Tuesday, August 22, 2006

by Timothy Rearden (October 2004)

Dominique Caillat, to prepare your play “Kidnapping” you spent several months interviewing people on both sides of the Green Line, travelling all around Israel and the Palestinian Territories: what was your main impression?

Most of all, that this is a story with many, many layers. Also, that public mood in Israel and Palestine is, understandably, extremely emotional and volatile. This is why so many people think in stereotypes, which help them to feel in control of their chaotic environment, to ignore unpleasant facts and to justify the unjustifiable. There are stereotypes about everything: suicide bombers, the occupation, victims, corruption, the army, democracy, the wall, etc. – which are used by demagogues of all camps, as if they were one-dimensional concepts, to rally the hearts of their followers and convince them that “we are right and they are wrong”.

There won’t be much progress towards a solution, I think, as long as people hang on to this existential need to be proved right and feel entitled to use all means, including violence, to establish their point politically and on the ground. No matter who is right, there will need to be a compromise because this is in the best interest of all people involved and because no one can win this war and take all the spoils.

Are you suggesting that both sides are wrong?

On the contrary, they are both right – to some extent. This is a rather unique historical situation: two people have legitimate rights to the same territory. This is a real conflict: it is about land, the only land available; there is nowhere else to go. That’s why it is so difficult to solve: we are not dealing here with the power lust of some crazy dictators, greedy businessmen or colonialist superpowers, but about people’s right and need to have a piece of land somewhere, where they are entitled to live in accordance with their culture and traditions, if they wish.

How does this translate into your play?

“Kidnapping” is a documentary play: a fictitious story designed to provide information as well as a deeper understanding and empathy for the people and causes involved. It is directly based on tens of interviews conducted during two years of research. I used my own experiences, which were diverse enough as I was travelling and changing my perspective constantly, talking to everyone irrespective of their or my own opinion. This was sometimes nerve-racking – I did occasionally wish I could adopt a more militant stance and choose a side, trumpet the usual clichés, yes: lie down one evening on a sofa and utter something obvious like “Hey, occupation is really the pits, man”.

Well, of course, occupation is awful. Anybody who has spent a few hours at a checkpoint or travelled any amount of time through the territories knows this. All occupations – soldiers subduing civilian populations - are per se disastrous. But having pronounced this truism, what next? I’ll tell you what: I wake up one morning and drive up to Jerusalem. Just as I approach the centre of town, where I have an appointment, a bus explodes on Gazza Street, a road that I regularly use and would certainly have crossed today as well. 12 dead, innumerable wounded, many of them children who were on their way to school. Reduced to shreds of flesh which Hassidic volunteers carefully allocate to different plastic bags, so as to reconstitute at least parts of the bodies to be buried within 24 hours. Next: on the site of the suicide bombing, three hours after the attack – everything perfectly cleaned up, not a sign of disturbance left, the usual noisy traffic jam with overcrowded busses and hyperactive car drivers – I talk to a woman settler from Hebron: she waves her Bible in the air and wags a threatening finger at me, crying out that God gave Palestine to the Jews and that all Arabs are murderers, genetically speaking. When I ask her about Baruch Goldstein (a fanatical Hebron settler who machine-gunned 29 praying Palestinians at Abraham’s tomb in 1994), she smiles sweetly: “O I knew him all right, I am proud to say. Such a wonderful, warm-hearted man, a doctor who loved and respected life. He saved so many lives, you know: all these Arabs could have killed us one day. It was really a case of self-defence. You would have loved Baruch, lady!“ Next: I drive to Beit Shanina in the West Bank, between Jerusalem and Ramalla, to meet an allegedly pacifist Palestinian who was educated in Germany. After a few glasses of Arak, he shows his true colours, denounces the holocaust “lie” (“granted: a few hundred thousand communists were shot – not gassed – and there may have been some Jews among them”), denies Israel’s right to exist and raves about the “Jewish world conspiracy”, which holds the planet in its claws, he assures me. Next: I finish the day with dear friends, two wonderfully wise and enlightened Israelis in their late 70s, both radically opposed to occupation; in fact the wife is a member of Machsom Watch, a human rights women organisation that surveys the checkpoints. Towards the end of the evening, the husband tells me he was once a member of Irgun, a Jewish underground organisation that was responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 (91 dead), though he did not take part in that particular attack (in which his wife’s father was killed!)

Nothing makes sense; the images are always distorted, like in a broken mirror.

Sounds complicate…

It is complicate. To answer your previous question, I tried to set every story from one camp against a story from the opposing camp. I guess the truth is lies in the amalgam of all narratives.

Does this bring peace any closer?

First, my job is not peace-making but trying to make people a little more sensitive and perceptive. Second, peace is not the logical or necessary end of a conflict. Peace does not somehow happen: it is an act of will, not destiny or wishful thinking. It is the radical decision of determined and often courageous leaders (like Sadate), or else it is imposed by the will of the people who become tired of war, of which they are the first and last victims. In the Middle East, I suspect that the peace effort will indeed come from below – people will one day stop electing warriors to rule over them, and choose negotiators instead. A peace from above is hard to imagine because the political systems on both sides seem hopelessly corrupt.

History plays an important role in „Kidnapping“. Wouldn’t it have been better to concentrate on the present?

And ignore the fact that in the Middle East, history is inseparable from the present? It’s a constant reference, in all speeches, all conversations, every press report. If you want to take part in social life, you need to understand the details and the meaning of past events. First of all, you need to know all about the wars, each of which has imprinted itself in the national psyche of both people, albeit in contradicting terms: 1948 (independence vs. “Naqba”/ catastrophe); 1956 (superpower politics vs. tripartite aggression); 1967 (great victory, return to Jerusalem and the lands of the Bible vs. humiliating defeat and begin of occupation); 1973 (disaster only just avoided vs. defeat deemed a victory); 1982-2000: traumatic Lebanon war; 1991: Gulf war (Iraqi missiles fall on Tel Aviv vs. Palestinians cheer Saddam Hussein). And of course, the uprisings – 1987: begin of the first Intifada (stone-throwing children); 2000: second Intifada (suicide bombers and begin of the “hard” occupation), 2002: final collapse of the Oslo agreements, Israel retakes control of all the Territories. There are hundreds of other significant dates, going right back to the destruction of the Second Temple! As for Palestinians, they name villages that have disappeared from the map over fifty years ago as their home, some still carry keys to houses destroyed in the fifties to build Israeli motorways or towns. They are obsessed with the idea of their return to a non-existent place. If it weren’t so tragic and absurd, it would be poetic.

The past is really the key to understanding the present. That’s why half the play is a trip through history.

What is Anna, the journalist, doing in this story? Does Germany have anything to say in this region at all?

That’s not the point. The question is not who is entitled to play a role, but rather who feels concerned by the story. Now obviously, because of their country’s history, most Germans are completely emotional with respect to anything involving Jewish people or causes, including of course Israel. And since the play was written for a German public, it is quite important, I think, to include a German character with which the audience is able to identify. Furthermore, being European myself, I would find it rather pretentious to do a play about the Middle East conflict as such. All I feel entitled to do, is to show our perception as outsiders.

I like to quote Gisela Dachs, correspondent of “Die Zeit” in Jerusalem, who wrote an excellent book about this issue entitled “Germans, Israelis and Palestinians – a difficult relationship”: “The holocaust, without which Israel cannot be understood, is part of our history. Unlike the Palestinians, who see themselves as victims of the victims, Germans cannot distance themselves from the pain suffered by Jews in the past. Given this complex triangle, it is even more of a challenge for us [journalists] to achieve objectivity in our reports – we cannot free ourselves from this burden just by pushing a button.” Joshka Fischer, Germany’s ex-foreign minister writes in the introduction: “For us Germans, these are fundamental issues of our politics and ethics. No other foreign policy theme affects our national image and identity as deeply. Because of its historical responsibility, Germany has a special duty with respect to Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. This duty cannot be set aside or qualified in any way. History has placed upon us a general responsibility to intercede for the rights of other people, including the Palestinians.”

I think this answers your question.

You are not German yourself. Do you really understand the German perspective?

Well, I have been living here for many years and have become, against all odds, rather “germanised”!

True: my German perspective is an acquired one. I am a French-speaking Swiss, born in the US. My father, who was a young diplomat in Berlin 1942-‘44, covertly engaged in anti-Nazi activities and was expulsed from Germany. So I didn’t grow up in an environment of acknowledged or suppressed guilt, like so many Germans. This gives me a slightly different view. For example, my interest in Israel didn’t grow out of guilt feelings, but of a deep admiration, as a child, for a country that epitomized, in my youthful eyes, everything I understood under the concept of “resistance”, the David against Goliath theme. It was also a very familiar country, the land of the Bible. Coming to Israel never quite seems like going abroad, since one is familiar with so many names and places, so many historical facts or legends. Finally, at a time when everyone was romantically leftist, Israel seemed to have achieved the great utopia of “socialism with a human face”.

Anyway, as time goes by, the holocaust is becoming for me less and less of a German issue, and increasingly a European phenomenon, no matter how fiercely many Europeans may have opposed the Third Reich. As far as Jewish persecution is concerned, responsibility is truly shared: some countries actively persecuted them, others closed their borders. The Jews were abandoned by everyone. For me, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these crimes happened in the Christian European world, which had supposedly invented human rights and enlightenment. In this respect, I do feel just as responsible as any young German born after the war. And I do feel compelled to face these sickening events: what happened exactly? Why? How do we prevent this from ever occurring again? The holocaust, in fact all aspects of the Nazi dictatorship, do or should shake every European’s sense of identity.

Let’s go back to the conflict. Does ”Kidnapping” offer any solution?

Once again, that’s not my purpose, nor can it be the purpose of any play. The Middle-East conflict is a relevant subject for the theatre because it involves emotions, traumas, conflict and burning issues that concern all of us. My purpose, if you wish, is to show that Israelis and Palestinians are normal people with existential problems. They are not different from us. And at a time when terror, fundamentalism, military adventurism and infringement of civil rights are daily news, I find it important to look into this situation, which is a microcosm of many events happening in the world on a larger scale. We have much to learn in terms of how to react, what to avoid, how to deal with all these problems – clash of cultures, feelings of insecurity, feelings of humiliation and oppression, religious fanaticism, terrorism, militarism, nationalism, cultural identity, revenge, etc. It’s not about teaching or preaching, it’s about listening and opening our eyes.

So the answer is no: my play does not end happily with peace accomplished. It does end on a kind of positive note, however: in the last scene, all three characters stop fighting one another and begin to criticize themselves and their own societies. They get somewhat drowned in these parallel monologues of self-criticism and are still not truly communicating with one another, but I do believe this is an essential step towards any conflict resolution: to stop blaming the enemy for all one’s woes and look critically at oneself.

As for the solution, everyone knows it anyway: two separate sovereign states, evacuation of all the settlements, Jerusalem shared (or divided or internationalized), no significant right of return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes in Israel. This is the basis of the negotiations in Camp David and the subsequent draft Taba agreement (2000), of the “People’s Voice Initiative” (2002) and of the “Geneva Accord” (2003), among others.

Everyone knows this is what’s coming or ought to come. The question is: when?

What about the movement calling for a single bi-national state?

This is the solution put forward by Palestinians who hope that they will demographically swallow Israel. It would probably mean the end of the Jewish State as such.

It is nevertheless also advocated by some Israelis, who view a division as a sham: there is an obvious interdependence between Israelis and Palestinians, so why not go all the way and be a truly democratic, bi-national state? I respect this opinion, which calls for a pluralistic, tolerant and really democratic society. But I regard it as an utopian, futuristic vision that does not take into account the emotional and political realities on the ground.

A bi-national State presupposes reconciliation, which is unlikely yet: Too much blood has been spilt; there is too much hate, distrust, and a blatant ignorance of one another’s reality. Until the year 2000, Palestinians were able, to a certain extent, to cross the border. Many of them worked in Israel, they met and befriended Jews and vice versa. Since 2000, Palestinians have been more or less trapped in their homes and Israelis are forbidden to cross the Green Line. There is a total separation, made very concrete by the erection of a fence or wall throughout the land. The only Israelis whom Palestinians get to meet are heavily armed soldiers who humiliate them at checkpoints. Young Palestinians have never met a civilian Jew – the settlers aren’t really “civilians”: they are part of a political-military plan to conquer land. Every settler household has weapons, which are regularly overhauled by the army. In contrast, a Palestinian who carries a weapon is deemed a militant and can be imprisoned or even shot.

It is a mistake to think that reconciliation can or should precede peace. On the contrary, one first makes a “cold”, unsentimental peace, which allows citizens, at last, to lead a normal, reasonably secure life. Only then, with time, can people get used to one another and build bridges between their societies. Peace in Europe was not achieved on the basis of love, but of economic reconstruction and civil rights. Even now, after 60 years of successful economic and political ties, Germans are hardly loved and certainly feel unloved, for better or for worse. These things change slowly. The enemies need to die out. New generations are born, which have less reasons for prejudice. On a national level, what is needed is security and freedom, not love. Love belongs to the personal sphere.

Anyway, in a bi-national State you would have two people with different cultures and values forced to live together. The absence of a common set of values would automatically lead one of these people to dominate the other. Which one? The Palestinians, who would presumably soon have a majority? Or the Israelis, who are stronger and richer? I would say the latter. But the once again dominated-humiliated Arabs would presumably soon rebel and resort to violence… A nightmare starting all over again.

But aren’t Israelis and Palestinians actually quite close to one another? Aren’t there many cultural similarities?

You mean Isaac and Ishmael, the rival brothers? Yes and no. I think the Israelis rather envy the Arabs who, if nothing else, seem so rooted in the landscape. Even if they never had a State, never had any concrete legal title to the place, they just look like they belong there, and they do: the way they look, dress, speak, build their houses, cook their food, do music, understand nature. Israelis are adopting some of these traditions – for example food habits and music –, slowly becoming a little more Mediterranean.

But the cultural difference remains immense.

On the one side, you have Israel, a West-oriented society on the US-European model: libertarian, democratic, individualistic. There may be particular, purely Israeli cultural aspects, but these don’t change the main direction. For me, it’s no problem living there, I feel perfectly at home in this very dynamic and communicative society.

Palestinian society is different. Of course, there is a Palestinian elite – lawyers, doctors, university professors, artists, even some politicians – who is like any intelligentsia in Paris, Berlin or Tel Aviv. But a large proportion of the Palestinian people lives in a world and according to traditions that remain foreign to us.

The most obvious difference regards the position of women (mostly the Muslim women), who are confined to a submissive role in a strongly patriarchal society: arranged marriages, concealment behind headscarves and long veils, mass production of children, isolated life at home, death penalty for adultery or other “crimes” considered a breach of the family’s honour, etc. are widespread practices. There are exceptions of course, particularly in larger, modern cities like Ramalla, but the archaic treatment of women remains the rule.

A further element of estrangement is the clan system. This is a social structure we basically understand nothing about but which is a fundamental principle of everyday life in Palestine. Clan and democracy are contradictions in terms. The basic unit is the family, not the State; loyalty is to the family, not to the whole community. “Tribal” traditions, for example the laws of revenge, honour, or hospitality are likely to supersede any abstract national legal system. A Palestinian in Hebron once told me that a ranking police officer is obliged to name his relatives at other key posts in the police force in order to protect himself against acts of revenge from members of other clans he might imprison or penalize in the course of duty. If he didn’t, he would endanger his life.

Democracy as such doesn’t exist although it is sometimes faked: when Arafat ran for the Chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority, it was necessary, for the sake of international recognition, that the process be deemed democratic. So a candidate was selected who had no chance at all of winning: over 70 years old, a Christian (!), a woman (!!), and terminally ill with cancer (!!!), as if to make sure that if she did win against all odds, she wouldn’t last long. She did die a few months after the election, in which she amazingly collected as much as 12 % of the votes. The world applauded.

I am not saying this is right or wrong. It is simply different, and not really compatible with our western sensibility and way of life.

The clan system, for example, has very positive aspects, quite apart from the fact that it is rooted in Arab tradition. In August 2004, the great Israeli journalist Amira Hass wrote an interesting article about this. She wondered how it could be that the social structure in the Palestinian cities had not been destroyed by the effects of occupation, in spite of the total collapse of the economy, the disintegration of the Palestinian Authority, the violent battles between rival movements (not to call them gangs), the poverty induced by occupation, and 60 % unemployment rate. Why hadn’t law and order completely crumbled down? Wouldn’t such circumstances create complete chaos in our western societies, with plummeting crime rates and a collapse of moral standards? Not so in Palestine. In Nablus, Hass wrote, you still do not need to lock the door of your house, and you can be sure that some relative will somehow keep you afloat even in the worst of times: you won’t starve to death. Not thanks to international aid, no, thanks to the clan that takes care of its own people. So the question is: do we outsiders want to destroy this well-oiled system in the name of democracy?

Do you think there is a tradition of violence in Arab societies?

Well, this is certainly a cliché. And anyway, I am not a specialist of this or that culture, so I can only give you a few impressions.

If you’re talking about the “ordinary” man on the street, I’d say he is far less “macho” and aggressive than your “typical” Israeli (although I really dislike generalizing in this way), who likes to give the impression that he is strong, supremely competent and always right! A day in the Knesset, or just a few hours driving around in Israel are pretty daunting experiences… Palestinians, with their supple bodies, slow tempo and melancholic faces have an appealing kind of softness and they are almost invariably polite and friendly.

There is a certain amount of theatricals in the loud TV-broadcasted demonstrations with much waving of weapons, shooting in the air, fiery speeches and hooded heads: the weak seem fascinated with the symbols of power. In Hebron, I saw kids playing “occupation” next to a checkpoint. I was told everyone wanted to play an Israeli, a strong guy. The “Israelis” carried sticks, frisking and threatening their little comrades who faced a broken wall, hands raised, silent.

It is said that there is much violence at home, in society and in politics: fathers allegedly hit their wives and children, teachers hit their pupils, policemen hit prisoners. I haven’t witnessed any of this obviously, it’s just hearsay. I do have an anecdote, however, about resort to intimidation:

I once met a Christian Palestinian woman in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. She had spent most of her life abroad, first in Kuwait, later in Germany, a hard-working single mother. After being pensioned, she returned to her home in Palestine and lived alone in a house she had inherited from her father. The house was spacious and her family became jealous. Most of all, it was considered a scandal that she dared live alone and do “men’s” work, like gardening or keeping poultry. Every week one cousin or another would knock at her door and insist on moving in. She stood firm and politely showed the unwanted relative out. There were threats, to no avail. Then, one morning, she opened her front door and found her cat lying dead on the mat. She took the animal to a veterinarian, who diagnosed poisoning with chlorine. The next week, the same happened to her dog. That’s when I met her. She was angry but fatalistic. What could she do? She expected that they would soon kill her rabbits and chickens. She told me she dreamed of immigrating to Australia, which she had once visited and considered a paradise of tolerance. (In a late night conversation, this same apparently very sensible woman told me earnestly about the “holocaust lie”, the “Jewish-American world conspiracy” and the fact that “Jews had masterminded 9/11”).

This is not typical of Arabs, in my opinion, but typical of a society that has remained stuck in its old patriarchal model, in which women, most of all, are exploited.

What about terrorism, what about the suicide bombers?

Ironically, the first recorded suicide murderer in history was Samson, a Jew, who carried out his “operation” in Gaza. But I don’t want to start a polemic here.

Killing civilians with premeditation is completely perverse. The idea that a suicide bomber, unlike a pilot, actually looks at his victims, innocent passers-by, before detonating himself makes him a sort of monster in our eyes. And the fact that he is ready to explode with them frightens us. How fanatic or desperate is this killer? How can we protect ourselves from these intelligent bombs?

Suicide bombings cause bloody retaliations and a hardening of occupation. They cut the grass under the feet of liberal Israelis and strengthen the hand of right-wing hawks. They destroy the international goodwill so successfully gathered by Palestinians over the years. Today, who still cares about them?

So what is the point? Why do they do it?

I once interviewed for many hours the parents of Hanadi Jaradat, a female suicide bomber who blew herself up in a beach restaurant in Haifa, killing 21 customers, many of them Arabs. Asked what she felt when they heard of the operation, the mother said she’d been so happy, so proud. Hanadi had successfully revenged the killing of her oldest son by Israeli soldiers. She and her husband were glad that Jews were made to feel the same pain as they themselves had endured. Of course, they also mourned their daughter.

I heard this argument time and again: since we can’t win, since we’re trapped here in a miserable prison with no perspective, utterly bored and frustrated with our empty lives, since so many of our children and friends get imprisoned and killed, let them, our tormentors, suffer and fear. Suicide attacks appear to boost the morale of an utterly defeated people. And every targeted assassination by the Israeli army, every arrest, every checkpoint, every “collateral damage” fuel the hate and determination of the more fanatical and desperate under the Palestinians, usually very young men and women.

Nevertheless, a growing majority of Palestinians have apparently come to realize at least how counter-productive suicide bombings are. About 70 % of the people are said to oppose the campaign.

I absolutely condemn the terror attacks. There is and can never be any justification for them.

Do you also condemn Palestinians who attack military targets, i.e. Israeli soldiers in the Territories?

Well, I am European. I was born and have lived in peace and security. I was taught about the horrors of past wars and, not surprisingly, I am a kind of pacifist although I accept that army intervention or armed struggle may be inevitable in exceptional cases. But I truly abhor all violence. I was sometimes accused by friends from both sides of pursuing an unreal, yet comfortable dream. Such a nice, self-serving philosophy, they said derisively.

It is quite a cultural shock to come to Israel and the Territories and suddenly find yourself in a situation of extreme insecurity and permanent violence.

Inside Israel, violence is mostly seen on television reports about terror attacks. Otherwise, it is more a trauma, a permanent fear. There are security guards at the entrance of every shop and café to remind you, should you forget, that you live in danger. Nevertheless, life is as close to normal as it can be in a country which has lived since its birth in a situation of conflict or war.

In the Palestinian territories, violence is everywhere to see. It takes the form of checkpoints, military bases, tanks, helicopters, destroyed homes and buildings, impact of shots on house fronts, rubber bullets on the ground, fences and walls, barbed-wired prisons, frequent army incursions in which people get killed or arrested, and also the battle of rival paramilitary gangs. Violence is all around you.

I personally witnessed arbitrariness at the checkpoints and saw the destructive effects of occupation. I was in Rafah, south of Gaza, shortly after a very serious attack by the Israeli army (that followed the killing of several soldiers on duty). It was completely bombed out; large areas were entirely reduced to rubbles. Canalisations were cracked and the sewage flowed in the midst of damaged streets. The main school wasn’t functioning because it was used as a camp for tens of families whose houses had been destroyed with all their contents.

I met a prominent Gaza Psychiatrist, Dr. Eyad Sarraj, who specialises in PTSS (post-traumatic stress syndrome) of the civil population, dealing particularly with children. He told me that 99% of the children have seen shootings and arrests. A large proportion has witnessed someone being killed. Many were at home as Israeli soldiers came with bulldozers to flatten their houses, destroying everything that they couldn’t carry out with them – and sometimes they had as little as 10 minutes to flee. I talked to a 12-year-old boy who was wounded when he helped his family to break a wall of their home with a hammer in order to escape from the approaching bulldozers: they were afraid to get out through the front door because of heavy shooting. The ceiling fell on his head. Almost every child has cousins, or brothers, or even a father in prison. Children have a trauma of absolute insecurity. They are depressive, have nightmares and headaches, they wet their beds, collapse for no apparent reason, etc. Deep inside, they are terrified.

Dr. Sarraj contends that the only way to overcome this deep-seated fear is to fight back. When a kid picks up a stone and throws it at an approaching tank, he conquers his fear and regains control of his feelings, of his life. This act of resistance restores his self-esteem. According to Sarraj, who categorically condemns acts of violence in Israeli mainland, armed resistance against military targets in the Palestinian Territories is not only justified, it is also an important psychological help for traumatized Palestinians. They are subject to a military occupation; they are constantly victimized by Israeli soldiers (and often by settlers as well), and have the right to defend themselves. Sarraj believes this is a question of mental survival.

After several weeks in Gaza and the West Bank, I indeed began to ask myself why the Palestinians, who are being held hostage by a foreign army, should not be allowed to resist, as so many victimized people did before them with full international approval.

I know that some Israelis contend that they are not occupying Gaza and the West Bank at all, that they took what belonged to nobody and was rightfully theirs in the first place, in reaction to an aggression by Arab neighbours in 1967 and in order to prevent further attacks. I don’t regard this as a serious argument. These people just haven’t crossed the Green Line. The only Jews on the other side are settlers, a majority of whom are fanatical and violent colonial lords; and terrified or aggressive soldiers who definitely regard the local, entirely Arab population they subdue as their enemy. If this is not occupation, I’ll eat my hat.

Contrary to suicide bombings, operations against Israeli soldiers appear to be efficient. As 11 soldiers were killed in two successive Palestinian attacks in Gaza, there was an enormous peace rally in Tel Aviv, with at least 150.000 Israelis demonstrating for a withdrawal from Gaza. Everyone was asking why young Israelis should die to protect a bunch of settlers who are disapproved of and sometimes even despised by a majority of Israelis?

These are difficult issues. Most of my friends have children in the army. Every girl and boy in the country must do military service from the age of 18 till 20/21 respectively, followed by years of reserve service. Only a select few choose to refuse service, which is an extremely difficult path to follow in a country that stands patriotically unified behind its army. I have personally known one of these so-called refuzeniks, a brilliant young man who went to prison because he opposed occupation, thereby jeopardizing his entire future in a society that tends to regard him as a traitor. Needless to say, he is a devoted Israeli citizen.

Anyhow, I cannot change myself: I am still a pacifist European, who sees in violence only an incentive for more violence. But I understand the arguments of Sarraj and of many other Palestinian acquaintances.

What is the influence of religion on the conflict?

Moderate, enlightened believers are never a problem anywhere and they are a majority. Unfortunately, Muslim fundamentalists and “national-orthodox” Jews do play a role in Middle-Eastern politics. They are helped by the fact that in both religions, God also rules citizens, not just their souls.

On the Israeli side, religion is mostly an internal problem creating great tensions between traditionally secular Zionists and an ultra-Orthodox community that strives to turn Israel into a religious State. In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers are active protagonists in the conflict. Although they claim to be religious, they are primarily nationalists who use the Bible to support their colonialist dream of conquering the whole of Palestine. Actually, there is nothing particularly religious about the settlers, I think, whom I mostly experienced as violent, racist and immoral.

On the Palestinian side, it is different. Islam is notoriously experiencing a wave of radical and sometimes violent fundamentalism, which is fuelled by the fact that many Muslims feel utterly humiliated. Radical religious leaders have been particularly successful in attracting disciples in regions which have failed to develop into modern, emancipated States. Karl Marx’s famous words come to mind:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of a soulless condition. It is the opium of the people.”

Without wanting to reduce religion as a whole to this poetic premise, I do think it applies very well to the Palestinian situation. The abuse of religious faith to brainwash citizens and gain political power is an age-old device. When God comes into play, there are no compromises. God is absolute. Brought into politics, He is dangerous. God forbids dialogue.

One more comment: 20 years ago, quite a proportion of Palestinian women did not wear a veil. Now, almost every Muslim woman does. Is this a sign of oppression? Or is it a symbol of resistance, designed to distinguish oneself from the hated enemy, the „decadent West“? Or do religious rituals give women a sense of purpose and identity? All these explanations seem valid, somehow. The veil is arguably a symbol of strength and resistance as well as a sign of oppression. This is a typical Middle-Eastern contradiction.

Let’s talk about the play: five minutes after the beginning of “Kidnapping”, two of the three protagonists, Lev and Sami, get killed in a suicide bombing. Why?

Terror is a major element in the conflict. You cannot understand the present occupation, or the support enjoyed by the Israeli army even in the most obvious cases of overreaction, gross negligence or premeditated violence, if you ignore terror. In our countries, a single case of terrorism traumatizes people for months if not years. In Israel, from 2000 on there were several attacks a month, sometimes several in a single week. In March 2002 alone, there were nineteen attacks on civilian and military targets! This is unimaginable for us. In fact, if it happened here, I think we would soon have a sort of dictatorship. Israelis are traumatized, just like the Palestinians are.

So the issue for me was not whether to include terror, but where to place it. Ending the play with a deadly explosion would have destroyed any positive message and drowned the story in pathos. Somewhere in the middle, it would have paralyzed the play, which would have to be centred on this event alone, its causes and aftermath. I didn’t want to write about terror, which numbs the mind, but about the conflict as such, what it’s about, where it came from, where it is headed to and why it concerns us.

The advantage of starting with the killing is that you don’t know the characters yet. They are anonymous. It’s shattering, but no more than reading about it in the daily papers as we so often do. We don’t get to meet the desperate relatives; we see none of the infinite pain of those left behind. So it’s bearable. We hear a description of the mayhem but when Sami and Lev appear on stage, they look alive, although they sometimes behave strangely.

The assumption is that they have landed in some no man’s land and are unable, for some reason, to meet their post-mortal destiny, be it nothingness, paradise or hell. They have unfinished business on earth. First of all, they don’t want to have died for nothing: they came to this café at the request of a journalist who was going to interview them about the Israeli-Palestinian situation; now they want her to do the job. In addition, each needs to take leave of a beloved person (Lev’s son, who is doing military service in Hebron, and Sami’s cousin, his first love, who lives in Jenin).

It is left to the audience to decide whether Anna is dreaming all this, imagining it in an attempt to come to terms with the horrible death of her friends, or whether she is really held hostage by two ghosts.

What was important to me was the flexibility of travelling through the past, the present and the future, not being limited by considerations of time and space.

Isn’t it a little absurd, perhaps even comic?

This is a play, not a piece of political science. It’s about a conflict that is very tragic, very human and at times very absurd indeed. Living there, you sometimes think everyone around you is nuts and they need psychiatrists rather than politicians. It’s about three characters who have all sorts of failings and are stuck together for better or for worse. They cannot escape. They could ignore one another – indeed, in the case of Lev, Sami and Anna, accepting the others’ reality is traumatic, if not sheer impossible – but they don’t. They start talking, complaining, explaining, arguing and fighting with one another.

How representative are Lev and Sami of their respective people?

Not very! But who is typical anyway? With only three characters for three nationalities, it is impossible to show the many tendencies and “types” of the given communities. It’s another reason for killing Sami and Lev, because as dead souls, they are presumably more universal and somehow freed from the limits of their own biographies. They are not yet outsiders, but they are on their way out.

Why did you imagine a childhood friendship between Anna, Lev and Sami? Isn’t this a little far-fetched?

How far-fetched is reality? This is a personal anecdote. I grew up in Paris. There was an Egyptian boy in my class who was really sweet and whom we all liked. In 1967, at the beginning of the 6-Day-War, he disappeared. We were told not to worry, there were troubles in his country but he’d soon come back. He didn’t, at least not in my class. Instead, in 1968, a new boy arrived. He was an Israeli „Sabra“, had lived in a Kibbutz, spoke fluent Hebrew and taught us to write our names in his exotic language. We were fascinated! Shortly afterwards, my family moved to Holland. This was the end of my childhood, which I have associated ever since with the ’67 war and the replacement of an Arab friend by an Israeli. My own story is not important, but it helped me to build the play around an event that meant something to me personally – a writer’s device – and which had some parallels with the “bigger” story I was trying to tell: my three characters are filled with nostalgia for their childhood, which they regard as idyllic, although it probably wasn’t. On the political level, this reflects the longing of many Israelis, Palestinians and Germans for a distant past that is deemed to have been happy, or at least happier, before everything went wrong. For the Israelis, the turning point is 1967, for the Palestinians it is 1948, and Germans need to go even further back, to the 1920s, before Hitler’s rise to power. These may be self-delusions, but they are part of the people’s psyche.

It is particularly true of Israel, which practically lost its childhood and innocence as it invaded the territories lying beyond the Green Line in the wake of its extraordinary victory in 1967. In that instant, it stopped being a victim and became an aggressor. This may be unfair, but it’s how most people look at it. The invasion was certainly a mistake, looking back.

Is there any particular message in your play?

Well, I am not trying to teach anything or anybody, so let’s say there are themes, including:

1. It is important to listen to the different narratives in both camps because people need to tell their stories. It’s a question of identity and of mutual recognition.

2. Having done this, it becomes clear that the rival narratives are incompatible and that it is impossible for any camp to convince the other that it is right and the opponent is wrong.

3. Since it is impossible to agree on the past, on who is right, or who was right to start with, the only alternative is to find a compromise which enables people to live together in spite of their disagreement. In the Middle-East, people are, understandably, emotionally entangled in the past. Remembrance is essential, but it would help if politics could emancipate and begin to focus on the present.

4. Occupation and armed struggle are destroying morality in both camps, like in every war.

5. There is no real symmetry between Israelis and the Palestinians, whose societies are different, but there are parallels: most of all, both communities are deeply traumatised. In a nutshell, the Israelis are afraid and the Palestinians are humiliated.

I would like to develop this a bit since so many people see the Israelis as “strong” if not ruthless. Yet I believe that the common denominator of all Israelis is actually a deep-seated fear, arising probably from centuries of persecution, culminating in Hitler’s attempted “final solution” and permanently revived by over five decades of war with the Arabs. This is a favourite theory of Avi Primor, Israel’s former ambassador to Germany, who once told me: “We are Samsons who fear the dark, cats who are afraid of mice. This is deeply embedded in our psyche. Sadate understood this very well. His interviews in the Israeli Media in 1977 were brilliant. He directly addressed the Israeli people and said: ‘I have come to offer you security. I am really concerned about your security!’ Of course, Sadate didn’t care a damn about our security, but he pretended to and we believed him. That’s why he got every inch of his land back, which is what he was really after. Unfortunately, Arafat doesn’t understand this. The Palestinians must offer us security; this is the only way to achieve peace.”

6. Israelis are traumatised not just by the war, but by the destruction of a myth: the legend of the wonderful pioneers who built a garden in an empty desert. As the emissaries of Theodor Herzl - the father of the Jewish State – wrote in a famous telegram they sent to Herzl from Palestine in 1897: “The bride is beautiful, but she is already married”. They had found out that the land was inhabited by Arabs. Part of the myth remains true, but there is a shadow over it.

7. In the end, what is important is this: on the one hand, Israel is a lawful State established as a result of international agreements and recognized by the UN. It has a right to exist within secure borders. On the other hand, there are millions of Palestinian refugees, many of whom lost their homes as a result of the 1948 War of Independence, whether they fled or were expulsed. They need a land of their own, in which they can live as they wish, if they wish. This can only be the West Bank and Gaza.

Would you consider producing this play in Israel or in the Palestinian Territories?

Not really. The play is written for a European audience and designed to inform as well as sensitize. For audiences in the Middle-East, most of this information is well-known. In Israel, for example, one writes more cryptically and critically about this theme, focussing more on the absurd aspects. Also, starting the play with a suicide bombing, which I find acceptable here, would be deemed insensitive in Israel, where almost everyone has been affected in one way or another by terror attacks. It’s very hard to discuss all the problems we have evoked here with the real actors of the drama. I will give you an example: I have been using throughout this interview the expression “Palestinian Territories”. This alone could cause an endless discussion with Israelis, who might prefer the terms Judea/Samaria, West Bank/Gaza, Palestinian Authority, etc. I don’t think most Europeans would even notice that the terms may be controversial. In fact, I find it very difficult to discuss these issues in such a short space. This is true of the play as well, which is necessarily succinct. I cannot do justice in it to all the people who helped and supported me, spending so much time telling me their life stories and analysing the situation. This is why I have written a diary of my research, which will be published by the producers of “Kidnapping”.

Thank you and good luck.


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