The New Israeli Left | The Nation


The New Israeli Left

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As the controversial 443 highway, which connects Tel Aviv with Jerusalem by passing through the West Bank, begins to curve toward Israel’s capital, the eye is inevitably drawn to an imposing gray structure with massive concrete walls, part of the Ofer Military Prison. Commuters are barely aware of what takes place behind those walls, and that’s no accident—the Ofer compound, comprising a military court, detention center and prison, is just one of many black holes that enable Israelis to go on with their daily lives, unaware of the everyday realities of the occupation.

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Noam Sheizaf
Noam Sheizaf, a Tel Aviv–based journalist, is manager of +972 Magazine. He covers the Israeli political system...
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Joseph Dana, a journalist based in the West Bank and a contributing editor for the online independent commentary...

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Inside, a man in shackles enters the courtroom. He is wearing a brown prison suit, and his exhausted eyes exchange glances with his wife. The two haven’t met outside the courtroom in more than a year, and for some reason the prison guards are frantically moving the wife so she doesn’t sit too close to her husband, who is officially a “security risk.” Soon the military judge, outfitted in a light green Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniform and an army beret, enters the room and begins the proceedings.

This trial could be any one of the thousands that have taken place at Ofer. Israeli military justice is swift and unflinching: according to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, the conviction rate at Ofer is an astounding 99.7 percent. Hearings are short, and apart from relatives who use the opportunity to see their loved ones, nobody bothers to attend or report on the proceedings. But today is different. The small courtroom is full, with twenty European diplomats—including the British general consul, Sir Vincent Fean—as well as a handful of Israelis who have become close to the prisoner through years of joint action.

The prisoner, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a 39-year-old schoolteacher and father of three, has already been convicted and has served a sentence for incitement and organizing illegal protests in the West Bank village of Bil’in. But after a prosecutor’s appeal, the judge ordered that he be kept in prison. Abu Rahmah would later receive an additional six months of prison time.

It wasn’t only friendship that brought the Israelis to Ofer. They see the case against Abu Rahmah as part of a new effort to crush unarmed resistance in the West Bank. For them, Abu Rahmah is not just another Palestinian activist. By leading the mostly nonviolent weekly protests in his village against Israel’s separation wall, he has become the face of a new uprising against the occupation and a key player in a kind of activism that has united Jews, Palestinians and people from around the world—one that carries a message of hope, something as unusual and unexpected in this part of the world as the recent uprisings that have toppled Arab tyrannies. It is a hope that can even penetrate the forbidding walls of the Ofer military compound.

* * *

Friday morning in Tel Aviv. Rothschild Boulevard, a main street in the heart of the city, is filled with young couples, children playing and people walking their dogs. Sidewalk tables outside fashionable cafes are packed with patrons browsing through the weekend papers and discussing the latest developments on Dancing With the Stars.

A few blocks away, on a quiet street corner, a small group of Israelis is gathering. Some of them carry small backpacks and water bottles. Two are going through technical details for the day: How many people are expected? Will they fit in two cars, or should a third be called? The rest of the group anxiously wait for the vehicles to show up; they are about to venture through numerous checkpoints and past the wall into the West Bank.

As the cars head east from Tel Aviv, roadblocks and alternate routes are discussed. One group, headed for the Palestinian village of Nil’in, decides to take a longer way around and avoid the village’s main entrance, where an army patrol jeep is known to wait. Gil (some names have been changed to protect the activists from prosecution), on his way to nearby Bil’in, takes his usual route. “If we are stopped,” he tells the passengers, “say we are on the way to Cohen’s bar mitzvah in the settlement of Nilli. It works every week.” Twenty minutes after leaving Tel Aviv, Gil exits the highway at an unmarked turnoff. They are now in the Palestinian territories, a place visited by few Israelis other than settlers and soldiers. A large warning sign in Hebrew reads, “Israeli, attention—if you got this far, you are on the wrong way!”

As far as most of the Jewish public in Israel is concerned, these activists took the wrong way a long time ago. It has been almost a decade since a handful of them started taking part in unarmed Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation. Their number has risen steadily, as has hostility from mainstream Israeli society. Their actions are considered a breach of the old ways of the Zionist left, which for the most part preferred rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, attended by a predominantly Jewish crowd and carried out with police approval and protection. Those rallies targeted government policy and right-wing settlers. But the methods of this younger breed of activists, which involve protesting side by side with Palestinians and confronting the IDF—still the most sacred of Israeli institutions—are seen by most Israelis as breaking a taboo, as no less than betrayal.

Unlike traditional Israeli peace rallies, the West Bank demonstrations are led by Palestinians. The Jewish participants arrive at the invitation of local Palestinian committees, and they must accept the political and tactical choices of the local leadership. Although there is coordination, it’s the Palestinians who decide on the course of action and the level of confrontation with the army. The Israelis see themselves as guests.

“The joint struggle opens up a way for us to be supportive of the Palestinians without silencing them and appropriating their suffering,” says Ayala Shani, a longtime activist who attends the protests regularly. “It means that Palestinians are leading their own struggle for freedom, and Israelis have the opportunity to stand with them in solidarity.”

Under Israeli military law, Palestinians are not allowed to protest the occupation without special permits, which are almost never requested—partly as a matter of principle, but also because they are almost never given. The unarmed demonstrations are usually met with heavy-handed measures, including tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and even live ammunition. Since 2005, twenty-one Palestinians have been killed in these demonstrations, including ten under 18, with thousands injured. Israelis and international activists have been injured too, but so far no Israeli Jews have been killed. The Israeli protesters claim that their presence restrains the army and helps draw media attention. Many Palestinians agree, and over the years they have come to see the Israeli activists as partners.

“The participation of Israelis in demonstrations, unfortunately, does make a difference,” says Jonathan Pollak, one of the first activists to take part in the demonstrations and now media coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, a Palestinian umbrella organization of local committees [for more on Pollak, see Rebecca Vilkomerson's interview with him]. “It makes a difference because of the racist nature of our situation. Open-fire regulations, for instance, are a lot more stringent, officially, when Israelis are present. It is, however, important to remember that we are not much more than a side note in the movement, and that it is the Palestinians who are at its center.

“People are often fascinated by the fact that a handful of Israelis cross the lines this way. But currently this is what we really are, a handful, and the real question, in my opinion, is, How come only so few do so? The sad answer is that most Israelis simply don’t care; to most Israelis, Palestinians simply don’t really exist.” (A few days after we interviewed Pollak for this piece, he was convicted of taking part in an unlawful demonstration in Tel Aviv against the Gaza blockade. As soon as he was released from jail, he rejoined solidarity demonstrations in the West Bank.)

* * *

With the checkpoints behind them, the Israelis drive through Palestinian villages on the last part of their journey. “Five years ago, there were occasional stones thrown at Israeli cars here. Even we got hit a few times,” says Gil. Now people wave hello. Gil parks in the center of Bil’in. A few dozen international activists are already there, some of them buying drinks and eating falafel. The Israeli activists, most of them members of a group called Anarchists Against the Wall, exchange greetings with local Palestinians and discuss the latest news. With the territories practically sealed off by Israel, the Israelis carry out all kinds of tasks for their Palestinian partners: buying much-needed prescription medicine, maintaining video cameras used to film the rallies, even carrying boxes of organic zucchinis grown by a local farmer to one of Tel Aviv’s fashionable restaurants. Some of the Israelis have been learning Arabic to better communicate with their partners in the struggle.

After a while, one of the local Palestinians gathers the Israelis and internationals and explains the reasons for the protest, thanking everyone for coming. Then an Israeli activist gives a more technical briefing: how to deal with tear gas, how to avoid injuries, what to say if you get caught by the soldiers. “Don’t be afraid to get arrested,” he tells his listeners, some of them first-timers and clearly nervous. “Make sure someone knows where you are. You will probably be released within a few hours. Only Palestinians are kept in jail for long periods.”

After the briefing, the Palestinians lead the Israelis and international activists to the edge of the village, with more protesters joining them along the way. Half a mile down the road lies the security barrier, where some twenty soldiers can be seen on the other side. As the protesters approach, the soldiers rush through a gate in the fence, blocking their path, while the protesters chant “Viva Palestine!” and “Free Palestine!” They carry signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English demanding an end to the occupation. Finally, both sides halt, with only a few yards separating them. Itzik, an Israeli activist who has been coming to the demos for five years, carries a Palestinian flag. Like some of the other veteran protesters in Bil’in, he is wearing goggles to protect his eyes from tear gas. Another Israeli activist calls out to the soldiers in Hebrew, “You don’t belong here! Get off the village’s land!”

“You are violating a closed military zone order,” an army officer retorts. “If you don’t leave, you and your friends will be arrested.”

“I was invited here by the people of this village,” comes the answer. “It’s you who are invading it!”

After half an hour of standing and shouting, someone throws a stone. As if they were waiting for this moment, the soldiers respond immediately. Tear gas and stun grenades are thrown at the protesters, with more fired from afar. A disorganized, rushed retreat begins. Back at the village’s edge, the protesters regroup and try to march again toward the fence. This time the soldiers fire tear gas before the activists can get close. On the sides of the road, between the olive trees, Palestinian teens—the shabab, as they are known in Arabic—continue to hurl stones, and IDF snipers respond with rubber-coated bullets, which can be deadly. Gradually, the confrontation begins to assume the nature of a ritual, with both sides testing the other’s patience and resilience. But it’s a deadly game: this past December, Jawaher Abu-Rahma collapsed during a protest after inhaling massive amounts of tear gas. She was rushed to a Ramallah hospital, where she died the following morning. This was a year and a half after her brother, Bassam, was killed when a soldier fired a tear gas canister at his chest, also during an unarmed protest.

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