Finding Hope in a Seemingly Hopeless Place
A journey throughout Israel-Palestine that put me in touch with heroes of hope in a land that seems to know none of it.
Over the past month, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of traveling across the Middle East as part of the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Program. Affiliated with Queens College, the program brings together a group of fifteen students across American universities pursuing an interest, both inside the classroom and out, in the Middle East. Throughout the trip, we were constantly encouraged to find the “threads of hope” in a region that seems to be lapsing into disarray. And nowhere was this sense of defiant hope more evident, at least for me, in the place I expected to encounter it least: Israel and Palestine.
With no seeming solution in sight, the situation wrecking Israel, Palestine only seems to worsen day by day. A brutal forty-nine year occupation continues endlessly, while Palestinian terror against Israel, while condemned by its leadership, remains unabated. Though at times the conflict might seem escapable, whether on a leafy street in Ramallah or strolling on the Tel Aviv beach, recent events jolted me back into reality. Just this past week, a deadly shooting ripped through Tel Aviv at the upscale Sarona Market, killing four and injuring ten. In response, Israel imposed a curfew on the village in which the terrorists came from, and withheld the permits of 80,000 West Bank Palestinians seeking entry into Israel during Ramadan. All this comes on the heels of the so-called “stabbing intifada” over the past six months and the undeniable rightward shift of Israel’s current government, exemplified most prominently by the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister.
Against such a hopeless backdrop then, why and how can I remain hopeful for the future of Israel and Palestine? In the face of unimaginable grief and pain, and never-ending frustration, why haven’t I given up hope for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians? I know full well that it would be so much easier to walk away from this issue, avert my eyes, and devote my energy elsewhere. But I also know that to walk away, to stop fighting for a better tomorrow, would be an abdication of all that I hold dear. Israel, though ridden with tensions and conflicts and inconsistencies, pierces the innermost parts of my being. And I remain hopeful, sometimes painfully so, for Israel’s future and that of its Palestinian neighbor, because there are no other options. Hope, let me tell you, is not naïveté; merely the desire for a better tomorrow and doing your part, big or small, to try to help get there.
As soon as we touched down, I encountered defiant hope in the form of inspiring Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to give up hope and abandon the fight for a better future. And while they do not all agree with one another over the contours of a proposed final resolution, all rightfully acknowledge that the status quo—of occupation and terror, denial and humiliation, restriction and fear—is unsustainable. Most importantly, all exemplify courageous leadership in the face of enormous adversity.
In Dan Rothem of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, we met a political geographic analyst who has developed interactive maps of Israel and Palestine, detailing with precision the messiest and most contentious of issues on the map at the negotiating table. And while I had previously been exposed to and utilized his maps, what fascinated me even more was his work on the Israeli psyche. Examining the psychological forces that inhibit progress toward peace, we looked at Israeli society since the onset of the peace process, and found statistically that on key issues regarding the conflict, Israeli opinion could be malleable, made even more supportive of reconciliation and peace efforts.
In Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, we met a native Jerusalemite who is Israel’s foremost expert on settlements in the West Bank. Driving with her throughout the West Bank, her indefatigable spirit is palpable. For twenty plus years, she has been directing Peace Now’s Settlement Watch team, coordinating the most comprehensive reports on West Bank settlements. For Ofran, the struggle is nothing less than Zionism itself; saving and guaranteeing for perpetuity Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and disentangling her country from its corrosive occupation. Ofran has seen better days come and go, but she too hasn’t lost hope.
In Bashar al-Masri, lead developer of the Palestinian city of Rawabi, we met a man with a vision, determined to actualize it at all costs. Masri’s cause is Palestinian statehood, Rawabi typifying the type of project around which Palestinian society can mobilize in support of that goal. Developing a city from scratch is no easy feat, especially when it is financed entirely from the private sector. But Masri’s fortitude is undeniable, and in vexing situations—of which there are undoubtedly many—he never loses sight of the end goal. To the extremists in both Israel and Palestine, Rawabi is nothing short of a nightmare. But for Masri, and for me too, Rawabi represents the best of the Palestinian people, state, and future.
Leaving Israel and Palestine, I can’t say I know when or even if the two state solution will be implemented. At present such a solution, in fact, seems a far cry from reality. But still I remain hopeful. Dan Rothem and Hagit Ofran and Bashar al-Masri invigorate that hope. In the most frustrating and painful of times, I am reminded of all of their struggles, at once individual yet collective too. And their continuous struggle for a more livable and peaceful Israel-Palestine must not be in vain. If my journey throughout this contentious land taught me anything, it is to follow in their footsteps, in actions big and small. It’s the least I owe them.
Zackary Narin is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort.