Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The case of Tal Fahima

From the ever insightful Alex Stein (Falsedichotomies.com) comes an excellent piece that is truly a must read for those interested in Palestinian/Israeli rapprochement.

Last week I told
the story of Tali Fahima, a woman from Kiryat Gat who decided to visit the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, Zakaria Zubeidi, in Jenin. For this, she ended up in jail. The following is a reflection on Fahima’s actions, and on the personality of Zubeidi.

Tali Fahima is not particularly political, at least not in a coherent way. She is also clearly not mad. What explanation can there be for what she did? She did what few Israelis, even on the radical fringes, would be prepared to do -she travelled right to the heart of the ‘hornet’s nest’. Some have focussed on her Mizrachi background. Smadar Levi, an Israeli anthropologist, argued that “Tali broke a big taboo. For a Mizrahi to have sympathies for the Palestinians is the biggest no-no.” While there may be some truth to this claim, it does not appear anywhere in the testimony of the witnesses in the film, or in the press. Surely more significant was the element of adventure that a trip to Jenin offered to a Tel Aviv secretary from a dead-end town in the south. And the impetus for this trip can be found in the original Haaretz interview with Zubeidi, conducted by Gideon Levy.

I remember reading the interview at the time. It was one of the most extraordinary pieces of journalism I had ever come across. There was something absolutely compelling about it. Partly because of the absolute honesty of the questions and the response. But there was also something in the nature of Zubeidi’s character, which came across even clearer in the film. During the recent conflict with Hizbollah, I detected a distinct admiration for Sheikh Nasrallah permeating the Israeli media. I also detected it in conversations with Israelis, and it has been reflected in recent polls. Why is this? After all, Nasrallah is a man that unequivocally states that he wishes to see Israel destroyed. In addition, he occasionally backs his rhetoric with action. How can we admire him? And what leads us to admire figures such as Nasrallah and Zubeidi, figures who would (if seen as necessary) happily kill us, given half a chance, while at the same time we constantly despised the likes of Arafat?

The answer is surely not found in sympathy. Right or wrong, we are not particularly moved by the fact that Zubeidi’s mother and brother were killed by the IDF, or that Nasrallah’s son met his fate in the same way. This does not even seem to be the event that turned Zubedia to terrorism. While it may seem counter-intuitive, it seems that personal narrative is not particularly significant in shaping a terrorist. Of the 384 suicide-bombers for whom there is data, only 16 of them had a family member or close friend killed by enemy military forces. The ‘tipping point’ for Zubeidi was not the death of his mother and father. Rather, it was the silence with which the killings were greeted by his former friends in the Israeli peace movement: “You took our house and our mother and you killed our brother. We gave you everything and what did we get in return? A bullet in my mother’s chest. We opened our home – and you demolished it. Every week, 20-30 Israelis would come to do theatre there. We fed them. And afterward, not one of them picked up the phone.” As one interviewer has noted, “The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades may reach peace with Israel, he says, but he won’t personally. He won’t forgive the killing of his mother and brother and the razing of his house.”

This is particularly chilling testimony for anyone interested in Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Remember, Fahima was not particularly politicised. This seems to have attracted Zubeidi to her, a refreshing change from the ‘condescending’ Israeli [Ashkenazi] peace activists he had been used to. Zubeidi and Fahima did not meet to plot; they met lishma, for its own sake. Their tentative early meetings soon became, in Martin Buber’s words, a genuine I-Thou encounter. Despite the slurs hurled at Fahima by the state, she managed to talk to a terrorist. And while she acknowledged the Palestinian right to fight back, she never altered her conviction that suicide-bombing was fundamentally immoral (see note at the end). Ultimately, she became convinced that this was a man who genuinely desired peace, and that he was someone Israel should be trying to engage.

How fair an assessment is this? It’s hard to say. In the film, Zubeidi came across as extraordinarily charismatic, in the Guevaran mode. In his kaki bomber jacket, he glides through Jenin, and the people (especially the children) swoon. We see him ask the children what they want to be when they grow up. He refuses to translate the answer when they reply, a la Snoop, that they want to be like Zubeidi. I would defy even the most hard-line right-winger to emerge from the film without some element of sympathy for his position. And it does not simply show ‘one side of the story’. Plenty of time is devoted to the arguments of the State Prosecutor and others who are appalled by Tali’s leap beyond the red line. It just so happens that Zubeidi is a media maestro. Indeed, this has been one of his innovations as AMB commander. Most of his predecessors shunned the limelight, preferring to inhabit the twilight world that seems more befitting of a terrorist leader/freedom fighter. But Zubeidi unabashedly courts the media, even in Israel. We have allowed him to speak to us. Perversely, whatever our politics, we have a soft spot for him. The same goes for Nasrallah.

Why was the step taken by Fahima a shocking one even for some on the radical fringes of the Israeli left? One answer is offered by Lin Chaplain Dora, from the Women’s Coalition for a Just Peace: “She went against the idea of separation, that peace goes with separation and against the national denial that we share the same space or any sense of culture with the Palestinians.” Many Israelis who support a full withdrawal to the Green Line do so out of a desire to absolutely separate themselves from the Palestinians, both physically and because they no longer want to be reminded of the original dispossession. This realist logic was at the heart of my argument regarding the Separation Barrier – right idea, wrong place. At the moment, the priority is securing the basis of two states side by side. But it is important to take heed of the message provided by Fahima. Like it or not, Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live out history in the same tiny piece of land in the Western Mediterranean. If we are to flourish, we must always have some sense of vision that goes beyond separation, and into the realm of cooperation.

It should be clear by now that I have no little sympathy for Tali Fahima’s actions. While not a step I would be willing to take, at least not outside the context of formal negotiations, her simple act of crossing the border emphasised a basic truth. If there is to be peace, we will have to talk to terrorists. The Palestinians will have to talk to those that have killed and dispossessed them, and we will have to talk to those who have indiscriminately killed our people in our towns and cities. As the cliché goes, we choose our friends, not our enemies. As Zubeidi himself noted, “She never said she wanted to betray her people, to help me in an attack or anything, because that’s a treacherous thing, and Tali is not a traitor. She came here to help the Palestinian people…to help is not to attack her people.” Yes, she befriended a terrorist. Somebody’s got to do it. Better someone like Tali, acting from a genuine impulse to listen, than many of the organisations in this country that have failed to advance the cause of peace.

I will leave the last word to Mr Zubeidi: “I’m dead. I know that I am dead…[but] I’ve gotten out of a lot of things, and I think that maybe we’ll succeed in the end. Another Zakariya will come. I’m not the first and not the last. There was Ziad – and they succeeded. And Zuheir came – and they succeeded with Zuheir. And Alaa came – and they succeeded with Alaa. And Zakariya came. Maybe they’ll succeed with Zakariya. Then came Hamoudi. My son…and they’ll succeed with Hamoudi. Then will come Zakariya, the son of Hamoudi…if they want to continue with this cycle. But if they continue with the cycle of peace, maybe Zakariya will die and Hamoudi will live in peace.”

Appendix – Tali Fahima on suicide-bombings: “I asked him if he had blood on his hands, and he said ‘Yes,’ without elaborating. This was hard to bear. I had to remind myself that I came here to see their truth, not mine. I told him that dispatching a suicide bomber is the cruellest act, toward the victims, and even towards the person dispatched. He replied that no one needs to convince the suicides, they come of their own will, and he explained that because they have no tanks and airplanes, suicide bombers are the only ‘technology’ they have left. Of course we did not agree on this.”

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