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Common Ground on the Northern Border

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz, 11 June 2000

No one, really, had thought about this in advance: the thousands of Israeli Arabs who over several days flocked to the new border fence with Lebanon to meet and talk with relatives through the fences. They were an unexpected and moving sight. It took but a few days for Israel to truncate this human drama as it developed, on grounds of security considerations, but the astonishing pictures had still been put before the Israelis, if only for a moment. Hasty as they were, they exposed the Israelis, perhaps for the first time, to the Palestinian tragedy in its full dimensions, not only in distant pictures of a refugee camp in Lebanon or in Gaza but in the shape of citizens of their own country, residents of Haifa, Acre or Nazareth, crowding up to the fence, trying to see and touch through the bars members of their families whom they had not seen for 50 years or whom they had never met before at all.The emotions of the Arab citizens of Israel, repressed for dozens of years yet never forgotten, suddenly burst into the consciousness of Israelis and touched the nerve ends of the conflict. It is no wonder that Israel hastened to shove this genie, which it sees as dangerous, back into the bottle. It is a pity that it did so. It will burst out again anyway. This was a spontaneous occurrence. Palestinian refugees from the camps in southern Lebanon approached the fence, to see their lost country.

Residents of the Bedouin village of Arab al Aramsheh saw them from the other side of the border and the pictures were broadcast on television. The rumor took wing and the children of refugees from Israel began to flock to the new wonder-border.

From both sides of the fence names were thrown across, greetings transmitted rapidly and meetings set up for the following day. Within a day, thousands of Palestinians were at the fence on either side - young people who had never seen their aunts and uncles and cousins and older people who had not seen their brothers and sisters since they were children. Israelis from Kawikat and Damun, Briwa and Abu Snaan, Safed and Kabri came to see their relatives and neighbors who had been less fortunate than they and had been expelled or had fled northward across the border, and who have been living there since then in the worst refugee situation in the region, in the camps of Lebanon.

Some of them had not been heard from during all those years; with others there had been occasional telephone contact or meetings, once or twice, perhaps in Jordan. Babies were handed across from side to side, only to be touched; images of families were torn down and rebuilt - this one had died and that one had been born, and excited calls rang back and forth across the fence, which was good again. For a moment.

These were pictures that should have moved Jews greatly, wherever they are. Anyone who still remembers the broadcasts of the heartbreaking "Searching for Relatives" program on Israel Radio during the 1950s and the 1960s - Holocaust survivors looking for other lost survivors - should not have remained indifferent to the sight of the similar Palestinian experience. And those who lived cut off on either side of the communist Iron Curtain could have remembered something.

But no.

These spectacles did not arouse any identification in Israel: These were Arabs. Imagine what would have happened had Jews been cut off and distanced this way from their families - the Jewish world would have raised a ruckus, and rightly so. But here it was a matter of Arabs and a matter of bringing the most difficult problem of all to the forefront of consciousness. And for this, most Israelis are still unprepared. Therefore, perhaps, the Israel Defense Forces made such haste to declare the area of the meetings a closed military zone. Its spokesman explained on the weekend that there "was a willingness" in the IDF to allow the meetings, but they were impossible, as they must be arranged "with an appropriate authority in Lebanon," and also that "the area was declared a closed military zone because of the disturbances."

Could it be that behind the fog of these clumsy formulations hides an intention to put an end to these meetings altogether? Apparently. This, however, will be a mistake. From the moral perspective, it is untenable that a state should forbid its citizens, even if they are Arabs, this small thing. The divided families are entitled to this basic human right after 50 years of separation. It is also a mistake from the political perspective: MK Issam Makhoul (Hadash), who followed the meetings, believes rightly that if they are prohibited they will be transformed from spontaneous family reunions, without any political dimension, into an issue that is part of the national struggle of the Arabs of Israel. From the security perspective, too, anything that turns the border with Lebanon into a border of human encounters and not of Katyusha rockets will only add to the quiet and security in the North. And as for the threat of return, the frightened Israelis can rest assured that the return of the refugees will not begin with family meetings across the border fence.

Thus, only good can come of these unexpected northern pictures: along with the necessary humane gesture and the ill that will come of forbidding these reunions, they also may be of some help in convincing more Israelis that the Palestinian refugee problem at long last demands a solution


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