By Tahseen Yaqeen
Toward the end of January a group of young Palestinians held a silent demonstration in front of the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, demanding that their leadership halt the negotiations that were taking place in Amman between the Palestinian Authority’s representative Saeb Erekat and Israeli chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho. This small protest soon moved to social media sites and became a large-scale discussion about normalisation between Palestinians and Israelis.
The protest marked one of the latest events in a campaign by Palestinians who oppose normalisation with Israel. Although I understand those who argue that anti-normalisation, or the refusal to cooperate with Israelis, is a legitimate non-violent means to struggle against the Israeli Occupation, I believe it is ultimately misguided and harms Palestinians on many levels. Moreover, normalisation between ordinary people can only encourage our leaders to see that their constituents are serious about making peace.
The term “normalisation” in its usual sense outside the Israeli-Arab conflict implies the establishment of normal economic, cultural, political and social relations between states and peoples. In most cases it is a process put into place at the end of a conflict or war.
For Palestinians, talk about normalisation began after the Oslo agreement in 1993, when Palestinian independence seemed to be just around the corner. However, the term had already emerged in the wider Arab political and cultural discourse with the signing of the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
At the time, many Egyptians felt that the establishment of political, economic, cultural, social and academic relations between Egypt and Israel should wait until the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza had ended, and a comprehensive and just peace between Israel and the entire Arab world was achieved.
For Palestinians, normalisation with Israel has a different meaning. Unlike Egyptians and Israelis, Palestinians and Israelis are enmeshed in their day-to-day realities, and their relations with one another span many levels touching individual people’s lives. The decision to cultivate relations or cut them off impacts people on basic economic, social, cultural and political levels. For example, if a Palestinian simply desires to take a trip to Israel, this necessarily entails interaction with Israelis. This is normalisation.
In fact, there is a long history of Israeli and Palestinian cooperation. The private sectors in Israel and Palestine cooperated many years prior to the first peace negotiations in 1991. Business relationships blossomed between 1967 and 1987, when the first intifada broke out. In the Oslo years, agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel included detailed principles and programmes for cooperation to initiate economic, cultural and scientific progress for both sides.
The fiasco of the second Camp David summit in 2000 between the late Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak led to the close of such activities. Most cooperation at the time ended with the second intifada, the roadblocks and the separation wall.
The situation was then exacerbated when some Israelis, including some of those who had signed the Geneva Accord, made a statement against Palestinians’ right of return, which resulted in certain Palestinian institutions abandoning joint activities.
Nowadays normalisation has become a major point of discussion in Palestinian society. One may wonder whether the issue of normalisation isn’t something of a luxury when there are urgent issues in our society that are deeply affected by the Occupation, such as high unemployment rates, poor education, a lack of access to basic health care and daily hardships created by the checkpoints, to name a few. Yet every time I am confronted with the issue, I am struck by a need to take the discussion beyond the black and white positions of rejection versus acceptance. I feel that in addressing the question of normalisation, we must take the will of the majority of people who do wish to communicate and cooperate into account.
Perhaps we can make a distinction between negotiations and cooperation on the level of political leadership, and cooperation between people. Let’s leave the former to the politicians and concentrate on social peace – peace on the ground among individuals – between the two nations.
I live among people who wish to work and cooperate with the other side on many levels. How can we expect creative solutions to the Occupation and the conflict to emerge if we don’t allow for a free flow of communication between the sides?
The road to a real peace is no doubt going to be a long one. Wouldn’t it be better to leave the door between the two peoples open?
Tahseen Yaqeen is a writer and a critic from Ramallah.