Jeff Halper talked with Rowenna Davis
On 29 August, two small fishing boats set sail with the aim of breaking Israel’s blockade of Gaza. An eclectic bunch of 46 individuals were on board, including an al-Jazeera journalist with an acute bout of seasickness, and an Israeli activist – Jeff Halper – who had decided to join the Palestinians’ fight for liberation against his homeland.
The boats were rickety, but the idea was foolproof. The aim was to sail from Cyprus to Gaza, waters that do not belong to Israel but have long been patrolled by the state’s warships. Despite a reputation for firing on unsuspecting Gazans, Israel has tried hard to convince the international community that they do not have effective control over the area. Admitting that would classify them an ‘occupying power’ and render them legally accountable for their treatment of Palestinians. Thus the two fishing boats forced Israel to make a choice: cede control over the waters, or intervene and risk becoming liable to prosecution in an international court.
‘Israel knew that the minute they interceded – boom – we’d begin the litigation to hold them accountable for war crimes against humanity,’ says Halper. ‘That’s the beauty of nonviolent action – you win either way. You either break the siege, or you hold Israel accountable.’
We always hear that both sides should end the violence – but there is only one occupying power. Only Israel can end this conflict
The Israeli military had found a way of jamming the broadcasting equipment packed on to the boats, and the navy had warned that the activists would never make it to Gaza. But, despite threats from circling ships, the small boats were allowed to pass. The Israeli military fleet watched aghast as the activists pulled up victoriously on the shores of Gaza, completing their 36-hour journey unscathed. Some 40,000 Gazans had turned up to greet them. The entire Israeli military complex had been paralysed by two tiny second-hand fishing boats.
Jeff Halper believes that this victory would not have been possible without the participation of Israeli and international passengers on board. ‘White middle-class people are more free to engage in civil disobedience because we’re part of the dominant society. If the Palestinians did the same thing, they’d be shot. Period.’
Exploiting Israelis’ privileged position in society for Palestinian gain is not an unfamiliar concept to Halper. Indeed, in 1997 Halper helped found ICAHD – the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions – to do just that. Using nonviolent direct action, ICAHD was set up to resist Israel’s demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories.
ICAHD estimates that since 1967, some 12,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed in these areas. In an attempt to draw attention to this practice, ICAHD members have chained themselves to properties and held their ground in front of bulldozers and Israeli soldiers. Although Harper has experienced the grave consequences of such actions first hand, he knows that identical resistance from Palestinians would elicit a much greater punishment from Israeli authorities.
Over the years, ICAHD’s grassroots resistance has spread to other areas. They’ve opposed the building of ‘Israeli-only’ highways designed to annex the West Bank to Israel. They’ve fought against the construction of the Separation Wall, settlement expansion and the wholesale uprooting of Palestinians’ fruit and olive trees. The point of all these actions is to push political boundaries to their limits, forcing Israel to follow through on authoritarian punishments. In clamping down on the activists, Israel is forced to draw international attention to the truly repressive nature of its policies. According to Halper, this is civil disobedience at its best.
‘Part of our credibility with Palestinians is that we’re there,’ he says. ‘If we just sat at home and made proclamations it would be hollow – but we’re there at the demolitions risking our lives, trying to break the siege. As Israelis, that widens the discussion.’
In the last 10 years, ICAHD has helped rebuild 150 homes that have been demolished by Israeli bulldozers. But Halper is keen to emphasize that, at heart, ICAHD is a political rather than a humanitarian organization. ‘Rebuilding houses is political because it’s illegal,’ he says. ‘We’re confronting, highlighting and visualizing the occupation.’
I would like to have an Israel I could really identify with, one that didn’t conflict with my belief in the rights of other people
Halper believes that humanitarian work can be counter-productive because it distracts attention from the profoundly political nature of the conflict. ‘We need medical, food and fuel supplies but that’s distracting attention from Israel’s responsibility. We always hear that both sides should end the violence – but there is only one occupying power. Only Israel can end this conflict.’
Halper believes that Israel is intentionally pursuing a strategy of depoliticization with the hope of ‘normalizing’ its control over the Palestinian people. If the Palestinians’ troubles can be presented as akin to the inevitable damage caused by an earthquake rather than the logical outcome of policy, the pressure for political change will be reduced.
Halper labels Israel’s most recent strategy for depoliticization ‘warehousing’. According to Halper, Israel is trying to drive the three-and-a-half million residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza into a series of impoverished, disconnected enclaves. Many are already there. Similar to the bantustans in apartheid South Africa, Halper argues that these designated areas would encompass around 15 per cent of historic Palestine. In these poverty-stricken ‘warehouses’, Palestinians would be treated as problems to be dealt with rather than individuals with rights to be addressed. In short, they would be permanently – if unofficially – ‘contained’.
In such a context, it is not surprising that Palestinians are wary of trusting Israelis, even if they have dedicated their lives to the liberation movement. ‘We tend not to do joint activities,’ says Halper. ‘We work with Palestinians if they want to, but ultimately we understand that we are the occupiers.’ Halper shares Palestinian fears that joint initiatives – such as the notorious ‘dialogue groups’ between Israelis and Palestinians – can end up legitimizing the problems they’re trying to alleviate. ‘The fear is that the message from joint working is not “end the occupation” but “Israelis and Palestinians are friends that are working together”,’ he explains.
Being an Israeli activist in a Palestinian movement raises questions of principle as well as pragmatism. It would be somewhat worse than ironic if Israeli activists came to lead the resistance against hegemonic Israeli control. Indeed, one might question if Israelis are justified in playing any role in the liberation movement at all. When I put this point to Halper he says: ‘We are very careful not to do things in their (the Palestinians’) name. ICAHD resists the occupation of Israelis and supports the Palestinian struggle for liberation, but if you ask me what system should come after that – a bi-national state, two states or the eradication of Israel – I can give you my thoughts but I can’t advocate for any of them. That’s the Palestinians’ right.’
Halper has lost count of the number of times he has been arrested fighting for Palestinians’ right to decide their own future (‘I don’t know – 8, 9, 10 times – who’s counting?’ he answers casually to my probing). Even while he’s talking to me, he’s on bail. Although he wasn’t arrested during the Cyprus crossing, he deliberately missed the boat back home to walk back through the checkpoint at Erez, where he was arrested for violating a military order – it is illegal for Israelis to be in Gazan territory. Halper wanted to demonstrate that the Israeli siege is not only by sea.
Following his arrest, Halper was taken to the Shilkma prison in Ashkelon. While being escorted to his cell, several Israeli prisoners recognized him from the news. ‘All night I was physically threatened by rightwing Israelis – I was sure I wouldn’t make it until morning,’ he says. ‘Ironically, three Palestinians in my cell were able to protect me.’
The state is expected to press charges against Halper in the next few weeks, and he is predicted to face a two-month sentence. Amusingly irrepressible, the only comment Halper has to make about his potential incarceration is that it will finally give him the chance to get on with the book he’s been meaning to write. Clearly, Halper is no ordinary Israeli. Although he was born in the United States in 1949, he has been a resident of Israel for 35 years. I ask him why his opinions are so different from those of other Israelis. ‘How one becomes critical is a fortuitous thing,’ he answers. ‘Maybe it was your parents, maybe it was a teacher, maybe you’re put into a situation that radicalizes you. Something takes you out of your box. For me it was the Sixties. We had a generation when being critical was the norm.’
Halper was active in both the civil rights movement and the struggle against the war in Vietnam. As a student, he studied anthropology and went on to write profusely on Israeli culture and society. Halper believes that his academia has shaped his activism. ‘The basic question of anthropology is, “What the hell is going on here?” – and the hell is the critical part. “Hell” means I’m going to search, I’m going to push beyond the normal answers. That’s the question that critical people have planted in them. They can’t accept normal answers because they don’t ring true.’
Despite Halper’s dedication to working ‘out of the box’, he still identifies himself as an Israeli. ‘I belong to Israel more than I belong to Palestine or some abstract concept of “the world”,’ he says. So doesn’t he ever feel like his work betrays the vast majority of those who share his nationality and support a Jewish homeland? ‘Being out of the box is not an easy place to be,’ he answers. ‘Israel is what’s closest to me, but that doesn’t mean I can shield my eyes from injustice. I would like to have an Israel I could really identify with: one that didn’t conflict with my belief in the rights of other people.’
Many activists have become apathetic about a cause that has gone on so long, but after three-and-a-half decades of fighting for the rights of Palestinians, Halper is not thinking of giving up. ‘We had a concept in the Sixties called “the long haul”,’ says Halper. ‘Activists need to realize that the problems they’re fighting – be it for the environment, women or social justice – are symptoms of much larger, deeply rooted cultural, political and economic forces that have built up over generations. If you think that these forces can simply be changed in two or three years, you’re going to get burn-out.’
The trick, he says, is to see yourself as part of something bigger. ‘You need to take a deep breath and acknowledge that the problem will probably last beyond your lifetime. That thought sustains you.’ Those two small second-hand fishing boats that made their crossing last August were also part of something bigger. One by one, more boats are joining the journey to Gaza. Together, their ripples are beginning to rock Israeli warships. So far, no boat has been prevented from crossing, but you can be sure that if Israel intervenes, the activists will be waiting – alongside the international courts – to bring it to justice.