Shministim Remarks in South Africa

Read the text of the remarks delivered by Sahar Vardi, Yuval Ophir-Auron, and Omer Goldman at the Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture Hall at the University of Western Cape in South Africa.

Ashley Kriel: A global legacy for Social Justice A legacy for joint-struggle for freedom, equality and security for all in Israel-Palestine

6th Annual Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture

University of the Western Cape – 6 October 2009

By Sahar Vardi, Yuval Ophir-Auron and Omer Goldman

Sahar

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict more and more occupies the world’s attention. We are part of a small movement working jointly with Palestinians for their freedom, and for equality for everyone regardless of race, religion, gender and nationality. We know that we have a lot to learn from history, and from struggles that came before us, including the struggle against Apartheid here in South Africa. Those struggles produced heroes, and also lost heroes, including young people like Ashley Kriel. We are here to pay a debt of gratitude to this generation that came before us and to tell you our story.

My great grandfather came to Palestine as it was then known from Baghdad in the 19th
century and settled in Hebron becoming its head Rabbi and became a part of a small Jewish Arabic speaking religious community that had no nationalist intentions. The majority of the country was Arab.

As a part of nationalism in Europe and the increase in anti-Semitism, secular Jews in Europe established the Zionist movement stating their intention to build a Jewish home in the land of Israel and in 1904 there was the first wave of Zionist immigration to Palestine-Israel.

As the Zionists declared their intention to create a homeland in Israel, the tension between the Jewish and the Arab communities grew. It took a turn for the worse after the British, under the newly appointed mandate, declared their support for the creation of a Jewish homeland.

The violence between both sides increased. One example which affected my family was an organized massacre performed by Arabs against the Jewish community in Hebron in 1929. 67 Jews were murdered and the whole community fled the city. While many of the Arabs of Hebron took part in the massacre, many others protected their Jewish neighbors including my great-grandparents who were protected by their neighbors.

After the holocaust in which the majority of the Jews in Europe were killed including the families of both Yuval and Omer, more and more Jewish refugees arrived in Israel, and the UN voted to partition Palestine in two 2 states – one Jewish and one Arab. The Partition plan offered 2/3 of the land to the Jewish minority that was only 1/3 of the population, and so the Arabs refused to accept this plan, and as the British left the country, a war began between the two people in 1948.

My grandfather fought in this war. It resulted in the creation of the state of Israel on the one hand, and over 700,000 Palestinians refugees and 530 Palestinian villages destroyed on the other. The same event is referred to by the Israelis as the War of Independence and by the Palestinians as the Nakba – the disaster.

In 1967 after 6 days of war Israel occupied the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Gaza strip and Sinai from Egypt. The results of this war in which my other grandfather fought, brought us to the reality in which we live today.

The Golan Heights have been annexed to Israel. Sinai was returned to the Egyptians as a part of a peace agreement. East Jerusalem was also annexed to Israel, meaning Jerusalem became the unified capital of Israel, while its Palestinian residents received residency but not citizenship, and the West Bank and Gaza strip were put under military occupation.

From the beginning of this occupation Israel has supported and builds Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the Occupied Territories [OT] against international law. Settlers in these settlements live under different laws than the Palestinians on whose land they live. Protecting these settlements and their settlers has been, on the one hand, a main cause for military presence in the OT, and on the other a source of frustration and a target for the Palestinians who chose violence as a form of resistance.

Today these settlements are home to around 500,000 settlers and are built on 10% of the WB (although the road networks and military presence require additional land).

While most settlers live in the settlements simply because it is cheaper, there is a strong group of ideological settlers who more than once have turned to violence against the Palestinian. The worst of such cases was an attack done by a Jewish settler – Baruch Goldstein – in Hebron in which 29 Palestinians were murdered in a mosque. A month after this attack Hamas – one of the main Palestinian parties – decided to officially embrace bombings as a form of resistance which led to dozens of such bombings in Israeli cities.

In 2003 the Israeli government decided to build a separation barrier (some of which is fence and some wall) preventing Palestinians from accessing Israel. This was done officially to prevent the terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

In reality the fence annexes almost 12% of the West Bank to Israel as it doesn’t only annex most of the settlements but also a lot of agricultural Palestinian land adjacent to settlements to allow their future growth.

The wall separates farmers from their land, it lies between people and hospitals, children and schools and families.

Another method of the Israeli army to control the Palestinian population, again, under the pretence of security, is checkpoints. Hundreds of them are scattered throughout the West Bank, some of which lie between Palestine and Israel or settlements, and most of which separate Palestinian villages and cities from each other.

Omer

The resistance to Israel started immediately after the end of the war of 1948 when
Palestinians tried to re-enter the new Israeli borders mostly to return to there lands, but also in some cases to attack Israeli soldiers or civilians resulting in over 450 Israeli citizens and soldiers dying between 1948 and 1967. After the occupation all through out the 1980s there was more of the same – attacks against both civilians and militants, preformed in turns by the Palestinians and the Israeli army and settlers.

As introducing Afrikaans to black schools in 1976 was the spark that set the fire from Soweto, the streets of Palestine were also on the verge of explosion ten years later towards the end of the 1980s – it was only a matter of time until the young generation took action.

The first real Palestinian popular uprising was called the Intifada that began in 1987; twenty years after Israel had occupied Gaza & the West Bank. Palestinian resistance became more and more visible, and more and more on mass levels including a successful non violent mass assembly during an Israeli attempt to arrest a number of Palestinians in the refugee camp of Balata, that resulted in a retreat of the Israeli forces with out performing the intended arrests.

A funeral of 4 Palestinians, who died when an Israeli truck driver crashed into their car, soon erupted in to a mass demonstration that included mostly burning tires and stone throwing towards the Israeli forces present at the place. The first five days of these demonstrations resulted in 17 Palestinian dead and over 100 wounded. As a result the Intifada spread quickly and soon affected all the occupied territories from Gaza to East Jerusalem. The Intifada consisted mainly of young and teenage Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli army patrols inside their villages and cities.

As a state of “emergency” was declared here in South Africa in order to crush the black resistance the Israeli minister of defense at the time gave his orders “Brake their hands and legs”, and from Soweto to Ramalla, bullets flew and the tear gas filled the streets attempting to suffocate the resistance. The young generation of fighters filled the streets of their own villages and townships, and some of them were armed, and like Ashley Kriel, ready to fight and die for their freedom.

Ashley who became politically involved from a young age was one of the faces of a
generation that refused to accept the unjust reality that the government forced on the people. Unfortunately Ashley like many others didn’t get to see the change he was fighting for becoming reality, but did leave a legacy of youth struggle behind him, a legacy we are here to honor.

It took nine more years and three big failed negotiations for the next and more violent uprising – the second Intifada. While the occupation became more and more violent and brutal, as Palestinians were banned from Israel except for the lucky few who held working permits, as Jewish settlements grew taking more and more Palestinian lands and the bodies piled up, suicide bombers were the new weapon. This followed mass demonstrations of October 2000 that resulted in 13 dead Palestinian-Israeli demonstrators who protested together with tens of thousands of Palestinians across the West bank, Gaza and inside Israel’s borders.

In the next 5 years of uprising over 1,000 Israelis were killed (approximately 70% of whom were civilians) and close to 4,500 Palestinians (approximately 50% of whom were civilians).

The building of the separation wall [fence] marked on the one hand the beginning of the end of the second Intifada, and on the other hand the dawn of a new non-violent and unarmed resistance against the separation wall.

Yuval

With the beginning of the construction of the fence Palestinian villages and neighborhoods started protesting and creating popular committees to organize protests.

Some of these villages invited Israeli activists to join this struggle which today is one of the main frontiers of resistance to the occupation.

My first time in such a demonstration was in a village in the West Bank called Nialin. Like many other villages the residents of Nialin are losing more than 40% of their agricultural land for the separation fence.

Together with Palestinian and Israeli comrades we approached the root of the fence
attempting to prevent the uprooting of hundred year old olive trees for the building of the fence. When we were coming closer to the bulldozers the soldiers started to use tear gas and rubber bullets and to arrest the people around me.

This experience, that repeated itself many times, made me realize that this army that I was brought up to believe was there to protect me, was actually attacking me, my comrades and everything I believe in. Since then 5 Palestinians from that village who were struggling for their rights have been killed in such demonstrations, and dozens more have been arrested.

This struggle against the wall, as any struggle, is made of normal people who want a normal life as free people. One of these people is Bassem Abu Rakhma, one of the leaders of the popular non violent struggle against the fence in the Palestinian village of Bili’in. Bassem chose to stick to the joint struggle with Israelis as a clear ideology saying that we are all brothers and sisters struggling the same struggle for freedom and equality. The same struggle that people all over the world have fought and gave their lives for.

Half a year ago during a non-violent demonstration in his village Bassem asked the soldiers to stop shooting when he saw an Israeli activist injured. Seconds later he was shot to his chest and died.

The brave struggle of normal people has become a threat to the occupation forces because it has broken the borders of nationality, and because armies around the world could never handle the power of a democratic unarmed struggle.

Omer

In 2006, at the beginning of the Second Lebanon War, me and my friends took a trip to Cyprus.

There, outside of Israel was the first time I actually heard criticism against the Israeli army and government, and even personally of me as an Israeli girl. My first instinct was to defend what I grew up with and thought was right. Only then I saw pictures in the news I had never seen before in the Israeli media. Those pictures made me realize how little I know about the reality an hour from my home.

As that war turned into another operation in vain and no one in the Israeli government admitted that, not only did I lose my faith in the “humanity” of this army, but I started questioning the ability of the Israeli army sent by the Israeli government to defend me.

I remember sitting on the curve, smoking a cigarette after a demo in Tel Aviv calling for Israeli leadership to resign, saying to my friend “im not going to take part in this, this government doesn’t represent me any more, there must be another way.”

The problem with the Israeli youth is that they are not exposed to the reality from a balanced point of view. 99% of Israeli teenagers never went to the West Bank to meet Palestinians, and their first interaction with them is when they are carrying a gun and wearing the army uniform.

The fact that we visited the WestB before we were supposed to join the army opened our eyes, and once our eyes were open we could see no other way.

When you refuse to serve your society with military service you reflect on all your friends and family, so there are many consequences when you use your democratic right to resist something you think is immoral, old friends become distant, and sometimes family show no support.

We feel that the basic understanding that real security comes from peace has been
forgotten.

The occupation is poisoning Israel from within. It creates an aggressive people, extreme nationalism, and leaves important values as solidarity and equality behind. That’s why taking a stand against it, as an Israeli is crucial for both Palestinians and Israelis as one.

But the law itself and the two years for women or three years for men of army service are only the tip of the iceberg of a highly militaristic state.

The service does not only consist of the two or three years as a teenager, but also of reservist service – every man and women until a certain age can be called up once a year or more in times of war to either train or for active military service. This makes a state in which every parent, teacher, employer and politician not only has been a soldier in his youth, but in many cases still acts as one on the average of once a year.

The care packages for soldiers every kinder-garden child has sent on the Jewish holidays, the memorial planks at the entrance to most schools commemorating all the former students of the school who died during their military service, the compulsory one week of military training most schools take 11th graders on, and the constance presence of army personal inside schools and classrooms are only a few examples of what makes the Israeli society to be militant and obedient in a scary way.

Sahar

The first refusers emerged right after the occupation in 1967 when a group of high school students wrote the first Shministim – 12th graders – letter saying that they will refuse to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This letter was followed by another in 1979 which resulted in several of the signers of the letter serving short prison terms and one sentenced for more than a year of imprisonment in a military prison.

In 1982, in the first Lebanon war more and more reservist soldiers began refusing and were sentenced to prison terms of about one month each, as that is the usual length of reservist service duty per year.

The End Conscription Campaign [ECC] in South Africa was formed in 1983 with the same
purpose and beliefs as the Israeli refusers movement – Both armies had conscription for the oppressor society – whites and Jews, while the main activity of these two armies was the oppression of the rest of the two societies – blacks in SA and Palestinians both in the occupied territories and in Israel. And so the two refusers movements are very similar, created by people of the oppressor side who oppose the violation of human rights, refuse to be a part of it, and are willing to pay a price not to be a part of it.

In our society, as it was in white South Africa, those who made this choice are seen as traitors.

In a way, the banning of the ECC in 1988 like the criminal investigations and interogations held as we speak against two anti-conscriptions movements in Israel “New Profile” & “Yesh Gvul” are proof of it’s success, and shows that the refusal to take part in a certain action speaks just as loudly as actions in some cases. It also shows that both these movements do in fact pose a risk to the Apartheid government at the time, and to the occupation today.

But while the ECC won its cause with the end of Apartheid, the occupation and the
conscription in Israel still stand and the government still tries to oppress anyone and everyone working to change this.

Another example is how the Israeli foreign ministry are targeting Breaking the Silence (Bts). BtS is a group of former soldiers who take testimonies from soldiers about the problematic things they have done on active duty. Since the publication of their important report on the attack on Gaza the Israeli government is pressuring countries like Holland and Spain to stop all cooperation with BtS.

Yuval

We came here to South Africa, a country that has known so much racism and suffering that many of you here have been victims of.

A society that beat the odds and managed to end Apartheid and yet has a long way ahead of it before this journey for justice is complete.

For us, this journey which South Africa has started is a journey we all must go through.

From the right for education in Soweto to the right for free travel in Bili’in, from the right for clean water in Khayelitsha to the right for housing in Gaza, all of these are a part of the same struggle, a joint struggle for equality and human rights for all of us.

As South Africans, blacks and whites as one, who received help in this struggle from people and communities around the world, we ask of you to be a part of our struggle, to take a stand of international solidarity supporting the joint struggle and resisting the occupation.

We believe that the international society has to understand that the only way to save the Palestinian and Israeli societies is to show the Israeli authorities that there is a price that they will have to pay for unjust policies.

There is a price to pay for the occupation. There is a price to pay for harming innocent people.

Like during Apartheid I believe this should be done by targeting the Israeli academic institutions and the economy, and focusing in particular on boycotting international companies who are involved in military activity or who have any connection with the development of the settlements.

The night before I came here to South Africa I wrote a letter to a friend in Israel who was imprisoned for barricading himself in a Palestinian house that the Israeli army wanted to demolish.

In preparing for this lecture, and in reading about the life of Ashley Kriel, a young man that took a stand and fought for what is right – equality among all – we thought it would be fitting to conclude with a few words from this letter:

“I know that in our struggle, like in the struggle they had in South Africa, and in other places around the world, there are people who, win or lose, have managed to rise up and shout and choose and love and believe and struggle.
This is our victory, this is our absolute freedom.”

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