Recent talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians point to a seemingly dysfunctional and hopelessly intractable process. The construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has not abated, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected calls by defense minister Ehud Barak to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, recent news reports demonstrate that the occupation is both unsustainable and incompatible with democratic principles. For example, Israeli police are arresting Palestinian children as young as five for stone throwing. This, as Al Jazeera and The Guardian just started to release over 1,600 documents on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And recent Wikileaks cables revealed that Israeli officials took bribes to allow U.S. goods into Gaza, requiring American companies to pay up to 75 times more than the usual cost. Wikileaks also learned that Israel has intended to keep Gaza near collapse, just as the Israeli government plans to wage a full-scale war on the territory and Lebanon.
This year, the Palestinians hope to build upon the wave of nations recognizing a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. There is a strong and ever-growing peace movement that is joined from within Israeli society and the international community. Ultimately, the leaders of this movement want to bring about positive change in the Mideast, and they hope to succeed where the politicians and diplomats have fallen short. And in many ways, they are a nonviolent movement on the lines of the U.S. civil rights and South African anti-apartheid movements. They seek dignity and a respect for human rights for both sides of the conflict, and seek to liberate Israelis and Palestinians from a system that has hopelessly oppressed each.
Two human rights leaders from two different conflicts in different parts of the world found themselves participating in the recent flotillas to break the blockade of Gaza: Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who lost family members to sectarian violence and fought for nonviolent reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and Yonatan Shapira, a former elite Israeli pilot who decided he could no longer participate in the occupation of the Palestinian people. This unlikely pair of shipmates had a conversation recently, which was hosted and facilitated by Jewish Fast For Gaza, a group founded by Rabbis Brant Rosen and Brian Walt.
Maguire was transformed by a world of violence in Northern Ireland when her niece and two nephews were killed - all little children - and her sister injured on a Belfast street in 1976. “When that happened, myself and two others…we came out for peace, our message was that violence isn’t going to solve our problems, and there’s got to be another way to use nonviolence,” said Maguire.
At that point she cofounded the Community of the Peace People in 1976, and organized weekly marches and demonstrations that attracted over half a million people from across Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK. “I think we recognized that we had a deep ethnic conflict, but it wasn’t going to be solved through militarism and paramilitarism, and we had to begin to sit down with each other and dialogue and to find a way through our problems.” Along with a colleague, Maguire received the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for their peace efforts, and she would later broaden her work from Northern Ireland to other places.
Ten years ago, Maguire went with a delegation to Israel. She was invited by a group of rabbis who were fighting for human rights in the territories and against the demolition of Palestinian homes. Relating to her own experiences back at home, she was moved by the suffering on both sides, and inspired to see Israelis and Palestinians finding a way to working together and seek justice.
More recently, Maguire has decided to focus her efforts on Gaza, and has sailed on three humanitarian boats to the territory. Two of the boats were intercepted by the Israeli Navy, and one of them was a part of the Freedom Flotilla that was attacked by Israelis, claiming nine lives on the MV Mavi Mamara. “1.5 million people are living in a prison, cut off from the world, literally,” she said of the conditions in Gaza, of the tremendous suffering she witnessed. “The Palestinian people are really living in a prison and the Israelis are holding all the keys. This is not happening in any other part of the world, and yet we see Israel and the international community remaining silent on it.”
With its ports closed for 40 years, and bombed-out infrastructure, the Gazan population, half of which is under the age of 18, is the victim of a collective punishment, according to Maguire. Her words were echoed by Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who issued a UN report on Israeli human rights violations during Operation Cast Lead, the military campaign in Gaza that claimed 1,400 Palestinian lives. According to the Goldstone report, “houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other public buildings were destroyed.” Around 240 of the Gazan deaths were police officers. And the Palestinian Legislative Council and a prison were bombed as well. The report called on Israel to do an independent investigation into Operation Cast Lead, and punish those elements of the IDF who were responsible.
The severity of the Gaza blockade - imposed by Israel following the Hamas victory and takeover - was brought home for Maguire when she appeared in court following her arrest. “When I was at the Supreme Court for the hearing, there was a case up just before me, and the case was a mother and father who had been visiting on the West Bank when the border was closed to Gaza and their young child was in Gaza. They were appearing at the court to ask if after four years they would be allowed to travel from the West Bank to Gaza to see their little boy who hadn’t seen them since the border had closed.”
And while Maguire condemns what she views as violation of international law against the Palestinians, the pacifist condemns all violence, including Palestinian acts of violence on Israeli cities. And yet, the Nobel laureate was hopeful at what she saw in the people in Gaza. “There is a passion among the people of Gaza for peace. They just want to have peace because they suffered so much. So we were hopeful because it reminded me of Northern Ireland when the Peace People started.” When Israel began bombing Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, however, there was a setback in the hopes of peace between Fattah and Hamas, and hopes the Palestinians would have a united voice that could reach out and dialogue with Israel.
Meanwhile, Yonatan Shapira’s introduction to the Mideast conflict came as a member of the Israeli Air Force, an elite Blackhawk helicopter pilot who had flown hundreds of missions over the occupied territories. Upon first glance, this seasoned, eleven-year veteran would appear to be the least likely candidate for a peace activist. But then again, no one knows how he or will she will react after becoming a firsthand witness to suffering and the effects of violence, on the Israeli side in Shapira’s case. “During this time I volunteered with victims of suicide attacks, mostly new immigrants, people who are poor and with less family support in the country. And I got to know Israeli suffering through my military service as a rescue pilot bringing children and soldiers and people to hospital after they were injured and killed, and as a volunteer meeting with the children and families of survivors, and trying to bring them back to society to try to overcome their trauma,” Shapira said.
Then there was a targeted bomb assassination attempt on Hamas leaders that left fourteen civilians dead in Gaza.
“And at some point along this process, I started to realize I am, there is a cycle of violence and I am just a part of this cycle, even if I am not killing anyone directly myself, I am part of a system that is causing huge suffering for people,” he added. Speaking of the Palestinians, he said “For many years I didn’t know their story, their narrative, the way I’ve been brought here up in Israeli society, to just know half side of the history. The first time I knew the word Nakba, the disaster for the Palestinians of what happened in ‘48 was when I was 30-something. And when you realize that you were blind to such a huge part of the history and the present, and there is a circle of violence and you are part of it, it’s a very strong emotional step to overcome, and I think at that point you can decide whether to ignore it, suppress it and continue to fight anyone that brings these issues up, or try to learn more and take responsibility and try to change the situation. And that’s what happened to me and to many of my friends.”
When Shapira found his moment of truth and chose to deal with the “dark side” of his existence, he decided to write a petition of air force pilots who declared they were no longer willing to fly missions over the territories. They would no longer be a part of “illegal and immoral attacks” on the Palestinians. In 2003 - on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year - the pilots placed the declaration on the desk of the commander of the air force. “I think that was the beginning of a new life for me in many, many ways,” Shapira noted.
Shapira founded Combatants for Peace on the assertion that it is not merely enough to say what you are not willing to be a part of. “It’s important to reach out to the other side you’re fighting against, and find people and work together - Palestinians who are rejecting violence and are refusing to be a part of this cycle of violence,” he said.
This IDF pilot made a transition from leader among soldiers to a solidarity leader with the Palestinians. He and other Israelis participate in the call by nonviolent Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS. Shapira sees this as a struggle for Palestinian liberation, a process that will also liberate Israelis from being oppressors of a horrible, decades-long occupation. “We don’t wait anymore for Lieberman and Bibi and Barak and other people to bring the solution today. We are calling on the international community, we call on Jews…, and we call on governments all around the world to understand the situation is disastrous, and there is no time to wait for a peace process that is being used just to delay and build more settlements.”
Shapira - who is disheartened by Mairead Maguire’s arrest in Israel - noted that it was his own squadron that dropped commandos on the Mavi Mamara. “It was a double shock because I know the organizers of the flotilla…and to see what the navy and the Israeli army did on the boats and especially this whole ordeal of not showing the whole video, just showing a few seconds of that and manipulating the whole world media. …And the same Blackhawk helicopter that Israel gets for free in billions of aid from the United States, that’s the same helicopter I flew on years back. So it was also very personal for me to decide I need to be on the side of the people trying to symbolically break the siege.”
And so this veteran pilot decided to participate in a flotilla to Gaza, alongside Israeli activists and a holocaust survivor. Shapira said it was sad to see 8 or 10 warships approaching them and violently attacking them, when the only weapons they were carrying to Gaza were harmonicas, musical instruments for the children. “I guess that was too dangerous for the Israeli army to let into Gaza,” he said.
Shapira, who had once been involved in logistics for the Navy, was arrested by the Navy. When the soldiers boarded the ship, they shot him with a stun gun, an electrical shock close to his heart. “My whole body convulsed. Now I also have accusations of attacking the soldiers because my legs were jumping form the shock in my heart, so they also accuse me of attacking the soldiers,” he said. “It is important to understand that if we were Palestinian fisherman, they’d just kill us from a far distance, and maybe Turkish activists we would be shot to death, so it is important to put this in proportion.”
Activists such as Shapira are touching a nerve in Israeli society regarding the occupation, and they are a thorn in the side of Israeli authorities. He sees hope in the Israeli resistance movement, noting that he sees more people attending demonstrations these days, types of people he hadn’t seen in the past. “Maybe with this tendency of this country becoming more and more fascist, and the laws are coming one after another, it may be able to penetrate this thick skin that many people have developed over here. There is a little bit of optimism that when things become so bad and brutal, maybe it helps people to wake up.” Shapira speaks of the ultra-right-Orthodox coalition that currently controls the Israeli government, and the oppressive and racist laws that have come down the pike. Examples include a law requiring non-Jewish Israeli citizens to proclaim allegiance to a Jewish state, a rabbinic ruling forbidding leasing property to non-Jews, attempts to bar Jewish women from the wailing wall, gender segregation in public areas, determining who is not a Jew, and laws forbidding a Jew to marry a non-Jew in Israel.
At the same time, Shapira realizes that his movement is a minority of a minority, albeit with an important role in helping to wake up world Jewry. “It is important not to exaggerate how effective we are here. We are very much hated within the Israeli mainstream, especially when we mention things like international pressure and BDS, it is almost like cursing God in a synagogue or something like that.” Shapira believes the change will come from international pressure, as was the case with South African apartheid. “It is important to remember that no struggle for liberation for equality and for freedom around the world nonviolently succeeded without the mass participation of people around the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, all of these heroes would never succeed without huge international pressure.”
Ultimately, Israel must find security through some other means outside of militarism, say these two human rights fighters. “Israel has a right to self-defense, and therefore the first thing for defending ourselves is to stop torturing and killing Palestinians,” said Shapira, who compares Israel to the participant in a gang rape who complains that the victim is fighting back. “When you imprison a million and a half people in a huge ghetto like Gaza, bombing them, what do you expect to happen?” he said. “Since we are committed to nonviolent principles we believe more killing of the other side will just cause you more suffering.”
“We have to move from culturally sanctioned violence wherever we live into building communities based on respect for each other and nonviolence,” said Maguire. She believes the best security the Jewish people can have is to make plans with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, make friends, and begin to build policies based on human rights and justice. “We’ve got to move away from the idea - and really all of us not just Israelis - this idea that militarism provides our security. We have to move to human based and ecological based security. That’s a huge challenge for the whole human family, and particularly a challenge now in Israel and Palestine to move on to a different kind of security.”