Israelís peace movement, largely dormant since Ariel Sharon was first elected prime minister three years ago, resurfaced last weekend amid calls for a political framework for peace and withdrawal from a contentious settlement in Gaza.
An estimated 4,000 Israelis took to the street Saturday night to protest Sharon’s policies in a demonstration outside his Jerusalem residence.
Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party and one of the participants, said this was the first major demonstration against Sharon.
"It’s an awakening of the peace camp in Israel," she said. "It is an expression of our real distaste if not disgust with the state of affairs and the leadership of the country."
A deadly Palestinian terrorist attack shortly after 4 a.m. Friday in the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza touched off debate about settlements in general and Netzarim in particular. Two Palestinian terrorists apparently cut through a security fence surrounding the settlement and gunned down three Israeli soldiers (two of them 19-year-old women) as they slept. One gunman was shot and killed, the other escaped.
"It was very scary," said Tammy Zilberschein, 34, who grew up in Randolph, N.J., and has lived in Netzarim for the last seven years.
"I was awake with my 4-month-old son when all of a sudden the intercom said there was a red alert and to close all the doors," she told The Jewish Week Monday. "I woke my husband. He got up and got the guns ready. The doors were locked already and we made sure that all the windows were locked."
The debate in the media and on talk shows focused on the necessity of the settlements, the need to defend them and the wisdom of not arming soldiers who are based away from the settlement entrance.
"I’m not sure they have to be there in the first place," Chazan said of the settlement and the soldiers who guard it. "And if they are there unarmed, they are sitting ducks. It’s ridiculous."
Chaim Ramon, a Knesset member from the Labor Party, wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot: "What are we doing there? An absolute majority of Israeli citizens, among them a substantial amount of right-wing voters, supports our withdrawal from the Gaza Strip."
Melli Polishuk-Bloch, a Knesset member from the Shinui Party, was quoted as saying: "There is no justification for our sons and daughters to be killed defending a handful of fanatics."
But Zilberschein, the mother of five, said she has heard this talk before after each terror attack there. She said this was the third since she moved to Netzarim, which was founded in 1973 and is now home to about 60 families.
"We have the same right and obligation to settle here as we do in Tel Aviv," she insisted. "If we left each time blood was spilled, we wouldn’t be in Petach Tikva or Haifa or anyplace. We are the front lines. If we leave, they will move on to Ashkelon. … The Arabs want Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: they made clear they want all of Israel."
Sharon himself made a similar comment in April 2002 when he said, "The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv."
Sign Of Weakness
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in New York this week to open an Israeli business and technology exposition, told The Jewish Week that although the murder of the three soldiers was shocking, "to dismantle Netzarim would give the best possible sign to the Palestinians that the tactics of terror are paying off. And the outcome will not reduce terror but advance terror to the other Israeli townships."
"We have to protect them and we have to make sure we protect them with the best possible effort we can so that these tragic events will not be repeated," he added.
President George W. Bush told reporters Tuesday that he has expressed concern to Sharon about Israeli settlement activity because it could be an impediment when the time is right for peace talks. He said the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank presents a problem "to the extent that the fence is an opportunity to make it difficult for a Palestinian state to emerge.
"There is a difference between security and land acquisition," he said.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the debate in Israel over the settlements, the political scandals in which Sharon himself is being forced to testify, and his lack of a vision for a peace plan, have placed him in the weakest position since he took office. Steinberg said the local elections this week in which only 41 percent of the electorate bothered to vote (the lowest turnout in Israeli history) was indicative of the "lack of confidence in the leadership on the national level."
Although there is a sense that Israel has won the war against the Palestinians, Steinberg said, Sharon has failed to spell out a "new political initiative" to achieve peace.
"The old phrase, you canít beat something with nothing is apt here," he said. "With the scandals and the economic crisis, if he doesn’t produce a political framework the Israeli consensus [behind him] will drift away."
As Sharon struggles to find his footing, two grass roots peace proposals crafted separately by former prominent Israeli and Palestinian leaders appeared to gain modest traction. The proposals were given a boost Tuesday when United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan met in New York with the authors of one of them: Sari Nusseibeh, the former Palestinian Authority representative in Jerusalem, and Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.
The other proposal, authored by former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, an ally of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, are to be ceremonially unveiled in Geneva next week.
Chazan of Meretz noted that opinion polls in Israel show a 35 percent approval rate for the latter initiative.
"I see both of them going in the same direction," she said.
After Tuesday’s meeting at the United Nations, a spokesman for Annan said the secretary-general was encouraged that members of civil society on both sides were "getting together to try to find a solution, as a real and lasting peace will be made as much by people working together for reconciliation as it will be by official parties reaching agreement." He said also that there is no substitute for governmental negotiations and urged both parties to return to the negotiating table.
Ayalon said the Statement of Principles he and Nusseibeh developed has been signed by 60,000 Palestinians and 100,000 Israelis since they were made public in early June. Unlike the Beilin plan, which spells out exact borders and concessions by both sides, he said theirs simply lays out general principles with few specifics.
It calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state on much of the West Bank and Gaza, dividing Jerusalem according to its already segregated areas and allowing it to be the capital of both nations, and an end of the call for a Palestinian right-of-return to Israel proper.
"I think it is better to come first with the principles," Ayalon told The Jewish Week. "I don’t think it is my business to agree on a detailed agreement. That is for the government [to decide] and we chose our government legally. … We have no intention to change our government but to influence it."
Ayalon said he and Nusseibeh are trying to get as many Israelis and Palestinians to sign on to their statement as possible.
"We are not shooting for a specific number," he said. "I don’t know what the critical mass would be; we understand we have to get hundreds of thousands. We will then present them to the leadership of both sides and to the international community."
"It is important to show that not only Sari is saying these things," Ayalon stressed. "This is not the work of one naive leader. He has behind him thousands of people. … It is a little too early to know if it has helped or not, but I believe it will help because it will change the political agenda, the political debate in Israel. And we shall see more and more debate around the principles themselves and much less about the question of whether there is a partner [with whom to negotiate]."
The Sharon administration insists that until the three years of Palestinian terror attacks comes to an end, there is no one on the Palestinian side with whom to negotiate. Polls show that a large majority of Israelis agree.
This week, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat asked Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to form a new government when his interim government expires Monday. Qureia, who had earlier in the month hinted he might resign because of disagreements with Arafat over his cabinet appointments, said he would stay on and work towards a new cease-fire with Palestinian terrorist groups.
The last unilateral Palestinian cease-fire, called a hudna, ended in August after six weeks with a major Palestinian terrorist attack in Jerusalem that killed 21. Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, pointed out that Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, has said he has no intention of disarming terrorists, as called for in the international road map to peace that both Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to follow.
"He is interested in getting the United States to wiggle out of the demand for the dismantling of terrorist groups," said Gold. "And a hudna does not fulfill the terms of the roadmap. It is temporary, conditional and based on waiting for the Arab side to be strong enough [to launch new terrorist attacks]."
Even while Qureia insisted this week that he was making progress in his efforts to arrange a Palestinian cease-fire, the Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade, a group connected to Arafat’s Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s sniper shooting of an Israeli Jewish couple as they drove in the northern West Bank near the settlement of Kadim outside the city of Jenin. The man was seriously injured; his wife’s injuries were described as light.
Meanwhile, there were warnings this week from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of a possible "significant" attack in the north of the country. He spoke one day after Hezbollah terrorists along Lebanonís southern border with Israel shelled Israeli troop positions in the contested Sheba Farms area at the base of the Golan Heights. One Israeli soldier was lightly wounded.
Mofaz said Israel may have to use "very, very strong force" to deal with Hezbollah attacks.
Olmert, interviewed here, said Hezbollah as been "manipulated by Syria for a long time and I think the Syrians are playing with fire. … It is a dangerous game and I believe that if the Syrians continue to play this game, they will find out soon how dangerous it is."
Syrian officials warned last week that they would retaliate against Israel if it conducted another attack on Syrian territory like the one earlier this month against what Israel described as a terrorist training camp near Damascus. Olmert insisted that Israel has "no interest in creating an unnecessary confrontation with Syria," but he said Israel would "not tolerate continued terrorist attacks against Israelis perpetrated by organizations that are operating from within Syria under the auspices of the Syrian government."
- Ami Ayalon
- Shinui Party
- adviser to Sharon
- justice minister
- Yediot Achronot
- Yossi Beilin
- Dore Gold
- Yasir Arafat
- Defense Minister
- Gerald Steinberg
- Ariel Sharon
- Shin Bet
- Shaul Mofaz
- Deputy Prime Minister
- Ahmed Qureia
- Sari Nusseibeh
- Tammy Zilberschein
- Yasser Abed Rabbo
- Abu Ala
- spokesman for Annan
- Petach Tikva
- Syrian government
- Chaim Ramon
- Kofi Annan
- Secretary General
- Meretz Party
- Ehud Olmert
- Peace Talks
- Staff Writer
- New Jersey
- Israel News
- west bank
- Labour party
- New York
- united states
- Palestinian Authority
- tel aviv
- the Jewish Week
- Naomi Chazan
- Bar-Ilan University
- Gaza Strip
- Stewart Ain
- George W. Bush
- United Nations
- Prime Minister