Israeli police at the funeral procession for Walid Sharif, a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces during a raid on Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem on May 16, 2022. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Jerusalem: cradle of lost peace

In the Holy Land coexistence was a fragile dream, built on unstable foundations

As a Jerusalem correspondent in another age, when Israelis and Palestinians created hope of some peace, witnessing the latest round of their age-old conflict makes you wonder. The killing of a star Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Aqleh, and the appalling images of Israeli riot police attacking her funeral cortege, highlight the abyss: a peace process no longer worthy of the name, the dream of co-existence lost.

The death of this reporter marks another watershed for Israel

Amid the grief, it is hard as well not to see tragic irony. Whatever its problems, the state of Israel has always boasted that rarity in the Middle East, a truly free press. The death of this reporter, whose work spoke so loudly to that very freedom, marks another watershed for Israel. The country’s values have been starkly exposed as one rule for them, quite another for those they rule. When police attack pall-bearers carrying a coffin, because it’s draped in someone else’s flag, the jury is no longer out.

My years on the front line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taught me that both sides always had two truths, two versions of history, two rights, two wrongs (sound familiar? Think Russia and Ukraine). Hence the dispute over who shot Shireen, a woman who reported from the Occupied Territories, the West Bank and Gaza, with extraordinary courage. The way the world at large has denounced the Israeli army for this killing speaks for itself. When even the Americans, Israel’s staunchest ally, demand explanation from the Israeli government, the game is surely up.

What matters now, as we return to weekly bloodletting in Jerusalem, is whether either of these two peoples seeks to hold a conversation beyond the violence. Think rocks and slingshots, such is the Palestinian arsenal, or tear gas and live bullets, the armoury of the formidable Israeli Defence Force.

For years, I was convinced there would be that conversation. I had lived in the land of Israel and Palestine during arguably the last period that saw them talk to each other. Yes, there was the political stage which led us to the peace process in the early 1990s that brought Yasir Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) back home. Watching Arafat enter Gaza, on a sunlit evening in 1994, to talk to Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, both of them Nobel Peace laureates via the historic agreement they reached, well, you had to believe, even dream.

Both had been warriors. Rabin memorably during the six-day war of 1967 when Israel took the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat during the years of exile, and the PLO’s hijackings, and bombings, and desperate fight for survival during the Israel’s 1982 siege of Beirut, a period indelible for those of us who saw it first-hand. Both accepted the peace process, however hard it was to shake hands, share the same stage and trust each other. “Enough of tears, enough!” Rabin once told me.

It was naïve to think the two sides could live side by side, yet apart

In that period, however, I saw something else at work, beyond the politics, and it had me believe these two nations could work it out one day. Call it working together, or maybe just learning to live with each other, but it was co-existence of a sort.

My mind goes back to mornings in the mid-1980s, when I was writing a book about the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians at street level. In those days you could travel down to Gaza from Jerusalem, unthinkable now after years of warfare between Gaza’s radical leadership and successive Israeli governments, and see for yourself the relationship at the heart of the conflict.

At 5 a.m. the exodus of workers from Gaza to Israel began, with thousands gathered in Palestine square, at the bus station that straddled Omar al-Muktar street. With street peddlers selling pita bread loaded with hummus, and sahlab, an aromatic wake-up drink made of almonds, milk and mastic, the ra’isin (Israeli contractors) arrived, negotiating prices for work with Palestinian labourers, their windows wound down.

I rode one morning with Khalil, a middle-aged Palestinian with a hang-dog expression, as he joined an Israeli farmer who had been employing him and his friends for weeks. The conversation was limited, but there was at least an understanding. “He needs me, and I need him,” Khalil said. “Not for nothing do we call the Palestinians the Jews of the Arab world,” chuckled the Israeli farmer. Khalil noted this was solid employment; he could even sleep over on the farm and be fed.

Was it ideal, this coexistence? Far from it. Did it represent apartheid in another guise, the brutal paradigm of one way of life for us, another for them? Yes, most certainly, having lived in South Africa, too, as a correspondent, I can say it was apartheid. Yet the abiding memory is of two longtime enemies seeking an accommodation with each other, and doing business with each other as a practical means to the end of peaceful coexistence.

Those days are long gone. The years teach much which the days never know. That it was naïve to think the two sides of this historic conflict over one small land could live side by side, yet somehow apart. That Jerusalem could be capital city to both. That they could share their common heritage, both children of Abraham after all, and become the ultimate symbol of the journey from war to peace. And yes, the years show both are to blame.

As we watch Russia seek to destroy a neighbour in Ukraine, the lesson from Jerusalem is stark. Some 55 years have passed since Israel captured the entire city and the land to the Jordan river, and no one is talking peace any more.

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