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Can this astonishing poem hold the key to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue?

History has taught us that Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are mutually exclusive. Therefore, Zionists and Palestinians have never been, and could not have been, engaged seriously in joint political reconstruction. Moreover, violence has been the real master of their mutual relations. Palestinians cannot forgive Zionists for the original sin, the Nakba, and its continuous and everlasting effects. At the same time, even moderate Zionists cannot forgive Palestinians for using violent means as part of their struggle for self-determination and freedom from occupation. No one seems to be able to break this vicious circle.

But what if? What if there was just a tiny hiatus that could refute the prevailing conviction that we are all doomed to be slaves to violence, eternally suffocated by the past?

Ironically, it seems that the omnipotence of Zionism vis-à-vis the Palestinians, in light of local and regional post-Arab spring developments, the Abraham Accords and global indifference to the occupation, allows for nuanced Palestinian discourse on reconciliation, relations between past and future, and the use of violence. It does not, and should not be expected to, lead to Palestinian compromise on their national narrative and just cause. It is about forgiving rather than forgetting. Can a defeated victim forgive and join hands with the victimizer for the sake of the future? The answer varies between individuals and nations and across space and time, but if history proves anything it is that it can be done under certain circumstances.

Marzouq al-Halabi’s extraordinary poem, “The 40 Rules of Engagement,” published originally in Arabic on the most important Palestinian-Israeli website three months ago, at the height of intra-communal violence, captures the impossible and lays it in the most direct yet astonishing way. When I translated it to Hebrew, Ha’aretz published it immediately on the front page of its “Culture and Literature” magazine. It gained intellectual and public traction in Israel in a blink of an eye; it was taught in classes, read in public events, widely discussed and debated on social networks.

A Palestinian intellectual and poet and a citizen of Israel, al-Halabi is renowned and well-respected for his perception, consciousness and courage. His poem is one of a kind in its steadfastness; cognizant of the past, and despite the present, he keeps his eyes on the future.

This is a call for fellow Jewish intellectuals, Zionists and others, mainstream as well as critical thinkers, Jews in Israel and outside Israel. For so long many of us have been preoccupied with deconstruction, either defending our past or attacking it. Let us now turn our energy to reconstruction. Let us engage with the Palestinians on the political imagination of a future based on partnership rather than separation. The ground is ripe, and there is enough room for both Jewish nationhood and Palestinian nationhood between the river and the sea. It is our moral responsibility to take the Palestinian hand reaching out to us from the depth of its plight, and draw a shared vision that respects the past while offering hope for the future.

Dr. Assaf David is the academic director of “Israel in the Middle East” research cluster at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and co-founder of the Forum for Regional Thinking

The 40 Rules of Engagement

By Marzouq al-Halabi
(English Translation by Raphael Cohen).

From the first round
the roll call of your dead
and of cities whose inhabitants were lost in exile
lay before them.
Say: I am not seeking revenge
I’d like us to agree on the beginning

Ask them
if they know how many oranges
Jaffa sold to strangers?
How many newspapers
voyagers read on the quayside?
How many language schools there were?
How many halls were packed with fans of Umm Kulthoum?
Ask them, and give them space to think
as they remember the face of the Bride of the Sea.

If they tell you:
Forget about the past
the arrow once fired never returns,
and the owner of space and time is master,
say softly:
their master owns meaning.

If you enter their language,
take your language with you
and your memory
and a third language that blocks interpretation.

If you enter their time,

as if time did not exist
Say: I don’t work for anyone
I’m a gazelle who loves to run free
who loves the melodies of shepherds
and the light of the moon.

If you speak
share all your pain with them
show them every scar in your soul.
Nobody dies from opening their heart.

If they ask you:
Do you hate us?
say: I do not love my enemy
but hate that question.

If they ask you about violence,
say: Did you leave us an inch of land
to plant roses for our women to shower on your soldiers
did you leave us a stream
to provide water equally
or so we might take walks by the estuary
and share our food
like a pair of hikers?

Whenever the scales tip in your favor,
they will remind you that they are the victims.
Believe them
and go along with them
but say with affection: And we are the victims of the victims.

Do not interrupt them
when they remember their dead in the cemeteries
of Berlin,
and recite the prayer for the missing dead.

Be decent if they weep
and say kind words about their hurt.
If they pray
have high hopes for the moment they encounter God
for you too need moments
of hope.

Say: we will be fair
we will agree with you
over everything that happened overseas
and the Question it posed
but we will disagree with you to the core
over your history with us
and hold you to account.

Don’t drive your interlocutors into a corner
as if they were cats.
Let them contemplate the impact of their language v in this space
and their image reflected in a well.

as if you were a poet
fundamentally human
not divinely inspired
nor on the verge of nihilism.

Don’t believe in missiles, should they be launched,
but say: Would they were water pipes.
Don’t believe in the trigger happy
and bullets sprayed for show
that intercept a star in the sky.

Whenever they ask for time to think
be generous, as if time were not an issue.
Slowly smoke
a cigarette or two,
and why not squeeze
lemonade for you and them too.

Don’t make the same mistake as they do
by saying you’re better.
You’re just like the rest of God’s people v no worse and no better.

Whenever you near a conclusion
they whip up a minor war.
Add it to their record
and keep forgiving.
Tell them that generals,

however far they overstep,
die alone,
a foreign nurse in their funeral procession.

While you negotiate
a plane will pass over your dream.
Just smile to the pilot
and tell the negotiators:
they are in fact killing children
sheltering in seashells
or busy at arithmetic class.

If they bring up stories of the prophets,
don’t be happy and don’t take the bait.
Say: We are allergic to mythology
for it spilled our blood at your hands.
Prophets no longer have a place in the annals of humanity.

Their fear
is theirs
even if without cause.
It comes in cycles from past to present to past,
so break the vicious circle every morning
let them hear you reset your heart.

Those sleeping on a bed of spears
fear the moment to come.
Those guarding stolen time
jump when a bird makes its nest.
Those roaming another’s land
like those settled in outposts of identity.

If they open maps
to adjust borders
and refigure places
and populations
and safe corridors,
tell them:
Fold up your maps.
Our idea has room for all.

What’s to stop the country having
two languages
two names
two colors
and two plaits?
But sign up to one law for all.

Envisioning a future
offers protection from a cruel past
from pessimism
and stops you from falling into a pit v with your enemy.

Maybe you can’t get back an orange grove
paved in concrete.
but bargain with them over the books
they confiscated,
so that life can continue.

The broader the vision
the more ways out of the confines
of the moment.

must remain free
to include a third narrative.

The poem by writer and poet Marzuq al-Halabi, “The 40 Rules of Engagement.” was originally published in the “Time Off” section of the Arab48 website on May 25, 2021. The English translation is by Raphael Cohen. We thank Rachel Kessel and Lisa H. Katz for their valuable comments on the early draft.This translation is part of “Ofek”, a joint project of The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, The Forum for Regional Thinking and I’lam – the Arab Center for Media Freedom Development and Research.


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