Al-Ahram Weekly – 14 August 2003
As Sharon manoeuvers in the shadow of the roadmap, the shortcomings of the mainstream Israeli peace camp have never been more evident.
This Saturday a convoy of Jewish and Arab Israeli peace activists will venture into the olive groves of Anin, a Palestinian village in the northern West Bank close to the pre-1967 border with Israel. They will be there to help Anin’s farmers prepare for the autumn harvest, hoping to use their Israeli citizenship to defy military restrictions and reach more than 2,500 acres of fields that have been off-limits to the villagers since Israel recently erected its apartheid wall.
The trip is not without risk: only two weeks ago, international demonstrators who joined the villagers to protest against the wall were shot by Israeli police and soldiers. Five foreign activists were injured, including an American who had his thigh punctured.
But confronting — and infuriating — the authorities is the name of the game for Taayush (Arabic for “Partnership”). Established within weeks after the September 2000 of Al-Aqsa Intifada, the group is one of the newest and most vigorous in Israel’s peace camp.
Over the past three years the joint Jewish- Arab group, committed to direct action to provide humanitarian relief and show solidarity with the Palestinians, has been at the centre of many headline-grabbing clashes with the Israeli military authorities.
Its activists were at the forefront of organising help with the olive harvest in the face of settler intimidation last autumn. They have been protecting the tiny village of Yanun, near Nablus, from its rampaging settler neighbours. They have also been struggling to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Al-Nuaman, a West Bank village that has had its property stolen by Israel in Kafkaesque fashion, through the annexation of its homes and lands — but not the villagers — to the Jerusalem municipality.
But while Taayush represents Israel’s peace movement at its most confrontational, it also reveals its essential weakness: the group can probably claim no more than 1,000 active members. On Saturday, its leaders will be pleased if they can muster 150 people to help Anin’s farmers — and most will be from the country’s Arab minority, not Jews. The peace movement in Israel, say its critics, has effectively evaporated since the failure of the Camp David 2000 talks. Its biggest protests in Tel Aviv barely scrape together a few thousand demonstrators.
Even now, as Israel reluctantly begins manoeuvring in the shadow of the roadmap, the voices of the mainstream peace camp are nowhere in evidence. When the left could be pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to show more commitment to the only peace process on offer, or identify the roadmap’s many shortcomings, it remains perversely quiet. The question baffling those leading the tiny radical peace movement in Israel is why. Neve Gordon, a politics lecturer at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva and a senior member of Taayush, points out that opinion polls regularly show an overwhelming majority of the Israeli public — and even the settlers — resigned to withdrawing from the territories. “But getting people to participate, to get them out on to the streets to make it happen, is another matter,” he says.
It is a long way from the heady days of the early 1980s, shortly after the founding of Israel’s biggest peace bloc, Peace Now. It organised huge protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. It was a 400,000-strong Peace Now rally in 1982 against Israel’s role in the massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila that forced the government to appoint the Kahan enquiry, which found Ariel Sharon — then the country’s defence minister — partly responsible for the killing of hundreds of Palestinians.
But Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), is reluctant to talk of the peace movement’s golden era. “Peace Now was spectacularly successful in the early 1980s but its message was extremely limited. It had little to say about the Palestinian experience of occupation and during Oslo it went largely dormant, as though all the problems had been sorted out.”
The first Intifada was, however, responsible for the birth of Peace Now’s most visible campaign, Settlement Watch in 1988, to counter government misinformation by tracking and mapping the growth of the settlements. It also spawned the most high-profile human rights and legal advocacy organisations working to prevent abuses of the Palestinian population, from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel to B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights.
But the real flourishing of the radical peace movement, says Halper, came post- Oslo, and more particularly following Binyamin Netanyahu’s election in 1996. “The idea of a two-state solution had really begun to sink in and the left feared that Netanyahu would try to undermine the path to peace,” says Halper. “Groups started to take a more confrontational approach with the authorities.”
Halper helped found the ICAHD, which tries to stop house demolitions, Gush Shalom, established in 1993 as a political pressure group, developed a more hands- on approach in the late 1990s, and a raft of radical women’s organisations appeared, including Bat Shalom and the Fifth Mothers.
During the current Intifada, even more provocative activist groups emerged, such as Taayush, the women of Makhsoum Watch who monitor abuses by soldiers at checkpoints, and the Israeli branches of the Indymedia Web sites that bypass the Hebrew media’s general silence about the nature of the occupation. “The one thing about these groups is that they got Israelis out into the territories to see what was really going on, what life was really like for Palestinians,” says Halper.
Parallel groups started focussing on the inner defects in Israeli society too. Organisations like Sikkuy, Givat Haviva and Alternative Voice in the Galilee, worried by the brief Intifada of the Arab population inside Israel in October 2000, raised serious concerns about discrimination against the Arab minority.
Yet other groups began examining even more contentious issues, looking deep into the soul of the Jewish state: New Family critiqued Israeli notions of family life and New Profile began campaigning for the demilitarisation of the society.
But despite all this activity, many veteran peace campaigners complain that they are hampered in changing public attitudes by the lack of media interest, particularly during this Intifada.
Khuloud Bedawi, an Arab student leader and activist in Taayush, partly rejects this analysis. “Peace Now complains about a lack of publicity while maintaining that they must not antagonise Israeli society by direct confrontation with the authorities,” she says.
“But look at Taayush, which gets the most coverage in the Israeli press, even if it’s not often positive. Taayush campaigns in Yanun brought the village’s plight to national attention and shocked the Israeli public. You have to shape public opinion as well as follow it.”
Paradoxically, says one senior Jewish human rights lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous, the peace movement today is largely a victim of its own limited success. The peace camp’s core message — that the occupation was damaging to Israel and that many of the settlements would have to be dismantled eventually — percolated through to mainstream Israeli society, she says.
“Since the failure of Camp David — and Israel’s successful campaign to villify the Palestinian leadership — the choices facing Israelis seem much more extreme, much more existential. Israelis feel that we must concentrate on fighting for the survival of our state.”
She suggests that the fragility of the peace camp can be explained by the fundamental disagreements on the political left about Zionism. The result has been a failure to develop a coherent strategy for shaping wider Israeli public opinion or engaging with the Palestinian public. She believes there are three basic peace camp attitudes to ending the occupation — and each is formed by one’s view of Zionism. She categorises them respectively as the traditional Zionist left, the moral Zionist left and the anti-Zionist left.
“The first are those who say Palestinians and Israelis should live apart, if only because that offers greater protection to Israelis. They want unilateral separation, and don’t care too much whether the terms are good or bad for the Palestinians. Secretly many would be happier if there was a clean break with the country’s Arab citizens and they were encouraged to leave their homes in Israel and move to the Palestinian state,” she explains.
“Then there are those who believe adamantly that peace can only be secured by offering Palestinians a viable state alongside Israel, by helping them develop their own democratic institutions and by integrating the Arab minority inside Israel as fully equal citizens.”
Finally, she says, there is a tiny, radical anti-Zionist element which accepts what the other two cannot: that the future depends on a binational state embodying equal rights for two peoples. “Only this group is not troubled by the idea of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, at least in principle.”
These three categories are clearly reflected in the factionalism of the peace movement. In the isolated, radical camp sit some members of the women’s peace coalition, Taayush and ICAHD, and the extra-parliamentary Arab political party, Ibn Al-Balad, which boasts a handful of Jewish members.
In the middle — maybe numbering a few thousand — are most of the older, more established groups such as Uri Avnery’s Gush Shalom and Yesh Gvul, the veteran refusal to serve in the territories movement, as well as many of the new “refuseniks” who captured headlines in early 2002 with their petition against serving. Lately, for example, Avnery has been trying almost single-handedly to resurrect Yasser Arafat’s reputation, in the belief that only the Palestinian president can lead his people to an acceptable two-state solution.
And in the first category, the traditional Zionist left, is to be found by far the largest and most influential peace bloc, Peace Now, potentially representing tens if not hundreds of thousands of Israelis. And that, say more radical activists, is precisely the problem for the peace movement.
“The caution of the Peace Now leaders, their fear of alienating the mainstream has killed the peace movement,” says Neve Gordon. He lays the blame for the decline of the peace camp during this Intifada squarely at the door of Peace Now. “Many younger members of Peace Now, including many of the refuseniks, had a more radical agenda than the old guard, one that could have captured the public imagination, but they were silenced.”
In fact, early on in the Intifada bitter feuding broke out among Peace Now’s leaders about whether to support the refuseniks, but in the end the view of the “old guard” — represented by the stalwarts of the Zionist Labour and Meretz parties — held sway.
Gordon argues that Peace Now has failed to evolve into an effective peace movement during the current Intifada for several reasons. First, he says, the bloc has been led by figures from the Labour and Meretz parties, like Tzali Reshef and Yossi Sarid, who had a personal political stake in Oslo. With the process’s failure, they felt compelled to join former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in blaming the Palestinians for the crisis rather than adopting a more critical position. They stymied younger potential leaders who might have invigorated the peace camp.
Second, the strong Zionist ethos among Peace Now’s leaders means that it has problems admitting members from the one million Arab minority into its ranks. The first Arab member was allowed on to its board in 2001. The exclusion of a fifth of the population has both weakened the movement and distorted its vision of what might constitute peace.
Third, Peace Now has refused to challenge the culture of fear encouraged by the government and media, through the endless recycling of images of suicide bombings. This has damaging psychological effects on the general public, distorts their perception of reality and makes them deaf to the peace message, says Gordon.
And fourth, Peace Now has failed to make the connection between the occupation and Israel’s domestic economic woes. “Why is it not pointing out that the huge budget cuts being inflicted on the poorest at the moment are directly related to the vast sums being poured into the settlements, bypass roads and now the wall?” says Gordon.
He fears that the growing cynicism among Israelis about their political leaders — prompted by mounting corruption scandals that reach right up to Sharon himself — have left ordinary Israelis disillusioned and resigned to a sense of their own powerlessness.
Halper, on the other hand, thinks it too premature to write off the peace camp. “In many ways, the peace movement is stronger in Israel than it has ever been. More dissident voices are being heard and more Israelis are seeing for themselves what occupation means in practice. The numbers may be small but it is a beginning.”
One unexpected recent development is senior peace activists voicing for the first time the view that the two-state solution — the left’s holy grail — may be a chimera. Halper refers specifically to an article in the Ha’aretz newspaper last week in which two long-standing exponents of “two states for two people”, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti and ex-Gush Shalom leader Haim Hanegbi, admitted to a crisis of faith.
“The wall is the great despairing solution of the Jewish-Zionist society,” said Hanegbi. “It is the last desperate act of those who cannot confront the Palestinian issue. Of those who are compelled to push the Palestinian issue out of their lives and out of their consciousness. In the face of that I say the opposite.”
Halper points out that both Benvenisti and Hanegbi only admitted to their conversions to a joint state for Palestinians and Israelis in the last few months. “I think a lot of us in the peace camp are going through a transition phase right now, rejecting the old dogmas, he says. “We’re seeing what’s happening in the occupied territories and most of us are drawing the conclusion that a Palestinian state is no longer possible.”
Whether such a verdict will regalvanise Israel’s peace movement or weaken it, and whether it can find an audience among a Palestinian public still committed to two states, remains to be seen.