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A profound sense of uncertainty hangs over the future of the peace movement and anti-occupation activism in Israel, in the wake of the recent terrorist attack by Hamas. The space for peace activism was already shrinking before October 7, but the violent attacks have added further pressure.
Many of the victims were members of kibbutzim, residential collectives in the south of Israel, who tend to support peace initiatives and Palestinian rights and some were high-profile activists and community workers. These groups tend to include peace activists as well as those in the anti-occupation movements calling for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, who often work together. One of those who is missing is Canadian-Israeli activist Vivian Silver, a founding member of the Israeli grassroots’ peace movement Women Wage Peace.
After October 7, Dorit Rabinyan, a board member of several left-wing organisations opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, told the New York Times: “I know it’s not noble of me, I know there is suffering on the other side, but the other side took hostages and slaughtered so violently, with so much passion, that my compassion is somehow paralysed.”
Even from the Israeli left, calls are now coming for military retribution on security grounds. These losses have not only shaken the peace movement but have also led to questions about whether it has any future.
I have worked on research on peace and peace activism in the region for the past 10 years and have just returned from Israel and Palestine. During my visits I have seen many Israeli-Palestinian joint street protests in Israel against the occupation of the West Bank. I also saw Palestinian-Israeli joint events, such as the annual memorial ceremony which commemorates Israeli and Palestinian victims of the conflict.
My recent fieldwork involved talking with Palestinian and Israeli peace and anti-occupation activists. One thing that has struck me is that while people are hoping for and working for peace, the word peace is rarely mentioned anymore.
As Yael (not her real name), an Israeli activist, put it: “The Israelis lost the ability to imagine peace because people here lost the imagination of another reality.”
As Noam (not his real name), an Israeli anti-occupation activist, told me during the weekly protest against the eviction of Palestinians in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah: “I think people are talking more about ending the occupation than peace.”
Miriam (not her real name), a Palestinian activist in her 30s, explained why it was harder for younger people to talk about peace: “The level of hatred is so high, and it’s because the young generation did not see what our generation saw. We imagine because we lived it, with all the hectic of the first and second intifadas. Still people knew, or still had hope, for one country, all together. This generation … doesn’t, from both sides.”
Scholars have shown that there hasn’t been a clearly defined peace movement in Israel for many years, some argue that it had almost disappeared after the second intifada, a period of Palestinian uprising from 2000-2005.
Some activists describe the years following that period as marked by despair and a deep disillusionment with the Oslo Accords proposals (1993-95). (The Oslo Accords were an attempted negotiated settlement between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation to agree recognition of Israel and Palestinian self-government of the West Bank and Gaza).
But there are still organisations working towards peace, such as the Palestinian-Israeli group Combatants for Peace and the activist collective Free Jerusalem. The groups are small and operate with slender resources.
Anger against activists
The actions of various Israeli governments in the past 15 years have played a pivotal role in shrinking the space for civil society, human rights organisations, anti-occupation activists and peace movements. In 2016 the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, passed a law requiring NGOs that received more than 50% of their funding from foreign organisations to report the origins of their grants publicly. There have also been massive campaigns designed to undermine activists with the Israeli public.
One example of this is how some peace organisations have been branded as “traitors”, “terrorist collaborators”, or “foreign agents” by right-wing politicians and think-tanks. For instance, in 2015, Israeli right-wing movement Im Tirtzu (If you will it) accused Israeli human rights NGOs of being “foreign agents” and of actively sabotaging Israel’s counter-terror efforts . So there has been a steady decline of space for advocating for Palestinian rights, particularly those calling for an end to the occupation of the West Bank.
But despite grief, sorrow and disbelief, some Israeli organisations and individuals continue to speak out against Israel’s massive military operation in Gaza. They advocate for contextualising the violence they are now experiencing, emphasising that not all in Gaza are guilty or supportive of the violence.
B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, tweeted on October, 13: “No. A million people in northern Gaza are not guilty. They have nowhere else to go. This is not what fighting Hamas looks like. This is revenge. And innocent people are being hurt.”
Noy Katsman, an Israeli peace and anti-occupation activist whose brother Hayim was killed by Hamas fighters, said in a CNN interview: “The most important thing for me and also for my brother is that his death will not be used as a justification for killing innocent people.” Noy, like many other activists, are now targeted in their own communities for their refusal to see the other side as the enemy.
During a webinar on October 20, hosted by the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Combatant for Peace, Palestinian and Israeli activists came together to reiterate their mutual dedication to peace, justice, and nonviolence amidst the backdrop of war. As Mai Shahin, a Palestinian activist, said: “This violent system keeps trying to tell us that it is the only way. Calling on each other [Palestinians and Israelis] during these times is so hard because it is breaking the system. It will break … if we start meeting, partnering, taking action – we will break the cycle.”
While voices of despair and calls for retribution have emerged, there are still committed individuals and organisations that speak out against Israel’s security policy and bombing of civilians in Gaza. As Israeli activist Orly Noy recently wrote: “Revenge is the opposite of security, it is the opposite of peace, it is also the opposite of justice. It is nothing but more violence.”
Anne Lene Stein receives funding from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.