Israel | Local

In Tucson, Israeli peace activist talks about life on the Gaza border

Israeli peace activist Roni Keidar speaks in Tucson (Guy Gelbart)
Israeli peace activist Roni Keidar speaks in Tucson (Guy Gelbart)

It’s not easy living 500 yards from the Gaza border. Roni Keidar, who lives in Netiv Ha’asara — the closest community in Israel to the Gaza Strip — is an Israeli educator and active member of Other Voice, a non-partisan group promoting peace and encouraging dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s not easy for her Palestinian friends living in Gaza either, Keidar told more than 1,000 Tucsonans in 16 different talks earlier this month, speaking at both Jewish and non-Jewish venues. Her people-to-people visit was sponsored by the Weintraub Israel Center.

At a lunch and learn event at the Jewish Federation-Northwest on March 5, Keidar discussed being plagued by unexpected rocket, missile and mortar attacks. “What I’m most afraid of living so close to the border is when it’s closed,” said Keidar, “when there’s no work and families can’t get out. It promotes more hatred.”

She recalled being in a bomb shelter, hearing rockets being launched from Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense. “A friend in Gaza texts me, “How are you? I heard a rocket being launched.’ I started to cry,” said Keidar. “We never know who’s retaliating [against whom]. My friend doesn’t have a shelter in Gaza. We’re firing back again and again. Each operation is bigger and bigger. We have to put a stop to it. [I say this] because of my life, too. I don’t want to live like this. Violence obviously isn’t working” on either side.

“Being different doesn’t mean you have to hate,” said Keidar. Originally from London, her family moved to Israel when she was a child. Her husband, Ovadia, is an Egyptian Jew who immigrated to Israel at age 16 in 1957, after spending a year in a refugee camp in France. “After the ’67 War, he was asked to go to the Gaza Strip and Northern Sinai to teach modern methods of agriculture,” she told the lunch crowd at the Jewish Federation-Northwest. “When he saw the advantages for agriculture there, and the government started developing villages in the region, he decided to do it for himself. We made the desert bloom.”

Later, in 1979, “a totally unexpected thing happened,” said Keidar. The Arab president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, “offered peace. We had to evacuate from our homes, had to leave the northern Sinai and give it back to Egypt” as a result of the Camp David Accords. At that time, she and others founded the moshav of Netiv Ha’asara.

In 1982, the government of Egypt asked her husband to teach modern agriculture there. Keidar and their five children joined him after a year and lived in Egypt for four years. “We learned about people we knew nothing about,” she said, although “people kept their distance from an Israeli family.”

Keidar’s then 6-year-old daughter Inbal asked Amir, an Egyptian friend from school, to her birthday party but the family refused to let Amir attend. Three years later, when Inbal invited Amir to a birthday party at a restaurant, Amir came with her mother. “We parents

became very good friends,” said Keidar. “This story symbolizes what a great deal of effort it took for two families over three years to get over their prejudice.”

Like the two girls in Egypt, the two sides must find a place where they can talk, said Keidar. “We can get there if we have patience and tolerance to truly understand each other, not judge.”

The time has come, she said, adding that “to negotiate doesn’t mean if you don’t like something you get up and walk out. We’re two peoples fighting over our existence. Neither one of us is leaving. Where the line is drawn is part of the negotiations. There may be a two-state solution or even a one-state solution,” but there’s no way of knowing until negotiations take place.

Keidar’s home is in Tucson’s Partnership 2gether TIPS region. “I feel there is an awakening in the region,” she said, referring to the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council’s idea of social workers connecting across borders to help deal with the trauma on both sides. “We’re all people,” said Keidar, who often meets Palestinians from Gaza at the Erez border crossing point and takes them to various hospitals for medical care or to conferences in Israel.

“Many people in my village laugh at me, tease me, call me a dreamer. Dreamers are those in Gaza who think they can destroy Israel and throw us into the sea,” she said. “Dreamers are those in Israel who keep bombing Gaza and think they can achieve a loving peace.”

Ed Harris, one of the attendees at the Federation-Northwest event, told Keidar, “You are a dreamer. [The Palestinians] have to stop teaching their children to hate Israelis and recognize Israel’s right to exist. It’ll never change.”

Esta Goldstein had another view. “The pressure of the older generation stops that getting along,” she said, adding that there are programs for the younger generation such as Seeds of Peace, which runs a summer camp in Maine where Israeli and Palestinian children can interact in a neutral environment.

“Until my 20s, Israel could do no wrong,” said Keidar. “Then I started digging into history and saw mistakes were made. There was a lot of injustice in the establishment of Israel but let’s move forward. Israel is here to stay. It is a home for the Jewish people.”

At the same time, she said, “We Jewish people should understand the Palestinians better than anyone. They are looking for an identity, a place of their own. Some say, ‘there are so many other Arab countries’ that could take them. Palestinians are not accepted as Egyptians,” noted Keidar. “Their passports say Palestinian-Egyptian.”

Yet in Israel, Palestinians “are taking advantage of Israeli education, the medical system,” said Barbara Esmond, another attendee. “They have to help themselves.”

Keidar admitted that although “I hate the wall [between Israel and Gaza], I have to be honest. Since the wall went up we’ve had no suicide bombings. But the Palestinians aren’t free. They literally can’t breathe.”

“How do we know what to believe?” asked Goldstein. “You can’t take the word of one article or two. You have to read more. You have to make your own opinion.”

For Keidar, it’s important to realize that Israelis and Palestinians “share a history. Read the two narratives. Everyone is seeing history with their own truth.” Meanwhile, “Palestinians are filled with anger. Those living in Israel are getting a good education. They’re treated at Hadassah hospital, but there are so many ways that they’re not treated the same.”