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Reporter’s notebook: The promised land, haunted by its past, chasing moments of clarity

Reporter’s notebook: The promised land, haunted by its past, chasing moments of clarity

STEPHEN GROOTES has just spent a week in Israel and returned with a head full of contradictions, confusion and one moment of clarity. A strange week that was. This is his terribly personal confession.

I have always avoided the Middle East as an issue on which to report because there’s been no upside in getting involved. The extreme reactions you get to anything you say amounts to a kind of censorship, and I have quite frankly resented the amount of airtime it gets in our media. That is why mostly I have confined myself to smaller pieces about individuals I met while in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I first heard about the promised and benighted land literally through the words of a massive Illustrated Bible, literally at my father’s knee. This means already my views come from a certain place.

(In writing about this issue I realise I am going to get a reaction. I probably won’t react to it, because I don’t want to get sidetracked from my normal sphere. Besides, I have an ANC Youth League conference to look forward to.)

On arriving in Israel, I was reminded very much of Harry Harrison’s sci-fi novel “Deathworld” (available for free download here). There were enough teenage males on the planet in 1960  to make sure it was a bestseller. It was about an effete gambler who ends up on a world called Pyrrus, where the gravity is twice as strong, and the humans are twice as tough. Pyrrans are strong, muscular and gruff in their approach to everything. There’s no fun, no enjoyment, just survival. Israelis are a bit like that. There’s no obesity, everyone has shoulders like John Smit. In the book, it turns out that every single non-human organism on the planet is at war with the humans, the colonisers, and is trying to kill them. I presume you get the analogy by now.

But, of course, it is all hideously complicated. A trip into Jerusalem is a trip into one’s Sunday school class. There is a place in which you can touch a part of a boulder on which the cross allegedly stood, where Jesus was (supposedly) crucified. Then you have the Israeli tour guide who takes you 3,000 years down under the Temple. Bear in mind this is under the Western Wall. “Facts” come at you like a crusade. On the Israeli side there’s a very high regard for things that are written down. It suits them. And it seems the longer their experts have control of the ground, the more evidence they find to support their view.

This a land of extraordinary people. That’s not surprising, we know the more the adversity, the more complicated the conflict, the stronger the people produced. Both sides produce Pyrrans. Early on, we were told that if we “have a moment of clarity, enjoy it”. It’s a good advice. Unfortunately, too many people can cling to that moment for the rest of their lives.

An obvious example is a mayor of a community of Jewish “settlers”, people who take pride in living almost on the neck of Palestinian communities. Shaul Goldstein claims “democracy is not in the culture of Palestinians”. Things are about black and white for him.

Unfortunately the same “clarity” comes from a lawyer, one who works for the Israeli foreign ministry. Sarah Wiess Maudie is one of the people who advised the Israeli navy about how to stop the Turkish ship that attempted to break the blockade of Rafah last year. “Good fences make good neighbours” is what she says. This from someone who identified herself as one half of the “ultimate yuppie couple”. You want to throw her argument out with indignant haste. How dare she say such a stupid thing. Surely “good fences” just lead to distrust, to fear, to violence. We know that.

Except, it is not that simple. She has a two-year-old child, and that baby spent time in bomb shelters during the last period of rockets being fired by Hezbollah into Israel. As someone with a child of a similar age, I can’t help but feel I might want to get “them” too.

Maudie’s clarity is hammered home by about 500 shoes. They are at Yad Vashem. The museum of the Holocaust. Amid the grim numbers of death, the pictures and testimonies of what happened is a display of shoes. They were worn by prisoners in the death camps. Each one is nearly worn through. Further down is an exhibit you walk through in the dark. As a dim sparkle of light is extinguished, a funereal voice intones a name, a nationality, and an age. Many are below the age of one, many more under the age of 10. That voice must be on every day for most of the day. It probably takes at least a week before it sounds the same name again. And that is just to  commemorate the children.

If you think that by this point I was in favour of a Jewish state, you’d probably be right. I’d never really thought about it before, but it made sense.

Across the “good fence”, the structure that is part Berlin Wall, part fence, the world is not as different as you might think. It’s dustier, it is poorer, but the air is the same. The people are more Joel Stransky than John Smit.

One of the people tasked with mastering the Palestinian back line is Nabeel Shaath. He’s best known for being Fatah’s foreign minister, was actually prime minister for a grand total of nine days, and is the most fun you can have over lunch without taking anything intoxicating. Charming, well read, possibly the most well-informed person I’ve ever met. Knows everyone. Personally.

He has two things just about everyone else in this part of the world lacks. A sense of humour and an understanding of the other side. He reads the Israeli papers first every day, he needs to understand their society more than his own, he takes time here to mourn the recent move to the right in Israeli society. He also needs to answer questions about whether his movement, Fatah can really run a government with Hamas. The two have recently signed a peace agreement. He is secular, Hamas is definitively not. Shaath says it all going to be about forgiveness, the twinkle in his eye gets going when he says, “Oh, it’s like this, our man will go to their man and beg forgiveness, their man will say to our man, yes I will forgive you, but to save our man’s honour he will ask for a million dollars. To save his honour our man will offer two million. Then their man will say he cannot take money from an honourable man and they will shake hands. Done.” There’s a loud chuckle as he reaches for a jug of green mint tea.

He gives every impression that clarity is a waste of time. But charming journalists is what he does. It’s a major part of his job.

What he will agree on, though, is a point of clarity made by one of his comrades.

It is the only point of clarity that I have had. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions Movement provided it. It is this:

No society anywhere has been successful and sustainable in the long term, based on classifying people.

Simple, isn’t it?

This would mean the Jewish people must give up the idea of a Jewish state, which they most definitely are not going to do. I don’t know if I would.

There are some moments when this curtain of despair is pierced. Up on Gilboa Ridge a deputy mayor, who happens to be an Arab, has been able to convince his mayor, a Labour member, to meet with Qadura Mousa, Palestinian governor of neighbouring Jenin. The two have reached an accommodation. Israelis cross the border to get their cars and teeth fixed, and Palestinians cross to work. Brilliant, the quicker we move from “bloody Arab” and “bloody Jew” to “bloody mechanic” and “bloody customer”, the better. It’s an example of where “good borders” are broken down to allow some integration. Tony Blair was so pleased when he saw this he rang up both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmud Abbas to make sure they knew about it.

But the local Israeli army commander closes our curtain again when asked what Palestinians need to cross the border. “A permit”. How do they get this permit? “A letter from their Jewish employer.” Does that bring back a bad memory anyone?

Another possible hint of light comes from an Israeli Arab hotel owner in Nazareth. Basheer Abdul Razek has 1,000 rooms already, and is building more. Now the town of Nazareth should be teeming with hotel rooms. Hello, the American market alone for trips there must be huge. But no, there is no such thing, primarily because of politics. He believes the only thing that will sort all of this out is economic cooperation. (On this, as a capitalist website, we agree – Ed.)

Perhaps then the solution is not two states, and not one state. Perhaps it’s a state with porous economic borders, that allow people and ideas to cross freely, where they can meet and mingle and mix and fight over money rather than religion. It’s a decision the rest of the world has already started to make. The nation state concept’s best days are well behind it, as regional blocs, the EU, our own SADC start to take economic shape.

For this to work, everyone is going to have just let the past go. Bury the history. There’s enough blood to cover it up. It’s what we did.

Many compromises were made for our own peace. One of them was the simple fact that  the ANC swallowed the immorality of letting whites keep their ill-gotten gains. They realised that, despite the fact whites would live better lives for generations to come than black people, freedom for black people was more important. They looked forward rather than looking back. They realised the economy would sort it all out in the end. We’re all still holding our breath until that “end”. But we had it easy, we had good leaders. And good will and emotional intelligence and the ability to see the other side.

In Harrison’s “Deathworld” his Pyrrans achieve only a temporary victory, there is a truce for a time. He chose the name of his planet and his imaginary race well, as the psychological walls that had been created took too long to break down. It didn’t end too well for the Pyrrans.

Walls can take longer to break down than they do to create.

Thank God I’m South African.

What have Gwede and Julius been up to while I was away? DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: A religious Jewish man prays during a special prayer for rain at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest prayer sites, in Jerusalem’s Old City November 29, 2010. REUTERS/Baz Ratner


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