Jeffrey Goldberg, 41, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has gone to great lengths to befriend Palestinians. He details his decades-long efforts in Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf), which also recalls the Zionist fervor that brought him on aliya and his stint as an Israel Defense Forces prison guard. Goldberg’s outreach to his foes took place at a prison and in Gaza, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
Q. In your book you write about Rafik Hijazi, whom you originally guarded in an Israeli military prison 15 years ago and with whom you continue to maintain a fragile friendship. Can you describe him?
A. I met him when I was a military policeman in Ketziot prison in 1990; I was doing my IDF service. We had 6,000 prisoners; some were just thugs and some were uninterested in talking to me. But some, very bright guys and often the leaders, were open to talking. Rafik… seemed very different. He had a sense of humor. He was quite relaxed. As expected, he was a strident Palestinian nationalist. Yet he also had the rare capability to step back and see both the absurdity of the situation and to be critical not only of Israel but of at least some aspects of his own national movement.
Q. How did you identify moderates?
A. I would classify these as the ones who said they could live with a two-state solution. I believe they were sincere about that. Those who felt that something new was indeed happening also had positions that brought them to deal with more and more Israelis on a regular basis.… Today, this seems like a long-ago dream, but it was true. Suddenly, the second intifada broke out and the situation nose-dived again. People changed. I moved from the center-left to the center, and Rafik was hardened again and also moved from where he was to his own right.
Q. Were you able to keep friendships after your service?
A. I was a bit naïve…but I tried to sustain the relationship with some of the prisoners…. They didn’t believe me when I said I would meet them later in the West Bank or Gaza, but Palestinians are nothing if not hospitable… so what could they do but let me in when I came knocking?
Q. Was the atmosphere better after Oslo?
A. Yes, there was a sense of optimism on both sides then. The prison, for example, had been emptied and closed down after Oslo, so that seemed like an opportune time for me to renew these relationships. By then, I was already working as a reporter, so I knew how to get around the West Bank and Gaza. [There was optimism even] amongst the extremists. By the late 90’s, many people thought things were at least moving in the right direction.
Q. How is your relationship with Rafik today?
A. Rafik and I continue to communicate, mainly by e-mail. He lives in the United Arab Emirates…. I don’t want to turn him into a metaphor for the entire Palestinian people. He is just one person, yet his feelings and his beliefs have in fact tracked what many other people have been thinking and doing according to the polls in Palestinian areas. Since the second intifada and 9/11 and its aftermath, Rafik has become more radical…. He has gone back and forth on the question of suicide bombing. At one point he went to demonstrations opposing this tactic. Then a few years ago, he said he supported it, and then he didn’t again. I don’t know where he is today on that subject. But he changes and moves with the tides, just like all of us.
Q. When you asked radical Muslim leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad if they would like their own child to become a suicide bomber, how did they respond?
A. The answer they invariably gave me… goes something like this: ‘I would be happy if my son were to become a martyr bomber, but I don’t want to push him in that direction. I want him to make his own choice.’ It was a cultural echo of [a] classic Jewish question, or let’s call it a perversion of that echo…. ‘Of course I’d like my son to be a doctor or my daughter to be a lawyer, but I am not going to push them.’ This signals to me just how perverse things have gotten inside Palestinian culture.
Q. What’s your take on this phenomenon?
A. Not terribly encouraging. The only hopeful thing is that I do know a lot of Palestinian fathers who adamantly oppose the idea of their children becoming suicide bombers. I know that doesn’t sound like much to get excited about, but it does mean that it is not too late for that society.
Q. Don’t the extremists realize their tactics have failed?
A. [T]hey have convinced themselves that suicide bombing is the most effective technique for killing and terrorizing Jews. It is also a symbolic expression of ultimate sacrifice. In that context, it would seem to many Palestinians almost cowardly to endorse fighting the Jews, but also wanting to stay alive…. Also, you presuppose that these Palestinian groups learn from their mistakes. There is clearly a reason why this is one of the least successful liberation movements in modern history. It is because they are self-destructive. They just don’t make smart decisions.
Q. During many periods, Israeli leaders have demonstrated a clear understanding of the Palestinians. Do the Palestinians understand what Israel is all about?
A. There are Palestinians who do understand Israel’s strength and rationale for existence. Yasser Arafat, who ruled for so long, was not one of these. Many other Palestinian leaders have convinced themselves that Israel is either some sort of supernaturally evil creation or simply an outpost of Western colonialism. The vast majority of those I know don’t really bother to figure out why the Jews wanted to come back to this piece of land, and they don’t credit the Jews with sincerity or good intentions in this desire.
Q. In this contest, does one people’s strength of will and determination ultimately triumph over the other people’s?
A. I had a conversation once with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas [who was killed in 2004 by the IDF]. He was lecturing me about Muslim steadfastness. He said the Muslims easily waited 200 years to drive the crusaders out of the land, so they can wait that long to do the same to the Israelis. I responded that when it comes to waiting, the Muslims were amateurs. Jews waited pretty patiently for 2,000 years for the opportunity to return to their traditional homeland and then did so quickly…. This is one of the most heinous things that Hamas people say to me: The Jews were happy in the lands they came from, and they were brought to Israel against their will. They should go back to any number of countries—Russia, Germany and so on—because they were happy as Europeans there. This shows these guys have not read a single article about Jewish history. It’s a problem of self-delusion.
Q. What is one practical step Palestinians could take to break the political logjam?
A. I can think of a dozen, but it’s unlikely that even one might really happen. The single greatest challenge is that the Palestinians must realize that the 1948 War of Independence is over. Palestinian Muslims have to come to the realization that Jews have a right to a national home in their historic homeland as equal citizens of the world. They have to comprehend the special connection Jews have to Jerusalem. By doing this, they would not negate their own special connections to the land or to Jerusalem, but Jews generally understand these feelings on the part of the other side. I don’t think most Muslims accept the opposite notion about the Jews. That is the biggest change that must happen, and everything else would flow from that point on.
Q. And one thing Israel might do?
A. When Arafat died, [then-Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon could have used the moment to build up moderate Palestinian leadership by negotiating the withdrawal from Gaza rather than doing it unilaterally. He didn’t. That made the election of Hamas inevitable. We should learn from that mistake. When the next opportunity arises to help the moderates, it should be taken. It’s very hard, almost impossible, but Israel’s challenge is to be simultaneously ready to fight and to spot signs of peace and act on these.