John Pilger’s new book, Freedom Next Time (Bantam Press, 2006; http://www.johnpilger.com/) has just been published. Containing chapters on Diego Garcia, Palestine, India, South Africa and Afghanistan, it is a devastating indictment of brutal state-corporate power, and a heartening account of how people around the world are challenging that power.
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, an opponent of all kinds of attacks on civilians and a persistent voice for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, wrote: ‘We have to understand – not justify – what gives rise to this tragedy … Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope – a political solution – they’ll stop killing themselves.’57 The following are lines from his poem ‘Martyr’:
I love life
On earth, among the pines and the fig trees
But I can’t reach it, so I took aim
With the last thing that belonged to me.
For Rami Elhanan, an Israeli graphic designer, the sacrifice by a Palestinian of ‘the last thing that belonged to me’ caused the death of his fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar. There is a home videotape of Smadar that is difficult to watch. She is playing the family piano, and throwing her head back and laughing. She has long hair, which she cut two months before she died. ‘It was her way of making a statement of her independence,’ Rami told me with a smile. ‘Her brothers used to tease her because she was such a good student. But she knew what she wanted. She wanted to be a doctor, and she loved to dance.’58
On the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar and her best friend, Sivane, had auditions for admission to a dance school. Smadar had argued that morning with her mother, Nurit, who was anxious about her going to the centre of Jerusalem to buy books she needed for school. ‘I was worried about the increase in suicide bombings,’ said Nurit. ‘But I didn’t want to row, so I let her go.’
Rami was in his car when he turned on the radio at three o’clock to listen to the news and heard reports of a suicide bombing in Ben Yehuda shopping precinct. Three Palestinians had walked into the crowd and turned themselves into human bombs. There were nearly two hundred injured, and several dead. Within minutes, Rami’s mobile phone rang. Nurit was crying. She had received a call from one of their son’s friends, who had seen Smadar making her way into the Ben Yehuda mall shortly before the bombs went off. For hours, Rami and Nurit toured hospitals, looking for her. ‘Finally,’ he said, ‘a policeman gently suggested we go to the scene of the bombing, where we were referred to a morgue.’59
Their ‘descent into darkness’, as Rami describes it, was also the beginning of an inspirational campaign for peace. I have not met anyone like Rami, and the interview I conducted with him in the sunny sitting room of his Jerusalem home moved me deeply. Sometimes, solutions to apparently intractable political problems seem closer at hand when there is a Rami Elhanan engrossed in them, saying the unsayable.
‘It’s painful to acknowledge, but it really is quite simple,’ he said. ‘There is no basic moral difference between the soldier at the checkpoint who prevents a woman who is having a baby from going through, causing her to lose the baby, and the man who killed my daughter. And just as my daughter was a victim [of the occupation], so was he.’
On the shelf behind him was a photograph of Smadar at the age of five, holding a placard. ‘Stop the occupation,’ it said. Rami calls her ‘a child of peace’. Her parents were both brought up to believe that the establishment of Israel as a Jewish national homeland was an act of self-preservation. Rami’s father had survived Auschwitz. His grandparents and six aunts and uncles perished in the Holocaust. Nurit’s father, Matti Peled, a general, was a hero of the 1948 war. Rami describes him as ‘one of the true pioneers of making peace with the Palestinians’. He was among the first Israelis to visit Yasser Arafat in his exile in Tunisia. Nurit herself has been awarded the European Parliament’s peace prize.
Rami dates his own ‘awareness of the truth we dare not speak’ to his time as a young army conscript. The 1967 war had just happened and was not, he says, the ‘divine intervention’ it was portrayed as in Israel, particularly among the ‘settlers’ who built their illegal fortresses on newly occupied land. He describes it as ‘the beginning of a cancer at the heart of Israel’. Later, as a soldier in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he said he realised ‘I had blood on my hands, too.’
Rami and Nurit are among the founders of the Parents’ Circle, or Bereaved Families for Peace, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones. They include the families of suicide bombers. They jointly organise educational campaigns and lobby politicians to begin serious negotiations. When I met Rami, they had just placed one thousand coffins outside the United Nations building in New York, each draped in an Israeli or Palestinian flag. ‘Our aim’, he said, ‘is not to forget or forgive the past, but to find some way of living together.’
I asked him: ‘How do you distinguish the feelings of anger you must have felt as a father at losing your daughter from the feeling of wanting to reach out?’
‘Very simple. I am a human being; I am not an animal. I lost my child, but I didn’t lose my head. Thinking and acting from the guts only increases an endless circle of blood. You have to think: our two peoples are here to stay; neither will evaporate. We have to compromise in some way. And you do that by the head, not by the guts.’
‘Have you made contact with the parents of the suicide bomber who killed Smadar?’
‘That was tried once; someone wanted to make a film about it, but I wasn’t interested. I am not crazy; I don’t forget, I don’t forgive. Someone who murders little girls is a criminal and should be punished, and to be in personal contact with those who did me wrong, it’s not the point. So you see, I sometimes have to fight myself to do what I’m doing. But I’m sure what I’m doing is right. I certainly understand that the suicide bomber was a victim the same as my girl was. Of that, I am sure.’
‘Have you made contact with the parents of other suicide bombers?’
‘Yes. Very warm and encouraging contacts.’
‘What is the point of that?’
‘The point is to make peace, and not to ask questions. I have blood on my hands, too, as I said. I was a soldier in the Israeli army … if you are digging into the personal history of each and every one of us, you won’t make peace, you’ll make more arguments and more blame. Tomorrow, I am going to Hebron to meet bereaved Palestinian families. They are living proof of the willingness of the other side to make peace with us.’
‘Isn’t the public mood in Israel quite different?’
‘I have a friend who says that what I am doing is like taking water out of the ocean with a spoon. We [in the Parents’ Circle] are very few, it’s true, and the world is being led by very stupid people: that’s also true. I’m talking about the American President and my own Prime Minister. To take this word “terrorism” and build everything around it, as they do, you only make more misery, more war, more casualties, more suicide bombers, more revenge, more punishment. Where does that go? Nowhere. Our task is to point out the obvious. George Washington was a terrorist, Jomo Kenyatta was a terrorist, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. Terrorism only has meaning for those who are weak and who have no other choice, and no other means.’
‘What has to be done to end this suffering?’
‘We have to start by fighting ignorance. I go to schools and give lectures. I tell the children how the conflict began by asking them to imagine a house with ten rooms where Mohammed and his family are living in peace. Then, one stormy night, there’s a knock at the door, and outside stands Moshe and his family. They are sick, beaten, broken. “Excuse me,” he says, “but I once used to live in this house.” This is the whole Arab-Israeli conflict in a snap; and I tell the kids that the Palestinians gave up seventy-eight per cent of the country which they are sure is theirs, so the Israelis should give up the twenty-two per cent that was left [following the 1967 war].’
He shows the schoolchildren maps of the offer Prime Minister Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat at Camp David before the ‘peace process’ broke down. The maps reveal that swathes of the West Bank were held back from the Palestinians and kept for Jewish settlers. ‘This was the greatest secret of all,’ he said, ‘because Barak never allowed any [official] maps to be made. He was proposing something he knew the Palestinians would not, could not, accept.’
‘What kind of reaction do you get: in schools, at public events?’
‘I watch the faces of the kids when I show them the maps and tell them that we had seventy-eight per cent, and the Palestinians had twenty-two per cent, and that’s all the Palestinians want now, and I see ignorance lift. You know, in Israel, the bereaved are said to be sacred. People give them respect because they have paid the price. I am due that respect, but of course there are people who don’t want to hear what I say.’
Every ‘Jerusalem Day’ – the day the modern State of Israel celebrates its conquest of the city – Rami has stood in the street with a photograph of Smadar and sought to persuade people of his mission for peace. The last Jerusalem Day, he stood in front of crossed Israeli and Palestinian flags, and people told him it was a pity he wasn’t blown up, too. ‘That is the dimension of the problem,’ he said.
‘Will you do that this Jerusalem Day?’
‘Yes, and I will be spat and cursed at by some, but I know that’s only one part of the human equation; it’s the other part we must solve, and I and other parents are making a start.’
‘What is the price that a society pays when it runs a military occupation?’
‘It’s an unbearable price. The list begins with moral corruption. When we don’t let pregnant women through checkpoints, and their babies die, we have reduced ourselves to animals and we are no different from the suicide bombers.’
‘What do you say to Jewish people in other countries, like Britain: people who support Israel because they feel they must?’
‘I say they should be loyal to real Jewish values, and support the peace movement in Israel, not the state at all costs. It’s only pressure from outside – from Jews, from governments, from public opinion – that will end this nightmare. While there is this silence, this looking away, this profane abuse of our critics as anti-Jew, we are no different from those who stood aside during the days of the Holocaust. We are not only complicit in a crime, we ensure that we ourselves never know peace, and our surviving children never know peace. I ask you: does that make any sense?’
‘But they might say the Jews are in danger of being pushed into the sea by the Arabs, that Israel must stand firm?’
‘Pushed into the sea by whom? We are the most powerful power in the Middle East. We have one of the greatest armies in the world. In this latest operation [Sharon’s attack on the West Bank in April 2002], we sent four armoured divisions against some five hundred armed people. It’s a laugh. Who will push us into the sea? Who can push us into the sea?… The real issue is played out every day at the checkpoints. The Palestinian boy whose mother is humiliated in the morning will be a suicide bomber in the evening. There is no way that Israelis can sit in their coffee houses and eat and drink while two hundred metres away desperate people are humiliated and Palestinian children are beginning to starve. The suicide bomber is no more than a mosquito. The occupation is the swamp.’
The chairman of the Parents’ Circle is Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son Arik, a conscripted soldier, was kidnapped and killed by Hamas. His generosity of spirit was expressed in his address to a peace rally in Jerusalem. ‘Let all the self-righteous who speak of ruthless Palestinian murderers take a hard look in the mirror,’ he said.
[Let them ask themselves] what they would have done had they been the ones living under occupation. I can say for myself that I, Yitzhak Frankenthal, would have undoubtedly become a freedom fighter and I would have killed as many on the other side as I possibly could. It is this depraved hypocrisy that pushes the Palestinians to fight us relentlessly – our double standard that allows us to boast the highest military ethics, while the same military slays innocent children … As much as I would like to do so, I cannot say the Palestinians are to blame for my son’s death. That would be the easy way out [for] it is we who are unwilling to make peace with them. It is we who insist on maintaining our control over them. It is we who feed the cycle of violence … I regret to say it.60
Israel’s dissidents are among the bravest I have met. Apart from the remarkable Mordechai Vanunu, who spent nineteen years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, and who today lives under effective house arrest, most of those who take on the Israeli state remain in the community, where their punishment is often unrelenting. To many, they have betrayed not only their country but their family and their Jewishness and the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
Shopkeepers refuse to serve them; lifelong friends cross the road rather than speak to them. Without warning, they are shouted at and spat upon – like Rami with his flags.
At the time of writing, 635 Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in occupied Palestine. Hundreds have been sent to prison. Others have made public declarations that have worried the regime; they include paratroopers, tank officers and members of the Special Forces, Sayeret-Matka. In September 2003, twenty-seven air force pilots, including Brigadier-General Yiftah Spector, a hero of the 1967 war, announced they had refused to carry out ‘illegal and immoral’ raids ‘on civilian population centres’. The majority are young conscripts who must serve three years with the military. Their organisation is ‘Courage to Refuse’.
I spent an afternoon with one of them, former Sergeant Ishai Rosen-Zvi, an orthodox Jew. We met in a Tel Aviv park, away from unfriendly eyes. I asked him what had made him a ‘refusenik’.61
‘It took me longer than I wish to think. When I arrived in Gaza with my unit, I could see what we were doing was horrible, but I did my job; I felt uneasy and embarrassed, but I did my job. On leave, at home, I never talked about it; I became a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. Then I began to realise I was on the wrong side of the checkpoint, the roadblock we had to man day after day. The real story of the occupation is there at the roadblocks. Your job there is nothing, you stand around, and you think that if you could phone home, you would say, “This is boring.” Then it dawns on you what this nothingness really is. It is keeping thousands of people in frustration, in humiliation, in hunger, in anger.
‘Imagine it. You are standing there and it’s five in the morning, and you see their eyes – some of the people could be my grandfather – and you glimpse the humiliation and the hatred. You want to take them aside and say, “Look, I’m a good guy; I’ve got nothing against you.” But of course that has no point. For them, you are the occupation. And +nobody+ gives you their liberty for nothing.’
I said, ‘The government insists the roadblocks are there to stop the suicide bombers coming.’
‘The roadblocks were there thirty-five years before suicide bombing began. They are there to control, always control.’
‘Did Palestinians waiting under your control ever want to debate this with you?’
‘You have all the power; they have no power. You can, at any moment, take their ID, and then they have nothing, because without ID, they can be arrested at any time. So they take no risks; they don’t debate; they may even be deferential, but that’s not how they are in their hearts.’
‘How do other Israelis regard you, people you meet every day, who know you are a refusenik?’
‘Some look on me as an extreme leftist, which is funny, because I am a religious person. For them, the whole question of morality doesn’t come into it; they think I am twisted in the head. One of my best friends told me, “OK, it’s a stupid war, but it’s a war, and we’ve got to fight it.”‘
‘And your family?’
‘We don’t talk about it, or we try not to. My wife is speaking all the time about other things, because it’s too hard…’
‘So you’ve done this on your own?’
‘Yes. I am alone on this.’
‘What is the price you’ve paid?’
‘I am no hero, believe me. I am a hurt person; I am hurt when I am in the market and someone I don’t know says, “I read in the newspaper what you’ve done. It’s horrible. People like you are ruining our country.” That is like a knife attack and I am plunged into a personal battle in my head and heart; how do I say it…?’
‘You mean you have to keep explaining it to yourself?’
‘Yes, yes, and not just explain; I have to reassure myself. I have to say, “Ishai, you are +not+ a traitor.” It is hard saying this to yourself, on your own.’
‘What do you say to those Jewish people abroad who associate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism?’
‘Well, this is a huge bluff. It is the worst kind of propaganda. Jewish people in Britain, all over the world, who play this game of bluff are perpetuating the occupation and all its horrors. They should not contribute to such a device that desecrates the memory of Jewish suffering, and use it to justify the oppression of another people. It is profane.’
‘What would you like to say to your compatriots?’
‘I would like to say they should think hard about patriotism, because criticising our government on this issue is the +only+ patriotic thing we have left.’