Seeing beyond fear

by Saliba Sarsar and Hiyam Zakharia Sarsar
TINTON FALLS, NJ - Fear haunts Palestinians and Israelis and disfigures their psyche and spirit. Both have imprisoned each other in a circular trap of claims and counterclaims, violence and retaliation, with conflagrations every decade or so as if they are fulfilling a biblical injunction.

We have spent much time coming to terms with our own personal experiences with the conflict and the wars that it has produced. Even though we are often discouraged by the daily news from Israel and Palestine, we remain committed to a bright future for all peoples there.

Long before we met, during the Six-Day War, when one of us was eleven and the other four, we experienced the battle for Jerusalem. We still remember the fear of the night and day and the anxiety that gripped our parents as they attempted to protect us from harm. Although our plight paled in comparison to those of others — one of us lost two neighbours in that war — the memory of that war persists.

When the barbed wire and walls separating East from West Jerusalem were cleared away, we met the enemy for the first time. To our surprise, the enemy was just like us. The enemy became a friend and the unfamiliar became commonplace. What still concerns us, however, is the mistrust and fear with which each national community views the other, given the longstanding differences and current impasse.

At the height of the first Intifada — the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation between 1987-1993 — the younger of us, like thousands of others, lived under fire. Fear truly became part of life, as demonstrations erupted, stones targeted soldiers, car tires were burnt, tear gas bombs exploded, bullets were fired, youngsters were beaten and arrested while others were seriously injured or killed.

During the 1991 first Gulf War, like most Israelis and Palestinians, the younger of us also faced the danger of Scud missiles launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Israel. With a gas mask in hand, every time the siren sounded, she ushered her entire family into the “safe” room, taped the door shut and prayed until the clear signal was given.

As children and adolescents, we worried about tomorrow and learned to plan for the unexpected, which, in turn, often became reality. Why must children have abnormal lives? Why must parents live in constant fear, agonising about their children’s present and future? When will leaders realise that fear cannot be overcome by force but by a secure state of mind achieved through peace? Why do conscience and political will disappear in times of extreme crisis?

We understand that most Israeli and Palestinian children do not dare to dream of peace. Their parents embrace them as if it is their last embrace. Bombs in public places, rocket attacks and the occupation weigh heavily on everyone’s mind. An estimated 33% of Israeli youth and 70% of Palestinian youth suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Painful memories cling to the minds and hearts of Holocaust survivors and their descendants and to those who suffered during the successive Arab-Israeli wars.

Palestinian refugees — who left or were forced to leave their homes in the 1948 Nakbah (Arabic for catastrophe) and the 1967 Naksah (Arabic for setback) — or their descendants hold tightly to the worn-out deeds and rusted keys, hoping to return but afraid that the promise of return will never materialise.

The perennial conflict has led some to extremism and violence, with the expected response of yet more extremism and counter-violence. The Israeli occupation and its settlement project continue with walls and military checkpoints, turning Israel into a fortress and Palestinian areas into large enclaves, if not prisons. Palestinians are becoming increasingly more desperate, publically holding onto the past but privately fearful that the past has guided them toward a dead end.

Palestinians and Israelis are entitled to a better future. We envision Israel and Palestine living alongside each other in peace and security. We envision Jerusalem as an open city where people of faith can sojourn without hindrance. We envision Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam (Oasis of Peace) — a village, jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, which is engaged in educational work for peace, equality, and understanding between the two peoples — as the norm, not the exception.

Israelis and Palestinians need more social workers and therapists instead of fighters, less bereavement and more reconciliation, enlightened leaders who see beyond the next election, and a new beginning where, as equals, they can live in a world beyond fear.


* Saliba Sarsar and Hiyam Zakharia Sarsar were born and raised in Jerusalem. Saliba, a political science professor, and Hiyam, a chemist, live in New Jersey and are active in Arab-Jewish dialogue. This article is part of a special series on the impact of fear in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 July 2009,
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What Lies Beneath the Fear
Fear of the other, fear of the friend
Shrinking the gap: Our fears about the Middle East and our identity group
The right to live! The Courage to be afraid
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Other articles in this series

What Lies Beneath the Fear by Simon Lawson
Fear of the other, fear of the friend by Roi Ben-Yehuda
Shrinking the gap: Our fears about the Middle East and our identity group by Barbara Landau and Dr. George Awad
The right to live! The Courage to be afraid by Jona Bargur