Tuesday night, as recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his ideological hero Vlamidir Jabotinksky’s Iron Wall policy at Israel’s Memorial Day, a busload of Palestinians from the West Bank and hundreds of Israeli Jews filed into the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds — an upscale theater in affluent north Tel Aviv — to attend a Combatants for Peace event billed as “Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony: Honoring the Victims, Fighting for Peace.” The 25 Palestinians in attendance were permitted entry into Israel from the West Bank and promptly returned that night following the event.
Combatants for Peace describes itself as a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization that “see dialogue and reconciliation as the only way to act in order to terminate the Israeli occupation, to halt the settlement project and to establish a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel.”
Inside, I spoke with former Israeli combat soldier and Combatants for Peace Regional Groups Companion, Avner Wishnitzer. Israelis and Palestinians are “all victims of this conflict,” he told me.
Wishnitzer denied that the event portrayed symmetry between the deaths of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians who resist but asserted that, “There is always a choice for [Israeli] soldiers and for those [Palestinians] who fight the occupation. If I were Palestinian, I would have several different choices. But what I can do as an Israeli?”
This narrative turns reality on its head, portraying Palestinian armed resistance as responsible for perpetuation of the conflict rather than the colonial violence that has always defined Israeli policy to Palestinians. It is precisely this violence — the Iron Wall — that Benjamin Netanyahu praised earlier that night.
Combatant for Peace remains committed to the two-state solution, despite Israeli society’s continuous rightward shift which Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to in order to gain votes when he reiterated he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian State.
The organization does not officially take a stance on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which originated as a call from Palestinian civil society. Wishnitzer is weary of BDS because he fears that calling for boycott would marginalize Combatants for Peace from Israel. “If we want to be able to continue to speak to the Israeli public, we cannot openly call for boycott. This would immediately shut our mouth completely,” he said.
Facing the aforementioned trajectory of Israeli society, Combatants for Peace’s tacit rejection of BDS is an ultimately vain attempt to appeal to Benjamin Netanyahu’s political base which refuses to even pay lip service to peace. Is it particularly ironic that Combatants for Peace would reject BDS given that their collaboration with Palestinians is conditional upon Palestinian rejection of armed resistance and exclusive use of unarmed resistance — precisely what BDS is. In the end, Combatants for Peace’s rejection of Palestine’s mass non-violent movement BDS leaves Palestinians with one option: acceptance of permanent occupation and dispossession.
When asked about the right of return for Palestinian refugees, he answered, “We don’t have a decided opinion on that,” calling it a “detail” to be agreed upon by the political leadership of both sides.
For millions of Palestinians, the refugees’ right of return remains the core issue and marginalization of this right is essential to Zionism.
I spoke with Ahmed Al-Helou, 43, who came from Jericho in the group of 25. He grew up in Jericho after his grandfather fled to the West Bank from his native Gaza during the Nakba. During Israel’s Operation Protective Edge last summer, which killed more than 2,300 Palestinians,11 members of his family were wiped out in a 3 am airstrike on a Gaza City home after they had fled the bombardment of Shujaiya, according to DCI-Palestine. “I don’t look at the Israelis as soldiers, I look at them as human beings,” Al-Helou calmly explained. “I believe the conflict kills innocent people from both sides.”
Sitting next to Al-Helou was 23-year-old Yahya Anati, who came from the Moroccan Gate of the Jerusalem’s Old City. Initially, Anati expressed similar sentiment as Al-Helou. “I become sad for anyone killed because they are innocent.” I asked him about support for armed resistance movements like Al-Qassam (the armed wing of Hamas). “The Israeli military and Al-Qassam are the same — they use weapons against each other. I don’t support anyone who uses violence.” When I asked if he differentiates between the offensive nature of occupation and the defensive nature of armed resistance, Anati looked at the ground and sighed. “It’s very complicated. I don’t know how to look at that.” Seated next to him, Ahmed Al-Helou pressed Anati to think about it. After a long pause, he expressed support for Gaza’s armed resistance. “People in Gaza are defending themselves. Palestinians are being falsely accused — they are being framed.”
Outside the event, police quarantined a demonstration of approximately thirty Kahanists — followers of the ultra-nationalist and former Israeli parliamentarian Rabbi Meir Kahane who advocated expulsion of Palestinians citizens from Israel. They were led by Benzi Gopstein, founder of Lehava, the anti-miscegenation hate group whose members admitted to having burned a mixed Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem last year.
The Kahanists shouted curses at attendees as they waited in line. “Murderers, Nazis, go to hell,” and “go to Gaza” could be heard amid chants of, “Death to Arabs” and “Your mothers are whores!” Referencing the Nakba –the expulsion of Palestinians from modern-day Israel at the hands of pre-state Zionist militias — they roared, “We bring the Nakba upon you,” — a twist on an old Israeli peacenik chant, “We bring peace upon you.”
The attendance of Palestinians was much to the chagrin of the Kahanists’ official body, the Samaria Settler Council, which petitioned Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to ban the “enemies of Israel” from entering Israel for the ceremony.
Retired Israeli police officer Haim Blair, 60, from Gan Yavne criticized the Israeli Jews in Combatants for Peace as naive and that the presence of Palestinians at the event was inappropriate. Wearing a white muscle shirt that read “I ♥ Israel,” he explained, “Today is meant to remember IDF soldiers and the warriors of the underground groups (a reference to pre-state Zionist militias Lehi and Haganah) … and everyone who lost their lives here and elsewhere by the terrorist groups, who they [the attendees] are now backing.”
Others were less restrained in their comments.
“They are not Jews, they are Muslims!” said Ofer Golan before he boasted about his Facebook group called Fighting the Palestinian Lie which recycles the debunked Zionist myth that Palestinians are an invented people. “This is a war of religions and Muslims are the enemy!”
However honest in their endeavors Combatants for Peace may be, Tuesday night’s events only lend credence to the fact that Zionism will exploit Palestinian suffering as a matter of maintenance — a move even more cynical than the honest brutality of the Kahanist “Death to Arabs” chants outside. Only through acceptance of a Palestinian-led movement will organizations like Combatants for Peace become allies in the struggle for justice in Palestine.
Editor’s Note: Combatants for Peace has responded this this story here.