Seth Freedman, 19 January 2010
The stage was set, the cast assembled. On one side, heavily armed Israeli soldiers, police and private security guards. On the other, scores of Israeli and Palestinian activists, flying banners and waving placards, with press photographers and documentary makers on hand to record events as they unfolded. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, the air felt still and calm: the lull before the storm.
And then… that was how it remained for the rest of the day, all lull and no storm, which was a welcome respite from the violent clashes taking place elsewhere in the Occupied Territories. This wasn’t Bi’lin, nor Ni’lin, nor Sheikh Jarrah – places which routinely descend into aggressive hostilities between rock-throwing demonstrators and teargas-firing security forces. Instead, this was a perfectly planned, perfectly executed example of a joint Israeli-Palestinian protest where flailing fists and antagonistic posturing came a distant second to clear-headed, constructive bond-forging between activists from both sides.
Combatants for Peace (CFP) had organised the day’s protest against the planned construction of the Givat Yael settlement, a project entirely at odds with the current freeze imposed on settler building in the West Bank. Givat Yael is slated to be established on land belonging to the Palestinian village of Wallaje on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a move CFP calls “an additional step signifying the narrowing of the possibility for a political negotiation [between the Israelis and Palestinians]”.
As a result, CFP mobilised their supporters, along with activists from Rabbis for Human Rights, ICAHD and other prominent NGOs, to demonstrate peacefully in the farmland around Wallaje in order to voice their opposition to the Givat Yael development.
“We’re here to support our friends from Wallaje,” explained Idan Barir, a 29-year-old Israeli who formerly served in an artillery unit of the IDF. CFP are comprised of ex-IDF soldiers and ex-members of Palestinian militant groups, who have renounced violence and now seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict – something which Barir finds entirely compatible with his world view.
“[CFP] is the first and only organisation I have found where I can be accepted as a proud patriot,” he said, “while at the same time being accepted as a refusenik showing his objection to the occupation. Here I can cooperate with Palestinians who have the same goals as me: two states for two peoples.”
He was sanguine about the efficacy of the protest, despite it appearing that neither local settlers nor soldiers took much notice of the event. “People don’t think we have the ability to change anything, but that is only because the Israeli mainstream have currently [taken leave of] their senses,” he said.
“The second intifada caused a great deal of shock, and the trauma still remains today,” he continued. “But once they come back to their senses they will realise what the upshot of the intifada has been that the settlers have become 100 times stronger, that they have taken more land, expanded the settlements… and that we are en route to a binational state. Once they [wake up], then you’ll see and feel what impact groups like ours will have on Israeli society.”
In the meantime, he said, “we are making a real difference to the lives of the Palestinians from Wallaje – those who are with us at the protest, and those who saw us out of their windows as we drove through their village and saw Israelis supporting them, when previously the only Israelis they saw were dressed in military uniforms.”
The demonstration comprised a solidarity march, speeches, and a joint prayer session held in Hebrew and Arabic; the mood was one of positivity and hope, rather than the poisoned atmosphere of rage and anger so common at the weekly protests a few miles down the road. Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, one of the heads of Rabbis for Human Rights, explained why his group were far more comfortable participating in an event like this rather than the more violent demonstrations elsewhere:
Whilst Bi’lin is a just struggle, when it slides into violence it is counterproductive. I understand why people in their rage slide into violence, but I don’t agree with it all the same – they shoot themselves in the foot by doing so, especially because Israelis are so quick to close their ears [as soon as violence enters into the equation]. As we have seen, violence has not helped the Palestinian cause.
He said that Rabbis for Human Rights are not opposed to acts of civil disobedience “when there is no other option”, but even then only if they are non-aggressive in nature. His philosophy, as well as that of CFP’s leaders, is a much-needed alternative to the vain and futile clashes that erupt with depressing regularity across the West Bank and serve to overshadow the tireless work done by the more even-tempered activists in the region.
Shifting Israeli public opinion is, arguably, the most important challenge faced by both Palestinian and Israeli peace activists today. Sticks and stones have failed miserably to convince Israelis that they have a willing partner for peace on the Palestinian side, whereas groups such as CFP, ICAHD and RHR have had a far more positive effect in convincing the average Israeli that there is a chance of making progress towards a resolution. According to Einat, another CFP activist, “if we want peace, we must act in peace. When we carry out nonviolent actions, our behaviour affects the area where we work – the means are more important than the end”.