President Rivlin’s Important, Intriguing Gesture

One of the few times in recent memory that a senior Israeli official makes a personal gesture that touches the core of Palestinian pain.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict understandably has taken a back seat to other dramatic events across the Middle East in the last few years, and a lively debate continues about whether that conflict played any role in the uprisings that have overthrown or challenged half a dozen Arab regimes.

I am among those who believe that the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts have consistently played a role in the condition of the Arab region, including providing an excuse for military regimes to rule many Arab states, and fueling radical or opposition movements that have often led to destabilization and polarization within Arab countries.

Therefore, in this context of the Palestine-Israel conflict influencing the condition and direction of the Arab world, it is important to note any signs of movement or hope in the central battle between Zionism and Arabism.

We witnessed just such an event last week when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited the town of Kafr Qassim, which was the scene of one of many massacres committed against Palestinians by the young Israeli state. On October 28, 1956, Israeli police killed 49 Palestinian civilians, including 28 women and children, who were not aware of a recently announced curfew. Ever since, the Kafr Qassim massacre has been remembered by Palestinians as an example of the pre- and post-statehood violence conducted by Zionists whose aim was to cleanse the land of Arabs in order to create their desired Jewish state. Kafr Qassim, Deir Yassin and many other massacres and acts of ethnic cleansing and expulsion against Palestinians have long captured the central grievance of the Palestinians — their forced exile and refugeehood at the hands of Zionist militants and the Israeli state. Resolving this core trauma, which Palestinians experience universally and pass on to their children organically, is a top priority for any attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

There has been no significant progress in this arena, but the visit to Kafr Qassim last week by President Rivlin is an intriguing event that deserves acknowledgment and analysis, because it is one of the few times in recent memory that a senior Israeli official makes a personal gesture that touches the core of Palestinian pain. Rivlin said he made the visit to pay tribute to Palestinian victims killed by Israeli troops, and he attended the annual memorial ceremony and placed flowers at a monument engraved with the victims’ names. “I have come here today as a member of the Jewish people and the president of the state of Israel to stand before you, the families of the slain and injured, to mourn and remember,” he said.

He went on to say, “The brutal killing in Kafr Qassim is an anomalous and sorrowful chapter in the history of relations between Arabs and Jews living here. The state of Israel has recognized the crime committed here. And rightly, and justly, has apologized for it. I too am here today to say a terrible crime was done here … the murder of innocents.”

Rivlin was the first Israeli president to attend the annual commemoration ceremony, though his predecessor Shimon Peres visited the town in 2007 and apologized to the residents for the 1956 massacre.

Rivlin also said that future generations must be educated about the tragic events that occurred there, and the lessons that must be learned, while noting that Arabs and Israelis have no option but to learn to trust each other in order to live together on this land.

Of course, Israelis have a very different notion from Palestinians of how the two communities can coexist, as we have learned from the second-class status of Palestinians inside Israel since 1948, and the Apartheid-like power structures in the West Bank and Gaza regions that Israel occupied and has colonized since 1967. Nevertheless, President Rivlin’s gesture is potentially significant because it reveals that some Israelis are capable of appreciating the significance of events like the Kafr Qassim massacre to Palestinians, and going a step further and making a very basic human gesture of visiting the site and acknowledging the crimes that were committed there by Israelis.

Much more needs to occur for the two sides to fully acknowledge the deeds they committed against each other in the past century, and acknowledge the core legitimate demands that each sees as existential needs.

President Rivlin’s visit and words on their own do not achieve this, but they are an important sign of what Israelis can do to acknowledge their role in the subjugation and exile of the Palestinians. Such acts are essential small first steps towards a much more complex negotiation that must happen in the future if this deadly conflict is ever to be resolved, which is essential for calming down the entire region.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global