First Person: How This Palestinian Made Friends With Israelis

This special online 4-part video series, Conflict Zone, follows Aziz Abu Sarah, a cultural educator, a native of Jerusalem, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who works in international conflict resolution. This first segment shows Israelis and Palestinians trying to lead an ordinary life, but the complications of living in a conflict zone can be extraordinary.


The author grew up throwing stones at Israelis. Then he took a class with them.

By Aziz Abu Sarah

The tragedy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the people in it live so physically close to one another, yet are so separated. Both sides believe the scary stereotypes and have little actual interaction. Walls are built of concrete to separate us, leading to even higher walls of fear and ignorance.

As President Barack Obama arrives in Israel for another go at Mideast peace–his first trip to the Jewish state as President–what is most needed is for ordinary people to realize that we aren’t doomed to live this way and that we can coexist. My painful journey has led me to this conclusion.

I grew up in Bethany, a town 3 miles east of Jerusalem. There was little for children to do other than play soccer in the streets. I was seven years old when I first saw on television young men throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. I didn’t know the motivation or purpose for such acts, but they were exciting. (Related: Read about the tunnels of Gaza in National Geographic magazine.)

My first similar adventure was unsuccessful, as I stoned my Arab neighbors’ cars instead of Israeli cars. I quickly learned that stoning your neighbor’s car wasn’t a good idea–the spanking I received from my father made that clear.

The Israelis didn’t know who I was or where I lived, so I thought throwing stones at them was safe. A few weeks later some friends and I broke the window of an Israeli bus driving on a nearby road. An angry man came out of that bus shooting at us.


This segment features the Nabi Saleh protest from the Israeli military’s point-of-view.


 

I grew up experiencing clashes with the Israeli army and learning what to do to survive.  The book bag that I took to school contained not only books and pencils, but also onions. Sniffing an onion helps to keep you conscious when you’re hit with tear gas.

My life changed when my brother Tayseer, at age 18, was arrested at our home and then beaten when he refused to confess to the charge that he threw stones at soldiers. Tayseer was in prison for almost a year and died soon after his release, which our family doctor said was a result of the beating.

I was ten years old at the time, and watching my brother die left me bitter and full of rage. I felt it was my duty to avenge Taysee’s death.

Years of activism guided me in my mission. Writing and throwing stones became the norm of my life, and I convinced others to do the same to protest the Israelis’ occupation of the Palestinian territories and their treatment of Palestinians.


This segment features the Nabi Saleh protest from the Palestinians’ point of view.


But the truth is that I never felt satisfied by my actions. Hatred and anger cannot heal a broken heart. And yet I continued on that path until I finished high school, when I decided to take Hebrew language courses to prepare for college and work in Jerusalem.

Those classes introduced me to Jews and Israelis who weren’t in uniform. For 18 years, all my interactions with Israelis had been with soldiers and settlers. Although there was a Jewish high school 200 meters from my own, I never met any of those students.

At first I was angry about studying Hebrew alongside Jewish students and refused to utter a word in class.

After I’d had a few encounters with Jewish students and learned new Hebrew words, I had an internal struggle in my heart and mind. There was the old me who was angry and bitter, alongside the new me who was curious to learn about the “enemy.”

With every conversation and with every interaction, my hatred faded further. It wasn’t the deep conversations, but the small ones that took place while practicing Hebrew that revealed the humanity in me and my Jewish classmates and conquered the divisions between us.

Eventually, I found a new mission for my life: bridging the gap between enemies.  I started working with Israeli peace builders like Rami Elhanan, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing.

The Middle East peace process is at a stalemate, and people are losing hope in the dream of bringing an end to this conflict. Politicians are issuing one fiery statement after another explaining why we will not have peace. The international community is paralyzed. Many claim that extremists are on the rise and violence is unavoidable.

But the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace does not depend only on politicians signing an agreement. It also depends on citizens, who can make or break any such pact. The people should lead the politicians.

In my work as a conflict resolution specialist, I have found that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are indifferent and ineffective. Indifference is the greatest enemy to peace and justice.

The antidote to that apathy is interaction. What Israelis and Palestinians need more than anything right now is to find ways of being with each other. We need to put cracks in the walls that separate people. We need to take classes together.


This segment highlights the process of creating safe places for dialogue among people who are on opposing sides of a conflict.


I don’t know what the final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will look like–one state, two states, or a confederation. I do know that no agreement will survive if the people from both sides don’t start a true reconciliation project.

Our division should never be between Israelis and Palestinians but rather between those who work tirelessly for peace and those who do not.

This blog is part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

Editor’s note: Aziz Abu Sarah is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Co-Executive Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Human Journey

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Meet the Author
A walking embodiment of the reconciliation he strives to achieve, Abu Sarah is a Muslim who works closely with rabbis and Christian groups and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and English. “My goal isn’t to come in to a group of students or soldiers and say here’s my political view, you should think like me. I simply expose them to thoughts they’ve never heard before. Pain is very powerful, very destructive. But it can also be constructive. If you open up and listen to the other side’s suffering you don’t have to agree with their actions, but you can understand where they’re coming from.” In the U.S. he is co-executive director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (the oldest conflict resolution school in the world). There he builds alliances between Jewish and Arab Americans and has launched a unique study-abroad program bringing students to the Middle East and beyond. “Speakers and excursions delve into the true complexity of the situation here. We include every point of view—Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, left-wing, right-wing, historical, cultural, environmental. This multi-narrative presentation of ideas is essential to seeing how you can work with very different mindsets toward conflict resolution.” Abu Sarah uses the same concept to create a new model of tourism. His rapidly growing Mejdi tour company has brought thousands of people to the region on trips that highlight diversity. “If you travel here with only one guide,” Abu Sarah notes, “you are limited to one point of view. That’s why we always try to have at least two guides, one Israeli and one Palestinian, plus many local guides all along the way. Whether you explore history, archaeology, or the environment you need all points of view or you’ll go home with a distorted, one-dimensional picture.” The multicultural spirit of the tours is reflected in the people who participate—Jewish congregations, seminary groups, Imams, rabbis, ministers, and students from around the world. Abu Sarah’s passion for peace bears practical fruit: students inspired to cancel tickets home to stay and intern with peace organizations, synagogue groups compelled to share their experiences with churches and mosques, travelers motivated to help build the struggling economy by connecting with local Israeli-Palestinian businesses, the brother of a suicide bomber reaching out to the father of a victim to apologize and say he didn’t find the act heroic, an Israeli teenager determined to join the army and kill Palestinians and now rethinking his decision. “When I see lives like this being saved from the cycle of violence and revenge it makes it all worth it. Maybe I can’t change things politically, but I can change people. And my small changes can make a difference in when this conflict will end. The more I do today, the faster peace will come.”