Hatred in the Middle East cannot be signed away by politicians — not while it’s still taught to the children, says Suzanne Glass (Financial Times)
If I close my eyes I can see it still. The hands of those two men historically clasped on the White House Lawn. Both of them, Palestinian president Yassir Arafat and the since·assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, their eyes slightly averted as they shook one another’s hand as if they themselves could not quite believe what was happening.
With Clinton as their best man, the Israelis and the Palestinians were joined in a plan for peace; arch-enemies in the pursuit of a common goal.
These were the most historic Middle Eastern concessions since the agreement signed at that very same desk between the late prime minister Menachem Begin of Israel and the since·assassinated president Anwar Sad at of Egypt.
The world watched as Arafat and Rabin signed the “marriage register”. The world shed tears of joy. I made some cynical comment. My friends looked daggers at me.
Almost immediately after this I was sent on a series of journalistic assignments to the Middle East. In· the rightwing settlements on the West Bank I visited several Israeli families. Here there were no tears of joy, but rather tears of fury.
“Rahin is a traitor for agreeing to give land to the Palestinians. This is our land. It says so in the Bible,” one settler told me. “Rabin should be shot.” And so he was. By a fellow Israeli.
My assignment on the West Bank was followed by a trip to Gaza to interview Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi. She said she wished fervently for peace. In the light of the peace talks she seemed upbeat, optimistic even.
As I was driven back through the streets of the Palestinian town and approached the Israeli border I was dazzled by the light and the noise. The way was strewn with burning tyres. Palestinian youths were yelling.
“What are they chanting?” I asked the driver.
He hesitated before he spoke: “Burn the Jews,” he said.
On my next visit to Gaza I spoke to several Palestinian women. Two were teachers. They told me the words of a song they taught to the little children in their kindergarten. It went something like this: “When I grow up I’m going to be just like my Daddy. I’m going to throw great big stones. When I grow up I’m going to be just like my Daddy. I’m going to smash the Jews’ brains out..”
On a bus in Israel on my way to a garden party hosted by intellectuals and politicians some weeks later, two fresh-faced soldiers were entertaining themselves chanting a similarly vile song that celebrated aggression towards the Palestinians.
I arrived at the garden party, the conversations between the great and the good with wine glasses in their hands were optimistic.
The message that wafted between the trees was clear. Peace was a real possibility.
Over the past years, acts of aggression have peppered the path of the peace process. A Palestinian soldier or two bas been shot through the brains. An Israeli or two has been splattered on the pavement outside a cafe. But this peace process, with a leg blown off here or there, has marched on, defiant and determined on paper.
And so now, suddenly everyone is in shock. How in the name of God or Jihad could Israel and Palestine have come so dangerously close to war?
OK, so the Palestinians kidnapped a couple of Israelis, burnt another couple and tossed one from the window. OK, so the Israeli soldiers shot a few Palestinians and a 12-year-old boy. But the threat of war? How could there he war? There’s a peace process isn’t there? In black ink on white parchment. Arafat and Rabin shook hands didn’t they? They, the big cheeses, the politicians, agreed to peace in the Middle East. Just like Tony Blair and Gerry Adams agreed to peace in Northern Ireland.
And I don’t mean to say, “I told you so – I was sceptical from the start”, but I just find this incredulity about the status quo in the Middle East more than a little bizarre.
I find it strange that we have craned our necks up high and have been measuring the success of the peace process by handshakes, signatures and political protestations rather than looking down and taking the temperature of Middle Eastern peace on the ground.
Recent horrors, in my view, are par for the course. A natural progression of events, if you’ll forgive the cynicism. Inculcated hatred between peoples cannot just be signed away in Mont Blancs and Watermans on dotted lines on the White House lawn. It needs to be signed away in white chalk by five-year-olds on the blackboards of Middle Eastern kindergartens.