If it’s abnormal in Jerusalem, it’s because ‘we are filled with love’

Some reflections inspired by first-hand reporting by Al Majalla from Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem

Axel Rangel Garcia/Majalla

If it’s abnormal in Jerusalem, it’s because ‘we are filled with love’

Jerusalem: After stepping into the magical hidden courtyards off the vibrant Jaffa street in central Jerusalem, families were lighting the fourth candle in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, while young men were playing guitars and singing. “This courtyard is off limits,” Naomi warned me politely.

The inhabitants are ultra-orthodox Jews, and we can’t enter unless we observe some rules, including women to be dressed modestly.

“It’s not legal, but that’s the rule here, and we have to respect it,” Naomi added.

This Hanukkah, Naomi and Ibrahim took me on a tour across the narrow lanes of the old neighbourhood of Nachlaot. The two friends knew each other when they studied art at a private school in the holy city for three years.

Now, they are in their early twenties, and both are planning their future lives differently: Ibrahim is starting a media business remotely with a friend in an Arab country, while Naomi is still on a soul-searching sabbatical. She has decided to volunteer to help the families of the victims of the 7 October attacks recollect themselves and their memories by piecing together bits and pieces of the broken memorabilia in their houses.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
A narrow lane in the old neighbourhood of Nachlaot in central Jerusalem

As the two friends love to experiment with new cuisines, they took me later to an Armenian restaurant inside the walled old city, but of course, after buying Hanukkah doughnuts fried in oil, which symbolises the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days instead of one in the Jewish scriptures.

“If it’s abnormal, it’s because our friendship is filled with love and respect between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim, and both were born in Jerusalem,” Ibrahim says, switching between his mother tongue, Arabic, and the Hebrew he learnt in university and life.

They both requested to be anonymous because Naomi says she’s “super private”, while Ibrahim fears for his safety as “many Israelis and Palestinians have become radicalised because of the 7 October attacks and the ferocious response by the Israeli army in Gaza afterwards,” he explains.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
"Here's a place whose atmosphere is peace where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten," reads a sign in Jerusalem

They have a perspective on what it’s like for a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew to be friends. The 7 October attacks by Hamas were a real test to their friendship. “If our friendship has survived 7 October, then we can survive anything in the future,” says Ibrahim.

“We are both against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. When Naomi read our history, she learned about the struggle of my parents and our relatives. She sympathises with our cause and feels for us as much as I feel for her pain after the atrocities of 7 October.”

Co-existence is such an ‘absurd’ word

I was invited to lunch at a place in Jerusalem known as the seamline between the East and the West. Jerusalemites call this strip of land, which overlooks both parts, the no man’s land.

Feel Beit is a cultural centre willing to accept the other, even if they have nothing in common. It was established in 2019 by Palestinian and Israeli peace activists to “recognise the humanity” of everyone through art and culture.

I listened to inspiring ideas from a diverse group of Israelis and Palestinians, who say they don’t want to “normalise the abnormal” or call for “co-existence”. They simply believe in the existence and equality of all Palestinians and Israelis.

Their “home” is open to everyone but “the extremists from both sides will kick themselves out and won’t come back,” says Communications and Media Director Zuhdi Najeeb.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
Jerusalem at night from a spot near the Mount of Olives

“I mean, co-existence is such an absurd word. We don’t have to force co-existence in a very abnormal reality, which even existed before 7 October. Even the word peace is very shallow. Before you start discussing co-existence and peace, let's talk about the existence of the other with their culture, identity, and roots with respect and humility. You don’t have to make compromises here, and you don’t have to agree with the other. Just respect them,” says Najeeb.

Today’s reality is indeed confusing, tense, and problematic for the Palestinians and Israelis alike. The accumulative impact of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as the horrors of the 7 October attacks, which resulted in the killing and kidnapping of hundreds of Israeli civilians, have posed a daunting challenge to the friendship and relationships of the peace community.

“I don’t accept Israeli description of the co-existence with ‘the good Arab’. I want to live with good people on both sides,” said Najeeb. He and his friends try to find an alternative, better reality in such difficult times.

“We don’t seek to change the current reality because people fear change. We might be a minority in both societies but we are rational and realistic.”

How can you tell if you are hopeless?

When I visited Ramallah, I couldn’t escape this prevailing sense of hopelessness in the streets among people from all walks of life.

Ramallah is the core of a would-be Palestinian state. Today, the people here feel very nervous, vulnerable, and angry. The Palestinians who spoke to me believe that the Israeli war in Gaza and the intensified raids on their towns in the occupied West Bank, are aimed at spreading this sense of hopelessness and stripping the Palestinians of their self-confidence and hope for a better future.

Many Palestinians are of the view that Israel wants them to stop talking about the Palestinian cause as a political project, abandon this political ideology once and for all, and stop using the word occupation gradually.

Read more: Some takeaways from this year's Nakba anniversary

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
Part of the Israeli separation wall snakes through Bethlehem

“But Israel has failed since its founding on the ruins of Palestine to defeat us psychologically,” says Zainab Abdin, a 28-year-old café waitress.

I asked her about whether the two-state solution is the only way out of the intractable conflict and continuing limbo between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but she no longer endorses it.

“I used to support the concept of us living with them in two separate countries, but not anymore. They don’t want it and won’t allow us to live in dignity and have our own country. The occupation is suffocating us,” said Abdin. “How can I recognise them if they don’t recognise me?”

For many Palestinians, the two-state solution is becoming a distant dream, and the Oslo Peace Accords, which launched the peace process in 1993 to establish a Palestinian state, are barely remembered or even known here, especially among the young generations.

Israel says this is just a “temporary” military occupation of the West Bank since the 1967 war. But this temporary occupation has continued for over half a century. Palestinian and Israeli peace activists tell me that this "temporary" status could be viewed as a "big lie" on par with other big political lies used in different conflicts.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
The Dome of the Rock mosque

Settler groups have also become very vocal and bold in their intentions to seize more land, as the Israeli army is busy elsewhere in Gaza. Today, it's hard, if not impossible, to remove many Israeli settlers from the West Bank if a final peace agreement is reached. Their population stands at nearly 700,000 — a very big number.

The UN and foreign governments regard Israeli settlements as illegal. Israel says any talk about this is politically motivated and rejects any attempt to portray "Jewish communities” in the West Bank as a new form of colonialism. Israeli right-wing politicians call them “territories under dispute”.

But these settlements are indeed threatening the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state.

A religious Zionist settlement in Ramallah

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there are two kinds of settlements: the ones which had been established by religious Zionists and those which had been inhabited by Israelis who are lured to relocate to these houses because of state incentives, including tax cuts and the cheap cost of living compared to very expensive Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv.

A five-minute car ride from the café where I met Zainab in Ramallah took me to the gated settlement of Beit El, which was established in 1977 by the religious Zionist group Yeshivat Mercaz Harav in northern Ramallah, the heart of a potential future Palestinian state.

Many Israelis see the religious Zionists and religious parties as working hard to change Israel into a theocracy.

The relationship between the two major currents in Israel, the ultra-orthodox and the secular, is already at stake, and the chasm has been evident in the long-running protests against the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners since the beginning of 2023.

Outside the Knesset in Western Jerusalem, I met one of the protesters who took part in anti-Netanyahu rallies before and after 7 October.

Guy Metzger says Netanyahu should have resigned on 7 October immediately as he failed to provide Israelis in the south with security and peace.

“This a big crisis. Prime ministers in other countries resign because of less serious problems than ours. Boris Johnson in the UK resigned because of a Corona party, while our prime minister is reluctant to resign and admit his responsibility for the massacre of 7 October,” he said at the sit-in camp for families of the victims and hostages.

His 78-year-old mother, Tamar Metzger, was released by Hamas as part of the hostages-prisoners exchange deal in November with Israel. His father, 80-year-old Yoram, is still being held in Gaza at the time of writing this feature.

“My father and mother used to help Palestinians get permits to be treated in Israeli hospitals. They used to organise charity work to send food and clothes to Gazans. What happened on 7 October broke our hearts.”

“Why? I’m sure it’s the evil work of uneducated and ignorant people from Gaza, let alone they have done this to people who are too vulnerable and frail like my mother and father,” said Metzger.

Ahmed Maher/Majalla
A sign outside the Knesset in Jerusalem: "Depose him now"

Metzger, 53, isn’t a peace activist himself unlike his parents. He’s a diamond cutter living in the Israeli city of Hadera, around 50k north of Haifa.

Asked about his view regarding a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he says the Palestinians should have had their country a long time ago.

“We are losing many people because of these settlements and the occupation. It’s pointless. In the end, they will give the occupied territories to the Palestinians, as happened in Sinai and Gaza. That’s the only solution. We shouldn’t cave into the far right in Israel because they are very dangerous, not just for Israel but for the entire region,” he said.

‘It’s better to keep it that way’

During my visit to Jerusalem, the Jewish extremist far-right obtained police permission to organise a rally in the Muslim quarter in the Old City.

These kinds of rallies are a constant source of provocation, anger, and potential violence in occupied East Jerusalem. The rally didn’t take place eventually, as the protesters insisted on raising very racist placards inciting violence.

Read more: With the rise in settler violence, are Israel's far-right groups actually militias?

Israeli police confiscated some of the banners and stopped the approximately 40 marchers from progressing further. This didn’t stop them from chanting very offensive swear words against the Arabs and demanding the complete Jewish restoration of the Temple Mount, which the Muslims refer to as Al Haram Al Sharif, which houses Islam’s third holiest site, the Al Aqsa Mosque.

One of the main slogans of the rally’s organisers was, “We won’t win the war only in Gaza.”

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, you don’t have to go outside Jerusalem to see the separation wall or report first-hand. Part of the wall -- which Israel calls a security barrier -- is just a ten-minute drive or less from the Armenian quarter in the Old City.

“It’s better to keep it that way,” the former Israeli interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, told me in an interview in 2021.

This phrase sums up the conflict management strategy that the separation wall embodies. Across several governments in Israel, mostly chaired by Netanyahu as he led several coalition governments for over 16 years, there have been very influential politicians, Knesset members, current and former ministers who all want to manage the conflict, not resolve it.

And with the 7 October attacks and Israel’s response in Gaza, can anyone manage this conflict indefinitely? Or are they just going in circles? Is the two-state solution just now a byword for big diplomatic failure?

“Israel can resolve the conflict if it wants,” Palestinian political analyst and researcher Jihad Harb told me when I met him in Ramallah. “The 7 October attacks have alerted the international community that it can no longer put such an explosive issue on the back burner. They cannot bypass the Palestinian cause anymore.”

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