Is Washington missing the real sign of the times with Israelis and Palestinians?

Is Washington missing the real sign of the times with Israelis and Palestinians?
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The Biden administration sent an envoy to Israel this week to meet with Israeli and Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives, to discuss a potential return to the negotiating table under the watchful eye and guidance of the United States. The PA’s list of demands to do so likely will include returning to an earlier status quo that limited Jews from visiting the Temple Mount; returning the Palestinian Authority to East Jerusalem’s Orient House; stopping evictions in Jerusalem; and returning confiscated arms to Palestinian security forces.

But as Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenMore than 180 local employees working at US embassy, consulates in Russia laid off Duterte restores pact allowing US war exercises Blinken urges Tunisian president to return country to 'democratic path as quickly as possible' MORE’s team prepares to wade into the intractable Israel/Palestinian dispute, they should take note of another demand — one made of Palestinian businesses and shopkeepers.

On July 9, the Jerusalem Post reported that Abdullah Kmeil, the PA governor of the Salfit District on the West Bank, issued a “strict decision” obligating all commercial installations and shops in the area to remove signs and billboards written in Hebrew.

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Kmeil, a senior official with the ruling Fatah faction headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, ordered the businesses to replace the signs and billboards with ones written in Arabic. He reportedly gave Palestinian businesses one week to comply, claiming that “the occupation is exploiting the scene of the signs in Hebrew for purposes that serve its racist and fascist policy.”

Kmeil promised legal action against anyone not removing signs in the Holy Land’s native tongue. He declared the rule is a necessary “response to the Israeli policy and the arrogance of the occupation aimed at stealing our lands and obliterating the features of the Palestinian identity.”

With COVID-19 still a problem among unvaccinated Palestinians, with Palestinian elections postponed once again, with Hamas’s recent war with Israel still affecting Gaza’s civilians, could Hebrew signs in Palestinian towns really merit serious attention by the Palestinian Authority?

To understand the PA’s fears, consider the story of Ziad Sabateen, a resident of the Arab village of Husan, located literally a stone’s throw from the Jerusalem suburb of Tzur Hadassah and the Orthodox Jewish town of Beitar Illit. Not so long ago, Husan was a hot spot for stone-throwing and terror attacks against their Jewish neighbors. But that has changed, in large measure because of the efforts of Sabateen, an unlikely Palestinian peace activist. 

As a teen, Sabateen was imprisoned for five years in Israel for his involvement in the First Intifada in the late 1980s. He became a founding member of the grassroots movement “Friends of Roots,” which is meant to foster understanding and nonviolence among Palestinians and Israelis, and a co-founder of “The Path of Hope and Peace.” As Sabateen explained to me in his home last week, various Palestinian movements are well represented and highly organized inside Israeli prisons. When he was involved with them, Sabateen was dissatisfied when he raised the issue of peace-making with Jews, and this eventually led him to forge a different path. 

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How different that path is quickly became clear when he picked me up, along with Israeli Knesset member Amichai Chikli and community activist Eran Tibol, at a busy gas station and mini-mall patronized by Arabs and Jews alike. Speaking in flawless Hebrew, Sabateen traced his personal trek and transformation. As we left the highway for his village, he pointed out the obvious: For three blocks, Haredi Jews from Beitar Illit were meeting and shopping with Arab merchants. Above every shop was a sign in Hebrew, English and Arabic. West Bank Palestinians and Jews were interacting, politics and boundaries be damned.  

Such daily interactions, for now, have replaced deadly stereotypes and demonizations of “the other” in Husan. No wonder the Palestinian Authority must feel threatened.

We sat in Sabateen’s living room — three Palestinians, three Israelis and one American — for over an hour, discussing various plans to lift all our people out of the quagmire. There were maps, books, essays. I’m not sure any of them hold the key for ultimate peace. But one thing was clear: Sabateen is a peacemaker. When it came time to leave, the topic of the Abraham Peace Accords came up. “Who knows,” Sabateen said, “maybe the kings of Bahrain and Morocco and the ruler in the [United Arab Emirates] can help us here in this land to link up to the Accords.”

It’s not a bad idea. But in the meantime, it behooves the United States to read the correct signs of the times — what’s happening between neighbors in Husan and Beitar Illit. Otherwise, we will just default to sclerotic talking points that are guaranteed to create more detours and roadblocks on the path to an elusive peace.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean and global social action director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.