Is There Any Empathy Left In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? : Parallels A generation ago, Israelis and Palestinians routinely rubbed shoulders. But they have become increasingly segregated and the current fighting has only added to the friction between Arabs and Jews.

Is There Any Empathy Left In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

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To follow this next story, it helps to note a subtle but important difference - the difference between sympathy and empathy.


Sympathy means you feel for someone, you might even support them. Empathy means you understand another person, even if you don't agree.

INSKEEP: Israeli Jews and Palestinians disagree in the Middle East. And what makes it worse is that it's hard for people on one side to have empathy for people on the other - to understand where they come from. A generation ago, Israeli Jews and Palestinians used to interact all the time. But the separation of the two communities is now complete in almost every way. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Just how tense things are between Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbors is something my colleague Daniel Estrin recently witnessed at Hadassah hospital here in Jerusalem. It treats both Arabs and Jews.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: (Hebrew spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: (Hebrew spoken).

NELSON: In the waiting room, he found two Israeli women shouting a Palestinian mother whose son was being treated for a beating he received from a Jewish mob. Go away you trash, one yells. I would bury you in Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: (Hebrew spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 4: (Hebrew spoken).

NELSON: Two other Israeli women try to comfort the Palestinian mother, but she is in no mood for reconciliation and retorts - what good will your apologies do? Such lack of empathy is widespread in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza these days, even in the few communities where Jews and Arabs mix, like Jerusalem. Menachem Klein, a former adviser to Israeli peace negotiators at Camp David, fears the abstract view many Jews and Arabs here have of one another has brought the conflict to a new low.

MENACHEM KLEIN: It's very easy to move from a person that you know, that you see the face and the suffering and every day care and concerns - human being like you, like me and an abstract, a general enemy, a demon.

NELSON: So what accounts for the mutual vilification? Klein traces it back to Israel's policy of separation, which started 23 years ago during the first Palestinian uprising or intifada when Israel started setting up roadblocks and controlled Palestinian movements with a permit system. The segregation intensified during the second intifada a decade ago, leaving Israel, Gaza and the West Bank physically isolated from each other by heavily guarded fences and walls. Big red signs were erected on borders to Palestinian territory warning Israelis that it's illegal for them to go there, Klein says.

KLEIN: So for the safety of the Israeli Jews, the regulation came in force. The problem is that it cuts off many connections, personal relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

NELSON: Hind Khoury agrees. She's a former Palestinian Authority minister of Jerusalem affairs and says most younger Palestinians have never interacted with Israeli Jews other than soldiers, nor have they traveled to any cities or towns Israel controls the borders to, many of which are only a short drive away, Khoury.

HIND KHOURY: I know for A fact that in Bethlehem we have a whole generation of young people who don't know East Jerusalem, which is seven kilometers away, I mean, who don't know the holy sites and they study about it in their geography books. And welcome to that kind of absurdity.

NELSON: Separation came in the workplace as well. As Israel shut the door on Palestinians, it brought in other foreign workers to do the agricultural and construction work Palestinians once did. Israel's Central Bureau of statistics shows the 116,000 work permits issued to Palestinians in 1992 dropped to one-tenth that number in 2005. Despite the dehumanizing effect, Israeli Jews continue to want separation says Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. She specializes in public opinion polling.

TAMAR HERMANN: My own children, I suppose that they have never met a Palestinian. They have never visited a Palestinian village. They never went to Ramallah, they never went to Jericho or what have you. And this is why they imagine things and this imagination normally is not positive under the circumstances of conflict - protracted conflict in particular.

NELSON: The generational difference in empathy is striking to me in Jamila's home in Jerusalem's walled Old City, which has Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. She's a 48-year-old Arab homemaker and fearing retribution, asks NPR not to give her or her children's last name. The air is thick with tension on her crowded Muslim Quarter alley, where stern Israeli policeman keep watch and settler flags flutter off several rooftops. Jamila says she's worried about the current ethnic tension, but views her relationship with Jewish residents of the city as normal. She even chats on the phone with her 23-year-old son's Jewish girlfriend, a relationship considered scandalous on both sides here.

JAMILA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Jamila says while she doesn't have Jewish friends, she shops at Jewish run stores and goes to Jewish doctors. She says hello in Hebrew to her settler neighbors. Nearby, daughter Nadia, who says she doesn't speak Hebrew and avoids contact with Israeli Jews, looks a tad annoyed with her mother. Soon the 26-year-old and another sister are arguing with Jamila.

NADIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JAMILA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 5: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Nadia says Israeli Jews are bad human beings. They kill every day. When Jamila tries telling her that not all of them are bad, Nadia cuts her off and says our principles do not allow us to kill the way they are killing.

NADIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JAMILA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: In the hilltop Jerusalem suburb of Moza a short drive away, the sentiment 24-year-old Shakhaf Vahaba expresses is similar, but in reverse. She believes Palestinians won't rest until they oust all Jews from Israel.

SHAKHAF VAHABA: I think they hate us because they are taught to hate us.

NELSON: Vahaba is not sure that she's ever met a Palestinian and she said she rarely speaks with two Arab college classmates. She says another Arab student who recently posted on her Facebook page that she wished all Israeli soldiers would die caused an upward that led to the girl being banned from campus. Vahaba's 51-year-old mother says she isn't surprised.

DALIT VAHABA: I think it makes them feel that she's enjoying the benefits and then she's spitting in the well she's drinking from.

NELSON: Dalit Vahaba says her daughter's views are in part shaped by a dramatic childhood during the second intifada, when bus bombings and mall attacks in Israel were commonplace. She, on the other hand, recalls driving to Gaza with her father when she was a child and dining on chicken and rice platters at his Palestinian friend's home in Ramallah. As a young woman, Dalit Vahaba worked at a Tel Aviv cafe where she befriended three Palestinian co-workers from the West Bank.

D. VAHABA: We used to laugh together and even I invited them to my wedding. And I have pictures with them. And they came to visit me after my Shakhaf was born here in Moza.

NELSON: But the intifadas took a toll on the relationship, she says. She never saw her Palestinian friends again, save for a brief reunion in Israel last September.

D. VAHABA: I think we were aware of the problems even then. But I think then we had more hope. I thought that there can be peace between us and we can live together and everything.

NELSON: Vahaba said she doesn't believe that anymore. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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