In March I returned from a trip to Palestine, my third. A friend asked "Where did you go?" "Palestine," I said. "But, there is no Palestine," she replied. "Yes, there is. I was there. Didn't you get my postcard from Bethlehem?" "Oh, I've also visited Bethlehem. It's in Israel." "No," I said, exasperated, "it's separated from Israel by a 30-foot Wall and the IDF." So it went, as we talked past each other.
I don't think I convinced her - not even with the pictures of the Wall, the checkpoint, the soldiers. To Nina, to most Americans, and, I fear, to the President, there is no Palestine and there are, therefore, no Palestinians deserving of the same freedom and dignity enjoyed by Israelis…and by us.
But, I know better. I have met the Palestinians, broken bread with them, prayed with them, stood with them as they faced the soldiers, listened to their stories. And everywhere – from Hebron to Jenin – I listened to their outrage at our February veto of a UN Security Council resolution that, echoing international law and our own U.S. government position, would have declared illegal the Israeli settlements that command nearly every Palestinian hilltop and called for the resettlement – to Israel - of the half million Israeli Jews who live in them. I also experienced how the possibilities of the Arab Awakening swirling around them had seeped into the psyches of young Palestinians and filled them with hope and a palpably fearless defiance – not just of Israel, but of Fatah, Hamas, and, yes, us…of all the powers that be that had for so long deprived them of their human dignity. From them I heard one word over and over – Hurriya! Freedom!
This combination of hope – of achievable possibility – and fearlessness is powerful. It has created what IDF spokesman Brigadier-General Yoav Mordecha has called "a very different reality" in and around Palestine. There is a whiff of Morocco's "Green March" and our own Freedom Riders in the march of unarmed Palestinian refugees toward the barbed wire and guns…and home…beyond the border between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights at Majdal Shams. And there is an echo of Gandhi in the non-violent "White Intifada" that seems to be taking hold in the towns and villages of the West Bank and even Gaza.
Speaking of the border breaches at Majdal Shams, one Israeli military analyst said "A barrier of fear has been crossed." He meant that the unarmed Palestinians who stormed the border - and those who demonstrated around the West Bank and in Jerusalem - no longer fear the IDF or the consequences of their actions. The Arab Spring has reached Palestine...and Israel, and, among Palestinians, courage has replaced fear.
In Israel, however, fear has been replaced by panic. Discipline and dignity, it seems, is crumbling in the face of a qualitatively new situation and increasingly giving way to the sort of mob action displayed by the IDF in any number of now viral videos. The scenes of the killings at Majdal Shams (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekgkuAaTjPg) and the beatings of unarmed youngsters – many of them Israelis – at Nabi Saleh (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPlLc9uge-0) conjure up memories of Kent State and a police riot in Chicago. And, once again, the whole world is watching.
One has the sense of an unraveling in progress - of a formerly confident, increasingly less democratic Israeli state and of the impotent, hypocritical stance of the U.S. vis-a-vis the conflict. Both countries are increasingly isolated and in retreat as September approaches, when, Israeli and American protestations aside, the United Nations will recognize a new independent state of Palestine. Then what? A denouement is approaching. Knowing better than us what will happen in the next weeks and months - and, more importantly, what may not happen - George Mitchell has thrown in the towel on a failed policy based on a fantasy that there is no Palestine worth talking about and that its non-people can continue to be ignored.
The cognitive dissonance between that fantasy and the reality I have seen with my own eyes threatens insanity. And policies based on insanity threaten disaster…for us, for the Palestinians, and for the Israelis. For the sake of us all, Mr. President, please wake up. Please shake free of the fantasy. Please do what reality demands. Our peace depends on it.