Ahmad Erekat: Agony of the young caught up in Israel-Palestine conflict
Many years ago, I traveled with a delegation of British MPs to Israel and the West Bank. We stopped at a lookout right up on the border with Lebanon. It was during a particularly tense period and I spoke with the young Israeli woman on national service who was in command that evening. I asked her if she expected her children to be doing what she did. She replied that she did. Then I asked her if she wanted them to, and she paused for a moment before turning away slightly and saying “no.” I felt for her.
I was reminded of the exchange last week, when I learned of the incident at a Jerusalem checkpoint that resulted in the death of a young man, Ahmad Erekat, who was shot by a young woman, one of the soldiers on duty. I think that is about the only phrase in this incident that is incontrovertible. Everything that now follows will be contentious to one side of this debate or the other.
I first visited Israel and Palestine 40 years ago, and have visited many times since. I have, I hope, built up friendships throughout. I have tried — while accepting the limitations of being an outsider — to understand the arguments on all sides. And I have only ever been driven by a desire to assist those who wanted a resolution in what I believe is the only way possible for future generations: A just settlement, ensuring a secure Israel side-by-side with a Palestinian state.
As I grow older, I am not sure what has upset me most — the violence toward the innocent or the growing separation of young people from each other. This all comes together in the death of Ahmad Erekat.
I became involved with the incident shortly afterwards. I know Saeb Erekat, the victim’s uncle, as a friend, as you might expect after so many years. I was sad on his behalf at the loss and I tweeted, carefully I hoped, based on the limited information I had: “This ought to be a watershed — another needless death of a young man with no possible reason for alleged connection with terror. All the footage of what happened needs to be released. It is time for these incidents to stop, and what has led to them to be over.”
When the footage was released, I revisited my comments, saying: “It shows without doubt the vehicle driving into the checkpoint soldiers, a soldier being flung into the air, the man leaving the vehicle, and being shot. It does not show any attempt at medical assistance for the man, who dies some time later.”
I added that, if it was an attempt to kill, then it was wrong. But we do not know why a man, seemingly with much to live for, drove as he did, and we never will. If, after being shot, he posed no further threat, questions will be asked why he was not treated and why he died. I tweeted: “There will be no consensus on this, just as there rarely is in the deaths of many. I have spoken for years about the agony of young Israelis and Palestinians, who, instead of growing up together, confront each other across barbed wire and wall. This is no future for them.”
I have sat with the families of too many innocent victims of violence — from Nabi Saleh to southern Israel, from Gaza to bus bomb victims — and I have heard all the explanations and attempted justifications.
The steady drip, drip of enmity between young people is probably the most deeply saddening thing of all.
Such catastrophic incidents are bad enough for the families. But the steady drip, drip of enmity between young people, who should be building a future together, is probably the most deeply saddening thing of all. I have met so many young Israelis and Palestinians who want pretty much the same as each other. But, unlike years ago, they now almost never meet, except when one is in uniform, possibly frightened and wary, but prepared to kill in what they believe is their defense; and the other is under suspicion, when they may or not be angry, despairing at what they believe is their unending lot, or ideologically committed to terror. Neither has a chance of what I would call a normal life to look forward to. One lives with an occupation or some form of blockade, the other may barely be aware of such conditions once their military service is done. Young people are not born like this. They are taught it. It is agony for the generations. Even just one of these incidents should make every political leader regret past failures and be resolved to start again, urgently. The next killing between two young people who simply do not know each other is hours away.
But there will be no change until the desire to end the despair of families — through dialogue and negotiations, resolving the underlying issues with justice and security for all — overwhelms all those who set their faces against such an outcome, wherever they may be. Unilateral action, such as the possible annexation of territory as envisaged by Israel this week, risks “destroying the prospects of moving forward in negotiations for a very long time,” according to UN Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov. All a friend can ask is, please, when is enough, enough?
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK