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OPINION: Israeli Peace Activists Grapple with Dilemma

“Strong together, we love Israel and trust the army” banner in Jerusalem. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS

JERUSALEM, Aug 7 2014 (IPS) - “Strong together, we love Israel and trust the army” – while a tentative truce takes root, banners adorned with the national colours still dominate cities and highways across the country.

Calling for unquestioned patriotism and solidarity, the embrace is a bear hug in the minds of those who question the merits and morality of Israel’s latest onslaught on Gaza.

It is tough to subscribe to the credo of peace when nationalist emotions are exacerbated by plaintive sirens and the deafening sound of Iron Dome missiles slamming incoming rockets, when rational judgment is mobilised for the war effort and crushes rational assessment of the effect of war.

War is the antithesis of peace is a tautology. Challenged by war, Israeli peace activists grapple with dilemma.

... ordinary Israelis took refuge in the safety net of their emotions, seeking comfort in national anxiety, pronouncing moral judgment on the “sanctimonious” critics at home who contest the axiomatic assertion proclaimed time and again that “the Israel Defence Forces is the world’s most moral army”

A war, when launched, must be won. Yet this war results neither in victory nor defeat, is not a war to end all wars, but a war to avoid the next war by means of deterrence, maybe. In war, there is only loss, and losers, peace activists reckon.

If war will not have solved the conflict – it contains the seeds of the next round of violence – peace will, they assert.

But when the cannons roar, peace is silenced.

Stressing that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Peace NGO Forum called for a ceasefire and a resumption of the negotiations towards a two-state solution on Day 22 of the operation.

The Peace NGO Forum is an umbrella platform for Jewish and Palestinian civil society organisations dedicated to peace within a two-state solution to the conflict. The partner organisations, which include the women’s peace coalition Bat Shalom and the Combatants for Peace movement, partake in networking, capacity-building and joint demonstrations,

The belated statement generated by the Israeli wing of the forum exposed the dilemma: “Israelis reserve the right to self-defence and deserve to live in security and peace, without the threat of rockets fired at them and enemy tunnels dug into their midst.”

And so, at its height, the war was justified, enjoying quasi-consensual approval ratings among Jewish Israelis. Social media brimmed with racist, intimidating, “Kill Arabs”, “Kill leftists” comments.

“No more deaths!” On Day 19 of the operation, 5,000 Israelis joined a rally organised by pro-peace civil society organisations. The emblematic Peace Now movement was absent, as was the liberal Meretz party. The protestors dispersed after rockets were fired at the Tel Aviv metropolis.

Succumbing willingly to the 24 hours a day news coverage on TV, ordinary Israelis took refuge in the safety net of their emotions, seeking comfort in national anxiety, pronouncing moral judgment on the “sanctimonious” critics at home who contest the axiomatic assertion proclaimed time and again that “the Israel Defence Forces is the world’s most moral army”.

Left-wing Israelis counter that self-righteousness is intrinsic in such proclamation.

“How can you not identify with our national pain when we’re under threat” is a blame often levelled by right-wingers against fellow Israeli peace activists.

The Israeli public which, in its overwhelming majority, is at the centre and right of the political spectrum, charges that the country is falling victim to ‘victimology’, the victim-focused coverage of the conflict.

Supporters of the peace movement see respect for “human rights as our last line of defence”, as Amnesty International director Yonatan Gher put it in the liberal daily Haaretz on Wednesday. They object to the disproportionate reaction of the military. Israel must understand the weakness inherent in its own military might, they suggest.

The mainstream’s assumption is that peace activists too often give in to ‘the mother of all tautologies’ – that “war is hell” and “evil” and, in essence, a war crime. Any sign of soul searching that this war is not just is resented as vacillation and unwanted self-flagellation.

Peace activists hold Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories as the source of evil.

The 47-year occupation, most Israelis argue, reduces their predicament to a simplistic imagery, because the occupation does not justify the hatred of Israel professed by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, and the repetitive cycle of violence. The occupation continues because peace is unattainable, they stress.

“Try,” retort peace activists, “We’ve proven enough that we’re strong enough to take a risk for peace.”

Israelis have been stuck in this perennial debate for 14 years.

During this time, they have experienced a flurry of conflicts with no end in sight: the 2000-2005 Palestinian Intifadah uprising, the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah, onslaughts on Hamas in Gaza in 2006 (“Summer Rains”), 2008-2009 (“Cast Lead”), in 2012 (“Pillar of Defence”), and now.

Disillusion and despair are all the more potent that, during the years of the Oslo_Accords, a process of mutual reconciliation engaged both Israelis and Palestinians towards tentative recognition of the other’s pain.

With the ensuing confrontations, both people quickly backpedalled to the existential, elemental, dimension of their conflict.

In adversity, it has become necessary for both Israelis and Palestinians not only to exclude any identification with the other’s pain but also to inflict pain on the other as the sole way to assuage one’s pain and deter the other from inflicting pain.

What, however, unifies the overwhelming camp of war supporters and the dedicated ranks of peace supporters is the acknowledgement that the reality is complex.

Mainstream Israelis realise that their argument that an assessment of the situation requires not being focused solely on the body count in Gaza is a lost cause.

Peace activists understand that the threat that triggered Israel’s operation is tangible, but also the direction in which its outcome might be leading, its consequences and implications for Israel, and, by correlation, for the Palestinians and for peace between the two peoples.

Their ideal of co-existence grinded by years of wars, peace activists reject the focus on suffering if it only serves the hackneyed precept that, on one hand, in war, the end justifies (almost) all means, or, on the other, that war cannot be justified.

They draw fine lines between exercising a legitimate right of self-defence against an unwarranted act of aggression and ever greater use of force, and between the morality, rights and laws of war and the wrongs of the Occupation.

And now that the war seems over, they hang their hope on the realisation by their national leaders that they will urgently initiate a bold diplomatic move towards peace with the Palestinians, and will not let the same amount of time since the previous operation be wasted lest the same, recurring, reality blows up in both peoples’ faces.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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