Obama and Romney need to confront, solve Israeli-Palestinian divisions

I was born and raised in Jerusalem. Most of my work colleagues are Jewish, and despite the growing tension between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, years of working together have made us quite close. I speak Hebrew fluently, as well as my native Arabic, and I have always engaged my Jewish acquaintances with the same openness and respect I would give to anyone else.

At the annual employee appreciation party for the upscale Jerusalem hotel where I work as an accounts representative, one of my Jewish colleagues, a good friend, had too much to drink. She asked another co-worker and me to give her a ride home. When we arrived at the apartment she shares with her family, she assured us that she would be able to continue on her own. But when she exited the car, she promptly lost her balance. As we got out to help her, a group of nine Israeli-Jewish teenagers approached us and asked what was going on. We responded in Hebrew that everything was fine so they began to walk away.  With a look of concern, my friend turned to speak to me. “Ibrahim,” she said, less quietly than intended, “leave them be.”

Today I know that if my name had been Avraham, and not Ibrahim, I would not have been attacked that night several weeks ago. Ibrahim is the Arabic version for the Bible’s Avraham. Nowadays, however, instead of hearing the slight variation in pronunciation, people hear Palestinian, or Jewish. And, within seconds after my friend uttered my name, I felt the pressure of a hand grab my shoulder, as eight other men joined in pummeling my body. One of my attackers struck my left leg with a heavy iron rod, shattering the bone and sending me to the ground. I remember trying to protect my face, while I faded in and out of consciousness.

I had nine pins and one metal plate surgically embedded into my leg to help it become whole again. During the period I was hospitalized, my mother visited me as often as she could. I needed and wanted her to be with me, yet a deep sense of fear engulfed me every time I knew she would come to the hospital. Would my mother be attacked? Would others hurt her simply because she is Palestinian?

This fear is new to me. One month ago I would have told my younger sisters to make as many Jewish friends as possible, to understand and experience the lives of others and to share their own lives. But I love them and I care about their safety, and I can no longer encourage them to be anything but cautious.

Israel’s political leadership speaks about Palestinians as an unfortunate demographic reality, at best, and a military threat at worst. Several recent, highly visible attacks against Palestinians, including my own, have resulted in criminal investigations and indictments, though many do not. The situation is worse in the West Bank, where almost 90 percent of cases involving Jewish settler violence against Palestinians are dropped without prosecution. Settlers move between the West Bank, Israel, and West Jerusalem with ease; we shall soon see whether West Bank impunity does too.

Those who attacked me are victims of this environment.  I cannot hate them. They need rehabilitation, not punishment, and the same is true of our shared society.

I am now physically recovering. I will eventually return to my job and work side-by-side with my Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish colleagues. I realize now, however, that we are facing a much greater threat than fear of what happened to me weeks ago, and what could happen again. The threat emanates from the power of hatred, incitement, and the intolerance that is permeating Israeli society at a rapid pace.

Public statements issued by Israeli officials affirming that attacks on Palestinians qualify as terrorism are not enough. As long as Palestinians, the indigenous people of the land, continue to be cast as intruders, often by politicians and religious leaders, the number and severity of attacks will increase. The leaders of Jewish-Israeli society, and those outside of Israel who influence them, must recognize, appreciate, and affirm that we Palestinians are here to stay and not going anywhere. This land is big enough for all of us provided equal rights are extended to all.

The American presidential candidates, however, appear oblivious to the discrimination Palestinians face and the dual system of law -- what some are now calling Israeli apartheid -- that exists here. President Obama and Gov. Romney are willing to talk about Iran and Israel, but are content to put Palestinians, our rights, and our freedom, on the back burner. They talk about Egypt, Libya, and Syria and how to liberate them, but overlook that our oppression by Israel is one of the central problems gripping the Middle East today. The candidates should discuss the Israeli occupation and colonization of our land at this week's foreign policy debate in Boca Raton.

Abu-Ta'a is a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem.