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The mad price of blinkers

By Michael Eilan

When I was a young and very inexperienced journalist I went to hear the late Rashad Shawa, the former mayor of Gaza, speak in Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, which at the time was still a kibbutz, and poor. It must have been some time in the late seventies, and the Gazans were still smarting from the wrath of their next-door neighbor, Ariel Sharon. I can’t remember exactly which troubles were happening just then, but they were there, as always, in the air. Shawa, a tremendously dignified and well dressed gentleman, made a simple plea.

“I don’t know one Palestinian who doesn’t trust at least one Jew, and no Jew who doesn’t trust at least one Palestinian. Let’s start from there.” That was in the good old days, when we were neither good nor old.

This came to mind two weeks ago when Shibli, another real gentleman and good friend from Abu Snan in the Western Galilee, told me he was too scared to allow his 13-year-old son go with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday with a movie in the Kiryat Bialik mall. “There are madmen out there, it’s too scary,” he said. So the fast food outlets in the mall got just a little taste of the deep slump all Palestinian Israeli business have felt for the last month. Great.

Now what I have to say is aimed at you, me, everybody, Mr. and Mrs. Stupid Israeli, who leans back and says “things will calm down, the Jews love the Arab hummus too much and the Arabs love the malls.” You’re wrong. Things will go back to normal but it will be a new normal, with more suspicion and more legitimacy for delegitimization. Another step.

When old Mr. Shawa said what he said, he wasn’t talking about some imaginary peacenik pie in the sky. It was the truth. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza did work in Israel and in work, as always, real relations and sometimes real trust do happen. But that one decent hope, which was based at least on some kind of reality, withered away with the weight of each new settlement and each bus bomb.

It didn’t happen overnight with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a process, the inverse of the peace process, but happening horribly to real people. I am not really qualified to talk about the Palestinian side, but have been told about the combined weight of each new settlement, each brutal suppression of protest, each denial of responsibility for deaths of Palestinians. For Israelis it was mainly bombs, and especially the bus bombs before and during the second intifada.

Even though it was an accretive process of ill will there were several cusp points. One that comes to mind is one of the reasons I am not part of the chorus calling for the immediate beatification of Shimon Peres. It was in the midst of Operation Grapes of Wrath back in 1996 and Peres was busy proving he wasn’t a peacenik wimp in the midst of his election campaign against Bibi. More than 100 civilians taking refuge in a UN camp were killed in an Israeli artillery bombardment in Kafr Qana. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The end result was that the Bibi won by a razor thin margin because Palestinian Israelis stayed away from the polls in droves. It was a cusp of sort because Peres for all of his faults did not treat the peace process as a bother that had to be prevaricated into oblivion. And the pattern of the ’96 elections became firmly ensconced as part of the accretive process of distrust.

In Palestinian Israeli towns and villages, close to 80% of the voters turn out for local elections and less than half for national elections, thus ensuring the underrepresentation of 20% of the population in national politics. “Why on earth should I demean myself by voting,” says a Palestinian Israeli friend in Kafr Kara.”In any case the country belongs to the Jews and nothing I can do will make a difference.”

So you have separation, starting in the West Bank and Gaza. First there was that brilliant mechanic in Beit Jalla who used to tend to my car so well and was so totally honest, then I don’t want to go there anymore because it’s not safe, then I can’t go there anymore because of the barrier and then I don’t even hear when his son is killed in a demonstration. Or those Palestinian kids with broad grins holding up three fingers to celebrate the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers.

With separation, people stop being people. So hardly any Jew in Israel thinks that it’s absolutely awful that 400 Palestinian kids were killed during the past month in Gaza, or bothers to think what we would have done if 400 Israeli Jewish kids had been killed. And hardly any Palestinian thinks it’s a bad idea to fire missiles at civilians, even if they are mostly intercepted.

With the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the possibility of trust of any kind is so long gone that only its obverse remains: Paranoia that feeds itself with perfectly plausible and occasionally true justification. In our last round each side was convinced it was fighting a perfectly justified war. Hey Ho.

But now it’s creeping closer to the bone, showing the damage of blinkered delusional paranoia with each new wrinkle. Jewish Israelis have become so used to saying that any European who is critical of Israeli policy is an anti-Semite that when anti-Semitism does rear its head, as seems to be the case right now in Europe, it’s the boy who cries wolf, and accusations of anti-Semitism are handily dismissed as part of the Israeli propaganda machine.

Israeli Jews are proud of their affinity with Jews everywhere, but in the same breath, or maybe one later, will voice their concerns about the “loyalty” of those Palestinian Israelis, called Israeli Arabs, who are somewhat, shall we call it “upset,” about those 400 kids in Gaza. It’s like saying that my affinities are great but yours should be investigated by the police.

And where does all of this lead? The lessons of the past 47 years with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza shows that it only gets worse (yeah, there were those few years in the nineties, now used to show how wrong we all were). And since the greedy minority of hard-core Israeli Jewish settlers has established complete hegemony over the Israeli political process, the chances of any kind of political settlement are slim enough to daunt even congenital optimists like myself.

So what we have is country with a democratic process at war with the same people who constitute a sizable minority of its own population. This minority has suffered from systematic discrimination and is disengaging from the country’s democratic process because it doesn’t trust it. The steps we have learned from the time of old Mr. Shawa are separation, alienation and paranoia, not necessarily in that order. Particularly advanced students towards a degree of hell on earth can do all three stages together in one afternoon.

Any political scientist will tell you that the only hard currency of democracy is trust and that in the long run very few politicians matter very much. In good times, politicians trade with this trust for their own ends, and it sometimes works. In bad times politicians trade with distrust, like Lieberman who urges 80% of the population to distrust the minority. This is debasing the currency and should be a crime. The horrors of sectarianism are all around us but all we see is proof of our convictions. This is mad and bad, and mad and bad don’t only rhyme, but walk happily arm in arm to a worse end.

Mikey Eilan lives in the small Western Galilee village of Clil.