Israel and Palestine: Occupation, the peace movement, and the international left

The following is the text of a talk,”The Israeli Peace Movement, the Occupation of Palestine, and the Role of the International Left,” presented on November 21, 2015, at the meeting of the Federal Committee (Bundesausschuss) of Die Linke, the left party of Germany.

Dear Comrades,

I thank you for the invitation and for the opportunity to address you and bring you a critical Left perspective from the Israeli peace movement. Die Linke is an important factor in the political life of Germany, and we expect and hope for it to assume a more central role in the coming years. Your party is helping to shape public opinion and influence policies, in Germany and beyond. Therefore, deepening the dialogue between the German Left and the Israeli Left, exchanging views and sharing assessments and perspectives about the ways peace can be achieved in the Middle East – can provide great assistance in the struggle.

In Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these are difficult times. On Thursday, Nov. 19, two violent attacks occurred which cost the lives of five civilians. Two Israeli citizens were stabbed to death in a TelAviv synagogue, and three people lost their lives in an attack near the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion – an Israeli settler, an American citizen and a Palestinian bystander.

These innocent lives add to the dozens of Palestinians and Israelis who were killed or injured in the recent wave of escalation. According to a report published by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), during the month of October Israeli forces killed 73 Palestinians, and Palestinians killed 11 Israelis. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 2,250 Palestinians have been injured, including children. Many were injured as a result of being shot with live ammunition or with rubber-coated steel bullets. More than 5,000 Palestinians have suffered from tear gas inhalation. Israeli settlers also took part in these attacks, and in total there were 287 incidents which included settlers torching agricultural fields, committing hit-and-run car attacks against Palestinians, and stoning Palestinian homes and cars. Very few, if any, Israeli settlers were arrested by the Israeli army and police for launching these attacks. Yet more than 1,200 Palestinians have been arrested since the escalation began.

Some wish to portray this escalation as a religious uprising, following Israel’s violation of the statusquo in the religious sites in Occupied East Jerusalem. Indeed, Israeli Right-Extremists – including members of Knesset (the Israeli parliament) and even government ministers – went inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Some even expressed their wish for the mosque to be demolished and for a so-called “Third Temple” (Ezekiel’s Temple) to be built on its ruins.

For the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, portraying the escalation as a religious conflict is beneficial. His strategic perspective is that of branding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as insolvable, as a fact of life that will continue to exist for eternity. He has spoken numerous times about the need for Israel to “manage the conflict,” rather than solve it. A month ago (Oct. 26), he appeared before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, and when asked about the prospects for peace, said: “There are movements here of religion and Islam that have nothing to do with us.” When asked if “we will forever live by the sword,” his answer was: “Yes.” Netanyahu is known for being an untruthful politician. But in that moment he let out what he really believes: He is promising the people of Israel nothing less than a perpetual war.

How does the Left see the situation?

The analysis of the Israeli Left is quite different. We believe that the question here is not a question of “Islam against Judaism,” but rather a question of a nationally oppressed people – the Arab-Palestinian people – that is struggling to end the Israeli Occupation that’s been ongoing since 1967. What is at stake is not a so-called “Clash of Civilizations,” but the clash between the will of the Palestinian people to live in its own independent state, with the attempts of the Israeli rightwing government to deepen the Occupation and to perpetuate the existing situation.

The Israeli government is attacking democratic rights and freedoms, and is taking steps to silence critical voices from civil society and human rights organizations. New legislation introduced in the Knesset would make it more difficult for NGOs to raise money and receive support and donations from abroad, a step openly directed against those Israeli organizations that work against racism and against human rights violations.

A special target for the attack of the Israeli rightwing politicians, is the Arab-Palestinian minority within the State of Israel. More than 20 percent of the citizens of Israel are Arab-Palestinians. Although nominally equal citizens – with all civil rights, including the right to vote – they are in fact being systematically discriminated against in all walks of life.

On Oct. 17, the Israeli government announced that it is outlawing the Islamic Movement, which is one of the political organizations that operate among the Arab minority in Israel. The excuse was that the Islamic Movement was supposedly inciting violence, although even the Israeli General Security Service advised the government against this step. In a cynical “Shock Doctrine” move, Netanyahu was using the Islamophobic atmosphere that followed the terrorist attack in Paris to portray the local Islamic Movement in Israel as similar to ISIS, and thus justify the decision to illegalize it.

The Communist Party of Israel – which is the only political party in Israel that defines itself as a Jewish-Arab party, and works politically within both the Jewish population and the Arab minority in Israel – has also been the target of the campaign of delegitimization by the rightwing.

Thus the ongoing Occupation is taking a heavy toll on the democratic space inside Israel. And it is also important to remember, that the Occupation has severe social and economic consequences on the Israeli economy and society. On Nov. 18, the Knesset voted to approve the state budget for the year 2016, which amounts to 347 billion shekels – 59 billion of which are allocated to military expenditures. Having 17 percent of the state budget allocated for the purchase of new weapons and for maintaining a large military apparatus is unprecedented among developed countries. These are resources that could have been given to education, to healthcare, to welfare, or to solve the acute housing crisis. Israel has the second highest rate of poverty among OECD countries, following Mexico. It is ranked 5th in the world in terms of the Gini index for income inequality. A third of the children in Israel live below the poverty line – a figure twice as high as the OECD average. Among the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, 2 out of 3 children live below the poverty line.

The Israeli government says these military expenditures are a necessity, needed to maintain “security.” But the concept of “security” should not be viewed from a militaristic perspective, as if security can only be created through tanks and helicopters. Real security also means knowing that if you become ill you will be treated in a properly equipped hospital, by doctors who are not overworked, in rooms that are not overcrowded, and receive medical treatment that will not cost a fortune. Real security also means knowing that at an older age you will receive a livable pension, one that will not force you to choose between purchasing medicine or buying food. The militaristic attitudes of the Israeli political establishment, stemming from the ongoing Occupation, don’t take into account this wider notion of security.

It is a telling example, that after the social protest movement in Israel, in the summer of 2011, the government set up a committee to formulate recommendations about how to meet the demands of the people. One of the recommendations was to introduce free education from the age of 3, and to fund this measure through cutting 2.5 billion shekels from the Ministry of Defense. The government did implement this measure, but funded it by cutting across all government ministries – except the Ministry of Defense. That year, the budget of the Ministry of Defense actually grew.

At what cost settlements?

When talking about the price that Israeli society is paying for the Occupation, we should take into account not only the direct military expenditures, but also the enormous price of the settlement project. This project is one of the most wasteful projects in the history of Israel, in terms of the resources allocated to it. Even small, remote and isolated settlements – located deep within the Palestinian West Bank – receive services from the Israeli government, have paved roads that lead to them, and have soldiers stationed to defend them. It is economically irrational and it does not in any way contribute to the security of Israelis; it is purely an ideologically motivated step.

In the past 30 years, neoliberal structural reforms were implemented in Israeli economy, that cut social services and the public sector. But the welfare state is still alive in the settlements, where the government is allocating budgets that are about twice as high as those allocated inside Israel itself. The settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories also receive tax exemptions and housing subsidies.

Therefore, ending the Occupation, dismantling the settlements project, and achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians will bring not only justice to the Palestinian people, but it will also create a possibility of fighting against poverty and inequality in Israeli society. Peace and social justice go hand in hand.

The Israeli settlements in the West Bank are one of the main ways in which the Occupation is disrupting and harming the lives of Palestinians. More than half a million Israelis live in the settlements in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, out of a total Israeli population of close to 8 million people. These settlements are built on lands confiscated from the nearby Palestinian towns and villages, annexing their agricultural lands and their water resources, leaving farmers without a source of income.

The Israeli government has constructed a series of roadblocks and checkpoints, as well as the so-called Separation Wall, in order to place barriers between the settlements and the surrounding Palestinian population. This has tremendous impact on the freedom of movement of Palestinians, since it forces Palestinians to take long and indirect roads to reach from place to place, even between nearby places. A car drive which should have lasted minutes now could take a few hours, which would include waiting and being searched at a checkpoint. This, of course, has grave consequences for the development of the Palestinian economy.

Behind the colonial settlement project there is a logic of creating facts on the ground which would place obstacles before the possibility of an independent Palestinian state. The leaders of the extremist settler movement – who are represented in almost every Israeli government – know very well that the settlements are an obstacle for peace. For them, expanding existing settlements and building new ones is a way to deepen the Occupation and to push aside the option of peace.

What about the Green Line?

Considering these facts, I believe that the decision that the European Commission took on Nov. 11 to label products that are manufactured in Israeli settlements inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is a positive decision.

Clear difference must be made between, on the one hand, the sovereign State of Israel, which exists within the internationallyrecognized borders that were the outcome of the 1948 war; and on the other hand, the Occupied Palestinian Territories – the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – that were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, and remain illegally occupied ever since. Between the State of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories lies the so-called “Green Line Border,” that is, the borders of Israel that existed up until June 4, 1967, after which Israel launched its aggressive war of expansion.

It has been an ongoing policy of the various Israeli governments to blur the distinction between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to conceal the Green Line Border and to project to the world a false image, as if these territories – that are under military control, that are the home of 4.5 million Palestinians who are devoid of citizenship – as if these territories are actually part of the State of Israel itself. On official Israeli maps, for example, the Green Line Border is nonexistent.

The basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace remains the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, with the Green Line as a border of peace between the two states. It is for this reason that the rejectionist and hawkish governments in Israel have been making every effort to treat the Green Line Border as politically irrelevant, to create a façade of normality and sovereignty even in those territories that are under military control. It is the responsibility of the peace movement to expose this deception.

Restating legitimacy

To stress the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the illegality of the Israeli military presence in the territories beyond the Green Line Border is not just an act of solidarity with the Palestinian people, but also helps to reinforce the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel, and the right of the Jewish-Israeli people for national self-determination.

The Israeli political establishment hoped that by concealing the difference between the State of Israel and the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the legitimacy that the former enjoys in world public opinion, will whitewash the latter. But actually, this process is working exactly the other way around: The illegitimacy of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is contributing to the wholesale illegitimacy of the State of Israel itself.

Therefore, to make a clear-cut distinction between the State of Israel and the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories not only helps the struggle of the Palestinian people to end the Occupation and achieve an independent state, but at the same time also weakens the case of those who reject the idea that both peoples – the Palestinian people as well as the Jewish-Israeli people – have the right to national self-determination. For me, as an Israeli peace activist, as an activist from the Israeli Left, making this distinction between Israel and the settlements is an act of internationalism and patriotism.

Labeling and boycotting

It is for these reasons that I believe that the decision of the EU bodies to label products that are manufactured in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a correct decision. A product should not be able to carry the label “Made in Israel” when it is actually produced in a territory that is not part of the sovereign State of Israel, in a territory which is under military rule, in a territory which should be part of the future independent Palestinian state that will be established alongside Israel.

Implementation of the EU regulations about the labeling of settlement products is a responsibility of the member states. But already we have seen several rightwing governments which have publicly stated their opposition to this step.

Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesperson of the parliamentary group of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), spoke out on Nov. 12 against the regulations. Another voice which echoed Netanyahu is the foreign minister of Hungary, who visited Israel on Nov. 16 and called the new regulations “irrational,” saying his government – headed by the increasingly authoritarian Viktor Orban – will not implement them.

Therefore, it remains a struggle for the European Left to make sure the regulations adopted by the EU Commission are implemented in full. But I think the EU should do more than just label products that are manufactured in the illegal settlements. I believe these products should be boycotted, prevented from being imported to Europe and elsewhere. This has been a project of the Israeli peace movement since the 1990s. The Israeli organization called “Gush Shalom” (Peace Bloc), headed by the veteran peace activist Uri Avneri, has for years advocated boycotting settlement products, and compiled lists of products that are manufactured in the settlements.

This pressure – from both the Israeli peace movement and also from the international peace and solidarity movement – led to several victories. These include, for example, the case of the Swedish lock company “Mul-T-Lock,” that in 2011 moved its factory from the illegal settlement Barkan to the Israeli town of Yavneh. Or the French-Belgian bank Dexia, that in the same year stopped giving long-term loans to Israeli settlements. Just recently, in September, the “Soda Stream” company announced that it is closing its West Bank factory and reopening it in the southern part of Israel, after an intensive international boycott campaign.

In Germany, because of its history, there are some apologists for the Israeli government who try to smear those who call for a boycott of products from the settlements. On this question we must be very clear: Criticizing the policies of the Israeli government, calling to apply international pressure for it to comply to UN resolutions is not only legitimate, but for Leftwing activists, it is their duty.

The fallacy of “self-hatred”

We should not fall into the trap of accepting the discourse and the terminology of the Israeli rightwing. They try to portray the Jewish opponents of the Zionist ideology, or the Jewish opponents of the Occupation as so-called “self-hating Jews.” They try to say that those on the international Left who hold these positions are “anti-Semites.” But they were not the first to employ these tactics.

In the United States Congress, in the early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War hysteria, Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt against progressives, against Communists and people on the Left. The main mechanism for McCarthyism was a committee of Congress set up to investigate so-called “Un-American” activities. Were all those progressives who were investigated really “Un-American” or “anti-American”? No, by doing the kind of political work that they did – calling for nuclear disarmament or criticizing U.S. foreign policy, etc. – they were serving the true national interests of the American people, and they did so by opposing the US government, not by supporting its policies.

In the Reichstag, on December 2, 1914, the great working-class revolutionary Karl Liebknecht voted alone against the war budget. Was he a “self-hating German?” No, by voicing his opposition to the imperialist war, he was serving the true national interests of the German people and all the peoples of Europe. He did so by opposing the German government, not by supporting its policies.

Likewise, in Israel today, opposing the colonial policy of expanding the settlements, opposing the criminal blockade on the Gaza strip, opposing the wars of aggression that Israel launches every few years, is serving the true national interests of the Jewish-Israeli people, of the Palestinian people, of all the peoples in the Middle East.

The equation is very simple: Those who support peace, must oppose war; Those who are on the Left, must criticize the Right; Those who wish for the Jewish-Israeli people to live in peace and security, must take part in the struggle against the policies of the Israeli government, which is the number one contributor to the undermining of peace and security for the Jewish-Israeli people.

A one-state solution?

The equation is very simple, but it should not be made simplistic. There are some people in the international Left who employ formal logic, and ask: If we are for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and believe them to be equal, then why can’t peace and equality be materialized within the framework of a single state for the two peoples?

In reality, there is already one state that exists in all the territory of historic Palestine, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and that is the current State of Israel, which controls all of the territory. Within this area, there exist two completely different political regimes: On the one hand, there are the citizens of Israel – the majority of whom are Jewish citizens, with a national minority of Arab-Palestinian citizens.On the other hand, there are the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who have no civil rights, because they don’t have any state to call their own.

Calling for a one state today, as a concrete proposal to address the existing reality of Occupation, means preserving many aspects of this existing reality. A one state – with the current socio-economic discrepancies between Israelis and Palestinians, and the Palestinians with no viable economy of their own – will mean a state where the Palestinian are reduced to the lower social strata, and their oppression will continue in a different form.

Furthermore, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians support the creation of a one state, but rather each people wishes to live in a state which represents its right to national self-determination. In a joint survey of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, published in June, 51 percent of Israeli respondents and 51 percent of Palestinian respondents supported the two-states solution. That is not to say that 49 percent of Palestinians and Israelis support a one state. Rather, a large section of Israeli and Palestinian society believes that nosolution will be possible. Thus, the challenge for the Left in Israel and Palestine, is not only to struggle against injustice, but also to show the people that there is hope for this injustice to end.

The debate about the form of the solution – a one state, twostates, federation, confederation, etc. – is a debate that we can have, since within the Left, in general, there should exist a critical space for discussion between different views. However, this debate should be grounded in principles – such as the principle of not correcting one injustice by creating another.

I believe that the framework for a just peace remains clear: The establishment of an independent Palestinian state, alongside the State of Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and with the June 4, 1967 borders (“The Green Line”) as the internationally-recognized border of peace; the evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the dismantling of the Separation Wall; the release of all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails; a just solution of the problem of Palestinian refugees according to all relevant UN resolutions, including resolution 194. Furthermore, in order to advance toward peace between Israel and all its neighboring countries, Israel must withdraw from the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights and from the Shebaa Farms in South Lebanon. For a Middle East free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the Israeli government most respect the international Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This framework – which forms the basis for the peace program of the Communist Party of Israel and its electoral front Hadash – is also detailed in the decision of the Die Linke fraction in the Bundestag, from April 20, 2010.

The solidarity and the principled position of Die Linke, in favor of a just Israeli-Palestinian peace, are welcome and necessary. For Germany and other EU member states to adopt critical positions towards the current Israeli policies, is a step that will help the struggle for peace. This struggle is advanced not only on the international level, and not only by the struggle of the Palestinian people, but also by the struggle of the peace movement in Israel itself.

The peace movement is still active

During the 2014 war on Gaza, the Israeli peace movement mobilized on the streets of TelAviv, Haifa and West Jerusalem. We did so under difficult conditions, with government spokespersons accusing us of treason, and in a general atmosphere fueled by racism and fear. Peace demonstrations were physically attacked by right extremists, with the police standing idly by. The major media outlets, television channels and newspapers were doing their best to ignore the critical voices, and helped to convince many people that rallying behind the government is the only real option.

Nonetheless, the peace movement persisted. On July 26, 2014, a major anti-war demonstration was organized to take place in Rabin Square, the main square in the center of TelAviv. The demonstration was initiated by the Communist Party of Israel, with several peace organizations joining. It was about to take place at a time when TelAviv was targeted by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. A few hours before the demonstrations, the police announced that it was revoking the license for the demonstration, since there was danger of rocket fire. Police spokespersons issued a statement in the media, saying the demonstration was canceled. However, thousands of Israelis filled Rabin Square that night, demanding that the war on Gaza end. A few weeks later, on Aug. 16, Rabin Square was filled once again with a peace protest, this time also with the participation of the Meretz Party.

Recently, as the wave of violent escalation began in October, a new grassroots peace initiative was launched called “Standing Together,” which aimed to bring together Jewish and Arab activists. In October, at the height of the escalation, this new initiative organized a peace rally in West Jerusalem that was attended by thousands, many of whom were young people. It was followed in the next weeks with successful joint Jewish-Arab anti-racist and anti-Occupation demonstrations in the northern city of Haifa and in the southern town of Rahat.

On Nov. 20, the initiative “Standing Together” was supposed to organize a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace demonstration near Bethlehem, with participation from both inside Israel as well as the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, because of the violent attacks which cost the lives of civilians in TelAviv and near Jerusalem, the Israeli army placed a curfew on the region of Bethlehem, which prevented the Palestinian peace protestors from attending. Therefore, the demonstration was postponed.

The initiative “Standing Together” represents an attempt to create a dynamic new force in the Israeli peace movement, a pluralistic initiative, where people who come from different parties and organizations can work together, bringing together both Jews and Arabs. The initiative is supported by the TelAviv Office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Foundation), and I’d like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude to the Stiftung and to Tsafrir Cohen, the head of the TelAviv Office, who recognized the importance of this new initiative.

Solidarity and cooperation between the German Left and the Israeli Left are needed. In a deeply globalized world, issues never remain local, and the situation in Israel and Palestine has its effects elsewhere, in Europe and in Germany also. By taking as a point of departure our common values – our internationalism, our opposition to injustice and wars – we can assist each other in our struggles to build better societies and a better world.

Uri Weltmann is an Israeli peace activist, member of the Executive Board of the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian and Israeli Studies, and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Israel.

This article also appeared on Die Linke website here.

Photo: Palestinian child stands by a damaged wall of a house following an overnight Israeli missile strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, July 15, 2014. Lefteris Pitarakis | AP



Uri Weltmann
Uri Weltmann

Uri Weltmann is the National Field Organizer and member of the national leadership of Standing Together based in Tel Aviv, Israel.