An Israeli in Gaza
An interview with Jeff Halper
How did you get involved in such an initiative and why was it important for you to take part?
As an Israeli and the head of an Israeli peace organization (ICAHD – The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), 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) 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.
2-What was the goal of this initiative and has it been reached?
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!
3-As an Israeli Jew, what type of welcome did you get from the Gazans? Did you meet anyone from Hamas?
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 in peace. 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.
4-Why did get you arrested by the Israeli forces at the Erez crossing on your way back to Israel?
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.
5-You founded the Israeli Committee Against House demolitions (ICAHD)(2) 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?
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 has 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 Israeli and Palestinians against the Occupation (so far) is 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-a-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.