Michael Totten

Peace Now Under Fire

SHOMRAT, ISRAEL — I drove up to Kibbutz Shomrat, just north of Akko (Acre) near the border with Lebanon, and met two middle-aged members of Peace Now who stayed in the line of Katyusha fire throughout the war. I expected to meet two marginalized members of the old left who were stuck on the sidelines as history roared past. Instead, they insisted the rest of Israeli society is coming around to their point of view.
Amichai Geva warmly welcomed me into his home and fed me pitas, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, and watermelon. Yehuda Beinin joined us in the living room.
Both men and their families stayed on the kibbutz during Hezbollah’s attack.
“Lots of rockets hit near the kibbutz,” Amichai said. “One fell right here in the orchard next to the houses. But none of the houses were hit. Most people without children in the house stayed. It’s hard to keep children in a bomb shelter for almost five weeks.”
“How much time did you have after you heard the siren before the rockets actually hit?” I said.
“Thirty seconds sometimes,” Yehuda said. “Sometimes five seconds. Sometimes minus five seconds…the sirens didn’t always come on until after the rockets exploded. We’re right near the border here.”
I didn’t want to meet these guys to talk about rockets, though. I wanted to get an idea of how the peace movement is faring after Israel was attacked from a country they pushed to withdraw from.
The short answer is that they’re frustrated. But their own country isn’t the only one that frustrates them.
Yehuda told me he recently spoke to an Egyptian via email about an anti-Hezbollah article published in Lebanon.
“This guy came up with all of the regular tradition anti-Israel positions that we’re familiar with,” he said. “I responded to this guy and said ‘You’re living in the past. There are things that happened sixty years ago, and if you’re going to relate to them like they happened yesterday then we’re not going anywhere.’ I, as an Israeli, don’t have a problem admitting that a tragedy befell the Palestinians in 1948. And this guy, first of all, couldn’t believe that an Israeli would actually admit that something happened to the Palestinians. And in a very course and dogmatic way, just wasn’t going to cut me a break.”
“The Arab Nationalists say Israel has no role to play in the Middle East and that we’ll have to leave,” Amichai said.
“What do you do with this?” Yehuda said. “It’s not reasonable to expect Jewish people to just roll up and go away or disappear. But on the other hand, a true injustice was done to the Palestinians. Between those two poles, you have all sorts of people coming up with all sorts of statements, theories, and whatnot. And it’s all obviously useless. Nothing has led to anything. All we see is military confrontation. When the first Zionists came to Palestine, Palestine was a feudal society. And you have a big clash between concepts that have nothing to do with religion or anything of that nature. The fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is degrading into a religious conflict is a tragedy beyond description. It never really was.”
Israel is often thought of, in the West, as an unhinged fanatically right-wing country, like the U.S. on speed. Israel is far more ‘European,’ though, than it is ‘American.’ If Israel were not constantly under fire and constantly embroiled in conflict with eliminationist enemies, Israel would resemble a Jewish France or even Sweden of the Levant. The country was founded by democratic Labor Party socialists, and only rather recently has become more capitalist and complex.
“We have always considered ourselves leftists,” Yehuda said. “Always questioning ourselves about what is going on. But there is no way to bridge the gap between the statuses of the two societies that came here. Evidently only time will tell. The gaps that were created at the beginning were wide and have become wider. My conclusion for the time being is that just, evidently, not enough people have died for people to catch on here that there is an alternative that would suit everyone better.”
“How many people are in the peace movement?” I said. “It looks pretty small, especially during this latest round of fighting in Lebanon.”
“20 to 50 thousand people generally throughout the 1980s and 1990s came to [Peace Now] demonstrations,” Amichai said. “One of the major things that happened in 1982 was the Sabra and Chatilla massacres.”
He was referring to the massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps south of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The Lebanese Phalangist militia did the deed under cover of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Defense Forces.
“It was a tremendous shock to Israel,” he said. “Hundreds of people were being massacred and slaughtered. This caused the trauma for many many people in Israel of the Holocaust all over again. But in reverse. People said how could our country allow this to happen? Even if the people who did the actual killing weren’t Israeli soldiers. But the Israeli army was in control of that area. And they let them in. That was the largest demonstration in Israel.”
“Ever?” I said.
“Ever,” he said. “There were 400,000 people. At the time the population of Israel was less than four million. Ten percent of the population went to Tel Aviv and demonstrated.”
I wanted to know if there are many Berkeley-style leftists in Israel.
“I think what’s different from our peace movement,” Amichai said, “from the peace movements in the United States, in other countries, and in Europe is the question of serving in the army. Peace movements are usually pacifists and they don’t encourage their members to serve in the army. The Israeli peace movement believes that Israel would not exist if we didn’t defend it. There is a slogan that’s going around: If the Arabs put down their arms, there will be peace. If the Jews put down their arms there won’t be any Jews left. And I think there’s a basic truth to that.”
“Amichai is speaking in the context of Israel,” Yehuda said, “and I can understand that. My feeling goes beyond the spirit of Israeli society only. I see organizations like Hezbollah as a threat to humanity in the same manner, for me, as the settler movement is also a threat. Where you have a nationalism that hooks up with a religious idea, I see only trouble. I’m not willing to discriminate between Jews and Arabs on this score. Not at all.”
“The Saudi peace plan is on the table,” Amichai said. “It’s what’s going to be in the end anyway. It’s just a question of how many more people are going to get killed.”
“Do you guys think Hamas agrees that the end is going to look like this?” I said. “Or do they actually believe they are going to destroy this country?”
“They actually believe they are going to destroy this country,” Amichai said. “They look at the Crusades as their historical comparison. It took 200 years to kick the Crusaders out. And the Jews have been here for 100 years. Wait another 100 years. If it doesn’t take 200 years, it will take 400. But eventually they think they will succeed.”
The Israeli peace movment serves in the army. Combat units include members of Peace Now. Israel is the only Western country that still fights wars with people like this as its soldiers. Some of the ultra-orthodox, by contrast, do not serve in the army. So while the U.S. military is more conservative than America as a whole, the Israeli army is slightly more liberal than Jewish Israeli society as a whole.
“Our group came to the kibbutz in the early 1970s,” Amichai said. “We were finishing high school and starting college during the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the late 1960s. And we attended the march in Washington and a whole bunch of other massive demonstrations against the American involvement in Vietnam. And then we came to Israel as committed Zionists. And we had to face going in the army. And…all of us did. Many of us served through over 25 years of reserve duty after finishing our regular service. That changes your opinion when you go to reserve duty and put your life on the line.”
“How does that affect you as a peace activist?” I said. “Does it make you more committed or less?”
“It made us more committed to that,” Amichai said. “Especially, I think, when the first intifada broke out. When there was the Yom Kippur War and the Israeli army was attacked on two fronts we felt that by serving in the army we’re defending our country. But when the intifada broke out and there was the question of masses of Arab women and children throwing stones — that was the war of the rocks — we felt that by serving and trying to oppress the justified anger of the Palestinians from trying to achieve self-determination, that made it much much harder to go into reserve duty. It made us more committed to try to leave both Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. The main goal of the peace movement was to get out of Lebanon and to get out of the Occupied Territories. I was very very active in the struggle to leave Lebanon. I served in Lebanon twice.”
“In 1967 Israel just blew it,” Yehuda said. “Ben Gurion said to get rid of those territories. No good is going to come out of it. People were overwhelmed with the victory. I don’t think Israel had a choice. Then we ended up with the territories. Nobody forced us to hold onto that and to start a settlement movement there.”
Amichai and Yehuda both think withdrawing from occupied territory in Lebanon and Gaza was the right decision, even if things did not go as planned.
“This recent war has shown how much latitude the world is willing to give Israel when we fight from our recognized border,” Yehuda said. “I strongly object when people come up with all kinds of excuses for why we can’t withdraw from the West Bank. They come up with strategic excuses or water excuses or land excuses, all kinds of excuses. But the simple fact of the matter is that this is what the world recognizes. And from that border we could wreck havoc on any attack like we did here.”
“You guys,” I said “think the recent invasion of Lebanon was a mistake?”
They both laughed.
“I think that if you ask most Israelis today in retrospect,” Amichai said, “looking at the results after the month, a large majority thinks it was a mistake.”
“I thought it was a mistake right away,” I said.
“Very few of us did,” Amichai said.
“Here was a golden opportunity,” Yehuda said, “that the whole world and half the Arab world gave us on a silver plate. And we blew it. It had to happen quick. You have to understand something, though. Israel is not in the business of killing civilians. People in this country left, right, up, down really can’t tolerate that, won’t tolerate it. Because it’s bad. It’s not a value that Israel goes by. Israel also is sensitive, on the bottom line and in the final analysis, Israel is sensitive to world opinion. Nobody likes to hear all this nonsense. But there is also the realization that the whole ethos of the IDF was the lighting quick strike, boom, and finished. As soon as people saw that it wasn’t getting finished, everyone knew what the consequences were. This is also a major intelligence failure as well.”
“In the first few days,” Amichai said “and I think this was your basic question, almost all of us were supportive of the Israeli action.”
“Yeah,” Yehuda said in a tone of voice that suggested he, too, was supportive.
“We were because for years we were struggling to take the Israeli army out of Lebanon,” Amichai said. “And we did that. And we felt that the United Nations recognized the fact that Israel withdrew from the very very last centimeter of Lebanese territory. And we think this whole Shebaa Farms thing is a ploy. Hezbollah used it as their raison d’’tre to continue to rearm and continue their resistance movement. We felt that Israel was right to leave Lebanon. And Israel was exactly right to leave Lebanon. But if we’re attacked after we leave then we’re completely right to defend ourselves. And the basic question that I was asking myself was, how do we do that? And I think we did it very very poorly. And we did it without using forethought. Many people in Lebanon supported the action in the first few days and then we lost the support. It was the exact same with me. Sitting in our bomb shelter — and I’ll show it to you right afterwards — and we’re watching our soldiers and the army and…when I mentioned the fact that after being 1960s radicals and coming to Israel and serving in the army it’s a whole complete different mindset when our children start serving in the army.”
“What do you think Israel should have done instead at the beginning?” I said.
“Knowing Hezbollah,” Yehuda said, “there would have been ample opportunities to launch a strike. If the army would have been better prepared, and if the civilian population would have been prepared. What were these people thinking? What were the circumstances that led people into this kind of train of thought that they thought they could get away with this kind of activity being so ill-prepared. Some kind of hubris that goes way beyond, I mean, this is, from my point of view, this whole war and the results thereof have weakened Israel a great deal. And it almost certainly dictates a second round.”
“Yes,” Amichai said. “Many people are talking about the second round.”
“That in itself is a grave error,” Yehuda said. “You don’t want to create a war where you have to have another war to fix the first one. It’s just bad error of judgment.”
“What, as specifically as possible, should have been done instead?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Amichai said. “None of us do. I think what we do know is what shouldn’t have been done. Look at what we did in the past. There were two major bombings of Lebanon in the past. One of them was by the Labor government in 1995 or 1996 called The Grapes of Wrath.”
“That was the first Qana incident,” I said.
“Prior to that,” Amichai said, “there was Judgment Day which was very very similar to that. Trying to bomb Southern Lebanon to force the people to flee and cause pressure on the Lebanese government. This is the third time we’re doing that. And it’s not a very clever way of doing it. And they failed three times. All three cases failed. You would think that an intelligent country would learn from its first mistake or even from the second mistake. Why would you do it the third time? I am flabbergasted by this military strategy. I cannot understand it. I think it had to be done differently and cleverly without causing masses of civilian casualties and civilian destruction.”
“How do you do that with a guerilla army, though?” I said. “There’s no bad guy bullet that just hits Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah.”
“It’s very very hard to destroy Hezbollah,” Amichai said. “I don’t think you can destroy it without sending in tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers and suffering hundreds and hundreds of casualties. That’s one possibility. And it would last a very very long time. That’s what many people said should have been done from the very beginning. Other people said — and this was a debate in the cabinet — that after one week when you’ve tried all the things that you’ve tried with the bombing in first week and you didn’t succeed you try to achieve a cease-fire that will force the international community to disarm Hezbollah.”
“This was the point of view of the Foreign Minister,” Yehuda said.
“And this is the position that I support,” Amichai said. “And this is what we’re trying to do now. And the terrible loss of life on both sides, it’s a tragedy.”
“Do you guys feel alienated from the Israeli mainstream?” I said.
“I think the mainstream has become much closer to what we think,” Amichai said, “than twenty years ago. I mean, leaving the Gaza Strip, we were against the settler movements in Gaza Strip for 30 years. The father of the settlements, Arik Sharon, is the one who removed them. If you would ask me two years ago — it happened exactly one year ago — if you asked me two years ago was that possible, I would say it would be impossible. The people who voted for him in power were all the settlers. They are his political supporters. It’s as if, like, suddenly Bush, who is supported by the Evangelical Christians in the United States, suddenly becomes pro-abortion and anti-NRA. That’s the switch that happened in Israel.”
“That’s why the Likud Party split,” Yehuda said.
“But 70 percent of the people of Israel supported it,” Amichai said.
“How many would support doing the same thing in the West Bank?” I said.
“The same 70 percent,” Amichai said.
“Absolutely,” Yehuda said. “This is the point. The settler movement has shown itself to be very pernicious and has its tentacles very deeply in a lot of different government ministries. The general population perceives this as a basic threat to the country. There were official government decisions not to build any more settlements, and building is going on. In addition to the obvious anti-democratic aspects of this activity, people perceive it as a threat. I mean, we’re trying to get something done here. There is a kind of dialectic here between the left and the right. But people want to be in the center where they’re comfortable.”
“One of the things,” Amichai said, “that I think has put a damper on the idea of removing settlements and leaving the Occupied Territories in the West Bank has been the example of Gaza. Since the day we left we’ve had Kassem rockets fall on our territories. So people say, here’s your example. I was always saying, for years, let’s remove the settlements and let’s let the Palestinians rule, and this will show us that it’s possible to reach peace, by not controlling the Occupied Territories. And anyone saying, well if you open your eyes and look what happened, you’ll see we’ve been proved wrong.”
“So what do you do then?” I said.
“I think my criticism of the Israeli government from the very beginning of leaving the Occupied Territories…was not trying to strengthen the moderates. If Israel would have made gestures of support to Abu Mazen and tried to strengthen the moderate wing and engage with him and give the Gaza Strip back to him rather than not have any negotiations with him, I mean, I cannot understand the logic of that. I mean, they strengthened the radicals who have the glory of kicking the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip. Or out of Southern Lebanon. That’s a stupid way of going about it.”
“But if the moderates are strengthened,” I said, “the radicals haven’t gone anywhere. They still have their Kassem rockets. What do you do with these guys? I mean, you can’t just take rocket hits.”
“No,” Amichai said. “You can’t. You have to strike back. You have to strike back.”
“What do you think about the fact that peace movement don’t exist in Arab countries?” I said.
“Disappointing,” Amichai said. “It is disappointing.”
“I hope this is not an offensive question,” I said, “because I don’t mean it to be. But, do you ever feel like a sucker?”
“No,” Amichai said. “I think my best interest is not to have an occupied people under my foot and under my boot. I think that affects my freedom when Palestinians don’t have their natural rights to live alongside of me. My desire for freedom is to have an independent Jewish state next to an independent Palestinian state. That will liberate me. And I just hope we can find a partner so there will not be Kassem rockets flying from that state into the Ben Gurion airport when they’re just a few kilometers away.”
“I think the occupation makes people think unclearly,” Yehuda said.
“You mean Israelis?” I said.
“Israelis,” Yehuda said. “And Arabs. Everybody’s playing with matches.”
Post-script: Unfortunately I am not allowed into Gaza right now, due in part to security and in part to bureaucracy. I do intend, however, to visit the Israeli areas right next to Gaza so I can get as good an understanding of what’s going on down there as possible. Please hit the PayPal button and help me out.
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