Get Out of the Territories

As war raged in the occupied territories, peace flowered in Tel Aviv. On Saturday, February 16, 14,000 Israelis marched, sang peace anthems, lit candles, and demanded Israel “Get out of the territories, get back to ourselves!”

The protest was novel in two ways. One, because it happened despite a week in which 10 Israeli soldiers and settlers had lost their lives from Palestinian attacks in Gaza and the West Bank. Not so long ago Israel’s mainstream Peace Now movement–which called the rally on the 16th–cancelled demonstrations out of fear of the public backlash caused by Palestinian violence.

The second change was that the main speaker at the rally was a Palestinian–the PLO’s representative for Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh. Addressing the crowd in Hebrew, he rehearsed his well-known mantra for ending the conflict. “The path to peace is through the return of the Palestinian refugees to the state of Palestine and the return of the settlers to the state of Israel.”

He received tumultuous applause. His formula has caused a different tumult among Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and diaspora.

Does this reawakening of Israel’s peace camp (Peace Now’s was the second such protest in a week) mean that the Israeli consensus behind Ariel Sharon is cracking? Yes, says Peace Now’s Arie Arnon, and for two reasons.

One was the widespread perception on the Israeli left that Sharon–by assassinating Fatah leader Raed Karmi in Tulkarm last month–had willfully sabotaged the three-week-long ceasefire Yasser Arafat had managed to impose on the Palestinian militias. “It convinced many Israelis that Sharon was afraid of tranquillity, and that he would block any attempt to move from the military conflict to a political process,” says Arnon.

The second was the “fresh and authentic” movement fired from the ceasefire’s ashes: the public campaign of Israeli reserve officers refusing to serve in the occupied territories “for the purpose of dominating, expelling, starving, and humiliating an entire people.”

Starting out in late January with 52 officers, the reservists’ ranks have swelled to 231, supported by 26% of the Israeli public. This is unprecedented, says Arnon. “There has never been such popular support for a movement of refusing to serve in the army or what the right-wing would call treason.”

The reservists’ protest is new in another way. “Some of the officers are unilateralists. They say the priority is for Israel to leave the occupied territories, even without an agreement with the Palestinians.” The reservists are mirroring a debate that has fractured the Israeli left ever since the Camp David summit collapsed and the Intifada exploded.

On the one side stand forces like former Labor Minister Yossi Beilin, the secularist Meretz movement, and the majority current within Peace Now. This “peace coalition” calls for Israel’s full withdrawal to the 1967 lines (“more or less, with land swaps,” adds Arnon), but in the context of a renewed political process based on the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at Taba in January 2001.

On the other side stand unilateralists like Labor Knesset Member Haim Ramon. He believes any call to return to negotiations (“as though nothing had happened in the last 15 months”) is electoral suicide for the left. “The Israeli public’s perception is that Arafat can’t or won’t fight terror. And you can’t have negotiations as long as terrorism continues,” he says.

Instead, Ramon insists that Israel withdraw unilaterally from all of Gaza and 85% of the West Bank and establish “a new de facto border.” From there negotiations can resume from the point they left off at Taba. The alternative is the maintenance of a right- wing coalition led by Sharon or Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s slow, inexorable “reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”

Ramon’s “third way” has not been adopted by any Israeli political party, has been denounced by the Israeli left and right, and scorned by the army as “a victory for terrorism.” This “was exactly the argument the army used against any unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon,” says Ramon.

But it has struck deep chords in the Israeli public. According to a poll in Israel’s Maariv newspaper on 15 February, 66% of Israelis support the establishment of a “separation border” between Israel and the Palestinians, even one, like Ramon’s, that would involve the removal of 60 to 70 Jewish settlements.

Where does Israel’s new generation of peace activists stand? Tamar Adelstein is a member of the recently formed “The Green Line–students for a border.” She studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, is hauling a banner several sizes too big for her. Should Israel leave the occupied territories with or without an agreement?

“I used to say with. But now I say without. We have to get out, like we did in Lebanon. If we wait for negotiations, it means what we have now–us killing the Palestinians and the Palestinians killing us.”