This is the time to address Israelis in the spirit of mutual respect, hope, and truthfulness; to move beyond the dismissive, derogatory, and threatening words and deeds that define the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis, and between Arabs and Jews.
I was born and raised in Jerusalem. I started out as a Palestinian, then became a Palestinian Jordanian, then an immigrant to America, and then an American, now for more than half a century. But nothing—not time, not distance—has diluted my empathy with the Palestinians and Palestine, and nothing has altered my view that all people have rights and deserve to be treated with respect. During my medical residency in the U.S., I met American Jewish doctors who shared my interests and curiosity, if not necessarily my views. Some of them remain my good friends to this day. I have been fortunate in my work, at the American Task Force on Palestine, to develop treasured and enduring friendships with many Jewish people of different nationalities, including Israelis. It is in this very American spirit that I address Israelis today.
I must start by noting that our family lost everything in Jerusalem in 1948. We survived and even thrived, but this loss is a core truth of my family’s history. Yet even as I have lived Palestinian pain, I have made an effort to study and understand Jewish pain, which is primordial and deep.
Palestinians—almost unanimously—view Zionism not as a triumph, as so many Jews view it, but as a historical tragedy. What is today the nation of Israel began in the late 19th century as a quasi-messianic Western movement to transform historic Palestine into a Jewish state, which had not existed for 2,000 years. The story from our perspective is one of relentless, systematic dispossession of the indigenous Arab population, sponsored by Western colonial powers who were at best cavalier toward Arab rights and aspirations, and at worst brutal and racist.
Viewed this way, one sees that the Zionist project would have faced fierce resistance regardless of whether it comprised Jews, Danes, Samoans, or any other group or sect. And what continues to the present day in Israel/Palestine—an occupation and settlement enterprise that deprives all Palestinians of any form of political or civic rights—would engender hostility in any similar context. The psychology of the prisoner toward his jailer or the subordinate to his master is a far more apposite basis for Palestinian attitudes toward Israel than the paradigm of European-style anti-Semitism, which for centuries otherized Jews as disloyal and untrustworthy, unworthy of equal status with Christian citizens. Despite a common misperception, we Palestinians understand the terrible crimes that were committed against Jews by European Christianity, and we know that, while not nearly so dire, the experience of Jews living as minorities in Muslim-majority countries had its acute challenges and dangers. But this doesn’t change the essential fact that the Palestinians are bystanders to history, and victims of it.
Ultimately, though—no matter what happens in Gaza—two peoples will still have to share the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Israelis aren’t leaving, and neither are the Palestinians. Israel exists, no matter what Hamas might want. Its regional military supremacy and support from Western superpowers ensure that it is here to stay. The Israelis have a strong national identity and sense of purpose, and that is only reinforced, as we have seen, by brutal attacks against their civilians.
Palestinians are never going to become Zionists or fall in love with Israeli nationalism. That, however, should not be the standard or the goal. Israel and the world should strive to strengthen the very large community of Palestinians who accept Israel but who seek full political rights and equal standing as citizens. If the world values the ethos of human dignity regardless of race or religion, then at some point Palestinians, including Palestinian refugees, will need to have a nation-state of their own, whether in a unified polity consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, or in a single Israel/Palestine state, or in an agreed-upon regional federation where all residents are citizens with full equal rights. Israelis will need an iron-clad guarantee of their security and a comprehensive, binding cessation of all hostilities, as well as a normalization of relations with their Middle Eastern neighbors.
No one, especially not now, can be deluded into thinking that any of this will be easy. I’ve spent much of my life pursuing the goal of Palestinian independence, to no avail. A reckoning and reconciliation of this magnitude will face implacable foes, including fundamentalist Islamists who reject Israel outright and traffic in the worst sort of anti-Semitism; militant secular Zionists who treat Arabs as strangers in their own land; right-wing religious Zionists who thirst for a “Greater Land of Israel” and eschew Palestinian rights altogether; and Christian evangelicals who view an expansionist Israel as crucial to their end-times theology. Belligerence is mutually reinforcing, and everyone involved must reject this cycle of hostility.
Moreover, both sides will have a lot to put behind them. For Palestinians, the scars of the Nakba of 1948, the humiliating military defeats since then, the occupation, and the pervasive domination of their lives. For Israelis, the refusal of Palestinians to accept their ancient connection to the land, and decades of cruel, fanatical terror campaigns.
But all of this hard work can be done, and obstacles can be overcome if we prioritize our children’s futures over the grievances of our grandparents.
There is nothing mystical about conflicts among human beings. There never has been, nor will there be, a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Israel obviously can, in its campaign against Hamas, flatten Gaza. It has the machines and bombs to do so. But it can’t destroy the Palestinian desire to be free. Rather, political strife throughout history has been most durably resolved through dialogue, give-and-take, and mature acceptance of outcomes that do not satisfy all ambitions. Weapons may kill or defend against killing, but human bonds and relations are what will create and then keep the peace. Some might say that now, while we stand at the edge of an abyss, is the worst time to ask for maturity and compromise and a recognition of each other’s humanity. But this is a message that needs to be heard, especially now.