A recent speaking tour of Canada afforded Torontonians the chance to hear a story not told by any national publications: a story of hope in the midst of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed. The Intifada (uprising) has been ongoing for two years now in Palestine and Israel and shows no sign of abating. A University of Toronto lecture on the evening of Wednesday November 20, 2002 brought rays of hope. Held at the Faculty of Law, an Israeli woman by the name of Neta Golan and a Palestinian man named George Rishmawi spoke for roughly three hours, answering questions from an interested audience during the last hour. As there were 75 people in attendance, the classroom was overflowing.
A female law student of Palestinian descent sponsored the assembly and introduced the first speaker with the honorific title “Sit Neta”. She has been given this title by the Palestinian residents themselves, as the student testified. Sit Neta is 30 years old, and, I learned later, is pregnant with her first child. She lives in Nablus (Joseph’s tomb) in the heart of the as-yet-unoccupied territories with her husband. This is unusual, as most Israeli Jews would not think of so doing. Sit Neta spoke about the popular Jewish mindset as she recounted her struggles to break free of pro-occupation ideologies and explore the other side of the tracks. She was raised as a typical Israeli and thus fed a diet of press and school teachings that trade on the Israeli belief in Palestinian savagery and pride in Israel’s moral superiority. She did not serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), coming instead to live in Toronto with her grandparents at seventeen. In typical defection style, she did not tell her parents of this decision until she was safely on these shores.
We heard of her service as a human shield – IDF soldiers are not wont to lay hands on Jewish or foreign citizens – in such campaigns as the Olive Grove Harvest. The IDF is preventing Palestinians from harvesting their olives. For many, this is their only source of income. She showed a video of one instance in which one Palestinian family sought vainly to harvest olives (as rightful owners of the grove) while 17-year-old IDF soldiers threatened them with automatic weapons, armoured personnel carriers and a bulldozer. The IDF also often bulldozes the olive trees themselves, thus depriving the farmers of their livelihood. Into this madness comes Neta with her International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers, filming or serving as buffers between opposing sides. The result is never in doubt, however. It leaves the treeless, olive-less farmers in despair, with their wives wailing and crying to the earth. The aim of the Israeli government is to make life miserable so that the Palestinians will be coerced into leaving the country, in a sort of modern-day Diaspora.
Neta told us of how her family has viewed her activism against Israeli occupation. Her father is particularly opposed to them, becoming all the more so after a suicide bomber had killed Neta’s cousin.
George Rishmawi’s father once supported himself by carving olive branches; now he is supported by his son as the Palestinian economy has been all but destroyed. George is, like Neta, dedicated fully to the ISM, from which he draws a meagre salary with which he supports his university-bound sister, parents, and soon, his wife. Like Neta, he is about thirty years of age. He is friendly and well-spoken. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have a business, import-export, manufacturing or the like.
These are no ordinary circumstances, as evidenced by the IDF tanks in his streets. He narrated as a video played of footage filmed as unarmed Palestinian civilians played cat-and-mouse games with these IDF tanks in an otherwise deserted intersection not unlike Bathurst and Bloor. The Palestinians had been under curfew and were trying to purchase necessities such as bread and toilet paper.
He told his own version of the olive harvest season, no less troubling than Neta’s. The high point of his spoken presentation was this: a hundred or so Palestinians, disobeying curfew, marched up to and entered an IDF base in broad daylight. They proceeded to march through the empty camp and one man even climbed a watchtower and placed a Palestinian flag on the flagpole, whereupon the group exited. This was all done peacefully and quietly. This was a stunning revelation: I picture it as if the Romans were off doing laundry and Asterix and the Gauls marched in, took Roman pots and pans, placed their flag and left – a calling card of sorts. An IDF spokesman was forced to say later on television that, in fact, the Palestinians had been to the wrong place and the base was further down the road. His humiliation must have been extreme.
It was this tale that gave me the most hope. If the ISM can pull this kind of trick off with regularity, they will beat both violent Israeli and Palestinian factions. What this communicated to me was a wheaten grain in an ocean of tares: cutting through layers of fear on all sides. Most Palestinians desire peace and this is their way of proving it: instead of “veni, vidi, vici (in bello)” (I came, I saw, I conquered), “veni, vidi, risi, egredi (in pax)” (I came, I saw, I laughed/smiled, I departed gracefully). If the ISM can help make this sentiment flourish, then peace will be unavoidable.
The North American press seems ready to listen. Paul Adams, reporter with the Globe and Mail has written at least two stories about a Palestinian cabinet minister who has come to see non-violence as a moral and tactical imperative (See Sept. 14: “Longtime Palestinian Minister stands as voice of moderation”, Nov. 27: “Palestinians begin to turn against suicide bombings”). The Toronto Star via the Associated Press reported on this as well in a November 29 story. (See Greg Myre: “Top Arafat aide says uprising ´a mistake’”)
The ISM’s proactive story sent me home to dream of olive branches dancing through Jerusalem streets. Neta and George can have that effect on people. It is amazing what friendship does.