Seminar in the sand

An emotional seminar in Gaza reminds me of my Solidarity days
October 19, 2000

The sea is panting. A warm, sticky, salty mist rises from the hot waves and creeps towards the land. The forecast promises 34 degrees centigrade in the shade, but there is no shade. The mist makes the the desperate landscape of Gaza-grey concrete buildings, badly laid roads, carts drawn by mangy horses-seem slightly out of focus, as if unreal. Everyone hopes for the evening desert wind.

Why are we here? Thanks to Wendy Luers. Her Foundation for a Civil Society used to support dissidents in eastern Europe. When, after 1989, they all became ministers and parliamentarians, she decided that they should share their experience with those whose countries had not yet negotiated the transition. Other countries joined in: the 1990s were full of democratic breakthroughs, as if history was making up for time bloodily wasted. And so the flying circus, called "The Project on Justice in Times of Transition," came into being, and was even adopted by Harvard University. The circus, which includes South Africans, Northern Irishmen, Poles, Salvadorians and Czechs, arranges a seminar in a pre-transition country at which the natives, who have yet to bridge their own divide, are supposed to learn from our experience. This time the circus, at the invitation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), hit Gaza.

Except that, of course, it does not work that way. Experience is not readily transferable: the knowledge of how to, say, set up a newspaper in martial-law Poland is not of very much use in Palestine. None the less, awareness of the fact that others were able to negotiate the transition, and end a bloody conflict, can be an inspiration. Further, someone fresh out of jail will not listen to the advice of a foreign do-gooder who has seen prison only on television. But if the argument that violence is unacceptable is made by a man who has spent 11 years in jail for terrorism and eventually changed his mind about violence, or if the argument about the futility of revenge is advanced by someone who lost his right arm to a secret police letter-bomb-they get listened to. They do not need to provide proof of their arguments. They themselves are proof. When David Ervine, a former terrorist turned member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or Albie Sachs, a former white ANC activist turned judge in Johannesburg, spoke, you could hear a pin drop in the hall. (And it was hard not to look at Sachs's empty sleeve, or Ervine's powerful hands.) If, on the other hand, people remain convinced that-in the words of one Palestinian-"our suffering is unequalled in the history of the world," there is little hope for them.

Three panelists came from Poland: Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Jerzy Osiatynski and myself. A former PM, a former minister and a journalist. In the 1980s, we had all been involved in Solidarity-they as advisers and authors, I as editor of a magazine. But we did not represent our country-only ourselves. Both politicians spoke forcefully about legal and economic matters, about the necessity of fiscal responsibility and of the struggle against corruption. Bielecki warned of the high price you pay if your authorities can be bought. Osiatynski made a forceful case against state regulation of the economy. Neither of them mentioned Palestine, but you could tell the political geo-graphy of the room by who nodded and who frowned.

The debate following each panel was tough and rough. Of the 150 or so participants present at the Rashid al-Sharaa Convention Centre, many were PNA officials. On the first day, 25th June, when Arafat was to be present (he went to Cairo instead), not even a mouse could squeeze in without proper accreditation. But Palestinian participants were not embarrassed to criticise PNA ministers to their faces, in the presence of international guests. The atmosphere in the hall reminded me of Solidarity in 1980-81: the same passion to make views heard; the same clumsiness in expressing them; the same sense of citizenship, for lack of a better term.

gaza, originally part of British Mandate Palestine, had been occupied by the Egyptians in the Israeli War of Independence of 1948, and was soon overflowing with refugees. During the Six-Day War in 1967, it was occupied by the Israelis, and over the years became a centre of Palestinian resistance. This is where the intifada began in 1987; it is also where the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas are strongest. Following the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, Gaza became, together with the Jericho area, the first Palestinian territory to be free of Israeli rule.

The Israeli occupation, even when it had not been brutal, was a humiliation. It was often brutal, too. Unlike the West Bank, where Israelis and Palestinians are bound by a network of mutual economic, social and cultural ties, here they had nothing in common. "Life was not bad here until the intifada," says a Polish woman resident in Gaza. "But the Jews did nothing here, except introduce good medical care." So all that remains from the occupation is a high life expectancy: 74 years (comparable to Israel, and much higher than in next-door Egypt); and an experience of violence. And a hatred of Israel so powerful that it emerges from almost anything said. As if only crying out that hatred could make one free of it. As if...

I constantly feel people's eyes on me. I am unusual-an observant Jew from Poland. My kippa attracts attention. Try as he may, my interlocutor looks me not in the eye but at the top of my head. Most of the settlers wear such kippot, and many of them have bearded, clear-skinned Ashkenazi faces like mine. But unlike many of them, I believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with mutually agreed borders, is a political necessity and an act of justice. Since the end of the occupation you no longer see faces like mine in Gaza. But everyone who had been tortured or beaten, everyone who had felt humiliated, saw such faces and such kippot, somewhere in the background.

I speak at the end of the second and last day of the seminar. I know that I must preface my remarks with a strong statement, otherwise my kippa will be talking. "As a Jew and a Pole," I begin, "I feel great emotion being in this room, at the birth of a new state."

I tell them how Poland fought for 123 years to regain its independence after being struck off the map of Europe, and how the Jews, for 2,000 years, longed to have their state back. "Yesterday," I continue, "we spoke of the necessity of having a constitution. But before lawyers write constitutions for nations, poets do, and their work is called national anthems. The Polish national anthem says that 'Poland is not dead yet as long as we live.' The Israeli Hatikva speaks of the dream of being am hofshi be-artzeynu-a free people in our own land." The hall freezes at the sound of the Hebrew words of the enemy anthem. "And I see," I conclude, "that Palestine is not dead yet, for it lives in you, and I salute the day you, too, will be a free people in your own land."

One more moment of hesitant silence, then applause. And relief: it worked. Now I can say my piece. Later, Mahmoud Khalefa, a Palestinian I know from the Palestinian mission to Warsaw, who is now director of the Gaza office of the information ministry, jokes that I may have problems with the Israelis at the Erez checkpoint, because I have made "inciting remarks." I remind him that he may have problems with his own authorities for applauding the Hatikva.

the organisers had stressed that we should speak about our own experiences. So I speak about how we discovered that the real difficulties begin only after victory; about the wonderful mass movement based on the idea of national unity that we had to tear down in order to make democracy possible; about a beloved, charismatic leader, a Nobel peace prize winner, who was a disaster when things turned normal; about our press, which had to learn to investigate "us" the way it had investigated "them." The words: Palestine, Arafat, PLO are never used, but again the political geography of the room can be deduced from the nods and frowns.

People line up at the floor mikes to ask questions. The first couple of questions are related to my Polish experiences, then it is the turn of a young man with closely cropped dark hair and a long beard. "In the name of God Merciful and Compassionate," he intones. Hamas. Hamas is in opposition both to the peace process and to Arafat's Palestinian administration. Its members support the "armed struggle" and often end up in Palestinian jails, either for preparing terrorist acts against Israelis, or for falling foul of one of the many Palestinian security services. "It is better if they are jailed here than in Israel," says Palestinian planning minister Nabil Shaath. They may be better treated by Palestinian wardens, but the chances of Hamas prisoners receiving due process are low. Human rights violations in PNA territories was one of the issues raised most often in the discussion.

"I would like to ask you as a journalist," says the Hamas activist, "why is it that world media are so biased against us? When an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian, nobody mentions it. But when one of our fighters dies conducting an armed action on enemy territory, and takes some of the enemy with him, there is an immediate outcry. But his struggle is noble and just, while the Zionists are occupiers."

"A soldier killing someone, unfortunately, is not news," I reply. "This happens all the time, in Chechnya as we speak, and yet I doubt if your media cover it. There is also a reader-identification factor: I am sure the Arab media pay more attention to Palestinian victims than to Israeli ones. But if someone kills people just for who they are-kills Jews just because they are Jews, and his community supports him-this indeed is news. This is why the shameful Baruch Goldstein was news, and so is the outrageous cult which developed around his grave. And this is why Palestinian terrorists are news: because they get the shameful support of people like you."

My interlocutor listens to the translation, then tears off his headphones and starts screaming at me in Arabic. The translator falls silent. A powerfully built mustachioed man, waiting his turn at the other mike, joins the fray, and yells at him in return. People stand to see what is happening. The atmosphere heats up. My interlocutor storms out. The mustachioed guy reaches for the mike.

"In 1969," he says, his voice choking with emotion, "I was part of a commando group which infiltrated from Jordan to attack an Israeli bus. We were lying in ambush, ready to fire. I had the bus in my sights, and then I noticed that there was a woman with a baby on board. I could not shoot. We aborted the mission and returned to base, where I told my commander what I had done. He said that I had done the right thing. This was 31 years ago. Since then I have fought many times in Lebanon-yet I remain most proud of that day in 1969, when I did not shoot. But I have a question to our guests: what should one do when one has been expelled from one's land and cannot return? I am proud that I did not shoot then, but what should I do now?"

Our eyes lock for a moment. True: what should he do? And what about those whom he was ready to shoot? I descend from the podium, approach him and extend my hand. He freezes for a moment and then gingerly extends his. His grip almost breaks my bones. Next thing I know he is hugging me. He trembles, as if on the brink of tears.

By the door, the argument provoked by the Hamas man continues. People are pushing, cameras are flashing. The chair of the panel anxiously calls a break. During the break it transpires that my Hamas adversary is PNA minister for post and telegraph, Imad Faloudji. The reason for his anger, I learn, was a mistranslation: the interpreter had made my words imply that I was making light of Goldstein's crime.

"But this is the opposite of what I said," I object in a conversation with the minister's chief of staff. "I had said that there is no difference between Goldstein and the suicide bombers, mass murderers and terrorists both. The only difference is that Goldstein is more appalling to me, for he is of my people." The chief of staff tries to reach the minister but he is gone.

"Would you agree to repeat in public what you have just said?" he asks. Of course. I ask to take the floor at the end of the seminar's last session. But before I can do so, somebody takes the mike, again invoking the name of God Merciful and Compassionate.

"I would like to clarify a misperception our guest from Poland had voiced," he says in a gentle voice. "We do not kill Jews because they are Jews. We do not go to Brazil or America to kill Jews. We kill them here because they take our land, and will continue doing so, until we liberate our land. Our cause is just."

I think of the people on the streets of Tel Aviv, torn to shreds by the bombs of the Hamas suicide terrorists. I want to mention them, but get interrupted by a roar. The minister is back-and this time he screams at me in English. "How dare you compare us to the Israelis! How dare you insult us in our own land!" His face darkens, his powerful hands grip the back of a chair. He seems ready to throw it at me.

I look around. People have risen again from their seats. They stand still, their faces ashen. I am their guest. Our seminar had come to Gaza at the invitation of the PNA, therefore also of Minister Faloudji. Now he is insulting me in public, violating the laws of hospitality. Finally someone calms him down, someone else applauds his words, he is escorted to the door. My hand is shaken by Palestinians who wish to apologise for his behaviour.

He has allowed himself to be co-opted into the PNA-a Palestinian politician explains-and therefore he has betrayed Hamas. He needs to demonstrate that he has, after all, remained true. The politician who tells me this is fiftyish. Most PNA officials are older. They all know how far the Palestinian movement has gone and how much it has already achieved in a region in which disaffected minorities tend to get crushed. But Faloudji is 30, and knows no other political reality than the Israeli occupation and its slow demise. The Gazan population is younger still: 52 per cent is under 14. In this desert coastal strip of 363 square kilometers, which should have contained just a couple of oases and a fishermen's village, 1.1m people live without work. Independence is not likely to change that. Gaza needs more territory around it like a fish needs water.

In the Camp David negotiations which took place after my visit, Israeli PM Ehud Barak offered exactly that, proposing a territorial exchange: Israeli land around Gaza for the Palestinians in return for some areas of the West Bank with Jewish settlements, which would be annexed to Israel. Arafat refused, in order not to violate the sacrosanct principle of the permanence of the 1949 borders. These borders are only cease-fire lines, corresponding to no historical or geographical reality. But to accept their change Arafat would have to recognise that Palestine has to be shared among two peoples who are equally legitimate there. For him, Jews are there by right of conquest alone, the borders of 1949 are there to prove it.

gaza can produce only hatred. Someone born in Gaza has already been wronged: people should not have to live in such conditions. This hatred is directed at those who are seen as responsible for Gaza's plight. As long as the final peace treaty is not signed, Israel will remain the target, even if Israelis are seldom seen. But then this hate will shift to the Palestinian state, which will have to do something about it. The excitement of seeing Palestinian banners and uniforms is already waning.

In a city in which everybody lives on top of one another and knows everything about everyone, it must be hard to accept that a minister and his department head come from the same family. Or that anyone in uniform feels above the law. There is one policeman for each 50 citizens, they say. And a judge for each 50,000.

"But we had no judges at all to begin with," says a defensive Palestinian politician. And if the PNA had not started hiring people, we would have had 80 per cent unemployment and a huge crime wave. But most of the unemployed have no marketable skills.

Cops with no marketable skills become bored. They have power, and a lot of free time. The state payroll eats up 60 per cent of the budget. Malicious tongues say that the remaining 40 per cent disappears abroad. They tell the joke about King Fahd making Saudi aid conditional on adopting Islamic law-with its hand-cutting penalty for thieves. Hearing that, Arafat calls his cabinet and asks: so how many of you will be able to drive one-handed? The malicious tongues talk about who is driving a new car, who has a new house, and who has nothing.

The Erez border crossing is like a real border. These are not the usually relaxed West Bank checkpoints, where Israelis and Palestinians sometimes sip coffee together and breeze cars through. This is a real border, with long walls, turrets, passport control. On the other side, in Israel, where political observers closely follow West Bank Palestinian politics, Gaza interests no one. Israel withdrew from Gaza, as later from Lebanon, with relief. But Gaza has nowhere to withdraw to. n