Flashes of Hope in the Darkness

Two good pieces  – one by Seth Freedman and one by Tom Gross – on Comment Is Free. Now, how often do you get a chance to say that:

Seth writes about the Jerusalem Interest-Free Microfinance Fund (JIMF), which provides loans to both Jewish and Arab residents of the city:

The intentions of JIMF’s trustees are twofold: “to alleviate poverty [and] to help to lay the foundations of community cohesion and peace-building by increasing the economic and life chances of Muslims, Jews and Christians within the city of Jerusalem”. JIMF does not simply provide loans, but also runs training and mentoring programmes for those borrowing money, in order to enhance the recipients’ prospects of making their businesses a success. At the same time, running joint sessions for Jews and Arabs is a perfect opportunity to expose the participants to their peers from the other side of the tracks. With doors to communal cohesion slamming shut all over the country as both Israeli and Palestinian leaders dig in their heels and refuse to co-operate at either state or street level, anyone prepared to jam a foot in the doorframe, as JIMF do, deserves the strongest of support from both local and overseas backers.

Many dismiss out of hand organisations that bring Israeli Jews and Palestinians together to challenge the divisive status quo, labelling the initiatives with the pejorative tag of “normalisation” – claiming that they gloss over the core of the conflict without doing anything to redress the essential inequality of the two sides.

However, in the case of JIMF, taking such a view is both unhelpful and short-sighted. The work undertaken by the fund is both productive and positive for all involved, and is a much needed light in the darkness that surrounds both Jerusalem in particular and the region as a whole.

And Tom Gross on the West Bank recovery:

It is difficult to turn on a TV or radio or pick up a newspaper these days, without finding some pundit or other deploring the dismal prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace or the dreadful living conditions of the Palestinians. Even supposedly neutral news reporters regularly repeat this sad tale. “Very little is changing for the Palestinian people on the ground,” I heard BBC World Service Cairo correspondent Christian Fraser tell listeners three times in a 45-minute period the other evening.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. I had spent that day in the West Bank’s largest city, Nablus. The city is bursting with energy, life and signs of prosperity, in a way I have not previously seen in many years of covering the region.

As I sat in the plush office of Ahmad Aweidah, the suave British-educated banker who heads the Palestinian Securities Exchange, he told me that the Nablus stock market was the second best-performing in the world so far in 2009, after Shanghai. (Aweidah’s office looks directly across from the palatial residence of Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri, the wealthiest man in the West Bank.)

Later I met Bashir al-Shakah, director of Nablus’s gleaming new cinema, where four of the latest Hollywood hits were playing that day. Most movies were sold out, he noted, proudly adding that the venue had already hosted a film festival since it opened in June.

Wandering around downtown Nablus the shops and restaurants I saw were full. There were plenty of expensive cars on the streets. Indeed I counted considerably more BMWs and Mercedes than I’ve seen, for example, in downtown Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

And perhaps most importantly of all, we had driven from Jerusalem to Nablus without going through any Israeli checkpoints. The government of Binyamin Netanyahu has removed them all since the Israeli security services (with the encouragement and support of President George Bush) were allowed, over recent years, to crush the intifada, restore security to the West Bank and set up the conditions for the economic boom that is now occurring. (There was one border post on the return leg of the journey, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but the young female guard just waved me and the two Palestinians I was travelling with, through.)

The truth is that an independent Palestine is now quietly being built, with Israeli assistance. So long as the Obama administration and European politicians don’t clumsily meddle as they have in the past and make unrealistic demands for the process to be completed more quickly than it can be, I am confident the outcome will be a positive one. (The last time an American president – Bill Clinton in 2000 – tried to hurry things along unrealistically, it merely resulted in blowing up in everybody’s faces – literally – and set back hopes for peace by some years.)

Israelis and Palestinians may never agree on borders that will satisfy everyone. But that doesn’t mean they won’t live in peace. Not all Germans and French agree who should control Alsace-Lorraine. Poles and Russians, Slovenes and Croats, Britons and Irish, and peoples all over the world, have border disputes. But that doesn’t keep them from coexisting with one another. Nor – so long as partisan journalists and human rights groups don’t mislead western politicians into making bad decisions – will it prevent Israelis and Palestinians from doing so.

As Albus Dumbledore once put it: happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.