Israelis, Don’t Tell Us Palestinians to Mourn Shimon Peres

Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank refuse to be bullied into grieving for a figure Israeli Jews call a 'man of peace'. Did they eulogize our national heroes?

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Shimon Peres meet with Yasser Arafat at the erez checkpoint entrance to Gaza, 1995.
Shimon Peres meet with Yasser Arafat at the erez checkpoint entrance to Gaza, 1995.Credit: Avi Ohayon / Government press ofice

When Shimon Peres died, I did not feel anything. 

Like everyone around me, I followed the eulogies and outpouring of sympathy from leaders around the world. I was not surprised that Peres received such wall-to wall endorsements in his passing, but what did startle me was the anger directed at us Palestinians (whether inside Israel or in the territories) by Israeli Jews who expected us to join them in their mourning, to show sympathy and support for the Man of Peace.

As a conflict transformation specialist, I should be able to understand this need. But even I have my limits. In a conflict that is becoming more asymmetrical by the day, I cannot stomach the idea that we Palestinians have no claims to equality in any area of life. In this instance, I choose not to sympathize with my occupier. I cannot be a Gandhi at a time when injustice continues and there is no end in sight to the suffering.

Instead, I want to ask Israeli and American Jews to respect my right to choose not to mourn a man who also had a significant, detrimental impact on my life and the life of my people. I ask them to suspend their judgment of anyone in my community who may choose not to join them in mourning of their leaders.

When Peres died, all I could think about was Yasser Arafat’s death. Both men were involved in acts of violence and acts of peace. Both were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for their joint efforts for peace. But I could not stop wondering why the world celebrates Peres as a peace-maker while Arafat is remembered by many as the antithesis to peace.

(From left) Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO

For so many Palestinians, Arafat was a freedom fighter who gave up his weapons to become a politician and legitimate leader in the 1990s. Peres, on the other hand, in the eyes of many Palestinians, was not a man of peace at all. They remember him as the member of the Haganah who helped expel the Palestinians from their land in 1948, and as defense minister in the 1970s who established the first settlements in the northern West Bank with the famous slogan of "settlements everywhere". Palestinians also remember him for the deadly Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in 1996, when he was responsible for Israel’s bombing of the UN compound in the village of Qana that killed 106 people in one day. For this and for other actions throughout his life, most Palestinians don’t regard him as a peace-maker at all.

However, both Arafat and Peres reached an equal standing after signing the Oslo Accords. I, along with the rest of the world, changed our perspective when each recognized the right of the other to exist in this land. Israelis though, never changed their mind about Arafat, and could never see him as a symbol of peace. As a consequence, this same perception led to the killing of Yitzhak Rabin by his own people who saw Peres as a traitor.

Many Middle East experts have suggested that even during the Oslo process, Peres did not entirely give up on the colonialist ideology of Israeli control over the West Bank.  One of the main architects of the Accord, the late Ron Pundak, wrote: “Rabin did in fact seem capable of accepting a two-state solution, whereas Peres strenuously opposed the concept of an independent Palestinian state with control over both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

In 2002, members of the Norwegian committee that awards the annual Nobel Peace Prize stated that they regretted that Peres' prize could not be revoked, because as a member of Ariel Sharon’s government, he had not acted to prevent Israel's re-occupation of Palestinian territory, nor lived up to the ideals he expressed when he accepted the prize.

Arafat as his counterpart is equally controversial for Palestinians. While some see his leadership as disastrous mainly because he left Palestinians with nothing but the empty promise of the Oslo understandings, others see him as a symbol of true leadership and one who knew how to overcome the differences and create unity among Palestinians as he pursued the legitimate journey of state building. 

Arafat was not mourned by Israelis, neither was Mahmoud Darwish our national poet, or Tawfek Zayyad, the first Palestinian politician to work with Israelis in the local Communist party, who was a true peace-maker and a leading Arab legislator in the Knesset. Neither Peres nor any leading figure attended these funerals, and Israelis were not asked to understand the Palestinians’ loss.

Palestinians never thought to ask Jewish Israelis to take part in or to show solidarity, mainly because we, as an indigenous minority, understand that our national heroes are part of our separate ethos and national narrative. In the same way, we understand that most Israeli Jews cannot identify with the Nakba, the disaster of 1948, for fear of legitimating any Palestinian right to the land.

So the expectation voiced by Jewish Israelis for their Arab counterparts in Israel to join in their grief over Peres, made me realize a painful truth: Israelis, depending on their political temperament, see themselves as either heroes of peace or as victims of barbaric extremists. While their counterparts, their enemies, can never be heroes or even just ordinary human beings who deserve a choice about whom they wish mourn. Instead, they are judged as “unpeaceful” or “unhuman”, words used to describe Joint List head Ayman Odeh, who decided not to attend Peres’ funeral.

The politics of mourning since Peres’s death have drawn very clear lines stipulating who is eligible for eulogizing and who is not; who is remembered for his good deeds while whitewashing his sins; and who is not worth mentioning at all.

For Palestinians, peace will only come when we have the chance to truly mourn the absence of our own political leadership since Arafat’s passing, and to mobilize to choose new leadership similar to Ayman Odeh’s, one who can unite all factions in times of crisis. And yes, the Palestinians should see themselves for the heroes they are for their sheer resilience through decades of occupation.

For Israelis, peace will be possible only when they begin to think of Palestinians as equals, as human beings like themselves.  Respecting Palestinians equally means accepting their right to judge by themselves whether any specific Israeli figure should be an object of their grief, and not to be cajoled, bullied or threatened into a superficial sense of solidarity which papers over real differences and contaminates the truth.

Carol Daniel Kasbari is a Palestinian conflict transformation specialist, speaker and facilitator for groups in conflict in the Middle East. Born in Nazareth, she has a Masters in NGO Administration and Public Policy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a PhD student at the School For Conflict Analysis at George Mason University, focusing on nonviolent resistance.

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