinned our hopes? They're soldiers? They're Zionists! They're occupiers! They can grab a rifle any time and shoot my friends, my brother, my parents."
      So you're disappointed?
      "Yes, it's disappointing."
      I scared you?
      "No, none of you does that; not even the extremists scare me. It's just that we've long since come to the conclusion that we mustn't rely on anyone, other than ourselves, on our own work and our own achievements. I tell my friends who are working for nonviolent resistance - be careful of the liberal Israelis. Make very, very sure just how liberal they really are."
      At the end of the letter Jabr wrote me after the intifada began, which to my surprise was published the following day in the International Herald Tribune, Samah asked whether I'd go on being her friend even after learning of her opinions about Israel and the peace process. My immediate answer was yes, I would.
      Meanwhile, a year has passed. My response today is not as clear-cut: Yes, there's still a friendship, but it's a sober friendship, cautious, with a margin of safety. The dreams I was raised on, about how getting to know someone can help one to overcome any political or nationalist obstacle - all that belonged to a society that was daydreaming, engaged in a dialogue mainly with itself.
      I think back to Samah's story about the toddler at the checkpoint, her soaking-wet clothes, her anger and her disappointment. Long before we can talk in terms of friendship, we'll have to reach the point where both sides can somehow live here. Both of them. Just live.
      Blowing herself up
      A day after Sunday's suicide bombing on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem - the first such attack carried out by a woman - Jabr tried to find out from her friends at An-Najah University whether they knew anything about the bomber. No one did.
      "It's a very surprising act," she says. "All kinds of strange theories are cropping up as to her identity, because no one has identified her. I looked in the papers, too. Generally they're full of bereavement notices about the shaheed [martyr], but today there's nothing."
      Are you surprised that a woman chose to carry out a suicide attack?
      "Yes, I'm surprised - though she's not the first woman to give her life for Palestine. Many women have done that before her. Today I spoke to a lot of people about this attack, and many of them felt shamed, especially the men. Not only because she blew up a lot of people with her, but because in our society, the men are the ones who are supposed to protect the women. The fact that a woman goes and blows herself up shows how helpless our leadership has become. They aren't doing what's expected of them, so people have to stand up and defend themselves. And not just the men, now; the women, too." n
      © Copyright 2002 Ha`aretz. All rights reserved

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