You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Noisy passengers milled about in search of space for their hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the cabin crew tried to impose order. An argument broke out during take off between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, others were drawn into the altercation.
Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo but was destined for Tel Aviv.
What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about perceptions than they are about realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.
With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological divide. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would say that Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield.
That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book – partly because of their proximity but also because of their surprising cultural symmetry.
Confronted with a reality on the ground that conflicts with prevalent political narratives, I wrote Intimate Enemies as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and misunderstandings in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of peace-building.
One of the best responses I received to my manuscript was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappé. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities … and impossible reality,” he told me.
Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family and a casual attitude to regulations, not to mention an innate distrust of authority.
This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of western enlightenment in the Middle East.
When viewed dispassionately, these symmetries are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.
Add to this the fact that a substantial portion of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible. Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.
“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic told me.
“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael. But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such proximity was too close for comfort for enemies.
But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.
Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.
This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.
Only this week, Ahmed Shobashi, the Mufti of Nablus, stirred up anger when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.
This illustrates how the differences within societies are often greater than the disparities between them and others. With attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife that manifests itself in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism.
Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.
Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with Al Aqsa acting as a centre for the rising tensions.
With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.
The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement.
Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.
Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will come in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.
Khaled Diab’s book Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land is published by Guardian Shorts