to understand the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in human terms, I
made a visit last week to a Palestinian farmer named Hammadeh Kashkeesh, whom I
first met 32 years ago.
encounter reminded me of the pain that’s at the heart of this dispute, and how
hard it will be for any diplomatic settlement to resolve the bitterness on both
try to imagine the landscape, and how it has changed in the years of Israeli
occupation. Halhul is an agricultural town in the rock-ribbed hills just south
of Bethlehem. When I first traveled this route in 1982 to spend two weeks with
Kashkeesh, to write a profile of his town, the hillsides were mostly barren.
Now, the landscape is dense with Israeli settlements, many of them built since
the Oslo Accord in 1993 that created the Palestinian Authority.
and his neighbors pride themselves on raising what they claim are the tastiest
grapes in the world. His access to his vines was obstructed more than a decade
ago when a special road was built for Israeli settlers who live nearby. He had
given up his precious grapes when I visited in 2003, but he’s now found a way
to tend them again. Some of his neighbors aren’t so lucky; their vines have
grown wild or died.
67, worked for years as a stonecutter and then a farmer. He somehow managed to
send all of his seven children to high school or college.
indignity and bitterness that come with military occupation are deeply embedded
in Kashkeesh’s voice. In Halhul, the Palestinian Authority is in theory largely
responsible for security. But the Israeli military controls access and
intervenes when it sees a security threat. The night before my visit, Kashkeesh
said, the Israeli army arrested 10 people for throwing stones at soldiers.
no condoning rock-throwing, let alone terrorist violence. Such tactics have had
ruinous consequences for Palestinians, not least in undermining Israeli hope
that they ever could live in peace. Hearing the anger in Kashkeesh’s voice, and
seeing the sullen faces of young men gathered near his house, was a reminder
that Palestinians experience life as a series of daily humiliations. Life in
Halhul feels closed, embittered, confrontational.
first visited the town, openly advocating a Palestinian state could get you
arrested. Villagers would hide a Palestinian flag disguised as embroidery, or a
map of Palestine on the back of a wall photo. Now, the U.S. is working with
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on a “framework agreement” outlining terms
for peace accord.
Kashkeesh said he has nearly given up. He dislikes the Palestinian Authority
almost as much as the Israelis. “They are liars,” he says, whose corrupt
leaders build themselves fancy villas and operate “like a trading company.” He
also rejects Hamas, and says the Palestinian leadership overall has “destroyed
itself, by itself.”
the peace negotiations, he asks how Palestinians will control their destiny in
the demilitarized state that Israel is demanding. “How can we have a sovereign
state if we don’t have control over the border with Jordan?” he wonders. If
Israel gains the recognition it wants as a Jewish state, he argues that
Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel will feel unwelcome. “Nobody will
believe in the agreement, which means there will be no peace.”
sadly that Kashkeesh might be right in his skepticism – and that a real end of
this conflict may be impossible – I asked him to tell me again the story about
the boy and the swimming pool. Listen with me:
1975. Kashkeesh was 29 and had recently been released from prison after serving
a six-year sentence for membership in the Fatah guerrilla group. He was working
at a resort in Arad when he saw an Israeli infant fall into the swimming pool.
The parents were elsewhere, and though Kashkeesh couldn’t swim, there was
nobody else to save the boy. So he jumped in the water and took the child in
his arms. When an Israeli investigator asked him why he had risked his life to
help a Jew, he answered that the boy was a human being.
tells that story now without much animation. As with millions of Israelis and
Palestinians, I suspect that his heart has been hardened by so many years of
pain and failure. Will the peace negotiations work amid so much mistrust and
anger? I don’t know, but this quest for peace is surely still worth the effort.