A few nights ago in Jerusalem I met with some of the few peace activists in Israel. Members of the group Ta’ayush, young and old, sat and discussed politics and the future of the Jewish state. Their prognosis was mostly pretty grim.
Joseph Dana, an Israeli Jewish American who moved here a few years ago, said that he saw no hope because the occupation was so deeply entrenched and only growing in size. "Israel is a country directed by the military", he told me, "a dictatorship with relative freedom of speech, but virtually no debate about the behaviour of the IDF." He seemed to despise Israeli society itself: the racism, the bubble in the major cities and the abuses committed by the IDF. He desperately wanted to hope, I think, that Jews could somehow change things from within, but "sometimes I believe we’re not changing anything at all," he said.
Another activist, Mickey, who had previously served as a commander in the territories, was more hopeful. He said it was positive that Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had finally uttered the words "two-state solution". He said he would never leave Israel, despite having an American passport, because he wanted to remain and improve the society. He was saddened to hear Dana’s despondency.
Yakov, another member there who described himself as having formerly been a "fascist", told me that his society was sick with delusion and racism and that weekly actions in the West Bank, protecting Palestinians or confronting settlers, was the only way to keep sane and make a difference.
Certainly activists like Yakov are doing something, and the effect of their actions may be greater than it appears, but right now the power of the Israeli Left more broadly is at a real low, and in party-political terms the Left is virtually insignificant. Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jeff Halper told me a few days ago that there was profound disorganisation between the various peace groups, little or no co-ordination and apathy and exhaustion.
I was last in Israel and Palestine in 2005 and four years has made a colossal difference. Hatred of Palestinians is on the rise — witness Max Blumenthal’s latest video on the phenomenon (which may be hard to view on Blumenthal’s blog due to the site’s having apparently reached its "bandwidth limit", perhaps as a result of its popularity). Similarly astounding is a recent Israeli mobile phone advertisement, demonstrating how effectively Israeli citizens have been kept in the dark about the worst excesses of their own colonial expansion.
Even the somewhat positive signs from the new US Administration are all significantly undercut by what’s actually happening in the area. US President Barack Obama met with many Jewish American leaders this week and told them that Israel must "engage in serious self-reflection" if his stated goal of a two-state solution is to be reached. It’s a nice sentiment, but it has no connection to facts on the ground — one of those facts being the continuing problems associated with the US-backed and internally divided factions within the Palestinian political elite.
If a two-state solution is supposed to be the best hope we have, it’s not looking like much hope at all at the moment, for many reasons. Jonathan Cook writes in the National that colonial dependency is being fostered between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Washington, "creating a culture of absolute Israeli control and absolute Palestinian dependency, enforced by proxy Palestinian rulers acting as mini-dictatorships". It is an illusion of independence.
I’ve been struck during my time here by the profound disconnect between the attitudes and delusions of many in the West versus the realities in Israel and Palestine. It’s a conflict mired in myths, not least the one that credits the "security wall" with saving Israeli lives, when, in fact, the truth is far murkier.
The difficulty of even imagining a viable peace treaty under these conditions was clear during my visit this week to many West Bank settlements and outposts. They are dotted across the landscape, expanding and stealing Palestinian land. They are largely backed by the state and tacitly supported by the vast majority of the Zionist Diaspora. All of the earnest conversations currently going on over the possibility of a two-state solution are not going to move them by themselves.
One of the places I visited was on Palestinian land next to the settlement of Susya in the southern West Bank. I was accompanying some Ta’ayush activists, and the plan was to have a picnic in the middle of an illegal outpost. The outpost on a hill featured a synagogue (thrown together with sticks), in the knowledge that the IDF are reluctant to knock such structures down, and a house with a cement base. It is not currently inhabited by settlers, but is protected by IDF soldiers stationed nearby. The buildings, erected on private Palestinian land, are illegal under both Israeli and international law.
Around 20 of us climbed the small mound, unfurled plastic sheets on the summit and pulled out watermelon, hummus and frozen drinks. It was a non-violent, though provocative, act in the middle of a colony. The IDF soon appeared, declared the area a "closed military zone" and instructed us to leave or we would be arrested. The activists clapped and cheered and kept on eating and drinking. The point of the event was to film the proceedings, spread the word on the web and hope that embarrassment over the illegal outpost would oblige Israel to address the situation properly.
The IDF soon moved in, nabbed a few activists and forced the rest of us to retreat. It was surreal watching a 50-something Israeli academic being dragged away with a slice of watermelon still in his hand. Video of the action can be seen at Dana’s site.
A few hours later the activists visited another illegal outpost near the settlement of Kiryat Arba and met a handful of religious fundamentalist teenagers with sparse moustaches inhabiting a hut made of tin and plastic and sitting on decrepit couches. Although this time the IDF finally forced the settlers to temporarily leave their outpost, the activists told me that this is a regular game played like kabuki theatre. As soon as the activists leave the area the settlers will return in as little as 10 or 15 minutes. The outpost has already been "demolished" a number of times.
How to establish peace in these circumstances is beyond me. I spoke this week to Palestinian journalist Ata Qaymari, once jailed by the Israelis for 15 years in the 1970s and 1980s for resisting the occupation. Today, however, he supports a two-state solution, arguing a one-state answer is an illusion that would only foster further hatred. He now runs a business daily translating Hebrew media into Arabic. He told me that the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, the expanding colonies and the rampant racism in Israeli society and newspapers, makes any settlement years away, if ever.
"We will continue to live here and we will survive," he said. "There will not be a solution, we will continue to suffer. This country is one of continuous suffering and war."
It was a horribly bleak picture, but completely understandable. If there is to be hope then it must be founded in reality, not wishful thinking or pretty speeches. And that reality needs to include a Palestinian perspective also. Far too often at the moment, the Palestinians aren’t even being consulted about the settlement question and building permits in the West Bank. It’s a conversation being conducted between Washington and Israel.
Optimism is in short supply in the not-so-Holy Land.
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