Anna Behrmann talks to grassroots groups protesting for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and discovers their defiant commitment to their cause, despite intimidation and the continuing crisis in the region
A crowd of 10,000 peace protesters rallied in Tel Aviv, Israel on 16 August amid a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and Egyptian-mediated talks. The rally, organised by the leading Israeli peace pressure group Peace Now, was the largest since the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people since early July, the majority of them Palestinians.
Under banners calling for peace through dialogue, Israeli peace activists demanded fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians. This is in spite of a climate of fear cultivated by right-wing Israelis, who have physically and verbally assaulted those who march for peace.
Itamar Feigenbaum, Israeli coordinator of Combatants for Peace – a Palestinian-Israeli movement of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinians who were part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom – has attended several rallies during the conflict and is no stranger to intimidation. He describes one July peace rally: “It was a strange feeling walking with my Combatants for Peace T-shirt, and we were talking that maybe my wife should go on the other side [of the road]. There was a gang of motorbike riders, with Israeli flags close to their backs, surrounding the square, making noise with their bikes.”
He continues to attend peace rallies because “it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s also useful for people from the peace camp to see each other, and to draw hope. Even this is enough.”
“This is a time to show that there is a different voice; that there are Israelis who are concerned.”
Another Tel Aviv rally in July, in Habima Square in the centre of the city, saw a group of veteran Israeli soldiers share their experience of the reality of serving in the Palestinian territories. It was organised by Breaking the Silence, an organisation that collects and publishes soldiers’ testimonies.
Yehuda Shaul, a former soldier and one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, estimates that 500 to 600 people came to the rally; far more than he was expecting, he says, when the vast majority of Israelis across the political spectrum are not criticising Israel’s role in the conflict, especially as many have relatives currently serving and risking their lives.
But Shaul also estimates that there were 80 people who had attended in order to verbally or physically assault protesters. For him, this was one of the most important reasons to hold the rally. “We just felt that we cannot abandon the streets to a group of bandits who would just go and beat up people. This is a time to show that there is a different voice; that there are Israelis who are concerned.”
Other organisations have been holding regular, small rallies since the conflict began. Dr Esther Rapoport, a board member of Coalition of Women for Peace told Positive News: “Many people, including those on the left, don’t dare to speak out. [They] feel paralysed; they’re not sure what they believe.” In particular, Rapoport blames the Israeli media, which she feels overwhelmingly supports the war.
But away from the spotlight, in poorly-attended rallies and in peace vigils, peace activists have been holding firm. The Parents Circle Families Forum, a Palestinian-Israeli grassroots organisation of bereaved families has been holding a daily vigil for peace in the courtyard of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, underneath banners which read: “It won’t stop until we talk.”
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Israeli spokesperson, Robi Damelin, whose son, David, was killed by a Palestinian sniper, explained why she stands there, day after day welcoming passers-by: “People need to be re-energised by hearing stories, especially from bereaved people.
“If Palestinians don’t know Israelis and vice versa, and we don’t know each other’s stories, it just creates fear and hatred of the unknown. When you hear two people who are bereaved, talking in the same voice, then it’s a very inspiring thing. I think that there is much anger and much fear on both sides now, and it will take time to calm down, but at the Parents Circle, we don’t allow the situation to affect who we are.”
Speaking to Positive News from Ramallah, Parents Circle Palestinian spokesperson, Bassam Aramin, whose ten-year-old daughter was shot by the Israeli border police and later died in hospital, said he can find it difficult to spread a message of peace in the West Bank.
“We need to continue working and even to try and raise our voice, especially at this moment. But unfortunately, it makes our messages more difficult and the voice of hatred is louder.”
“It’s very important for us to share these personal stories, so that we can learn from each other. And we can appreciate dialogue and reconciliation, and we can continue fighting in order to put an end to this blood, because we don’t want more bereaved families.”
Lior Amihai, the deputy director of Settlement Watch at Peace Now, believes we need peace activists who still have the courage and vision to see a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “It doesn’t have to be like this and, more than anything, it happened two years ago. Where is this going to lead us to? How is it going to end? Will people finally understand that it is not about managing a conflict; it is about resolving a conflict?”