"As Israelis, We Also Fight for Palestinians"

A former professor of anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and peace activist for over 30 years, Halper co-founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in 1997, after the Oslo peace process collapsed. The organization exposes the injustice of the occupation and asserts the crucial role of international civil society to end it.

Halper calls the Israeli policy toward Palestinians as “the matrix of control” — the framework created by strategic settlements, Israeli-only highways and the separation wall. He strongly criticizes the occupation and says, “As Israelis, we also fight for Palestinians.”

“As long as Israel has the occupation, you cannot have a healthy, normal, prosperous society,” he said.

Halper has been nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his grass root peace activities, along with Professor Ghassan Andoni.

What was the trigger driving you to a peace movement?

I grew up in the United States and came to Israel in 1973. I was involved in the famous 1960’s movement — the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war movements. Even though I came to Israel, I knew that where I was coming was not perfect and I was always critical about Israel. So I moved into the Israeli peace movement right away.

In the early 1970’s, we never thought that the occupation would be so strong. There weren’t settlements yet, Ariel Sharon yet. I thought that we could be over and finish it. The current situation of the occupation is really disappointment. That’s why I continue to fight against it all these years.

You co-founded the Israeli Committee against House Demolition (ICAHD), which resists the demolition of Palestinian homes by sitting in front of bulldozers, confronting Israeli soldiers, and rebuilding demolished homes.

After the Oslo peace process began in 1993, Israeli peace movements became kind of quiet, because we thought that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres would negotiate with Palestinians and maybe peace would come out of it. But in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as a prime minister. He ran on exclusive peace process platform. We saw that the Oslo peace process had collapsed. The occupation proceeded in a very bloody way. House demolitions and settlements began again.

We asked Palestinians about what would be a good issue to cooperate on. They talked about house demolitions a lot, so we decided that it would be our focus, although our big goal was the end of occupation completely. In 1997, we organized the ICAHD, which was a coalition of different Israeli human right groups and the one exhibiting the first real wakening of the peace movement after the Oslo peace! process. We have always worked together with Palestine organizations and local people.

Israeli government recently takes the unilateral policy to Palestine. Why has it been imposed?

Israel has never recognized and acknowledged that Palestinian people are living in this country. Zionism has always denied the existence of another people and their rights. Until today, the idea is that the whole country, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, is our country, exclusively, only for Jewish people.

The Oslo peace process was the game. They never really negotiated with Palestinians. In the Oslo peace accords, it demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel in 78 percent of the country, but it never recognized the rights of Palestinians. Israel seemed to be negotiating, but dou! bled the number of people living in settlements in that period. It didn’t see any connection between negotiations and what was doing on the ground. That’s why the second intifada began, because Palestinians said “What is this? We have been sitting for seven years to talk to you, and now there are twice as many settlements as at the beginning of the peace process.”

We think, as Israelis, that Jews and Arabs should live together. Palestinians have rights of self-determination just like we have. We have to fight also for their rights. One of our slogans is “we refuse to be their enemies.”

We are against the Israeli policy of the occupation and the displacem! ent. If you create an apartheid situation, if you lock another people into prison, in the end, you cannot develop a healthy, normal, and prosperous society. The occupation, conflict, terrorism, settlements, all affects the Israeli society and economy. As long as the occupation continues, Israel itself can not be free.

Some Israelis say that many of Israelis don’t know that Palestinians have lived here from long ago. They think that Palestinians try to “steal” the land of Israel after Israelis developed it. Does information lack inside Israel?

Information is in newspapers etc, but Israelis don’t want to know it. They refuse to know it, because it is better for them. If they don’t know, they don’t need to feel guilty and don’t have to take responsibility at all. They deny the fact of occupation. Israelis try to blame Palestinians for everything, calling them terrorists. Building se! ttlements and highways only for Israelis, taking Palestinian lands and water, are not for security at all. But they want to see themselves as victims rather than the strong, occupying power, which is the only way that Israel manages and blames Palestinians without taking responsibility, though there have been four times more Palestinian civilian victims than Israelis.

It would make a peace process more difficult.

Israel doesn’t want to resolve the conflict. It feels that it can win, beat Palestinians. We can lock the Palestinian into this little Bantustan. Israel thinks that the peace is like what South Africa did in the past. It has a very good relationship with the European Union and very close ties with the United States. It can make a separate peace with all the Arab countries. If we deal with the Golan Heights, we can make peace with Syria. North Africa has ties with Israel, even Pakistan wants to have ties with Israel. Israel thinks that we can have the occupation and can also have peace and security.

You can do that, but only for a short period of time. In the end, it will fall apart. As I said, you can not develop a normal, healthy society as long as it has the occupation. In the end, I think, Israel isn’t very strong. This conflict affects Muslims very much and has destabilized the world. Israelis might have peace with Egypt and Jordan, but they don’t have peace with the Egyptian and Jordanian peoples. Even if Israel locks up all Palestinians, the violence could spread outside. Certainly the occupation feeds into al-Qaeda. As long as it lasts, it certainly encourages radical Islam, whose idea is that the ! West is the enemy.

You use the term “ma trix of control” to describe the Israeli occupation. How does it function?

The idea “matrix of control” is that our presence would become so massive and so strong, then, Palestinians would understand that they will never have a state, and they will submit to that idea. It can also be called the “iron wall,” which was a concept developed in the 1920s by Jews. Israel wants to keep the West Bank forever. It wants to create an impression that the West Bank is a legitimate part of Israel, and everything is normal. It doesn’t want to use the army if it doesn’t have ! to; instead, it has developed “the matrix of control,” by using settlements, Israeli-only highways, the Wall, Israeli laws, and house demolitions.

Do you think that it is working now?

It works for a short time, but we say “no.” Although South Africa was very strong, it couldn’t prevail over black Africans. You see, this is so destabilizing the world. The occupation is very important for Muslims. It is very important for people all over the world who care about and think about human rights. Churches now are starting to speak out against it. We had South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the Philippines. They were gradually building up opposition; then, at some points, they collapsed. This occupation can last another year, five years, I don’t know, but at some point, it could collapse. It could happen unexpectedly.

When you talk about peace, you use the term “just peace.” What do you mean for it?

“Just peace” means that two kinds of people, Jews and Palestinians, have rights of self-determination.

Politically, the two-states’ solution has been put forth. But settlements have spread very deeply, and Israel has taken control over Jerusalem. The occupation has gotten too far. There is no way to get a real Palestinia! n state. So we believe the two states’ solution has evaporated.

If the two states solution has gone, you could think about the one state solution, which means this whole country becomes the one state for everybody. But Israel won’t allow that, because it wants to be a Jewish state, but most of people in this country are Palestinians and Arabs.

What solution can it be? We’re really stuck in terms of where we go.

Hamas won the election and formed a cabinet. The Israeli government has refused to talk to them.

It’s interesting that people act very differently from the government. Most Israelis said “so what? We will talk to Hamas.” But the government says “no.” Apparently, the government wants to unilaterally impose its policy. ! It is really happy that Hamas came to power, because it can justify no t talking and not negotiating with them and can justify unilateral actions.

Politician uses the term “anti-Semitism” to counter the critics against Israeli policies. But I think that “anti-Semitism” is different from “anti-Israeli policy” towards Palestinians.

Anti-Semitism is against Jews, not against Israel necessarily. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism. It is very cynical to use anti-Semitism to shut people up.

Is there any opposition against your activities?

No. I don’ t think that we are taken very seriously by the Israeli public. Israelis don’t ! know us. They don’t know the left, such as ICAHD, Gush Shalom, and Bat Shalom, because we don’t get into newspapers and onto TV programs. Our voices are very marginal because we are outside of the Zionism box. All the conversation in Israel is within the Zionism circle. Even the Labour party is the center rather than the left. The occupation was built by the Labour government of Ehud Barak. Peace Now and Meretz are the farthest left that you can go within the Zionism flame. We go beyond that. We say that maybe Israel shouldn’t be a ! Jewish state, maybe in one state; maybe this two states solution is not acceptable, in other words, we are too critical for most Israelis. Our voices are much stronger abroad rather than here. I was nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize, but Israelis have never heard of it. That’s the strange situation.

In those serious situations, what impact does the Peace Nobel Prize nomination give you?

It gives credibility to us. The Nobel Peace Prize is the Prize of civil society, not the government. People nominate and give the prize, so people are acknowledging who is important to them. Even if the government ignores us, even if we don’t have power, even if our own society will not accept us, you can not ignore the prestige and importance of the Nobel Peace Prize. It will help us tremendously.

You are writing a book about non-violence with Professor Ghassan A! ndoni (Palestinian), another Nobel Peace Prize candidate. Why do you think the non-violence is significant here?

I think that non-violence is a good strategy of the powerless. Palestinian people cannot compete with the Israeli military. Non-violence allows them to use another weapon, which is a moral weapon, to make the occupation immoral. If Palestinians use more non-violent tactics, it is a real threat for Israel, because Israel can not pretend to be a victim. It can be a victim only if it has been attacked. Responsibility would shift to Israel

In order to change this situation, what do you think is needed?
The only thing that can help is international pressure. Eventually, international society has to say that Israel has to end the occupation. This is the only way to finish the occupation, like happened to South Africa.

Today, they support Israel, but there are also a lot of criticisms. Without the United States, Israel could never keep the occupation going. I think that people are beginning to understand. The government is starting to understand that the occupation has never been a solution, and it’s in their interest to end the occupation.

Do you have any message to Israel and the international society?

Israelis don’t care about peace. They care about security, especially personal security. Our message t! o Israelis is that you can not have personal security unilaterally. You have to make peace not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it is in your own best interests.

The message to an international community is that this conflict is against human rights. If the occupation wins, human rights become losers. There are tremendous implications for everybody in the world. If human rights lose here, they would be weakened everywhere in the world, such as Congo, Burma (Myanmar), Colombia, because people see that human rights can not stand militarism. That’s the really terrible message to the world.

IWASAKI ATSUKO is a reporter for OhMyNews International, where this interview originally appeared.