I Was a Palestinian Stone-thrower. Here's Why I Stopped

I didn't believe stone-throwing would bring me freedom, but it gave me a voice and an outlet for powerlessness.

AFP

It was a phone call everyone fears.  “I was attacked,” my nephew Muhammad said when I answered the phone, his voice shaking. “By settlers.” I was immediately terrified. He continued, “I was going to pick up some groceries for the dinner tonight. They had knives and clubs and were yelling, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ “

Ironically, Muhammad was attacked while buying groceries to cook dinner for our family friends, Yuval Ben Ami and Ruthi Pliskin. The Israeli extremists cornered him on the Mount of Olives near the Mormon College, beat him, and dislocated his shoulder. Fortunately, he was able to break free and escape with his life. 

A few hours later, I received a text message from my friend Sarah Blum, an Israeli Jew. A Palestinian had tried to stab her at the Central Bus Station earlier that day.

I was angry. On the same day, my friend and my nephew could have been killed. One is Israeli, the other Palestinian—both are innocent civilians who want to see the conflict end. The senseless brutality of it was enough to make anyone hopeless. 

And yet, both Muhammad and Sarah surprised me with their responses.

When I opened Sarah’s text, it read: “I hope your nephew is okay Send him my love and warmth.” Just a few hours before, a Palestinian had tried to kill her—but here she was, selflessly expressing her concern about my Palestinian nephew.

When I checked in on my nephew, I was equally impressed. He had posted online that, “After being attacked yesterday by Jewish extremists, I want to say that I don't hate Jews. Not a single one. But I do hate the Occupation. I will speak up against occupation, but only in the way of peace and love not hatred.”

I can’t help but marvel at their responses, and wonder what our city would be like if everyone responded in this way.

The fear people have is real on every side. Most of my Israeli friends who used to come and meet me in East Jerusalem cannot take the risk anymore. The streets in West Jerusalem are empty. And recently in social gatherings with Palestinian friends, the conversation inevitably turns to strategies for staying safe. When walking to the store, we think twice about our look and our dress. You don’t want to look “too Arab,” or a Lahava gang might attack you. But then what does an Arab look like?

Last week a Jew stabbed another Jew because he thought he was Arab, and Thursday two Israeli soldiers shot a third Israeli in another case of mistaken identity. As an Arab, you also risk being stabbed by a Palestinian if you dress or act too “Israeli.”

I travel between the West Bank and Israel on an almost daily basis. I am constantly in contact with Palestinians and Israelis who are immersed in completely different realities. On the Israeli side, I often hear statements like “if you were in Syria, Assad would have killed you all. We treat you so well in comparison. Why aren't you grateful?” People are afraid and frustrated, and are easily convinced that collective punishment and military force is the only solution.  I suppose there is some truth to the idea that force is effective— at least in the short run. But Israel has been occupying the West Bank for the last 48 years, and the policies have not brought peace and security for either side.

On the Palestinian side people are also angry, frustrated, and afraid. Some express the notion that we should not be the only ones living in misery, asking, “Why should we suffer from the Occupation, while Israelis live in a bubble?" It is not that Palestinians believe an Intifada of knives will bring freedom. But the political process is dead, the settlements continue devouring what little land is left for a Palestinian state, and raising a Palestinian flag at the UN hasn’t changed one fact on the ground. 

But just like Israelis who think military force will bring stability, Palestinians who think a violent intifada will end the occupation are also wrong. Palestinians tried armed struggle in the Second Intifada and it failed. The result was thousands of dead with no political gain. 

The common sentiment I hear from both sides is complete hopelessness. There is no vision for the future. People seem to have accepted the notion that we are doomed to live in conflict and it’s a zero sum game. One will win and the other will lose. Meanwhile, the stalemate continues to build up a reservoir of latent anger. The use of personal weapons (knives, fists, blunt objects) and overkill is indicative of the extreme frustration fueling this latest round of violence.

I was born in Jerusalem: I was born under Israeli occupation and martial law. I have never known freedom. I am not a citizen in the land I was born in. As an East Jerusalem resident, I am neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian citizen. And when I was 8 years old I started throwing stones, not because I believed stones would bring me freedom, but because I felt it gave me a voice and an outlet for powerlessness. What other way could I make my voice heard? Now, years later, I realize there are other ways, but I still understand the frustration, anger, and feeling of hopelessness.

Today, Jerusalem is not the city of peace, but the city of contradictions. While Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to call Jerusalem a united city, he is blind to the needs of a third of its population. There can be no unity in a city where there is no equality between its residents, or where there is only infrastructure on the Jewish side of town. There is no unity in a city where most Palestinians cannot get permits to build new homes. There is no unity in a city where thousands of classrooms are missing from the East side. 

I can’t help but wonder what kind of Jerusalem we are fighting for. Today the city feels like a military canton. A Palestinian can’t walk 100 meters without being stopped by the police. Traffic is unbearable and security checks are humiliating with people being asked to removed pants and shirts in public. Israelis walk the streets looking over their shoulders, to make sure no one is approaching from behind. West Jerusalem is empty; people are not taking chances riding buses or going to restaurants.

At the same time, Muhammad and Sarah remind me that I am also a resident of a different Jerusalem— a Jerusalem that can be an example of how Palestinians and Israelis can live together in peace. This Jerusalem is only seen in glimpses of day-to-day human interactions: I see it in individual Israelis and Palestinians like Muhammad and Sarah, people who refuse to be enemies and refuse to accept the "us-them" duality. In a time when our leaders and politicians are failing us, these individuals go out of their way to create a different reality. They are the real inspirational leaders and the true hope of Jerusalem. 

Aziz Abu Sarah is a National Geographic Cultural Educator and Explorer, A TED Fellow and the Co-found of MEJDI Tours www.mejditours.com