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Frank Barat: Hi Jeff. You recently took part in the Free Gaza Movement and successfully reached Gaza by boat with others activists, journalists, and human rights workers from around the globe. How did you get involved in such an initiative and why was it important for you to take part?
Jeff Halper: As an Israeli and the head of an Israeli peace organization (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions — ICAHD), I was asked by the Free Gaza Movement organizers to take part in their action to Break the Siege of Gaza by sailing two boats from Cyprus to Gaza City port. I agreed because this was a non-violent political action; breaking the siege and by implication highlighting Israel’s responsibility for it (which it tries to shrug off) fit into ICAHD’s mission, to end the Israeli Occupation completely. Had this been defined as a humanitarian mission I would not have participated, since the so-called “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza is not the result of some natural calamity, but of a deliberate policy of Israel — plus the US, Europe, and Japan, it must be said, and aided by Egypt — to break the will of the Palestinians to resist and to replace the democratically elected government of Hamas by a collaborationist regime more amenable to Israeli control.
FB: What was the goal of this initiative and has it been reached?
JH: The goal of this initiative, as I mentioned, was to break the Israeli and international siege on Gaza — although we were careful not to disconnect Gaza from the wider Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, of which it is a part. In an important sense we succeeded. One successful action gives tremendous hope and encouragement to the people the world over that civil society initiatives can shame governments to relent and even change policy, as well as express solidarity with oppressed people. But in order to genuinely break the siege, regular boat traffic must be established. In that we have partially succeeded. So far five FGM boats have reached Gaza (the last one on December 9th, as I write this), although a Libyan ship was turned away and a boat of Palestinian-Israeli parliament members was prevented from sailing. I am in the midst of a campaign, with European supporters, to organize maritime trade unions in ports around the Mediterranean to express solidarity with Gaza, which hadn’t seen a foreign vessel in 40 years before ours arrived. One of our goals is that on appointed day in the spring or summer one or more boats will depart to Gaza from every port on the Mediterranean. Imagine what a scene, what a gesture of solidarity and resistance that would be!
FB: As an Israeli Jew, what type of welcome did you get from the Gazans? Did you meet anyone from Hamas?
JH: We all received a tremendous welcome from the Palestinian Gazans — 40,000 came out to greet us as we entered the port! As, unfortunately, the only Israeli Jew (two more have since sailed to Gaza), I was sought out by Gazans who wanted to communicate with me — in Hebrew — how much they yearned for a just peace in which all the inhabitants of the country could live together. I was struck by how non-political their discourse was. No accusations, no political programs, just a deep desire to get beyond this superfluous conflict to a life good for everyone. This, it seems to me, is a solid foundation upon which a just peace can be built.
I was invited for dinner with Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister from the Hamas party, together with the rest of our group. I decided not to attend so as not to deflect the public discussion, especially in Israel, from our action’s main focus, breaking the siege, to side issues such as the connection of the Israeli peace camp to Hamas. This is just what the Israeli authorities would have wanted: a discussion over my attending a Hamas dinner instead of over its own responsibility for Palestinian suffering and oppression. I refused to play into their hands. Nonetheless, I am proud to note that I received Palestinian citizenship, including a passport, from the Palestinian government.
FB: Why did you get arrested by the Israeli forces at the Erez crossing on your way back to Israel?
JH: I decided, after three days in Gaza visiting friends and participating in solidarity visits to Palestinian communities and organizations, to return to Israel by way of the Erez crossing rather than by boat. I wanted to make the point that the siege existed on the other three sides of Gaza, not only by sea. I knew I would be arrested, but I saw that as part of the action, of our civil disobedience. And in fact, when I went through the Erez “checkpoint” — actually a huge, intimidating metal terminal that reminded me of a cross between the Emerald City of Oz that suddenly appeared before Dorothy (in this case out of a barren landscape of demolished homes, uprooted fruit trees, scorched earth, and the ever-present Wall) and an Orwellian scene from some totalitarian nightmare — I was arrested. The charge: violating a military order forbidding Israelis from being in Gaza (or the Palestinian cities of the West Bank). After a difficult night in prison, where I was physically threatened by right-wing Jews but protected by Palestinian prisoners, I was released on bail. I am still waiting to hear if the state will press charges.
FB: You founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in 1997. What was the goal of this organization at the time? What is it now and what is ICAHD going to focus on in the next few months?
JH: I was one of the founders of ICAHD in 1997, in the wake of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election and the final collapse of the Oslo peace process. After several years of dormancy, ICAHD’s formation was part of the re-engagement of the Israeli peace camp in resisting the Occupation, which emerged from the Oslo process much more entrenched than it had been at the start.
ICAHD is an Israeli political organization dedicated to resisting the Israeli Occupation until its total end, and to a seeking of just peace with the Palestinians, in one state, two states, a regional confederation, or whatever political arrangement best serves our two peoples. Since “occupation” is such an abstract concept to most people, we decided to take the issue of Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes — almost 20,000 in the Occupied Territories since 1967 — as the focus of our activities. ICAHD activists and members of other Israeli peace groups, together with Palestinians and international activists, resist demolitions and rebuild homes demolished by the Israeli authorities — 162 in the past decade. Since we rebuild as political acts of resistance and not as humanitarian gestures, 162 such acts of Israelis and Palestinians against the Occupation (so far) are significant.
Acts of resistance alone will not end the Occupation, however. Activism has to be balanced with strategic advocacy. The grassroots has to be mobilized and effective lobbying done among political decision-makers. The Israeli public, for many reasons I will not go into here, has taken itself out of the political equation: it is apathetic vis-à-vis the Palestinians and refuses to take responsibility (indeed, Netanyahu will likely come back as Prime Minister in February). The focus of ICAHD’s advocacy, then, is international, towards peace and human rights groups, trade unions, universities, churches, Jewish peace groups, and other grassroots constituencies, as well as towards government officials and parliamentarians (Americans being the most influential and the most difficult to reach).
In the next few months ICAHD will concentrate on developing working relations with the Obama Administration. We are also involved in launching an anti-apartheid campaign. With Jimmy Johnson, a long-time ICAHD activist, I am also writing a book on Israel’s involvement in the world’s arms industry. Though we must continue to look “down” at Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories, we must also start to look “up” at Israel’s role in what we call the Pacification Industry to understand why it receives the support from the US and other governments that it does.
FB: What does being a peace activist fighting for Palestinian rights in Israel feel like? Also, could you give us an overview of the Israeli peace movement today?
JH:Although ICAHD cooperates with other critical Israeli peace and human rights organizations, I stand somewhat apart from many activists for several reasons. Unlike most of my comrades, I do not think that activism by itself can achieve political results. The Israeli peace movement in general seems to think it cannot influence policy or events, and if it is limited merely to protest and symbolic solidarity acts, then there is no need to even try and participate in the political process. ICAHD considers itself an actor, a political player. We believe we can influence events, and so we seek to work with international partners, governments, and civil society alike. I do not think it is worthwhile to try and reach the Israeli public. Unlike most Israeli peace activists, again, I again prefer to dedicate ICAHD’s limited energy and resources to international advocacy. Finally, I define myself politically as an Israeli; an ideology like Zionism cannot determine the life of a country. Thus we at ICAHD belong to a small coterie of Israeli peace groups — together with the Alternative Information Center, the anarchists, and ’48 Palestinians — who can envision Israeli national expression within a single political entity shared with the Palestinians.
The Zionist peace movement is largely paralyzed today. Peace Now, the largest and best known of this camp, is non-functional except in its important monitoring of settlement activity. The Zionist left party, Meretz, has only five seats in the parliament out of 120. The critical (or “radical,” if you like) left of the Israeli peace movement to which ICAHD belongs is, it is true, even smaller in numbers and unable to elect a single member to the parliament. Nevertheless, we do unflinching actions and analysis from the ground and make our voices heard in many international forums.
FB: What do you make of the recent Jerusalem attacks by Palestinians living in East Jerusalem?1
JH: In fact, Palestinian violence against Israelis (“terrorism” in our parlance; Israeli violence against Palestinians is “legitimate military operations”) has been virtually eliminated — except limited rocket attacks coming periodically out of Gaza. Israelis are feeling great personal security, which removes much of the motivation for peace, which for Israelis means only concessions and becoming vulnerable to our permanent enemies. The Wall might have something to do with this, but incessant Israeli military activity throughout the Occupied Territories — today bolstered by military/police operations of the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and those “wanted” by Israel — provides a better answer. The only actual attack in recent years was that carried out against the yeshiva in Jerusalem, and it stands out as an exception to the rule.
FB: On the 17th of September 2008, Tzipi Livni was elected leader of the Kadima party. What could bar her from becoming the next Israeli prime minister? In what way could she be different from Ehud Olmert?
JH: Israel’s four major parties — Likud of Netanyahu, Kadima of Olmert and Livni, Labor of Barak, and Shas of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Eli Yishai — are all right-wing and have members (especially generals and former security agents) who frequently cross over from one to the other. Tzipi Livni is merely another right-wing politician, and it is a mistake to consider Kadima a “centrist” party (it was, in fact, Sharon’s personal political vehicle). Still, Livni is the most popular candidate for Prime Minister, but she cannot win because in Israel we do not have representative democracy. Voters vote only for parties, not for candidates, and citizens have no representation by district. The only way to get Livni, then, is to vote Kadima, but it is not a popular party and people would rather vote Likud, meaning they will get Netanyahu even though few want him, even in his own party. See what I mean by a disempowered Israeli electorate?
FB: Gideon Levy said that as long as the Israeli public have no problem with the occupation, it will not stop. He also said that in most polls Israelis showed strong support for peace (up to 70%), but then voted for people like Benjamin Netanyahu (who will win the next Israeli election in two months according to Levy). Would you like to comment on this?
JH: Three things disempower Israelis and neutralize them as a positive, pro-active political force: (1) the fact that, although most Israelis are willing to support a two-state solution, they have been convinced by their political and military leaders that there is no political solution, there is no “partner for peace,” and therefore they have no choice but to let the government do whatever it wishes (which is to strengthen the Occupation); (2) as I’ve mentioned, they have no political representation and no ability to influence government decision, so they do not even try; and (3) as long as life is good — which it is inside the Israeli bubble — then who thinks of Arabs? So the issue of peace is way down the list of electoral priorities, and since candidates are dictated by parties, Israelis end up voting for the least evil choice. Thus Netanyahu.
FB: In the last few years, unemployment rates in the West Bank and Gaza have reached new heights. In Nablus for example, which used to be a commercial center for Palestine, more than 50% of its inhabitants are now without a job. The Palestinian Authority, in close collaboration with the World Bank and the British Department for International Development, has drawn up a new plan to be implemented in the West Bank called the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan.2 In your opinion is this the right plan?
JH: I don’t believe — together with the World Bank and DIFID, in my opinion — that development is possible under occupation. In fact, it ends up enabling occupation, since Israel can destroy Palestinian infrastructure at will and besiege Palestinians to the point of starvation, knowing full well that the “development” and relief agencies will pick up the tab and keep the Palestinians’ heads just above water. Thus, in Operation “Defensive Shield” in 2002, Israel destroyed $350 million of urban infrastructure, airports, and ports, exactly the amount the international community had invested during the previous year. To paraphrase Clinton: “It’s the Occupation, Stupid!”
FB: Barack Obama’s election as President has been celebrated all over the world as a proof that America has changed and is ready to leave the warmongering Bush years behind and start anew. Any chance that this will apply to Israel/Palestine?
JH: I wrote an article entitled “A Bone in America’s Throat” which was published on Nov. 10, 2008, in CounterPunch. In it I argue that Obama is entering into a wholly different international reality than Bush did, in which America is militarily over-stretched and economically weakened and the world is more multi-polar. Rather than a “War on Terror,” the US will have to rejoin, rather than browbeat, the community of nations. To do that — and to leave Iraq and Afghanistan while stabilizing relations with Iran and Pakistan, plus trying to prevent the fall of Egypt, Jordan, and other American “allies” to Islamic fundamentalists — it will have to find an accommodation, if not reconciliation, with the Muslim world. And it will not get to first base without addressing the Palestinian issue, which for the world’s Muslims is emblematic, a conflict more symbolically significant than Iraq. The Palestinians’ clout is that they are the gatekeepers. Until they signal to the Arab/Muslim world that the conflict with Israel is over, that they have reached a political solution acceptable to them, and that now is time to normalize relations with Israel and its US patron, the conflict is not over, and the US cannot move ahead. My hope is not in Obama per se but in that he will recognize that it is in America’s interest to end the Israeli occupation, and will then move forcefully to do so. So I’m optimistic. I don’t believe Israeli control of Palestine is sustainable.
FB: Noam Chomsky told me that “What current advocates of a one-state (binational) settlement don’t seem to fully appreciate is that the choices are not two-states versus one-state with an internal civil rights (anti-apartheid) struggle, but rather two-states versus continuation of current US-Israeli programs, which take no responsibility for Palestinians outside of the areas Israel expects to incorporate, so that they can rot or leave.” He also said that “I presume that’s why binationalist proposals that were anathema when they were feasible (roughly ’67-’73) are treated much more gently today, even approved in the mainstream, now that they can be exploited by the right to undermine a two-state first stage in the process.” What is your position on this issue and what is your vision for the future of Palestine/Israel?
JH: I think mathematically there are only three solutions: one state, either bi-national (most likely) or a unitary state like South Africa; two states, which is still preferred by the vast majority of Palestinians in Palestine, who seek national self-determination (although they expect the eventual evolution of a single state); or apartheid — a “two-state solution” envisioned by Israel in which the Palestinians are shoved into a Bantustan on a truncated 15% of historic Palestine and Israel controls the rest, including borders, movement, water, Jerusalem, and even the airspace. I believe that Israel has eliminated the two-state solution by its settlement project, and only an assertive US Administration can force Israel to withdraw to a meaningful degree, which is possible if US interests are at stake but unlikely. Since apartheid is not an option, we are left with a one-state solution, which I think is difficult — the history of bi-national states is not a happy one — but do-able if both peoples go into that project in good faith (very unlikely on the part of Israel). The one-state solution also enjoys no support today either in Israel or in the international community. It appears, then, that we have a conflict with no apparent solution at the moment.
I have advanced what I call a “two state-plus” solution based on the idea of a loose regional economic confederation involving Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Key to that is the freedom of all the residents of the confederation to live and work anywhere among its member states, as in Europe. This would eliminate the issue of how big the Palestinian state is, neutralize the Occupation (since the settlements and Israel proper would be fully integrated), resolve the refugee issue, and shift the burden of economic viability from a tiny Palestinian state to the entire region. But that’s a big vision whose time has not yet come.
2 Palestinian National Authority, “Minister of Planning Informs Quartet Envoy of the Israeli Measures Hindering Development and Economic Growth in Palestine,” 1 September 2008. See, also, Adam Hanieth, “Palestine in the Middle East: Opposing Neoliberalism and US Power,” MRZine, 19 July 2008.
Jeff Halper’s new book An Israeli in Palestine is out now. Frank Barat is a peace activist living in London. His book of interviews between Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, Le champ du possible is available from Amazon.fr. He can be reached through is blog Life under Occupation.