Reflection on the Role of the Israeli Peace Camp

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

I do not know how far the Israeli peace movement is ready to go in support of the Palestinians cause. But the movement is based on the assumption that a just peace with the Palestinians serves the interests of Israel. The exiled Israeli-Arab intellectual Azmi Bishara writes that Israeli liberals believe that by “withdrawing from Arab territory occupied in 1967…Israel returns to its original nature…and by opposing the occupation they [the liberals] are affirming an earlier, better citizenship”.

Many peace activists join daily demonstrations protesting against the apartheid wall, and others monitor the hundreds of military checkpoints in the West Bank for human rights violations. And some Israeli peace advocates criticize their government’s illegal actions against the Palestinians in the occupied lands. Jeff Halper, the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition has written articles detesting the deliberate and systematic Israeli actions to separate the Palestinian population, “then dominating them permanently and institutionally through a political regime…locking them into dependent and impoverished cantons”.

Members of the Israeli peace movement, including “Peace Now” and many scholars, have criticized Israel’s conduct in the occupied territory seized in 1967, but they do not accept the position that Israel was responsible for the refugees’ suffering, and they do not criticize the essence of Zionism. They support the government policy of denying the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Amos Oz, the well known Israeli writer, a peace advocate and a strong supporter of a two-state solution wrote in 2001 that “Implementing the Palestinian right of return would amount to abolishing the Jewish people right of self-determination”. It should not be surprising that the people of Israel are united against the right of return since the Oslo agreements that were signed by the PLO on behalf of the Palestinians paid no attention to the refugees’ issue.

According to Professor Naseer Aruri, the rights of return was completely ignored within the context of the Oslo agreements framework, and there has been unwritten rule in the ongoing “peace process” not to have the right of return issue brought up by the Palestinian negotiators. Israeli peace advocates call the West Bank and Gaza “occupied land”, a description that was missing in Oslo agreements, and that alone gives the peace advocates an important role in promoting peace with justice.

The Israeli peace camp activists can use the failure of the war on Lebanon and the prisoner swap with Hizbollah to challenge the chauvinistic political ideology of Zionism and call for a qualitative change in dealing with the Palestinians and non-Palestinians.

Peace activists can support their argument with the other failed military adventure in the Middle East, the US war in Iraq. It is an uphill struggle to change the notion of theocratic and ethnic exclusivist mentality in the Israeli militaristic society. Peace advocates are up against the Zionists ideology of conquest that has shaped the institutions and democracy in Israel, but if the Israeli peace activists believe in their mission, they must try. Many prominent Palestinian and Arab analysts got carried away and missed a golden opportunity to support the Israeli peace and civil rights advocates. The Arab analysts did not view the prisoner swap as a winning accomplishment for both parties, Israel and Lebanon and the Analysts lost the sense of purpose by emphasizing the swap as an Israeli defeat.

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev whose abduction by Hizbollah triggered the 2006 Lebanon war were returned to Israel on July 16 in a prisoner exchange for five Lebanese who had been held in Israeli jails. Israel also returned the remains of about two-hundred Lebanese and Palestinian fighters who were killed fighting Israel since the 1967 war. Among the freed Lebanese prisoners was Samir Kuntar who was convicted for killing two Israeli policemen and an Israeli civilian and his daughter in a 1979 infiltration. The swap underscores the failure of thirty-four days of military onslaught on Lebanon to achieve the return of the two soldiers. Israel could have recovered its two soldiers alive, not dead, in a similar prisoner exchange through negotiations and saved the lives and materials wasted in unnecessary war. The failure of the big guns approach to accomplish what the peaceful diplomacy did should be a good reason for the Israeli policy makers to reexamine their strategy in dealing with the Arabs.

The Lebanese Shiite military group, Hizbullah ambushed an Israeli military patrol in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006, killing eight Israeli soldiers and capturing Goldwasser and Regev. Hizbullah demanded the release of Lebanese detained in Israeli prisons in exchange for releasing the two captured soldiers. Israel refused the offer and responded by bombarding Lebanese roads, bridges, ports and airports, as well as Hizbullah targets.

Within two weeks after the raid, the ports were placed under siege, cellular communication towers were destroyed and roads and bridges to Syria were bombed. It was the most destruction inflicted on Lebanon by Israel since the 1982 invasion to expel Palestinian militias. The air, land and naval strikes that killed more than one thousand Lebanese civilians besides destroying the country’s infrastructure were intended to punish Lebanon for allowing Hizbullah guerrillas menace Israel’s northern border.

Hizbullah’s response was firing hundreds of rockets on Israeli targets across the border and even hitting the industrial city of Haifa, twenty miles away from the border, killing Israeli civilians including Israeli Arabs. An Israeli navy ship was hit by rockets causing extensive damage to the ship and killing four of its crew according to Israel.

The Israeli peace advocate can argue that wars on Lebanon and the besieged and helpless Palestinians have demonstrated that sheer military force cannot accomplish everything in international disputes. Israel succeeded in creating the most powerful military in the Middle East, but it certainly could not guaranty its security or resolve the ongoing conflict that spans about a century of open hostilities. Israel could have long term security if there were no settlements and if the separation wall was constructed within its own border.

Israel tried to achieve security at any cost including killing non-combatant civilians and the destruction of their homes. The campaigns against the Palestinians and the Lebanese provided for an impressive display of the Israeli military power, but the strategy was counterproductive. It demonstrated the futility of Israel’s conviction that the use of its military advantage is the answer to all its problems with its neighbors. Instead of destroying Hizbullah, the war transformed it from a Lebanese organization to a popular militant group in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The war and the financial blockade on Hamas controlled Gaza led the Palestinian resistance to establish closer ties with Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. Another casualty of the wars was the influence, legitimacy and reputation of the moderate Arab regimes that had made peace with Israel. The wars might have even spurred the proliferation of radical groups bent on undermining the security of Israel.

The Israelis used their military superiority and their power as occupiers to defeat Hamas in Gaza by assassinating their leaders, punishing the people by destroying the strip infrastructure, cutting supplies of power, fuel and water. The siege, the sanctions and the collective punishment have produced a backlash against Israel and strengthened Hamas among the Palestinians. The Israelis should have discovered by now that the weak Palestinians yearning for a just peace cannot be totally suppressed. The Palestinians have been militarily defeated but they will not relinquish their basic rights. They made the maximum concession by accepting to have their state on one fifth of historical Palestine that was all theirs.

The Palestinian people need a real peace, not a phony one based on Bush-Olmert vision of Bantustans controlled by Israel, denying the refugees right of return, the refusal to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and the insistence on annexing settlements in the West Bank to Israel. The brutal realities of the Palestinians situation due to the Israeli practices in the occupied lands belie the claim by Israel and the US spokespeople and recently by Barak Obama after his visit to the area, that there is progress toward peace just because Abbas and Olmert meet and have lunches together.  

Real peace may be achieved only if the Israelis change major tenets of the Zionist’s ideology. Zionism goal since the nineteenth century has been to establish a state exclusively for Jews and no provisions on the role of non-Jews citizens. Coexistence with the Arabs is anathema to Zionist Jews. The Zionists’ program is based on redeeming the land, coexistence with the indigenous Palestinians on the same land was not considered an option; for Zionism, the Palestinians presence on the land is a problem.

Yosef Weitz, the director of the Settlement Department of Jewish National Fund, wrote in his diary on December 20, 1940: “Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country…The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left”.

Actions of the Zionist governments, left or right since the establishment of Israel, suggest no intention of recognizing the rights of Palestinians.

The Israelis have to change their consciousness to deal courageously with their collective responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy. Only the Jewish Israeli members of the peace camp can drive this message home to the Israeli people. 

-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to

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