Is the road still open for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

By
June 3, 2017 09:56

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and its ramifications on the Israeli-Arab conflict, the 'Post' talks to activists.




Right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem

Right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

If being delusional got us into this mess, perhaps being delusional will get us out. Peace groups have come and gone over the last 50 years and have had their hands full trying to work out a solution to end the residual problems created in post- 1967 Israel. However, despite having similar messages of peace, the members and goals of these groups, from the Left and Right, differ as much as they converge.

At the height of the “price-tag attacks,” a term that refers to acts of terrorism and vandalism by Jewish right-wing extremists in the West Bank, the Tag Meir (a play on Tag Mehir – “price tag” in Hebrew) group was established in the winter of 2011, two years after the beginning of those attacks, by Gadi Gvaryahu.

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Gvaryahu, 61, is a religious man who identifies himself as part of the religious Zionist sector. He explains that the main goal of the group is to condemn these attacks, especially those carried out in the name of religion.

Tag Meir is not really a peace group, he tells the Magazine, but a coalition of more than 50 groups from across the religious, ideological and political spectrum encompassing more than 30,000 members. A turning point for Gvaryahu, who has been active in the public sector for decades, was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he says, because “the person who killed him was from my sector, so I felt a sense of responsibility.”

He went on to establish schools to promote peace and founded a synagogue in Rehovot named after Rabin.

In other interviews he gave in the past, he insists that Tag Meir is not a left-wing group. “We have right-wingers who live in settlements,” he says. “Once a rightwing person says he is against murdering Arabs, he is [often] viewed as leftwing.

This is a tragedy.

“We are not political, so we don’t offer solutions,” he explains, referring to the group’s activity. “This is why we have all kinds of people and members, so you can be a resident of the West Bank or be a member of [anti-settlements group] Peace Now. We don’t have a problem crossing the Green Line to visit a Jewish terrorism victim one day and going to visit the Dawabsha family on the other.”
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Three members of the Dawabsha family of the Duma village were murdered in the firebombing of their home in July 2015, leaving Ahmad, then four years old, a severely injured orphan. Tag Meir not only visited the Dawabshas after the incident, but has assisted the extended family ever since, including a successful crowd-funding campaign, that raised money for the orphan and his medical treatments.

 A Palestinian demonstration. Credit: Reuters

After working as an activist for so many years, Gvaryahu observes that “the idea is that Jews, Muslims and Christians all live in this region and will continue to live here together. We claim that in any political solution we will live together – it doesn’t matter whether it’s one or two states. So it’s important to know each other – the culture, the languages, the holidays and the shared events. If we know each other we will not be afraid.”

With regard to this being the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, he recounts his mixed feelings.

“I still remember the war; I was in fifth grade. It was a big victory on our side. We have to remember that victory is nice, but we are not alone in this region and we are going to live together.”

He emphatically believes that peace is possible.

“We just need leaders to get us there. We need vision and hope to bring those nations to peace. This is why we ask our leaders to have long-term vision, like [David] Ben-Gurion, like [Menachem] Begin and Rabin.”

Gvaryahu believes that positivity is the key to achieving peace.

“Don’t lose hope and always look for hope and light at the end of the tunnel,” he declares. “We have to know each other. We are all humans. We are good people, just have to get to know each other.”

Demonstrators including Israeli and Palestinian activists take part in a demonstration in support of peace near Jericho last year. Credit: Reuters

MORE SECULAR than Tag Meir perhaps, and much more obviously political than the first group, Standing Together, which identifies with the Left, defines itself as a Jewish-Arab grassroots movement. It started two years ago following the “stabbing intifada” that hit the country in the fall of 2015. The group believes that the major problems Israel faces today can be solved only after “Israel ends the occupation.”

It should not be mistaken for the non-profit group with the same name that is responsible for providing care packages to IDF soldiers. This group’s goals are to bring their message of peace and social justice to Israel – mainly through Jewish-Arab demonstrations. According to 29-year-old Tel Aviv resident and Standing Together member Nadav Bigelman, “We believe in a twostate solution, because it is the only solution, the only reasonable one to serve both peoples.”

From left: Nadav Bigelman, member of Standing Together, and Inon Kehati, founder of Home. Credit: Louise Green, Courtesy

The group has branches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba and the Sharon region. In April, for example, it organized a demonstration in Jerusalem against military control in the territories that saw a turnout of some 2,000 participants.

The group is a regular sight in political demonstrations in the capital in particular – from the Barbour Gallery, which faces eviction due to what is regarded by many as its political inclinations, to recent participation in the protest against the annual “flag dance” near the Old City on Jerusalem Day.

The group believes that a two-state solution would remedy issues involving social justice and racism in Israel.

“I hear a lot about pro-Israel, anti-Israel, anti-Palestinian, whatever,” Bigelman says. “If there’s one thing I learned in the last few years in being involved in politics and being an activist, it is that if you are pro-Israel, you are anti-occupation, because you cannot control millions of people, strip them of their political rights, civil rights, dignity, national aspirations and still be a democracy. It doesn’t work like this.

“The problem starts when the government tries to prevent us from doing what we’re doing,” he explains further, “The police make it difficult for us to hold demonstrations here in Jerusalem. When the right-wing tries to do the same thing, it’s no problem – but we are not afraid.”

Bigelman concludes with an emphatic plea: “If you care about Israel, truly care about Israel – not about the land, care about the people – then you need to support us.”

A settlement supporter (right) gestures as he argues with a left-wing activist in Jerusalem. Credit: Reuters

FOUNDED ABOUT the same time as Standing Together, Home is a very small group (of about 30 members) and the brainchild of Inon Kehati, 36, who defines himself as a secular Jew who believes in the “God of the Torah.” Unlike Standing Together, which believes that two states are the only solution, Kehati believes in sharing the whole land in a spirit of a “mutual vision of Israelis and Palestinians, people from refugee camps, settlements, and everything in between.” He focuses on community- building activities. An example of this is what they call “Cleaning the Hate,” where Israelis and Palestinians pick up trash together in various sites.

In the past month, the group has gone to the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem and the Jewish settlement of Tekoa to, as he puts it, “lower your ego and pick up your trash.” The group also aims to take Palestinians to meet Holocaust survivors and victims of terrorism, and Israelis to meet Palestinian refugees.

In what may seem a contradiction to many, Kehati believes strongly in the ideals of nationalism, Zionism, and the connection to Land of Israel and Torah, and doesn’t think this should interfere in his activity.

“I am not against the Left,” he says.

“In fact, their approach to equality and human rights is something I am inspired by, but a two-state solution is not the answer – it would keep us separate.”

He says that in his eyes, the Six Day War brought to the “liberation of the land. We took over territory that was rightfully ours, but we didn’t give justice to those we took over and we can’t be sovereign unless we take care of them.”

However, Kehati also believes that “change needs to come from the bottom, at a grassroots level, and that way Palestinian society can move the next level, toward a place of prosperity and advancement and to get them away from the mentality of being the victim.”

 Gadi Gvaryahu (center left) in a Tag Meir activity at Beit Jamal Monastery. Credit: Yossi Zamir

ON A different scale of operation, and with a very different approach, Combatants for Peace, a well-known binational organization nominated for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, began in October 2006 as a way for former Israeli soldiers and Palestinians who used violence in their struggle to find non-violent alternatives through various activities, such as Jewish-Arab theater, educational meetings, joint lectures, political protests and more.

When referring to Palestinians, group spokesperson Hila Aloni describes “combatants” as “those who use violence such as stone throwing, stabbing, suicide bombing, etc., and on the Israeli side, dropping bombs [on civilian population] or shooting rifles,” a definition that many Israelis would find very hard to accept. “All these people [the ‘combatants’ who work with the group],” she explains, “participated in the cycle of violence and now they chose the path of peace.”

According to Assaf Yacobovitz, a member of the group’s steering committee and a former soldier, “We use our personal transformations as examples of ways to change attitudes. We stop dehumanizing and start re-humanizing each other.”

Recently the group organized its 12th annual joint alternative Remembrance Day ceremony in Tel Aviv, which some 4,000 people – on both sides of the conflict – attended. A vehement and violent response by right-wing extremists increased the media coverage the event garnished.

Due to IDF restrictions, some 250 Palestinians who were supposed to attend couldn’t cross the checkpoint and were not given access to the event. According to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), this was due to a terrorist attack carried out at the Leonardo Hotel in Tel Aviv on April 23, when an 18-year-old Palestinian from Nablus stabbed four people. In response, COGAT suspended all one-day permits, including those who were supposed to attend the rally on May 1, “until the end of the investigation on the matter and until conclusions are made.” Because this was the first time that Palestinian participants in the event were unable to attend, their speeches were pre-recorded.

One of the Palestinians banned from the event was co-founder Suliman Khatib. In 1986, at the age of 14, he was convicted of stabbing an IDF soldier, but during the 10 years he served in prison, he realized that “there is no military solution to our conflict. The only possible solution is a joint, nonviolent struggle for peace, freedom, security and human rights for all.”

However, when it comes to an actual plan for peace, the organization’s answers become vague.

“[We] don’t deal with any question whatsoever that’s associated with the conflict. It’s not a think tank, it’s not a [political] party – we are a group. Any answer we give would be a personal answer. Combatants for Peace does not deal with this,” Yacobovitz explains.

This last response is very typical of many active anti-violence groups in Israel, who are often not interested in offering a concrete encompassing solution, but rather in persuading that a different way of existence in this piece of land is possible.

“We offer a new narrative,” Yacobovitz remarked at one point regarding Combatants for Peace’s joint activities. Indeed, this is a goal many activists try to encourage – a new narrative, one that may perhaps someday lead the people who live here to try less-known paths. A recent poll released by Channel 2, showing that 47% of Israelis believe in the two-state solution, might indicate that hope and openness are still relevant components in the conflict.

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