'The Palestinians Are the Real Transparent People'

Ayelett Shani
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Ohad Hemo.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ayelett Shani

Let’s start with the Palestinians’ reaction to last week’s election. What are you hearing?

On the one hand, serious depression: the realization that they can look forward to more of the same. On the other hand, a sigh of relief: The mask was torn from [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s face. He retracted the Bar-Ilan University speech [in support of a two-state solution], and what I glean from my conversations with senior figures in the Palestinian Authority is that this strengthens their determination to continue the diplomatic intifada with all their might, because the whole world now understands that Israel is not a partner.

[Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb] Erekat has already announced that the first claim against Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague will be submitted in April, and that it will relate to both the settlements and to Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer.

They’ve been talking about the option of a diplomatic intifada for some time.

A senior Fatah man told me in Ramallah that their goal is to undercut our legitimacy as a state. Not just the occupation and the settlements, but the state as such.

A diplomatic intifada is one scenario. What about a binational state?

It’s hardly mentioned in Israel but it’s very widely discussed in the territories. It comes up in every conversation I have with Palestinians, because many of them have simply given up hope that they will have a state of their own. People of my age, with three or four children, look me in the eyes and say, “We want to be like you, not more than you and not less than you – we want the same rights you have.”

The binational state option is popular not only on the street, but also among the intellectual elite. They see it deterministically: In their view, within a few years Israel will simply have no other possibility. We will be too interspersed, the barriers will fall, and Israel will have no choice but to accept the Palestinians as people with equal rights. A binational state is the nightmare of Zionism, but the Palestinians want it and believe in it.

And as long as we only react and don’t take the initiative, that is apparently the direction things are taking.

Yes. If you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past 100 years, you see an intifada every seven-eight years. That said, the reason, I think, that it will take time before we see another confrontation is due to the consequences of the second intifada for the Palestinians – the serious blow it was to their economy and society. They are still licking those wounds. To this day, there is a trenchant internal discourse about whether it was a mistake. But in the past few years, I’ve discerned a young generation that is far more filled with hate than the preceding generation. It’s a generation that doesn’t know us, doesn’t speak Hebrew, that was born into the reality of the separation fence. In many of the places I visit, I am the first Israeli they’ve seen.

I think that’s true of both sides. They were here and now they’re no longer here. We don’t see them, they don’t see us.

The demonization works in both directions.

Have you despaired?

Yes.

Since when?

I felt true despair in the Jenin refugee camp a few months ago. I saw dozens of children there, aged eight-nine, many of whom had never left the camp and whose whole universe is confined to one square kilometer. Those children talked about killing Jews, about victory, about becoming shahids [martyrs]. They are growing up with no horizon, in a poor, wretched refugee camp. And when they tell you, “We would be happy to kill Jews and die” – you realize you are seeing the future generation of armed militants, Hamas, suicide bombers. It knocked me for a loop. I came out of there with zero hope, precisely because I believe things can be different.

Dahlan’s struggle

You spend a lot of time in the West Bank. What’s the situation in the Palestinian Authority?

One development that’s hardly talked about in Israel is the fact that a struggle for control is underway in the PA. [Former Gaza strongman] Mohammed Dahlan sees himself as the heir and successor to Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] one day. He has created a kind of personal militia, or at least that’s what’s the PA is saying.

Just what they need – another militia.

Dahlan is taking young people, mainly from the refugee camps in the north, and throwing money at them, on the assumption that one day they will be an armed militia that will fight for him and help him take over. When I was there, serious confrontations took place almost every day between the PA’s security units and those armed young people. The confrontation with Israel is considered Sisyphean, because Israel pushed back the idea of a Palestinian state, so they are busy with internal confrontations.

Maybe the real question is what’s happening in the Gaza Strip. We don’t know.

I met with a few Gazans after Operation Protective Edge – they received permission from Hamas and from Israel to visit the West Bank. What I heard from them is scary. They said that Israelis have no idea what is going on in Gaza, because Hamas promulgated many laws whose aim is to prevent us from understanding what’s happening there. Gazans in general and journalists in particular are forbidden to talk to Israelis – it’s an offense that can get you arrested and worse. Hamas is very successfully creating an informative and conceptual iron curtain.

What did the people you spoke with tell you?

There is frustration and great anger. If there’s one thing Hamas has managed to do in these past eight years [since taking power], it’s to make itself hated by quite a few Gazans. It’s true that Hamas has a hard core of hundreds of thousands of supporters, but we’re talking about 1.7 million people who live in Gaza. All the latest polls show that if elections were held today, Hamas would not win.

According to the foreign media, at least, Operation Protective Edge turned Gaza into a humanitarian disaster.

There is talk of unprecedented destruction, a real tsunami. But you have to understand that this is above all detrimental to Hamas, that the anger is aimed at them more than at Israel. A few tens of thousands of people went through this hard winter without a home. The economic situation is dire – unemployment is above 40 percent. Hamas can’t help, because it doesn’t have much money. The situation is catastrophic, and I’m not sure we grasp it, or even that the people of the West Bank grasp it.

Is Hamas a wounded animal?

Hamas is waging a battle for its survival. Since the rise to power of [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, Hamas has been isolated politically both by Israel and by the PA. The tunnels, which were Gaza’s oxygen pipeline, have been shut down. Hamas was coerced into reconciliation with Fatah in the West Bank, but contrary to expectations, that is not helping them economically.

It’s said that Hamas is supported by Iran.

It’s more accurate to say that Hamas was pushed into Iran’s arms for lack of choice. The Middle East does not accept Hamas – not only Egypt but also Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. So Hamas gets financial and military aid from Iran, but not massively, like before. Hamas is unable to pay the salaries of about 42,000 people in the Gaza administration.

I would have thought that Hamas would have emerged strengthened from Operation Protective Edge.

The rationale for going into battle wasn’t so clear to the people in Gaza. In the end, Hamas did not actually succeed in improving their lives. The siege of Gaza continues. The people there don’t feel that the war achieved anything – on the contrary. In general, in recent years the Palestinians have been experiencing a type of second Nakba [a reference to the term Palestinians use to describe the establishment of the Jewish state]. I think that over the past several decades, the Palestinians have never been more divided, weaker and more lacking in a diplomatic horizon than they are now.

Like us.

Yes. And one factor that could cause escalation is the harsh economic situation. The average monthly wage in the West Bank is 2,500 shekels [$625]. Israel’s freeze in transferring the taxes it collects for the Palestinians could blow up in our face. Our lack of response to “price tag” actions, the situation in East Jerusalem, Area C – it’s all pushing toward a confrontation. Still, I doubt that we will see a third intifada. People are too tired, too fearful of the cost – and also because of the work done by the PA’s security apparatus.

Can the PA keep the lid on Hamas in the West Bank?

Hamas as a movement barely exists in the West Bank, but it has definitely won the hearts of the people, because in the last war it was steadfast and was able to strike at Israel. If elections were held today in the West Bank, Hamas might win. But Hamas doesn’t exist in the West Bank, because the PA grasped that it could take over. The PA’s security forces have arrested thousands of Hamas people in recent years. Dozens of Hamas people are incarcerated in PA jails, and I have heard testimonies of brutal torture they undergo there.

So the rumors of the PA’s death were premature?

At this level, for sure. The PA is very powerful on the ground. Its security units rule with a high hand, even though they don’t necessarily enjoy the people’s moral support.

‘The ISIS effect’

Let’s talk about danger: You enter the West Bank alone. You interview people as shots are being fired in the air all around you. What’s that like?

I think that at in some sense, I’ve become addicted to danger. That thrill does the job every time.

And you need the thrill.

Absolutely. I thought that the birth of my daughter might change that, but it didn’t. I keep going, even more so.

Are there moments when you see death in front of you?

I remember one time, in Shati refugee camp, in Gaza. The photographer and I get into our car after an interview. Suddenly a jeep pulls up next to us, and four masked, armed men get out with weapons drawn and start screaming at us. They put a rifle to my temple – I feel the cold metal. I see the photographer groping for his pistol, and I know that if he finds it we will be massacred on the spot. Then a fifth man gets out of the jeep. They turned out to be from an organization called the Death Squads of Nabil Tamus. They thought we were from Hamas and wanted to arrest us. We were scared to death.

Are you still afraid?

Yes, I’m still afraid. What’s scariest is to enter a Palestinian city without having coordinated it with anyone and to stand next to an inflamed mob who recognize you. Actually, I felt a lot more protected in the territories in the worst times, when Palestinian terrorists were blowing themselves up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In the past few years, something basic has been undermined in my feeling as an Israeli and in my ability to feel safe on the other side.

Why is that?

Because Fatah is opposing everything that smacks of normalization with Israel, including cooperation with journalists. The anomaly by which Israeli journalists were considered “extraterritorial” in the conflict is fading away.

What do you mean?

For example, in some cases [in the past] young, masked Hamas people rescued me. In one demonstration, I was hit by an army tear-gas grenade and fell to the ground. Four masked people picked me up and took me into a house, and the next thing I remember is the mother of one of them was cleaning off my face. The place was a kind of war room, masked people came and went. They knew exactly who I was and treated me wonderfully. Could that happen today? I’m not so sure.

My access to places and people today is far less than what it was – even though they know that I and my colleagues are their only channel to the Israeli public. They are so disappointed in the Israelis that they just don’t invest energy in us anymore. And there is also the ISIS effect.

Meaning?

The loss of value of human life, including that of journalists.

The journalist is no longer extraterritorial, but is part of the conflict. Scary.

Very. The sanctity of doing no harm to journalists has diminished in the past year or two, and I am more afraid now, in certain situations. Three weeks ago, I entered Deheisheh refugee camp [near Bethlehem], escorted by a former prisoner, and even though he is a strong person and is perceived as a Palestinian symbol, I was expelled shamefully. I was threatened.

So, what’s your motivation for continuing to go there? Do you see it as a mission?

I do see it as a mission: to make known the voice of four million people, one that a lot of people would prefer not to hear. A large part of those four million want peace and an end to the violence, but we don’t see or hear them. The separation barrier is both physical and psychological. I try to draw them close to us.

As we saw in the election campaign, they are not on our agenda.

They are the true transparent people. They really don’t exist for us, the conflict doesn’t exist. But they are here to stay. They won’t disappear, they’re not going anywhere.

Anyone who watches you on television sees that you have great empathy for the Palestinians. How do you heighten empathy for those who hate what you stand for?

I don’t usually feel personal hatred. But a month ago, for example, I met with a former Hamas man who tried to explode a booby-trapped car in Israel. We sat in his living room in Ramallah. He saw a photograph of my daughter on my cellphone and said, “She is beautiful, but she would be a lot more beautiful if she lived abroad.” I felt like throwing up.

A line was crossed. It was very hard for me. That comment stirred all kinds of feelings in me, including genuine anger. But usually, because of the lack of contact, you’re not perceived as a person but as a representative of everything: the Israeli public and media, the occupation. The boundaries get so blurred that one time a terrorist asked me to help him smuggle a weapon from Israel into the territories.

If they see you as a representative, how do you see them?

Most of my contacts are not with the militants, but with people who say, “Let’s end the conflict, because we want our children to have a better life.” But I think it will be far more difficult to make peace with the young generation. The Palestinians bear a great deal of responsibility for their situation, but there are times when you just can’t avoid putting yourself in their shoes, and that’s not easy.

Tell me a little about Abu Mazen, whom you’ve met a few times.

One thing you can’t take away from him: He says the same things in Arabic that he says in English. He speaks to the Palestinian public in the same terms he uses with the international community. The most significant element in his conduct is that he consistently opposes the use of violence for political ends. His security units work very hard to prevent terrorism originating out of Judea and Samaria against Israel proper, and also within Judea and Samaria, based on the understanding that this is contrary to the Palestinians’ interests.

Many Palestinians say that Israel will never again have such a moderate and responsible Palestinian leader to deal with, that this is Israel’s last chance, that no one after him will possess the legitimacy to terminate the conflict.

And what do you think?

I think there are a few stumbling blocks that the Palestinian leadership hasn’t succeeded in contending with – the right of return in particular. Almost everyone you talk to, not only in the leadership, says that there will never be a peace agreement without the right of return. I think that we Israelis need to hear that. The cultivation of the narrative of return is still at its peak among the Palestinians – not only in Hamas but also in the PLO, in Fatah and others.

What do you say to the “no partner” cliché?

I personally think there is a partner [on the Palestinian side]. As I see it, there are circumstances under which the PA would be capable of arriving at a peace agreement with Israel.

But is Israel capable of arriving at an agreement? From the perspective of your decade of covering the territories, what changes do you see in us?

I think we have become a nation that is far more hating, racist, ignorant. We don’t know the other, and he doesn’t interest us.

Let’s end with a word of hope.

The most meaningful [source of] hope is that there is still a majority on the other side who want peace, who want to lead a normal life, beyond slogans. Many times in the West Bank, I see Palestinian women who remind me of my grandmother and who speak my grandmother’s language. In their homes, I eat food that I ate in my grandmother’s house. I am talking about my personal grandmother and about a collective grandmother of half the Israeli population. At the personal level, the differences between us aren’t so large. I think that most of the Palestinians want what we all want. A quiet, good life.

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