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Can Palestinians Imagine a Future With Israelis After This War?

My grandfather remembers neighborly relations with Jews before 1948. For Palestinians today, such a prospect seems nearly impossible.

Palestinians inspect a house that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in the city of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, April 24, 2024, Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

“We were free. It was the most beautiful life. We had everything — our heritage, our trade, and our sea.” My grandfather, who is now 85, still remembers life in Palestine before 1948. There were no restrictions on travel, no checkpoints, no sieges, and no curfews. He grew up in a small village in Jaffa, where life was bustling with activity during the day, and filled with social gatherings at night. His was a community rich in culture and connection.

But this life was abruptly shattered by the events of the Nakba. The necessary consequence of Zionism, the Nakba of 1948 marked the beginning of an unhealed wound that has continued to deepen ever since. The profound sense of loss and the enduring pain of displacement are feelings that many Palestinians, like my grandfather, continue to bear — a pain that is now being horrifyingly inflicted upon a new generation.

Alongside tens of thousands of other Palestinians, my grandparents were forced to leave Jaffa in 1948. They initially went to Hebron, hoping to soon return to their home. Within a week, however, it became clear that such a quick return would be impossible. Instead, they moved to Gaza, where my grandfather’s brother worked in trade. They have lived there ever since. 

During the ongoing Israeli war against Gaza, my grandfather has looked back on his childhood. The echoes of the Nakba are unmistakable, but he has also been thinking about life in Palestine before 1948. Reminiscing about his family’s small house in Jaffa, he frequently mentions the Palestinian families he remembers from his neighborhood. Some, like the Masoud, Husseini, and Khalidi families, moved to Gaza in 1948. Others, like the Dajani, Muzafar, and Levan families, have been out of touch with my grandfather for 76 years, yet he remembers them fondly.

The Levan family, with their non-Arabic surname, caught my attention. “They were a Jewish family,” my grandfather explained. “They were our neighbors in Jaffa, and our mothers were very close friends.” The Palestinian mothers shared so much food with their Jewish neighbors that Mrs. Levan would joke about never having the opportunity to cook at all.

Entrance to Jaffa train station, early 1920s (Frank Scholten/Wikimedia Commons)
Entrance to Jaffa train station, early 1920s (Frank Scholten/Wikimedia Commons)

Entrance to Jaffa train station, early 1920s (Frank Scholten/Wikimedia Commons)

“In those days,” he went on, “It didn’t matter who you were, where you came from, or what your religion was. The important thing was to love one another. The Levan family celebrated our holidays with us, and we did the same with theirs.” These were glimpses of the old days, when life was more stable on this land and people could more easily accept each other, whether they were Muslim, Christian, or Jewish — glimpses into a time before tragic political events broke these bonds.

‘The soldier is the one who kills and oppresses’

Reflecting on my grandfather’s stories, I often find myself wondering when our struggle will end. How long will this land, sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, continue to be soaked in blood?

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Many people, especially young Palestinians, see the bloody history of the conflict and ask themselves, “How can we live with them after all they’ve done to us?” This is a sentiment that is almost certainly growing in the face of the current onslaught. 

There are not many Palestinians who can remember a different life. Most of us have experienced only the injustices of the last 76 years: a decades-long refugee crisis, occupation, wars, siege, apartheid, injustice, and the deprivation of basic rights. These forms of oppression make the idea of reconciliation, of sharing the land, or of living together in peace seem impossible.

Yet it’s also true that there have been small moments that reveal the possibility of reconciliation, so long as violence and inequality are pushed aside. My uncle, for example, is a strong supporter of the resistance. Despite his age of 66, he still believes he will one day return to the land from which his father was forcibly displaced. He would tell me stories about Palestine in the ’90s and ’80s, the occupied cities, and the West Bank, where he once worked for an Israeli boss. I asked him: how could he work in an Israeli factory after he had been arrested and tortured for throwing stones at Israeli military jeeps — and while Israeli soldiers continued to harass him at checkpoints?

Palestinian workers cross Eyal checkpoint in Qalqilya in the early morning hours to reach their workplaces beyond the Green Line, occupied West Bank, January 10, 2021. (Keren Manor/Activestills)
Palestinian workers cross Eyal checkpoint in Qalqilya in the early morning hours to reach their workplaces beyond the Green Line, occupied West Bank, January 10, 2021. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

Palestinian workers cross Eyal checkpoint in Qalqilya in the early morning hours to reach their workplaces beyond the Green Line, occupied West Bank, January 10, 2021. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

“I worked there because the Israeli government pressured Palestinians economically, so I had to earn money and work with an Israeli boss. Our relationship was that of employer and employee. But with the Israeli soldiers, it was a relationship of oppressor and oppressed,” he explained. “The soldiers are occupiers; there’s a big difference.”

“During the intifadas,” he continued, “most of the Palestinians who fought Israeli soldiers, even those willing to sacrifice themselves, were also working under Israeli bosses — because the soldier [unlike the boss] is the one who kills and oppresses.”

Toward a ‘mentality of infinity’

I myself have many Israeli-Jewish friends, who reject the Israeli government’s increasingly far-right politics and most of whom have left the country as a result. One such friend is an Israeli-born British Jew, nicknamed Gelleh, whom I met through our work at We Are Not Numbers, a project promoting the Palestinian narrative. We’ve spoken about how strange it is that we, an Israeli and a Palestinian, are speaking amiably, while elsewhere, Israelis commit war crimes against Palestinians simply because they can’t accept their existence as a people.

Gelleh and her family left Israel-Palestine in 2002 because of the Second Intifada, and I asked her if Palestinians and Israelis could ever live together on the same land. “I know what I want to answer: I want to answer yes,” she reflected. “But reality now changes my answer.” We agreed that we first need to prioritize raising generations of children who will not experience direct trauma before we can think of coexistence.

Gelleh also spoke of the skepticism much of her own community feels at the prospect of reconciliation. “Reconciliation is not going to be solely achieved through policy change, like a one- or two-state solution. From the side of my community, it requires transforming our scarcity mindset — that there are few people in the world who accept us as Jews and only a tiny land where we can live freely — into a mentality of infinity, that the love and fear we have for our community can be extended to everyone under oppression.”

This transformation, she said, is a prerequisite for political change: “The recognition that true freedom will only come with everyone’s freedom is a transformation that will bring sustainable change and justice to the land.”

Several hundred Jewish and Palestinian activists protest against Israel's assault on Gaza, Haifa, January 20, 2024. (Oren Ziv)
Several hundred Jewish and Palestinian activists protest against Israel's assault on Gaza, Haifa, January 20, 2024. (Oren Ziv)

Several hundred Jewish and Palestinian activists protest against Israel’s assault on Gaza, Haifa, January 20, 2024. (Oren Ziv)

As a human rights activist, I’m constantly engaged in conversations about coexistence and reconciliation. But Israel’s actions against Palestinians consistently undermine what I am advocating. How can I convince people in Gaza — who have lived and grown up under a brutal Israeli siege — to live together with the very people who are responsible for their suffering? How can I convince a child who has lost every member of their family to accept the killer as a neighbor? How can I convince my own generation, humiliated and harassed by Israeli soldiers, to accept them as friends? How can I convince the youth of the West Bank, who are killed by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, to accept coexistence?

We just marked the 76th anniversary of the Nakba, a grim milestone that occurred while Israeli forces were committing what members of their government have themselves called a “Second Nakba” in Gaza. Palestinian territories remain divided and fully controlled by the Israeli army. The West Bank separation wall — stretching 440 miles and reaching a height of 25 feet — penetrates and confiscates Palestinian lands. No one enters or exits without Israeli permission.

This reality amounts to Israel’s rejection of reconciliation and coexistence, and provides fertile ground for hatred, resentment, brainwashing, and fear of the “other” — all of which are only intensifying today. Israeli politicians know this and exploit it for their own benefit, prolonging the occupation and maintaining Israel-Palestine as a racially segregated state that discriminates against anyone who is not a Jew. 

Can Jews and Palestinians truly coexist in historic Palestine? This is the question at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the question that runs through our history and our present. Despite the formidable obstacles and entrenched divisions, is there a path forward towards a future of peaceful reconciliation? Under military occupation, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid, the answer is no.

The only way to achieve reconciliation is by addressing the root causes of the conflict. For a just peace to be achieved, Israel must adhere to international law and United Nations resolutions — specifically UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for an end to the occupation, and UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which recognizes Palestinians’ right of return. The policies and actions of the Israeli government are the root cause of the conflict; a shared existence requires their reversal. It is the only path that can lead us to a life that resembles the memories cherished by our grandparents — a life of relative peace. 

Mahmoud Mushtaha is a Gaza-based freelance journalist and human rights activist.

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