The Middle East has been a quagmire of simmering tensions for several decades. It has the potential to be explosive. At the root of this equation is, by and large, the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. Generations have grown in the region surrounded by events relating to this perpetuating aggression that may one day explode into open hostility. There are players on both sides that are trying to find common ground and build a path to harmony. And there are others who are determined to win at any cost.
Dr Nurit Peled Elhanan, an Israeli activist and a mother whose 13-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber in 1997, is one of those who have been working incessantly towards the cause of peace. She has also been highly critical of her government’s policies regarding the annexation of land and property belonging to Palestinians and their treatment at the hands of Israeli forces.
In a speech delivered on International Women’s Day in Strasbourg in 2009, she appealed for the world’s attention to the suffering of women, including Palestinians. She said: “I believe you should have invited a Palestinian woman at my stead, because the women who suffer most from violence in my county are the Palestinian women.
“And I would like to dedicate my speech to Miriam R’aban and her husband Kamal, from Beit Lahiya in the Gaza strip, whose five small children were killed by Israeli soldiers while picking strawberries at the family’s strawberry field. No one will ever stand trial for this murder.
“It is true, unfortunately, that the local violence inflicted on Palestinian women by the government of Israel and the Israeli army, has expanded around the globe…I have never experienced the suffering Palestinian women undergo every day, every hour, I don’t know the kind of violence that turns a woman’s life into constant hell.
“This daily physical and mental torture of women who are deprived of their basic human rights and needs of privacy and dignity, women whose homes are broken into at any moment of day and night, who are ordered at a gun-point to strip naked in front of strangers and their own children, whose houses are demolished, who are deprived of their livelihood and of any normal family life. This is not part of my personal ordeal.
“I cannot completely understand Palestinian women or their suffering. I don’t know how I would have survived such humiliation, such disrespect from the whole world… But it is enough for me to remember these women are my sisters, and that they deserve that I should cry for them, and fight for them.
“And when they lose their children in strawberry fields or on filthy roads by the checkpoints, when their children are shot on their way to school by Israeli children who were educated to believe that love and compassion are race and religion dependent, the only thing I can do is stand by them and their betrayed babies.”
At a rally in Tel Aviv in early 2010, Dr Elhanan wondered how Israeli preschoolers would respond to the question, “What did you learn at school this year, dear little boy of mine?”
In an emotional speech, she answered: “An enlightened and critical child might have answered: I learned that the sun is still shining, and the almond tree is blooming, and the butcher butchers, and there is nobody to judge him.
“And the child who is less used to theorising might rejoice and say: I learned how to cheat Americans, deceive Palestinians, to kill Arabs, to expel families from their homes, and to curse whoever tells me that I am a nasty brat when I have been a nasty brat.
“And the new immigrant boy, who terribly longs to integrate and belong, might say: I learned whom to hate, I learned who needs to be killed and who should be spat upon, and I am ever ready for the task, whenever you call upon me.
“The religious-Zionist child, who attends the fenced and well-guarded kindergarten in the settlement [colony], might say: I learned to be a good Zionist, to love the Land, to die and kill for its sake, to expel from it the invaders, to kill their children, to destroy their homes, and never to forget that in each and every generation the persecutors arise to annihilate us and that all gentiles are the same and that they are all anti-Semites who must be annihilated.
“In the past year our children have learned that to kill a non-Jew, of whatever age, is a great commandment. This they learned not only from the rabbis, but also from the soldiers who ceaselessly boast of what they have done. This was expressed well by Damian Kirilik, when the police arrested him and charged him with murdering the entire Oshrenko Family. Quite coolly he asked the police investigators: why are you making such a fuss over the killing of children?”
She concluded with an appeal, “Together with our peace-seeking friends beyond the Wall, beyond the barbed wires, we might become a majority. Only the refusal to surrender to walls and checkpoints can open the gates of our ghetto so that we could pull down the walls of their ghetto. To see at last that there is an outside world, that there is a culture and there are people whom it is worth living to meet, to know and make friends with, to learn from them about this place where we live as resident aliens and remember that this place can be a place of surpassing beauty”
Dr Elhanan is not alone in her fight to raise awareness among Israelis of the ground realities. There are other activists on both sides, victims in a long drawn arena of hostility who are reaching for common grounds between them.
It is for all of us in the region to reject the culture of hate and violence and promote a culture of understanding between neighbours. Peace can prevail. It can only happen if each one of us is individually prepared to do so.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.You can follow him at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena