The New Israeli Left
At the same time as the Bil’in protest, dozens of Palestinians and a few Israelis march toward the separation wall in Nil’in. Weekly protests also take place in Nabi Saleh, al Mas’ara, Beit Umar, Hebron, Iraq Burin, various villages in the South Hebron Hills and in Walaja, just south of the Jerusalem municipal border. Walaja is about to be completely surrounded by the wall, leaving only a narrow gate in what will become an open-air prison for its 2,000 residents. Dozens of Israelis and Palestinians have been arrested while attempting to disrupt the wall’s construction there.
The deteriorating ability to protest and the narrowing space for political activism against the Israeli occupation, Pollak says, have coincided with a growing space for racism and nationalism.
Many of these communities have not seen extended, large-scale demonstrations against the occupation since the first intifada, which ended in the early 1990s. (The second intifada began in October 2000 with unarmed protests at Israeli checkpoints, but after dozens of Palestinians were killed by massive Israeli firepower, it gradually took the form of an armed struggle carried out by small cells of militants and aimed at Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians. Israel, using all its military power, eventually crushed it, and the violence left thousands of casualties in both societies, deepening hostility between Israelis and Palestinians and handing the Israeli left a near-fatal blow.)
“In fact, the Israeli left never recovered from Rabin’s assassination” in 1995, says former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. “Later, Ehud Barak came and presented his personal failure in Camp David [in 2000] as the failure of the entire way. When the head of the peace camp declared that there was no partner on the other side, it opened the door for unilateralism.” Burg, the son of one of Israel’s legendary religious leaders, was a prominent voice in the Israeli left during the 1980s and ’90s, a member of Peace Now and one of the leaders of the Labor Party; since his retirement from the Knesset in 2003, his criticism of liberal Zionism and its exclusively Jewish nature has deepened. Recently he called for Israeli Jews to explore alternative historical narratives and political models. “There was something unilateral in Zionism from the start, but it became the only way after Camp David,” says Burg. “We built the fence unilaterally, and we left Gaza unilaterally. Barak brought us back to the days of Golda Meir, who denied there is such a thing as a Palestinian people.” At the same time, the closures on the West Bank—introduced by Israel in the early 1990s and vastly tightened with the second intifada and construction of the separation wall a decade later—ended the daily direct contact, much of it commercial, that was common between Israeli and Palestinian civilians. Today most Israelis don’t travel to the West Bank except as part of their military service or on settler-only bypass roads, while a new generation of Palestinians knows Israelis only as soldiers in uniform or as settlers.
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The joint struggle presents a new path for Israelis and Palestinians. While most Palestinians welcome any kind of support for their cause, not many Israelis choose to take this road; but for those who do, it changes their life. “The simple action of being there, behind walls and checkpoints, is subversive on its own,” says Adar Grayevsky, 28, an Israeli activist from Tel Aviv. “The whole idea of Israel is built on separation, and the notion that we can break that separation between us and the West Bank is powerful and new.”
“Without our partners we could not have had achievements like the international recognition of Bil’in as a place of Palestinian nonviolence, or the Supreme Court ruling that ordered the return of some of the village’s land,” says Dr. Rateb Abu Rahmah, brother of the imprisoned Abdallah Abu Rahmah. “The Israeli activists and international activists have been with us from the first day. There have been many Israeli activists who have been arrested and injured. We have seen that these are real partners with us against the wall and the settlements. We have Israelis who even stay with us in our houses because of the IDF night raids. Our struggle is a triangle with the Palestinians, the Israeli activists and the international activists. Without these support pillars, we would not succeed.”
“It takes a lot to go to these protests,” says Burg. “I see a real dedication, even sanctity, in those young people. In Bil’in you might actually get hurt, even killed. Back in the days of Peace Now, none of us thought we would end up in jail.”
The protests usually start over the issue of land confiscation—in most cases, farmland being taken for the construction of the wall, which cuts deep into Palestinian territory, passing through private land, villages and even neighborhoods. In some cases, the trigger is house demolition orders or the seizure of land for nearby settlements.
According to the organizers, the protests are about the human and civil rights of Palestinians living under occupation. They do not address the on-and-off political negotiations between the PA and Israel but focus on the livelihoods of ordinary people. When local leaders want to involve Israelis in the protest, they usually turn to Anarchists Against the Wall. The term “anarchist” is somewhat misleading; though some in AATW follow anarchist ideology, in practice the group focuses on the occupation and violations of Palestinian human rights. AATW, which has a few dozen activists and a somewhat larger support circle of nonmembers who occasionally take part in protests, does not have a political platform. They see themselves as a collective who believe their privileged status as Israeli Jews should be used to assist unarmed Palestinian resistance movements. While it seems that most members of AATW support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and a one-state solution to the conflict, the group has never taken a position on such issues, nor does it take a stance on Israeli electoral politics.
“I don’t keep myself busy thinking about one or two states,” explains Ronnie Barkan, who has been attending protests since 2003. “I deal with human rights. I have no interest in nationalism or patriotism—not even Palestinian nationalism. I am learning to be led and not to try to lead.”
AATW was formed as the first parts of the wall were being built, at the height of the second intifada, when violence and tensions were high. The activists were repeatedly arrested and injured. It also took some time for them to gain the trust of Palestinians. “Some worried, and for a good reason, that we were Shin Bet [Israel’s internal security agency],” recalls Pollak. “I remember one demo in which I was taken aside and searched by the shabab. With time, when they saw us standing shoulder to shoulder with them, and especially when they saw how the Israeli army treated us, more trust was gained.” Israeli protesters have been injured and arrested, and a few have been sentenced to short jail terms. Lately, some have been summoned by the Shin Bet to receive warning lectures. Yet there is no way to compare this to the far harsher treatment routinely meted out to Palestinians. The anarchists often refer to their privileged status, which seems to increase their urge to act.
Palestinians still debate the usefulness of cooperating with Israelis (some claim that even if the Israelis mean well, working with them ultimately legitimizes Israel), but in the villages where joint protests take place, the spirit of cooperation is evident. It is common to see Palestinians hiding Israeli activists from soldiers during demonstrations. Palestinians host Israeli and international activists in their homes.