Pondering the Israel-Palestine Conflict in the Context of African Reconciliation

An Israeli writer reflects on her time in Rwanda and South Africa and wonders whether rapprochement is possible in a land of zealots

Pondering the Israel-Palestine Conflict in the Context of African Reconciliation
A reconciliation village in Mbyo, Rwanda. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

What brought me to Africa some 10 years ago was food, or rather, the lack thereof. My goal was to teach my partners in six countries how to grow spirulina, a microalgae superfood that can treat and prevent malnutrition. In South Africa and Rwanda, it turned out to be a mutual exchange, in which they taught me about reconciliation. These two nations were submerged in conflicts that seemed — as all conflicts do, at least by those who are immersed in them — unsolvable, yet their people had managed to take fate into their hands and embark on charting a way out. I had spent nearly a decade as the executive director of a Tel Aviv-based NGO working with disadvantaged communities struggling with hunger and malnutrition. From the start, I considered my Africa work a trade of knowledge: “I will teach you how to grow spirulina, and you will teach me what you know about reconciliation, as I come from a neighborhood that knows a lot about conflict but is completely ignorant about the possibility of reconciliation.”

The conversations about reconciliation took place on site — in schools, orphanages, community centers, public health clinics and hospitals — and were intertwined with our work together. We would speak while building greenhouses and spirulina-growing facilities, in waiting rooms before and even during meetings with government officials, on buses and ferries, in taxis and while walking the streets.

I found that in South Africa, where for decades the white minority ruled and oppressed the Black majority under apartheid, it was enough for me to open the door to the subject, and the person I was conversing with would generally be eager to discuss the country’s reconciliation process. But in Rwanda, where the process followed a genocide from a generation ago in a country that is not and never was a democracy, freedom of speech is not a given, and any talk regarding reconciliation must adhere to the official narrative. I had to establish a relationship and build trust before gently signaling that I was interested in the hues and complexities of the process before people permitted themselves to sound a voice that was not necessarily in unison with that of the choir.

I was struck from the start by a very particular undertone that was present in all my encounters with people, in both South Africa and Rwanda, including with those who were ambivalent about the reconciliation process their country underwent. It’s an undertone hinting at a sense of achievement, not necessarily of something that has been completed but of something that is in many ways still ongoing and is, first and foremost, tangible. It begins with the reaction I received from every person I spoke to once they realized I am from Israel: a slightly condescending expression followed by a curt “hmmm” that is not frequently continued so as not to be impolite and sometimes is, with an empathetic yet blunt, “ah … you’re the Jews and Arabs who are still fighting.”

I got the sense that they believed they had also faced something that seemed insurmountable but had succeeded. It was also apparent in a particular flavor of ownership of the reconciliation process that came up in all my conversations, reminiscent of the way parents talk about their children, stressing their personal and very intimate involvement as well as their responsibility to make it work — as if it somehow reflects on them.

In both societies, the past conflicts are still present. They are present in memorial sites and commemoration museums as well as in people’s physical and emotional scars. Yet reconciliation is also present, because it is something they think about, discuss, debate, research and question. It’s an intense, introspective ambience of observing oneself and observing the other, very intimately. I sometimes felt that people I talked to were including me in their therapy sessions.

It was in stark contrast with my home, where the past several decades have been marked by a decline in expectations regarding what can be achieved in the conflict and accordingly in what is discussed. Peace was once a part of Israeli society’s vocabulary. There was an oft-heard phrase about the Palestinian territories Israel first occupied in 1967 — “territories in exchange for peace” — which shows that it was discussed, even if disputed. Over the past nearly two decades of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing policies, this goal had been downgraded to “agreement.” Then, as tends to happen when such deterioration is not halted and no new political horizon is offered, violence surged and trust in the possibility of ending the conflict weakened. This gave birth to the awful notion of “conflict management.”

Reconciliation is seldom spoken of in Israel. It is a null category. Is it possible this is because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unique? Perhaps more difficult, more complex, more painful, more something?

In 2017, I published a book, “On Reconciliation,” on what I learned from the processes in South Africa and Rwanda. In the years since its Hebrew-language publication, I have given talks to Israeli audiences of various political beliefs. While sentiment has been generally positive and curious, the possibility of reconciliation in the Israel-Palestine conflict was so far-fetched that it was considered theoretical.

There was even a willingness to draw comparisons between what has happened elsewhere with home, a willingness I attributed to the fact that the conflict has not been a part of most Israelis’ existence. Of course, some Israelis encountered it during their mandatory military service, and occasionally the violence would spill across the borders into Israel, but the reality of the conflict remained, for the most part, repressed. Simply put, the average Israeli could live and give very little thought, if any, to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, which made these comparisons interesting but in no way binding or pressing.

Often one of the last questions I was asked during the Q&A session at these talks was: Are we destined to encounter a catastrophe before we are willing and able to move toward reconciliation?

And my answer to this before Oct. 7 was, “I don’t know, but I hope not.” Since those events more than three months ago, no one even asks this question; it has become clear that we, Israelis and Palestinians, are living a catastrophe. And although the feeling these days is more militaristic, more nationalist and moving more and more to the right, I’m sensing that there is also a new awareness that this conflict can no longer be ignored. The latest talks over recent weeks were initiated, organized and orchestrated by young Israeli activists — Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, and they meant business. They were adamant in their demand for lessons they can use now. There was a level of urgency I had not sensed before.

I first arrived in Rwanda in 2014, some 20 years after the 100-day genocide and about a decade after the start of the reconciliation process, which is, in many ways, still continuing today.

The main ethnic groups that make up the population of Rwanda are Hutu, the majority, and Tutsi, the minority. At the end of the colonial era, and largely because of it, relations between the groups were tense. After many years in which the Tutsi held the reins, and the Hutu were oppressed and discriminated against, there was an upset. The Hutu came into power in 1960 when they won municipal elections organized by Belgian colonial rulers. They attempted to drive out the Tutsi via restrictive legislation and promotion of violent outbursts that were supposedly spontaneous. Many Tutsis were murdered and exiled.

The situation worsened in 1990 to the point of civil war. An army of Tutsi exiles invaded the country in an attempt to return, while the Hutu government escalated the overt incitement against the Tutsi and covertly planned a genocide. These plans are worth dwelling on because they are hard to imagine. For four years, government officials, heads of local councils and heads of defense branches convened, deliberated and plotted how to wipe the Tutsi off the face of the Earth. To this end, they imported huge amounts of weapons and distributed them to the Hutu masses and prepared hit lists. These lists included not only names and addresses but also the order in which Tutsis should be killed when the command was handed down. The lists were distributed among Hutus nationwide, and they organized in local militias and trained. The government designated media, both radio and print, to incite the masses. The media openly discussed the “Tutsi problem” and the need for a “final solution.” Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches that would crawl in through the smallest of cracks to take Hutus’ land, cattle, jobs and women. If further proof was needed of the meticulous and methodical planning of the genocide, it began nationwide, simultaneously. If even further proof was needed, 300,000 people participated in the genocide. That’s 300,000 ordinary Hutus who took up arms against their neighbors, friends and sometimes even members of their own families. Every day, 10,000 people were murdered. That’s six victims per minute, every minute, for 100 days. At the end of this, the human and physical face of the country was obliterated. Between 800,000 and over 1 million people were murdered, most of them Tutsi but also Hutu who refused to take part in the killing or were murdered in retaliation campaigns by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Half a million women and girls were raped, many in gang rapes that included intentionally infecting them with HIV. Two million Rwandans, most of them Hutu, were internally displaced and crowded in refugee camps. The streets, public buildings and fields were full of bodies and body parts.

This unfathomable efficiency was the result not only of systematic planning but also of something unique to Rwanda and that would be relevant to the reconciliation process that began a decade later — the fabric of life. What was true then is still true today: It’s impossible to find a city, village, workplace, school or church where Hutus and Tutsis don’t live together. This means the killers and the victims knew each other firsthand. There was a loss of trust that is hard for a non-Rwandan to imagine.

It’s difficult for the human brain to contain the extent of the horror, just as it’s hard to fathom what brought people to find within themselves the strength and desire to reconcile. It seems surreal, at times contradicting logic. Until you talk to people. At least, that’s how it was for me.

One of these people was B, whom I met one day while working with nurses in a community health center: a young man, tall and handsome, with childlike, inquisitive eyes that, though playful, convey a skepticism that one generally sees in an elderly person who has seen a thing or two in their lifetime. B and the other people I spoke to and whose stories I tell in my book shared his recollections and thoughts courageously.

Those interviewed are referred to by the initials of their names so as to protect them — as mentioned earlier, any public discussion of the genocide and the reconciliation process in Rwanda must strictly follow the formal narrative.

The conversation between B and me took place throughout an entire day as we were building a greenhouse, and it began from my notebook. I’m a writer. I don’t go anywhere without my notebook. Sometimes it comes in handy for more than capturing my thoughts.

At one point during that long day, I was sitting on a rock, jotting something. B stood behind me, looked over my shoulder and asked: “What are these letters?”

I said: “Hebrew, a language of Jesus.”

He was rather pleased. “Really? You write like that, from right to left?”

I nodded yes, and he asked me what I thought about Jesus.

I answered that I find Jesus a fascinating literary, moral and historical figure but that I am an atheist.

“Really?” he asked. “Does this mean you don’t believe in God?”

I said yes.

Quietly, almost whispering, he said: “You know, I don’t believe in God either. I mean, like everyone in Rwanda I go to church and pray, but I don’t believe in God, because I ask myself, where was He during the genocide? Was He on a break? It’s just like your genocide, the genocide of the Jews, isn’t it?”

A moment later and before I replied, B said to me: “We don’t have enough wood for the greenhouse. Let’s go get some.”

In fact, we did have enough wood. What we didn’t have was a safe space to talk because in Rwanda one must be cautious when discussing the genocide, and B wanted to continue talking. So, we went to a nearby eucalyptus grove. B asked a 12-year-old boy who was working on site to come with us, and we talked while the boy, who did not understand English or French, which meant B and I could speak freely, cut off branches with a machete. B pointed at this branch or another, and the boy chopped. The casual existence of these machetes never ceased to amaze me whenever I was in Rwanda. It is a work tool that is routinely used, and everyone overlooks or just doesn’t say anything about the insane metamorphosis it underwent during the genocide. It was the main murder weapon.

B told me that he was 5 when the genocide began. His parents were in neighboring Congo, so he and his 3-year-old brother were staying at their grandmother’s together with his aunt and her children. Our conversation took place in the breathtakingly beautiful place where it all occurred 20 years earlier: Jali, the highest point in Kigali, the capital. B said, without an ounce of irony, that they were lucky because it was a site of strategic importance to the Hutu militias, so as soon as the militias seized the lush, tropical green mountain, they were focused on eyeing the area, and that way B and his family were able to hide behind bushes and rocks. B, ever curious, was constantly observing everything that was going on. “The things I saw … . You can’t imagine the things I saw.” He shook his head as he said this, as if to make note of the fact that what he was about to share is incomprehensible.

He witnessed rape, torture, mutilation, beheaded bodies. “The eyes remained open, you know,” he mentioned, as if these dead eyes were still staring at him from memory. Three days passed and they were discovered. They started to flee, but the kids were kids, the grandmother was old, and the aunt adjusted herself to the pace of her family. When it was clear that the pursuers were closing in on them and that they wouldn’t get away, the grandmother stood still and ordered the others to keep running. She then turned around and ran toward the pursuers. B said she ran to them with her arms stretched out and demonstrated this with his own. “She held her arms like a parent does to welcome their child and embrace them.” They continued running as his grandmother’s limbs were cut off, limb by limb, until her screams fell silent.

In the years after the genocide, Rwandan society took upon itself to undergo a reconciliation process. The motivation was practical: Hutus and Tutsis had to live together and this could not be achieved without a transitional process that would acknowledge what had happened as well as punish the perpetrators. The Rwandan model of transitional justice required that every suspected perpetrator stand trial, but the genocide left little of the judiciary system, as many of its professionals were murdered, the jails were dangerously overcrowded with suspected genocide criminals, and many more were still free, their existence in the communities terrifying their victims.

Had the country continued court trials in the Western style — as they had started to do in the immediate aftermath of the genocide — it would have taken a century to deliver justice. The government turned to traditional Rwandan practices and adjusted them to carry and support the reconciliation process. Community courts — “gacaca” — were set up all over the country. Gacaca, which means “grass” in the national language of Kinyarwanda, was literal, referring to where people would sit in pre-colonial times, when it was used for solving disagreements within a community or to enable community members to consult with one another. During the gacaca hearings, which spanned a decade and took place in every community around the country, Hutus and Tutsis, victims and aggressors sat together on the grass or under a tree, a cramped human cluster of pain and horror, listening and talking. Those who had something to confess stood up, and while still in the cluster — in a way, demonstrating the inseparability of the community — recounted what they did, to whom they did it and how. They asked for forgiveness and were often granted it. We sometimes forget how important, how meaningful, acknowledgment is and what a pivotal part it plays in a reconciliation process.

B said that, like everyone else, he too attended the gacaca hearings. I asked him the same question I asked everyone I spoke to in Rwanda, because no matter how many times I encountered these firsthand recollections, I found that imagining it was still elusive: “Is your reconciliation genuine? I mean, you live together, victims and victimizers. How does that work?”

At first, he gave me the routine answer you get, word for word, from everyone you speak to in Rwanda: “It happened; we reconciled. We used to be Hutu and Tutsi; now we are all Rwandans looking to the future.”

But I insisted, because it really is hard to fathom, and after I posed a few more variations of the same question — “Do you trust one another?” “Are you friends?” — he replied yes to them all and then fell silent. I think he was trying to find a way to penetrate my stubborn head. He discreetly pointed out two young men who were building the greenhouse with us and were not, at that point, at a hearing distance from us.

“You see that guy?”

I nodded.

“He is like me. He is Tutsi. We are partners, we have a cooperative, and we grow mushrooms together.” He fixed his gaze on another young man. “You see that guy?”

I nodded.

“He is also our partner, and he is Hutu. But he is not just any Hutu. His father murdered my grandmother. I heard his father talking about it at the gacaca hearings, but I didn’t have to hear him. Because I saw it. I saw him cutting my grandmother into pieces.”

I tried to conceal the choke ring that settled around my throat at the images that his words created in my mind. “OK, I understand — you’re partners. But are you friends as well? Do you trust him?”

B again replied yes, but then, after a silent moment, added softly: “Of course. Of course, it’s hard for our parents. For them it’s virtually impossible, but they’re doing it for us. Do you understand?”

I heard remarkably similar statements in South Africa, and I heard these statements also from people who were very critical of the reconciliation process that their society underwent. People who felt that they paid a high price for it and not always a fair one. The statement “it’s for the future generation” that is present in both reconciling societies offers a key. It embodies the recognition that reconciliation is hard, because really, how can we live together after all that happened? And it embodies the logic of reconciliation, which is altogether different from that of conflict: In a society that lives by the sword, those who in war sacrifice themselves again and again and too often their lives, are the children. In a reconciling society the older generation, that of the parents and grandparents, takes upon itself the sacrifice in that they decide to live together and work at it, hard as it may be.

Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more complex, more painful, more anything in comparison with what these societies went through?

In between visiting South Africa and Rwanda, during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, I was walking home in our Tel Aviv neighborhood one afternoon with my son, then 8 years old. I planned which shelter we would run to if the siren went off, keeping in mind that in Gaza there are no sirens, no shelters, no Iron Dome.

“How was your day?” I asked him, as I did every day.

“OK,” he replied, as he replied every day.

“What did you do today?”

“We played IDF against Hamas.” He said this casually, as if mentioning a game of cards or hide-and-seek.

“How did you play IDF against Hamas?” I’m sure my voice cracked under the weight of this query.

He explained that they crumpled paper into balls and threw them at one another.

I swallowed the saliva that was flooding my mouth, trying to remain with him in his play world in which there were, or at least could be, those who win and those who lose. I asked him who won.

“Nobody,” he shrugged. “After a while we got tired, so we stopped.”

As in this sad children’s play, at one point Israelis and Palestinians will once more feel they have had enough and end this round of our decadeslong conflict. Horrifyingly, they will again discover that nothing will have changed in the reality that supposedly brought on this war; only the amount of human suffering will have nightmarishly swelled.

Could this time be different? Are we thinking of the future? We seem to be at a junction heading the other way: In a land where zealots set the tone, everything is judged with respect to eternity, and anything can be justified in the name of divinity. It is a land whose ethos is the complete opposite of a land that chants, “It’s for the future generation.”

Perhaps this is where we, Israelis and Palestinians, need to begin. I’ve seen with my own eyes that it can be done.

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