Friday, September 05, 2008

'end of an odyssey' by ICAHD director jeff halper

images ©Sameh A Habeeb, Gaza

End of an Odyssey

Jeff Halper

September 1, 2008

Now, a few days after my release from jail in the wake of my
trip to Gaza, I'm posting a few notes to sum things up.

First, the mission of the Free Gaza Movement to break the
Israeli siege proved a success beyond all expectations. Our reaching Gaza
and leaving has created a free and regular channel between Gaza and the
outside world. It has done so because it has forced the Israeli
government to make a clear policy declaration: that it is not occupying Gaza
and therefore will not prevent the free movement of Palestinians in and out
(at least by sea). (Israel's security concerns can easily be accommodated by
instituting a technical system of checks similar to those of other ports.)
Any attempt on the part of Israel to backtrack on this - by preventing ships
in the future from entering or leaving Gaza with goods and passengers,
including Palestinians - may be immediately interpreted as an assertion of
control, and therefore of Occupation, opening Israel to accountability for
war crimes before international law, something Israel tries to avoid at all
costs. Gone is the obfuscation that has allowed Israel to maintain its
control of the Occupied Territories without assuming any responsibility:
from now on, Israel is either an Occupying Power accountable for its actions
and policies, or Palestinians have every right to enjoy their human right of
travelling freely in and out of their country. Israel can no longer have it
both ways. Not only did our two little boats force the Israel military and
government to give way, then, they also changed fundamentally the status of
Israel's control of Gaza.

When we finally arrived in Gaza after a day and a half sail, the welcome
we received from 40,000 joyous Gazans was overwhelming and moving. People
sought me out in particular, eager it seemed to speak Hebrew with an Israeli
after years of closure. The message I received by people of all factions
during my three days there was the same: How do we ("we" in the sense of all
of us living in their country, not just Palestinians or Israelis) get out of
this mess? Where are WE going? The discourse was not even political: what is
the solution; one-state, two-state, etc etc. It was just common sense and
straightforward, based on the assumption that we will all continue living in
the same country and this stupid conflict, with its walls and siege and
violence, is bad for everybody. Don't Israelis see that? people would ask

(The answer, unfortunately, is "no." To be honest,
we Israeli Jews are the problem. The Palestinian years ago accepted our
existence in the country as a people and are willing to accept ANY solution
two states, one state, no state, whatever. It is us who want exclusivity
over the "Land of Israel" who cannot conceive of a single country, who
cannot accept the national presence of Palestinians (we talk about
"Arabs" in our country), and who have eliminated by our settlements
even the possibility of the two-state solution in which we take 80% of the

So it's sad, truly sad, that our "enemies" want peace and
co-existence (and tell me that in HEBREW) and we don't. Yeah, we Israeli
Jews want "peace," but in the meantime what we have -- almost no attacks,
a feeling of security, a "disappeared" Palestinian people, a booming
economy, tourism and ever-improving international status -- seems just fine.
If "peace" means giving up settlements, land and control, why do it? What's
wrong with the status quo? If it's not broken, don't fix it.)

When in Gaza I also managed to see old friends, especially Eyad al-Sarraj of
the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and Raji Sourani, Director of the
Palestinian Center for Human Rights, whom I visited in his office. I also
received honorary Palestinian citizenship, including a passport, which was
very meaningful to me as an Israeli Jew.

When I was in Gaza everyone in Israel -- including the media who interviewed
me - warned me to be careful, to watch out for my life. Aren't you scared?
they asked. Well, the only time I felt genuine and palpable fear during the
entire journey was when I got back to Israel. I went from Gaza through
the Erez checkpoint because I wanted to make the point that the siege is not
only by sea. On the Israeli side I was immediately arrested, charged with
violating a military order prohibiting Israelis from being in Gaza
and jailed at the Shikma prison in Ashkelon.

In my cell that night, someone recognized from the news. All night I was
physically threatened by right-wing Israelis -- and I was sure I wouldn't
make it till the morning. Ironically, there were three Palestinians in my
cell who kind of protected me, so the danger was from Israelis, not
Palestinians, in Gaza as well as in Israel. (One Palestinian from Hebron was
in jail for being illegally in Israel; I was in jail for being illegally in
Palestine.) As it stands, I'm out on bail. The state will probably press
charges in the next few weeks, and I could be jailed for two or so months. I
now am a Palestinian in every sense of the word: On Monday I received my
Palestinian citizenship, on Tuesday I was already in an Israeli jail.

Though the operation was a complete success, the siege will only be
genuinely broken if we keep up the movement in and out of Gaza. The boats
are scheduled to return in 2-4 weeks and I am now working on getting a
boat-load of Israelis.

My only frustration with what was undoubtedly a successful
operation was with the fact that Israelis just don't get it - and don't want
to get it. The implications of our being the strong party and the fact that
the Palestinians are the ones truly seeking peace are too threatening to
their hegemony and self-perceived innocence. What I encountered in perhaps a
dozen interviews - and what I read about myself and our trip written by
"journalists" who never even attempted to speak to me or the others - was a
collective image of Gaza, the Palestinians and our interminable conflict
which could only be described as fantasy. Rather than enquire about my
experiences, motives or views, my interviewers, especially on the mainstream
radio, spent their time forcing upon me their slogans and uniformed
prejudices, as if giving me a space to explain myself deal a death
blow to their tightly-held conceptions.

Ben Dror Yemini of the popular Ma'ariv newspaper called us a "satanic cult."
Another suggested that a prominent contributor to the Free Gaza Movement was
a Palestinian-American who had been questioned by the FBI, as if that had to
do with anything (the innuendo being we were supported, perhaps even
manipulated or worse, by "terrorists"). Others were more explicit: Wasn't it
true that we were giving Hamas a PR victory? Why was I siding with
Palestinian fishermen-gun smugglers against my own country which sought only
to protect its citizens? Some simply yelled at me, like an interviewer on
Arutz 99. And when all else failed, my interlocutors could always fall back
on good old cynicism: Peace is impossible. Jews and Arabs are different
species. You can't trust "them." Or bald assertions: They just want to
destroy us. Then there's the paternalism:
Well, I guess it's good to have a few idealists like you around...

Nowhere in the many interviews was there a genuine curiosity about what I
was doing orwhat life was like in Gaza. No one interested in a different
perspective, especially if it challenged their cherished slogans. No one
going beyond the old, tired slogans. Plenty of reference, though, to
terrorism, Qassam missiles and Palestinian snubbing our valiant efforts to
make peace; none whatsoever to occupation, house demolitions, siege, land
expropriation or settlement expansion, not to mention the killing,
imprisoning and impoverishment of their civilian population. As if
we had nothing to do with the conflict, as if we were just living our
normal, innocent lives and bad people decided to throw Qassam rockets. Above
all, no sense of our responsibility, or any willingness to accept
responsibility forthe ongoing violence and conflict. Instead just a
thoughtless, automatic appeal to an image of Gaza and "Arabs" (we don't
generally use the term "Palestinians") that is diametrically opposed to what
I've seen and experienced, a slavish repeating of mindless (and wrong)
slogans which serve only to eliminate any possibility of truly grasping the
situation. In short, a fantasy Gaza as perceived from within a bubble
carefully constructed so as to deflect any uncomfortable reality.

The greatest insight this trip has given me is understanding why Israelis
don't "get it:" a media comprised by people who should know better but who
possess little critical ability and feel more comfortable inside a box
created by self-serving politicians than in trying to do something far more
creative: understanding what in the hell is going on here.

Still, I formulated clearly my messages to my fellow Israelis, and that
constitutes the main content of my interviews and talks:

Despite what our political
leaders say, there is a political solution to the conflict and there are
partners for peace. If anything, we of the peace movement must not allow the
powers-that-be to mystify the conflict, to present it as a "clash of
civilizations." The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is political and as such it
has a political solution;

The Palestinians are not our enemies. In fact, I urge my fellow Israeli Jews
to disassociate from the dead-end politics of our failed political leaders
by declaring, in concert with Israeli and Palestinian peace-makers: We
refuse to be enemies. And

As the infinitely stronger party in the conflict and the only Occupying
Power, we Israelis must accept responsibility for our failed and oppressive
policies. Only we can end the conflict.

Let me end by expressing my appreciation to the organizers of this
initiative - Paul Larudee and Greta Berlin from the US, Hilary Smith
and Bella from the UK, Vaggelis Pissias, a Greek member of the team who
provided crucial material and political input, and Jamal al-Khoudri, an
independent member of the PLC from Gaza and head of the Popular Committee
Against the Siege and others - plus the wonderful group of participants on
the boats and the great communication team that stayed ashore. Special
appreciation goes to ICAHD's own Angela Godfrey-Goldstein who played a
crucial role in Cyprus and Jerusalem in getting the word out. Not to forget
our hosts in Gaza (whose names are on the Free Gaza website) and the tens of
thousands of Gazans who welcomed us and shared their lives with us. May our
peoples finally find the peace and justice they deserve in our common land.

(Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House
Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at

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