Jerusalem Post: Celebrating freedom … together

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Yalla Peace: Celebrating freedom… together

The real fight in Israel and Palestine is between extremists and moderates.
I know the majority of Palestinians and Israelis are moderates.

Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas extremists, was released last week after being held captive for five years. In exchange, Israel released 1,027 out of the 5,554 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Israeli sources say that most of these individuals have been tried and sentenced, but Palestinian and human rights groups say the deliberations are often sham trials that sometimes last as little as seven minutes.

Immediately, Palestinians and Israelis began attacking each other. Israelis argued that Schalit was being traded for 1,027 terrorists.

Hamas declared that although they were releasing Schalit, they would grab another Israeli soldier as soon as they could.

Palestinians were outspoken in defending some of the most notorious prisoners who were released, including two women who were involved in assisting the suicide bomber who massacred civilians at the Sbarro Pizza restaurant in Jerusalem and one who lured an Israeli boy on the Internet to a fatal ambush.

But I was most impressed with Schalit, who upon leaving his captivity, said that he hoped the prisoner exchange would kick-start the Middle East peace process. He also said he hoped all of the Palestinian prisoners would soon be released, too, on the condition that they didn’t return to terrorism.

Some Israelis argued that Schalit was merely speaking out of the trauma of his experience, something that many hostages often do, expressing sympathy with their captors. To them, the newly released hostage was reminiscent of Patti Hearst, the daughter of American newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst who was taken hostage in 1974 by a handful of crackpots called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Held captive for only a few weeks in isolation and assaulted with constant propaganda and brainwashing, she ended up carrying a weapon to help the extremists rob a bank. Eventually, she came out of her hallucinations.

I’m not saying that Schalit is anything like Hearst. Schalit was in prison for more than five years.

Hearst was held captive for a few months. In captivity for so long, I would think that despite being held hostage, he might come to understand the softer side of his captors.

According to Hamas, Schalit was not tortured. In contrast, Palestinians complain of torture all the time. Few, if any, of the terrorists convicted of mass murder have ever expressed remorse for their actions, whereas some Israeli soldiers have expressed remorse for their actions after completing their military service.

Yet in all of this back and forth blame game – the game we usually always play when anything happens, are we missing an opportunity? Maybe Schalit is doing what we should all do. Not just Israelis but Palestinians, too. Maybe we should express compassion for the other side.

Israelis who say that all of those in prison are terrorists are surely exaggerating and expressing feelings of anger rather than reason.

Critics say many of the prisoners are civilians who were grabbed simply because they were dissidents.

Israelis hate it when I refer to the Israeli prison system as a “gulag” because, like the word “apartheid,” it exaggerates the reality of the Israeli prison system. Israeli prisons are not comparable to the Soviet gulag where dissidents were sent and murdered, just as the Israeli reality for Palestinians is far less oppressive than anything black South Africans experienced under Afrikaner rule.

But those words are thrown at Israel often. What’s the point? To hurt Israelis. It might have worked decades ago. But today, it only feeds the growing extremism and hardening of the Israeli public’s views.

Israelis do the same when they say Palestinians hate Israelis and want to destroy Israel.

Is it really that simple? Could the reality possibly be just a bit more complex, and that we simply lack courageous leaders who can help us see through the fog of our cumulative societal angers? What I saw in the Schalit-Palestinian prisoner exchange, however, was one little glimmer of light breaking through the dark clouds that have embraced Israelis and Palestinians now for more than a decade since the collapse of the Declaration of Principles that were a sound basis for a genuine peace laid out between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

For the briefest of moments last Tuesday, I saw a moment of unity.

Palestinians celebrating the return of their people and Israelis celebrating the return of one of their soldiers. For the first time, I saw both sides celebrating simultaneously, instead of assaulting each other verbally and/or physically.

The real fight in Israel and Palestine is between extremists and moderates. I know the majority of Palestinians and Israelis are moderates.

We just need to remind ourselves of that fact. If you, for even one brief moment, felt any optimism at all from the prisoner exchange, then the pilot light exists that can reignite the peace process.

That’s one celebration I hope to experience again.

The writer is an award winning Palestinian columnist. He can be reached at

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and Columnist who began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He covered Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992 (Mayor Daley to Mayor Daley) and has expanded to writing for newspapers around the world focussed on Middle East and American politics.

Hanania loves to write about American Arabs in politics, and focuses on Arab life in America.

Currently, he writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at He writes on American politics for the Des Plaines Valley News, Southwest News-Herald, The Regional News newspaper and the Reporter Newspapers. He also writes for the online websites and (Illinois News Network at

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hanania began in journalism as an activist publishing Chicago’s first English-language American Arab Newspaper “The Middle Eastern Voice” from 1975 through 1977. In 1976, he was hired by the Chicago community newspaper The Southtown Economist (Daily Southtown) and in 1985 was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times and covered Chicago City Hall for both. In 1993, he launched the “The Villager” Newspapers which covered 12 Southwest Chicagoland suburban regions. In 2004, he published “The National Arab American Times” monthly newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East ethnic food stores in 48 American States.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

Hanania’s writings have been published in newspapers around the world. Formerly syndicated by Creators Syndicate, Hanania also has written news, features and Opinion Columns for Al Jazeera English, the Jerusalem Post,, Arab News, Saudi Gazette, Newsday in New York, the Orlando Sentinel, the Houston Chronicle, The Daily Star, the News of the World, the Daily Yomimuri in Tokyo, Chicago Magazine, the Arlington Heights Daily Herald, and Aramco Magazine. His political columns are published in the Southwest News-Herald and Des Plaines Valley News, Regional News and Palos Reporter newspapers in Chicagoland. Hanania is the President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group media and public affairs consulting which has clients in Illinois, Florida, Michigan and Washington D.C.

Hanania is Palestinian Christian from prominent Bethlehem and Jerusalem families. His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.

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