‘Your Parents Built Their Country, and Our Parents Lost Their Country’
On November 27, 1999, the Palestine-Israel Journal held a round-table discussion, moderated by Dr. Edy Kaufman who teaches human rights in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Avi Levi, youth organizer of Peace Now. The participants on the Israeli side were Deganit Avital, Amichai Man and Rachel Cohen; and on the Palestinian side were Jamal Nusseibeh, Samer Obeid and Taleb Barakat, young people in their twenties, either students, graduates or working in the service sector.

Edy Kaufman: How much do you think the representative of your people in the present peace negotiations - Barak for the Israeli government, Arafat for the Palestinian Authority - really represents your viewpoints and your feelings?

Rachel Cohen: I feel Barak's direction is good. More than that is difficult for me to say because, in general, I do not feel that any of the politicians or government people or Knesset members really reflect my feelings.

Samer Obeid: I think Barak always makes promises. When he was trying to be elected, he promised to finish the peace process in one month. Now that he's prime minister, he has started delaying and delaying. I don't think he wants to deliver what he promised.

Edy Kaufman: How about Arafat? Do you feel confident that he is doing his best for peace?

Samer Obeid: Of course he is. He should.

Jamal Nusseibeh: It's impossible for someone to represent you completely on everything. On the other hand, Arafat and others have represented us for a long time. In general, they have the best interests of the Palestinians at heart. Therefore, they are people one can theoretically trust to do what they can to make the situation better. Now, if one has different ideas or viewpoints that's part of a democracy and that's fine. Who else would you have represent us? Arafat has earned this position.

Amichai Man: About Arafat, Arafat has earned it. He's the head of the Palestinians. In the Israeli state, Barak is the prime minister of the state, and although you have certain small groups that oppose the government, Barak acts as prime minister of the entire state. But among the Palestinian people, in my opinion, there are more than a few groups that are moving in a direction other than Arafat's. This is a big problem.

Jamal Nusseibeh: The question was how you feel about your side, not how you feel about the other side.
Because for Palestinians things seem to be going so badly on the ground, people find it very hard to believe that the peace process will get anywhere, or that it will last. But Arafat was also elected by Palestinians. The reason there are divergent opinions is because there are people who don't believe in the institutions created by Oslo and the agreements after that.

Amichai Man: I never voted for Barak, but his goal is my goal. I want peace. It should take time. The more time the peace process takes, the more stable it will be. Sometimes you have peace, but not real peace, like the peace we have now with Egypt. Twenty years after the agreement, we see this is not enough for peace.

Jamal Nusseibeh: You cannot expect anyone, not even the Egyptians, to take you at your word about peace when you're still occupying the land of another people. It just doesn't make sense. In this situation, you cannot be taken seriously as a mature and developed country and a normal people that wants to live at peace in the region in which it's located.

Amichai Man: When I was a little child, I was sure that I would not go to the army at the age of 18. I was sure that there would be peace by then. Whatever Barak is doing, I am behind him, even if it will take ten years to make peace.

Samer Obeid: From my point of view, the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians so far is like a game of cat and mouse. Each one is leaving open an escape route.

Edy Kaufman: Do you think that youth nowadays are more preoccupied with personal stands and interests than in the past, and why? Do you find your parents to be more idealistic in terms of what to give to the country for peace than the younger generation? Do you share the same values and opinions, or does the younger generation have a different way of looking at this question of making peace?
Addressing the Israelis with regard to the State of Israel - and there is a mirror question for the Palestinians about parents and grandparents - do you see a change in commitment to Zionism over time? Does it have the same meaning for you as it did for your parents or grandparents?

Deganit Avital: I have a similar outlook to my parents, although we are called the X generation, youth without feelings and so on. When you talk with the youth of today, there is a sense that many of them place less importance on what happens in the country, but there are still many who do care. I know we are looking at our history in an Ashkenazi [European-Jewish] way. We learned how the Jews came and developed the country. We, Jews, did everything. We were very Zionist. That's the way we learn history at school.

Edy Kaufman: But the reality?

Deganit Avital: The reality was rather different. There were a lot of difficulties, and I don't know enough to say how it really was.

Rachel Cohen: Zionism means nothing to me now. The values that Zionism represented for my parents or my grandparents are not relevant because it's a totally different situation today. The problems we are dealing with are completely different. Previous generations looked at Zionism, particularly after the Second World War, as coming here and creating a home for the Jewish people. But I am not concerned with building Israel. We already have Israel. Now we have to see how to deal with other problems, social problems, relations with another people living in the same land. This is "Zionism." I don't call it Zionism, but this is what has replaced Zionism for me.

Deganit Avital: I agree with what Rachel said. Education is Zionism for me today, both as regards Israelis and Palestinians.

Edy Kaufman: Let's switch now to our Palestinian friends and see how you feel about comparing your values with your parents and grandparents. Have you come too late to make history? Is it already done? Where are you now compared to your parents' political views?

Jamal Nusseibeh: It's a strange way to ask the question. To me, my commitment to Palestine is my commitment to liberty and freedom and democracy and dignity as a person; it is my whole existence. I cannot abstract this from "Palestine." That does not mean that I necessarily believe in Palestine, in the whole of what used to be Palestine. The whole idea of Palestine is, for me, this feeling I can belong here and that my children can belong here and live here in peace. This is what my commitment to Palestine is.

Edy Kaufman: I can see there is asymmetry. On the Israeli side there is already a state and you can have other central aims. But for the Palestinians, the national issue is existential.

Jamal Nusseibeh: You cannot separate your being from Palestinians living under occupation. Even the Palestinian Legislative Council, where I was working, is not a free democratic body. It's not a parliament. It has no sovereignty. It's still subject to what the Israeli government agrees or doesn't agree to. We still have no say in our lives. We still have to contend with roadblocks, or in Jerusalem with getting a permit from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. Plus, we come from a generation - all of us - which actually, in a great sense, made history with the Intifada. We were not a generation that sat down and watched things happen. Who else if not us? All of us.

Edy Kaufman: Comparing yourself to your parents and grandparents, do you see any particular change in attitudes?

Samer Obeid: Compared to my parents and grandparents, people are now becoming more educated. They know what's happening. They know how to think and what to do in order to bring about change, and that's the difference.

Edy Kaufman: You touched upon the Intifada. It seems that for the Palestinians, especially for the younger generation, that was a watershed. What does the Intifada mean to you? Do you remember it?

Deganit Avital: We were young at the time, but we were not in the same situation as the Palestinians, since, as was said, they were in the middle of the action. I think our grandparents or parents who built this country maybe had something closer to that feeling because they were in the center of the action. We don't have that feeling.

Jamal Nusseibeh: I think we are all making history. This may be contentious, but I think the Palestinians ultimately fighting for liberty, freedom, peace, dignity - this is what the Israelis ought to desire - it's basically the same things. We now have an amazing opportunity. Oslo has a lot of flaws and problems and gaps, but at least people are talking and it's given us this opening to do something, to take things in hand. It's a challenge and an opportunity.

Rachel Cohen: It's difficult for me to say this, but I think the Intifada is one of the best things that could have happened, not just for Palestinians, but also for Israel. I can easily see how the previous situation could have lasted another 20 years had it not been for the Intifada. Sometimes this is the only way to achieve something. In this case, but for the Intifada, I could see Israel controlling the Palestinian people for many more years.

Jamal Nusseibeh: As they still are.

Rachel Cohen: As they still are, yes. But now I really believe it will change.

Jamal Nusseibeh: Why?

Rachel Cohen: Because it has begun to change. We are in the process of changing. Maybe it's going to take more than two years, but we are doing it, and deliberately.

Jamal Nusseibeh: Why are you doing it?

Rachel Cohen: Because I don't see any other way. I don't see any other possibility. For me, it's like breathing or taking a shower or eating or women's rights or ecology. It cannot be different.

Edy Kaufman: Because it will make you feel better if the Palestinians are free? Or is it because you sympathize with their wishes and their will?

Rachel Cohen: Both. The two are so connected that they cannot be separated. I don't think I could have felt good or safe, not just as a person but also as a people, if the previous situation continued.

Edy Kaufman: On the question of a two-state solution or a one-state solution, what is your feeling? As human beings, as Palestinians, as Jews, is it better to have a two-state solution or would you prefer to see Arabs and Jews all living together in one undivided - maybe secular - state?

Deganit Avital: In dreams, in utopia, I wish we all could have loved each other and lived together in peace. But given the reality, there are problems with living in one state. Especially since Palestine is not yet an independent country, I think, for the sake of progress, we have to have two separate countries, but with a joint approach to subjects like the economy. But I am against a situation where the Palestinians are dependent on our country, as they are now. They will have their own independence. Maybe later, when everybody is independent and has achieved equality, and when the quality of life of the Palestinians has improved, we could unite.

Taleb Barakat: I think there should be a binational government like in Lebanon, where they decided that the president should be Christian and the prime minister should be Muslim.

Samer Obeid: I don't think we can have Israelis and Palestinians living together in one state because we are absolutely different people, with our own societies and cultures. Our society and way of life are totally different from that of the Israelis.

Jamal Nusseibeh: I think that a two-state solution, although it may be necessary, will just exacerbate the difference in quality of life and the separateness of our people and the tension between both sides. It has never been a Palestinian national demand to live freely only in the West Bank and Gaza. The point is to live in dignity wherever one feels one belongs and to feel one can belong there. You have three or four million refugees still living in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza who cannot stay there. And as the jailer is no freer than the prisoner, they are both in the same prison. I think Israel is kind of shirking a responsibility by saying, All right, you go live over there and we will monitor you, but you can basically do whatever you like. This is not recognizing the moral responsibility Israelis have for what they have been doing for the last 50 or 30 years.

Deganit Avital: That's why I think the only option is to give the Palestinians some kind of independence.

Jamal Nusseibeh: One of the reasons I said what I said is because the South African homeland created for the black Africans to live and be free in basically led to an explosion. It led to the whole system crumbling and breaking down. I hope we are more mature and have had enough experience in other places in the world to be able now to go beyond these things and build something different, something where people can have everything they aspire to as individuals and groups and nations.

Avi Levi: Do you have something to say about the issue of separation or living together? Do you think it would be better for the Israelis and Palestinians just to get rid of the other? Like Barak's election slogan - "Two peoples: you live there and we live here."

Rachel Cohen: We can achieve real peace only by building small life-organizations, by talking, by living and working together, by striving for the same goal, by getting to know each other. That is the only way to make peace. Somehow we need to find a balance between living together and separating.

Deganit Avital: That's true. The problem is that reality conflicts with that. In our present reality, I can't see all Palestinians coming and working with the Israelis. But I think that the way to make peace is really to know the other people. If you don't know the people, you can't really have peace with them. But I am not diminishing the idea of two countries because there is something true about your feelings for your own country, for your being independent. You have to start at the point of feeling equal, and this feeling of equality can only be achieved when you have your own country, when you don't feel dependent on the other party.

Taleb Barakat: The process should start with how it was before the Intifada, when we used to go to Gaza, to Nablus, and nobody said you cannot cross the checkpoint. But then we did not have independence. We should have equal rights to form a government, an army of our own.

Samer Obeid: When we reach the point that we are equal, then we can start with two states. But it cannot happen now.

Rachel Cohen: I agree.

Avi Levi: Let us look at the place of the conflict in your own agenda. How much does the conflict impact on your personal everyday life?

Samer Obeid: It affects everything in our lives.

Taleb Barakat: Every little part of your life is affected. Samer has uncles living in Hebron. Most of the time they cannot come to visit him. I remember that my grandfather used to go to Ramallah to buy meat. You cannot do so anymore because, at the checkpoint, if they find a bag of meat in your car, you're fined 8,000 shekels. And these are minor things that I can think of.

Samer Obeid: I think if we, the younger generation, could meet with each other, we would have no problem. Our parents and grandparents are different. Your parents built their country, and our parents lost their country. But now that we are building a country here, we have better feelings towards you because you are now a peaceful people for us.
Once I had an Israeli girlfriend. When her parents found out about it they started calling and threatening. So I had to leave her. So you can't even choose your girlfriend because of this conflict.

Deganit Avital: I don't have to cope with the conflict every day unless I see it on television or hear about it from someone involved. I am not in the same situation as you are. It does not affect my life in the same way. Of course, I think it's one of the most important things that we have to deal with because it has to do with thinking about the future, about raising my children in a peaceful, not so stressful environment. But I don't have to cope with it as the Palestinians do. Also, here, in this round-table, all of us support the peace agreement in general, and we're having a very nice peaceful talk. But I know there are Israeli youth who are not sitting here and are against it. Many of them. I really don't know if we are the majority. I hope so.

Samer Obeid: I don't think the Israeli way of life is affected by this conflict. We are the most affected because you have the power. You do what is best for you. I can talk about my uncle who lives in Hebron near the Ibrahimi Mosque. Israelis are all around. When you hear from him what happens there, it's crazy. My family can't sleep at night.

Amichai Man: I never gave the conflict much thought. I live in the center of Israel. I hear about the peace process in the news, but it's not so close to me. I want peace. I think the peace process is a good process, but it will take a few more years. I hope that one day I can cross Ramallah or go freely through Hebron or go safely to Gaza, and that we can live as good neighbors.

Jamal Nusseibeh: Things have to go both ways. I can't imagine you going down to Gaza without people coming out from Gaza. Most of my friends cannot even picture a future for themselves because the conflict is such an integral part of their lives, even if they are not necessarily politically active or aware. But if you don't know if you're going to be living under occupation or in a free state, how can you conceive of your future? The ordinary Palestinian doesn't know if he'll be able to go to work tomorrow or not. People are still being arrested. You still live from day to day and try to make the best of each day. The political situation determines your whole existence. You have no choice. Even sitting at home, in your mind you know you are not free.

Avi Levi: After all has been said and done, are you optimistic? The next question talks about the history of the conflict, each side accusing the other of ruthlessness and demonization in combating the enemy. This hasn't stopped since the Oslo agreement. In your opinion, can it be stopped?

Taleb Barakat: It will not stop.

Deganit Avital: You are pessimistic then?

Avi Levi: Why? Whom do you blame?

Taleb Barakat: I blame both sides. Who is the prime minister? Ehud Barak. He used to be a general. He was one of the guys who planned to invade Lebanon and the West Bank, right? He was the head of the army. He has been raised on ordering people what to do. So do you think he is now going to turn everything upside down?
The same with us. Arafat used to say we have to reconquer our land by fighting with arms. So if the situation is going to change, then the leaders should change.

Samer Obeid: Until the peace process finishes, there is always going to be the accusing of each other and blaming each other. When we reach a final agreement and everybody knows where they stand, then all that will end.

Avi Levi: You think it will end? You're optimistic?

Samer Obeid: Yes. Of course.

Deganit Avital: One thing about Barak and Arafat is that they were military leaders, but I think that during this period they are working for peace, so there will be give and take, and the take is the peace. That's why I can be optimistic.

Taleb Barakat: But there is no giving.

Deganit Avital: There will be eventually. I hope. But I think the main problem is that we are waiting for our governments to make peace, and what are we ourselves doing? Nothing. So I am also to blame that it does not happen sooner.

Jamal Nusseibeh: It's very difficult for Palestinians to be optimistic now because everything that has happened on the ground - or that seems to have happened in their eyes - has been so much worse than they expected. New settlements are being built and other settlements are being expanded on their land. People see the roadblocks they have to contend with. They realize they are having a far worse time of it now than before the peace process. Their standard of living and their income have gone down. They have far less of a chance of getting a job. There are all sorts of problems in everyday life now which are caused by the Israeli refusal to change the status quo. This seems to be a very hypocritical or fake policy. The negotiations are perceived by most Palestinians to be a matter of Israel winning time; meanwhile, the settlements are being expanded so as to give the Israelis a definite hold over the occupied territories. So if the Palestinian state ever does come into being, it will never be viable. This is how it seems. Israel cannot honestly be negotiating on giving back a land to a people if at the same time it is entrenching itself deeper and deeper in it. It does not make sense.

Rachel Cohen: I am optimistic, but I think it's going to be very difficult. This mutual blaming, and maybe even this hatred, is really deep, really far-reaching, and demonization will exist forever. I don't think it will ever disappear from the world. But towards peace I am optimistic all the same.

Amichai Man: I think it is getting better, if Arafat and Barak can dialogue, and if people who were once fighting each other can now shake hands. For me, a few years ago Arafat was terrorist No. 1. Now he's trying to make peace. So I think the majority of the people are going to stop hating each other.

Samer Obeid: Why not say Arafat was a freedom fighter?

Amichai Man: I'm talking about five or ten years ago. Arafat and his army hated the State of Israel. I had never given a thought to the Palestinian people. Maybe I should have, but when the Intifada started, it was very bad for me, because I was looking at it from my side. I never met Palestinian people. I never thought about the problems in the refugee camps. It was bad for me because I couldn't travel the roads freely.

Samer Obeid: Didn't you think, Why are these people doing these things to us? Why are they throwing stones? Why do they make Intifada?

Amichai Man: Now I am thinking about it. Now I see there was a good purpose. There was progress because of the Intifada. Arafat has a different face for me now, and I guess Barak has a different face for you.

Samer Obeid: You can't call Arafat a terrorist because he had a purpose.

Deganit Avital: That's the way he looked at it then.

Samer Obeid: I know what he means.

Avi Levi: Are you still afraid of each other?

Jamal Nusseibeh: I was never afraid of Israelis. Why should I be afraid?

Rachel Cohen: I'm afraid in certain situations, yes. For example, in certain West Bank villages, but not all. But it's not that in general I feel afraid of Palestinians.

Jamal Nusseibeh: If an Israeli soldier is shooting at me I'm afraid because he's got a gun and wants to kill me, but not because he's an Israeli.

Samer Obeid: I think Israelis without guns, without soldiers' uniforms, are friendly people. But when they're in uniform and carrying a gun, they're different people. If you go to Jaffa Road and talk to them and deal with them, they're very friendly. But at the checkpoint you feel they're different people, the way they talk to you.

Rachel Cohen: You feel there are different kinds of Israelis? Or the person on Jaffa Road can be the same person at the checkpoint?

Samer Obeid: When he's a soldier he becomes a different man, and treats you like you're his enemy. The same man, when he's not a soldier will be different.

Deganit Avital: When you don't know enough of the other, then you feel fear. But when you know people, then I don't think you're afraid of them.

Jamal Nusseibeh: But fear implies you have something to lose, and most Palestinians feel they have very little to lose.

Avi Levi: Do you have questions to ask each other?

Deganit Avital: Would any one of the Palestinians here marry a Jewish girl?

Samer Obeid: Two generations ago they used to marry each other. I met an Israeli girl and went out with her for two weeks, but her parents -

Deganit Avital: Let's say the parents would accept you.

Samer Obeid: Yes. If I fell in love with her I would marry her. There was no objection from my side. Their side made all the problems. A human being is a human being. Nationality or religion don't matter. If you love the person there's no problem.

Taleb Barakat: I don't think so. Not because she's an Israeli, but just because of religious background. If the parents have different religions, the chidren will really be confused.

Samer Obeid: Would you marry a Palestinian man?

Deganit Avital: I would really think hard about it, not because of religion, but mainly because of society today. It would be very hard for my children, if they're Arabic and Jewish, to live in this society. The same with religion. Which school would they go to? What holidays would we celebrate? In this country I think it would be very hard.

Amichai Man: There will be peace. And after peace, there will be trade. Each nation will be independent. Will the peace last?

Samer Obeid: If we get our rights, the peace will last. But we want East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. We need the settlements out of the West Bank. We need our refugees to come back from Jordan, from Egypt, from Lebanon.

Rachel Cohen: Do they want to come back?

Jamal Nusseibeh: The existence of the refugees has been built now, for three generations, on the dream of returning home. That's the only way they sustain themselves while living in the worst conditions imaginable: in tents or corrugated sheds, with no services, no rights, no citizenship, no nothing. Just sitting there waiting for a magic wand to bring them back home and make things right again.