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As a schoolboy of 16, Ihab Balha, having already done a spell in an Israeli jail for klipgooi, looked set to become yet another insurgent Palestinian lost child of the Nakba, the “Disaster” in which those who fought the young state of Israel in 1948 were defeated and lost homes and territory, many of them scattered to the four winds.

With two of his uncles killed in the fighting and with parts of his fragmented family fleeing into exile in Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Balha imbibed a deep hatred towards Jews at his father’s knee. But while millions of Palestinians sowed that bitter seed, which year on year continues to raise bloody harvests, Balha was destined for a different path.

But first he had to have a series of violent fights with a big, obnoxious Jew named Gabi. Working as a waiter in a restaurant, “I served Israelis with a smile, but hated them in my heart,” Balha tells me, dressed in white and wheat-coloured cotton, his wild, grey hair tied back. “There was this big Israeli guy who hated Arabs. He was like Meir Kahane, the right-wing Jew who said all Arabs must be cleared out. Every two months he’d come to the restaurant and we’d fight.” 

These rows became a regular ritual for the young Palestinian, so when the first Israel-Lebanon war broke out in 1982 and Gabi was called up: “I realised I started to miss him, I was missing getting my anger out.” When he next saw Gabi, he found him strangely subdued: “He said to me: ‘Come and fight with me in my home.’”

Balha’s first visit to a Jew’s home, against his own better judgment, built a slender thread of empathy that grew into a robust friendship bridge between antagonistic neighbouring cultures as each man drew to their homes ever greater circles of friends intrigued by such unheard-of hospitality. 

It was just a personal experiment in multifaith friendship, but for once the situation looked auspicious: the first intifada of 1987-93 had a genuine national liberation motive that drew sufficient Israeli sympathy to kick-start the Oslo independence process, which saw old ANC ally the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) governing Gaza and much of the West Bank.

But Balha’s friendship circle was totally transformed in 2000, when the second intifada erupted into outright terrorism. Driven by secular extremists and Muslim jihadis outraged at the very notion of peace with, and thus recognition of, Israel’s right to exist, it was marked by 141 suicide bombings that left 1,193 people dead, 78% of them civilians. 

“It was very sad, so we arranged a meeting,” Balha says. “We thought we’d get 20 people, but 300 arrived, including priests and rabbis. At the second meeting, we had 1,000 people, then three, five, seven thousand: it became the country’s biggest peace movement, just organised by me and my Jewish partner.” 

Faced with such a severe extremist threat, peace initiatives such as Balha’s flowered everywhere, even within the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) where reservists formed Combatants for Peace, reminiscent of the End Conscription Campaign in apartheid-era SA.

But the night turned very black indeed: the grimly imposing “apartheid wall” was built to segregate the West Bank from Israel — and indeed stopped suicide bombings, though about 60,000 Palestinians crossed it every day to work in Israel. Balha says: “The wall is a psychological wall so that Israelis cannot meet Palestinians.” Among impressionable children, separation sows dragons’ teeth. 

The militants and jihadis in Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north regularly rocketed Israeli targets, generating a siege mentality and destroying the Israeli majority’s faith in the possibility of peace, while disruptive illegal Jewish settlements spread over the West Bank and Gaza, and Jewish ultra-rightists conducted their own terrorist attacks, including kidnapping and burying Palestinian youths alive. 

Since then, a mutually supporting strategy of tension that maintains a permanent state of terror among both populations has elevated otherwise irrelevant parties of neo-fascist nobodies: the likes of Hamas, which calls the shots in benighted Gaza, and of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which is included in Benjamin Netanyahu’s current Israeli coalition cabinet. 

In 2011 the Arab Spring saw neighbouring Syria implode. Stationed on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights looking on at the misery was Lt-Col Eyal Dror: “We were concerned at Isis’ and Al-Qaeda’s presence, but 600m from our border we could see people suffering. Now we decided, Israel decided, in February 2013 to open the border for wounded Syrians,” he tells me. 

The risk was high: Syria has been at war with Israel since 1973, and Dror and his troops had no intelligence from across the border about the disposition of terrorist forces. Yet over the 2013-2016 period about 3,500 Syrians were treated. “Some were in car accidents, some bitten by snakes, but there were also battle injurieswe didn’t discriminate”, Dror recalls. 

I asked a Syrian child in Arabic: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and the answer: ‘I won’t grow up; I will be dead before then’ was devastating. For the Syrians, they were shocked; they were treated in three hospitals in the north by doctors and paramedics who spoke Arabic... Over three years, a trust was built, people to people.” 

In 2016 the IDF established a specialist humanitarian unit under Dror’s command that ran Operation Good Neighbour, making, he says “the impossible possible”. It was tiny — only 30 soldiers, including six officers, one doctor and a few logistical staff — but Dror had direct access to the IDF’s general staff, and its impact was incalculable. 

We treated 1,400 children. We collaborated with Christian, Muslim and Jewish organisations: a field clinic was built by Christians on the other side of the fence and there 8,000 civilians were treated.” In the winter, 350,000 tonnes of warm clothing was sent by Dror’s staff up to 30km inside the war-torn country; thousands of tonnes of food was also sent. 

“A maternity hospital was built. I put out feelers about how Al-Qaeda reacted, and the local Al-Qaeda commander [just across the border in Syria] said: ‘Send a message to the Israelis that we won’t hurt this hospital because they treat our women and children’.” Indeed, his staff were never harmed. 

Though Dror’s unique operation was sadly shut down in July 2018 after Syria rocketed Israel, it serves as a model of what is possible: “Humanitarianism is a tool which can defeat terror,” Dror asserts. And today, Balha and his Jewish wife, Ora, run a multifaith kindergarten, The Orchard of Abraham’s Children, with 1,300 children in four locations in Israel and one planned for the West Bank. 

Balha says of his divided people: “We are not equal but we complete each other. They know the truth deep in their hearts but will not admit it: the Nakba, the Holocaust, I was here first, no I was here first, this is my land, no this is my land...”

He tells a parable of two men arguing over a plot of land who ask a third man to adjudicate; the third man, being wise, asks the land itself and the land answers: “Both of you belong to me.”   

• Schmidt, a nonfiction author, is an award-winning investigative journalist who has worked in 49 countries on six continents, including many conflict zones.

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