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Is There Any Empathy Left In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Aug 4, 2014
Originally published on August 4, 2014 1:29 pm

In the waiting room at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital, an Israeli woman was shouting at a Palestinian mother whose son was being treated for a beating he received from a Jewish mob.

"Go away you trash," the Israeli woman yelled at the Palestinian. "I would bury you in Gaza."

A second Israeli woman joined in the verbal barrage, complaining that her taxes shouldn't be paying for Palestinian treatment.

Two other Israeli women came over to comfort the Palestinian mother. But she is in no mood for reconciliation and retorted: "What good will your apologies do?"

My NPR colleague Daniel Estrin witnessed this exchange and it reflects the lack of empathy in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza these days, even in the few communities where Jews and Arabs mix like Jerusalem.

Menachem Klein, a Bar Ilan University professor of political science and one-time adviser to the Israeli negotiating team back in 2000, says the abstract view many Jews and Arabs have of one another has brought the conflict to a new low, one that's about ethnicity rather than statehood or disputed borders.

"It's very easy to move from a person that you know, that you see the face and the suffering and everyday care and concerns — a human being like you like me — and an abstract, a general enemy, a demon," he explains.

Klein says the perception is something that has been reinforced by Israel's policy of separation, which started during the first Palestinian uprising or intifada nearly a quarter century ago when Israel started setting up road blocks.

It mandated a permit system on Palestinians in particular, whose movements within their own territory and to and from Israel and even Jordan and Egypt were strictly controlled by Israeli authorities, the professor says.

A Lack Of Contact

The segregation intensified during the second intifada that began in 2000, leaving Israel, Gaza and the West Bank physically isolated from each other, often by heavily guarded fences and walls.

Big red signs were erected on borders to Palestinian territory warning Israelis that it's illegal for them to go there, Klein says.

"So for safety of the Israeli Jews, the regulation came in force," he said. "The problem is that it cuts off many connections personal relations between Israelis and Palestinians."

Hind Khoury, who is a former Palestinian Authority Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, says most younger Palestinians have never interacted with Israeli Jews other than soldiers. Nor have they traveled to any cities or towns where Israel controls the borders, even though some are only a short drive away.

"I know for a fact that in Bethlehem, we have a whole generation of young people who don't know East Jerusalem, which is (less than five miles) away, I mean who don't know the holy sites" other than from a book, she says, adding: "This is 'Absurdistan' in its full sense."

The separation affected the workplace as well. As Israel shut the door on Palestinians, it brought in other foreign workers to do the agricultural and construction work Palestinians once did.

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics shows the 116,000 work permits issued to Palestinians in 1992 dropped to 11,500 in 2005.

It did rise somewhat in 2012 – the most recent number available – to 30,000.

A Preference For Separation

Israelis continue to want that separation, says Tamar Hermann an Israel Democracy Institute senior fellow who specializes in public opinion polling.

"When we ask if peace prevails, would you like to see Palestinians come back? And they say 'no,'" she said.

"My own children, I suppose, they have never met a Palestinian," Hermann adds. "They've never visited a Palestinian village, they never went to Ramallah they never went to Jericho. And this is why they imagine things and this imagination normally is not positive under the circumstances of conflict, a protracted conflict in particular."

Khoury, meanwhile, criticizes what she sees as a collective Israeli disinterest in connecting with the Palestinian side.

"I call them the 'Road 6 Israelis,'" she said. "They cross Road 6, which goes along the Green Line (dividing Israel and the West Bank) and the wall that was built to separate us."

Khoury accuses these Israelis of being completely unaware of what Palestinian life is like.

"They have their holidays, their consumption, their good life and their beautiful homes. So what does it matter that we have practically no homes left or no lands left," she complains.

Living Side-By-Side In Jerusalem

Back in Jerusalem, the generational difference in empathy for the other side is striking in the walled Old City, which has Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.

Jamila is a 48-year-old Arab homemaker, and fearing retribution, asks NPR not to give her or her children's last name.

The air is thick with tension in the crowded alley of the Muslim Quarter, where stern Israeli policemen keep watch and settler flags flutter off several rooftops.

Jamila says she's worried about the current ethnic tension, but views her relationship with Jewish residents of the city as "normal."

She even chats on the phone with her 23-year-old son Sami's Jewish girlfriend – a relationship considered scandalous on both sides here.

Jamila says while she doesn't have Jewish friends, she shops at Jewish-run stores and goes to Jewish doctors. She says hello in Hebrew to her settler neighbors.

Her daughter Nadia says she doesn't speak Hebrew and avoids contact with Israeli Jews. Nadia is listening nearby and looks somewhat annoyed with her mother. Soon, the 26-year-old and another sister are arguing with Jamila.

Nadia says: "Israeli Jews are bad human beings. They kill every day."

When Jamila tries telling her that not all of them are bad, Nadia cuts her off and says: "Our principles do not allow us to kill the way they are killing."

An Absence Of Trust

In the hilly Jerusalem suburb of Moza Illit a short drive away, the sentiment Shakhaf Vahaba expresses is similar, but in reverse. Vahaba, 24, believes Palestinians won't rest until they oust all Jews from Israel.

"I think they hate us because they are taught to hate us," says Vahaba, who helps her mother run a day care center. They have moved it to a community center with a better bomb shelter to protect against the repeated Hamas rocket attacks.

Vahaba says she is not sure that she's ever met a Palestinian, and adds that she rarely speaks with Arab college classmates.

She says an Arab student who recently posted on Facebook that she wished all Israeli soldiers would die caused an uproar that led to the girl being banned from campus.

"I think it made them feel she is enjoying ... the benefits and then spitting into the well she's drinking from," says Vahaba's mother, Dalit.

Dalit Vahaba, 51, says her daughter's views are in part shaped by a traumatic childhood during the second intifada when bus bombings and mall attacks in Israel were commonplace.

The mother, on the other hand, remembers driving to Gaza with her father when she was a child, and dining on chicken and rice platters at home of his Palestinian friends in Ramallah.

As a young woman, she worked at a Tel Aviv café, where she and several other Israelis befriended three Palestinian co-workers from the West Bank. The three Palestinian men even came to her wedding and visited her after her daughter was born.

But the intifadas and ensuing segregation have taken a toll on the relationship. She says she never saw her Palestinian friends again save for a brief reunion in Israel last September.

"I think we were aware of the problems even then, but I think then we had more hope," she said. "I thought there can be peace between us and we can live together and everything."

Vahaba says she doesn't believe that anymore.

In Ramallah, Ghassan Abdullah, who heads the Center for Applied Research in Education, says it's going to be very hard for Palestinians to come to terms with Israelis as well after its army's deadly offensive in the Gaza Strip.

"It's easy to cure a physical injury, it's easy to rebuild a house, but as a psychologist, I'm telling you, (overcoming) the psychological barrier will take years or decades."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

To follow this next story, it helps to note a subtle but important difference - the difference between sympathy and empathy.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Sympathy means you feel for someone, you might even support them. Empathy means you understand another person, even if you don't agree.

INSKEEP: Israeli Jews and Palestinians disagree in the Middle East. And what makes it worse is that it's hard for people on one side to have empathy for people on the other - to understand where they come from. A generation ago, Israeli Jews and Palestinians used to interact all the time. But the separation of the two communities is now complete in almost every way. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Just how tense things are between Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbors is something my colleague Daniel Estrin recently witnessed at Hadassah hospital here in Jerusalem. It treats both Arabs and Jews.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (Hebrew spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (Hebrew spoken).

NELSON: In the waiting room, he found two Israeli women shouting a Palestinian mother whose son was being treated for a beating he received from a Jewish mob. Go away you trash, one yells. I would bury you in Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: (Hebrew spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 4: (Hebrew spoken).

NELSON: Two other Israeli women try to comfort the Palestinian mother, but she is in no mood for reconciliation and retorts - what good will your apologies do? Such lack of empathy is widespread in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza these days, even in the few communities where Jews and Arabs mix, like Jerusalem. Menachem Klein, a former adviser to Israeli peace negotiators at Camp David, fears the abstract view many Jews and Arabs here have of one another has brought the conflict to a new low.

MENACHEM KLEIN: It's very easy to move from a person that you know, that you see the face and the suffering and every day care and concerns - human being like you, like me and an abstract, a general enemy, a demon.

NELSON: So what accounts for the mutual vilification? Klein traces it back to Israel's policy of separation, which started 23 years ago during the first Palestinian uprising or intifada when Israel started setting up roadblocks and controlled Palestinian movements with a permit system. The segregation intensified during the second intifada a decade ago, leaving Israel, Gaza and the West Bank physically isolated from each other by heavily guarded fences and walls. Big red signs were erected on borders to Palestinian territory warning Israelis that it's illegal for them to go there, Klein says.

KLEIN: So for the safety of the Israeli Jews, the regulation came in force. The problem is that it cuts off many connections, personal relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

NELSON: Hind Khoury agrees. She's a former Palestinian Authority minister of Jerusalem affairs and says most younger Palestinians have never interacted with Israeli Jews other than soldiers, nor have they traveled to any cities or towns Israel controls the borders to, many of which are only a short drive away, Khoury.

HIND KHOURY: I know for A fact that in Bethlehem we have a whole generation of young people who don't know East Jerusalem, which is seven kilometers away, I mean, who don't know the holy sites and they study about it in their geography books. And welcome to that kind of absurdity.

NELSON: Separation came in the workplace as well. As Israel shut the door on Palestinians, it brought in other foreign workers to do the agricultural and construction work Palestinians once did. Israel's Central Bureau of statistics shows the 116,000 work permits issued to Palestinians in 1992 dropped to one-tenth that number in 2005. Despite the dehumanizing effect, Israeli Jews continue to want separation says Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. She specializes in public opinion polling.

TAMAR HERMANN: My own children, I suppose that they have never met a Palestinian. They have never visited a Palestinian village. They never went to Ramallah, they never went to Jericho or what have you. And this is why they imagine things and this imagination normally is not positive under the circumstances of conflict - protracted conflict in particular.

NELSON: The generational difference in empathy is striking to me in Jamila's home in Jerusalem's walled Old City, which has Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. She's a 48-year-old Arab homemaker and fearing retribution, asks NPR not to give her or her children's last name. The air is thick with tension on her crowded Muslim Quarter alley, where stern Israeli policeman keep watch and settler flags flutter off several rooftops. Jamila says she's worried about the current ethnic tension, but views her relationship with Jewish residents of the city as normal. She even chats on the phone with her 23-year-old son's Jewish girlfriend, a relationship considered scandalous on both sides here.

JAMILA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Jamila says while she doesn't have Jewish friends, she shops at Jewish run stores and goes to Jewish doctors. She says hello in Hebrew to her settler neighbors. Nearby, daughter Nadia, who says she doesn't speak Hebrew and avoids contact with Israeli Jews, looks a tad annoyed with her mother. Soon the 26-year-old and another sister are arguing with Jamila.

NADIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JAMILA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 5: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Nadia says Israeli Jews are bad human beings. They kill every day. When Jamila tries telling her that not all of them are bad, Nadia cuts her off and says our principles do not allow us to kill the way they are killing.

NADIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JAMILA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: In the hilltop Jerusalem suburb of Moza a short drive away, the sentiment 24-year-old Shakhaf Vahaba expresses is similar, but in reverse. She believes Palestinians won't rest until they oust all Jews from Israel.

SHAKHAF VAHABA: I think they hate us because they are taught to hate us.

NELSON: Vahaba is not sure that she's ever met a Palestinian and she said she rarely speaks with two Arab college classmates. She says another Arab student who recently posted on her Facebook page that she wished all Israeli soldiers would die caused an upward that led to the girl being banned from campus. Vahaba's 51-year-old mother says she isn't surprised.

DALIT VAHABA: I think it makes them feel that she's enjoying the benefits and then she's spitting in the well she's drinking from.

NELSON: Dalit Vahaba says her daughter's views are in part shaped by a dramatic childhood during the second intifada, when bus bombings and mall attacks in Israel were commonplace. She, on the other hand, recalls driving to Gaza with her father when she was a child and dining on chicken and rice platters at his Palestinian friend's home in Ramallah. As a young woman, Dalit Vahaba worked at a Tel Aviv cafe where she befriended three Palestinian co-workers from the West Bank.

D. VAHABA: We used to laugh together and even I invited them to my wedding. And I have pictures with them. And they came to visit me after my Shakhaf was born here in Moza.

NELSON: But the intifadas took a toll on the relationship, she says. She never saw her Palestinian friends again, save for a brief reunion in Israel last September.

D. VAHABA: I think we were aware of the problems even then. But I think then we had more hope. I thought that there can be peace between us and we can live together and everything.

NELSON: Vahaba said she doesn't believe that anymore. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.