Muslim world Politics

Middle East: Looking back on my own experiences

How my view of the Middle East conflict has changed through personal experience.

With my personal experiences, my view of the Middle East conflict has also changed with the years.

I lived in Egypt for almost seven years and worked, among other things, for the Agency for Technical Cooperation (now: GIZ) as a consultant for the advancement of women. I condemn the terror of Hamas just as I condemn the migration policy of the German government, which ignores the Jew-hatred of Muslim migrants. And I also see Israel having its share of responsibility for the never-to-end conflict.

Once upon a time… El Arish, Sinai ©Rebecca Hillauer

The beginnings

Despite my first name, I am not Jewish. Nowadays it is idle to explain this. Rebecca or Rebecka or Rebekka is a common girl’s name. In the 1960s, when I started school, it was different. At the elementary school in Nuremberg, I was the only one with that name, and the only one at all with a name that was not typically German. Accordingly, I was teased for a long time. Whether because my name was Hebrew and I could be seen as Jewish, or simply because it was an unusual foreign name at the time, I don’t know. Nor when the time of teasing ended, or why. Maybe because I did well in school, my snowballs hit their targets during yard breaks, or I was the first girl at school to wear pants instead of a skirt. “Beat pants” was what they were called, in reference to The Beatles, who many adults thought to be the devil.

In the upper classes of high school I chose English and Modern History as my two major subjects. The history of National Socialism, to be exact. I suffered with the fictional Jewish Berlin doctor’s family Weiss in the U.S. TV mini-series “Holocaust. The Story of the Weiss Family.” And of course I read Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus.” And fevered with Paul Newman, who in the Hollywood film of the same name as the blue-eyed Ari Ben Kanaan in 1947 sets out to bring 4000 Jewish refugees, among them many orphans, to the British Mandate territory of Palestine with the ship “Exodus”. The operation takes place under the supervision of the Haganah, an actually existing Zionist paramilitary underground organization that was transferred to the Israel Defense Forces after the establishment of the State of Israel.

Arriving in a foreign world

When I arrived in Acre, northern Israel, on a sailing ship in December 1986, it was clear to me which side I was on in the Middle East conflict. However, the first thing I heard when I landed in the harbor was the call of a muezzin. I loved the sound. I traveled through Israel, the West Bank, the Sinai, and on to Cairo. From there I wanted to go to Kenia. But on the eve of my onward journey to Sudan, I stepped into a deep hole in Qasr Al-Aini Street, as there were many in the city both on the roadways and sidewalks. My left ankle was sprained. At Qasr Al-Aini Hospital, they put it in plaster, and I was doomed to spend a whole month, sitting in front of various sidewalk cafes, watching the world go by – instead of moving on myself. After the cast was off, it was over with the café chairs as well as with my plans for Africa. I stayed in Egypt and slowly became at home in this world that was foreign to me.

Again and again, ordinary people, cab drivers, for example, told me when they heard that I was German: “Germany good, Hitler gassed the Jews.” My verbal protests that I did not appreciate this fact nor Hitler were politely overheard. My Hebrew, meaning supposedly Jewish, name never became an issue. Were people too stupid to recognize the origin of the name? A question to which I do not know the answer.

In the Gaza Strip

The border crossing from Egypt to Israel at Rafah in the Gaza Strip was still open at that time. It was easy to get there from Cairo in a shared cab. Mostly Mercedes that had been retired elsewhere. They drove to the Suez Canal and further across the Sinai Peninsula to the border crossing. At some point I must have gotten into such a cab. Because I was suddenly standing in the border town of Rafah, looking for a hotel. When I knocked on the door, no one opened. It was also unusually quiet otherwise, the streets were empty. Finally, two Arab men appeared and asked why I was here. They probably remained friendly because they heard my foreign, not Israeli accent. They listened to my explanation with incredulous looks. Had I not heard about the Intifada? Hotels were all closed. Soon the curfew would begin. What to do?

One of the men took me to his home without further ado. For three days I was a guest of him and his family. The daughter spoke excellent English. At night, when it was curfew, I looked out of the window with her and saw Israeli soldiers patrolling the street, some of them in jeeps. It was an oppressive feeling. As I looked out and sat, ate and talked with the family during the day, my perspective on the Middle East conflict changed. How politically ignorant must I have been at the time not to have heard about the Intifada? Someone to whom I recently asked this very question replied, “Fortunately, you were ignorant. Otherwise, you probably would never have gone there and experienced all that.” True.

This First Intifada began on December 8, 1987, and was called the “War of the Stones” because children and youths shot stones at Israeli soldiers with rubber slings. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin founded Hamas as the political arm of the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood. In 1973, he had founded the aid organization Mujama al-Islamiya in Gaza.

Palestinians and the Arab world

Back in Egypt, I was surprised to hear from intellectuals that the Palestinians were not very popular in the rest of the Arab countries or, to put it better, unwanted by the governments. To them, Palestinians were considered trouble makers, my interlocutors said. With the settlement of Palestinian refugees, Arab states had imported considerable problems for themselves in some cases. In Lebanon, for example, the Palestinians had become a kind of state within a state in the 1960s and ’70s. Their ongoing terrorist attacks on Israel then dragged Lebanon into war when Israel invaded there in 1982 to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. Yasser Arafat then settled his Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. After a PLO terrorist attack killed three Israeli civilians in Cyprus in September 1985, the Israeli Air Force bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunis in retaliation. As a result, relations between Tunisia and the United States deteriorated.

Following the current terrorist attacks by Hamas, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now appealing to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah as-Sisi to open the Gaza-Egypt border crossing for Palestinian refugees so that Israel then can launch a ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This is the same border crossing at Rafah that I had used during the First Intifada. It is the only border crossing that Israel does not control. The fact that as-Sisi, instead of opening it, had even the border barrier reenforced with concrete elements is anything but surprising. In contrast to those in power in Germany and the European Union, the autocrat in Cairo is well aware that terrorists, in this case from the Islamist Hamas, could infiltrate his country along with the refugees. And: Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged in Egypt in 1928 and is as-Sisi’s ideological arch-enemy. Cairo has also been fighting Islamist terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula for twenty years, who attack tourist strongholds, the military and civilians there and whose ideology largely coincides with that of Hamas.

From development cooperation to journalism

I lived in northern Sinai for a year and a half when it was still peaceful there. Then I worked for a few years as a consultant in an urban development project in Aswan, in arch-conservative southern Egypt. I learned that as a foreigner I would make little difference in the country. Change, I am convinced, must come from within to be sustainable. After my return to Germany, I co-organized two film series with works by Arab women directors – as counter-images to the cliché of “the” docile Arab woman. And after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I tried, now as a journalist, to break the stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists through my articles and my book about Arab women filmmakers, which was published in 2001. After all, I had met free spirits, atheists, seculars, oppositionists, career women and homosexuals in the Arab world. Most of the media, however, proved interested in the opposite. I sold articles about stonings in Iran like hot cakes.

In 2005, the English-language edition of my book, Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers, was published by the American University in Cairo Press. I can hardly believe it in retrospect, but I even gave an interview in Arabic in Cairo! My stammering must have sounded atrocious to the ears of the locals. Anyway. “In your book, we women filmmakers have finally been given a place,” the late director Nabiha Lotfy told me.

In the West Bank

The Goethe-Institute in Cairo invited me to present the book in the West Bank. The occasion was the first International Women’s Film Festival in Ramallah in September 2005. The Second Intifada had been over since February of that year. In Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, I was to speak at universities and cultural centers about the book and my motives. However, there was unrest again, so only one lecture was realised. All the more time I had for conversations with secular activists. People took me to houses where they said they had once lived, but which had been bulldozed by the Israeli military. For the first time, I saw a section of the up to eight-meter-high concrete wall that Israel built along its border with the West Bank during the Intifada, starting in 2002. Almost all of it was built on Palestinian soil, which is why the International Court of Justice in The Hague declared it illegal under international law.

After the women’s festival in Ramallah, I stayed another week in Jerusalem and met an Israeli women’s and peace activist in Tel Aviv whom I had interviewed two years earlier in Berlin. On leaving the country at Tel Aviv airport, I had to empty the entire contents of my suitcase. And repack it again. Afterwards, in a cubicle, I had to tell two Israeli security officials in great detail what I had done in the West Bank. It didn’t help that I referred to the invitation letter from the Goethe-Institute. When they had left, it was a matter of waiting for me. I waited, very long. And became restless. My plane was about to take off. Finally, I was “released” by a security officer – just in time to barely make my plane. I understand Israel’s security concerns, but what good is such harassment?

Present day

18 years have passed since then. Radical Islamist groups have spread as far as sub-Saharan Africa, and in Europe attacks and murders by fanatical Muslims are no longer isolated incidents. Jews are being targeted and attacked in the streets. In France, following the recent attack by Palestinian Hamas on civilians in Israel, a young Islamist of Chechen origin slit the throat of a teacher. In Brussels, a rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia shot and killed two Swedish soccer fans. And in Germany, pro-Palestinian demonstrators shouted slogans like “Fuck Jews!” Or, “Islam will win.” And handed out cakes to celebrate.

Like many people, I am appalled by these developments. And like many, I point the finger at the governments, and, as a German, especially at the various German governments and their policies of uncontrolled mass immigration of Muslim migrants. But what also worries me: Anyone who speaks out against radical Muslims and the infiltration of politics and society by a legalistic Islam seems to be expected to now automatically and unconditionally be pro-Israel. Corresponding expressions of opinion are suggested or even demanded. Those who fail to do so run the risk of being considered anti-Semitic. One non-Jewish activist, who I mistakenly assumed was friendly to me, broke off contact with me and called me a “Jew-hater” just because I had pointed out that there were two sides to the Middle East conflict. To see them: I continue to take this liberty.

As much as I despise backward, narrow-minded Islamists and condemn the cruel terror of Hamas, I am equally critical of the settlement policy of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been Prime Minister of Israel for the sixth time since 1996. And who so far, undeterred, wants to have more Jewish settlements built in the West Bank, which, in my eyes, would corner the residents of the West Bank more and more and further fuel the hatred. “We have nothing left to lose,” a young Palestinian already told me at a demonstration in Berlin a few years ago.

If at the age of 20 I stood with conviction on the side of Israel and at 30 on the side of the Palestinians, today I insist on doing neither.

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