Menu JTA Search

Months of Deadly Violence Force Israeli Leftists to Rethink Strategies

It was a fairly restrained group of left-wing demonstrators outside the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence on a recent Thursday evening, holding up boldly printed signs and chanting slogans, with occasional supportive honks from cars driving past the busy intersection.

“Powell: Mitchell Now or Never,” read the Peace Now demonstrators’ signs, beseeching the U.S. secretary of state to successfully moderate negotiations during his visit.

Across the street, the tight core of right wingers parked a truck holding dummy oil barrels representing America’s interest in retaining Arab oil interests. They also had signs that read, “Arafat’s Ceasefire is Killing Us,” and “Arafat Must Be Defeated.”

“Anger is the best trigger,” said Galia Golan, the spokesperson for Peace Now, which had about 70 protestors. “The right wing has that.”

The past nine months of the Al-Aksa Intifada have been a time of re-evaluation for many of Israel’s peacenik groups. The more moderate groups have grown disillusioned with Palestinian violence and the physical, emotional and political toll it is wreaking on Israelis.

The radicals, however, are finding it hard to restrain from saying, “I told you so,” having warned for years that Israeli “occupation” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip inevitably would lead to an explosion.

“We don’t feel that something unexpected happened, we warned the government about this possibility,” said Adam Keller, spokesman for Gush Shalom, a peace group that identifies with the Palestinian struggle — except for the “right” of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel.

“The Palestinians want a state with borders from pre-1967, and the Israelis were trying to swindle them out of it,” Keller said.

When the intifada began at the end of last September, groups like Peace Now and their cohorts to the left were out in full force, protesting Israel’s actions against its Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.

Peace Now participated in Arab demonstrations, while Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to protecting Palestinian human rights, helped Arab farmers harvest what was left of their olive crops and dismantle roadblocks.

Gush Shalom turned the heat up on its boycott of Israeli goods made in the West Bank, while Women in Black, a worldwide feminist movement, continued its weekly Friday vigils attended by Jewish and Arab women.

But as Palestinian violence intensified toward suicide bombings and sniper attacks, Peace Now — which was established by army reservists frustrated by the decades-old conflict with the Palestinians — found its worldview undercut.

Peace Now rejects violence — as do most of the peace organizations — and found itself stunned by the Palestinian outburst.

Thousands of supporters abandoned the peace camp after concluding that the Palestinians weren’t serious about reconciliation with Israel, but others concluded that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace offers at Camp David last summer — and in subsequent negotiations — weren’t as generous as they had believed.

The recently released Mitchell Report, however, which sets out guidelines for moving away from violence and back toward diplomacy, has given Peace Now a basis to advocate a return to the negotiating table.

“The point now is to revive the peace negotiations because everything is negotiable,” Golan told JTA. “As much as the Israeli public is disillusioned, it still wants an agreement and it supports taking down the settlements and a two-state solution.”

Peace Now hasn’t had a major demonstration since the intifada began in late September. Its first demonstration in months was planned for June 2, but it was canceled after a suicide bombing the day before killed 21 Israelis outside a Tel Aviv disco.

Golan characterized the recent gathering outside the prime minister’s home as a cross between a vigil and a demonstration. With the Mitchell Report and the consequent cease-fire plan mediated by CIA Director George Tenet — but never implemented — Peace Now is again concentrating on holding a full demonstration.

“In left-wing circles, you can be a small and pure movement, but there’s an important place for mass movements,” said Golan, who is a political science professor at Tel Aviv University.

But the days of gathering hundreds of thousands of demonstrators under Peace Now’s relatively moderate banner are long over, according to Keller.

“Peace Now can’t do a big demonstration in Rabin Square anymore,” he said. “They’ve had a downturn in numbers, and they’re having intensive fights over this crisis and how to deal with it.”

During the winter months, when it was primarily Jewish settlers bearing the brunt of Palestinian violence, these groups had to reckon how to balance their calls for nonviolence with their opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When violence moved inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and bombs began exploding in Netanya, Kfar Saba and Tel Aviv, their problems intensified.

“We have to figure out how we can more clearly indicate that we reject this violence,” said Jeremy Milgrom, a Conservative rabbi and a field director for Rabbis for Human Rights, a small faction among rabbis in Israel. “If we go out and protest at a roadblock, the public sees us as pro-Palestinian, which we have no problem with. But we’re also seen as somehow condoning the use of violence by Palestinians, and that’s not us either.”

Groups like Rabbis for Human Rights lost some supporters who felt grief and anger about Palestinian violence against Jewish settlers, Milgrom said.

The issue of Palestinian human rights becomes a luxury of sorts for these groups, particularly when Jewish settlers are being targeted and killed on a regular basis.

“We have to assess how to address this predicament,” Milgrom acknowledged. “We don’t want an open season on settlers. We become very brittle and even unfaithful to our own sources of faith when we look at a process which forces settlers to leave by violence.”

The same goes for Peace Now.

For months, the organization has been holding open meetings to discuss its direction. For the most part, the older members want to keep things quiet, while the younger activists talk about demonstrating against Israeli policy in the territories.

A senior army officer recently lashed out at leftist groups, saying their demonstrations in the West Bank are harmful to soldiers and settlers, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.

“The leftist demonstrations are inflaming the situation and giving a great boost to the Palestinians,” the officer told the Israel Defense Force weekly Bamahane, according to the Post. “They are provoking attacks on soldiers and Israeli citizens, and the demonstrating leftists have no problem with this. They have crossed the red line.”

But Peace Now insists that it does have red lines. Predominantly secular and middle class, the organization always has been careful about its bedfellows.

“We’ve always been Zionist and we don’t go in for Israel bashing,” Golan said.

As such, Peace Now has always had easy access to Knesset members and government ministers, as well as strong ties to the Labor and Meretz parties.

That contrasts with the more radical Gush Shalom, which clearly distinguishes itself from the Labor/Meretz mishpachah, or family Keller said.

For Gush Shalom, the emphasis is on ending Israel’s remaining “occupation” of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and developing close associations with Palestinian organizations. The logo for Gush, which means bloc, is a circle, with the blue-and-white Israeli flag on one side and the red, black, white and green Palestinian flag on the other.

“We’re not like Peace Now or Meretz, that are looking for a path out of this crisis,” Keller said. “We’re more hardcore. We see the intifada as the struggle of the Palestinians against the occupation, and they have the right to resist — just like the Israelis did against the British.”

NEXT STORY