Link 1 to video: Where now for the Israeli peace movement?
Link 2 to video: Where now for the Israeli peace movement?
Out of Gaza and across the border to the sound of rocket fire.
A handful of hours later I am at the Hebrew University for a lecture by Gershon Baskin, one of Israel’s most prominent peace activists, who is describing his attempts to open a channel of communication between Israel’s leaders and Hamas.
It’s a strange and sudden quantum shift – from the ruins, anxiety and stench of war to normality, calm and mannered debate. What it entails is a journey from one ethos of conflict, the Palestinian one still raw, edgy and angry from the recent violence, to an Israeli one, expressed – most obviously for most – in the harsh rhetoric of political contest.
In a bare room littered with bean bags and exposed piping, less than a dozen students sit patiently to listen to Baskin’s account. The meeting has been organised by a group called It Is No Legend. It is an ironic play on a quote from Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism: “If you will it, it is no legend”.
Herzl meant the will to bring about the foundation of Israel. Among this group it signifies the will to peace and coexistence with Palestinian Arabs.
I know Baskin via his articles and his emails. The story he tells to the students is largely unreported: one of the hidden tales that Israel’s government would like to gloss over.
In meetings with Hamas figures, arranged through texts, calls and emails, Baskin established a kind of one-way channel of communication to the office of Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert. It was the offer of a means of negotiation that Olmert and his government emphatically rejected.
The students pose questions at the end. Was the war inevitable, they want to know. Most think it was. What are the prospects for the future? It is a subdued gathering.
The reality is that the facts of the war, the civilian deaths and the destruction, are not simply better known in Gaza than they are in Israel. In its sparse attendance, this meeting reflects a fundamental shift in Israeli society – despite the students’ excuses to the contrary.
Support for the war has been almost unanimous at up to 94%. Israel’s peace movement, as a consequence, has been pushed to the margins like never before. More than that, many of its members have been co-opted.
I recall a conversation I had with Orith Shochat before going into Gaza. A liberal Israeli journalist, she has spent most of her life campaigning against the occupation. It was Shochat who drafted the 2003 letter for the Israeli air force pilots who refused to take part in attacks on civilian areas. This is a war, however, that Shochat has supported.
When I ask her about the civilian casualties she tells me she is “shocked how it does not shock her”. “I am amazed,” she adds, “how it doesn’t haunt me.”
She reflects on a journey over five years that led her to the conclusion that the targeted assassinations she once opposed might be more moral than the alternative. That there might be no other solution to the rocket fire out of Gaza than a demonstration that Israel’s commitment to deterrence has not weakened.
I meet others – at a friend’s flat in Jerusalem and elsewhere – who evince the same views while insisting that they belong to the left; that they support the idea of peace and a negotiated two-state solution.
I hear from several people the conviction that out of the blood of Gaza a new solution and impetus towards peace might yet be born. It is a view, having come from Gaza, that I struggle to understand.
Physics student Ofek Birnholtz, 25, who organised the lecture at the Hebrew University, offers another take. He is convinced that the two trends – strong support for the war and growing support for the end of occupation and a two-state solution – coexist; that it is caught up in a moment of collective anger that will pass.
But the political dynamics of the Israeli election campaign suggest something else is going on. The rightwing Likud party of Binyamin Netanyahu, and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman – both of which had the least to do with the war against Gaza and Hamas – have have benefited most, suggesting a nationalist retrenchment.
The reality is that a polarisation and radicalisation within Palestinian society has been reflected in an equal radicalisation among Israeli Jews, accelerated by the conflict in Gaza, that has seen even well-established connections between peacemakers on both sides collapse.
The question that remains is why?
For Daniel Bar-Tal, of Tel Aviv University, who has a long record of researching the functioning of each group’s “conflict ethos” in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, the current state of the national psyche is as much manufactured as it is willed.
He explained it in a recent interview in Haaretz. “After the bitter experience of the second Lebanon war, during which the memory of the war was taken out of their hands and allowed to be formed freely,” he explained, “the country’s leaders learned their lesson, and decided that they wouldn’t let that happen again.
“They were not satisfied with attempts to inculcate Palestinian awareness and tried to influence Jewish awareness in Israel as well. For that purpose, heavy censorship and monitoring of information were imposed [during the Gaza campaign].”
It was achieved, he believes, by the willing enlistment of the media, who concentrated only on the sense of victimisation of residents of the so-called “Gaza envelope” – those within the range of missiles from Gaza – largely ignoring the situation of the residents of besieged Gaza.
The veteran peace campaigner Gila Svirsky, of Women in Black, argues for an even more radical interpretation. At her small flat in Jerusalem, cluttered with the mementoes of her life in activism, she says she believes that much of the rejection of the “others’ story” has been self-willed.
Gila tells me a story. It is about a neighbour who admits avoiding the take of foreign media on Gaza to avoid being challenged in her assumptions.
“You can feel it,” says Gila. “The temptation of being sucked into only watching Israeli news. It is really hard to extricate oneself from the dominant discourse. There is a word in Hebrew – miguyas – it means, I suppose, seduced. People don’t want to go there. Don’t want to think bad thoughts [about what is being done in their name].”
It has been accomplished, Svirsky insists, by portraying Hamas as an “existential threat, the forward guard of Iran”, not as a local problem to be negotiated. It is precisely the story that Netanyahu has been pushing so hard and successfully in the election campaign.
But there is another difficulty. While those like Gershon Baskin frame the war in terms of multiple missed opportunities to engage with Hamas – or attempts to understand it at least – there are others on the left like Yaron Ezrahi, author and professor of politics at the Hebrew University, who believe there was a failure on the Israeli left’s part to formulate an adequate response to the Qassam missiles fired out of Gaza into southern Israel.
Despite that, this war – he insists to me – will be Israel’s “Macbeth moment”. It will be something – to reverse Shochat’s formulation – to shock in the long run. “Israel will be forever haunted by the ghosts of this war,” Ezrahi says sadly.
But in the immediate aftermath of war, there does not seem to be much haunting of the majority. It is embraced enthusiastically, grimly or fatalistically as necessary.
At the margins it is not rejected but avoided. I meet an elderly woman in a deli in west Jerusalem, listening to the radio and drinking her tea among a handful of pavement tables. I am told she was a demolitions expert in the Palmach, the organisation that fought for Israel’s creation in 1948.
We chat and she is happy to talk about most things. But when I ask her about the current situation she says – with a touch of anger at my presumption in asking the question – that she does not feel well enough informed to comment.
A young woman at Hebrew University, who listens to Baskin for an hour and half, fends off my questions with the same determined excuse: she does not know enough.
But in the offices of Breaking the Silence, the organisation of former Israeli soldiers dedicated to exposing human rights abuses committed by the Israeli defence forces, Michael Manekin and Yehuda Shaul believe it is simply a question of time.
After previous operations, they say, it has taken six months to a year for soldiers to come forward with testimony about events that disturbed them.
The media, Manekin explains, acted as the military’s cheerleader at the beginning of the war in Gaza. Now, he says, it is calling every day, hungry for soldiers’ stories that contradict the official line.
Yehuda, a burly former infantryman who served during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, opens up a scanned file on his computer – a pamphlet circulated by the army’s chief military rabbi to soldiers before entering Gaza. It is a document as unsettling in its own way as the religious justifications of Hamas for its own violence. It talks about the necessity of cruelty against the enemy, and dehumanises and de-legitimises the Palestinians and their claims.
Manekin translates the words: “We are not allowed by religious command to return an inch of land to the Palestinians. It is our land – God’s land. There is a question [in the pamphlet]: ‘Can we compare the Palestinians now to the biblical era of the Philistines? And if so, does this guide us how we act militarily’? The answer says: ‘Yes we can. The Palestinians like the Philistines are not a natural part of this region’.”
Listening to Manekin, I think about the words of Bar-Tal. And I wonder – as I have always wondered in wartime – how much is manufactured? How much willed?
And I wonder what kind of government a society still drunk on the euphoria of military action will elect with a handful of days remaining.
Originally Posted at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/feb/03/israel-elections-gaza-peace