May 1, 2009
Hadani Ditmars records the voices of courageous Israeli and Palestinian civilians reaching out to each other for peace. Can they move things on when big politics is stuck in a violent mire?
When the first Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bombs began to rain down on Gaza last December, Nirmeen Kharma was terrified. ‘I felt so afraid for my kids,’ relates the mother of three from her Gaza City neighbourhood, which is still reeling from the 22-day assault that left 1,600 dead, 900 wounded and devastated infrastructure.
But she received comfort via text messages from a friend. It was a friend she’d never met, someone she’d only spoken to on the phone – a man living a few kilometres away.
‘How are you doing? Are you safe? How is the family?’ he asked.
Nirmeen responded as best she could, keeping him updated as the terrible days of bombing continued. That friend was Eric Yellin, an Israeli living in Sderot who had started various dialogue initiatives a year earlier – ranging from a shared blog with a Gazan man to meetings with a group of peace-minded Israeli neighbours called Other Voice.
‘It was a weird feeling at first,’ admits Kharma, who is hoping to pursue a Masters in international human rights law at Oxford University. ‘It was strange to be on the receiving end of Israeli bombardment on the one hand, and Israeli compassion on the other. But in the end the support of Eric and his friends in Sderot meant more to me than the phone calls from friends abroad. After all, these were the people who were having rockets launched at their town [by Palestinian militants]. And they were against the Israeli offensive in Gaza.’
For his part Yellin, a software engineer and long-time peace activist, says he was moved by Kharma’s story, as well as the writings of her 14-year-old daughter Nour, who had published an account of one of her school friends dying during the bombings. Their daily phone calls and text messages brought what Yellin terms ‘a strong sense of connection – like a family. I have three kids, she has three kids, we’re both married, around the same age, and we’ve both worked for years for peace and justice.’
What touched Yellin the most was Kharma’s revelation that she felt guilty for having brought children into such an unsafe environment. Even under the constant strain of the 22-day campaign, she found time to text him whenever there was a rocket attack on Sderot, asking if he and his family were all right. Kharma and other Gazan friends continue to speak on a weekly basis with Yellin’s Other Voice group via speaker phone, answering questions and sharing the reality of life in Gaza with peace-minded citizens of Sderot.
In these dark days of fear-fuelled extremism, with a right wing Israeli government in power, such a dialogue between Gazans and Israelis raises some critical questions. Can individual initiatives transcend intransigent officialdom and help move the peace process forward? Or have things gone too far already? Has a violent occupation, siege and ongoing aggression rendered such encounters meaningless?
‘Not at all,’ says Kharma, ‘this is a basic human act. I used to tell Eric, “If only our governments would think this way – we’d have no problems.” This feeling of caring about someone on the other side – this is where it has to start.’
Nomika Zion, activist and Other Voice member, agrees. For her, the bombing of Gaza was a physical reality. ‘I could feel the vibrations from the blasts in my body,’ she says. Zion, who recently organized the building of an ‘alternative fence’ made of children’s drawings about peace, admits that her work is as much about establishing dialogue with Gazans as it is about educating the Israeli public. In an article written during the bombings she gives voice to the dangers of demonizing the ‘other’.
‘I am frightened that, underneath the Orwellian smokescreen of words and the pictures of [Palestinian] children’s bodies that are especially blurred for us on TV as a public service, we are losing the human ability to see the other side, to feel, to be horrified, to show empathy. With the code word “Hamas” the media paints for us a picture of a huge and murky demon that has no face, no body, no voice, a million and a half people without a name.’1
Zion’s efforts at lobbying her Government for a non-violent solution to the conflict in Gaza fell on deaf ears – the Deputy Minister of Defence accepted and then declined her invitation to meet with the Other Voice group, just days before the bombing campaign began. But she has not completely lost hope in the political process.
‘I’m not optimistic about the current situation, but if Israel really is a democracy then I need to speak out as loudly as I can so that my fellow citizens and the world know that there is an alternative, non-militaristic voice – even here in Sderot.’
Voices from the West Bank
While the blockade of Gaza and entrance ban on non-military Israelis makes it almost impossible for Zion to meet her Palestinian neighbours, the reality is somewhat different in the West Bank. Here a new generation of Israeli activists have been focusing their energies.
For Israeli activist Kobi Snitz, who has worked for years with Anarchists Against the Wall, and in co-operation with Palestinian popular committees, the key issue in ‘joining in the Palestinian struggle’ has always been rejecting any concept of normalization.
‘Even when we are marching arm in arm, we are not equal,’ relates the 37-year-old doctoral student in mathematics, who credits a stint at a Canadian university and work against the sanctions imposed on Iraq for his activist outlook. ‘Israeli soldiers are less likely to shoot at Israeli citizens than at Palestinians and if I am arrested it will only be for a several hours, not days or months.’
Snitz makes a clear distinction between ‘friendship’ and ‘joint struggle’. ‘Friendship in itself is not a political act,’ he asserts, criticizing some dialogue groups that work from a false premise of parity.
‘If Palestinians say: “Hey, we’re not on an equal footing,” they’re called accusatory. One of the committee members in Belin has said: “There will be lots of time to drink tea together once we end the occupation.” We’re not in this to drink tea together. It’s insulting to the people under occupation to pretend things are normal. Israelis are the ones with money, who can travel, who decide when they meet and don’t meet, the one to ask favours from – in that sense the occupation extends into the personal relationship and perpetuates itself even further.’
That said, Snitz admits he has formed strong friendships with Palestinians through his work with Anarchists Against the Wall, and was initially ‘embarrassed’ by the warmth and hospitality with which he and his Israeli colleagues were received in many West Bank villages.
‘I’ve been to weddings, parties, funerals, important community events.’ But he is painfully aware of his position. If Israeli soldiers approach him, wrongly assuming that he is the ‘leader’ of the group, he points them to a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian. And he seeks the counsel of committee members before participating in any action. ‘I would never deign to “speak” on their behalf,’ he explains.
Disenchanted with mainstream Israeli groups like Peace Now, that he says are ‘fundamentally not anti-war’, Snitz thinks that a ‘popular movement of Israelis and Palestinians is still the best hope that there is’ for ending the occupation.
While progress has been slow and often frustrating, Snitz has seen some positive outcomes. ‘In Budrus the wall was pushed back as a result of demonstrations – without a court case. In Bil’in after four years of struggle, we won a high court decision that ordered the army to push back the fence [although to date the fence remains where it is].’
However, he cautions: ‘It’s their [the Palestinians’] movement – we can only join it. But we can make a contribution.’
Before Palestinian photographer and film-maker Hindi Mesleh met Snitz in 2005 at a protest against the wall in Bil’in, his relationships with Israelis had been limited to encounters with soldiers. While Mesleh shares Snitz’s suspicion of certain ‘all talk, no action’ dialogue groups, he notes of his fellow Israeli protesters: ‘When you see that these people suffer the same as you – they are beaten and arrested and shot and called “anti-Israeli” by their own society – then you think, “Hey, these people are honest about their commitment.”’
There are real benefits to be gained from working with Israelis, says Mesleh, whose stories can ‘more easily influence people in the West and in their own society’ and whose presence at protests prompts different behaviour from the IDF. While Mesleh admits that the on-the-ground situation is getting worse, with more settlements being built and the Wall a fait accompli, the joint work with Israelis has ‘created more international solidarity and awareness’.
‘This relationship we are building will not be lost,’ he affirms. ‘Even if their contribution is small, they are a catalyst for change in Israeli society. Even if there are a few people in Israel, this means a lot. They are part of this effort that may lead to the end of the vicious circle of violence.’
We can’t do it alone
For Palestinian activist Issa Amro, an electrical engineer living in Hebron, joint struggle is key. ‘We have to work together to end the occupation – Palestinians, Israelis and internationals. One group can’t do it alone.’
Working with Israelis as well as the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) and the International Solidarity Movement since 2003, Amro also sees Israeli activism as a way of refuting the contention of the often violent settler movement that the conflict is a religious one.
‘It’s not a Muslim/Jewish conflict, it’s a political one. The settlers are trying to say it’s about religion but it’s about land, freedom, our everyday life.’
When his university was closed by the Israelis in 2003, Amro led a non-violent resistance movement that managed to re-open the campus. Later with the help of CPT, he established the Tel Rumeida project named after the Hebron neighbourhood under siege by settlers.
‘We asked many internationals and Israelis to help us – to visit the remaining Palestinian families, document their stories, bring tours, accompany kids to school, observe checkpoints, etc.’
Now Amro works with several Israeli organizations, helping to document settler violence, often using a video camera as a ‘non-violent weapon’. Although he and other activists have been subject to attack by settlers who have tried to break or steal the cameras, the video footage has provided damning evidence of assault and other illegal activities, some of it replayed on Israeli television.
Amro has learned a lot from his comrades. ‘Israeli activists know the language of the soldiers and police,’ he says. ‘They taught me how to deal with them. The most important thing is to tell them that you know the law well and that you know how to complain about their behaviour.’ Intriguingly, language is a powerful tool for dealing with soldiers. ‘If I need something from the soldiers then I speak to them in Hebrew, to be close to them and so they can’t say: “We don’t understand.” But when they need something from me, I talk to them in English to show my international connection.’
Unfortunately for many Palestinians, according to Amro, soldiers and settlers are ‘the ambassadors of the Israelis’. Joint activism challenges stereotypes. While some Palestinians might only relate to Israelis as occupation ‘enforcers’, many Israelis view Palestinians as ‘terrorists’.
‘But when I work with Israelis it’s obvious that we are all civilians who believe in peace and human rights. It’s not just talking, it’s resistance – and we are arrested and attacked together.’ And importantly, for a society where the whiff of ‘collaboration’ can have fatal results, ‘people in the community can see that we are working side by side and they respect that.’
Amiel Vardi, a lecturer in classics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is one of those Israeli activists working with Issa Amro. A member of Ta’ayush (Arabic for ‘life in common’) since 2002, Vardi is the first to admit that the organization’s goal of Israelis working together with Palestinians with Israeli passports was not practical.
‘Unfortunately, because of the economic divide between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, we no longer have any Palestinian members. Volunteering like this requires time and money, so it’s now mainly Jewish Israelis working in joint struggle with Palestinians on the West Bank.’
But it was actually a settler’s bullet to his belly that ‘deepened’ Vardi’s commitment to ending the occupation. ‘After I was shot while assisting some Palestinians with their olive harvest in 2002, I knew there was no turning back.’
The Gaza offensive only increased his passion to continue protesting against the occupation. ‘The settlers took advantage of all the public attention focused on Gaza, so we had to be there. It’s more important now than ever.’
While Ta’ayush has been involved in a wide range of activities, from ‘solidarity’ aid convoys to besieged West Bank villages to public demonstrations against the Wall, Vardi says that, at the moment, ‘raising public awareness through the press is a major goal’.
Vardi maintains that ‘settlers are not as legitimate as they used to be’. Through a variety of activist media campaigns, and the distribution of video cameras to Palestinians in the Hebron area, ‘we’re trying to show how the army and police are working for settlers; how the whole system collaborates with them.’
From struggle to celebration
While many activists are concerned with joint struggle, networks like the Jerusalem Peacemakers are increasingly concerned with joint celebration.
Z’eev Ben Arieh, a Jewish Sufi who works closely with the interfaith group, regularly brings Jewish Israelis to Islamic Sufi zikrs or prayer sessions. At a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in early March, he brought a Jewish group to a Sufi meeting in Acco. Together they chanted the 99 names of Allah – in almost flawless Arabic – with a group of Palestinians from the Shazali order.
After prayers, there was tea, sweets and lively conversation. An invitation was extended to the Jewish visitors to attend a special zikr to honour Hanukkah in December. Considering that Acco was the site of violent riots last Yom Kippur, when a Palestinian-Israeli drove his car too close to a synagogue, the gesture was not insignificant.
Ben Arieh feels the traditional political process can only go so far towards achieving a just peace. ‘Israelis often don’t see the suffering of the Palestinians,’ he maintains. ‘They’re so involved in their own holocaust drama, they don’t see the tragedy of the other side – and without more compassion and understanding things won’t change.’
To that end, Ben Arieh often brings Jews to meet the Sufi Sheikh Bokhari, who lives in the Muslim quarter of old Jerusalem. On a recent visit, after speaking to the group about Sufism and the spiritual connections between the Abrahamic faiths of Islam and Judaism, Sheikh Bokhari revealed that his father-in-law had just died in Gaza, but that he was unable to visit him before or after his death. He had also missed the wedding of his only daughter in Gaza City and mentioned that some family members had been killed during the recent bombardment.
‘I noticed that even some of the more right-wing Israelis were moved by this story,’ recounts Ben Arieh. ‘They began to question some of their assumptions about Palestinians, and their own government.’
But, tellingly, the groups that used to meet the Sheikh at his home must now meet him in a café, after objections from neighbours who said, ‘If there is no peace in Gaza, there’ll be no peace in Jerusalem.’
‘I’m not naïve,’ maintains Ben Arieh. ‘I know there has to be a political solution. But in the meantime, the more connections Israelis can have with Palestinians on a truly human level, the more awareness will develop about the realities of occupation.’
He notes that when Izzedin Abu Ayash – the Gazan doctor who spoke regularly to Israeli television during the recent offensive – broke down on a live broadcast as he learned that his family had just been killed by an IDF bomb, this did more to influence Israeli public opinion than dozens of anti-war protests.
In April, Ayash and Nomika Zion were awarded the Niarchos peace prize in New York – given for ‘courage and resilience’ in the face of conflict. Voices like theirs must prevail.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and has been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 1994.
1 ‘War diary from Sderot’, 13 January 2009 at http://tinyurl.com/83vtkd
Links to organizations mentioned in this article.
Anarchists Against the Wall
Some other joint initiatives worth exploring are:
Combatants for Peace
An organization of former IDF soldiers and Palestinians who were ‘involved in acts of violence in the name of Palestinian liberation’, now committed to non-violence and a two-state solution.
Zochrot (‘Remembering’) is the most significant political Jewish-Israeli led initiative working closely with Palestinians to educate the public about the nakba (the Palestinian ‘catastrophe’) of 1948. They focus on making information about the destruction of Palestinian villages available in Hebrew and support Palestinian right of return. Their manifesto states: ‘Acknowledging the past is the first step in taking responsibility for its consequences.’
Life must go on in Gaza and Sderot
This joint blog by Eric Yellin (‘hopeman’) and his friend ‘peaceman’, a man in his early 30’s living in Sajaia Refugee Camp in Gaza (who must remain anonymous for his own safety) chronicles life on both sides of the border. It aims to transcend biased, jingoistic media reports to communicate the human reality behind the headlines.