Oct 05, 2022
Share this article

If you only follow international media, you’d believe that life in Israel is one of fear and danger because of threats from our Palestinian Arab neighbors, and that the “occupation” is to blame, meaning Israel’s conquering Judea and Samaria (AKA the West Bank) during the 1967 Six Day War. By that narrative, if Israel were just to “give back” the West Bank, everything would be fine. It’s not so simple.

The truth is that threats of terror and violence from Palestinian Arab (and other) terrorists long preceded the Six Day War, and long before the Arabs adopted the moniker “Palestinian” which, until 1948, was a term to identify the Jewish population of the Land of Israel. It’s no secret that Palestinian Arabs blame Israel for its very existence. They call it the nakba, the catastrophe of Israel’s restoration to sovereignty. The Six Day War was only a setback, they call it the naksa. This is clear as the Palestinian Arabs, and their governing body, the Palestinian Authority (PA), have created an identity that is about persecution rather than prosperity, and destroying and delegitimizing Israel rather than building or investing in infrastructure for an independent state (along side Israel) which they claim is their goal.

One doesn’t have to look too hard or far to find countless examples of this.  Recently, in one of the “best,” PA president Mahmoud Abbas made a horrific and offensive (not to mention grossly dishonest) claim of Israel committing “50 holocausts” against the Palestinian Arabs.  When he and the PA had to walk that back, they clarified that they were talking about the crimes they allege by Israel, since its establishment in 1948, not the so-called occupation in 1967.  Nuance is important.

There’s no question that while threats do exist, and Israel has to protect itself on and within its borders, and anything resembling peace remains elusive, amid the challenges there is still abundant co-existence between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.  That’s not depicted in the international media because it contradicts the simplistic and inaccurate narrative of Israel being the all-at-fault bad guy. As inaccurate as the international depiction may be, there are as many examples of the reality being different.

Recently I had two unique experiences that cast light on different aspects of elements of this complex reality.

As president of the Genesis 123 Foundation which builds bridges between Jews and Christians and Christians with Israel, we have been traveling throughout the Judean mountains south of Jerusalem this summer again, giving out cold watermelon and drinks to hundreds of soldiers.  We want to share our appreciation and do something nice for soldiers standing out in the heat of the day keeping us safe.  Because the money donated to pay for this comes from Christians all over the world, I am always clear to let the soldiers know that it’s coming from them, and we just have the privilege to deliver it.

One day recently, I went with a good friend, Marty, driving all throughout the Judean mountain region of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, and to and throughout Hebron.  Hundreds of kilos of watermelon and drinks elicited countless smiles of appreciation. Upon entering Hebron, the ancient city in which Abraham purchased burial plots for himself and Sarah, and where Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah are buried, I asked Marty if he thought we should offer watermelon to Palestinian Arabs who also live there.  We agreed that we’d try.  At one point when we stopped to give treats to soldiers guarding, I noticed to pre-teen Arab boys sitting up the road in the direction we were heading. More than just sitting idly by, it seemed as if they were monitoring what was going on.

After getting back in the car I continued about 20 yards to where the boys were sitting.  I pulled over next to them and asked, in English, if they spoke English to which they replied “no.”  Since they seemed to understand something, I asked if they wanted watermelon, repeating it in Hebrew because I know the Arabic is similar, and know that they had been watching us give watermelon to the soldiers.  I opened the door and began to get out which alarmed them.  I tried to explain again I was just giving them watermelon.  As soon as I got out of the car and went to the trunk where the watermelon was, they took off running.  I tried to encourage them to come back, holding up a big red piece of fruit and gesturing that it was for them.  One of the boys looked back and saw, but turned and sprinted to catch up to his friend.

Later on, we pulled up at a checkpoint where Palestinian Arab cars transverse the Jewish part of Hebron.  We gave watermelon to the appreciative soldiers as a line of cars pulled up behind us.  After giving the soldiers, I took the box in which I had the watermelon and waked over to the truck right behind us, offering watermelon to the Arabs inside.  They accepted gratefully, thanking us in Arabic: shukran, to which I replied, you’re welcome: afwan.  We exchanged smiles and went on our way.

On the way out of Hebron, we saw 5-6 Arab kids sitting/playing on the side of the road.  So as not to alarm them as we had done earlier, I offered watermelon through the car window, speaking English.  The kids didn’t seem to know what to make of us, but they didn’t seem too comfortable with it all and declined, thought they didn’t run away. Nearby, a teenage Arab boy came out of a shop and asked us to come to him, so we did.  He saw the watermelon and asked in Hebrew, how much, as if we were a watermelon-mobile.  I responded that it was free, and we were giving it to him as a gift.  He smiled and accepted.

Then I asked him to tell the other kids nearby that we had just come to give them watermelon.  He did, but they didn’t want to, or didn’t trust us, or both.  In baseball terms, we’re batting 500.  Not bad under the circumstances.

I know that Palestinian Arab kids are taught horrific things about Jews in their schools and broader Palestinian Arab culture, but hoped that maybe because there is so much coexistence (probably mostly among their parents’ generation) that maybe the rhetoric might not be believed by all.

I may be naïve, but think that through simple gestures we can break down barriers.  The reality is that if Israel didn’t have to defend itself from war and terror, and our enemies were to put down their weapons, we could be a lot further along.  They blame us for defending ourselves, and that our mere presence is the reason why we don’t have peace. I beg to differ.  We can argue about that, though I am right, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t coexist respectfully and peacefully, even without “peace.”  In many ways we do coexist quite well.

I can’t change what their kids are taught, but I can show them that its not true.  So, I try.  Watermelon diplomacy.

Earlier that day I had an experience on the opposite side of the spectrum.  A Christian friend in Bethlehem introduced me to a Palestinian Arab friend of his who custom makes branded items, swag, for businesses.  My friend had once given me a coffee mug from his ministry which is well made, has worn well, and he got a good price.  When I needed something similar to use as gifts for a project, I asked my friend for the connection to his friend.

“Rashid” is a Palestinian Arab, a Christian, living in Bethlehem.  He was professional, accommodating, provided great service, and made me dozens of coffee mugs branded to promote my Run for Zion program to build bridges to connect Christians and Jews and Christians with Israel.  Because he can’t come to my home, and I won’t go to Bethlehem for my own safety, we met on the side of the road in what an observer could have imagined as some sort of illicit deal.

I know a bit about what its like being a Christian living among the predominantly Moslem PA.  It’s not easy at all.  That was underscored in another encounter while traveling in the US where I met a Palestinian Arab, one of two siblings who converted from Islam to Christianity, leading their father to threaten to kill them. Of course, those who look to fault Israel for everything twist reality and find a way to blame Israel for the fact that Christian Palestinian Arabs are persecuted by their Moslem neighbors, and driven out.  Whereas the population of Bethlehem used to be 80% Christian, it’s now estimated to be under 20%.  But the reality on the ground, of Moslems persecuting, Christians is shocking.

I felt good giving my business to “Rashid” for all those reasons.  He gets to make a living and I got a good product at a good price.  That’s a win-win.  In meeting “Rashid” I said, “Hey, let’s get a picture.” At that moment I saw a tension come over his friendly demeanor, similar to what I’d see later among the Palestinian Arab kids in Hebron.

“What are you going to do with the picture,” he asked.  I didn’t have a plan, just thought it was cool, a Palestinian Arab Christian doing business with an Orthodox Jewish Israeli.  Peace through ceramics perhaps.  But he pushed back.  “I can’t have a picture with you,” he explained.  “We live in a Moslem society and my doing business with you could be dangerous for me.”  I understood, but was distraught all the same.

Perhaps we are only able to co-exist in the shadows.  “Rashid” surely needs and wants the business, but won’t take a picture together, much less promote it (or allow me to) as a good endorsement.  Their kids are taught we are the devil, though so many of their parents work among us and know that’s not the truth.

These recent incidents remind me of an experience a few years ago that reflect some of the challenges to broach civil relations with Palestinian Arabs from a Jewish perspective. There are a gamut of mixed feelings, some to the extreme, but none among Israelis in any way that represents a fraction of a percent (not even statistical error), of Jewish Israelis who want to murder Arabs.  That’s happened, its criminal, has been decried throughout Israeli society, and the perpetrators have been punished.  But it’s so far outside the pale that only deserves mention because its what Israelis are accused of on a mass basis.  That’s just not true.

A friend in my community organized a used clothes drive for a group of Palestinian Arabs in a neighboring village.  Where we live in the Judean mountains, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews interact daily, through work, commerce, shopping, sharing the same roads and more. It’s so common to have Palestinian Arabs working in our communities that I joke on an average day, there are more Arab men than Jewish men in our town. Sometimes, it might even be true.

We interact with our Palestinian Arab neighbors in our homes, restaurants, grocery stores, and much more.  We even get to know one another and become cordial if not friendly. So my friend, “Jerry,” decided that he’d ask neighbors to donate their good condition used clothes to the family of “Mohammed” which was going through hard times, as well as others in his village.

“Jerry” was met with four basic responses.  One, was that people stepped up and participated willingly, even enthusiastically.  A second response was pushback for two nationalistic reasons: that we don’t need to be giving our used clothes or anything else to our Arab neighbors who, despite their living and working among us, we really don’t trust.  The third reason is that there are ample families of terror victims in our community whose loved ones were hurt and even killed by Palestinian Arabs who do seek to kill us.  The whole idea of giving “them” “our” used clothes caused pain and trauma. “Jerry” was asked to withdraw his initiative because it was insensitive to them.

The fourth area of pushback resonated with all, even those who stepped up enthusiastically to donate their clothes.  This was because we typically dress in a more western fashion. Anglos like “Jerry” and myself, and many others with good intentions vis a vis our neighbors, are more likely to have clothes with little alligators, guys riding horses, or other such branding on the left side of our shirts, along with many other western brands not available in the Palestinian Arab community. The pushback wasn’t about being snobby, but about security.  In 2014, our neighborhood was the scene of a kidnapping and murder of three Israeli Jewish teens, by Palestinian Arabs who had dressed up as Jews and offered a ride to the unsuspecting passengers. The concern was simply that by giving our western branded clothes to people we didn’t know, and not knowing who would ultimately wear them or who would provide a few pieces of clothes to a terrorist to dress up looking Jewish, that was too much of a risk.

I’m not naïve enough to think things are perfect, or even very good as they are. I don’t have any expectations of the PA and broader Palestinian Arab society that they will run to embrace us.  But I know nothing will change in the big picture as long as their default is to vilify us, doing so as the raison d’etre of their existence.

It will take more than a slice of watermelon and smiles, or dozens of coffee mugs, to break down the barriers that exist. But my thought is that we have to try.  So, I do.  Maybe something good will come out of it, inshallah. God willing.