Can you make peace in times of war?

The war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has come to a preliminary end with the announcement of an open-ended ceasefire. But the recent months of violence have cast a dark shadow on those who advocate peace and reconciliation, which is why we asked one Israeli, and one Palestinian peace-activist the same question: How has the recent flare-up in violence influenced your ability as a movement to promote peace and non-violence?

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Here are two “Voices” of peace-activists, one Israeli, one Palestinian. Both have been active in the organization “Combatants for Peace,” a movement founded by former combatants on both sides of the conflict who decided to turn their backs to violence in exchange for a path of nonviolent activism and cooperation. The “Combatants” have also been visibly involved in mass protests against the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. 

But since the kidnapping of three young Israelis and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem in June, joint activities between Palestinians and Israelis have been put on stand-by. Now the war in Gaza has come to a preliminary end with an open-ended ceasefire in place. But the shadow of war and conflict is long and we are asking: can peace activists overcome the tribulations of recent violent events?

*Some of the wording in his article has been modified on 30.8.2014 upon the request of one of the interviewees, who felt that some of the statements did not reflect his actual opinions. “The Voice” @ is a format that aims to give people a platform to express their views in an unmediated way, which is why we accepted the request without hesitation.

Both Voices were asked the same question:

How has the recent flare-up in violence influenced your ability as a movement to promote peace and non-violence?


Protest for peace on rabin square Tel Aviv / Andreas Hackl

Protest for peace on rabin square Tel Aviv / Andreas Hackl

Assaf Yacobovitz, Israeli activist for Combatants for Peace

The impact could be summed up like that: each time there is an outbreak of violence, we become more relevant, but at the same time less able to act.

When the Israeli army besieged Hebron after the kidnapping of three young Israelis, we talked with our friends there over the phone. One of the coordinators on the Palestinian side in Hebron told us about soldiers that entered houses, leaving a huge mess behind. They were searching for nothing really, instead trying to establish some story about Hamas being behind the kidnapping. Of course they found nothing. It was absurd.

I am saying this because already then we felt, partly from the conversations over the phone, that we might actually be causing damage to our Palestinian friends. They became vulnerable because of their intimate connection with us Israelis.

One of them was threatened and blamed by his social environment for being in contact with Israelis. He explained later on that it was nothing really violent. But people who always knew he is part of Combatants for Peace suddenly started taking a more hostile position. In one case the property of a Palestinian activist was severely damaged. That was already after the war in Gaza started.

The communication between us and the Palestinians has recently been difficult. Some of our various (joint Israeli-Palestinian) groups haven’t actually met since the kidnapping, only recently some did. Once we talked on Skype. Despite the fact that we all know how important our connection is, it hasn’t been easy to maintain.

It’s like we are under attack by reality itself: the reality we were always acting against suddenly starts fighting back. Today it is harder to keep up hope, to keep up the validity of our beliefs: that by nonviolent activities we can withstand the volume of hatred, violence, and distrust that has befallen our societies.

As a reaction the difficultyof maintaining a bi-national activity in the West Bank during days of war, the Israeli side of the movement now turns back into its own environment, where it acts one-sidedly, but in the name of both sides. We had demonstrations in Jerusalem before and after the war began. One was a large protest with at least 500 people, featuring Israelis and Palestinians on the stage. But altogether there were maybe five Palestinian activists, compared to about 30 Israelis. There were no other Palestinians in the crowd.

A month ago we had a demonstration on Rabin-Square in Tel Aviv, with some 6000 people. We suddenly realized that Combatants for Peace became more relevant. More recently, we were on stage together with the political parties Hadash and Meretz, as well as the Peace Now movement – this reflects something: that in all these protests, the principle of bi-national cooperation became an essential ingredient of the leftist agenda.

The growth of the bi-national principle is also thanks to Combatants for Peace, which has always upheld it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that more Palestinians participate. It’s a dilemma:  the more relevant it becomes, the more difficult it is to implement it on the ground. Racism towards Palestinian citizens of Israel is very high now, so most Arabs don’t feel like participating.

You may find it odd, but we find it very hard to talk about the implications of the war within the movement. You would expect us to talk about how recent events influence us, or where we find ourselves at the end of this round. But instead we fall back into agenda as usual; the activities, the organizational process, funding issues, the usual stuff.

Some of us do think that we should talk about our vision, talk about justice and equality, to try to blur the difference between Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and Palestinians elsewhere. West and east of the Green Line Arabs are persecuted and hated, they share the same fate; Racism towards Palestinian citizens of Israel is very high now. And again, for the same reasons, most of them don’t feel like participating now. But instead of discussing such issues, something else happens to us under war: we feel too vulnerable to discuss things we fear, being scared of maybe discovering that there might be a loss of trust, loss of hope. So we go straight back to doing. Under war we become more careful in the ways we are dealing with the very delicate state of affairs between Palestinians and Israelis.

We Israeli activists also want Palestinians to appreciate what we are doing here: demonstrations under rocket attacks and in the face of right-wing aggression; that wasn’t easy at all. We don’t expect Palestinians to do the same now because we understand that it has become impossible to act for them. But we want them to acknowledge the fact that it’s not easy for us.

I joined the movement after one of Combatants for Peace memorial evenings in 2010. I have always been left-wing, but rather passive. In the Israeli air force I was helping to facilitate aerial activity. In my personal story I talk about the distance that such military activity creates: the alienation that the screen you look at represents. During Operation Cast Lead I was recruited as a reserve soldier. Cast Lead began with a large aerial maneuver in which an officer school in Gaza was heavily bombed, leading to some 300 casualties. Our unit showed the attack proudly on the screen. But I felt extremely inconvenient; I felt a strong dissonance in myself. That day I closed myself inside a room and had an anxiety attack. It was psychologically unbearable for me.

But anxiety is doing something else with most people in Israeli society today. When the level of anxiety rises up in a way that activates the defense mechanism of a whole society, people fall into a schizo-paranoid situation, they become more aggressive and start thinking in black and white. In this scenario, Israeli society has to hold together very strongly and imagines that outside everything is bad. And when they find particles of this “outside” inside, like Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, they want to purify themselves from them.

Coming back to Combatants for Peace: this is the mental atmosphere within which people hold onto something simplified that actually needs complexity. And we, as a movement, are bound to undergo the same process, but in the opposite direction: We might find ourselves to be more self-righteous than ever, criticizing nationalist and fake left-wing Israelis more than ever, identifying more than ever with Palestinian suffering; but as a consequence, it becomes more and more challenging to connect with the Israeli population, most of which shared a consensus over the necessity of war during these days.


Palestinian activists in a theatre performance, Izbet Tabib, West Bank / Andreas Hackl

Palestinian activists in a theatre performance, Izbet Tabib, West Bank / Andreas Hackl

Mohammed Aweida, Palestinian activist for Combatants for Peace

As you probably noticed, most Jewish Israelis have recently become more and more right-wing. And secondly, it has become extremely difficult to speak about nonviolence because the relation between Israel and Palestinians has become one of force: force that needs to be answered by force.

And why has Hamas grown? For ten years, Abu Mazen (President Mahmud Abbas) hasn’t taken any hostages, any land, or pursued violence. But in return he got settlements on Palestinian land. Then Hamas comes and takes what she wants, with violent resistance.

So after these things happen, I find it more and more difficult to advocate our vision. When 2000 Palestinians are killed in the Gaza Strip and you know that for years before that, the population of Gaza has basically lived under siege in jail. So I am saying: after all this, you can’t approach Palestinians and tell them, ‘let’s do nonviolence’. The same way you can’t tell someone whose daughter was just raped to relax and take a deep breath. For Palestinians it seems too late to think about nonviolence now, too late to trust about nonviolent resistance. Hamas acted through violent resistance because there was nothing else to loose.

And to be honest, I am not even completely convinced myself anymore about what I am trying to advocate. So I can’t convince other people, right? Even if I am a believer in nonviolence, which I am, I can’t speak to people about it right now. What can I tell them? Let’s fight for peace – which peace?

Still, I believe that the mission of Combatants for Peace remains important, especially as a way to influence the street in Israel. But also to maintain some hope through activities on the left-wing spectrum of politics on both sides. But it’s important to understand the difference: Israelis marching on the streets in thousands who are calling for an end to the war haven’t lost what the people in Gaza lost. Israelis have been supporting the military operation in Gaza because they wanted safety. Gaza went into war for the same reason: they wanted safety. Both of them want safety and freedom. On the Palestinian side, now everyone supports the struggle of Hamas. You won’t even find a single Christian Palestinian who has no sympathy with that.

Just think about the fact that Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv had to cancel operations for 24 hours or so. All Israelis suddenly stood up and wouldn’t sit down anymore. But I don’t think that any of them thought in the same manner that the people in the Gaza Strip can’t leave at all, only with very few exceptions. They are locked in, without an airport, without a seaport.

Under the current situation our movement has to remain flexible. Right now it’s simply not the right time to talk about nonviolence. But it’s the right time to hold demonstrations and to work with people on both sides, trying to keep up hope.

In our future meetings within the movement I think we will need to decide which way we are taking forward. I know that right now, we are at the crossroads. We are looking back and forth between the face of yesterday, and the face of tomorrow. The face of hope, and the face of killed children. But now we have reached a time where we can’t go back to yesterday. I can’t lose 2000 people in the Gaza Strip and look at all the destruction and simply turn time backwards.

But I believe that not much will come out of all this violence. Hamas will once again lose everything. It paid a high price for its version of freedom. But even after all this, they will soon be back in prison. The people of Gaza have gained the sympathy of the world and with it the power to take what they need: freedom. But when violence is used to fight for freedom, what follows are often more problems. You know what’s the saddest thing about all this? That Israel has brought us to a point where Palestinians begin to believe in violence again. Abu Mazen (President Mahmud Abbas) is begging Israel to take him; to make him the one leader. But they say no. So in the end I am asking: how can you form a state out of this rubble?

Even if there is hope, and some people are saying there is hope for peace now. Think about it: Egypt says it will side with Abu Mazen, Europeans are saying that they will pay for reconstructing Gaza. This way you can build a state, it would be such an easy project. But then Israel comes and says there is no leader they can sign an agreement with. So we wait, and Abu Mazen will die, and another one will come. One who may be good for Israel. And we know what that means: strong for Israel means he is a traitor.

So let me conclude: I am giving all my heart for peace and nonviolence, but I am also a human being. And human beings get old and tired. For how much longer can we speak with people about nonviolence? For three years, four years, maybe twenty? You can’t! Because at some point you feel that you are cheating them and yourself. It has become so difficult.

I believe in it, but I can’t do it anymore…



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