Violence is the Symptom

Jon Elmer, FromOccupiedPalestine.org: There is an active debate in Israeli society, in government and in the media about murdering Yasser Arafat. Have you ever heard of a discussion of assassinating the elected leader of another country taking place in a ‘democratic’ society? What logic drives the open discussion of assassinating Arafat? What would the consequences of such an action be?

Uri Avnery: First of all, there is no public debate in Israel at all – on this subject or on any other. We have now a situation where there is a group of generals – including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, the Chief of Staff, the army Chief of Intelligence and Chief of the Security Service – who decide all these methods alone, with the help of a compliant media that accepts everything the government says.

For the past 30 years there has been a campaign to demonize Arafat in the media.  I don’t remember one single article saying anything positive about Yasser Arafat.  So the public just takes this and the public also believes what it has been told since Camp David [of 2000] – that we offered the Palestinians everything and they rejected it; therefore, there is no partner for peace. Within Israel this is an axiom accepted by virtually everybody. When the public believes that peace is impossible, and that the suicide bombings will go on forever, they will accept everything the Prime Minister tells them.

The act itself of assassinating Arafat, apart from its moral and legal aspects, will cause the greatest disaster in the history of Israel. It may put an end to the Israeli state in the long run, because it will put an end to any prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, and between Israel and the Arab world, for the next hundred years

Elmer: According to the US-Israel alliance, it is the Palestinians – more specifically, it is Arafat – who must take the initiative in ending the “cycle of violence”. Edward Said has commented: “Since when does a militarily occupied people have responsibility for a peace movement?” (Emerging alternatives in Palestine, al Ahram Weekly, 10-16 January 2002) Is it the responsibility of the Palestinians to end the violence?

Avnery: Violence is part of the resistance to occupation. The basic fact is not the violence; the basic fact is the occupation.  Violence is a symptom; the occupation is the disease – a mortal disease for everybody concerned, [both] the occupied and for the occupiers. Therefore, the first responsibility is to put an end to the occupation. And in order to put an end to the occupation, you must make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. This is the real aim, this is the real task.

Elmer: David Ben-Gurion is quoted having said: “If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true, God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see only one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?” What is your comment on this?

Avnery: This is complete nonsense, and David Ben-Gurion, with all due respect, was an idiot as far as Arabs themselves are concerned. He did not understand the Arabs, he hated the Arabs.  There are hundreds – thousands – of documents to prove this. As far as the statement itself, Palestinians want a state of their own. They want to live in freedom. They want to get rid of the terrible misery in which they are living. They are ready after 50 years to accept a state of their own in 22% of what used to be the country of Palestine. I think it is the height of stupidity on our part if we don’t grasp this opportunity.

Elmer: Is Ariel Sharon and his generals’ goal to turn so-called Greater Israel, from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan, into a Jewish State?

Avnery: That is their real aim. It is the aim of Ariel Sharon, and I strongly suspect that the core of whole higher office will follow him on this. His idea of a Greater Israel – or, as you call it in Hebrew, the entire Eretz (land of) Israel – is from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan, and to turn this into a purely, ethnically clean Jewish state. I would say this is the ultimate objective of all of these people, which would entail, of course, ethnic cleansing [of the Palestinian people].

Elmer: Can you talk a little bit about your years in the Irgun during the war of independence?
Avnery: I joined the Irgun when I was just 15 years old, and I left when I was 19 years old. I joined because I wanted to fight for our freedom and a state of our own, against the British colonial administration of Palestine at that time. I left it because I did not approve of the methods and the aims of the Irgun.

What I would say is that I have always been aware and conscious of the importance and the strength of nationalism, and this has led me straight to the acknowledgement and recognition of the nationalism of the Palestinian people. I believe there is no way around this; we have to have a solution based on two national states, which will hopefully live and grow together and establish a relationship between them in something like a European Union.

Elmer: Can you discuss your 1945 essay, “Terrorism: the infantile disease of the Hebrew revolution”? How was it different from the disease of Palestinian terror of their current revolution for statehood?

Avnery: When I left the Irgun, at the age of 19, one of the reasons was that I didn’t like the methods of terror applied by the Irgun at the time. When they put, that is to say we put, bombs in the Arab markets of Jaffa and Jerusalem and Haifa, and killed scores of people – men, women and children – in retaliation for similar acts by the Arabs, I didn’t back this. I thought there were other methods. But it left me with a lasting understanding of what gets people to join such organizations, and I understand the Palestinians who join these [terrorist/resistance] organizations.

I am against violence on both sides. But I understand people who believe that without violence they will not achieve anything at all. It is our responsibility as the stronger party, as the occupying power, to convince the Palestinians that they can achieve their basic national aims, their just national aspirations, without violence. Unfortunately, the behaviour of the Sharon administration, and before this of the Barak administration, have shown the Palestinians the opposite; namely, that they will achieve nothing without violence.

Elmer: Robert Fisk has said of the Israel-Palestine war: “This terrible conflict is the last colonial war”. Although he wrote this before the American war and occupation of Iraq, do you agree that this is essentially a colonial war?

Avnery: No, I do not agree, I think it’s a very simplistic, superficial view. What we are in is a conflict lasting for 120 years, between two great national movements: the Zionist Jewish one, and the Palestinian Arab one, who consider the same country their homeland. And it is a conflict which has no example anywhere in this world.  And I object to people who make these easy comparisons and these easy analogies that are completely irrelevant. We are not South Africa. We are not in basically a colonial situation. There are aspects of the apartheid regime, there are aspects of the colonial regime, but it is something by far more profound, with much more profound historic roots, and you cannot come to a solution if you do not understand the nature of the conflict that we are in.

Elmer: Admitting those deep historical roots, can there be a solution to the conflict that does not properly and justly deal with the Palestinian right of return?

Avnery: The Palestinian right of return has many different aspects. There is the moral aspect, the political aspect and the practical aspect. I believe that Israel must concede to the Palestinian right of return in principle. Israel must, first of all, assume its responsibility for what happened in 1948, as far as we are to blame – and we are to blame for a great part of it, if not for all – and we must recognize in principle the right of refugees to return. 

In practice, we have to find a complex solution to a very complex problem. It is manifestly idiotic to believe that Israel, with 5 million Jewish citizens, and 1 million Arab citizens, will concede to the return of 4 million refugees. It will not happen.  We can wish it, we can think it’s just, that it’s moral – it will not happen. No country commits suicide.

Now the question is, how do we solve the problem by allowing a number of refugees to return to Israel, allowing a number of refugees to return to the Palestinian state, and allowing a number of refugees to settle, with general compensation, where they want to settle. It is not an insolvable problem; there are possible solutions to this problem that concerns human beings. It is not an abstract problem, it involves 4 million human beings, and more than 50 years of various sorts of misery. It is possible to find a solution for them, and it can be done: it involves some good will, and a readiness to give up historic myths on both sides.

Elmer: I know that Gush Shalom has done some work with the ISM. I was wondering if you could comment on the role of internationals in the conflict.

Avnery: The International Solidarity Movement is very important and does a very good job protecting the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, giving testimony to all the terrible things that are happening there.  Gush Shalom is glad to cooperate with them wherever we can. We have organized jointly several demonstrations in the Occupied Territories and we are both engaged in the fight against this terrible wall that is being erected by Sharon. Some of them, or all of them, are very courageous people, doing very courageous work. I want to mention here the name of Rachel Corrie, who gave her life in an effort to defend the Palestinians against the destruction of their homes. Her parents are in Israel right now, and I want to salute them.

Elmer: But ultimately the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict lies with the Israeli and Palestinian people?

Avnery: The only solution that can come about must be between Israelis and Palestinians. Others can help, assist, mediate and do many, many important jobs. But finally, it rests with Israel and the people of Palestine to find the way of peace and reconciliation – and reconciliation is more important than peace.

Elmer: It is a popular refrain – in North America at least, where I live – that there is no hope. The two sides have been fighting for thousands of years and there is just no solution. Israelis and Palestinians will always kill each other. After all your experience: from independence fighter, to frontline journalist, to member of the Knesset, to peace activist – what is the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Avnery: The solution is perfectly clear. All parts of the conflict have been amply debated and discussed. Many plans have been put on the table – hundreds. And everybody knows by now exactly the parameters of a peace solution. We at Gush Shalom have published a draft text of a peace agreement, and I am fairly certain that when peace comes about, it will be more or less on these lines.

The solution is this: there will be a state of Palestine in all of the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The so-called Green-Line, the border that existed before 1967, will come into being again. There may be small adjustments, a small exchange of territories, but [the Green-Line] will be the border between Israel and Palestine. Jerusalem will be the shared capital – East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, West Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. All settlements must be evacuated. The security must be arranged for both people, and there must be a moral solution and a practical solution.

On these lines, there will be peace. And if you ask me, they could make peace in one week. The trouble is that both people find it very difficult to come to this point. And when I say both people, I don’t want to establish a symmetrical situation – there is no symmetry here: there are occupiers, and the occupied. And as the occupier, we have the responsibility to lead this process. This is what I, as an Israeli patriot, tell my own people. 

Uri Avnery is a founding member of Gush Shalom (Israeli Peace Bloc). In his teenage years he was an independence fighter in the Irgun (1938-1942), and later a soldier in the Israeli Army. A three-time Knesset member (1965-1973, and 1979-1983), Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership, in 1974. During the war on Lebanon in 1982 he crossed “enemy lines” to be the first Israeli to meet with Yasser Arafat. He has been a journalist since 1947, including 40 years as Editor-in-Chief of the newsmagazine Ha’olam Haze, and is the author of numerous books on the conflict. 

Jon Elmer is currently reporting from Israel-Palestine and is the editor of FromOccupiedPalestine.org

Leave a comment