Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Still Standing for Peace: A Different Side of Israel in a Time of War

Published in Days Beyond Recall Vol. No. 3 (March 2007).

When I headed to the northern Israeli city of Haifa this summer to study at Haifa University, I certainly did not anticipate that I would spend many hours huddled in an underground bomb shelter as the building shook from the impact of Katyusha rockets launched by Hezbollah. The experience, nonetheless, afforded me an opportunity to see firsthand the diversity of responses to a war depicted in the mainstream media as backed by overwhelming consensus on the part of the Israeli public. The war in Lebanon did occur with the backing of the majority of Israelis, especially in its beginning stages. Epitomizing the apparent unanimity with which Israelis accepted the war was a conversation I had with a Haifa University student in the shelter. He told me of a discussion he had with a close friend, one of the founders of Four Mothers, an organization that formed the heart of popular opposition to the first Lebanon War in 1982 and is sometimes credited with Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. This summer, she adopted a drastically different viewpoint, wholeheartedly backing Israel’s government and military. Referring to opponents of Israel north of the border, she had one thing to say: “we gave them their chance, and they blew it.” To the chagrin of many longtime advocates of peace, her change of heart was not unique. Polls show that at various intervals during the conflict, between 86%-95% of the Israeli public supported the deadly bombing and subsequent invasion of Lebanon.

Behind this ostensible unity, however, lay a burgeoning movement of vocal opposition to the invasion of Lebanon, representing a side of Israeli society rarely seen in the media. Although criticism of the invasion only entered the mainstream as the war became understood as a humanitarian disaster and strategic failure, internal opposition on a mass scale existed from the earliest days of the war. On August 5, at the pinnacle of internal dissent, 10,000 Israeli demonstrators poured into Tel Aviv’s Magen David Square to voice their opposition to the destruction of Lebanon. Despite verbal harassment and eggs thrown by detractors, they chanted in Hebrew, “Children want to live/in Haifa and in Beirut!” Many called for the resignation of Defense Minister Amir Peretz. While the August 5 demonstration marked the height of Israeli mass protest against the war, public dissent existed throughout the duration of the conflict. On July 22, 5,000 demonstrators amassed in Tel Aviv to demand that their government “stop the guns and start talking.” Although the war brought about a split within the Four Mothers, 15 former members decided to form their own organization called Waking Up On Time, seeking to prevent a repeat of the tragic events of the first war in Lebanon.

Throughout the month-long conflict, the Israeli organization Gush Shalom (“Peace Bloc”) emerged at the forefront of the movement, working in tandem with Women’s Coalition for Peace, the Arab/Jewish partnership Ta’ayush (“Life in Common”), Anarchists Against Walls, Yesh Gvul (“There Is A Limit”), the Israeli-Palestinian Forum of Bereaved Families, and many others. The movement was comprised of a diverse cross-section of the Israeli public, including feminists, parents with young children, students, veteran peace activists, and political parties such as the Marxist, non-Zionist Hadash party, the Israeli-Arab Balad party, and the United Arab List. Addressing the crowd on August 5, Gush Shalom spokesman Adam Keller remarked that “the criminal has returned to the scene of the crime,” drawing a parallel between the July 30 attack on Qana and the 1996 massacre that targeted the same Lebanese city. “That massacre compelled [Prime Minister] Shimon Peres to break off his war,” Keller continued. “The conclusion is that we must stop this war at once, before it is too late.”

The attack on Qana, in which at least 56 civilians were killed, was a major focal point for criticism of the war. A few hours after the bombing, Israelis came together spontaneously to express their outrage over the attack. Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, accompanied by former Knesset members Ya’el Dayan and Naomi Hazan, who condemned the official pro-war position of their Meretz party.

Israeli dissent against the war in Lebanon was not limited to street protests. Following in the footsteps of numerous Israeli war refusers before him, 28-year-old Iztik Shabbat became the first conscientious objector of the conflict. When ordered to serve in the West Bank on July 19 in order to replace IDF soldiers being sent to Lebanon, he instead signed the Courage to Refuse petition, telling the Israeli paper Haaretz that “Someone has to be the first to break through the false consensus around this war.” On August 12, Yesh Gvul and others staged a demonstration outside Israeli Military Prison #6, from which the “refuseniks” inside could hear musical performances and speeches of support and solidarity. Among the speakers was Yonatan Shapira, himself a refusenik who as a young Air Force pilot co-founded the joint Israeli/Palestinian organization of veterans Combatants for Peace. In 2003, Shapira and a group of fellow pilots resolved not to fly attack missions against Palestinian targets. Standing outside the prison, Shapira delivered a speech honoring his brother Itamar, who was confined inside for his refusal to serve in the war. In an interview with Haaretz, Yonaton announced “there is no chance that I’m wearing a military uniform in any situation in this war while the military is doing what it is doing.” Additional support comes from New Profile: the Movement for the Civil-ization of Israeli Society, which provides services and education to those who refuse service for reasons of conscience.

Despite the strength of the demonstrations and the resoluteness of the war’s refusers, many activists concur that the July conflict marked an unprecedented split within the decades-old Israeli peace movement. Particularly indicative of this split was the pro-war stance of Peace Now, the organization that stood at the heart of public opposition to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. During that period, Peace Now played a pivotal role in mobilizing Israeli public opinion against the killing of civilians, most notably the massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila by Israeli-backed Lebanese militia. In 2006, however, the organization openly supported attacks on Lebanon, which Peace Now leaders referred to as a defensive war. Renowned novelist Amos Oz, a founding member of Peace Now, echoed the sentiment in the op-ed pages of the L.A. Times, writing that “the Israeli peace movement should support Israel’s attempt at self-defense, pure and simple.” Perhaps most illustrative of the change is the very fact that Peace Now co-founder Amir Peretz went on to be one of the primary architects and advocates of the 2006 invasion.

Regardless of the official stance of the organization, Peace Now members were by no means unanimous in their support of the war. Galia Golan, a longtime Peace Now leader and Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University, challenged the popular conception of the war as an unavoidable measure of defense. “I am strongly opposed to this war,” she said in an interview with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, explaining her participation in the July 22 protest. “And if Peace Now and Meretz are not demonstrating, I had to find another vehicle for protest.” In a July 31 interview with NPR’s Michele Norris, Golan lamented, “I think the peace movement has been badly hit, frankly. I have been thinking all along that it might take just a few weeks and people would come out against the war and that we would have a better sense of at least where our own public is. That’s not happening.”

For Golan and many others, dissent against the invasion of Lebanon and the occupation of Palestinian territories are deeply and irrevocably intertwined with the need to challenge gender oppression. The implications of militarized masculinity are profound for women in a society in which military service is a centrality. Military conflicts are often brought home in the form of domestic violence, which is frequently overlooked or excused because of the stress soldiers face during combat and the willingness of the collective society to sacrifice women’s well-being for the sake of “national security.” Although women are required to complete military service, the perception of the military as a fundamentally male sphere has consequences for female members of the military, which in a militarized society such as Israel often carries over into civilian life. Since women are kept away from performing the more prestigious combat roles and are typically relegated to menial military jobs, they do not establish the valuable contacts that benefit many men as they enter the workforce. Of particularly profound importance is the sexualized manner in which the nation itself is conceptualized, and by extension, the way territorial conquest is conceptualized. It is telling that the Hebrew word kibbush, which is the popular term for a military occupation, also describes the sexual conquest of a woman. The dynamics of militarized masculinity were especially relevant during the war with Hezbollah, which began with an act of kidnapping that served as an insult to Israel’s national manhood. The subsequent killing of more than 1,000 civilians, mainly women and children, in retaliation for such an insult struck an especially poignant chord for many Israeli women activists.

It is because of this keenly felt connection that the movement against the Lebanon invasion was comprised largely of women. “All the elements of this war bring the issues together,” feminist activist Yana Knopova told Lily Galili of Haaretz during an August 11 rally in Tel Aviv: “Feminism, social justice, class distinctions, the environment, and the occupation. Women make this connection.” Many of the leading voices against the war were those of women, including the Women In Black, the umbrella organization Coalition of Women for Peace, and Women Against War, which was formed shortly after the first attack on Lebanon. Hannah Safran, a co-founder of Women Against War, writes on the organization’s website, “We have just completed six years of peace and quiet in the north, but we kept Lebanese prisoners in captivity, not willing to return them or to negotiate their release. Why?” Women Against War co-founder Abir Kopty, who is an Arab-Israeli activist, explained that “we don’t want to see any citizens on both sides killed because of an avoidable war.” The two also belong to the Haifa chapter of the Women in Black, which began its weekly vigils in 1988 and continued them throughout the summer of 2006 in spite of death threats, harassment, and the ever-present threat of Katyusha attacks.

In the months following this summer’s war, the Israeli Left has found itself at an unprecedented crossroads. The war, in conjunction with the ongoing violence stemming from the Gaza Strip, has posed a serious challenge to the traditional premise of the peace movement, which is that the key ingredient in regional peace is withdrawal to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The dominant view, even among the Left, was that the 2005 Disengagement Plan and the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon had failed to ensure Israel’s national security. In the eyes of many Israelis, the peace movement itself had failed. The existence of strong, organized opposition toward this war nonetheless demonstrates the likelihood that the summer of 2006 represented not the death of the Israeli peace movement, but rather a new beginning for a movement better acquainted with the philosophical issues looming beyond an ostensibly territorial dispute. The role of feminism this summer is a testament to the possibility that the peace movement will emerge strengthened and better prepared to look beyond the obvious questions of territory and into the deeper myths and ideologies that continue to drive the conflict. ♦

Valerie Saturen is a graduate student in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. She can be reached at

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