Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) celebrates its first year with its eyes on Gaza, demanding an end to the Israeli blockade and, on the uneven playing field of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an end to human rights abuses on both sides.
IJV was formed a year ago to raise issues of human rights generally, but especially in that part of the world where we feel our voices might have most resonance, urging a fair and peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Happily, despite inevitable opposition, we quickly gained significant support and media coverage for our stance, especially in Jewish publications around the world.
Such exposure enabled us to further our goal in launching IJV, which was to change the parameters of the debate in this conflict: prioritising the issue of human rights, paying attention to the situation of both Palestinians and Israelis in the search for peace, opposing all forms of racism. Tragically, over this same year, we have seen no serious move coming from the vastly stronger party in the conflict, the Israeli state, towards ending the multiple human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories it controls.
On the contrary, looking at Gaza, we have seen two years of sanctions and siege devastating the livelihoods, physical and mental wellbeing of its civilian population. Israel’s blockade of the 1.5 million Palestinians crowded into that narrow coastal strip had actually begun in 1991, remaining in place after Israel’s withdrawal of its occupying soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, intensifying with the election of Hamas to the Palestinian Authority in January 2006. It became catastrophic a few weeks ago, when Israel sealed off the movement of anything at all into Gaza, including UN food supplies, medicines and fuel. It is the continued firing of home-made Qassam rockets by young Palestinian militants out of Northern Gaza, falling on the neighburing Israeli town of Sderot, which led the Israeli state to impose its draconian measures. We completely condemn Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, which are as futile as they are unlawful in international law. We also condemn Israel’s disproportionate retaliation against Gazan civilians, which is not only prohibited by the Geneva Conventions but has proved equally futile in either ending the rocket attacks or in diverting Gazan’s anger from those punishing them, onto Hamas.
This calamity escalates because Israel, supported by US and EU boycotts, refuses to enter into any discussions with Gaza’s elected representatives in Hamas, including their offers to negotiate an end to rocket attacks, instead kidnapping and imprisoning many of their elected members. Commenting on the strategic blindness of this stance, Middle Eastern scholars suggest that the rise of the more militant Hamas group in Gaza itself resulted in part from Israel’s earlier intransigence towards Fatah, when it was the governing party in the Palestinian territories. With the world still refusing to act against the denial of the most basic human rights to Gazan civilians, now threatened with famine, facing constant power cuts, sewage collapse and the increasing pollution of available drinking water, some explosion was inevitable.
Overnight, Hamas militants blew up parts of the Israeli-installed concrete walls along the border with Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people escaped years of imprisonment in Gaza, returning with food, fuel, medicines, and more: "It was like a dream," a young man told a US reporter, "suddenly we could travel again." Yet, even as goods pour into Gaza and excitement fills its streets, restoring battered pride and confidence, the worst effects of the siege continue. The infrastructure of the city has yet to be restored. Those in most urgent need are still dying unnecessarily, with the continuing absence of operational medical equipment, and other essential resources, combined with Israel’s denial of legal permission to travel elsewhere.
Last month there was another, more symbolic, attempt to end the siege. It did not make the headlines. This was the coming together of Israelis and Palestinians at the Erez crossing, on January 26. For months Jewish and Arab Israelis in the Israeli Coalition Against the Siege had worked with Palestinian partners from Gaza for this day of action, accompanying Israeli relief convoys carrying five tons of food, medical equipment and desperately needed water filters. The message from these Israelis was clear: "We won’t be part of this crime. We are ashamed of this siege," as Uri Avnery announced. Avnery, who, at 85, heads one of the best-known radical Israeli peace groups, Gush Shalom, was addressing nearly two thousand Israelis from 26 different human rights and peace organizations who had traveled in their cars and on buses to Erez.
Seventeen-year-old Shir Shodzik from Sderot also spoke, expressing her opposition to the blockade and deploring the suffering on both sides, despite her aunt and cousin having been injured by a Qassam rocket: "There is no need for violence or force to solve this situation." she said. Unseen, but this time not unheard by Israelis, from the other side Dr Eyad el-Sarraj spoke into the mobile phone that provides his lifeline to the wider world, his message picked up and amplified over the wall. Surrounded by several hundred Palestinians, el-Sarraj, from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, welcomed the Israelis to Gaza, or at least to the prison walls enclosing it: "We are joining hands today in the pursuit of peace, justice and security for all–security for Palestine, security for Israel, security for Gaza and security for Sderot." El-Sarraj, who has written so often of the "chronic toxicity" bred by the hopeless frustration of his people, welcomed the joyful break-out at the Rafah crossing days earlier, just as he welcomed the solidarity from Israeli radicals at Erez.
As ever, Israel itself remained implacable, refusing to permit the relief convoy into Gaza, though the struggle to force it to do so continues. For IJV, simply knowing that there are hundreds of Israelis and Palestinian civilians who will continue, against every obstacle, to communicate and work together towards the goal of a sustained peace is important. Of course, nothing lasting can occur without the US and other world powers switching course, exerting pressure on the Israeli government to end its blockade and negotiate with Hamas. For there is no way out of this nightmare until negotiations begin between all sides in the conflict, finding compromises which can ensure, rather than undermine, the creation of a unified Palestinian government, with genuine power over its people and resources.
Avnery’s words express the unsteady hopes, but passionate desires, of those Jews around the world who yearn for an end to Israel’s colonial rule over Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem: "Don’t lose faith that one day we will meet together in this place without fences, without walls, without firepower, without violence, meet [as] two peoples living next to each other in peace, in friendship, in partnership." IJV’s project is to help publicise the existence of Jewish voices everywhere who support this dissident Israeli appeal. We all lose hope. But then we hope again, hope harder, trying to figure out what on earth to do next.