On Palestine, identity, and the ‘non-state solution:’ Reviewing Khaled Diab's ‘Intimate Enemies’

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Palestinian protesters perform Friday prayers prior to a protest on the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho on November 28, 2014, against the construction of Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley and against the plan to relocate Bedoiuns from the central West Bank area. AFP/Abbas Momani

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, December 5, 2014

Nearly every facet of the conflict over Palestine has been dissected, examined, and rediscovered by writers of a multitude of backgrounds – and there is always room for more. Egyptian-Belgian journalist Khaled Diab is the latest, in a constant stream of writers, to tackle this hefty topic. Diab is mainly interested in the slippery concept of identity, through a paradigm centered on the cultural and social facets which comes at the expense of the historical and political dimensions. In the end, Diab’s proposal, the result of well-intentioned ambitions, falls far short from its lofty goal of solving the “conflict.”

“After years of writing about the conflict, visiting and living [in Palestine], I was struck by how the reality does not match the prevalent, and oft simplistic, narratives and discourses. Mutual fear, distrust and misconceptions are widespread, which undermine efforts to resolve this conflict by enabling extremists to dehumanize the other,” Diab, elaborating on why he decided to tackle the topic, wrote to Al-Akhbar English.

“Most of the available literature, which tends to focus on the situation through the prism of politics or history, does not highlight or dwell on these complex human realities and nuances, and few look at the human face of both Palestinians and Israelis together. As a kind of inside-outsider whose Egyptian identity opened up a surprising number of doors, hearts and minds, I found that I was in a privileged position to write a book of the people as a minor corrective,” he added.

The outcome is a brief book titled, “Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land,” recently released as an e-book by the UK-based newspaper The Guardian under their “Guardian Shorts” series. A larger, more expansive version is expected to be released sometime in the first half of 2015.

In the course of almost 50 pages, which can be read in one sitting, Diab's journalistic attributes are clearly evident. He weaves together a multitude of Palestinian and Israeli voices, each at times respectively different within their own communities, to highlight their social and cultural differences and symmetries.

The writing is concise and easily digestible from the onset, and the fact that Diab was able to amass so many voices is a testament to his seriousness regarding the topic and to his solid journalistic ability. He was not only able to access such voices with ease, but was also able to clearly present them to the reader. As simple as this may seem, it is rare for journalists, let alone writers, to do so, and Diab is quite successful in that regard.

Structurally, the book is akin to a long-form article, in which the general Palestinian and Israeli communities are introduced, their histories and ideologies briefly discussed, before delving into the contradictions and parallels that exist within and between the sub-communities of both. Diab concludes with his own thoughts and views on what the future may hold.

Erased vs. enforced identities

The most successful sections of “Intimate Enemies” in which Diab attempts to ‘cross the political divide’ are parts that discusses Palestinians still residing in the 1948 territories and Mizrahi (West Asian) Jews, both groups whose existence are real examples that cuts through the crude, simplistic and prevalent narratives of Jew vs. Arab or Israeli vs. Palestinian.

Here, the reader, through Diab's account, comes in contact with Palestinians in 1948 occupied territories, those who are struggling and resisting Israel's attempts to wipe out their Palestinian identity and those who are more keen in being part of the large Israeli social identity. In the same vein, Mizrahi, or Arab, Jews find themselves equally caught between a constant clash between their traditional, historical Arab identity and their enforced Jewish identity under Israel.

Ultimately, both these two communities are more or less perceived as being ‘caught in the middle,’ due to their peculiar position, and the various trails and tribulations they respectively faced, and continue to face today. Ultimately, they are linked by the core issues that have driven the struggle against Zionism and Israel for decades, issues that include nationality, rights, identity, ownership, dignity, and legitimacy.

These are perhaps the strongest sections in “Intimate Enemies” that will leave the reader with much to ponder.

Other brief sections that are equally as strong are parts of the book in which Diab effectively shows the role reversal that has occurred socially and culturally between Palestinians and Israelis in terms of exile.

In Judaism – especially the European interpretations of the religion – the experience and effect of exile from a “homeland” (whether this is historically or archaeologically accurate is best left for another discussion) was part and parcel of building an identity for centuries and is commonly articulated presently. It has become infused in their political, religious, and cultural acts and thoughts of its followers.

Similarly, for the Palestinians today, many of whom have been forced into exile due to the Zionist ethnic cleansing in 1947-1948, and the ongoing incremental genocide that followed, much of their current social and cultural identity has naturally been shaped by that trauma. The Palestinian, in effect, has become the “wandering Jew.” This adds a further wrinkle to the narratives in play, and Diab is quite effective in that aim.

While it is quite rare for articles or books to solely to tackle the Palestinian issue from a social and cultural standpoint, it is not an entirely novel approach. Moreover, for those well-versed in the complexities and history of the conflict, “Intimate Enemies” does not provide anything ground-breaking or new. Because of the brief nature of the work, there is a constant desire left for the reader for more, deeper analysis to the points that Diab brings up, and he does not tackle further complexities within communities like class, urban vs. rural, Gaza vs. West Bank, among other matters.

(Un)masking power dynamics

The most glaring omission, which Diab acknowledges, is a more thorough, critical examination of history and the power dynamics that inherently divides an Israeli and a Palestinian. To his credit, Diab does touch on the historical events, like the Nakba or the Holocaust, but it is more a matter of cursorily noting them.

“I do explore the effects of the Nakba and the loss of Palestine on the Palestinian psyche, as well as the disparity in the power relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention within Israeli society itself, i.e. the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide,” Diab responded when asked of this by Al-Akhbar English. “But, like I said, in the limited space available, I could only go so far, especially since my primary focus is on the people. I go into these issues in much greater detail in the full-length manuscript.”

Diab's keenness to concentrate on “the people” rather than the political is both important and problematic. Undoubtedly, it is important to humanize those who are effected by the issues and consequences that arose in the colonization and conquest of Palestine. But the effort to humanize and tackle other elements – in this case, the cultural and social sectors – regarding Palestine does not automatically shrug aside the politics. Diab's desire to separate the two is understandable considering his aims and the limitations he is faced with, but it results in two points of contention.

First is the artificial creation of equivalency. Diab is right to note that there are parallels and symmetries between Palestinians and Israelis, and these parallels are universal and can include any community anywhere in the world. Yet, the facts, history, and politics created one community as the victim and the other as the aggressor, one community as the occupied and the other as the occupier. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact despite issues of “terrorism,” the discriminatory treatment of European Jews in Europe, and the evolution of social and cultural norms in occupied Palestine today.

And because of this unequal power relations, whatever bridges built from social and cultural links between Palestinians and Israelis will ultimately collide with all the privileges, advantages, and controls that power bestows to only one of the two.

Secondly, Diab's compartmentalization and separation of politics from the topic assumes that culture and identity can be apolitical – while the reality is starkly different. To use the classic adage, the personal is political, and the political is personal. The basic identity of Israelis – Zionism – is derived from a political movement and action, and by not challenging or leaving room to discuss the politics, Diab's “Intimate Enemies” feels hesitant and somewhat naive.

Envisioning a ‘people’s peace process’

This leads to the final point Diab attempts to make during the concluding chapters of “Intimate Enemies.” He argues:

[T]alking of a one- or two-state solution, or even an alliance of city states, is premature. What we urgently need are strategies to help move us towards a state of justice. It is my conviction that we need to pursue an incremental path forward and adopt what I call the “non-state solution.”

Instead of the current fixation on borders and territory, as if soil is so much thicker than blood,
the focus must shift to the people. Prioritising the people will necessitate transforming the
Palestinian struggle into a mass, non-violent civil rights movement. Under this model,
Palestinians will deploy all the tools of peaceful resistance that they have constructed and
utilised over the years, including non-violent protest, civil disobedience, strikes and targeted

In order to do this, Diab adds:

The non-state solution does not actually determine the final form of borders or the character of the state(s) but, on the contrary, can potentially empower the citizenry, rather than the political class, to forge the solution which most appeals to them.

Once disenfranchisement has ended and everyone is an equal citizen, then a bi-national
conversation can commence to reach gradually a final settlement through a people’s peace
process. Any Israeli or Palestinian should be free to propose initiatives and suggest actions.
Any proposals that garner enough initial support should then be voted on by the Israeli and
Palestinian publics. Any measure for which the majority on both sides vote should be
implemented immediately, to create momentum.

Having the voices of people in the process of justice and peace is laudable and necessary. To a degree, Diab hits the mark on the need to bring to the fore voices of those other than usually useless, self-interested politicians who are working with the long-dead, defunct Oslo process. Yet, true justice – and here we are speaking of actual implemented justice, such as the Right of Return, compensation, restitution, reparations, and accountability, which are absolutely necessary for long-term real peace for all – will necessitate that certain voices and concerns – i.e. Israeli – be set aside.

If we follow Diab’s suggestion of a “non-state solution,” one that is concerned with ending disenfranchisement and creating equality, that will ultimately require a political, as well as an economic, social, and legal solution. The politics will be vital in the end game, and Diab's circumventing of the politics is a major flaw in an otherwise generally strong work, and feels more of an unnecessary detour, or for some readers, a dangerous deviation.

This short book dives headfirst into one of the most important regional and international struggles today and is written by a high-profile journalist – who has privileged access to different parts of Palestine and has lived there for a number of years. For this reason, a critical deconstruction and an intellectual review of the work is necessary. This is especially so since Diab ends with a suggestion of a “non-state solution,” a thoughtful, even if lacking proposal. The act of humanizing the ‘other’ is meaningful, but recognizing and acknowledging humanity should not belittle the inequalities in power, privilege, poverty, and suffering. Yes, Palestinians and Israelis are humans, their respective communities assembled from a medley of micro-universes of hopes, fears, desires and dreams that sometimes mirrors each other. However, the similarities end when it comes to occupation, ethnic cleansing, abuse, and humiliation.

In the end, “Intimate Enemies” is useful for those not well-versed in the intricacies of Palestine and want to learn more about the various identities in a quick and easily digestible manner. For those who are in tune with developments in Palestine, “Intimate Enemies” has value in terms of suggested ideas and tactics through a social and cultural lens that should and need to be mulled over.

As for the problems noted above, they stubbornly linger beneath the current abridged edition of “Intimate Enemies,”and one has to wait and see if Diab's expanded edition will cover the gaps.

Yazan is a senior writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow him on Twitter: @WhySadeye


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