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March 2002 • Vol 2, No. 3 •

Israel’s Conscience

By Anne Karpf

Salim Shawamreh’s house, a couple of miles east of Jerusalem, has again been demolished by the Israeli authorities. It was knocked down because the Palestinian did not have a building permit: he’d been turned down three times, for a succession of absurd bureaucratic reasons.

Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, is helping to rebuild it for the fourth time. Three weeks ago Halper was arrested again as he tried to prevent the demolition of houses in another village. On February 3, 300 peace activists defied the ban against travel to Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and went to Ramallah to express solidarity with the Palestinian leadership and people. They pressed on when Israel Defense Force soldiers tried to stop them at a checkpoint along the way, met Arafat, and later chanted at the IDF: “Soldiers come home.” The soldiers responded with stun grenades.

Such acts of conscience challenge the prevailing view that, once the current Intifada began in September 2000, Israeli doves simply flew away. Certainly the Israeli left has been beset by despair and depression, and there’s been no centralized political opposition to Sharon, especially since the Labor party joined the national coalition government. But the assumption that all Israelis are either rabid settlers or their uncritical supporters is as caricatured as the idea that all Muslims are terrorists or their abettors.

In reality, throughout the past 17 months a small but symbolic array of Israeli peace groups have intensified their efforts, and have been further galvanized by the combat reservists’ recent petition calling on soldiers to refuse to serve beyond the “green line” (the 1967 borders). Their numbers may be tiny but their moral and political significance is huge. They shift the terms of the debate from one for or against Israel to one for or against the occupation.

Those who visited Arafat belong to a group of Arab and Jewish activists, Ta’ayush (Arabic for partnership), formed a month after the Intifada began. The group specializes in solidarity delegations to proscribed West Bank areas, whose inhabitants are suffering economic strangulation because they can no longer work or market their produce in Israel. In January, despite IDF harassment, they walked three miles up a mountain and through deep mud to reach a South Hebron village.

Meanwhile the 90 members of Rabbis for Human Rights spent the recent Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat (the birthday of trees) replanting a small number of the 30,000 Palestinian olive trees—the life-support of the villages—uprooted by Israeli soldiers. Gush Shalom and Ariga maintain a boycott of goods produced in the settlements.

Checkpoint observations

Israeli women’s peace organizations that make up the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace run some of the most interesting, least publicized, projects. Among them are the 70 members of Machsom Watch, who conduct daily observations at checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, challenging capricious new rules invented by officers in charge, and Women in Black, which holds regular anti-occupation vigils.

More high-profile is Yesh Gvul (There’s a Limit), the organization supporting refuseniks, which has developed the idea of “selective refusal” for reservists prepared to serve, but not in the occupied territories. Since September 2000 at least 400 Israelis have chosen this path, with 40 of them jailed for up to 28 days. Halper’s 18-year-old son, Yair, has just finished a three-month sentence for refusing to serve altogether “because of oppression of the Palestinians.”

Another 209 reservists have signed the recent petition, but kept deliberately independent of Yesh Gvul. They have also refused all interviews with the foreign media, to avoid being part of an international campaign to denounce Israel. To appreciate the courage of their actions, one needs to understand the pivotal role of the army in Israeli society. Military service is considered not just a duty but also an honor, conferring social benefits as well as lifelong friendships.

The petition has ignited flickers of hope. Peace Now, virtually dormant for the past 18 months, is holding Saturday-night vigils outside Ariel Sharon’s Jerusalem residence. Last Thursday it launched its first new campaign since Sharon took office: “Leave the settlements—stop the terror.” Yesh Gvul has just begun a leafleting campaign directed at soldiers and all citizens of military age; 8,000 people attended a demonstration against the occupation in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Halper says that the ICAHD’s (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) experience of working alongside the Palestinians as guests in their territory has challenged them to try to “decolonize themselves”.

The Israeli government has been exhorting Diaspora Jews to holiday in Israel, to demonstrate their support for the Jewish state. Those of us who believe that the best way of doing this is to encourage the creation of a Palestinian state, prefer to give succor to the myriad Israeli groups working to that end.

The Guardian, February 11, 2002





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