Israeli activists say why they campaign to free Palestine

August 10, 2012
Sahar Vardi (right) at a rally in support of her refusal to serve in the Israeli military. Photo: Active Stills

If your home was going to be demolished in 15 minutes, what would you save? Facing a life of poverty, would you salvage valuables? Or, would you retrieve sentimental items, knowing that every day your people lose pieces of their ancient history and culture? For Israeli “refusenik” Sahar Vardi, watching Palestinians being forced to make this decision at gunpoint just a few kilometres from her own home changed her life.

Since she was released from prison in 2009 for refusing to undertake mandatory military service, Vardi has worked with the Israeli committee Against Housing Demolitions and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement. She is currently touring Australia with ex-Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldier Micha Kurz, co-founder of veterans group “Breaking the Silence”.

During his first deployment with the Israeli military, Kurz witnessed Israeli settlers brutalising Palestinian civilians, and illegally seizing homes. Upon returning to West Jerusalem while on leave, he found most Israelis were oblivious to the situation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Feeling there was an urgent need for Israeli society to understand what the IDF does in Palestine, he and two friends began collecting testimonies from fellow soldiers. These testimonies included not only the physical and moral struggles faced by IDF troops, but also the toll of the occupation on Palestinians.

In an August 6 speech at the University of Adelaide, he described how he and other soldiers were slowly desensitised to the suffering of Palestinian civilians. Rather than blame “bad apples” for the IDF's long list of human rights violations, Kurz said the occupation and Israel’s apartheid policies are to blame. Today he is a co-director of Grassroots Jerusalem, a Palestinian human rights organisation that contributes to the creation of a healthy Palestinian Jerusalem..

Resistance's Ryan Mallett-Outtrim spoke to Vardi and Kurz.

On September 21 last year, US President Barack Obama said, “peace [in Israel/Palestine] will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations”. What do you think of this? Is the solution to the current political crisis squarely in the hands of Israelis, or does the solution lie with the "international community"?

Vardi: On one level, I definitely agree. The UN is never going to change anything. This is not because the international community can’t — it can, it just doesn’t want to. One of the main issues to understand about this occupation is the amount of international involvement in it. International companies are invested in the occupation, building settlements, having factories in industrial zones, free water [and] cheap labour.

But, an even bigger issue is [Israel’s] arms trade that every single country in the world has some involvement with. The technology used in the separation fence in Israel is now used in the fence on the Mexican border with the US. Drones [used in US operations] were tested in Operation Cast Lead (the 2008/09 Israeli war on Gaza). Security companies working in Israel’s prison system are also working in the Australian prison system. All this exchange of technology is a huge benefit for all these governments.

Kurz: So on that level, when Obama says that peace isn’t going to come from [the UN], he is totally right. But it's not going to come from him either, because his military industry won't allow it to come from him. He just has too much to lose on a domestic level.

Yes on one level this is squarely in Israel's court, but ... Israel has too much to profit from to end the occupation. This isn't about peace or co-existence, or dialogue; this is about profit, occupation and population control.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has described change from within Israel as “unattainable”. Do you agree, or are the Israeli people slowly awakening?

Kurz: I'm yet to come across any oppressive nation in history that said, “Oops! Sorry, my bad”, and then actually fixed [things]. I don't think Israel is going to do that either. On the contrary, the Israeli government has never had a more right-wing Knesset (parliament) than today. I think that Israelis, on the whole, don't talk about peace at all.

More UN resolutions condemning human rights violations have been passed against Israel than any other country, how does the average Israeli justify this?

Kurz: They don't.

Is it just a non-issue in Israel?

Vardi: There is a famous Israeli saying, “Unshom”. It kind of translates to … “who cares about them”. That's very much the [typical] line. But beyond that, there's a lot of [responses] like, “oh, that's anti-Israel”, or, “that's borderline anti-Semitic”.

In Britain alone, more than 7 million people are members of trade unions that support the campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. It's growing here in Australia too. Do you have any thoughts on this campaign?

Kurz: There are two things that inspire me about the BDS movement. For the first time, there is a grassroots movement that has managed to unify all the Palestinian factions. It's a non-violent, grassroots movement to end the occupation. I find it inspiring.

Vardi: [BDS] has had some important economic victories, including [Israeli export company] Agrexco, which actually fell.

But, in terms of profit, the real losses will not come from the boycott of products, but from divestment. That's where the big money is. The last thing I'll say about the BDS movement is that it's fun. They've started using all these flash mobs and [other] cool activities. It accesses people who normally wouldn't care. There are huge companies being affected, and [activists] are having fun.

What about the argument that it harms average Israelis?

Vardi: Very simply, it has not financially harmed [average] Israelis. It one day might ... but Israel will fold long before a complete boycott. The moment the occupation stops being profitable — that's the moment it will end. Other than that, Palestinians are affected daily by the occupation, to say that an Israeli might be affected... seriously?

Could you tell me about “Breaking the Silence”?

Kurz: I don't speak for Breaking the Silence anymore, but it's an organisation founded in 2004 by two friends and myself. At first it was about addressing … Israelis. It was about holding a mirror to Israeli society and saying: “This is the price we pay”. The price of ... controlling a civil society. We collected hundreds of testimonies from soldiers, describing where we crossed our red lines. Now, those [soldiers] aren't a bunch of rotten apples. Every army likes to say, “there are some bad apples, sure, but by far we are the most moral army in the world”.

Well, we are there to say that's just not true. [Human rights violations] happen when any army tries to control an entire civilian population.

Can you tell more about Grassroots Jerusalem? What's that about?

Kurz: It's a grassroots-mapping project. We look for Palestinian activists and leaders in their communities, and together we map what's going on in East Jerusalem. We find out what's going on in terms of education, infrastructure or whatever each community is dealing with.

The other dimension [deals with the fact that] if you open a map of East Jerusalem today that's provided by the Jerusalem municipality, you will find there won’t be some neighbourhoods on it. Some streets, some neighbourhoods, are not represented on Israeli maps. So we work with communities to provide workshops to build a map [of East Jerusalem]. We use open source mapping tools, we teach media [skills] so that by the end of the project there will be a map of the communities, built by community members [available] to anyone online.

So we will create a portrait of what is going on across East Jerusalem. You can click on any community and find out what is going on there — what the needs are, what the assets [of the community] are, who is active there and who needs help.

In Adelaide, you both spoke about watershed moments in your lives when you decided things weren't as they seemed. Could you reiterate what those moments were like, and how life has been since?

Vardi: Well I have to say it's very hard to talk about what it was like before. Mainly, it was just not an issue I had to deal with as a child. For me the main turning point was when I first went to see Palestinian villages.

Seeing how it's a completely different life, I just couldn't imagine soldiers coming into my house. But then I'd hear these stories about these villagers I had met personally, and having soldiers coming into their house and taking them out, leaving them at a checkpoint and asking them to sign a letter saying that they won’t return to East Jerusalem, because they have the wrong colour ID.

There are two completely different worlds, 10 minutes from each other. You are either in one world or another — depending on your [parents]. The effect of this [is that], the moment you start being active, for me it meant some prison time, but it also means that in society in which everyone is [a] soldier ... you are treated as a traitor. I have that label.

In your speech, you spoke about visiting a Palestinian village as a child, 10 minutes from your home. How did you feel, the first time you went back after the wall had been put up?

Vardi: Among other things, I think that I [felt] guilty, even without serving in the army ... I pay the taxes that do this. My brother is a part of the army. My friends are a part of the army. My government is implementing this. To see what [the separation wall] actually does, yeah I feel guilty.

Micha, what changed your perspective?

Kurz: What changed my perspective? I witnessed it. I don't think my mind was ever changed, just broadened. I think going back in history, understanding what happened in 1948, 1967 and current Israeli policies ... I kind of think it's hard to miss. If you sit in a classroom, or stay in an Israeli neighbourhood, you'll miss it. You won’t see the full picture.

If you take the time and visit Palestinian cities, and speak with Palestinian leaders and community members, you will get a better perspective. That's it.

Then why is it so difficult for Israelis to understand you?

Kurz: I think that until Israelis take the time to visit and understand, to actually go through a checkpoint, they won’t [understand] — for Israelis to watch a house demolition, and understand the politics behind it. But Israelis don't see that. It's far from Tel Aviv, and it's far from West Jerusalem — even if it's just across the street! It might be a 10-minute walk, but it’s a different world.

You said that fear plays a very important role, how does that affect you?

Kurz: Well, that's the way we grow up. That's what's in textbooks, in school, history class, civics class, in the scouts, the youth movements, the after-school programs. From A to Z, every part of [the education system] is about painting Arabs as enemies. Be afraid. When it comes to history — we're the victims. Israeli Jews are brought up to learn a very simple narrative; we will always be victims ... and we are constantly under attack.

Israel is often cited as the only democracy in the Middle East, is that the case?

Vardi: There's no doubt it's the only democracy for Jews. But Israel controls all the land between Jordan and the sea. It is very clear that 40% of people who live between Jordan and the sea are not Israeli citizens. They don't have the rights of citizens.

Even if you get into East Jerusalem, which according to Israeli law is a part of Israel, 37% of the Palestinians in the city are not citizens. They don't have the right to vote [or] be elected to parliament. Their residency can be revoked. They don't have proper housing or education. There is nothing democratic about that! Even within the ‘48 borders, you still have Bedouin villages in the south being demolished. Bedouins can't get housing permits.

Kurz: It is a democracy for Jews.

While you're in Australia, you might meet some Christian Zionists, what would you say to them?

Vardi: We love them [both laugh].

Kurz: Christian Zionists, if I understand it correctly, support the Israeli state because they want to see Jews controlling that land. Once the Palestinians are gone ... the Armageddon will finally come, and we [Jews] will either accept Jesus into our hearts or burn in hell with the rest of the infidels.

I don't find that comforting. Thanks, but no thanks for that kind of support.

The Christian Zionists, that fund strip malls, collage spaces, community pools ... that fund new settlements in Jerusalem, are detrimental to any serious peace process. We don't need that. And, actually, over the last couple of years the human rights and justice Christian movement has actually grown, so anyone looking for a [Christian] alternative, it's out there. There's an alternative to that violent religious fervour.

Like Israel, Australia is also a colonial-settler state. Indigenous Australians were pushed off their land to make room for white settlers. How would you contrast the current situation in Israel with our own history?

Vardi: In Israel we [say], “a land with no people for a people with no land”, I think that same mentality happened here and in the Americas.

Kurz: We're in the midst of it. It's not too late yet [in Israel]. It's too late in the United States ... and to some extent Australia. But in Palestine, if people got involved to help stop the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people, we might just have time.

What would you tell Australians to encourage them to get involved, and support initiatives like Grassroots Jerusalem?

Vardi: There is not a single community that does not have some kind of relationship with the occupation. If it's buying occupation products, using the same companies that are invested in it — it's the people's responsibility to choose what they support.

Kurz: I would add that Israel is wiping out the millennia-old Palestinian stewardship of Jerusalem, and erasing a culture. The world needs to get involved before it's too late.

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