Friday, November 17, 2006

Peace never

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Dina Ezzat seeks out the Israeli drive for peace

The straddle

Latif Dori, secretary of the Committee for Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue, likes to introduce himself as a friend of Yasser Arafat and a staunch opponent of the clinically dead Ariel Sharon. The 74-year-old member of the left- wing Meretz Party is equally keen on being identified as "a Jew of Arab origin" -- born in Baghdad and, as he likes to phrase it, "brought to Israel" in 1951.

This is his way of associating the rights of Arab Jews -- "second-class citizens of Israel, compared to their European counterparts" -- with those of Palestinians who obtained citizenship after the 1948 Nakba on the one hand and "the cause of Palestinians" living in territories occupied in 1967 on the other. He maintains that the former are, after all, "the third-class citizens of Israel".

Dori is particularly proud of his meetings with Arab leaders, including President Hosni Mubarak; he boasts of speaking fluent Arabic in Iraqi, Palestinian and Egyptian dialect -- and his jokes bear testimony to the fact. At his Tel Aviv Meretz Party bureau , Dori identifies himself as "a leftist Jew who has done everything he can to expose the Israeli massacres of Palestinians". Starting from Kafr Kassim, in the heart of historic Palestine, on 29 October 1956, through the Sharon-led 1982 slaughter of Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila south of Beirut, and up to the 1996 and 2006 Qana massacres -- the last mentioned at the hands of Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres, a symbol of the Israeli left, and the current Ehud Olmert -- the genocide, he says, will likely go on.

Dori can spend hours telling the story of how he entered Kafr Kassim in secret, hours after Israeli soldiers had murdered Palestinian civilians in cold blood. It was with the testimonies he then collected that the public outcry which eventually forced the then prime minister Ben Gorion to acknowledge the massacre was made. "These massacres," Dori insists, "should not be forgotten. Along with Palestinian friends, this year, I commemorated 50 years since Kafr Kassim." But it is arguably his own predicament as "a Jew of an Arab origin" that he commemorates most often.

One day, he says, when the state stops discriminating against them, the history of those "brought to Israel" -- whether by force or through the illusion of a "perfect homeland" -- must be told in its entirety. Their contribution to the making of Israel, he complains, is barely acknowledged, with very few books dealing with them: "They only talk about those who came from Europe."

This is interesting in the light of the number of Arabic books on Arab Jews, most of which, admittedly, point a positive picture of pre-Israel Jewish life in the Arab world. In her latest book, for example, historian Zobida Mohamed Atta argues that, except for a few isolated instances, Jews were not persecuted in the Arab world, that the majority of them felt as much a sense of belonging to their countries as any other citizens, and that they all formed an integral part of Arab society until they left, whether to Israel, Europe or North America. It is a view Dori shares, his own life bearing ample testimony to its veracity. "I was brought to Israel," he repeats, with a sigh, "from my hometown of Baghdad when I was only a teenager enjoying a good life with no problems at all."

Under Nouri Al-Said's government, he elaborated, the Jewish Agency could "buy us at 10 dinars per person". Each Iraqi Jew was allowed no more than 20kg of clothing and given 50 dinars together with a permanent exit visa: "It was actually written in our passports: exit with no return." The process was not particularly popular in the Jewish community, Dori says, especially in Baghdad. "Why should we want to leave? We had good lives, we are well-educated, with well- paid jobs."

A few weeks after the first "batches" were transferred, the community suddenly embraced the deal. "There were a few explosions near the synagogue. Jews were told they were targeted and should fear for their lives." Within months some 10,000 Jews had boarded planes to Israel, he said.

But "the perfect homeland" was not so perfect: once they were handed new identity cards, Dori and his family were "put on a truck and driven for hours into the desert, to be unloaded into our tents". For these well- off Baghdad Jews the sight was a shock -- all the worse in the light of being told that they would stay there for months. "Later we realised it was really years -- five years." A respectable civil servant, nearly 60 by the time he arrived, Dori's father was required to dig to help build housing compounds. "Many wanted to go back; they simply could not. We were no longer Iraqi citizens, so all we could do was stay on and somehow make a living."

The sense of having been tricked was doubled when they realised the attacks that caused the scare, back in Baghdad, had been orchestrated by none other than the Jewish Agency.

They had been deceived for the sake of substantiating the new country. But had they not been better off in their original homes? Was the creation of Israel in their interest? "It was in the interest of Jews from Europe," Dori says unequivocally -- not only to make up for their suffering under the Nazis but because, in Israel, they instantly became "the privileged minority". At this point Jews from the East were the majority, and the Arabs in particular were discriminated against.

When a new group arrived from Romania, for example, Dori remembers seeing them settling in brand-new apartment buildings while his own people stayed on in tents; when they were moved out, indeed, it was to a barracks, and the Dori family had to seek funds from relatives in Baghdad to afford an apartment on the outskirts of what would become Tel Aviv.

With other Eastern Jews, Dori called for "equal rights"; the Labour Party never responded. "In 1977 we made Maapai pay the price -- we supported Likud, which remains the party favoured by Eastern Jews even to this day." The downside was Likud's reluctance to make peace with Arabs, even despite its settlement with Egypt. Nor did it bring about justice as fully as Dori had hoped.

With Labour, Likud or indeed Kadima, Dori wonders, is justice possible in a state founded on the principal of excluding the other? "The future is bleak for all of us," he says. "Israel's current rulers are not interested in making peace; they've built a racist wall separating us from our neighbours; they're bringing in more Russians to make Eastern Jews a minority; they're building settlements. Peace has been so elusive, precisely because they want it on exclusively Israeli terms."

As far as Dori is concerned, a peace settlement should not be as hard as all that. It should devise "a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with some adjustments. A return of some 100,000 refugees to the state of Israel, because it would be war if the entire four million Palestinian refugees were to come back. West Bank refugees to be replaced with settlers. And East Jerusalem to be recognised as the Palestinian capital provided that the Jewish quarter remains under the control of Israel."

Suddenly, Dori's position seems questionable. Is it fair to deny those who survived the massacres the right of return? And what is wrong about a one-state solution, given that Jews lived peaceably with Muslims and Jews in Palestine before 1948? Was 1948, in fact, the year of the Nakba or the year of the foundation of Israel? The question now, Dori insists, is how to achieve a two-state solution. "Once that is done, then we can have a confederation leading to a singe state. That confederation would ideally join the Arab League, in which case," he smiles wryly, "it could no longer be the Arab League but would have to be the Middle East League."

Chronicle of a disappearance
"We are a minority," cries Michael Warschawski, co-chairman of the Alternative Information Centre and member of Taayosh (Co- existence), a Palestinian-Israeli gathering of mostly left-wing activists focussed mainly on Israeli society. "Our voice is terribly marginal."

Since the day he moved to Israel from France as a theology student in the years following the Nakba, Warschawski, or rather Micado, as his often Palestinian friends call him, has been speaking, writing, demonstrating, getting beaten up and jailed for opposing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and what he refers to, again and again, as "the oppressive treatment" of Palestinians.

Micado is just over 50, energetic and dedicated. But speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in East Jerusalem, his body language reflects utter frustration with what his government is doing, whether to Palestinians -- be they Israeli citizens, residents of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, or inhabitants of Gaza. With the segregation by the wall, humiliation at checkpoints, imprisonment of over a million Palestinians in Gaza: only a very few Jewish Israelis -- "20, 30, 40 or maybe a few more" -- are willing to oppose such measures. It makes Micado angry and ashamed that so few of his countrymen will champion justice. He asserts that speaking out against Israel's occupation and discrimination against its own citizens, not only the Palestinians of 1948, but Jews of Arab origin, is not about politics or international law. It is first and foremost about being human. "It is what I think a good Jew, indeed any religious person, should do, which is to spare the other. As a Jew with a long history of oppression and demonisation, I cannot accept what Israel is doing to Palestinians."

It is this "sense of responsibility", he says, together with awareness of how few people there are willing to stand by Palestinian rights, that has kept him in the country. "It is true that I love the landscape of Jerusalem but I feel I have a challenge to live up to. [It is the challenge] to speak to those Israelis, whom I almost pity, against the misleading Zionist propaganda to which they have been constantly subjected." It is a challenge he accepts against the odds. Polls conducted during the recent Israeli war on Lebanon point to the increasing fragility of the Israeli peace camp; most Israelis -- including the bulk of the left, the traditional bastion of peace activism -- were supportive of the war, looking to the elimination of Hizbullah.

Indeed the lack of anti-war protests prompted criticism from within. In the last days of the war, Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary-general of left-wing Zionist Peace Now movement, told the press there was no peace now. Micado speaks of "the collapse of the peace movement in Israel". Some peace activists see the heyday of the call for peace in the wake of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, though others were dismayed by the impact they made on the image of Israel. For Micado, those were "more active times", but even then, he says, many would not acknowledge the truth of what the Israeli government was doing, not only in Lebanon but, more significantly, to Palestinians under occupation. Now, there is no longer even a modicum of acknowledgement of the need for compromise.

"Now," he explains, "we who oppose the notion that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side and that it is Palestinians who should be held responsible are but a small minority. The government is making deals with Europe and the Americans," Micado sounds dismayed as he says this. "Palestinians simply do not count."

For Micado, Israeli violations date back to the mid-1950s, when as a child he was shocked by the brutality of an Israeli soldier towards a Palestinian woman, long before the invasion of Lebanon: "To me there was no difference between this arrogance and brutality and that of Nazi occupation soldiers towards the French as recounted by my father." There are countless stories: lines of Palestinian villagers trying to cross the checkpoint, only to end up dead a few hours later.

However, Micado and his wife's dedication to the struggle against occupation disgraced their children: "My son used to disown us. His friends at school would tell him that his parents were not lawyers but terrorists." It is what he calls "the mentality of paranoia", which also leads to the accumulation of traditional and new-fangled weapons, including nuclear arms. "If you consider the whole world a threat and, as Barak puts it, Israel 'the villa in the jungle', you can no longer lead a human life. If war were eternal and inevitable, if we really believe that everybody is out to get us, what is the point of being here? Why not just take our children and go?"

"Micado is truly unique," commented human rights activist Khulood Badawi, another member of Taayosh. "It's true there are only a few dozen like him among Israeli Jews." Born to a Palestinian family that survived the Nakba in historic Palestine, Badawi is a secular Muslim intent on co-existence. As she stressed, however, it is not enough that the "1948 Arabs" or other Palestinians should be willing to co-exist if Israelis are not. The effectively limited opposition to the construction of the wall that is eating up at and further fragmenting Palestinian villages, she said, is a clear indication of how shallow the will to co-exist is among Israelis.

"In the euphoria that followed Oslo, people were under the impression that peace was within sight; but in fact, while Israelis were enjoying the fruits of Oslo, Palestinian society was suffocating under poverty, crossings and checkpoints. Neither Peace Now nor Meretz did anything about it. Even worse, they subscribed to the negative labels that were attached to Palestinians. For the vast majority of Israelis, even those who profess themselves as peace activists, Palestinians are good only insofar as they agree to compromise their rights. Israeli Arabs are good only insofar as they remain a minority. There is no real desire for co-existance."

Unlike those of other peace movements, members of Taayosh are subject to harassment by the authorities -- not, according to Badawi, that this is going to stop them from speaking out against the atrocities of the occupation, but also about the ineffectiveness of the Israeli peace camp as well.

The wider peace camp will tend to dismiss such accusations, however. "What are we to do?" declaimed Yossi Beilin, a prominent left- wing member of the Knesset. "Our role is to talk, try to convince." A veteran of the peace movement -- as he perceives himself and is perceived by most of his friends, many of whom are Arab -- in his office Beilin hangs a photo of himself as a young man smiling at an inexplicably joyful Anwar El-Sadat, the former president of Egypt who famously made peace with Israel. Yet it was none other than Beilin who, during the war on Lebanon, suggested that, instead of Lebanon, Israel should undertake military operations against specific military targets associated with Hizbullah training in Syria. "By damaging the whole of Beirut we achieved nothing. What we should have done was to get the training camps we know exist in Syria."

Contrary to "the mistaken" approach of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Beilin suggested that Israel should start peace talks with Syria -- which is "undoubtedly the key" to a comprehensive settlement -- as soon as possible: "For me Syria is the address to either retaliation or negotiation." No need to critique the war too much, apparently: "No war can be a great thing. War is an option for every state." And sadly he is not alone in such convictions.

"I go to the army because this is my duty," says Yariv Oppenheimer, general director of Peace Now, "even as a peace activist." On his mobile phone, Oppenheimer proudly keeps one picture of himself in military uniform, another in a demonstration against the war on Lebanon -- pulled together towards the few last days of the war. In his car, a uniform lies alongside Peace Now booklets. As far as he is concerned, there is no contradiction between serving in an occupation army and being a peace activist. Israel has occupied "the Arab people" because "it had to in 1967"; today it has no partner with whom to make peace. And rephrasing Olmert, he asks, "even if we were willing to sacrifice parts of what we call the Holy Land, who do we talk to end the occupation?"

It may sound paradoxical that Oppenheimer is widely disliked by right- wingers for his views -- ostracised by other soldiers who had to evacuate Israeli settlements in Gaza against their best judgement, rejected by his commanders for announcing that he would disobey an order to kill a civilian who does not pose a threat and avoid shooting children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. For settlers in particular, his name is bad news. "They would never want to talk to me," he says, "but I try to talk to them... We need to work on public opinion."

His ideas are pragmatic at their best: he believes that Israel must strengthen Abbas by releasing soldiers; Israel must talk to Hamas and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad because they are the ones who make decisions; Israel must pursue the Arab peace initiative since it is the only holistic peace plan on the table. When it comes to the occupied territories, however, Oppenheimer is reticent. He knows little about the occupied territories and has never been to a Palestinian refugee camp. It is not his call, he insists: "I have not been to Ramallah or Nablus. It is not part of my work. We are not a human rights organisation."

For their part, Jessica Montell, Sarit Michaeli and Naijib Abu Rokaya of the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (B'TSELEM) spend most of their time in the occupied territories and refugee camps. They argue that all humans are born free with equal rights. In one of its most recent reports, B'TSELEM quoted the number of Palestinian prisoners from Gaza and the West Bank: They number 9,000, the vast majority of whom are detained inside Israel's sovereign territory, not in the occupied territories. This is a flagrant breach of international humanitarian law, which prohibits the transfer of civilians, including detainees and prisoners, from the occupied territory to the territory of the occupying state. Israel's disregard for this prohibition is one of the main reasons that prisoners and their families are unable to exercise their right to visits in any reasonable way.

The report "sheds light on the many difficulties and the suffering faced by the prisoners' families, residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in their efforts to visit their relatives imprisoned in Israel". The organisation also broaches issues of restriction of movement of Palestinians, the wall and the use of lethal force in Gaza. Since the second Intifada, B'TSELEM representatives say, the call for peaceful co-existence has been all but silenced within Israeli society.

"Israeli public opinion is now [in a mindset of] personal security... and of the global war on terror," says Montell. "Even the huge humanitarian suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is unlikely to elicit public sympathy. They say the Palestinians voted for Hamas and so forced us to do this to them. Actually, they do not really want to know what is happening in Gaza or elsewhere. Their understanding is that there is no peace because it is the Palestinians' fault and that is that."

Given that the government is in the process of employing Avidgor Lieberman, recently described by Gosh Shalom as "a racist and a threat to the fabric of Israeli society", and that the peace camp has had little to say about the 33-day war on Lebanon, it is hard to see how Israel could be making peace any time soon.

According to Micado, indeed, "the government is weak and so is the society -- even though the state is strong." He will not be alone in thinking that weak governments and societies will sooner look for an excuse to go to war, than exert the least effort to make peace.

C a p t i o n : Latif Dori (l) with Arafat and Uri Avnery; The Beit Hanoun town in the northern Gaza Strip on 8 November, 2006. Israeli shelling had killed 18 civilians, including women and children

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