A few years ago at an anti-Israel seminar on the West Coast I almost caused a riot when I stated that Hamas could have peace with Israel the next day if it wanted to. The Palestinian moderator asked me if I had ever visited the West Bank or Gaza. When I replied I had not, he said I was in no position to judge if I did not know how his people were living.
Although I thought his was a foolish thing to say - after all, I've never heard anyone argue that a condition for criticizing the Iraq War is to have personally spent time in Baghdad - I took his advice seriously and determined to follow it at the next opportunity. I was working in Iraq at the time, so instead of returning to California as usual for my next vacation I traveled to Israel and spent some time exploring it and the West Bank (there was no way I could get into Gaza). It was a wonderful trip, and I wrote it all down. Following is my journal account of traveling overland from Jerusalem back to Amman at the end of the trip:
"When I caught the bus to Jerusalem from Ein Gedi the following morning, I knew it came close to the Allenby Bridge before turning left and passing Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, but because the bridge is in the West Bank and Israeli buses don't go there I assumed I needed to return to Jerusalem, go to the Palestinian bus station, and get a shuttle to the bridge. I also knew that all the guide books say you need to get a Jordanian visa at the Jordanian consulate in Tel Aviv to enter Jordan. For that reason I had specifically requested a visa at the airport in Amman that would get me back into the country from Israel. While leaving Jordan on the way to Israel, I had shown the visa to at least two officials to make sure I could get back into Jordan on that visa, and they assured me I could.
"When I got off the bus in Jerusalem, a taxi driver immediately offered to drive me to the Allenby Bridge for 100 dollars. When I told him I would just go to the bus station and take a shuttle (for 1/20th of the price) he gave me the predictable...you need reservations to get on those shuttles, they go through all the checkpoints and sometimes the Israelis don't let them go, etc. The bus driver was listening to this conversation and asked me, "Why you no tell me you want to go to Allenby Bridge? I drop you off at Jericho and you catch a local taxi, very easy." For some reason, knowing I didn't have a lot of time and having a couple hundred dollar bills left over in my pocket, I said to the taxi driver, 'OK, take me to the bridge.' As always, the conversation on the way there was in itself worth the price. I hadn't even known there were Kurdish Jews, but his father had come to Israel from Iraqi Kurdistan. He didn't speak much English and I don't speak Hebrew, but we got along in Arabic just fine. He told me about his kids, and his daughter who worked on the border police and her Ethiopian husband who also was a captain with the border police. He asked me if I had gotten the Jordanian visa in Tel Aviv, and I said I had gotten it in Amman before coming. He gave me a strange look and said, "Well....I don't want to say what you have to do, but I brought an American here last week and he did not have the visa and I had to take him to the border point way up north and he had to pay me a few hundred more dollars."
"We finally got to the checkpost at the Israeli side of the border, and a young female soldier came out to look at my passport. I showed her my Jordanian visa and she replied, "This is no good....where's the other one?" Suddenly I had the sinking realization that this particular location was not really part of Israel or Jordan but under a separate status. It wasn't the Jordanians who required the visa to get into Jordan; it was the Israelis who demanded it to get to the bridge and into official Jordanian territory. She gave me my passport and told me my visa was no good. It was exactly three o'clock, and as she handed me my passport she got her jacket and walked to her vehicle because it was the end of her shift. A new team was coming on, and the taxi driver said to me, "Uskut! La Tatakalam!" Shut up and don't say a word! So I uskutted, and the soldier on the new shift walked up to us. The taxi driver began speaking to him in Hebrew. "How are you doing....do you know my daughter so-and-so who is on the border police and her husband is Captain so-and-so? This poor stupid American didn't even know he had to get a visa and he has to go to Amman today....." Before I knew it, the barrier was lifted and we were on our way. When we got to the crossing, the driver asked me to give him some extra so he could give some Bakshish to the soldier who had let us through. I gave him a twenty; I'd be quite surprised if he actually gave it to the officer, but it was certainly worth it to me. If I'd taken the shuttle from Jerusalem as I'd planned, I might still be there."
The checkpost I crossed was the same one Dr. Izzaldin Abuelaish describes in his book I Shall Not Hate. If I as an American made it across a checkpost merely on the whim of the Israeli border guard, I can only imagine the frustration and humiliation Dr. Abuelaish experienced the thousands of times he crossed the border from Gaza into Israel.
Izzaldin, as far as I can tell, is one of those rare individuals who has always tried to do the right thing. He was born in poverty in a Gazan refugee camp, and the family farm his parents had evacuated is now the home of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Rather than dropping out of school, as his Palestinian classmates did like flies, Izzaldin determined to persevere, learning both English and Hebrew in the process. He became a doctor, the first Palestinian doctor to work at a prestigious Israeli hospital, and established deep friendships with his Jewish counterparts. His entire world came crashing down on January 16, 2009, when in the midst of Israel's war on Gaza two rocket shells tore into his house and blew the bodies of three of his daughters and a nephew into kingdom come.
But Dr. Abuelaish refuses to hate. He argues that Palestinians and Israelis can and must share a common future. He believes that leaders on both sides are entrenched in fear and hatred, but hope lies in a new generation of young people who desire peace more than conflict.
Do I agree with everything Dr. Abuelaish says? Not at all. Do I believe that he, along with Muslim reformers such as Tawfik Hamid about whom I write here, believes in the Prophet he wishes had existed rather than the Muhammad who really did? Yes, indeed. Do I think that his message of loving your enemies and praying for those who mistreat you sounds a whole lot more like Jesus than Muhammad? Again, a resounding Yes.
But the message of Dr. Abuelaish is powerful, and I urge you to read his book. If you are inclined to listen rather than read, you can watch a compelling interview here. And if you have an electronic book reader (much more important than your TV or microwave), you can simply type in the title of his book, click the purchase button, and you'll be starting the first chapter in less than 15 seconds. And it's less than half the price you'd pay in the bookstore!