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Fear and Loathing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Hillel Schenker
March 11, 2016

by Hillel Schenker

Firing ZoneIT'S BEEN A TERRIBLE few days in my two cities, Jerusalem where I work and Tel Aviv where I live.

On late Monday afternoon as I was about to leave the Palestine-Israel Journal office, my colleague Marwan got a phone call that there had been an incident near Damascus Gate: A Palestinian had opened fire on Israeli policemen, and the attacker had been killed on nearby Salah A-Din Street, the main street in East Jerusalem. The recommendation was that I not head out to the Light Rail train that runs along the East/West Jerusalem seam line on foot, but take a taxi. I did, and everywhere there were the flashing blue lights of police cars.

At the nearby picturesque American Colony Hotel, where one of our student interns, Ravenel works in the afternoon at the book shop. She heard the sirens and asked the hotel people what was happening. “Don’t worry; it’s 300 meters from here,” and everyone remained calm.

We talked about this dynamic the next morning. Both Israelis and Palestinians have this amazing ability to absorb the shocks of traumatic events and move on. It’s clearly a defense mechanism that enables people to retain a sense of normalcy in their lives.

And we thought: If people would be paralyzed by these traumatic events, at least for a while, instead of just moving on, it might cause them to do a serious reevaluation of the situation and seek a fundamental workable solution to the conflict.

MEANWHILE, WE WERE greeted by more violence on Tuesday morning, as another intern, Alex, who is staying at the Notre Dame Center on the border between East and West Jerusalem (the pope’s home away from home in the Holy Land) was unable to come to the office, because she heard shots and police had surrounded the area and set up roadblocks. She went up to the roof and saw blood all over the street. Now I understood why the Light Rail train which I planned to take in the morning towards East Jerusalem had a sign which said “No trains moving in the foreseeable future because of disruptions on the line” (being resourceful, I took the #17 bus which passes through East Jerusalem on its way to Mt. Scopus and the Hebrew University). It turned out that two young Palestinians had fired at a bus (no one was hurt) and they were chased by police who caught and killed them outside New Gate across the way from Notre Dame, not far from Jaffa Gate and the Jerusalem Municipality.

When Najat, a Palestinian colleague arrived at the office, she said this wave of violence was due to the fact that a 50-year-old mother of six had been killed by Israeli security forces in the Old City. Images of her death were circulating on Palestinian social media, inspiring hatred and desires for revenge. “Why did they have to kill her?”

A good question. While some Israeli politicians have said that every Palestinian assailant should know that he/she will not remain alive after any attempted attack, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot wisely told a group of students that “I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors.”

If Palestinians would be more forceful in condemning the use of violence as a counterpoint to despair, and if Israeli security forces would use less lethal force in neutralizing threats, it would make a significant contribution to calming the situation.

Later in the day, my other city, Tel Aviv, became the subject of attack by a Palestinian from the West Bank without a work permit that began in the Jaffa Port and ended as the assailant ran up the beach front towards Tel Aviv and was killed about ten minutes away from my home. Seven tourists were wounded and one, a 29-year-old American student who had survived tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, was killed.

IT TURNS OUT that American Vice President Joe Biden had met that morning with former Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa near the Mediterranean Sea, and was dining with his family at a nearby restaurant not far from where the violent rampage took place. Like in Jerusalem, just 300 meters away from the violent traumatic events, and life goes on. Biden condemned the attack, and in a meeting with Palestinian President Abbas he called for a more forceful Palestinian condemnation of violence. However at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he also said that “The status quo has to break somewhere along the line, in terms of a two-state solution. Even though it may be hard to see the path ahead, we continue to encourage all sides to take steps to move back toward the path of peace.” These words echoed the observations by many leading Israeli security figures who believe that the current wave of Palestinian violence is due to the despair felt by young Palestinians, who need to be inspired by a sense of hope about the future. And many of us here hope that President Obama will come forth with an initiative to help promote Israeli-Palestinian peace before his term ends in January.

To get back to the fear and loathing, as this wave of attacks was taking place, the first ever in depth Pew poll on religion and politics in Israel was released. One of the poll results was that nearly half of the Israeli Jews supported the idea that the Arabs should be expelled. I have no doubt that similar findings would be made if a Pew poll asked the same question to Palestinians. There are many people on both sides who wish that the other would just disappear. Though it should be noted that in the Israeli poll, the more rightwing, religious, and less educated the respondent, the more likely he/she is to wish for the disappearance of the other.

But the fact is that no one is going to disappear. Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians are here to stay, and are fated to be neighbors forever.

As we near the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, which will be marked in June, 2017, to overcome the fear and loathing, and to end the violence and the pessimism gripping both Israelis and Palestinians, we need a political horizon which points towards a positive future for both peoples, based upon a viable realistic two-state solution. There is an Israeli initiative with Jewish friends from abroad called SISO — Save Israel, Stop the Occupation — that will be launched in June 2016, and which will attempt to move things in that direction. There are significant Palestinian partners ready to work with this initiative.

And we need the help of the friends of Israelis and Palestinians around the world to enable this to happen. As the legendary Rabbi Hillel once said: If I am not for me, who will be? If I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when?

Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv. This article is republished with his permission from his blog at the Times of Israel.