21 March 2022 marks 20 years since my close encounter with a suicide bomber on a Jerusalem street. It was amidst the second intifada, which was both a colossal waste of Israeli and Palestinian life, and destroyed the prospects of Israeli–Palestinian peace for an entire generation.
The incident itself was, well, normal. A friend and I went into the city after a day at university. We were waiting to cross King George St when I grew impatient. I pulled her arm and we ran across the road during a break in the traffic. We’d just gotten across the street and turned down one of those narrow alleyways that criss-cross the Ben Yehuda Mall precinct, when the bomb went off. We found out later that the bomber had detonated himself a metre or two from where we’d been waiting to cross the road.
March 2002 was a tough month in Israel. The three people killed (with 80 injured) in that bombing were among the 107 Israelis killed in 15 separate deadly attacks on both civilians and soldiers in just that month. A bomb at the Park Hotel in Netanya during the Pesach seder on 27 March killed 30 people. The violence that month prompted Israel to launch a major operation in the West Bank. (It became the turning point of the second intifada.)
I was in Israel out of solidarity. Those of us of a certain age remember well the frustration we felt in September and October 2000 when, after the unprecedented offer by Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat at Camp David, the second intifada was launched and—critically—much of the world’s media blamed Israel for the violence.
In 2000, after a gap year (that had actually lasted six years), I was in first-year university and absolutely gobsmacked by the hatred for and ignorance about Israel that bubbled so readily to the surface when Israeli–Palestinian violence broke out.
I’m sure every Zionist in Australia has experienced the same feeling at one point or another.
I wanted to do something, but an undergrad can’t do much.
I figured the best thing I could do was to go to Israel, to be a witness of sorts to my Australian friends and colleagues, and to show Israelis that not everyone had abandoned them.
It took a while to get organised but, with the help of scholarships provided through the Australian Friends of Hebrew University, I went to Israel for a year in 2002, to complete the third year of my bachelor in Jerusalem.
It’s hard to put into words the profound effect that year subsequently had on my life. Life, in many ways, was normal – Israelis had internalised the ever-present threat of a bomb exploding in their midst without warning – they’d mostly blocked out the fear. But this defence was punctured every other week by the shock and rage and, yes, fear, that came with each new suicide bombing. Death stalked the streets. Everyone had a ‘close shave’ story. My favourite café and university were bombed. Even my apartment building was hit by a mortar fired from a nearby Palestinian village.
I remember a Haaretz opinion piece that said going to a café was a radical act of normalcy—that we must all be normal, to absolutely prevent the terrorists from winning. I had already been catching a bus to Ben Yehuda Mall every Motza’ei Shabbat, to eat, to drink, to offer my metaphorical middle finger to the terrorists. But upon reading that opinion piece, I felt part of a movement doing the same.
Witnessing the societal efforts to deal with terrorism shaped me. The guards posted at every door, on buses, cruising the streets on motorbikes. The endless conversations about ‘hamatzav’ (‘the situation’), that swung from adamant to helpless. The way that boards went up around a bomb site, the glass was swept away and replaced, and the business re-opened. And, of course, the military operations, the international diplomacy, the incessant media.
The situation on the streets melded with life at Hebrew University. Certainly, there was immense gratitude to the handful of international students there that year. As might be imagined, only a couple of us weren’t Jewish, and I honestly believe our presence cheered those we came across. The university also provided easy access to deep thinkers on Israeli–Palestinian relations and Israel’s strategic situation. Combined with the never-ending terrorism, the lectures I attended, the long conversations I’d have with academics—many of whom had personal relationships with key Israeli leaders of the glorious past—led me down the path I’ve taken for the past two decades; a deep academic and professional focus on Israel, the Israeli–Palestinian dispute and the wider Middle East.
That focus wasn’t just an attempt to understand the country or the region, but to understand why the peace process failed and, crucially, to offer pragmatic ways to build trust and peace between the two sides. My academic focus culminated in a PhD (which I later turned into a book).
Professionally, it has taken me on a varied journey, culminating with a job at the ZFA.
The very small part I played (among many others) in convincing the Australian Government to proscribe both Hezbollah and Hamas in the last 12 months was a victory for me. Not just a professional victory because I work for a Zionist organisation, but a deeply personal victory 20 years in the making, because I helped enable a victory over terrorism, even if in the smallest of ways.
If the terrorism of the second intifada provided focus and direction for my own career, it wrecked the chance of Israeli–Palestinian peace for at least a generation. Few things in the dispute are black and white. But, quite often, people interpret their experiences in stark terms. Israelis came to believe that they absolutely could not trust Palestinian intentions. Sadly, the Palestinian leadership hasn’t done much over the past 20 years to change their minds. This has shaped Israeli views on the Palestinians—and the way Israelis have voted for the last two decades. (For the record, Palestinians don’t have any trust in Israeli intentions, either.)
There is little movement by either the Israeli or Palestinian sides to build trust. Israelis have essentially given up on making peace with the Palestinians. Much of the rest of the Middle East has as well, which paved the way for Israel’s normalisation agreements with three Arab countries over the past couple of years.
As for the Palestinians, rather than mend relations with Israel—or even put their own house in order so as to create a viable state-in-making—they’ve turned to third parties for international recognition of their still-fictional state, or to the International Criminal Court, in the hope of pressuring Israel without having to make any of their own concessions.
But here’s the thing: neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere, and diplomatically ignoring the other won’t make them go away. The status quo might appear stable, but it won’t take much for the situation to change dramatically for the worse. The problem is, in both Israeli and Palestinian societies, calling for peace is political suicide.
Peace might be too hard to conceptualise for now, but building trust between the two sides is—possibly—possible and, I believe, necessary. It’s not up to one side to start; either side can. But will they?
Sadly, tragically, probably not.
Dr. Bren Carlill is the Public Affairs Director of the Zionist Federation of Australia. His book “The Challenges of Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute“ was released last year.