Hearing the Other: the Compassionate Listening
One need not agree with another in order to be compassionate, but one needs to be compassionate in order to come to a meaningful agreement. This is the main lesson I learned after an intense two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories last November.
The Compassionate Listening Project is a project of Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy, a U.S.-based non-profit organization which leads delegations from North America to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to deepen participants' understanding of all parties to the conflict, and to support and initiate peace-building efforts. Participants in the project listen as people of diverse political, religious and cultural orientations and backgrounds express their points of view. The project is based on the premise that peace comes through the hard work of listening to one's enemy; and acknowledging one another's suffering.
This was my first trip to Israel since 1981, and my personal agenda was to get "up to speed" on the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I never expected the experience to be so personal and so transformative. I spent fourteen days in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Gaza, listening, asking questions, and then trying to process what I heard and felt. I was face to face with a wide variety of religious and secular, left- and right-wing Palestinians and Jews. The list of those we met includes Yehezkel Landau, co-director of a peace education centre called Open House; Zoughbi al-Zoughbi, a Palestinian Christian, and director of a Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution; Chaim Silverstein, the director of a Yeshiva in East Jerusalem; Sarah Kaminker, a former Jerusalem city council member and planner; Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; Lea Tsemel, an Israeli human rights lawyer; Rabbi Menachem Froman, the founder of Gush Emunim (Israeli settlers' movement); Dr. Hussein Ibrahim Issa, the past principal of a school that teaches peace education and democracy to 100 Palestinians in the West Bank; Yitzhak Mendelsohn, a clinical psychologist for survivors of terror attacks; Dr. Haidar Abdul Shafi, the director of the Palestinian Red Cross and a founding member of the PLO; Dr. Ghazi Hamad, member of the Islamic Salvation Army and former member of Hamas; Stanley Ringler, director, Foreign Desk, Israel One Party; Faisal Husseini, director of the Orient House, Palestinian political headquarters in Jerusalem, and many more.
Below are the highlights of a compassionate listening session with Dr. Iyyad El Saraj, the Director of the Gaza Mental Health Program and Director of the Palestinian Independent Commission on Human Rights. In his ten years as a psychiatrist dealing with victims of torture, he has seen 14,000 people. Here is some of what he said to my group at his office in Gaza City.
"In the course of working with the patients, we could not help but see that there is a very intimate relationship between mental health and human rights. It was impossible for us to define mental health, in an environment that is very oppressive and very abusive in so many ways to the individual sense of dignity.
"In the past 50 years, I think every Palestinian found a form of self-actualization through identifying with the just cause, bypassing all the normal stages of development. Suddenly, today, we seem to have no cause or struggles, because of the peace process and handing over responsibility to Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Suddenly, people have come to realize that their basic needs are not there. This is why people feel very frustrated and alienated today. They feel they haven't achieved what they intended to achieve by this struggle.
"In the last 30 years of the Israeli occupation, we Palestinians in the occupied areas became more sensitized to the question of human rights and the question of democratization, ironically, because we lived under the Israeli military occupation with all its abuses of human rights. But we saw democracy, and the rule of law. We couldn't participate, but we could see the Israeli parliament debating things and not killing each other because they disagreed.
"In the last five years with the peace process, after the Oslo Agreements and the establishment of the Palestinian Authorities, we found out that some Palestinians who themselves were tortured in Israeli jails are torturing other Palestinians. Some people within the Palestinian Authority want the violations to be hidden and not talked about. My idea is we have to spread it. We have to really decide what is wrong with us before we can ask other people to be good.
"Even for the long-term interest of Israel itself, we Palestinians should live in a democracy. For the long-term interest of Israel's children, I need my children to live in a sense of security and respectænot the gun.
What I need is a partner in peace that can look at me in the eye and see in me an equal human being. I need that from my own Authority. I want to be treated the same way the Israeli government treats its own citizens.
"Without this kind of basic respect for ourselves as dignified human beings, without democratization of Palestine and a respect for the rule of law, I can assure you that there will never be real peace. You will still have people who will be setting off bombs, especially with the economic situation the way that it is. And for the majority of us, it is not very good. The annual per capita income of Palestinians in Gaza is $700 a year. In Israel it is $18,000. We go there and see. An ordinary Palestinian here buys a bag of milk and sugar for the same price you pay in Tel Aviv because all our products come from Israel. But our annual income cannot compare. How can you expect these people to be peaceful?
"I am giving you a warning now. I can see it. Palestinians today are sitting and waiting. Everybody is telling them peace is coming. Oh yes, this is only temporary ._ Oslo Agreements are only an interim agreement. We will have the final status solution within a year. Don't worry. You will have a democratic state. You will have West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. This is the promise. And people are sitting and waiting. If nothing of this happens, people will explode. I can tell you with frankness, it is going to be bloody. Inside and outside, it is going to spill everywhere.
"The message I want you to carry with you, [is that] if things are taken on the surface, like Arafat is meeting with Barak and Clinton is talking about peace, this has nothing to do with peace. What is happening today is, a group of politicians are deciding the future of people without realizing they are playing with dynamite.
"A few months before the Intifada, a 16 or 17 year old man came in and said, 'Doctor, I want you to get me a bomb or hand grenade.' I said, 'I am a doctor, I don't deal with these matters. But, why do you want a bomb?' It was a sign of mental illness for me. He said, 'I have figured out after years of studying the Palestinian-Israeli problem that the only way out is that every one of us put a hand grenade on himself, go to Israel, kill himself and kill another Israeli.' I sat for one hour to find out if he was mentally ill or not. He was not, in the sense of mental pathology. He was behaving in an abnormal manner, right, but in an abnormal environment. Together, they make normal.
"One day one of my cousins said to me, 'I want to be a suicide killer.' He was 16. I was amazed. But I could understand. It is very difficult to understand unless you are Palestinian and unless you live in this part of the world. When you live in this environment where systematic humiliation is being practiced against you in every message you get, you are bound to boil with anger.
"Sometimes, during this kind of environment, you become an easy target for any fanatic. A fanatic comes along and tells them, 'Come and join me. If you die, you go to heaven, seventy women are waiting for you, not just one. You will be in rivers of honey and milk. You will be in paradise. You will be protected by God from all this misery and this humiliation and poverty.' Would you be tempted? As a normal person who believes in God, if you are living in such an abnormal environment and you have a strong belief in this, what else?
"In our jail, the Palestinian Authority put me with 40 young Hamas cadres; potential 'terrorists.' I spent 12 days with them. I was amazed. The whole story is about humiliation, revenge, poverty, and lack of exposure to a decent book, lack of exposure to a nice park. You know, within 12 days of talking to these people about democracy and human rights, and psychology, mental health, women, and children, I can assure you and without exaggeration, I have changed some of them. What I believe is that violence can only bring violence. I was always against the armed struggle. Hamas is only a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. The message of our time is: respect, dignity, and human rights. I told my fellow prisoners, whoever will take this message will serve Islam, and give a shining example of Islam. Then, people will say, 'Muslims are good people.' We must change the image!
"I grew up in an environment that made me hate Jews. They robbed me of my country, and killed Palestinians. One day, in 1956, when Israel occupied Gaza, I was 12 years old and a man came to our door. 'Is Rajab there?' he asked. 'Tell him Moshe is here.' I told my father, who came and quickly fell upon the stranger, crying with joy. The two of them were so happy to see each other. I was shocked! My father was hugging a Jew! Then my father told me, 'Moshe is like a brother to me.' I couldn't believe it. 'If you are friends with my father, who killed all the Palestinians?' I asked. For the first time, I could see that there are Jews I could love. Jews are not all one thing. There are good Jews and bad Jews. Then, I believed Zionists were bad. Later, I learned that labels were bad. I started to go with human experiences, as individuals. "During the Intifada, I was in my house alone. An Israeli officer said to me, 'Come out!' so I went out. He pointed at a tire burning in the street.
'I'll give you a half hour to put it out!' he told me, and he took my ID. I knew I couldn't put out that tire. If I did so, people would think I was against the resistance. I didn't put out the fire. The officer began shouting at me. I spoke and said, 'I can see a human being behind this uniform. I want to relate to him.' The officer threw my ID at me and left.
"These and other experiences tell me that behind the people are human beings that can come out. If you can see that human being coming out, it gives you hope. People are yearning for peace, but they want a dignified life."
For more information on the Compassionate Listening Project, please contact MidEast Citizen Diplomacy, P.O. Box 17, Indianola, Washington, 98342, U.S.A., phone: (360) 297-2280; fax: (360) 297-6563.
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