It took me a moment before I understood why my story about a few relatively inconsequential incidents, which occurred years ago at my high school, had such an effect on the undergraduates taking my fall semester course in 2006.
One of my anecdotes related to classmates of mine who lived in the Jewish settlements at the northern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It was 1981, and the following year they would be forced to leave their homes as part of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt, but at the time, I told my students, the evacuation did not seem imminent, at least to many teenagers for whom each year stretches without end. A particular issue that did preoccupy us, I continued, was learning to drive. I described to my students how my friends from the farming communities located in the Sinai and the small town of Yamit took their lessons in the Palestinian town of Rafah and were among the first to pass their driving tests.
My students in the politics and government department of Ben-Gurion University found this story incomprehensible. They simply could not imagine Israeli teenagers taking driving lessons in the middle of Rafah, which, in their minds, is no more than a terrorist nest riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt; weapons subsequently used against Israeli targets.
The average age difference between me and my students is only 15 years, but our perspectives are radically different. When I was a high-school student at the agricultural school Eshel Hanasi, I frequently hitched a ride back from school to my home in Beer Sheva with Palestinian taxis from the Gaza Strip. In the current context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is simply unfathomable. No taxis from the territories are allowed to enter Israel, and even if they were somehow able to obtain an entry permit, Israeli Jews would be afraid to use them.
Two decades ago, Palestinians were an integral part of the Israeli landscape, primarily as low-wage laborers who built houses, cleaned streets and worked in agriculture, but in the last few years they have literally disappeared. In the 1980s, most Israelis and Palestinians could travel freely between the territories and Israel and, in many respects, felt safe doing so. Currently Palestinians are locked up in the Gaza Strip, and Israelis are not permitted to enter the region. Palestinians from the West Bank are confined behind a separation barrier and only the Jewish settlers living there travel back and forth from Israel.
Most of my students have consequently never talked with Palestinians from the territories, except perhaps as soldiers during their military service. Their acquaintance with Palestinians is therefore limited to three-minute news bites that almost always report on Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets or Israeli military assaults on Palestinian towns.
The students’ reaction to my teenage experiences is accordingly understandable, but it also brings to the fore a crucial issue that is often overlooked: namely, that Israel’s occupation has dramatically changed over the past four decades, and particularly since the eruption of the second Intifada in 2000. Some of the changes; the most damaging of which are the ongoing expansion of the settlements and the hermetic closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both of which have, in many respects, led to the rise of Hamas; are often discussed in the media and are rightly understood as hindering the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians reaching a peace agreement based on the two-state solution. The change that is hardly ever mentioned is the current lack of contact between ordinary Israelis (as opposed to soldiers and settlers) and Palestinians.
The separation barrier built deep inside Palestinian territories best symbolizes this change. One of its many devastating effects is the severance of practically all day-to-day contact between the two peoples. The younger generation on both sides of the Green Line no longer sees the ‘other’ as living, breathing beings but rather in stereotypical terms, which are often informed by prejudice and racist assumptions.
The alienation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians consequently serves the interests of all those who would like to portray the other side as a perpetual and mortal enemy.
The effects of this change should not be underestimated. Simply put, it seems that the younger (Jewish) generation within Israel is less likely than ever to support a leader who would have the courage to initiate a just peace agreement based on the full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including the return of East Jerusalem, and some kind of creative solution for the Palestinian refugees.
Tragically, after 41 years of occupation the two-state solution seems to be more remote than ever before. Peace within the existing context, as Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery, has convincingly argued, is like surmounting an abyss. One cannot achieve it with short strides but only with a great leap. My students’ reactions suggest that the gulf between the two peoples is only growing wider.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Read about his new book, Israel’s Occupation, and more at www.israelsoccupation.info