Halhul, West Bank — Hoping 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. The 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 sides.
First, 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.
Kashkeesh 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.
Kashkeesh, 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.
The 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.
There’s 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 here feels closed, embittered, confrontational.
When I first visited Halhul, 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.
But 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.”
As for 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.”
Thinking 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:
It was 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.
He 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.