Khaled Diab
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
August 29, 2011 - 12:00am

Last week’s coordinated terror attacks in the South were a tragedy, and my condolences go out to the bereaved families of the victims. Continued violence is not the answer to this conflict, and targeting civilians is a war crime – for good reason – regardless of who commits it or why.

While Israel’s grief and anger are understandable, its predictable decision to respond to terror with military attacks is not, especially since, in this decades-old conflict, every ugly action is seen as a justified reaction to a perceived uglier precedent.

Bombing Gaza, like the cruel blockade against the Strip, is a form of collective punishment made all the more unjust by the fact that Israel decided Gazans were guilty until proven innocent, even though evidence is emerging that the unknown attackers were probably not Palestinians. Equally predictably, Islamic militants in Gaza responded with a barrage of primitive and inaccurate rockets against civilian targets – another form of unjustifiable collective punishment.

In addition, Israel’s decision to trample Egypt’s sovereignty by shooting a number of border guards was not only illegal but incredibly reckless.

What if Egypt had decided to respond in kind by crossing the border to apprehend the killers? Fortunately we don’t have to speculate about that, because Egypt responded sensibly and called for an apology and a joint investigation – something Israel should have done after the attacks from Sinai.

What this futile and bloody exchange of fire illustrates is that an eye for an eye achieves nothing except the kind of blind rage that keeps the bloody cycle turning, and that is why I believe Palestinians and Israelis should reject all forms of violence.

The past few days have also set in motion an ugly war of words among Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians. With so much animosity and hate in the air, as an antidote, I would like to invite Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs to engage in a thought experiment in which they write a short passage on what they admire about the other side.

Here are my suggestions.

ISRAELIS In a little over six decades of existence, Israel has built itself into a prosperous, democratic and technologically advanced society, not to mention a cultural melting pot. The successful revival of the Hebrew language also has to count as an impressive success story.

All this is made the more remarkable by the fact that it has achieved this while being in a constant state of conflict, and following the near-extinction of European Jewry.

While a number of Arab regimes traditionally used the conflict with Israel to limit freedoms, Israel has managed to build a fairly vibrant democracy, especially for its Jewish citizens, despite the passage of some repressive legislation in recent years, such as the Nakba and the anti-boycott laws.

Moreover, despite the disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Israelis enjoy – unofficial discrimination notwithstanding – more or less equivalent rights with their Israeli compatriots, and greater rights than enjoyed by Arabs elsewhere in the region.

By Middle Eastern standards, Israel has an admirable record on freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent, though its media freedom ranking has taken a battering in recent years (93rd out of 178 countries) due to military censorship and restrictions on the movement of journalists. The gap between it and some of its Arab neighbors is also narrowing in light of the Arab Spring.

This respect for freedom of thought, along with a culture that prizes creativity, has transformed this small country into the Middle East’s science and innovation powerhouse. One recent index ranked Israel 14th in the global innovation stakes, while another placed it in the top group of “global innovation leaders.”

On the individual level, though Israelis can behave with an overconfident swagger and be direct to the point of rudeness, there is a refreshing honesty in their manner, and beyond this lack of surface gloss lies a keen sense of Mediterranean warmth and hospitality. Mixed in with this individualism is a traditional Jewish sense of solidarity that kicks in during times of need.

PALESTINIANS Steadfastness is perhaps the word that best captures the spirit of the Palestinian experience over the past 60-odd years, whether in exile or under Israeli control, and a sense of irretrievably lost worlds, similar to that felt by the remnants of European Jewry, permeates Palestinian art, culture and conscience.

Palestinians have been betrayed and let down by just about everyone, yet remain resolute survivors and resourceful adaptors, as reflected in the daily struggle of West Bankers and Gazans to live in dignity, and for the most part peacefully strive for freedom, amid the degradation of occupation.

Despite having to endure the double oppression of occupation and domestic repression, Palestinians demonstrate an admirable determination to advance themselves as individuals and as a nation.

A number of prominent Palestinian tycoons, including the “Palestinian Rothschild” Munib al- Masri, have even taken a leaf out of the Zionist manual and are engaged in quiet background “nation-building” in preparation for their eventual independence.

This determination in the face of adversity is reflected in the fact that Palestinians, despite restrictions on their access to education, are said to be the most educated people in the Arab world.

This is particularly so in the Palestinian diaspora, which is gradually growing to resemble its Jewish counterpart in terms of education and economic well-being.

For instance, without the massive exodus of Palestinian professionals, intellectuals and entrepreneurs to neighboring Jordan, the country may have remained a backwater rather than the relatively prosperous and modern society it has become. Prior to their expulsion from Kuwait, Palestinians played a pivotal role in that emirate’s development.

Further afield, Palestinians in the US, along with Arab-Americans in general, are the most educated and best-paid minority, according to a recent survey.

Similarly to Israel’s political landscape, Palestinian politics, though less free, have traditionally been dominated by secularists, despite a parallel rise of religious extremism on both sides.

One of the reasons behind this long secularist tradition is the pluralistic nature of the Palestinian population, which is not only divided between a Muslim majority and a significant Christian minority, but made up of numerous ethnic groups.

In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis have a proud tradition of integration and tolerance that, if utilized successfully, can bode well for a future of coexistence.

The writer is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist and blogger currently living in Jerusalem.


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