Prioritising the people

At a time when Palestinian–Israeli relations are at a particularly low ebb, it might seem over-optimistic to argue that the divisions between the people on the two sides are less than they seem, and that a "people's peace process" could lead to a just solution. Yet this is what the Egyptian-Belgian journalist, author and blogger Khaled Diab does in his book "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land". By Susannah Tarbush

By Susannah Tarbush

Diab's book is published by the London-based "Guardian" newspaper as part of its non-fiction ebook series Guardian Shorts Originals. The series aims to bring readers "great stories and defining issues in ebooks that take an hour or two to read. Above all, we want our readers to have their interests piqued, their imaginations sparked and their perspectives enriched."

Diab's book amply fulfils these criteria. His writing is engaging, informative and often funny, and he introduces the reader to an impressively wide and varied cast of Israeli and Palestinian characters. Despite the brevity of the book, he manages to touch on numerous issues relating to the conflict.

Diab writes regularly for "The Guardian" and other publications in Europe, the USA and the Middle East including the liberal Israeli daily "Haaretz". His blog, The Chronikler, which he founded in 2009, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs Award for Best English-Language Blog.

In his prologue, Diab explains that when he became a journalist, he knew about the geopolitics and history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but increasingly felt the need to understand the human, societal and cultural elements "which are vital components to developing a fair, honest and helpful picture." He became convinced that greater people-to-people contact between the two sides was a necessary prelude to eventual conciliation and peace.

Khaled Diab (photo: Khaled Diab)
According to Susannah Tarbush, Diab's writing is "engaging, informative and often funny, and he introduces the reader to an impressively wide and varied cast of Israeli and Palestinian characters"

Behind the "Zion curtain"

After gaining Belgian citizenship, Diab went for his first trip behind what he terms the "Zion Curtain" in 2007. That fortnight's trip was "one of the most intense, hyper-real, even unreal experiences of my life, from finding out what Israelis were like at home to discovering that the occupation was not the only preoccupation Palestinians have." Since 2011, Diab has lived, save for one year's absence, in Jerusalem with his wife and young son.

His first chapter, entitled "The tragedy of repetition", focuses on the seven-week summer 2014 war on Gaza in which some 2,131 Palestinians, including 1,473 civilians, were killed, and 71 Israelis, all but five of them soldiers. The reactions of Palestinians and Israelis to the war suggest a hardening of opinions on both sides. Subsequent clashes and protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have fuelled speculation that we are on the verge of a third intifada: "Whether a new intifada will be peaceful like the first or violent like the second remains to be seen."

Diab is keen to show that alongside the violence, difficulties and depression for the Palestinians, there are other aspects, including satire and humour. "Irony has become my only way of expressing and describing what I'm living," says young Gazan filmmaker and journalist Aya El-Zinati.

The chapter "Introducing the Palestinians" has a section on "Culture: the art of Palestinian resistance". Diab highlights the work of Palestinians, both in Palestine and in the diaspora, in a variety of fields, including hip-hop poets, comedians, filmmakers and novelists. Festivals such as Qalandiya International and the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) are of growing importance.

In the chapter "Introducing the Israelis", Diab depicts the diversity of Israelis through interviews with people across a wide spectrum. He writes that "Israel is a living laboratory, a melting pot of different cultures and ideologies" and examines what it is to be Israeli.

Blurred identities

Cover of Khaled Diab's "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land" (source: Guardian Shorts)
"Whatever they choose, peace will only come when people are held in higher regard than the land and are empowered to pursue a peace of the people, by the people, for the people," writes Khaled Diab in his book

Diab writes that while Arab and Jew might be seen as two distinct identities, there are "plenty of groups and communities who straddle the wide chasm of conflict, whose identities are blurred and lie in the no-man's-land between the entrenched cultural forces of the two sides."

In particular, there are the Mizrahi Jews from Arab and other Middle Eastern countries, and Palestinian and other Arab citizens of Israel. Together they make up some 70 per cent of Israel's population, which is around 50 per cent Mizrahi Jewish and 20 per cent Arab.

Diab says these two groups have much in common, but admits that they have rarely joined forces over the decades. For now, "despite their huge potential to build bridges and blur identities, they are forced to stand on either side of a widening chasm."

In re-imagining the future, Diab dismisses the two-state solution as having lost the race against space to the mushrooming Israeli Jewish settlements. As for a single state solution, although the Palestinians and Israelis live in a de facto single state – albeit a largely segregated one – few Israelis wish to admit this.

Diab proposes a way of combining the two, "a single state with the bells and whistles of nationhood: a federal or confederated state." He maintains such an arrangement could draw inspiration from the Belgian model.

In the meantime, a path forward is needed, and Diab suggests what he calls the "non-state solution". Instead of the current fixation on borders and territory, "as if soil is so much thicker than blood", the focus must shift to the people. Prioritising the people necessitates turning the Palestinian struggle into a mass, non-violent civil rights movement; Israeli sympathisers would engage in co-resistance.

"Whatever they choose, peace will only come when people are held in higher regard than the land and are empowered to pursue a peace of the people, by the people, for the people," Diab asserts.

The Guardian Shorts edition of "Intimate Enemies" paves the way for a full-length version of the book due to appear later this year. Diab says: "Some chapters of the longer version follow the same basic outline, but in much greater depth. For example, the chapters on Israelis and Palestinians are 15,000–16,000 words each. There are also chapters about places in Palestine and Israel, to give the reader a real flavour of life in all its rich diversity." He will also be adding material of a more personal nature to the longer version: "How I, as a rare Egyptian here, react to the Holy Land and how it reacts to me. There's also a chapter on Egyptians in the Holy Land."

Susannah Tarbush

© 2015