Israeli peace activists don’t expect to be popular. Although by all accounts most Israelis do want peace and would accept any reasonable compromise, they normally react with bitter scorn and hatred for anyone who seems to cross the lines. Organizations like mine, Ta’ayush—“Jewish-Arab Partnership,” one of the most effective of the peace groups operating at the grassroots level in the occupied territories—are viewed as naïve at best, treasonous at worst. Last month’s events in Gaza confirmed everyone’s worst prejudices. “You want to make peace with them?” my neighbors asked me in supercilious tones. “Can’t you see that they’re all violent thugs? Why are you helping them?”
So this is not such a good time to try to persuade people to join me in trying to save the homes of the Palestinian shepherds and farmers of Susya, for example. It’s a long story. Susya is situated in the hills to the south of the city of Hebron on the West Bank. The Palestinians who lived there have been forcibly evicted from their homes and their land in order to make room for the large Israeli settlement that is also called Susya. Despite repeated violent expulsions at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers, these few Palestinian families have clung to a small hilltop, where they have put up some 15 tents and ramshackle huts. The state wants to destroy these last vestiges of their existence there, and the Israeli Supreme Court has recently upheld the demolition orders issued against these buildings—on purely technical and bureaucratic grounds. Palestinians in the occupied territories almost never receive permits to build, and the applications of the Susya shepherds had no real chance from the beginning. A terrible injustice is about to be inflicted, one more among so many: if we cannot find a way to stop the bulldozers, Palestinian Susya, home to innocent civilians who want only to herd their goats and till their fields, will be extinguished forever, within a few days.
So on the West Bank, these days, it is business as usual. Susya is only one small point on the map. In general, Israel continues its policy of grabbing more and more land, of fencing off Palestinian villages into tiny, discontinuous ghettos, of expanding Jewish settlements, and of “encouraging” Palestinian residents to leave by depriving them of access to markets, minimal social and medical services, and ordinary human rights. On the Israeli right, voices such as Benjamin Netanyahu’s are using the example of Gaza to rationalize this cruel policy: Israel must, says Netanyahu, maintain total control over the West Bank in order to prevent a Hamas victory there as well. Clearly, Israeli colonization of the territory and brute coercion of its inhabitants are the primary mechanisms of government policy.
And yet if ever there was a moment when Israel and the Palestinian center needed one another and could forge an alliance, that moment is now. Moderate Palestinians—the old Fatah elite and its more modern counterparts—are terrified of being overrun by a fundamentalist Hamas. In the villages all over the West Bank, local Palestinian leaders want peace—along the lines of the Saudi plan, or the Geneva document, or the Clinton bridging proposal that followed on the Camp David summit in 2000, that is, the peace of partition into two states. They are more than ready for a historic compromise, and they are willing to pay the price. Ta’ayush activists who work in the villages, who have established close relations with the village councils and activist-politicians, know this for a fact. But does official Israel have the imagination, the political will, and the courage to go beyond the familiar default of cynicism and to move toward peace?