As Mideast leaders talk peace, a story of action

I confess to being skeptical about what good can emerge from this month’s talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Trips to Israel/Palestine have led me to conclude that for all the talk of “ancient antipathies,” the fight there is fundamentally a territorial one -- a grinding, tedious land grab made possible by denial of Palestinian rights.

The peace process has become notorious for its inability to rectify this reality. Should this month’s conversations prove otherwise, I would still be wary. I have visited enough war zones to know that the gap between the peace signed at the table and what is lived on the ground can be vast.

Although I am skeptical, I am not despairing. For the miracle of the Holy Land is that in this suffocating place of repressive laws, walls, and checkpoints there exist expanses of compassion in brave, little campaigns and individuals who bridge the many lines that divide.

The peace they articulate is not an abstract, future good but a reality they are now building. They are grappling with the question every Israeli and Palestinian must ultimately face: How then will we live together?

The stories of these everyday peacemakers are worth knowing for we too live in a divided land. Here’s one for your consideration:

The Smuggler’s Tale

Israeli writer and editor Ilana Hammerman is a self-described “serial smuggler.” Some time earlier this year -- Ms. Hammerman won’t give the exact date -- she smuggled three young Palestinian women ages 18 and 19 into Israel so they could have “some fun.” She took them on a tour of Tel Aviv, visiting the city’s university, a museum, a shopping mall, and then the beach -- which none of the young women had seen even though it is only forty kilometers from their home.

This innocent excursion was illegal. Israel’s Law of Entry prohibits Israelis from transporting Palestinians into Israel who do not have permits. Violators face fines and up to two years in prison. Palestinians trying to procure such permits are subjected to a labyrinthian process that frequently ends in denial. Conversely, Israeli military forbids Israelis from entering the Occupied Territories. As a result, the two communities are more segregated now than ever.

Hammerman knew of these hazardous divisions when she set out with her Palestinian guests on that undisclosed day. She described her defiant excursion in an article for the May issue of Haaretz magazine, charmingly entitled “If There is a Heaven.” She told how she advised the teens to remove their headscarves to avoid attracting attention, taught them a phrase in Hebrew, and fudged a bit when the guard at the checkpoint inquired about their identity.

Within weeks of the stories publication The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, sounding just like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, demanded consequences for the disobedient day tripper. At the behest of the organization, which ironically defends the rights of Jewish settlers to go a-wandering, Israel’s attorney general launched a criminal investigation into Hammerman, a middle-aged woman of unassuming appearance.

The Israeli press and much of the public were also severe. An interviewer on television even asked Hammerman if she checked the underpants of her guests to make sure they were not carrying explosives.

But some Israelis took inspiration from the writer’s optimistic act. In late July eleven Israeli women -- Hammerman among them -- took a dozen Palestinian women, one baby, and three Palestinian children for a day at the seaside. After their guests were safely home the Israelis publicized their adventure in a letter to the press, admitting they “deliberately violated” Israel’s Law of Entry.

“We cannot assent to the legality of the Entry into Israel Law, which allows every Israeli and every Jew to move freely in all regions between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River while depriving Palestinians of this same right,” the women wrote in the letter.

“They are not permitted free movement within the occupied territories nor are they allowed to enter the towns and cities across the Green Line, where their families, nation, and tradition are deeply rooted.”

Nearly 600 Israelis have signed up for a campaign of civil disobedience, declaring they will risk jail in order to take Palestinians on trips to the beach. .More “smugglings” are reportedly planned.

For all its apparent frivolity, Hammerman’s expedition was thoughtfully considered. Her smuggler’s tale was intended to raise questions about blind obedience to laws that sustain an unbearable occupation and violate human empathy. Most significantly, Hammerman wisely realizes that “security” -- Israel’s great desire -- will not be guaranteed with walls, permits, and checkpoints staffed by kids with guns. Wherever there are walls that divide human beings, there will always be people willing to breach them.

Reflecting on the absurd divisions in her homeland, Hammerman writes that “it now occurs to me to ask the many people of little insight among my Israeli compatriots: Who then, will protect you from offenders like me who do no poke around in the underpants of their Palestinian friends but bring them here to socialize with us and be guests in our cities and thus, among other goals, look for different ways to ensure us, at long last, a life of security and peace?”

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