Interview with Jeff Halper

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.

*Rowenna Davis* is a regular freelance contributor to the *NI* based in London, England.

Jeff Halper’s most recent book is _An Israeli in Palestine_. To learn more about ICAHD’s work go to

Apartheid versus <i>sumud</i>

This is, as they say, the crunch. This is the political moment all Israeli governments – all of them, Labour, Likud and ‘National Unity’ – have been working towards the past four decades of Occupation: the final push for an expanded Israel, the permanent foreclosure of any viable Palestinian state and a unilateral declaration that the conflict with the Palestinians is over. Indeed, it is the final taking of the entire Land of Israel between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River that Zionism has dreamed of for the past century.

On the surface, Israel’s election was humdrum, with none of the 31 parties running raising issues that grabbed the public. No party emerged ‘victorious’ or in a position of domination. The largest party in the Parliament, Kadima – Sharon’s party now run by Ehud Olmert – received only 29 seats out of 120. Overall, the election saw the strengthening of the Right, even the extreme Right – I don’t accept the notion that Kadima is a ‘Centre’ party; it’s extreme right-wing, only slicker. In other words, those parties that refuse to even to consider the notion of a viable Palestinian state won 73 seats while the number of left/liberal seats stands only at 30.

A full 85 per cent of Israeli Jews support the construction of the Wall, or ‘Separation Barrier’

Humdrum sums up how the Israeli public viewed the election. The only substantial issue raised was that of the plight of poor and working-class Israelis, and that issue failed to ignite any popular enthusiasm. Yet it is precisely this ‘humdrumness’ that is the big news. Ehud Olmert put his intentions right in the public’s face: the most immediate and pressing task of his new government will be to determine the permanent borders of Israel, meaning that the massive settlement blocs, the ‘greater’ Jerusalem area and the Jordan Valley will be annexed to Israel, confining the Palestinians to some five isolated, impoverished and non-viable cantons (Sharon’s term) that they will be expected to accept as their ‘state’.

Of course, Olmert’s plan was presented with a positive spin characterized by terminology that would have fascinated Orwell. _Hitkansut_ or ‘withdrawing into oneself’ in Hebrew is the operational phase of ‘separation’ from the Palestinians, and seems exactly what the public wanted – a full 85 per cent of Israeli Jews support the construction of the Wall, or ‘Separation Barrier’. Perhaps that is the reason it generated no public discussion, no dissent and ended up a non-issue. It does not mean, however, withdrawal of Israel back to its pre-1967 territory, but rather a ‘convergence’ of Israeli settlers scattered throughout the West Bank into Israel’s major settlement blocs. Though the idea of leaving territories densely populated by Palestinians sounds good to Israeli Jews, it really means apartheid. And it will be imposed unilaterally because Israel has nothing to offer the Palestinians. True, they get 70-85 per cent of the Occupied Territories, but only in truncated enclaves. Israel retains control of all the borders, Palestinian movement among the cantons, all the water and the richest agricultural land, the Jerusalem area which accounts for 40 per cent of the Palestinian economy, the Palestinians’ airspace and even their communications. Indeed, Israel retains all the developmental potential of the country, leaving the Palestinians with only barren and disconnected enclaves. Israel expands into 85 per cent of the entire country, leaving the Palestinians – the majority population or soon to be – with only about 15 per cent, and that truncated, non-viable and only semi-sovereign. A bantustan _à la_ apartheid South Africa.

What the outside world considers important – the conflict with Palestinians, Occupation, the Wall, settlements, possibilities for peace – are non-issues in Israel. Most Israeli Jews agree that: the Palestinians don’t want peace; there is therefore no political solution to the conflict; separation is the best course; and thus Israel must keep all of Jerusalem and its major settlements. There is simply nothing to discuss. The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced, for Israeli Jews, to one technical issue: How do we manage terrorism and secure our personal security?

So where does that leave the Palestinians after their election of a Hamas Government? Nowhere, as far as Israel is concerned. The election of Hamas legitimized in the eyes of Israeli Jews and the international community Israel’s intention of proceeding unilaterally, thus facilitating the move towards an apartheid regime. Left with no ability to pursue an agenda of its own, even that of a two-state solution as embodied in the Road Map, the Palestinians have fallen back on the most powerful tactic of the powerless: non-cooperation. Their vote proclaimed in a loud voice ‘The hell with all of you’: the US and Europe, which do nothing to end the Occupation; Israel, which has closed off the possibility of a viable Palestinian state by expanding into Palestinian areas, and then blames the Palestinians for preventing peace; Fatah, which, in addition to enabling corruption, failed effectively to pursue the Palestinians’ national agenda of self-determination.

Knowing that the conflict is too destabilizing for the global system to let fester, the Palestinians are saying: we will remain _sumud_, steadfast. Impose on us an apartheid system, blame us for the violence while ignoring Israeli state terror, pursue your programmes of American Empire or your self-righteous notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ – we Palestinians will not submit. We will not co-operate. We will not play your rigged game. And in the end your power will be for naught. So costly will we make this conflict to Israel, the US and the international community that you will come to us to sue for peace. We will be ready for a just peace that respects the rights of all the peoples of the region, including the Israelis. But you will not beat us.

The two elections pit apartheid against _sumud_. I bet on the latter.

*Jeff Halper* is the Co-ordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a candidate, with the Palestinian peace activist Ghassan Andoni, for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. He can be reached at .

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