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Dakhla: The meeting point where dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis is taking place

In the face of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citizens from both sides come together to condemn the violence and call for rapprochement as the only way out of an entrenched conflict
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AP/MAHMOUD ILLEAN  -   Masked Palestinians hang the national flag during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, April 29, 2022

The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, far from being resolved, has intensified. Neither the Oslo Accords nor the resolutions to achieve peace have been able to reduce the violence that plagues Israel and the Palestinian territories. Political discourse remains frozen at the same point. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian political narrative has changed. Likewise, neither has there been any attempt to find common ground to end the situation.

Political discourses flood with hatred and rancour a scenario already damaged by its history. Both sides claim what they consider to be theirs through a route that has turned out to be the only one promoted by the political spheres: violence. Indeed, this is the only "viable" option we are used to seeing in this conflict. The Accords have not led to peace, and other alternatives have not even been presented. This was explained to EFE by the advisor during the negotiations, Ilan Baruch, who declared that "from a conceptual point of view, we made history, because for the first time Israelis and Palestinians made an effort to resolve the conflict bilaterally" but, in reality, "it would have been necessary to recognise the Palestinian state", he regretted.

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ATALAYAR/GUILLERMO LÓPEZ - United Religions Initiative event held in Dakhla

However, despite the fact that they are not shown, there are other realities. At the United Religions Initiative (URI) forum held in Dakhla, Palestinians and Israelis shared discussion tables and common spaces with a single aim: to demonstrate that not only do the voices of their respective politicians exist, but that they want to be part of the change to make way for the construction of scenarios where coexistence is peaceful, despite the difficulties that this entails.

Reuven Hanan Stone, a member of the Jewish organisation "Roots", who currently lives in the Jewish Quarter in the south-west of the Old City of Jerusalem, is clear about this situation. Despite being Jewish, he is openly critical of the oppression of the Palestinian community and adds that this situation is made worse because "Jews and Palestinians do not listen to each other and do not try to understand each other. From the speeches made by both sides the theme is the same: to protect each other in the midst of a rhetoric that is plagued by fear". 

He stresses that understanding "is already happening in Jerusalem all the time through many people. There are things that are happening and nobody knows about them outside because the media is not interested. The media after all is a business and what sells is war, destruction, occasionally a personal story, but nobody is going to write about the work that people are doing all day and every day to bring peace between Palestinians and Israelis".
 

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PHOTO - Reuven Hanan Stone

"Among Jews we have a saying: two Jews, three opinions. Imagine that among millions of people, there are millions of opinions, the same in Palestine. There is not just one unified opinion. Even if there is some unified opinion, for example, about the past or history, people have completely different ideas about how that can impact the present and the future. Some people say we just need justice, others advocate mercy. Others say leave the past behind as long as they recognise a state of Palestine". 

Asked about the raison d'être of the URI meetings, Hanan says that this is why "the theme of this conference is so important and incredible. Not only for interfaith dialogue but to prevent violent extremism through it. I cannot be false, I am a Jew and I can say that there is an occupation going on in territories that the Palestinians consider theirs and at the same time I can think that those territories are also sacred to us. For me all the stories in the Torah may be true, but that doesn't mean that I have to pretend that there is no occupation going on. The occupation is happening and we are not predestined to do that damage. The Jews did not return to their homeland after thousands of years to oppress other people".

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AFP/ ABBAS MOMANI - Israeli border guards and their vehicles take position near the settlement of Beit El, at the northern entrance to the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, 29 May 2022

Hanan is critical of what is being committed against the Palestinian community and thinks, despite the "historical" suffering of the Jewish community, it does not justify what is being done against the Palestinians. "In the Holocaust we were almost annihilated, more than a third of our people were destroyed. There used to be 18 million Jews and now there are 14.5 million. There were more Jews in 1939 than there are now. The fear is very real, but for many years we have been living at the expense of the Palestinians," he says.

From the other side, and sitting next to Reuven Hanan, a young Palestinian woman from Bethlehem who prefers to remain anonymous, says she has "always wanted to be at the meeting point between Israelis and Palestinians. I think it's very important that there are meetings between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as other countries in the region. We learn from each other, from each community," she says.

She explains that in such encounters you have the opportunity "to see the other person on a personal level, from a human side, to talk about their personal lives is very important. Most of my exposure to Israelis would be the soldiers at the checkpoints, when we meet in programmes like this we have the opportunity to talk to people who are not soldiers, or who are no longer soldiers. Getting to know people, after all. 

She agrees with Reuven Hanan that "when we get to know each other from a personal side, we try to understand the other person and what they are trying to accomplish. What their goals are. Nobody becomes an extremist if they are not being harmed. There is a reason why people become violent or extremist. So it is important to understand what the problem is, to talk about it and to have this dialogue".

As for the one-state or two-state solution, she states that she "doesn't care too much if it's called Palestine or Israel. Be creative, call it something different and let us all live under one country, with the same government, where everybody has the same rights. Let there be no discrimination based on religion or ethnicity. The state has nothing to do with religion, that would be the perfect world for me". 

She believes that "the first step to achieve something and change is for people to sit together and get to know each other. In the beginning I only had the imaginary of Israelis as policemen or soldiers, but not as people, without the weapons. When I started to meet people from Israel I started to believe that we are all the same. We get up in the morning, we brush our teeth... we do the same things. 

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ATALAYAR/GUILLERMO LÓPEZ - Gateway to the coastal city of Dakhla

We are all human, but we don't see it because of how we have grown up. The two of us are neighbours, we're like 10 minutes away from each other, but we're so far away from each other. It's so hard for us to get together. It's easier for Reuven to come and see me than for me to come and see him because I need permission".

"Just starting a dialogue first is really important because it changes your perspective on the other person. When he goes back to his community he will at least talk to his close people. He will tell them: I have met this person and they are like this, not like they make us believe... These are micro changes that can change the mentality of the other person, they can normalise it and of course we can go a step further to fix things. For me, the conference, the dialogue, even if you don't do anything official, talking about it to your community is enough because you change people's perspective," she says.

Reuven continues in the same vein. He relates that hurting Palestinians "is not our destiny. It is not what we want to do, but we are doing it and we have to be honest with ourselves and understand that this is happening now. We have to change the situation, this is not automatic, it is very complicated and it is painful, but it is not a science, this is human rights. And we as humans have the power and the responsibility to do something different, to act differently and to change it". 

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AFP/MOSAB SHAWER - Israeli army soldiers take aim during clashes with Palestinian protesters following a demonstration to denounce the annual nationalist "flag march" through Jerusalem

He argues that "what we need to do is to know the other person's past, to know their pain and suffering and not to compare. Forget the discourse of my pain is worse than yours or I have suffered more. I know people who have lost their homes and now there are Jews living there, their pain is very real".

He laments, however, that Jews would argue that "our pain is greater because we have been persecuted for thousands of years. That collective trauma has shaped how we see ourselves and how we relate to each other. We should neither fight nor compare. We are both right and we both need to create space for each other and understand each other's pain. When you understand that you can understand their fear and wonder what they want, what their dreams are, what we can do."

"Demonstrating that peace and cooperation at all levels will benefit everyone. The reason we are further and further away from peace is because the agreements we reach, nobody is following them and nobody is respecting them. For the Palestinians their lives, even with these agreements, have become worse. There are now even more checkpoints and more military interventions," he says. 

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AFP/SAID KHATIB - Palestinians wave national flags during a protest in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis over tensions at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque

As for the existence of the current wall separating Jerusalem from the Palestinian territories, Hanan says, "the wall is perpetuating the conflict". Jerusalem is one of the big economic centres, thousands of businesses are closed, people have worse living conditions, worse economy, more desperation, you have less to lose and if in that context a terrorist organisation appears with its propaganda, young people are more vulnerable to believe in it because they tell themselves that they have no other options". 

He points out that if he says these statements in many circles in Israel ""people will claim that by trying to understand the motivations, I am thereby justifying terrorism (which I am not). You have to find a way to communicate and that's why I'm here. I think dialogue is important, but it is not enough. We also need action, but action alone will not do anything"

In relation to the violence carried out by both sides he states that "there are no purely evil people, we have been taught that we have to do so through violence. It is the only way to protect ourselves and horrible things have been done to the Palestinians with that rhetoric. They think that's defending themselves".

Asked about the violence at Al-Aqsa and at the celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's national day commemorating the independence of the state of Israel, he says that "the only framing that goes on is from the few people who are violent. On Jerusalem Day, for example, Israeli citizens do not support violence against the Palestinian community. The people who provoke these episodes of violence don't even live in Jerusalem, they come on that day specifically. People come to provoke". 

"There is an urgency for the Palestinians, they are under continuous threats, they are not allowed to build houses either. We can never have a healthy country if we maintain the occupation. From the privilege we have we should do good things. We should use the position of power in this context. We have a massive military investment from the US that helps us to maintain that occupation. We have to use our position of privilege to do good and to help the most vulnerable," he concludes.

Tzvi Rozemman lives in Tel Aviv. His son was the victim of a terrorist attack 20 years ago by a Palestinian extremist. He detonated his bomb waistcoat and killed several people. Rozemman's son was fortunate to survive, but his injuries were multiple and he had to undergo repeated operations.
 

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ATALAYAR/GUILLERMO LÓPEZ - Tzvi Rozemman

However, Rozemman holds no grudges. He talks about the importance of "not seeking revenge". We have to make the Palestinians feel that we don't want to kill them, he says. The Jews in Israel say: they are going to kill us. If we let them do this or that they will hurt us. Many in Israel believe this rhetoric. People are afraid to walk in the street in East Jerusalem because they believe that Arabs are walking around with a knife".

He says he knows Arabs "most of them are from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and have never seen an Israeli in their life. I can represent people who don't want to hate, people who see others as human. Getting to know each other. You don't have to let history and memories rule you. You don't have to claim your memories in every argument of the past. We do that with Palestinians and vice versa. You have to forgive, accept that it is the past. If you want a future for your children and grandchildren, that's the only way". 

"Ignorance creates conflict. Knowledge and familiarity ends hatred. Hatred is an unnatural feeling for people. In Israel there are a million Arabs. Many of them speak Hebrew and are connected to the Israeli power group," he says.

 For Moroccan Safaa Ikaz, this is the first time she has attended such an event. She is excited and declares that such encounters are made to achieve "wonderful things". She points out that "we are in a region where many of the conflicts are over religion. The aim of this event is to bring people from the area and from other regions to come together and talk about their conflicts and try to find solutions"

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ATALAYAR/GUILLERMO LÓPEZ - Safaa Ikaz

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ikaz says that "the first step to finding a solution is to bring them to the same table. If they refuse to sit at the same table, the solution would be unattainable. We have people here who have dedicated their lives to this cause. The people who are here are like a symbol of hope for the region. They are part of the solution and part of the change". 

The fact that there are "Palestinians and Israelis talking together is unusual. It's something you won't see in other places. If they were in their own country they wouldn't be able to do this kind of thing. Sitting down, talking together. When you talk to people, for example, from Israel you think they're going to be very nationalistic, but I've been surprised. I've talked to Jews here and they are very empathetic to the Palestinian cause. They are activists and try to encourage that integration. It's amazing, we need more people like that". 

She relates that "not everyone is the enemy. Some are. Politicians, for example, want it to be perceived that way. But at the end of the day the reality is that they are people, they are human. Peace in Jerusalem is very difficult, but I hope to see Jerusalem coexisting in peace".

Perhaps meetings like this are the hope that participants believe a solution can be found. As Hanan said, these meetings "show another reality that is there, but is not given a voice". Changing the narrative is, for them, the beginning of changing a status quo that is frozen and maintained by the political sphere. For them, this political and social situation can no longer be sustained, nor do they want to continue to be part of it.