Editor's take: The limits of coexistence

By Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

UN chief Ban Ki-moon is in town, huddling with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to prevent the situation from (his words) “spinning out of control.”

Violence erupted last month as disputes over the Temple Mount set off a series of attacks by Palestinians claiming the lives of eight Israelis. At least 40 Palestinians have now been killed (including assailants), many during clashes with Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It is good Ban is here; however, from where I sit in Jerusalem – where last week I heard an attacker dispatched with a quick succession of gunshots – the situation felt “out of control” long before this round of bloodshed.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank are growing. Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 2009, the Jewish population in the West Bank has increased by at least 23 percent, to more than 350,000. This year alone, 396 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished in the Occupied West Bank and 60 in East Jerusalem, displacing 544 people. That’s not to mention the abject poverty in Gaza, where rebuilding from last summer’s war has barely begun and unemployment has only inched downwards from 47 to 42 percent.

If it appeared that some sense of normalcy had returned since the Gaza conflict, that impression was false. Nothing here is normal. We’re just in the spotlight again.

In Palestinian East Jerusalem, new checkpoints remind residents that if one among them has wronged, they are all considered suspects. Israelis are scared – the talk in West Jerusalem is where to buy tear gas, how to stay alert, perhaps get a gun.

Ban’s surprise visit comes after a particularly grim example of what anger and fear has wrought here. Haftom Zarhum, a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea, was shot and beaten to death earlier this week because he was twice unlucky. First, he had the misfortune of being in a southern Israeli bus station when an attacker opened fire, killing one. Second, he had dark skin – causing bystanders to presume ties to the Bedouin assailant. Life in Israel for asylum seekers is already dire, but this may be rock bottom. 

So what’s the answer? Making the rounds on social media is a hummus restaurant in northern Israel that’s offering half off to Israeli Jews and Arabs who sit together. It’s a pleasant thought, as even though 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs, social interaction is limited.

But most Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza will never be allowed into Israel, as permission is hard to come by. In fact, the only sustained interaction many Palestinians have with Israelis is with soldiers at checkpoints, or in war. For most Israelis, it’s the same. They know Palestinians through a security lens. For those who do have access to a shared hummus table, each side could be forgiven for not wanting to take up that discount offer at this present moment in time.

Then there are the groups of Israelis handing out cake to passersby with signs that say “peace of cake” in English, Arabic and Hebrew. They began by handing their tasty morsels to Palestinian construction workers, who do most of the building inside Israel and the settlements.

These initiatives have been met with smiles. Any attempts at nonviolent engagement, at bridging the divide, are valiant. Other joint Israeli-Palestinian groups, like Combatants for Peace and The Parents Circle Families Forum, work together year round. There’s a smattering of bilingual schools. Internationally, outside these fraught borders, Israelis and Palestinians have long found they can get along and advocate for peace.

But at a West Jerusalem protest for coexistence over the weekend, both Israelis and Palestinians spoke in Hebrew. Most Palestinians who wanted to attend couldn’t. They were stuck in long lines waiting for clearance to leave their neighbourhoods. The event hinted at what coexistence can’t do, its limitations in the face of a harsh reality.

Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are both set to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry this week in another attempt to pull the region back from the precipice.

Any attempt to quell the current anger should start with Jerusalem, where it began. Netanyahu has turned down a French plan to place international observers there, saying “Israel is not the problem on the Temple Mount; it’s the solution. We maintain the status quo.”

As frustration extends far beyond what’s happening in the Old City, some commentators have suggested taking the French plan further and placing international peacekeepers throughout East Jerusalem. Others have floated the idea of installing Palestinian Authority security units in the area. Netanyahu is unlikely to accept any of this.

Jerusalem, its borders, and who will control its holy sites have always been “final status issues” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, extra prickly topics left to the end of any deal. But, this time around, politicians will have to take on Jerusalem first, at least in part, if they want to restore calm. It will take cooperation, perhaps a bit of coexistence.

But even if this bout of violence subsides soon, the conflict will be back before long. Big problems require big solutions. In short: I don’t really have the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, I just know it isn’t hummus.

as/ag