My guest for dinner was Larry Towell, a Canadian photographer. With his professionalism and experience, he is famous in the world of photojournalism. I came to know him during the first Intifada through another friend who recommended him to me. At the time, it was his first visit to Palestine, which attracted him by the pictures of children fighting an army and challenging machine guns.
Palestinian enthusiasm affected him. With his camera in hand, he roamed the streets and fields between settlements and army garrisons. He took pictures of angry faces, sad tears, mournful good byes, and a lot of stones.
When we departed last time, anger had caught on to him. He was sad. Afterwards, he published a photo book telling the story of heroism and arrogance, the song of freedom and guns of tyranny in a great epic. One of the pictures in the book won a “picture of the year” award.
Before coming to Palestine the second time, he asked me, “What is going on over there? The whole world thought that you are very close to peace and freedom.” I tried to explain to him our anger, humiliation, feeling of rebellion, and longing for a day of freedom, even if it came one day before dying.
Larry came with his camera that seems to weave magic in his hands. After touring the area for a few days, he said, “Nothing changed. It is still the same faces behind the barricades shooting bullets at freemen. It is still the same arms chasing dreams with rocks.” With sudden anger in his voice, he continued, “Don’t you Palestinians learn from your past experiences how to avoid defeat? Did you not learn from your enemies how to achieve victory?”
“How?” I asked.
He put his camera aside and drank some water before saying, “Why don’t you invite youth from all over the world to your farms, villages, and refugee camps? Why don’t you establish Palestinian Kibbutzes? Don’t you know that Israel invites youth from all over the world to visit their Kibbutzes? They make them offers to attract them to come, and use their presence in two ways. First, they participate in the work at the Kibbutz. Second, they fill their heads with Israeli propaganda. Since its establishment, Israel has done this and has made hundreds of thousand of people ambassadors for Israel in their respective countries. Some of these people have become ministers, parliamentarians, professors, or journalists.”
Larry noticed that I was impressed by the idea. He looked at me and I said, “this is a great idea.”
With increasing anger, he shouted, “Did you wait for the likes of me to tell you that you have a rich heritage of heroism, and that you should think of how to win and not just fight, before more of your young die?”
I replied, “how to win and not just fight. But our enemy is well armed and America supports it. We don’t have what they have.”
Firmly, he said, “You have the belief in your just cause. You just have to change your methods and learn from your experience and that of others. Let me ask you, how did the USSR crumble? Before that, did anyone expect the defeat of apartheid in South Africa? Did anyone think that Vietnam could defeat a superpower like the US? What is the difference between you and those that won? They changed their methods and did not rely on the gun alone. They relied on their strong belief and on alliances with the forces of peace. They achieved breakthroughs with the world media when people we sympathetic with them. Did you know that after the incident of Mohammad Al-Durra, the world became a strange place for everyone? But you negated that with the lynching of the Israelis, the burning of Joseph’s tomb, a tomb for one of your prophets, and when you started to shoot and kill like them.”
Wondering, I asked him, “Did you want us to stand them with bare chests without any resistance, and not to meet bullets with bullets?”
He replied calmly, “No my friend. I want you to resist and to win with your bare chests. Do you know how the world would react if you held a peaceful rally without stones and bullets led by great people like Carter, Mandella, Mary Robinson, and other advocates of justice, some of whom are Jewish? How would the world react if Israeli soldiers tried to stop this rally in front of TV cameras and tried to fire teargas? Why don’t you have a world peace movement under the title of ‘justice now’ in comparison to the ‘peace now’ camp in Israel? Why don’t you unite with them?”
I thought long on what the man said. He wasn’t a magician; and his ideas are not new. Maybe we are afraid to try something new. Maybe we were born and raised believing that killing, bullets, and revenge are the lone path.
Maybe we have to think of how to win and not just fight.
(Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj is Human rights activist & Chairman of the board of Gaza Community Mental Health Program.)