Palestinians for Normalisation

Palestinian voice for co-operative coexistence: Al-Quds University Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi

At a time when another American administration is putting together another regional peace plan that is most likely doomed to fail, one can sense a shift on the ground. Until about three months ago, Nadia Aloush, Nabil Basherat and Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, three Palestinians living in the greater Jerusalem area, were unaware of each other’s existence. They do not really keep in touch today, but what they have in common is unique and very important. 

Together with independent Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh and Professor Ali Qleibo, the three are asking Palestinians, Israelis and the rest of the world, to put aside politics and calls of boycotts and focus on how to improve the lives of the Arabs living across the West Bank. 

Aloush, Basherat, Dajani Daoudi, Abu Toameh, Qleibo and several Israeli researchers have teamed up on a new study by the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA), titled “Defeating Denormalization: Shared Palestinian and Israeli Perspectives on a New Path to Peace,” which aims to outline what they believe is the correct path for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Why don’t we, the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, try to live in peace for a while? Why not try two, three, four years of normalisation and of just living together? Fighting is always an option,” Basherat said. 

Basherat, 44, is a father of seven who lives in Jaba, a Palestinian town northeast of Jerusalem. He travels to work near the Negev Bedouin town of Rahat in a shuttle provided by his employers, SodaStream – a three-hour trip each way that includes a daily, 45-minute wait to go through the Qalandiya checkpoint. He has been with SodaStream for nine years, rising through the ranks to the position of department head.

He used to work closer to home as until about two years ago the company had a facility in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Park, which is 20 minutes from Jaba. But the company’s streamlining efforts led it to shut down its various facilities nationwide in favour of one compound in the Negev. 

Shuttering the facility beyond the Green Line was a boon for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been dogging SodaStream for years, and the BDS groups touted it as a success of its global anti-Israel campaign. 

Basherat, for his part, is very critical of the BDS movement.

“The global BDS campaign has done the Palestinians more harm than good,” he said. “The BDS movement threatens my job security and my livelihood. They undercut the livelihood of hundreds of SodaStream employees, who were fired when the company closed its Mishor Adumim factory.

“If it wasn’t for the BDS movement, we could have expanded the Mishor Adumim factory and resumed our previous positions. Instead, we had our work permits suspended for 18 months before we were allowed to return to work.” 

Basherat said that Israelis and Palestinians work side by side in his department, as they did before the facility was relocated. 

“The BDS movement described SodaStream’s Palestinian employees as ‘slaves’ and said they were being exploited by the management. That’s a lie. The Palestinian employees are very happy in their work. We have good working conditions and good pay,” he said. 

“SodaStream is like a family for me and despite the distance and the time I spend traveling back and forth I’m glad to be back there. On the other hand, hundreds of my friends who were denied work permits in Israel were left without work. And it is not just them, it’s drivers, suppliers and others who used to work at the plant. Thousands of people were harmed because the factory in Mishor Adumim was shut down.”

Basherat suggests setting aside politics and BDS in favour of normalisation. “I believe we can live together. I have been living this reality for the past nine years. Even though everyone [in the factory] comes from a different place, we work together. We eat together, we talk openly about our lives and even about politics. We’ve even been through tough times together like the last two Gaza wars [in 2012 and 2014] and the wave of terrorism that erupted in the fall of 2015. We talk about these things,” he said.

Fear of Hamas

Aloush also believes that Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is more than possible. 

The 50-year-old resident of al-Eizariya is married to an Arab Israeli and works as the manager of the Mishor Adumim branch of Israel’s third-largest supermarket chain, Rami Levy Hashikma Marketing. The branch’s customers include Jews and Arabs and the staff makeup is similar – a perfect example of coexistence. 

Aloush believes her way of life can and should be a model for others. “I’ve always believed in coexistence and I like to come in contact with both sides, Jews and Arabs,” she writes in the JCPA paper. “The problem is that extremists on both sides, especially Hamas leaders, are trying to prevent such contact. They threaten anyone who keeps in touch with Israelis and they’ve even killed people. It’s terrifying.”

When it comes to the BDS movement, she does not mince her words, either. “BDS is a new threat to Palestinian workers. They use the same tactics as Hamas,” she stated. “BDS activists in the United States and Europe oppose coexistence, and they especially oppose Israelis doing business in the West Bank and providing employment opportunities to Palestinians in joint industrial zones. 

“They speak against people like Rami Levy, claiming that his business exploits Palestinians and violates their rights,” she continued. “They want Rami Levy to close his stores, but I ask – who will employ Palestinians instead? The Palestinian Authority has failed to offer jobs to the Palestinians who worked in SodaStream. I don’t understand why the world keeps donating [to the PA] when it fails to even provide its people with jobs,” Aloush said. 

A compromise can be found

Aloush and Basherat’s experiences are familiar to Professor Dajani Daoudi. He has already outlined his ideas for a shared and peaceful Israeli-Palestinian reality in a paper titled, “Wasatia: The Straight Path from Denormalisation to Reconciliation.” The title gives a glimpse into his frame of mind – wasatia is the Arabic word for the “middle path.”

Dajani Daoudi, 72, resides in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina and serves as the director of American studies at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem. The term wasatia comes from the Quran and, from a religious standpoint, it means tolerance and acceptance, he explained. Like Aloush and Basherat, he, too, became a proponent of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence through personal experience when, back in the 1990s, both his parents, under different circumstances, required medical care and were treated in Israeli hospitals. 

“When I went with my father to an Israeli hospital and the doctor treated him like a human being, like his equal, it opened my eyes and my heart for me, it was a personal experience that allowed me to see the humanity on the other side.”

He, too, suggests moving away from politics, putting aside the usual quarrels and finding concrete solutions to concrete, real-life problems.

“We aspire not only to create a moderate Palestinian Islamic movement that calls for peace, but also to change the climate so that an atmosphere of mutual understanding and good relations can be created and lead to a peaceful solution [for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],” he said, stressing that “we are not giving up on Palestinians’ national aspirations, but I believe coexistence precedes agreements. This is a long process of peace-building that should start today – not after the political problems are resolved.”

The approach Dajani Daoudi suggests “is the classic bottom-up approach [in which change begins on the ground and inspires the leadership] and it is the most practical way to ensure normalisation and prosperity for both parties,” study editor Dan Diker said.

“The Palestinian public wants to foster cooperation and economic and professional opportunities with its Israeli neighbours. The voices you hear from Aloush, Basherat and the others are the voices of the Palestinian middle class that wants to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts.

“Palestinian leaders in towns and villages, especially in Area C [the West Bank areas currently under full Israel control], speak openly about their desire to have good relations and cooperation with their Jewish neighbours,” he said. 

Like the authors of the study, Diker is all too familiar with the main obstacle to coexistence – violence. Dajani Daoudi’s car was rigged with explosives in 2014 after he took his students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Aloush refuses to have her photo published for fear of retaliation, and Basherat was questioned by Palestinian intelligence after participating in a conference promoting coexistence that was sponsored by the Peres Centre for Peace and Innovation. 

The study, which has already been published in English, will soon be published in Hebrew, but releasing it in Arabic is a highly sensitive matter and Diker, as the editor, is careful when he addresses the issue. “The Arab word for ‘normalisation’ can also be used to mean ‘collaboration,’ and that has a very negative connotation of helping Israel,” he explained. “This is why we opted for ‘shared perspectives’ on a new path to peace.’’ Sensitivities aside, the paper will nonetheless soon be issued in Arabic, he said. 

© Israel Hayom (www.israelhayom.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.