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The Experiment That Shows Under What Circumstances We Could Peacefully Live With the Palestinians

Over the past 70 years a natural experiment tested the relations between Jews and Arabs. The results speak for themselves

Yoram Yovell
Yoram Yovell
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A crowd of people celebrating Jerusalem Day is met with protesters at the Old City's Damascus Gate, May 24, 2017.
Israeli Jewish nationalists celebrating Jerusalem Day meet Palestinian protesters outside the Old City's Damascus GateCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yoram Yovell
Yoram Yovell

One source of disagreement among Israelis about Israel’s right approach to its conflict with the Palestinians stems from the following question: Under what conditions would the Palestinian Arabs, who are now under direct or indirect Israeli rule, abandon the path of violent resistance and live in peace – or at least in quiet – with us? Do such conditions even exist?

This question is irrelevant for the present Israeli government, which hasn’t the slightest desire or intention of reaching any sort of agreement with the Palestinians. But this government will be replaced eventually, and we will still be left with the question.

There are those who believe, and I among them, that ending the occupation is an existential Israeli interest. According to this approach, ending Israeli rule over the lives of the Palestinians who live in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is not a price to pay for an agreement, but rather its greatest reward. The very fate of this country is bound up with ending the occupation. In my opinion, we must strive relentlessly to achieve that goal, with determination, sensitivity, and with national, regional and international agreement and support. All the rest is optional.

But this view is held by a minority of the Jews in Israel. The majority see the end of the occupation and the Israeli withdrawal it entails as a price – tolerable or intolerable – to be paid for a future political accord with the Palestinians. Most of the Jews who are ready in principle for an agreement along these lines – and they are still the majority – would like to pay as low a price as possible for it. They would like to preserve Israeli rule over the maximum amount of territory that was liberated/conquered in the Six-Day War, with the minimum of civil rights being granted to the Palestinians who live there. An array of creative solutions has been put forward for this, all of which may be characterized as magical: The Palestinians would still be there, but we would be able to pretend that they’re not.

A significant Jewish minority even believes that it is both possible and desirable to maintain Israeli rule over all of Judea and Samaria, and over all the Palestinians who live there indefinitely, and perhaps even return to the Gaza Strip. Some of those who hold this view believe that the Palestinians will gradually come to terms with their fate and stop resisting it. Others believe that the Palestinians will forever display violent resistance in the face of any Jewish national presence in the Land of Israel. Therefore, we must learn to live with this, by the sword, and not get carried away with sweet illusions about peace and coexistence.

All these approaches raise the question of the future status of the Palestinians of Judea and Samaria. Should they be annexed and naturalized, or will a combination of economic wellbeing (“so they’ll have something to lose”) and military force (“we will deter them”) suffice to generate calm that will allow Israel’s continued rule there? Or perhaps it makes no difference what rights we will give them, because they will persist with violent resistance in any event, so it’s best not to give them anything and continue to settle Jews in Judea and Samaria?

I will not address the moral, diplomatic and military aspects of this quintessential dilemma here, but will focus on one “small” question: What are the conditions that are required for the Palestinians to live with us in peace or in quiet? I am neither a politician nor a historian, but a physician and a neurobiologist. In science the reductionist approach rules, which aspires to break down big, insoluble questions into small, well-defined questions and then attempts to answer them with the aid of experiments and observations.

Conditions for quiet

In my opinion, it is possible to predict the behavior of the Palestinians, after the signing of a future agreement with them, with a reasonable degree of certainty. This is due to an unintentional, naturalistic experiment that has taken place here in Israel over the past 70 years. Here’s the experiment, and here are its results:

In 1948, approximately 1.2 million Arabs lived in western Palestine – that is, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – the great majority of them Muslims. The War of Independence (which Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe) and the 1967 Six-Day War (the “Naksa,” or setback) brought about vast changes in the lives and status of all these people and their descendants.

The Palestinians who currently live in that same area (those who haven’t become refugees in other Middle Eastern countries or emigrated overseas) may be divided into three groups: the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens; the Palestinians of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip; and the Palestinians of East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages (“the Palestinians of unified Jerusalem”). These three groups constitute the experimental subjects. Let us observe them and their attitudes toward the Jewish state.

The Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel: In my opinion – which for some reason angers Jews and Palestinians alike – Israel’s Palestinians are among the country’s greatest achievements. “Our” Palestinians are a national minority with political awareness and a national identity; they are by and large educated and Hebrew-speaking. They are a heterogeneous minority with a vibrant internal discourse, and the overwhelming majority of them are committed to living in peace with us. As Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua put it so well, the greatest nightmare of Israel’s Palestinian community is that we will free them from the rule of the Jewish government and hand them over – together with the villages and cities in which they live – to the control of the Palestinian state that will be established in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (as Arnon Soffer, professor of geography at the Hebrew University, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggest, in their “Soffer/Lieberman plan” that involves territorial and population swaps). Israeli Palestinians are dismayed by the systematic discrimination and incitement against them on the part of the present government. However, they are well-versed in the rules of democracy, and are fully aware of the abysmal differences between Israel and every Arab state.

It’s essential that we understand and internalize the fact that these Palestinians have come to terms with our existence, and are willing and able to live with us in peace. Even though the Arab minority in Israel is saturated with legal and mainly illegal weapons – those weapons are hardly ever aimed at Jews, but at other Arabs

The leaders of Israel’s Palestinians, people like Joint List MKs Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh, are not devout Zionists. But they are consistent and clear in their vigorous opposition to an armed struggle by their public against their country. They are also urging the Israel Police to do its duty and disarm the criminals among this public. That lobbying effort, like the terrible fear of the Soffer/Lieberman plan, exposes the paradox of Israel’s Palestinians: They are not necessarily enamored by us Jews, but they know who we are, and they are unwilling to part with us under any circumstances.

I worked for many years at the University of Haifa, where a quarter of the students and many of the faculty are Israeli Palestinians. In the university, as well as in every hospital in Israel, one can see on a daily basis how Jews and Arabs live together, work together and dream together – not always the same dreams, but almost always in peace and cooperation, and sometimes in friendship, too. The life story of Prof. Ahmed Eid, the head of the general surgery department at Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, who lit a torch on Independence Day this year, is the success story of the State of Israel and “its” Palestinians. It’s not all sweetness and light between us, but there’s quiet, there’s peace and there’s hope.

Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, April 2015. Credit: Emil Salman

The Palestinians of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip: This is the second group in our naturalistic experiment. In short, and as a generalization, these Palestinians are an enemy. Many of them hate us intensely, and a growing minority among them is willing to sacrifice their lives for the prospect of killing us. Most of them do not speak Hebrew, most have never encountered Jews other than soldiers and settlers, and almost all are flooded by virulent incitement against us in the media and on the social networks. Almost all of them are abjectly poor; some families have been living for three generations in refugee camps; they are helpless against us and have no rights that accrue from us; they stand at the checkpoints day by day, and they are filled with rage.

I am not going into the question of whether it might have been possible to maintain an occupation that would have brought about a different outcome. I am only saying that this is the situation today, and it’s unlikely that bringing more force to bear will change it. After all, we “defeated” them time and again (two intifadas, Israel Defense Forces Operations Defensive Shield, Cast Lead and Protective Edge – and what’s next?). Yet, despite all our victories, many of them, many more than ever before, in Gaza, in Hebron and throughout Areas A and B (those territories that are, respectively, under total Palestinian security and civil control, and those under Palestinian civil control and shared Palestinian-Israeli security control), are still ready to kill and be killed in order to settle an open, bloodstained account with us. Which brings me to the third experimental group.

The Palestinians of “unified” Jerusalem and its surrounding villages: In my view, this is the most interesting group in terms of the question of the conditions needed to attain peace and quiet between the Jews and the Palestinians. The economic and personal situation of the Palestinians of unified Jerusalem is far better than that of their brethren behind the separation barrier. It resembles that of their brothers, the Israeli Palestinians: They are members of the Kupat Holim health maintenance organizations and are protected by the National Health Law. They receive regular allowances from the National Insurance Institute, many of them speak Hebrew, and they are free to work, study and move about in Israel and among Jews unhindered.

True, the level of municipal and civil services that the Palestinians of unified Jerusalem receive from the authorities – whether sanitation, education or environmental development – is well below that of the services their Jewish neighbors in West Jerusalem receive, but that is also true for most of their Israeli Palestinian brethren.

It’s not the economy, stupid

Who, then, do the Palestinians of so-called unified Jerusalem – whose main difference from the Palestinians of Israel is not economic but cultural and civic – resemble? Who do the Palestinians who receive NII allowances and carry a blue Israeli ID card – but who don’t have the right to vote in Knesset elections and don’t have an Israeli passport – resemble? At a distance of 200 meters, as the crow flies, from Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus lies the village of Isawiyah, which was annexed to Israel in 1967, and is today within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. A Jewish driver who enters the village by mistake is liable to pay for that mistake with his life. Palestinian friends of mine told me that they are afraid to enter the village, for fear of being mistaken for Jews.

Fadi al-Qanbar, the terrorist who in January ran over and murdered Israeli army cadets on the promenade of Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, came from Jabal Mukkaber, another East Jerusalem village, and carried a blue ID card. In short, most of the Palestinians of Greater Jerusalem, with NII and with HMOs, after 50 years of annexation and without the right to vote for the Knesset, resemble in their hatred for us their brethren across the separation barrier. That’s the way it is, and we would do well to start asking ourselves why that is so. Because one can say a great many things about Jerusalem, but unified it’s not.

I am a proud Jerusalemite, sixth generation in the city. The festival surrounding the 50th anniversary of the unification of the city – celebrated with emotional speeches, flag parades and fireworks – has just ended. If that celebration weren’t so sad it would have been funny. Today, “unified Jerusalem, the city that is knit together,” exists only in the hollow rhetoric of a few second-tier politicians who mistakenly believe that their constituents are dumber or blinder than they are.

Those, then, are the facts; now for the discussion and conclusions. The simplest explanation that accounts for these facts is the following: What prevents abysmal hatred, murder and popular uprisings, what makes life together possible, is what differentiates the Palestinians of Jerusalem from the Palestinians of Nazareth, and not what differentiates the Palestinians of Jerusalem from the Palestinians of Hebron and Gaza.

In other words, what helps avert war and murder, and what can most likely bring about peace, is a sense of belonging, equality and partnership, and not a combination of economic goodies and an iron fist. Not the HMO and not the NII, not Defensive Shield and not Protective Edge, but true equality before the law and fair representation in the Knesset. Because it’s not the money, stupid, and it’s not the economy, either. It’s “For my soul still yearns for freedom / I’ve not sold it to a calf of gold” – and that poem by Shaul Tchernichovsky (translation: Vivian Eden) can be sung in Arabic, too.

There are additional, sophisticated, explanations for the differences between the Palestinians of Jaffa, Jerusalem and Gaza. Anyone who wants to continue ignoring reality may console herself or himself with them. But those who do so should bear in mind an old scientific rule, known by the colorful name of “Occam’s razor”: The simplest explanation for a particular phenomenon is generally the right one. Those who are unable to discern Occam’s razor amid the complex reality in which we live, are liable to be slashed by it soon in one of the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Wishful thinking

What, then, am I proposing? The Palestinians of “unified” Jerusalem suggest that without equality, there will be neither peace nor quiet. In contrast, the Palestinians of Israel prove that peace and quiet are possible when equality, even if partial, exists. But equality for the Palestinians of Judea, Samaria and Gaza means a binational state in which the Jews will soon become the minority, and, like most Israelis, I don’t want that. Accordingly, because the occupation – by my reckoning – is destroying us, we must stop our attempts to rule the Palestinians of Judea and Samaria directly or indirectly without giving them full civil rights in Israel. It just doesn’t work.

Isawiyah, from a building on Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus. Credit: Emil Salman

What then? That’s the million-dollar question of the past 50 years, and in my opinion far too much has already been written about it. Dr. Micah Goodman examined the subject in his recently published book “Catch-67” (in Hebrew), and what I have to add to his learned discussion can be summed up in a few paragraphs:

Rumors of the death of the two-state solution are wishful thinking on the part of those who want to perform magic: The Palestinians would still be there, but we would be able to pretend that they’re not. There is simply no other solution than the two-state solution. We need to thank God that the Arab peace initiative (the Arab League’s 2002 initiative, which has recently been re-endorsed) exists, and we must accept it. We have to withdraw from most of Judea and Samaria, evacuate with sensitivity and love the 50,000 idealistic Jews who live in those areas, annex to Israel the main settlement blocs, where more than half a million Jews live, execute territorial swaps in southern Judea and the western Negev, and understand with regret that unified Jerusalem is outdated wishful thinking.

In Jerusalem, what is Jewish will remain Israel, and what is Palestinian will be Palestine. The police and the army will remain ours, and the separation barrier will remain intact, at least in the first few years, as a breathing border where passage is contingent on a security check by us. The majority of the Arab states and almost all the countries in the UN will support a settlement along those lines.

And what about Palestine? In short: There’s nothing to write home about here. In my opinion, there is no choice but to let the Palestinians of Judea, Samaria and Gaza hash it out among themselves, and lower our expectations about the possible outcomes. A quick look at what’s happening in the Middle East gives rise to gloomy conclusions about the ability of the Arabs as a whole, and the Palestinians in particular, to govern themselves democratically and nonviolently. Tibi and Odeh, nonviolent and democratic, are Israelis far more than they are willing to admit, perhaps even to themselves.

Therefore, the Palestinian state is fated to be a “state-minus” – without a real army, without heavy weapons and without control of their airspace and border crossings. Those will remain in our hands, but let us not delude ourselves: The experience of Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority suggests that Palestine will likely be a full-fledged third-world country. It will be a defunct state, with rampant governmental corruption, executions, virulent incitement, armed rival militias, or with a violent, uninhibited central government. We will have to cope with all of that. It won’t be pleasant and it won’t be nice, but it’s something we can easily handle.

I believe that we can cope with all this successfully, and yet I know that as of today, we don’t want to try. In this, the current government does indeed reflect the will of the majority of the Jews in Israel.

But, as an incorrigible optimist, I believe that what common sense doesn’t do, time does. Democracy and freedom of speech exist here, and the Israelis are less dumb than their current leadership thinks. The present prime minister will eventually be replaced by someone more courageous, who will perhaps be willing to take the risk of being assassinated (as did Yitzhak Rabin, Charles de Gaulle, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein).

At the end of the day, Israeli society is strong enough to sustain such an agreement, as well as its consequences – if we have a leader worthy of the name.

Prof. Yoram Yovell is a psychiatrist and a researcher in the Division of Clinical Neuroscience, Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem.

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