Is Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Prime Minister of Israel, softening up his political stance vis-á-vis the Palestinians, or is it wishful thinking on my part?
Historically, people of his ilk are the ones likely to change tack eventually when they realise that peace brings untold benefits to their nation and war is no longer a viable option. To win an election is one thing, but to implement rabid rhetoric is another.
The Israelis who, at one time, had the backing of the Western world are now feeling the brunt of opposition to their occupation of the West Bank and their treatment of the Palestinians, who are equally tired of a conflict that cannot be resolved except by peaceful means. The gun, so to speak, has had its day for the combatants in this tragedy – and has by implication now lost its effectiveness.
The news that markets in Hebron are about to reopen after thirteen years seems a step forward to normalisation. When the second Palestinian uprising against Israel broke out in 2002, the Israeli military closed five hundred shops in the city, as they flooded the area with troops and tried to control the rioting. Last week, the military permitted seventy stores on Sahla Street to reopen to the astonishment of shopkeepers who thought the day would never come.
Hebron is the starkest example of Israel’s forty-eight-year occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. About seven hundred Israeli settlers live there among two hundred thousand Palestinians, guarded by a thousand Israeli soldiers. A fifth of Hebron, including the old city where the shops are based, is under full Israeli occupation. Omar Abu Aisheh, who ran a grocery shop, had long ago sold off his stock and given up on doing business there again. He now hopes to open the doors shortly and restock.
The announcement is one of several steps the Israeli Army has taken to ease tensions in the West Bank before the holy month of Ramadan. Men over forty and women of any age are being allowed to attend Friday prayers in Jerusalem without a permit during the holy month. Some residents were also given permission to fly abroad, via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. All of this is a far cry from last year, when the southern West Bank was largely locked down.
‘This used to be the heart of Hebron,’ Mr Abu Aisheh said. ‘Hundreds of people lost their livelihood when it closed.’
If this latest easing of restrictions heralds the beginning of a new era of reconciliation then perhaps we can hope for a resumption of the peace talks once the present impasse is overcome.
I still dream of the day when the Holy Land becomes the focus of eternal peace, where pilgrims of any denomination can visit in tranquillity, fraternity and tolerance.