Israel’s peace movement: ‘Only soldiers see the occupation’

Ex-staff sergeant: ‘There is violence on both sides, but Palestinians always pay the price’

Former Israeli soldier and critic of Israeli policies, Avner Gvaryahu, is a spokesman with Breaking the Silence, a movement of Israeli soldiers opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories.  Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum

Former Israeli soldier and critic of Israeli policies, Avner Gvaryahu, is a spokesman with Breaking the Silence, a movement of Israeli soldiers opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum

 

Israel’s peace camp is a slender shadow of the muscular movement that rose in the early 1980s and celebrated the 1993 Oslo accords, expected, at the time, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A peace rally in Tel Aviv on May 27th, organised by Peace Now, drew 15,000 - a far cry from the 250,000 who attended the massive demonstration against Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon and forced then defence minister Ariel Sharon to resign.

Founded by soldiers protesting against that war, Peace Now waxed as a mainstream movement, waned when peace did not come, and revived as Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza entered its 50th year.

Sitting at a small table in a smart West Jerusalem cafe, veteran left-wing activist and author Michel Warschawisi (70) says the mainstream peace movement “vanished” in mid-August 2000 after the collapse of US-brokered negotiations between then Israeli premier Ehud Barak and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.

Accelerated settlement

“Barak came home and proclaimed he had saved Israel [from a bad deal]. The peace movement apologised, leaving Palestinians and settlers together forever [and] society divided equally between left and right,” he says, adding that the Israeli right has gone on to accelerate settlement of the territories Israel occupied in the Six Day War of 1967.

“Israelis have national and personal security and economic prosperity, no price is being paid for continuation of the status quo,” he says. “The Palestinians are weak, the international community has moved to the right, the region is not stable, and Palestine is not a major issue.”

Today’s Israeli peace camp – a collection of diverse groups, each doing its own thing – has many faces, many voices: students, housewives, doctors, lawyers and former politicians, diplomats, generals, intelligence chiefs and soldiers.

In conversation with The Irish Times, three relative newcomers discuss their efforts.

A sandy-haired young woman toting her bicycle helmet, Sahar Vardi (28), arrives at our meeting in a garden cafe, having cycled from her office at the East Jerusalem American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-founded organisation working for peace and social justice in the US and elsewhere.

Refusing to serve

A conscientious objector who served three prison terms, Vardi provides support for men and women who refuse to serve in Israel’s army. “While some make a public statement [and go to jail], the majority do it quietly. There are thousands every year.

“Israelis of my age do not remember a time when there could be a solution to the conflict” she says.

She insists, however, that “the peace movement is not dead”, citing a campaign in May organised by the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence to show solidarity with Palestinians losing lands and homes to settlements in the south Hebron hills. Israelis also join Palestinians in weekly protests against the West Bank wall and the occupation, she adds.

After I’m told to identify him by a black patch over one eye, Ilan Baruch (68) and I rendezvous across from the Old City’s Damascus Gate. He is chairman of the “Policy Working Group” which, “under the radar”, has been urging European governments to recognise Palestine.

“We wrote a letter to [then taoiseach] Enda Kenny urging Ireland” to follow Sweden’s example, he says, in reference to Sweden’s decision to officially recognise Palestine in 2014.

Baruch has a long-standing connection with Ireland. While based at Israel’s London mission, he was responsible for representing Israel before its embassy was opened in Dublin.

His group convinced Brazil to reject the ambassadorial appointment of Danny Dayan, a settlement leader, who was later named consul in New York. “We have written a letter to [Trump administration envoy] Jason Greenblatt to try to overcome negativity against Palestinians,” he says.

Baruch and Palestinian activist Ashraf Ajami, imprisoned for by Israel for 22 years, seek to establish Palestine House in Tel Aviv, to showcase Palestinian culture.

‘War of attrition’

Baruch lost his eye while a soldier during the 1968 “war of attrition” between Israel and Egypt following the 1967 conflict. In 2011, he resigned from Israel’s diplomatic corps, after serving for more than 30 years, to protest against the policies of of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the appointment of the hardline right-winger Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. He says he “simply could not explain Israel’s policies” to the outside world.

Avner Gvaryahu, a former staff sergeant in a special operations unit who is in his early 30s and served as a paratrooper from 2004 to 2007 in the Nablus-Jenin area of the West Bank, is a spokesman with Breaking the Silence, a movement of Israeli soldiers opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories.

“In the most simplistic way I encountered the occupation. I barged into Palestinian houses in the middle of the night” to establish Israeli military posts, he says. “This was an almost nightly routine. Slapping Palestinians was not a problem, but a symptom of a problem.

“I understood Israel’s occupation is not different from other occupations and I have to do something about it... There is violence on both sides, but the Palestinians always pay the price.”

Human rights abuses

His group has collected testimonies of human rights abuses from 1,200 soldiers. “We have support from six former generals, two former heads of intelligence and a chief of police...The price of peace is ending the occupation, but Israelis who oppose the occupation are a shrinking minority,” he says.

Analyst Yonathan Mendel of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Forum for Regional Thinking, says Israel’s anti-occupation camp is under greater challenge than ever before. While the right considers the occupied territories to be “liberated, only the extreme left regards them as occupied”.

Many people speak only of the “territories”, he says. “This disconnect also exists between Israel and the outside world. The international community considers the territories occupied and the settlers illegal, but Israelis do not speak of ‘settlers’. They are mainstream.

“We share a life with these people. There is almost total separation from Palestinians. Only soldiers see the occupation.”

He asks: “How can we end an occupation not seen as an occupation?”

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