Daniel Ben Simon: The War that Once Was

By Daniel Ben Simon
During the 17 years Hassan served in the police force, including in the Border Police, he encountered many bad sights. But the death of Maisun threatened to break the man who had a reputation for toughness. A few minutes after hearing about the bomb blast on Channel 2, Hassan sped off to Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed to ask about his daughters. He had a hard time identifying Jihan since the blast had blackened her body. "Where is Maisun?" he shouted. The looks he got in return told him everything he needed to know.

Hassan felt he had two options: Either he would allow his bereavement to control him or he could utilize his loss to do something positive. And so he decided to dedicate his life to advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

As the director general of the Israel Olive Oil Board, a government company that grows olives and produces olive oil, Hassan was determined to honor his daughter’s memory by strengthening the ties with his Palestinian partners.

"Since Maisun’s death, peace has become increasingly important for me," Hassan said this week at the Oil Board office on Hananya Farm near Meron, a site that used to serve as the summer home of British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel. "I said to myself, every drop of blood is a shame, and I prayed that Maisun would be the last victim. But unfortunately, there were a lot more victims after her."

Hassan has recently intensified his cooperation with Palestinian olive oil producers, and both sides regularly meet with the aim of conquering new markets. "My relations with the Palestinians are excellent," he said, smiling, "even though they don’t forget for a moment that one of their people murdered my daughter." Last April, Hassan and his counterpart on the Palestinian Olive Board visited an oil and wine exhibit in Verona, Italy. The Israeli and Palestinian delegations quickly became an attraction. In the midst of the festivities, Hassan and his Palestinian counterpart, Khaled Junaidi from the West Bank city of Nablus, climbed on stage, and Italy’s agriculture minister pointed out that they were acting to advance peace and expressed the hope that many others would follow their lead. Hundreds of participants rose to give them a standing ovation lasting several long minutes. Some were even moved to tears.

"I saw how thirsty the world is for peace," said Hassan. "And I thought about the personal sacrifice I had made for this goal. In those moments of stormy applause, I was aware that the compatriots of the man standing at my side were the ones who had killed Maisun and seriously wounded my other daughter. Yet, in those very same moments, I thought about how important it was for peace to come."

Hassan, who looks younger than his 52 years, lauds the healthful benefits and unique qualities of olive oil, and makes sure to keep some by his side all day long. "Olive oil is healthy," he says. "It’s like a portable pharmacy."

It has been nearly a decade since Hassan took up the post of Olive Board chairman, and he is optimistic about the future. Two weeks ago Jihan brought great joy to the family, when she gave birth to a son.

When the two families walked in, the crowd emitted an audible, collective sigh of relief. They looked at the representatives of the rival families, who sat across from each other in the plaza without exchanging a glance. An excited tension was evident on the faces of the hundreds of guests. Nearly 10 years had passed since the murder that had led to another murder and a multitude of other violent incidents that poisoned the relations among the large Mahajana clan.

Months of exhausting work and hundreds of open and secret meetings were needed before the members of the reconciliation committee were able to announce that their efforts at arranging a sulha (reconciliation) ceremony had been successful. A few days ago, Umm al-Fahm residents were invited to participate in the sulha between the two families, who had lived together peacefully for years as neighbors before the conflict began.

The ceremony was about to start, the sun about to go down; the guests were tense. The members of the rival families were asked to come closer to the plaza’s center. A cleric from Musmus, the neighboring village, was in charge of the sulha. Ra’ad Salah, head of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, was seated at the table of honor, along with Tawfiq Asliya, the former president of the sharia court and Umm al-Fahm Mayor Hashem Abd al-Rahman.

Salah received a special welcome, with both young and old vying to kiss his hand, indicating his high public standing. "He’s the most popular person among this population, and his word is law," said Laviv Nasr al-Din, a senior Interior Ministry official invited to the event. "He’s like [Shas spiritual leader] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Do you see the hill over there? If the sheikh says in his Friday sermon that it has to be moved someplace else, 4,000 people will show up the next day and move the hill. There’s no one else in the Arab sector whose leadership even comes close to his. His term in jail only strengthened his position."

Indeed, Salah’s presence indicates the importance of the sulha. When the reconciliation efforts reached a dead end, Salah was called upon to bring to bear his authority and prestige. One of those involved in arranging the sulha said that every time Salah intervened, the rivals would soften their positions. A police officer attending the event explained that Salah is not the only one who generates respect, saying: "You have to understand the special position of the spiritual leadership and the village elders. The position of the notables is still very strong in Arab society. Their word is law, and no one will dare violate it."

The family representatives approached each other with measured steps, with one representative from each family holding aloft a white flag. It was the first time since their feud began that the members of the families came so close without assaulting each other. The family of the first murder victim approached the family of the murderer. One more step, and then another. They continued to avoid looking at each other. Indeed, their facial expressions did not seem very conciliatory.

The feud began nine years ago, when Jamil Mahajana, who was in his 60s, walked out of his house one morning. Family members from the house across the way blocked his path. He pushed them, they pushed him. At a certain point, one of his relatives hit him on the head; two days later, he died in the hospital as a result of the blow. The killer was caught, tried and sent to jail. But the story didn’t end there.

Two years later, a young man in the killer’s family was murdered. While the perpetrator was never captured, no one in Umm al-Fahm doubts that it was an act of revenge for the first death. Since then, each family has done its best to make life miserable for the other.

This situation continued until one day Ziad Abu-Jarar, a wealthy local businessman, decided to initiate a sulha. "He spent days and nights with the two families and tried to convince them to reconcile," said his son Tarek, a businessman and lawyer. "It lasted for many months, until one day, the efforts bore fruit."

Rumors about the impending sulha spread throughout the city, generating a great deal of excitement. An ancient tribal custom that predates Islam itself, the sulha managed to bring peace where other attempts had failed. All the bones of contention between the two families have disappeared completely. "The opening of a new chapter also obligates those who will be born to both families in the future," noted al-Din.

And then came the moment everyone was waiting for. One by one, the family representatives stepped forward and swore that there would be no more revenge. They embraced and mingled with each other. The notables tied a white cloth to a pole to signal that from now on, the rival families will be at peace forever.

"A sulha is something very exciting," said Raed Raed Mahmid, a lawyer for one of the families. He said he felt like an usher at a wedding.

His friend Tarek said it wouldn’t be long before a reconciliation committee holds a sulha between Israel and the Palestinians.

A year after having been abandoned by its residents during the Second Lebanon War, the northern city of Carmiel is returning to normal. During the war’s first few days, the residents of one of the best-kept cities in the Galilee were sure the fighting was a passing phase and that routine life would resume shortly. But as both time and the war went on, they came to realize that they had been mistaken. Many residents packed their suitcases and fled. Carmiel Mayor Adi Eldar even encouraged them to leave their homes and find shelter in the center of the country.

The summer of 2006 was supposed to have been an unforgettable summer in Carmiel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were planning to attend the local dance festival. The area’s bed and breakfasts and hotels were fully booked months in advance. For the first time in years, Israelis made their way to the Galilee.

A few days after the war began, employees of the Star of Galilee Hotel in the center of Carmiel were sitting in the abandoned lobby with nothing to do. They had prepared for delegations from abroad that were going to participate in the dance festival; for the first time since its renovation, the hotel had reservations for every holiday until Hanukkah, and the owners had already bought prodigious amounts of food. But the delegations canceled their trips, the Israelis canceled their trips, and ultimately the festival itself was canceled, for the first time since it was founded 20 years earlier. Carmiel’s annual festivities, which everyone had been waiting for, never took place.

About a year ago, when the war broke out, I went to Carmiel and met with the hotel manager, Zvi Arbel. "What am I going to do with all this food?" he asked in despair as he opened the refrigerators. "I need to throw it all away."

As he was speaking, the hotel was beset by a loud noise: a Katyusha rocket had landed a few meters away from where we were standing, smashing a deep hole into the ground. The area was filled with the strong smell of explosives. On that day, seven Katyushas landed in Carmiel, illustrating just how dangerous it was to continue living there.

A year later, Carmiel appears to be back to normal. Memories of that traumatic summer have either been repressed or forgotten. The hotel is filling up again, as are the shopping centers. And the Carmiel Dance Festival began on Monday, with the participation of delegations from abroad and Israelis from across the country.

Sometimes it is difficult to grasp just how quickly life in Israel goes off the track, and how quickly it returns. Psychologists and other experts warned that it would take years until the scars of the war would heal and until the cities in the North would return to their pre-war routines. But it appears that they were overly pessimistic. In the summer of 2007, all the hotels in the North are packed. The bed and breakfasts, too, are filling up as Israelis return.

President Shimon Peres participated in the opening ceremony of the festival on Monday evening, and was welcomed like a king. Eldar said the prime minister had also considered coming. Security officials were checking those entering the city. "It’s too bad they only come during festivities," said a Carmiel resident. "If they had come during the war, maybe we wouldn’t have fled."

But although the dancers have returned, not all is well for the employees of Delta Galil Industries, an Israeli underwear company that went global. Its Galilee factory, which at one point employed thousands of residents of Carmiel and its neighboring Arab communities, is set to lay off hundreds of workers. The diamond in the crown of Carmiel has lost its luster, while those neighboring countries offering cheaper labor have gained.

For many families, said Carmiel workers council secretary Shula Cohen, the war isn’t over yet. According to her, Delta has been fair to the employees it is laying off, but all the same, she asked, "What will Carmiel residents do if they don’t have work? Most of all, I feel sorry for the Arab workers – they’re the worst off."

As Peres was about to join the revelers, Cohen said the joy of the city and its residents was overshadowed by the dismissals. After all, the laid-off workers find it difficult to share in Carmiel’s festivities while clutching their pink slips.
(Haaretz – Haaretz.com  – August 05, 2007) 

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