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The current situation between Israelis and Palestinians and how it has affected our research

Dan Bar-On, Co-Director of PRIME.


• A personal introduction
• A socio-political analysis: Why has the current peace process stopped?
• A social-psychological perspective: The problem of identity construction

A personal introduction

During the first weeks of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in October 2000, I continued to go to Talitha Kumi near Beit Jala to meet with Sami, as we have been doing since 1998, when we started PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East). I felt committed to the course we had embarked on and, as he could not come to meet me in Israel, I went to see him at our office even though it was dangerous because of the shootings.

We tried to focus on our current study: An attempt to characterize and evaluate the environmental Israeli and Palestinian NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations). It soon became impossible to focus on these issues. When people are being killed, the issues of sewage and waste, even of water shortage, become less important. We found ourselves working on a study that was designed under the assumptions that we were in the midst of a progressing Peace Process. But now we were in the middle of a violent outbreak that was destroying these assumptions, in addition to the destruction of lives.

As an Israeli, I felt terrible about the outbreak of violence. I felt that Israel was to blame for allowing Ariel Sharon make his provocative, power-oriented visit to the AL Aqsa Mosque in September 2000. I also thought that President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak were not effective in their handling of the Camp David encounter with Chairman Arafat, which led to its poor outcomes in July 2000. I felt that many of the Palestinians complaints toward Israel, concerning the on-going occupation and the way Israel went on building the settlements in the occupied territories, were justified. At the same time, I admired Sami for his persistence and willingness to continue our work, and identified with his pain when there was shooting around his house, while I could live more or less safely in mine.

The number of Palestinians who were killed everyday was devastating. It was clear that Israel was using excessive force to suppress the Palestinian uprising. At the same time, I was afraid that the violent Palestinian struggle might make things worse; that at some point the same issues that had been on the negotiation table would have to be addressed. Only now more people were going to join the cycle of hatred as a result of the current events and the chances for peace were declining.

Twice I was supposed to appear with Sami in joint lectures - once in Bremen in October, and once in Berlin, in December 2000. Twice Sami was not able to join me, as he did not receive an exit permit from the Israeli authorities. I found myself in the awkward situation of having to explain his absence. At some point I also had to start to protect myself. An Israeli civilian was shot and killed on the road that I had to travel on, on my way to Thalita Kumi, and the Palestinian Tanzim (Army unit) in Bethlehem warned Israelis not to enter the town after a child was killed by Israeli soldiers in January, 2001. My family began to put pressure on me not to endanger myself. I had to find other ways to communicate with Sami and continue our research together. We wrote email letters and phoned each other and we started to meet at Notre-Dame in Jerusalem, a place Sami could reach only when the tight closure was partially lifted.

Alongside these technical difficulties, a deeper understanding developed, especially after the last Israeli elections. This understanding is that neither side was ripe for a political solution and much working through will have to be achieved for such a ripeness to be established. I still felt that our mutual commitment to PRIME was an important cornerstone in such a process. But now the possibility for a solution became much more distant than it had been a few months ago. The situation became very depressing compared to the hopeful process of our mutual work during the last two years.

A socio-political analysis: Why has the current peace process stopped?

The outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, in October 2000, has many different and deeper reasons, beyond the ones mentioned above. In a way, it signaled the end of the Oslo Process. The Oslo Accord in 1993 created the illusion of mutual ripeness for a historical compromise between Israel and the PLO, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The two nations seemed to be ready to share the land between the sea and the Jordan River and to create two separate states: The State of Israel and a Palestinian State. It was clear that in 1993 both sides were not yet ready to agree on all the difficult issues, such as the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, the division of Jerusalem and the evacuation of the Israeli Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, the assumption was that in the following years after 1993, the Oslo process would yield enough mutual gains and trust that would eventually enable both sides to come to an agreement also on these difficult issues.

In reality, the level of mutual mistrust has become even higher since the Oslo Accord. The murder of Prime Minister Rabin, the massive Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli continuous building in the settlements showed how deep and extensive was the drive to prevent a solution, rather than enhance it. The extremists on both sides actually reinforced each other instead of the more moderate sections reinforcing one another. The Palestinian leadership, pressed by the Israelis to promise them a sense of personal security, lost credibility in the eyes of their own public. At the same time the Israeli leadership, was too weak to struggle with right-wing extremism, especially with those who were settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

One could claim that the Jewish-Israeli population has shown remarkable progress since 1993. If in 1993 one could not talk openly in Israel about the possibility of a Palestinian State, in 2001 it was Sharon himself, the right wing leader, who accepted such a possibility. If the vision of "An Eternal United Jewish-Israeli Jerusalem" has been a cornerstone for all leaders of both sides of the Israeli political map, in 2000 Barak made it quite clear that Jerusalem will in the end also become the capital of the Palestinian State. Even though public opinion swept almost overwhelmingly toward the right wing after the violent outbreak of October 2000, the majority of the Jewish population still wants the negotiations with the Palestinians to continue, until a settlement would be reached.

One could also observe the limits of Israeli flexibility. The violence brought about a backlash in Jewish public opinion as to the "real" intentions of the Palestinians: Are they really willing to accept a permanent Jewish State or is Oslo only a stage in their long-term intentions to make Israel part of a Palestinian State? There was no Jewish-Israeli leader who could accept the Palestinian interpretation of the "right of return"; Palestinian refugees, who wanted to, could be allowed to return to their homes and property in Israel. According to Jewish-Israeli consensus, Israel should remain a State with a clear Jewish majority. Very few people are willing to compromise on this matter. The resettlement of the Palestinian refugees will, therefore, have to be achieved mainly outside the State of Israel. This issue became the major obstacle in the negotiations, in addition to certain symbolic arguments related to the holy Jewish places in Jerusalem.

For the Palestinians, the 'dragging out' of the implementation of the Oslo process by Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Barak raised also old-new Palestinian fears of Israel's "real" intentions. Over the past ten years, Israel has enabled one million Jews, mostly from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish Law of Return. Israel continued to build new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and new houses in the old settlements, regardless of the political orientation of the leadership. Israelis speak about peace in terms of their personal security, but are not willing to share resources such as land and water, in addition to demanding predominant military control. There was a growing feeling among the Palestinians that the role of the PNA is perceived by the Israelis as an entity that would protect them from the Palestinian extremists (Hamas and Jihad), rather than establishing an independent State of their own. Palestinians continued to work in Israel as its manual labor force, with almost total economic dependency on Israel's needs.

The violent outbreak in October 2000 brought to the forefront another, more specific, agenda that was dismissed, or seen earlier as a less important one: The agenda of the Palestinian-Israeli minority (or Arab-Israeli minority ) (Kimmerling, in press). Jewish-Israelis were surprised that the Palestinian-Israelis played an active role in the October 2000 uprising. The result was that the police shot and killed thirteen of their youngsters during the first ten days of the uprising. Never had a public demonstration in Israel been suppressed so aggressively. This turn of events put a special highlight on the Palestinian-Israeli agenda: Should they be seen only as part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or should their demands/needs be regarded as a separate issue? The detrimental outcome of these events became one of the major reasons why the Palestinian-Israeli population decided to boycott the 2001 elections, paradoxically helping Sharon defeat Barak by a margin of 23% - the widest margin ever achieved in an Israeli election. One should remember that in the 1999 elections, 97% of the Israeli Arabs minority voted for Barak. Now they felt that he had betrayed them. Barak did not try, like Rabin had tried, to address and work on solving their neglected issues. He did not even acknowledge their demands, including their warning not to let Sharon enter the AL Aqsa Mosque. Perhaps Barak's logic was that their issues should be addressed only after an Israeli - Palestinian solution was attained, and that he did not want to be accused, as Rabin was, of leaning too heavily on their vote. As a result, Barak lost the sympathy of the Palestinian-Israelis and could not make any progress on either of the two Palestinian agenda.

The special problems of the Arab minority in Israel have been handled very poorly since Israeli became a state over fifty years ago (Kimmerling, in press). First, they were suspected of being part of the Arab enemy that should be feared. After the 1967 war, when the acute feeling of danger diminished, the Israeli-Jews still saw the Palestinian-Israelis more as a burden than as an asset (in terms of the link to the Arab World). The political approach of the Israeli leadership was that Israel should focus on the more immediate, macro military and political Palestinian-Israeli problems, as the Arab minority in Israel is anyway part of the Arab hostile world. There was, at that time, no differentiation of the Palestinian-Israeli minority as part of, yet separated from the Palestinian issue. The more specific social and political developments within this population are beyond the scope of the present paper and have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Kimmerling, in press; Peled, 1992; Samooha, 1992; Al Haj, 1988).

One should, however, remember that the Palestinian-Israeli minority was a small remnant of a wider population that lived in Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Many of their people and family members were forced to leave or fled as a result of the 1948 war and the violent outbreak after the UN decided in favor of the partition plan in 1947. Many family members of the Palestinian-Israeli minority are still living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and in the PNA. During and after the 1948 war, Israel initiated an evacuation of part of the population of the Bedouins and Palestinian-Israelis (Morris, 1987). Those who remained, however, had to live under a military regime till 1966, suspected of being potential "collaborators" with the enemies in the Arab countries that were still at war with Israel. Even after the military regime was lifted, many of the Palestinian-Israeli rights were neglected, in terms of schooling, housing, occupational choices and other civil rights. For example, those who wanted to become teachers had to go through a special investigation by the Israeli secret services. Others were refused jobs because they had not served in the army, etc.

These aspects of inequality within Israeli society have usually been framed within a dispute over a civic society versus a Jewish State. For example, many Arabs complain, rightfully, that they can wait for years to get certain rights that a new immigrant from Russia receives automatically. This inequality becomes even more apparent when we compare the right of return of Jews (who never lived in Israel) to the negation of the same rights for family members of Israeli Arabs who still live in refugee camps in Lebanon or Syria. In an interview addressing this issue , Sami Michael (an Israeli well known Author, who was a member of the Joint Jewish-Arab Communist party in the fifties) claimed that too many Jews and Arabs populate this country today, creating vast environmental problems. Therefore, he thinks that both rights of returns should be equally refuted from now on.

One could envision a process in which both agenda of the Palestinian-Israeli minority and of the Palestinians will slowly diverge from each other. The solution of one may help address the other, but not necessarily so. For example, even if the peace process between Israel and the PNA will not reach soon a final settlement, much could be done to improve the situation of the Israeli Arabs. This could even include a careful acknowledgement of ownership of houses and property that has been confiscated since 1948, and a faster process of family unification, with family members who live in refugee camps in Arab countries. This will not necessarily have an impact on the negotiations with the PNA concerning the right of return of other Palestinian refugees. However, sometimes acts of good will create a more comfortable atmosphere and are not translated by the other side as a sign of weakness, as Jewish-Israelis fear. The fear of the Palestinian-Israelis is subtler, as we are less in a direct violent conflict with them - at the same time this may eventually create new possibilities to make such concessions with them. This will bring us to the next, deeper aspect of the conflict.

A social-psychological perspective: The problem of identity construction

The deeper level of the unresolved conflict has to do with the fact that both the Palestinians and the Jewish-Israelis were not truly ready to move forward with the political arrangement because they were incapable of accepting each other's "otherness." I would like here to focus on the Jewish-Israeli apprehension of the Arab "other," our ambivalence regarding our internalized aggression and our fear of the end of the conflict.

Our apprehension of the other is related to our deep mistrust concerning the sincerity of the Palestinians' intentions. We are afraid that when 'they' speak of peace this is actually part of a long-term plan to annihilate us. This aspect was discussed earlier. Our ambivalent approach toward the use of force and aggression causes us to feel both very strong and powerful and very weak and vulnerable at the same time. This ambivalence reinforces our self-perception as eternal victims and heroism, still related to the Diaspora. This ambivalence causes us to feel mainly the harm the other side inflicts upon us and to be insensitive to what we are inflicting upon them. Our fear of the end of the conflict is associated with the fact that many people have constructed their identity around the conflict and its end will demand a fearful reconstruction (Bar-On, 1999). We will have to redefine who are we if we are not determined, through our negation of the other, and the hatred of the others toward us.

In this process of our collective identity reconstruction, the Palestinian-Israelis could become an asset rather than a burden. Throughout the years that they have lived among us, they have gotten to know us, sometimes, better than we know ourselves (Habibi, 1988). For their own survival, this group had to develop a social representation of themselves separate from the way they saw us, in terms of their collective identity formation (Moscovici, 1985). For many of them, this meant a complex and rich internal representation of themselves in relation to at least two "others": the dominant Israeli Jew and the Palestinians in the occupied territories and in their refugee Diaspora. The Jewish-Israelis, on the other hand essentially developed a monolithic identity construction that was based on the simple negation of the others who "hate us and want to annihilate us" (Bar-On, 1999). Once we will be able to move out of this negative identity construction into a more complex and dialogical one, the Palestinian-Israelis could be helpful in showing us the way. At least those of them who are willing to share with us the "others" with whom they have been in an open dialogue.

One could ask - why are we more apprehensive today toward the Palestinians in comparison to 1993? The apprehension has two parts - fear for oneself associated with the fear of loosing one's identity and fear of the other and their destructive intentions. These two fears reinforce each other in a vicious cycle that is very difficult to breakout of. These two fears are probably anchored in our long Diaspora heritage, in our insecurity as an autonomous civic society and in our hesitation regarding our integration into the culture of the Middle Eastern region, in which we are a small alien Jewish minority. Right now we are also a despised one because of our attributed strength and due to the way we handle the Palestinian problem.

In this complex situation, one would expect our leadership to find ways to desensitize these apprehensions and help us integrate our ambivalence regarding our own aggressiveness and vulnerability. But if we analyze the deeds of our leaders since Oslo Accord, regardless of whether it was Netanyahu or Barak, they actually intensified these anxieties, rather than desensitized them. These leaders showed little understanding of long-term social processes and focused mainly on short term political power games. In addition, the murder of Rabin created a kind of panic that made us worry whether we are capable of maintaining a just and democratic civic society. Different social fractions learned from the electoral victory of the right wing, after Rabin's murder, that the use of force is worthwhile and the more you use it, the more resources you may gain. This became the name of the game instead of decision making based mutual concessions for the benefit of the whole society. The use of force intensified the fear: You have to beware not only of those who face you but also of those behind you. Therefore, in analyzing our leadership's failure, one should focus less on their personality and more on the non-democratic socializing school in which they were brought up. We should also focus on ourselves and ask - why did we let such persona control our lives and actually intensify our anxieties instead of reducing them?

I do not want to idealize this possibility: Clearly, as long as the Arabs living in Israel have to prove to the Palestinians that they are not "collaborators" with the Jews in Israel, it will be difficult to move in such a new direction. This is part of the stalemate that can be described by the following image. Today, Israel and Palestine seem like a giant laboratory in which green and blue mice (in order not to say black and white) have been raised. Now, as there are too many mice, the experimenters have decided to reduce the oxygen in the lab and systematically torture the mice through starvation. The researchers ask - when will the mice start to eat each other? Will they eat more of their own kind or more of the other? And those who survive - will they develop a more peaceful and democratic relationship or will they continue to eat each other forever? The difference between the analogy and the reality in the Middle East is that we are both the mice and the experimenters. The oxygen is the hope for a peaceful future that is fading away from day to day and the torture through starvation is, for many of the Palestinians a reality, and for us, the daily sight of wiping the blood off the streets, the cars, the meadows…

Within such a context, the report and discussion that follows about environmental NGOs may get additional importance. On the one hand, when people are getting killed every day can one care about sewage or water? On the other hand, the struggle around resources like water and fresh air are deeply linked to the struggle around mutual images, collective identities and the narrated history. We assume that at some point in time, reason will return and become the main guiding force. At that point, such an inquiry, like the one we have conducted here, will be valuable. Therefore, we see our work in the service of that future time, hoping that this will happen sooner rather than later.

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