Ha'aretz, August 1, 1999
Pop in for a visitBy Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz
New government, new intentions. Here is some free advice to ministers and policymakers. Pop in for a visit with the Palestinians. Get in your Volvos and take a 15-minute drive - an hour at most - east or south of your offices. Go see the refugee camps, the demolition of homes, the unemployment and roadblocks and afterwards we'll talk. Talk to the Palestinians you meet on the way - they will probably be very courteous - and only afterwards make final decisions on your positions. Open your eyes, prick up your ears and for once listen to the hardships of the other side. Any passerby you happen to come across and any home you choose to visit will tell you the same story. The gist of it is the suffering of life under the occupation, the economic situation, the harassment, the daily humiliations, the son in jail, the nephew killed, the cousin tortured, the brother-in-law who left. While you have not been elected to represent them or even to solve their problems, our problems will not be solved as long as theirs are not. For many years Israelis, leaders included, have not stepped foot in the areas where the Palestinians live under occupation. Moshe Dayan, the first of the occupiers, used to visit with Palestinians, or at least with certain circles. The tradition continued for a while and then it was completely halted. Israeli politicians cut off all contact with the population living under occupation, as if it had nothing to do with them. Palestinians were left exclusively in the hands of the military occupation apparatus - as biased, military and one-sided as it might be. Meanwhile Israelis stopped doing their shopping in the cities of the West Bank and Palestinians stopped building Israelis' homes, washing their dishes and cleaning their streets. The separation materialized and took shape. Perhaps this is how it should be.
At the same time, however, most Israelis haven't got the slightest idea what a refugee camp looks like or what the day or lifestyle of his or her Palestinian counterpart looks like. The Palestinians know a great deal more about us and our lives than we know about theirs. This is how it is in the world - the occupied always takes a greater interest than the occupier. But if information is power, then the lack of information in the hands of Israeli politicians is a serious weakness. The information the average Israeli politician has about the Palestinians is limited and indirect. It comes - if at all - exclusively from intelligence and security agencies and from the press, whose coverage of the lives of our neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza is minimal.
This is insufficient. When did you last hear of an Israeli minister visiting a Palestinian villager or a Palestinian delegation to his office? There is a serious water shortage in the territories, a shortage that Israel played a major role in creating. Has even one influential Israeli politician seen the distress? Heard about it firsthand? Visited a parched Palestinian village and entered homes in which water from the faucets flows once every two weeks for just a few hours?
The Shin Bet continues to use the same bad old interrogation methods. Has an Israeli politician met with a Palestinian who was interrogated to hear what was done and to learn about the physical and emotional scars that will stay with him forever? Has any of Israel's policymakers ever visited a home demolished by the Civil Administration or met the new homeless people who lived there? Might not this type of exposure do something to change their positions?
Nava Barak visits women's health institutions and homes for distressed youth in distant Washington, but has never even entertained the notion of visiting a similar Palestinian institution right next door. Her husband, on the other hand, knows refugee camps only from the vantage point of a protected, reinforced army jeep, and then from the time our jeeps still moved around in them.
I am not talking about humane gestures of sympathy for human suffering, although such gestures may also be very beneficial. Involved here is the urgent need for the Israeli leadership, if not all Israelis, to be exposed to the daily life of Palestinians. For the police minister to hear about his police officer's behavior from the victims; for the agriculture minister to see with his own eyes what thirst for water really is; for the interior minister to meet face to face with Palestinian families torn apart because of the bureaucracy of his ministry; for the Education minister to hear what it means to prevent students from reaching their university; for the transportation minister to hear what it means to be a Palestinian driver or passenger in the land of roadblocks and permits; for the religious affairs minister to hear what it means to a Muslim when he is prevented from praying in Jerusalem or sees a mosque demolished in his village; for the environmental affairs minister to see children wallowing in sewage right next to their homes; and for the prime minister and defense minister - who once said that had he been born a Palestinian, he would join a terror group - to be exposed to the reality of life for those with whom he wants to make peace. A government that has declared that it is headed in the direction of peace must be exposed to this depressing reality.
Israel bears a sizable portion of the responsibility for this reality and that is where the future lies. A thousand agreements or permanent settlements will not help. If we do not know the reality, we will never be able to change it
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