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In the Mideast: Snapshots From a Would-Be Democracy

COMING into Israel's Ben-Gurion airport, both visiting and resident Palestinians are taken to a special security booth. They wait in line, tired, weighed down with bundles and with children. A gaggle of uniformed Israeli youngsters - security guards - sit comfortably, chatting, not bothering to help the line move on. Their supervisor, only slightly older, comes and immediately tells them to get back to work. Outside, one Palestinian introduces himself to the supervisor.

"Good afternoon. I am Freih Abu-Middain," he says. "I am the chairman of the Gaza Bar Association and a member of the Palestinian delegation." The supervisor smiles. "I am honored to meet you, Mr. Abu-Middain," he says. "I hope we haven't inconvenienced you."

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Later, I try to walk the short distance from my Jerusalem hotel to the office of the Palestinian weekly, Talia. I can't find my way. The ramparts of a new road have cut a once-familiar alley in two. New roads are everywhere, making many Palestinians feel besieged. But Talia editor Bashir Barghouti wants mainly to talk about peace. "What we need is joint ventures, lots of them, all along the pre-1967 border!" he says. "In the context of a peace settlement, we should have special economic development zones

there. They would be the best buffer between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples - a joint stake that neither would want to attack."

Human rights activists from throughout the region gather in Italy for a path-breaking consultation. Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs swap experiences with a Turk and a Kurd from Turkey. Some Kurdish provinces in Turkey are under military law, like the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

In Turkey, Kurds are not allowed to use their language for schooling, publications, or other public purposes, as Palestinians are. But Kurds do get to vote for the Turkish Parliament, while Palestinians in the occupied territories have no vote. All the human rights organizations based in the region have varying degrees of difficulty dealing with their own governments, though the Israelis seem to have the easiest situation.

The religious impulse throbs throughout the Middle East, often very near the visible surface of daily life. In Jerusalem, many Muslim Palestinians and Jewish Israelis express themselves along parallel tracks, especially in issues of women's modesty and family roles. The long skirt, the covered hair, the large brood of young children.

In Cairo, all the participants in the conference I'm attending seem secular, except one fully-veiled young woman researcher. I make a note to seek her out at coffee break. She seeks me out first. I'm glad: It's good to build bridges, and I don't have enough contact with the religious people who are such a growing force in this region.

In Damascus, a very secular woman friend (of Muslim background) tells me she has reached an amicable new modus vivendi with her determinedly religious daughter who, according to Syrian custom, will continue to live at home until her marriage.

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What all this means for the peace talks that started in Madrid last October is hard to say. There is some frustration among Arab negotiators that they haven't yet achieved even a "cease-fire in place" - whether in respect to Israel's continued building of settlements in the areas occupied in 1967, or to the Israeli air raids that continue against a disorganized Lebanon. As for the Israelis, they seem busy with the run-up to their June 23 elections. Leader speaks against leader. The different parties run hard-hitting TV ads. Religious neighborhoods sport banners that indicate they prefer to vote by complete blocks.

It's 25 years since the war which brought the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan under Israeli occupation. And 10 years since the war in Lebanon which caused many Israelis to rethink their previous reliance on solely military means to ensure their existence.

Some Israelis, like Hebrew University's Dr. Edy Kaufman, have begun to ask, "What are the responsibilities of a democracy that finds itself, for whatever reason, running an occupation?" Others consider the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria") to be an integral part of the Land of Israel, and the Arabs who are there only temporary residents with no valid claims to the land.

Will the June 23 elections resolve the issue of which of these kinds of Israelis will govern for the next four years? Throughout the region, many more millions of people than just the Israelis are waiting to find out.

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