Dare We Hope?

By Samia Khoury
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The story of Ahmad El-Khatib, the 12-year-old Palestinian child who was shot and killed by the Israeli occupying forces, and whose organs were donated to Israeli and Druze children, hit the local and international media this week.

It’s striking that this story of compassion is set in Jenin, the Palestinian town subjected to grievous atrocities from invading Israeli forces in April, 2002. Many journalists and witnesses reported the events of day as another massacre of Palestinians. Scores of people were killed; buildings were blown up before being evacuated, burying victims in rubble and leveling vast areas of the town. A United Nations team which was assigned to investigate the incident was barred by the Israeli forces from entering the area. The file was closed, but the scars remain. Jenin has yet to recover from that onslaught; normal and peaceful life has yet to return.

Again, one cannot help be astonished at the inequities in the Middle East. Although the UN team headed by Mehlis to investigate the assassination of Rafiq El-Harriri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was welcomed in Syria, the team did not seem satisfied with the answers they got from the Syrian authorities. For that, the United Nations called an urgent Security Council meeting which ordering Syria to cooperate with Mehlis, or risk economic sanctions, among other possible penalties. It seems the UN can only find effective means to enforce its resolutions when the offending party isn’t Israel, toward whom the UN either turns a blind eye or claims powerlessness. While Israel has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, I can’t recall Israel ever facing the kind of ultimatum issued to Syria. When Israel resists UN mandates, the UN simply does what its fact-finding team, convened by the Secretary General in response to Security Council Resolution 1405, did when Israel turned them away from Jenin: they shrug their shoulders and comply with Israel’s wishes.

The Israeli soldier who killed Ahmad claims that he thought that the toy gun the boy was carrying was real. But did he really think as well that the boy was a grown man and a soldier? Could he not have shot a warning in the air to deter the child? It was the first day of the Al-Adha feast after the month of fasting honoring the holy season of Ramadan. Young Ahmad was enjoying a gift he’d received for the holiday. Toy guns are popular, not only because of the influence of Western movies, but because their play with you guns helps them reenact and cope with harsh realities they face daily. My own eleven-year-old grandson often walks in the house like Gary Cooper in High Noon, pulling his hands out of his pockets and pointing his fingers at me in a gesture of drawing a gun.

Very recently he acquired a toy gun. I was very upset when I saw it, and I immediately told him the story of Ahmad. He looked at me in disbelief, but then he seemed touched and scared. Without hesitation he went to his room, got his toy gun and broke it into pieces throwing them in the dustbin. Perhaps Ahmad’s story will inspire Abla, his mother, and other mothers and their children to campaign against toy guns, as well as violent games and movies which flood in from the West.

But Ahmad’s story doesn’t end there; it continues to defy both stereotypes of “Palestianian terrorists” and despair that peace is possible. In 1994, members of Hamas abducted and killed Israeli Erik Frankental, but his father, Zvi, became a peace activist rather than retreating into bitterness. Local papers now carry a photo of Zvi offering condolences to Ahmad’s father, Ismail El-Khatib, and one grieving father’s reaching out to another is a sign not only of the terrible toll the occupation taken on both Israelis and Palestinians, but also a sign of hope that peace is possible despite many and deep hurts. As much as I have been discouraged lately when peace seems unattainable, stories like those of Ismail, Zvi, and Ahmad encourage me with the hope that someday all peoples of the Holy Land, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, will create a safe and peaceful haven here.

But as I was reflecting on this meaningful and hopeful story, news broke of the suicide attacks on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, and my feelings turned to rage, frustration, sadness, and absolute shock. Who would want to do something so brutal to innocent people, and to a wedding party? Who benefits from such an action? And what kind of a memory would this young couple have of their wedding day, which claimed the lives of the fathers of both bride and groom? Hopes as well as lives died in the explosions that day.

For a long time now, the Middle East has been coveted and targeted, and its leaders manipulated and intimidated. Powerful forces seeking domination have colonized it, partitioned it, toppled its regimes and used it to barter as if it were their own. The people of the region look at shocking incidents such as the setting up of Syria and Iran as another indication that those who see their interests as vested in the region will continue to work to destabilize it. That is why we are very skeptical about anything that is being imposed by the military forces that Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye calls “hard power,” in contrast to the “soft power” of moral influence. “Soft power” should deal with issues in the region justly, with one set of standards applied to all, and such treatment would be welcomed by many. However, no one will welcome a kind of “democracy” that must be imposed by force and devastates the country.

There is never a dull moment in this part of the world, and hope fluctuates wildly with every news cycle. The end of the era of Shimon Peres as Labor leader might bring about substantial change. Peres lost a great opportunity of forging peace after the assassination of Itzhak Rabin, and his lack of resolve also cost him the election victory won by Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party. Peres accepted a seat in Sharon’s government as deputy prime minister, but he made no substantial progress toward peace, and so the peace centres built in his name seem an empty gesture pointing more toward the difficulty of peace than the possibility. However, Corinne Heller of Reuters reports that Amir Peretz, used his first major public appearance since becoming Labor leader to tell the crowd that Israel needed to leave West Bank land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War and move toward a permanent peace agreement to carry on Rabin’s legacy. Dare we hope that at last an Israeli leader is speaking about ending the occupation? Only time will tell — and in the meantime, hopes will wither and rise again with every explosion and every act of compassion.


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