Israel/Palestine: the Peace Movement Endures Crisis

By David Wurfel | 2003-04-01 12:00:00

Despite the intensification of the conflict between the two peoples, it is remarkable that some Israelis and some Palestinians today still work together to end the Occupation and to establish a just peace. They face the check-points, the social ostracism reserved for the "unpatriotic" in their respective communities, and violent attacks by extremists on both sides. The late Prime Minister Rabin is the best- known victim of such violence.

Before Intifada

To be sure, cooperation, then called "dialogue" or "people-to-people" projects, was easier - even fashionable - before Intifada II began in October 2000. Foreign aid agencies, including CIDA, and major foundations financed such projects, which often simply brought Israelis and Palestinians together for joint social activities, without serious political discussion. Some of the groups that persist today were active then. But many other groups, now regarded by the surviving "peace bloc" as having been mere "peace parties," fell apart after the Intifada began. They had attempted to push "normalization" before justice, without examining the basic political realities.

After Mr. Sharon triggered the incident at Al Aqsa Mosque many Palestinians felt abandoned by the silence of most of their Israeli partners, while many Israelis felt betrayed by the subsequent Palestinian return to violence. A statement of the Palestinian NGO Network on October 23, 2000 formalized the Palestinian withdrawal from partnership. It said: "The PNGO Network…asks Palestinian NGOs to halt their joint projects with the Israeli side, particularly the 'people to people' projects [and] any program which contains an approach of 'normalization.'"

The statement added: "[PNGO] asks the Palestinian NGOs to discontinue any transaction with Israeli NGOs until they recognize publicly…the right of the Palestinians to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees."

In fact, not all Palestinian groups followed this policy strictly. Some worked with Israelis such as Bat Shalom, a women's peace group committed to the end of the Occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even PNGO gradually became aware that limiting contact to those Israeli groups in full agreement with the Palestinian position (and on the right of return there were very few indeed) might be self-defeating. PNGO issued a new statement on July 24, 2002, which affirmed "the need for an active influence on Israeli public opinion through cooperating with the peace camps who are against the Occupation and settlements."

PNGO may, in part, have been prodded to moderate its stand by a series of workshops organized in 2001 by the Alternative Information Center (AIC), an integrated bi-national body, to "examine the future of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the struggle for peace." The AIC, in the words of its co-chair, saw its primary role "to keep open the last small breach in the wall of hate between the two peoples," cooperating "for justice and a future based on the full implementation of the rights of the Palestinian people."

By 2002 even Peace Now - with Labor Party links - which had been inactive for some time, was again organizing street demonstrations. In the meantime the Israeli peace camp had seen the emergence of a new organization, Ta'ayush ("cooperation" or "coexistence"), born in reaction to the massacre of Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin in the fall of 2000. It includes within its own membership Palestinians, Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis, as does AIC. (Some other groups, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), or Bat Shalom, deal with Palestinians through a counterpart organization.)

Certainly Israeli peace activists try to treat Palestinians as equals, but the impinging realities often make this difficult. The balance of capabilities is asymmetrical. Financially, Israelis have more resources among their own members and, since international travel is easier for them, they have stronger contacts with foreign donor agencies. Furthermore, it is often impossible for Palestinians to come, even a few kilometers, to meetings inside Israel because of checkpoints and vacillating documentary requirements, whereas Israelis can travel more easily to meet with them in the West Bank and Gaza. Jewish Israeli activists often find peace partners among Israeli Arabs (or "Palestinian Israelis," as they may call themselves) who are Israeli citizens inside Israel.

There has often beem asymmetry, as well, in assertiveness and organizational skills, so that even among active cooperators, some Palestinians felt that their Israeli partners dominated the relationship. Some also felt that they were objects of Israeli charity. This was perhaps inevitable under the circumstances; nevertheless a great deal of cooperation has persisted, as new foci have also emerged.


It would seem unlikely for parents who have lost children to the violence of "the other side" to be trying to build a bridge of peace. And many do not. But about 200 Israeli and 100 Palestinian families have banded together to form the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families' Forum for Peace. Though views within the Forum vary widely, Rami Elhanan, who lost a bright and beautiful 14-year-old daughter to a suicide bomber says forthrightly that Ehud Barak's so-called "generous offer" was entirely insufficient to provide the basis for a just peace. He speaks on radio and to high schools with the message that "after so many rivers of blood have been spilled it seems that the overwhelming majority on both sides is willing to grasp the reality that we must live side by side." The Forum has devised some creative forms of protest, though the international media have been more sympathetic than their Israeli counterparts.

One well-established group, Women in Black, which has supporters in Canada, has no Palestinian participants. Gila Svirsky, one of its most prominent leaders, explains her position in sophisticated political terms. Says she, "I am a Zionist and Israeli nationalist." She explains that she protests the Occupation and the attendant evils of Israeli policy because they undermine the security of the state and crush freedom for Israelis as well as for Palestinians. She feels that this stance adds weight to her protest in the thinking of many Israelis. (It does not prevent, however, some ugly epithets from passing motorists during the weekly vigils that Women in Black have mounted at different places in Israel.)

Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) are also, as the name indicates, an exclusively Jewish organization, founded in 1988 to be the "rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel," especially against human rights abuses by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). (The group does not specifically call for an end to the Occupation, though this appears to be favored by most of their activists.) But their networking with Palestinians is impressive. In addition to letter-writing, initiating court cases, lobbying the Knesset and participating in protests within Israel, they have organized work teams to go into the West Bank to help farmers, who have been threatened and attacked by orthodox Jewish settlers, to harvest their olives. RHR contacts with Palestinian farmers are now so widespread that they have more requests for help than they can honor. Other Israeli peace groups also come to the aid of Palestinian farmers under threat from Jewish settlers.

As just one example, in January 2003 Ta'ayush, together with the Mennonite-initiated Christian Peacemaker Team working in Hebron, went to a village to act as "human shields" for farmers wanting to plow their fields. But armed Israeli settlers attacked the group; some volunteers and farmers were badly beaten. Ta'ayush also helps Palestinians in nonviolent removal of "roadblocks for harassment,"' and sends food and clothing to isolated villages that settlers are trying to push off the land. But the emphasis is less on humanitarian aid than on symbolic resistance to Israeli government policy.

One of the groups cooperating with Palestinians that has survived Intifada II most successfully is Gush Shalom, which describes itself as "hard core peacenik." It was founded in 1993 by Uri Avnery, formerly a member of the Knesset, but is allied to no political party. (Like many other peace activists, however, Gush is disgusted with the compromises the Labor Party made with Sharon and the corruption that has sometimes infected its ranks. In fact, it can be safely said that the most active peace groups stand to the left of Labor.) Gush Shalom works at the highest intellectual levels and in the street, helping to organize demonstrations. Its detailed proposal for peace, including a very reasonable compromise to implement the right of return of Palestinian refugees, is widely respected. It also cooperates with Bat Shalom and others to promote a boycott of products from factories that have been established in the illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Fortunately, it is easier to identify those products, and to find them on the shelves, than to list such factories that receive Canadian investment, and thus might be boycotted here.

Against House Demolitions

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), as its names implies, focuses its activities against official Israeli demolitions, of which there have been hundreds every year-nearly 3000 since 1993. (And the pace of demolitions increased in January and February, with fears of even greater devastation by the IDF if the U.S. attacks Iraq, thereby distracting media attention from Israel.) But as Jeff Halper, the founder, points out, ICAHD activity is not primarily a humanitarian enterprise-and because it is not, Habitat for Humanity has not lent a hand. The number of homes it attempts to rebuild is a drop in the bucket compared to total need, and after rebuilding some are demolished again by IDF bulldozers. ICAHD projects, like those of Ta'ayush, are designed mostly as political protest against the injustice and inhumanity of Israeli government policy, which tries to induce Palestinians to abandon their homeland while building new Israeli settlements apace on Palestinian-owned land that the government declares to be "state land."

The reason most often given for house demolitions is "lack of a building permit." But for years almost no Palestinians have been issued such a permit. So, with pressures of expanding population, Palestinians have proceeded to build anyway on land they own. Sometimes such "illegal" homes stand in the way of new Israeli settlements, or in recently declared "security areas" around Jerusalem or Hebron. ICAHD mobilizes Israeli and international volunteers to help in rebuilding, as well as covering materials costs. Many Canadians have already contributed to these projects.

Palestinian Liberation Theology

There are two other peace initiatives in which the leadership has been primarily on the Palestinian side. One is the Sabeel Center, a Jerusalem-based institution for "Palestinian liberation theology," founded in 1992 by Reverend Naim Ateek, an Anglican minister. It has focused on building the political and social consciousness of Palestinian Christians, which was undeveloped in the early 1990s, and encouraging cooperation among churches, previously minimal. With his message of peace with justice, for Israelis and Palestinians alike, Reverend Ateek has become a source of information and inspiration among churches in Europe and North America wanting to contribute to lasting peace in the Holy Land. Recently Sabeel has also expanded its cooperation with like-minded Israeli and Muslim groups.

In early 2002 another initiative emerged. Professor Sari Nusseibeh, president of the prestigious Al Quds University in Jerusalem, hammered out a joint statement for peace with former Shin Bet chief Maj. Gen. Ayalon, and thereby initiated the "People's Peace Campaign" (PPC). Nusseibeh was Palestine Authority (PA) representative in Jerusalem, and thus was seen as a leader of the moderate wing of the Palestinian establishment. The campaign hoped to attract a million signatures - with the help of Peace Now - and thus sway official policy on both sides. But sign-ups have stalled at a few thousand, and few PPC posters are now seen in the streets.

The joint statement seems bland enough, calling only for the immediate resumption of negotiations leading to a two-state solution. But it also includes a vague reference to a compromise on refugees' "right of return," which has been attacked by some Palestinian groups. Prof. Nusseibeh insists that his position on this issue is not very different from that of Arafat, which is probably correct, but Arafat does not want to spell out his stand. In December 2002 the PPC was the subject of harassment from both the IDF and the PA, indicating that neither side is willing to see an unofficial movement with such potential to grow and prosper. Unfortunately, however, the potential has been unrealized in part because PPC leaders seem to lack political savvy.

The Palestinian and Israeli activists described here are not only courageous partners in the cause of justice, but constitute an essential communication link between the two peoples, who must eventually learn to live side by side in peace. Through the Internet they provide first hand information about what is really happening in Israel/Palestine for those of us who recognize the gross inadequacy of the news media on which we usually rely. When we base our critique of Israeli government policy on Israeli sources of information we are less likely to be slapped with the label "anti-Semitic." Given this great contribution to the cause of peace in the Holy Land, as well as the support provided to peace efforts in Canada, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to this courageous band. We can show this gratitude by using the information they provide to us to educate our communities and influence our government for peace. Messages of encouragement and financial support would also be appreciated.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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