WASHINGTON, August 12, 2014 – The conflict in Gaza, with the massive loss of civilian lives, hundreds of them children, has caused men and women around the world to ask the question: What would it take to bring real peace between Israelis and Palestinians? To seek the answer, we would all do well to consider the words of Israel’s own dissenting voices, voices we hear all too rarely.
Consider Uri Avnery, who will turn 91 next month, and still writes a weekly column. He has led an extraordinary life.
Born in Germany in 1923, his family fled the Nazis and moved to Palestine. As a youth, he joined the Irgun Zionist paramilitary group, which he later quit to become a peace activist in Israel. In 1950, he founded the news magazine HaOlim Hazeh and fifteen years later he was elected to the Knesset on a peace platform. In 1982, he made headlines when he crossed the lines during the siege of Beirut to meet Yasser Arafat, head of the then-banned PLO.
In 1993, he started the Gush Shalom peace movement.
In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now in the midst of the fighting in Gaza, Avnery said that,
“The root of the matter is that Israel is occupying the Palestinian territories, the territory of the West Bank and the territory of the Gaza Strip. As long as the occupation lasts, there will be no peace. In order to achieve peace with the Palestinian people, Israel must end the occupation, withdraw from the occupied territories, and enable the Palestinians to set up their own independent nation and state…That’s what it’s all about. Everything flows from this basic problem.”
Recalling his youth, Avnery notes that,
“I was a member of a terrorist organization when I was 15 years old. I believe I understand the psychology of young people who join organizations which are called terrorists by their enemies, but which think of themselves as freedom fighters. Hamas thinks it’s fighting for the freedom of Palestine. One of the basic problems at this moment is that Israelis and Hamas do not talk to each other…I think Israel and Hamas must talk to each other…Hamas cannot and will not agree to a real cease fire if there is a blockade of the Gaza Strip. It’s a tiny, tiny little territory. You have 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip…It’s suffering from a blockade for at least eight years.”
Avnery reports that he and his friends,
“…have demanded that our government start talks with Hamas. Eight years ago, we ourselves met with Hamas leaders. I found them people with whom I don’t necessarily agree, but people with whom I can talk. I believe that even today we can come to an agreement with the Palestinian people, including Hamas…In the end, whatever we do, after all the killing and after all the terrible destruction, in the end, we’ll have to talk to Hamas…The government of Israel, which represents the extreme right, with some openly fascist elements in it.does not want to give up the occupied territories. That’s whole point. If we are ready to give up this territory and allow Palestinians to set up their own nation and state of Palestine, then the problem is solved…The question is: Do we agree to live side by side with an independent state of Palestine? Yes or No? If not, we shall have war again and again, till the end of time.”
Another respected Israeli dissenting voice is that of Idith Zertal, historian and author with Akiva Eldar of “The Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007.” Zertal has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and recently at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
In a recent interview in Le Courier, a Swiss French-language daily, Zertal declared that,
“A country cannot claim to be a democracy and support such an extended military occupation without destroying itself from within. Today, there are more than 500,000 colonists spread across the whole of the West Bank, counting those living near Jerusalem outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Obviously, they (the Israeli government) would have liked to see Israel extend from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and beyond.
But unless I am mistaken, they are quite satisfied with the current situation, which involves, on the one hand, daily expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and lands, which has become almost routine, and, on the other hand, a continuous expansion of the colonies.”
While the current Israeli government promotes the expansion of settlements, Zertal points out that,
“There are thousands of Israelis militating every day against the occupation, who help the Palestinians in the occupied territory, but the question of the occupation is rarely discussed in public.” Still, in her view, the right-wing colonists “are capable of anything to defend their cause. They know no limits. The heads of the intelligence services are quite blunt about it: some of the colonists are ready to arrange the assassination of a new prime minister, just like what happened to Yitzhak Rabin. It is worth noting the poisonous role played by some of the racist rabbis who do not hesitate to declare kosher all methods, even the worst, in the colonists’ struggle…With the arrival of Ariel Sharon in the government at the end of the 1970s, the administration adopted the strategy of preventing the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the existence of a democratic Palestinian society. Their objectives seem to have been achieved.”
The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, now director of the European Centre for Palestinian Studies at the University of Exeter in England, says that,
“When you listen to mainstream media coverage of the situation in Gaza you get the impression that it all starts with an unreasonable launching of rockets into Israel by Hamas. The deeper historical context is the fact that ever since 2005, the Gaza Strip is being, or people in the Gaza Strip are being incarcerated as criminals, and their only crime is that they elected democratically someone who vowed to struggle against this ghettoizing or this siege. Israel reacted with all its force. One can solve this situation by lifting the siege, by allowing the people of Gaza to be connected with their brothers and sisters in the West Bank, and by allowing them to be connected to the world and not live under circumstances that no one else in the world seems to experience at this moment in time.”
Pappe laments the decisions Israel has made in recent years:
“I think Israel is at a crossroads, but it has already made its decision which way it is going from this junction. It was in a junction where it had to decide finally whether it wants to be a democracy or a racist apartheid state, given the realities on the ground. I think Israel, in 2014, made a decision that it prefers to be a racist apartheid state and not a democracy, and it still hopes the U.S. would license this decision and provide it with the immunity to continue with the necessary implication of such a policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, wherever they are.”
Another dissenting voice is that of Israeli author David Grossman, who lost a son in one of Israel’s earlier conflicts. The anguish of the Palestinian people under attack stirs Grossman. He states that,
“If we put aside for a moment the rationales we use to buttress ourselves against simple human compassion toward the multitude of Palestinians whose lives have been shattered in this war, perhaps we will be able to see them, too, as they trudge around the grindstone right beside us, in tandem, in endless blind circles, in despair…There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either.”
Grossman declares that,
“Mahmoud Abbas has already decided in favor of negotiation and against terrorism. Will the government of Israel, after this bloody war, continue to avoid at least trying this option? Will it keep dismissing the possibility that an agreement with West Bank Palestinians might gradually lead to an improved relationship with the 1.8 million residents of Gaza? I believe that Israel still contains a critical mass of people …Jews and Arabs, who are capable of uniting…to resolve the conflict with our neighbors…If we do not do this, we will all…continue to turn the grindstone of this conflict, which crushes and erodes our lives, our hopes and our humanity.”
Israel must choose between being an occupying power of another people or a Western-style democracy. If it continues to occupy the land of the Palestinians, it will face continuing resistance, as the French did in Algeria and the British did in Kenya and elsewhere. As these dissenting Israeli voices understand, only an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state can bring real peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.