Nahla Asali, attorney; lecturer, Birzeit University
Michal Shohat, city council member, Jerusalem
Claudette Habesch, secretary general, Caritas Jerusalem
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. The Middle East peace process has taken a back seat to the crisis
with Iraq, but many Israelis and Palestinians don’t want to see the faltering peace process die.
CLAUDETTE HABESCH: Personally, as a Palestinian, I would like things to move and I don’t want a time out because the
day-to-day reality of too many people in the region continues to be one of insecurity, destitution, and despair.
MICHAL SHOHAT: We can live peacefully. We can live and be friends, and we are not enemies by genes. We built the hatred
through the years and we can destroy the hatred.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson. One of the most contentious issues of the Arab-Israeli peace process is the city of Jerusalem,
the Holy Land’s spiritual capital to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. The Israeli government asserts political sovereignty over
the entire city of Jerusalem. The Palestinians regard the eastern half of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
This winter three women from Jerusalem—one Jewish, one Muslim, one Christian—traveled throughout the United States, bringing the
message that Jerusalem can be shared by all. Each of these women have strong ties to Jerusalem and bitter memories of families
displaced. Yet they are willing to overcome these memories for a peaceful coexistence. One of the women on the tour, Michal
Shohat, is an elected member of the Jerusalem City Council and belongs to the left-wing Meretz Party. She comes from a family
SHOHAT: I was born in Kibbutz Bachai. It’s in the north of Israel. My parents there were Holocaust survivors. My father was
in a forced labor camp and he succeeded to escape from that. After he escaped he played a central role to bring Holocaust survivors
to Israel. I think being a refugee my father, he always tell me when I was a young girl, “Remember, we are a refugee, as a matter
of fact. And the Arabs that had to leave Israel in 1948 are refugees too, so we must find a solution for them and for us in the same
land.” So this is the base of my beliefs. I came to Jerusalem on 1966. I was 13 or 14 years old. And I have seen the war in the
middle of Jaffa Street. It’s in the main street of Jerusalem. And when the wall fell down in 1967 and united Jerusalem, I was hoping
that this fall of the wall will bring us peace and walls of hatred and suspicious between the two nations fell too. Well, I was
disappointed. And I really was hoping that Oslo would gain, that brings us at last peace and quiet to the Middle East. And when I see
how it’s stopped the last year I really lost my hope. And I think if we do not catch the peace process now we are going to lose the
opportunity to make peace in my lifetime.
DAVIDSON: The other two women joining Michal Shohat on this U.S. tour are Palestinian. Claudette Habesch is Roman Catholic
and serves as Secretary General of a Catholic relief organization called Caritas Jerusalem.
HABESCH: I am a Palestinian, born in what is today West Jerusalem, in an area called Talbir. I was as a child made a refugee.
We left our home in Jerusalem after there was a bomb put in my home, the home of my family by one of the Jewish underground movements
at the time. My family took us to Jericho to our winter home for safety. Yes at the time this was a temporary arrangement. Unfortunately
this temporary arrangement has lasted for the last 50 years. My family went to live in Jordan hoping to come back sometime. They never came
back. I came back to live in East Jerusalem when I got married in 1961. So that makes of me today a refugee in my own city, a displaced person,
an internally displaced in my own city.
DAVIDSON: That must be difficult to see your family home which you can’t go back to.
HABESCH: It is very hard. It is very hard for me to pass by because I am allowed to look at my home over the fence. And it does not
belong to me anymore or to my family. But I’ve never been asked my opinion or any of my family. We’ve never sold, we’ve never been paid any
compensation. But all of this said, I still want to look for peace and I still accept the fact of sharing the city with another people. I want
to do it for the sake of the future of my children and of the sake of the future of the Israeli children. We cannot continue to live in this way.
DAVIDSON: Nahla Asali is my other guest today. She’s a Palestinian Muslim who teaches English at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
NAHLA ASALI: My story is almost identical with Claudette’s. I was born in West Jerusalem. I was 8, 9 years old when the war of 1948 broke
and my father asked my mother to take us to Damascus for safety. Everybody panics during war, you know. And we moved to Damascus, lived for a couple
of years. Came back, not to our home but to a rented house, a neighborhood in East J and it was very tough; very tough on my mother and us as children.
I would say we survived, we survived one dispersion. With 1967 war, when all your land is lost, that’s really devastating. And when the shooting started
and the airplanes were whizzing up in the air, my father made a very, very strong decision: “I am not leaving.” And in fact we did not leave.
We had bullets in our house but we stayed and I think our, right now I feel that our physical presence in Jerusalem and in the West Bank is the only
thing we were fighting with. Just to be there, to physically stay on our land is very, very important. What happened in 1948 should not be repeated.
We, had we stayed, the whole scenario would have taken a different direction. You cannot cry on spilled milk but this should not happen again. I
think it’s high time that the world understands that it was a very difficult decision for us even accept peace. And even to accept sharing a land.
But we did. We’re willing to accept sharing this small piece of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It only takes good will. It
only takes leadership with some courage, with some guts, with some defiance.
DAVIDSON: And yours is an individual case but it’s not isolated?
ASALI: It’s the collective memory of the people; you can narrate your story, each one of us has his own narrative, but the narratives have
some common thread. We were all displaced. We all lost our houses. We all lost our land. And we all accepted, the idea of “Let’s forget and start
anew.” But to start anew you have to recognize me a little bit. Okay, why should the Israeli’s now claim their gold deposit in Swiss Banks. That’s
50 years later. And I have my house in West Jerusalem, that’s also 50 years later. It’s concrete. I have the deed, I have the keys. In fact my old
grandmother, I don’t know, she says she left her jewelry in the, what they call it, case of the shutters, in her flat. She wanted to find a hiding place
so she hid the little jewelry she had in a strange place and I always wonder, is it still there or not? So we have our gold; we want to claim it.
DAVIDSON: My three guests from Jerusalem came to the United States at the invitation of a non-governmental organization called Partners for Peace.
While they had never met before their arrival here, all had strong reasons for coming, as Claudette Habesch explains.
HABESCH: We accepted because we thought it was very important to tell the American public what we thought about, to tell them our story. To tell
them about our problems, about our suffering, about our ambitions, and ambitions for peace—for a just and comprehensive peace. As you know we feel
that the American administration policy has a lot of impact in what happens back home. So this is why we feel that we, it is very important for us to
talk with the American public, to explain to them our problems.
DAVIDSON: Nahla Asali, what brings you to the U.S.?
ASALI: Well I don’t know if it’s our aim to get peace in our city, Jerusalem, and in the whole area of Palestine, but what contribution we can
make is very, I would say very humble, because we feel that the game is being played by people high up in authority and we’d like to play it at a different
level. Being women, being mothers, being working mothers, we see it from a different perspective. And I believe, I came with this in mind, that our goals,
our predicament should be explained by women as we feel. And it should sound sincere. We’re not faking it. We came with a very, very honest and sincere
mission, that we’d like to reach the American ordinary public person and make our problem better explained. So if the American is not informed maybe we’ll
help informing. If misinformed, maybe we’ll help correct some wrong ideas about ourselves as Arabs, as Israelis, as Palestinians. So it is, I speak, with
all humbleness that we hope we can achieve something.
DAVIDSON: Michal Shohat?
SHOHAT: Well I think that we have in my opinion two purposes to this visit. One of them is to show the American people that we can live peacefully.
How we can be friends, and even if we are going to talk to each other openly we can achieve the peace and good relationships. And we are not enemies by genes.
We built the hatred through the years and we can destroy the hatred. That’s one of the purposes. We want to show it to the United States and to the people of
America. The second purpose, I think, we know how great influence has the Clinton administration on the policy in the Middle East. And we want the people of
America to stand and say that the Administration of Clinton, President Clinton, must do more to make the peace process go on.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. My guests were touring
the United States this past January to talk about their hopes for a shared Jerusalem. They are Nahla Asali, a Palestinian Muslim who teaches English at Birzeit
University; Claudette Habesch, a Palestinian Catholic who is Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem, a Catholic relief organization; and Michal Shohat, an
elected member of the Jerusalem City Council.
The Stanley Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world
affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program; at the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on
how you can order.
DAVIDSON: Just before the break Michal Shohat of the Jerusalem City Council was talking about the need for the United States to do more to keep the
peace process moving. So I asked her opinion of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s work on the Middle East so far.
SHOHAT: I don’t understand it as a matter of fact, why she’s not more involved in the Middle East. And I think she has to come more often to the
Middle East because she can press the Netanyahu government.
DAVIDSON: Nahla Asali, what’s your opinion of the Secretary of State?
ASALI: The concept of time out that she introduced during her visit to the area is still valid. I think time out is, has been extended and this is
very worrying to us as people involved in the area, because time out cannot be indefinite and there should be some reassessment of the situation and reassessment
of what the Israeli government is willing to take in order to have the peace process at least move one inch. It’s being stalled, it’s in limbo; in fact we don’t
know what’s going to happen to the peace process. We’re kind of impatient and fed up with this?
DAVIDSON: Claudette Habesch?
HABESCH: Personally, as a Palestinian, I would like things to move and I don’t want a time out because the day-to-day reality of too many people in the
region continues to be one of insecurity, destitution, and despair. And this worries me really, because what would be the results of such a situation? Also, we
have been waiting for a solution for the last 50 years. I think 50 years is long enough and we want to move forward. We want to be able to live in the region in
peace, but peace built on justice. Yes, I as a Palestinian say that I can live next door with an Israeli; I can live in peace provided they recognize that I am
there, provided that they recognize me as a human being who has rights; who has rights to self-independence and who has equal rights in sharing this land.
DAVIDSON: The dream of peace between Arabs and Jews has not completely died. But there have been more hopeful moments in their shared history. I asked
Claudette Habesch when in her lifetime she’s felt there was a real chance for a truly peaceful coexistence.
HABESCH: Actually, the Madrid Conference in October 1991 was the start of hope for the peoples of the region. And this is when I thought it was possible.
And just a moment ago Michal talked about those walls of hatred, that we can take away. And let me share with you what happened on the start of the Madrid Conference.
We, the Palestinians, were in the time of the Intifada. The Intifada was the revolt of the heart, the revolt of the Palestinians against the continued
occupation by Israel. A very harsh and oppressive occupation. Our youth were throwing stones at Israeli soldiers on the West Bank. And that day, in anticipation of
what might happen, the Israeli Army was very widespread, all over the West Bank. I went up to Ramallah, a city north of Jerusalem, some 15 kilometers away of Jerusalem,
to see the feel. Because you know, for as this was a very historic event. For the first time our leaders, Palestinian leaders and the Israeli leaders, were going to sit
together. And I remind you that the Prime Minister of Israel at the time was a Mr. Shamir, who was a very hard-liner. And to my surprise those same Palestinian who were
throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers were holding olive branches and running toward the Israeli soldiers, giving them this olive branch in a sign of peace. To me,
this wall of hatred became a wall of sand. And I think this is when I started believing that things are possible, that things, I mean, peaceful coexistence. And this
led to the Oslo Declaration of Principles. I think what we saw on TV on the White House lawn was unbelievable. The handshake—the impossible became possible! Yes, for
me as a Palestinian, when we signed this declaration of principles it was a wager on hope. And it was the light at the end of the tunnel. And I hope that we can still
keep this candle lighted.
DAVIDSON: Michal Shohat?
SHOHAT: I think I can share with you two points in my life that I feel that the peace is coming. The first one was when Mr. President Sadat came to Israel in
1977. And I remember it very well because my eldest daughter just born, she was one month old, and I sit watching television with my daughter in my arms and I see Mr. Sadat
come to Ben-Gurion Airport and I hold my baby strongly and said, “Well you see, I hope you are not going to the Army.” And I was an officer in the Army at that
time, so it was very strong feeling for me that she is not going to go to the Army, but as you know, there is no peace now, so she has just finished herself in the Army and
my son has just begin his serve in the Army. And for Israeli Jewish mother it is a very difficult time to see her son going to the front. And I don’t want to tell anything
And the second moment was the day where our leaders signed the Oslo Agreement. And I came home to Jerusalem —I was in Tel Aviv that day—and I came to Jerusalem and I
arrived through a certain place in the West Bank. And I saw a Palestinian car holding the flags out of the car. It was the first time that I think they were allowed to hold
the flags out loud and not to hide them. And I drive beside them and I signed my fingers, Victory and Peace, and I think that was another moment of hope that I felt during
DAVIDSON: And how does it feel right now? Are people just holding their breath?
SHOHAT: Despair I think. Because we had peace in our hand and we let it go, just like that. I think we despair.
DAVIDSON: Did that begin with the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, or when did things start to crumble?
SHOHAT: I think it started when Mr. Rabin was murdered. And it’s going on in the last election in 1996. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I see that Netanyahu
became Prime Minister. And I think that makes me despair. I couldn’t believe he let Oslo Agreement crumble.
DAVIDSON: And Nahla Asali, I’d like to know when over your lifetime, what moments of peace you’ve seen?
ASALI: I would say that when the head of the Palestinian delegation in Madrid, gave the speech for the Palestinian delegation that was a moment of, it was a very
impressive moment for me because for the first time, at least internationally, we had a Palestinian speak for us and speak in an international forum. But this same man,
Dr. [?], if you see him now, he also is disappointed, I would speak just gauging his feelings. And many other Palestinians are very much disappointed with whatever development
this dream brought about. And time out cannot be time out endlessly. And we need to rescue the peace process. It needs more than one side really. It cannot be done by the
Palestinians and the Israelis alone. To leave them do it by themselves is, I believe a failing strategy or tactic. We tried it; it didn’t work. And to save the peace process
you have to come back to the international community.
DAVIDSON: Nahla Asali has been my guest on Common Ground. She’s a Palestinian Muslim and teaches English at Birzeit University in the West Bank. My other two
guests were Claudette Habesch, a Palestinian Catholic and Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem, a Catholic relief organization; and Michal Shohat, an elected member of the
Jerusalem City Council. All three were touring the United States this past January to talk about the Middle East peace process and their hopes for a shared Jerusalem. For
Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security