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You Can't Shake Hands With A Suicide Bomber


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Israel & Palestine / PEACE MOVEMENT

You can't shake hands with a suicide bomber

Activist Amichai Geva pleads for the
political space for the Israeli peace
movement to gather force.

It was a cold January day in 1977 as we boarded the buses to Sebastia. Hashomer Hatzair (the Young Guard - a mainstay of Left Zionism) was on its way to protest the establishment of the Elon Moreh settlement and to oppose the social cancer of messianic Zionism embodied in Gush Emunim ('Block of the Faithful').

Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres had banded together to be the front-men for then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin's government, who at the time was proposing that Israel needed to create settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rabin was committed to settlements before his conversion to the peace process set him on the road to Oslo. The radical messianic Zionists found in Gush Emunim were his more-than-willing pawns. What started out as an internal political manoeuvre, turned into a major blunder in the hands of subsequent governments.

Hashomer Hatzair is my spiritual home. I became active in this movement in Montreal in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was in Hashomer Hatzair that I developed a passion for social justice and equality. At an early age I learned of the role played by its members in resisting the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere. The Zionist movement contained many parties representing a political spectrum from Left to Right. Socialist-Zionists (such as Hashomer Hatzair) played a key part in that movement, and were inspired by a vision of a utopian Socialist society for Palestine.

The creation of the modern Zionist movement was sparked by the 1894 Dreyfus Affair in France. A French Jewish officer was falsely accused of treason, in a case with viscious undertones of anti-Semitism. Theodore Herzl conceived the idea of modern political Zionism while covering the 'Affair' for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse. The core of this idea was a return to a Jewish homeland. Herzl's notion fell on fertile ground among the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe. Why was this? It is impossible to understand current events without an appreciation of hundreds of years of Jewish persecution in Europe - that set the stage for the Holocaust.

In parallel to the Jewish National Renaissance in Europe, a wide-ranging Arab awakening was also taking place. From its earliest days, Hashomer Hatzair recognized that the national movements of the returning Jews and the awakening Arabs in Palestine were on collision course. Our vision was internationalist in scope. We held out for a bi-national state as an interim step in the building of socialism in all Mandatory Palestine. This policy remained until just before the declaration of Israel's independence in 1948.

The Hashomer Hatzair movement went on to found a third of the kibbutzim (co-operative settlements built on self-reliance and democratic values) in Israel. It still provides one of the core constituencies of Leftist causes, including strong support for the Peace Now movement and the opposition Meeretz Party in the Knesset. In my life I have brought all of these threads together as a kibbutz member. Even in the present dark hour, I believe that only tolerance, mutual respect and understanding can bring together Israelis and Palestinians.

This is a daunting task. These are two trauma-stricken peoples. The war of 1948 killed one per cent of the Jewish population of Palestine and created hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. The essence of the dispute is not only about recognition of just claims, but most importantly the mutual recognition of each other's suffering.

The settlements do not represent a consensus in Israeli society. They have been a cause of disagreement since their inception. Consider that 70 per cent of the Israelis regard the settlers as the most despised group of people in the country. Most Israelis would gladly abandon the settlements in exchange for peace. Most telling of all is the behaviour of the settlers themselves - most of whom bury their dead not on the West Bank or in Gaza but in Israel proper. The settlers know that their presence is temporary.

I have absolutely no patience with people deluded by religious fervor

In 1978 I signed a letter along with several hundred reserve army officers that led to the founding of the Peace Now movement. My subsequent refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories during the first intifada curtailed my military career. The officers' declaration of refusal to serve against the current intifada is motivated by a yearning for a common humanity:

We, combat officers and soldiers who serve the State of Israel for long weeks every year, in spite of the dear cost to our personal lives, have been on reserve duty all over the Occupied Territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people.

We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this Occupation exacts from both sides.

We, who understand now that the price of Occupation is the loss of IDF's [Israeli Defense Force] human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society.

We, who know that the Territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end...

The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose [Israel's defence] - and we shall take no part in them.

Following the election of the Rabin Government in 1992, Israelis and Palestinians began talks. These discussions eventually led to the Oslo Accords. Shortly thereafter funds for settlements that had been founded by the preceding Likud and National Unity governments began to dry up. Finally, after nearly a hundred years of conflict, the end was in sight.

Then, just as the messianic Zionists were to be sent packing, the peoples of the region were presented with a new spectacle - the suicide bomber. A spate of suicide bombings in late 1994 led Rabin to declare that terrorists would not deter him from his policy, and he referred to the settlers as a bunch of 'propellers', blowing hot air. During a mass peace demonstration, held on 11 November, Rabin was assassinated. I was there, close enough to hear the three pistol shots.

Shortly thereafter Shimon Peres lost his bid for election as Prime Minister to Bibi Netanyahu, primarily due to four additional suicide bus-bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. So the Palestinian religious right wing has made a partnership with our religious right wing. This is true coexistence; coexistence in death.

I have no religious tolerance on these matters. Let's see what the respected Palestinian spokesperson Dr Eyad Sarraj has to say about the justification for suicide bombers:

'What else could we try? Oh yes, peace. When the news came that Arafat had signed a peace treaty in Washington we were jubilant. So we had hope. We could not believe our eyes when there were no more curfews and we could actually spend our evening on the beach or wander in streets which were now ours after eight o'clock at night. We were ecstatic. We even had elections and we had a parliament, so we were told. Then came Binyamin Netanyahu.'

Excuse me. Where do Yitzhak Rabin and the suicide attacks before and after his assassination fit into this recollection of events? Just as I cannot tolerate the distortion of historical facts by Jews, I will not tolerate such distortion by Arabs. I have absolutely no patience with people deluded by religious fervor. The peace process was torpedoed by the spiritual progeny of the Muslim Brotherhood, when two trauma-stricken people were on the verge of reconciliation.

There is no doubt in my mind that the majority of the Israeli public knows the settlements have to go. They know that the Palestinians have endured a great deal of pain and humiliation and that the idea of a 'benign occupation' is at best stillborn. What the Palestinians, I think, fail to realize is that in spite of Israel's military power it is still a traumatized society yearning for recognition, not because of its force of arms, but as a human gesture. Such a gesture would seal the fate of the settlements, the occupation and the issue of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.

There is little doubt that Arafat is personally responsible for sponsoring suicide attacks. He has misled people into thinking that with enough terror the Jews will go away. His regime is rife with corruption and massive channelling of public funds into private pockets. This is no secret. The United Nations knows it, so does the European Union. And so does every Israeli and Palestinian. Turning a blind eye to such facts serves only to exacerbate Palestinian suffering.

Palestine and Israel are small countries and there is not too much that gets by without becoming public knowledge. In spite of the ongoing violence, many friendships have developed and endure between Palestinians and Israelis.

It is legitimate to debate the Israeli response to months of suicide bombings. But the overwhelmingly one-sided criticism from Europe, including the threat of economic sanctions, leaves me in bewilderment. I think the Palestinians have already won their cause with the Israeli public. So for most Israelis the suicide attacks serve another purpose - the pinnacle of religious involvement in a political cause that goes beyond the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. So what are the Europeans trying to achieve? Or is blowing up 70- and 80-year-old women celebrating Passover in a Netanya hotel somehow acceptable? The structure of Israeli society is such that an economic boycott will most hurt the core constituents of the peace camp. It could dry up funds that might be contributed to the peace cause. I think most Israelis are prepared to accept a reasonable settlement, including the recent Saudi proposal calling for complete withdrawal to the June 1967 lines. But one-sided international criticism has alienated many Israelis from the larger issue of Palestinian rights. This makes the role of people like me more difficult when speaking to Israelis about the necessity for mutual respect and coexistence.

Amichai Geva [image, unknown] Amichai Geva lives on the Shomrat
kibbutz in northern Israel.
e-mail: [email protected].

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New Internationalist issue 348 magazine cover This article is from the August 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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