The Rebirth of the Israeli Peace Movement

I spotted Haim Gouri standing in the East Jerusalem park among several hundred other demonstrators on a recent Friday afternoon. The wind swept the poet's silver hair over a face scarred by nearly 87 years of history. Paramilitary border police stood next to an impromptu roadblock across the street, barring the protesters from Sheikh Jarrah -- an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem where several Palestinian families have been evicted from their homes so Israeli settlers can claim real estate owned by Jews before 1948. To remove any doubts: No one is letting the evicted Palestinians reclaim the homes their families owned before 1948 in what is now Israel.

It was Gouri's first appearance at the weekly demonstration, which has grown since last autumn. Back in 1948, Gouri was a soldier in the new Israeli army. His mournful ballads are the most famous songs of Israel's War of Independence. As a poet and journalist, he became the articulate voice of Israel's determinedly inarticulate founding generation. One of his early poems begins, "I am a civil war." In 1967, after Israel's conquest of the West Bank, he wrestled with himself before signing a declaration drawn up by impractical poets demanding permanent Israeli rule of the "Whole Land of Israel." He thereby marked himself as a rightist -- though Gouri gradually cast off the fantasy of the Whole Land. In a later poem, from the 1990s, he wrote:

I am filled with abandoned villages, abandoned objects
gaping shoes, ripped blankets, punctured bundles…
an anklet longing till today for its ankle

It may be the best elegy written in Hebrew for the deserted Palestinian villages of 1948. After he wrote it, he has said, "there were friends who wouldn’t speak to me."

I asked him why he'd decided to come to the protest. What was happening in Sheikh Jarrrah, he said, his gravelly voice almost drowned up by snare drums driving the protest chants, was "the height of indecency." He paused, and added in English, "It isn't done."

Finding Gouri at the protest was the final confirmation that the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations have gone mainstream. After being comatose for a decade, the Israeli left may be regaining consciousness -- woken by an injustice so simple, so public that it cannot be ignored.

Sheikh Jarrah is a residential area just north of the walled Old City. (See map.) Until 1948, a small number of Jews lived in the mainly Arab neighborhood. During the brutal fighting of '48, the Jews left. Their flight was part of a larger story: In and around Jerusalem, Jews as well as Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, though the number of Arab refugees was larger.

In 1956, the Jordanian government resettled 28 Palestinian families -- refugees from what had become Israel -- on abandoned land in Sheikh Jarrah. As a condition for getting homes, the families renounced their refugee status. In this case, at least, displaced Palestinians put displacement behind them and started over.

Except history didn't let them. In 1967, Israel conquered and annexed East Jerusalem. The new legal situation allowed Jews who'd lost real estate in East Jerusalem to reassert title. Yet under a law enacted in Israel's early years, land and homes abandoned by Palestinians in 1948 had become state property and could not be reclaimed. Two Jewish groups asserted ownership of land in the erstwhile Jewish pocket within Sheikh Jarrah, setting off a legal battle far too tangled to recount here. (The Ir Amim organization has posted a detailed report, and a more recent update.) In recent years, the legal fight has intensified, with an Israeli settler-linked company buying land rights from the original two Jewish groups. In 2008, a Palestinian family was evicted from its home, which was taken over by settlers. A year ago, two more families were forced out, and the threat of eviction hangs over others.

The left's protests began with a few dozen peace activists holding vigils in the neighborhood. When police began arresting peaceful demonstrators, says activist Avner Inbar, the issue of freedom of expression was added to the mix. The arrests aroused media attention, and the demonstrations -- now held outside the cordoned-off neighborhood -- kept growing. So did the range of participants. Alongside Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and members of the radical Anarchists Against the Wall, one can regularly find former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, novelist David Grossman, and philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a co-author of the Israel Defense Forces ethical code. Michael Ben-Yair, the former attorney general, has taken part. All are well known doves -- very establishment doves.

The issues at Sheikh Jarrah are elemental: The settlers' use of the law to take over property hasn't legitimized their action. Rather, it has shown the glaring inequality built into the law itself.

Ironically, by claiming former Jewish property in Sheikh Jarrah, the settlers are also asserting the right of 1948 refugees or their heirs to reclaim their homes. In this case, the refugees are Jews. Yet the Palestinian insistence on the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees is the demand that Israelis generally see as the most significant Palestinian roadblock to a peace agreement. Implemented without restriction, it would make a two-state solution meaningless, since Palestinians would reclaim property in West Jerusalem and throughout Israel, creating a new class of displaced Jews in a binational state. (When peace negotiators on either side are realistic, they dicker about what limited number of Palestinians would return to Israel, in a symbolic acknowledgment of the Palestinian tragedy.) For Israeli rightists to assert the unrestricted right of return in Jerusalem is strategically suicidal -- but they do not even imagine that a right granted to their side would apply to the other.

The settlers also have a more immediate goal of creating Jewish bridgeheads in a ring of Arab areas around the Old City. Those footholds are intended to ensure that the entirety of the Old City remains under Israeli rule. More ambitiously, they are aimed at preventing a political division of Jerusalem. In other words, the goal is to remove the basic conditions for a two-state solution.

The mix of blatant injustice and the right's rash disregard for Israel's own future has fueled the protests. In practical terms, so has the fact that Sheikh Jarrah is in East Jerusalem -- as Inbar notes, "an in-between space," not Israel proper, not as inaccessible or frightening as the West Bank. The disciplined nonviolence -- on the part of the demonstrators, if not the police -- has also attracted moderates.

And the protests answer a gut need to speak out. Since the collapse of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, the Israeli left has crumbled. No new leaders have emerged. Theoretical arguments between moderates and radicals have replaced public action. To come to Sheikh Jarrah on a Friday is to emerge from slumber and demand a change in Israel's direction.

For the moment, the evictions have stopped, a hint that public pressure is working. The ad hoc group of activists has become the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. A chartered bus or two brings protesters from Tel Aviv every week. "A bridge has been created between the factions of the Israeli left," Inbar says. Today's protest will go national, with demonstrations in Jewish and Arab towns around Israel before the main event facing Sheikh Jarrah.

It is entirely too soon to know where this will lead. But if a vibrant Israeli left is reborn, history will mark that it regained life facing the blocked entrance of Sheikh Jarrah. If an exact date is needed, it may be the day on which a silver-haired, history-scarred poet arrived to add his voice.

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