Whose Promised Land?: Suicide Blasts Harm Peace Hopes

Author: Arie M. Kacowicz

In our neighborhood of Gilo, we were literally sitting at the borderline between the city of Jerusalem and Palestinian territory. Like in a surreal movie, my family and I could watch from our living room the exchange of fire and artillery between the Palestinian snipers and our Israeli armed forces. We learned to identify the sources and caliber of the different weapons that caused more noise than damage but had a tremendous psychological impact upon all of us, especially our children.

In the mid-’90s my family and I moved to Gilo from French Hill. These are both Jewish neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem after the Six-Day War in 1967. I was still convinced, like the majority of the Israelis who supported the 1993 Oslo peace process, that the nearby Palestinian town of Beit-Lehem eventually would be part of an independent and peaceful State of Palestine. The unofficial “green line” border that separates Israeli and Palestinian territory is about half a mile from our new apartment in East Jerusalem, and I always teased my friends that we had a view from our apartment of hutz laaretz, of a foreign country, Palestine.

One of the reasons we came to Gilo was the captivating view of the beautiful town of Beit-Lehem (or Bethlehem, as many know it), with the bucolic and almost mystic ambiance of its white houses and its hills. I always dreamt of the fabulous tourist potential and benefits from the economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in this small piece of land we all share.

Those were the optimistic days of the mid-1990s, when exchange students from Notre Dame arrived regularly to Tantur, a Notre Dame institute “between Jerusalem and Beit-Lehem,” a few yards from Gilo. At Tantur, where I was teaching a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, we analyzed together the question of whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had reached a “point of no return” in the direction of peace. About the same time my family moved to Gilo, the nearby Beit-Lehem and Beit-Gala became part of the Palestinian Authority semi-sovereign territory, the embryonic core of a future Palestinian state.

Jordan controlled what is called the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria) and East Jerusalem between 1949 and 1967, as result of its invasion of Israel/Palestine in the first Arab-Israeli War (1948-1949). In 1950 Jordan (formerly Transjordan) unilaterally annexed those territories, which, according to the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan, were supposed to be an integral part of a Palestinian (Arab) state. The 1967 Six-Day War, involving Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, brought about the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank (from Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (from Egypt). Following the war, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, making it part of its national territory. Nowadays, there are about 200,000 Jews and 200,000 Arabs living in East Jerusalem in disparate neighborhoods.

Despite my dovish convictions about the need for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, I never found an ideological contradiction in moving to Gilo, a large neighborhood of about 40,000 Israeli Jews in Southeast Jerusalem. Unlike the Israeli settlements in the West Bank that crisscross the Palestinian villages and towns and impede their economic and future development, the 200,000 Israeli Jews who live in East Jerusalem are a vibrant and integral part of the city and of the State of Israel. That fact had been tacitly recognized by the Palestinian negotiators at Camp David and Taba in 2000-01, as well as by then-President Clinton in his December 2000 blueprint of possible Israel/Palestine borders. Thus, Israel’s interlocutors were ready to recognize the complex demographics of the city, according to which the Jewish neighborhoods should be part of Israel and the Arab neighborhoods part of the new Arab state of Palestine.

The violence in Gilo started about a week after the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in late September 2000. Violence had always followed the peace process in its convoluted trajectory, but during the first few months we still did not have a sense of a full war. We were hoping that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, prompted by Clinton, would come to their senses and reach a fair and feasible compromise following the significant (but perhaps not as far-reaching as the Palestinians expected) Israeli offers at Camp David in July 2000.

The parameters of that compromise have been clear for mainstream Israelis ever since U.N. Resolution 242 of November 1967 heralded them: a two-state solution more or less along the former 1967 borders; some form of territorial swaps to accommodate most of the settlers in Israel (but not the settlements); Jerusalem as an open and shared city, the Western Wall in Jewish hands and the mosques in the Temple Mount under Moslem control; and a return of the Palestinian refugees to their new state, but not to ours.

Today, after more than two years, 2,000 Palestinians and 700 Israelis have died, the majority of them innocent civilians who were victims of Palestinian terrorism and of Israeli counterinsurgency and harsh military reactions. We now face a full, though very lopsided war—a sophisticated regular army vs. militias, terrorist and guerrilla groups—which epitomizes the end of any meaningful peace process for the time being. Negotiating with the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, is nowadays considered as anathema by the majority of Israelis. Tragically, the parameters of a solution in the future will probably be similar to those outlined by Clinton in December 2000. For now, peace seems far away.

In 2000, the first year of the intifada, there was sporadic shooting at Gilo from Beit-Gala, but the Palestinian snipers had not reached our street yet. In the second year, around October of 2001, Palestinians “discovered” the close proximity between our street and Beit-Lehem and started aiming directly at it, including our apartment building. The bullets eventually reached the garden of one neighbor, the windows of two others and the building’s entrance. The Municipality of Jerusalem provided us with bullet-proof windows, free of charge, courtesy of the State of Israel. Nobody was hurt, at least physically. We tried to keep our daily routine to some extent, forbidding the children from playing outside or on the balcony, asking them to fold themselves under the seats in the car when we left or reached the garage. Otherwise, in Tel-Aviv, or even at Hebrew University in Mount Scopus, 10 miles from home, or in other neighborhoods in Jerusalem, life went on.

The “front” of Gilo continued to grasp some attention for the next two years but eventually became only a minor item in the news, because of a much more widespread and tragic phenomenon: the Palestinians’ increasing resort to suicide bombers, their most lethal weapon in this asymmetrical war. Suicide bombings have become part of the landscape, especially since February 2001, with the failure of the Taba talks of January 2001 and the inability (and lack of will, if not active encouragement) of the “official” Palestinian leadership to control these terrorist attacks. This happened long before they lost their territorial control of their cities with the Israeli re-occupation of most of the West Bank in April 2002. These heinous attacks have targeted buses, nightclubs, restaurants, malls and bus stations, and have affected the daily life and the deep psyche of the Israelis, not only in the occupied territories but mainly within the pre-1967 borders (“the green line”) of Israel itself.

Even if the Palestinians have been involved in a just war against the Israeli occupation, there is no justification whatsoever for these Palestinian terrorist attacks on civilians, which are considered crimes against humanity (see for instance the Human Rights Watch Report of November 2002). As a result, many Israelis have returned to their preconceptions of the Palestinians, formed before the peace process, as a bunch of terrorists aiming at destroying Israel and committing genocide against Jews as Jews.

Once these attacks aimed at Israel proper, rather than against the occupation of the territories, it has become more and more difficult to understand the rationale for this so-called Palestinian war of national liberation (supposedly, of the territories), and to differentiate between it and the criminal and irrational war of Palestinian Islamic extremists against Jews in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. Hence, many Israelis feel that the use of the military option for the time being was necessary to defend themselves and stop the Palestinian violence.

One can imagine how reality could have changed if the Palestinians had chosen to turn to nonviolent resistance, probably leading to a peaceful Israeli withdrawal from the disputed territories. To the contrary, the terrorist attacks inside Israel only hardened the Israeli public opinion against any conciliatory move or return to negotiations.

It was in the summer 2001, when we were away from the country, that we learned about the suicide bombing attack (“another one”) in a pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem, with its nefarious toll. Tragically, I understood the real meaning of that “event” when I was back in Israel in September 2001 and learned that one of my students at Hebrew University, Tzvika Golombek, had been killed in that pizzeria. Tzvika was 26 years old, bright and handsome. He used to come to class with his motorcycle helmet in one hand, and a smiling and charming excuse for being chronically late at the beginning of our seminar. A passionate student of international relations and of Latin American politics and history, he had just finished his bachelor’s degree and planned to continue with his graduate studies. Captivated by the Latin American magic, he wanted to explore and understand the civil war of Colombia, not being aware that la violencia could reach him in Jerusalem and that he would become one of the numerous statistics in this ongoing Middle Eastern tragedy.

The second time I felt the reach of the “Russian roulette” of Palestinian terrorism was in December 2001, when my 19-year-old neighbor from the apartment below us in Gilo, Moshe Yedid-Levy, was killed in a gruesome “double” suicide bombing in downtown Jerusalem, together with another nine youngsters. I will never forget the screams of his mother that night, when the tragic news reached her. Moshe was a diligent and sensible young man, with fervent religious beliefs and a great love for his fellow human beings. I do not know what his political views were, but the fact remains that the only reason Moshe was killed was because he was an Israeli Jew.

The third time a suicide bombing attack directly affected me was when it struck my workplace, Hebrew University at Mount Scopus on July 31, 2002. I still wonder who can justify the targeting of Hebrew University, an enclave of peaceful co-existence across religions, ethnicities and nationalities. That morning, before heading to a sabbatical in the United States, I had greeted my friends at the university. Only that afternoon, a couple of hours before leaving for the airport, I learned from a cell-phone call from a friend that the cafeteria where I used to eat had been destroyed. Seven people were killed, including some American students.

The violence has continued since, and we have followed it from the (relative) quiet of Maryland and of Washington, D.C. In October 2002, when a deranged sniper (or two) terrorized our new neighborhood for three weeks, friends were telling us that we “brought bad luck,” or that our fate followed us from the shootings in Gilo to the shootings in Maryland. The difference is that the snipers on the East Coast were eventually caught, while the violence between Israelis and Palestinians continues. The result of this vicious cycle of violence has been a growing pessimism, anger, desperation and disillusionment with the peace process, as reflected in the results of the Israeli general elections of January 28, 2003.

At least in the short term, many Israelis have moved to the political right and have given up any hope or expectation of finding a political solution. The more I learned about the failure of the peace process of 1993-2000, the more I realized that what we are facing here is a clash of two narratives about “what went wrong,” a tragic sequel of missed opportunities, misperceptions and miscalculations, and a deep failure of leadership on both sides. All contributed to this catastrophic movement back from peace to war.

Beyond these anecdotes and personal stories, three paradoxes remain in this cacophony of different interpretations. First, many Israelis today are hawkish in their short-term views, agreeing to “crush” the Palestinian resistance by military means, while they remain dovish in their long-term views, aware of the inevitability of a Palestinian state. Second, the only way for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state and for the Palestinians to have their own state is by accepting the two-state solution. Third, the most painful and tragic paradox of all is that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians agree more or less about the “parameters” of a political solution, but not about the process itself.

The tragedy of the current situation is how to get out of the cycle of violence and mutual escalation without waiting too long for the inexorable logic of ripeness that will lead us eventually to the same results. Those will come, I fear, only after a few more thousand innocent people on both sides are killed. After all, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will be driven from the region. The question that remains is not what the outcome will be, but how and when we will return to meaningful political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arie Kacowicz, currently a visiting professor in the department of government at Georgetown University, is a professor in the Department of International Relations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A visiting professor at Notre Dame and a fellow in the Kroc and Kellogg institutes in 1997-98, he has taught in the University’s international study program in Jerusalem.