Uri Avnery is a founding member of Gush Shalom (Israeli Peace Bloc). As a teenager, Avnery was an independence fighter in the Irgun, the armed Jewish resistance, and later a soldier in the Israeli army. He also served three times as a member of the Knesset. Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership in 1974. During the war on Lebanon in 1982, he crossed enemy lines to meet with Yasser Arafat. He has been a journalist since 1947, including forty years as editor-in-chief of the newsmagazine Ha'olam Haze. He is the author of numerous books on the conflict, including My Friend, the Enemy and Two People, Two States. I spoke with him twice, the first time on September 14 of last year and the second time on February 15 of this year.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about your years in the Irgun?
Uri Avnery: I joined the Irgun when I was just fifteen years old, and I left when I was nineteen years old. I joined because I wanted to fight for our freedom and a state of our own against the British colonial administration of Palestine. I left it because I did not approve of the methods and the aims of the Irgun.
I have always been conscious of the importance and the strength of nationalism, and this has led me straight to the acknowledgment of the nationalism of the Palestinian people. I believe there is no way around this: We have to have a solution based on two national states, which will hopefully live and grow together and establish a relationship between them in something like a European Union.
Q: Can you discuss your 1945 essay, "Terrorism: The infantile disease of the Hebrew revolution"? And how does it relate to current Palestinian terrorism?
Avnery: When we in the Irgun put bombs in the Arab markets of Jaffa and Jerusalem and Haifa and killed scores of people--men, women, and children--in retaliation for similar acts by the Arabs, I didn't back this. But it left me with a lasting understanding of what gets people to join such organizations, and I understand the Palestinians who join these organizations.
I am against violence on both sides. But I understand people who believe that without violence they will not achieve anything at all. It is our responsibility as the stronger party, as the occupying power, to convince the Palestinians that they can achieve their basic national aims, their just national aspirations, without violence. Unfortunately, the behavior of the Sharon administration, and before this of the Barak administration, has shown the Palestinians the opposite: namely, that they will achieve nothing without violence.
Q: According to the United States and Israel, it is the Palestinians--more specifically, Arafat--who must take the initiative in ending the "cycle of violence." Edward Said once said: "Since when does a militarily occupied people have responsibility for a peace movement?" Is it the responsibility of the Palestinians to end the violence?
Avnery: Violence is part of the resistance to occupation. The basic fact is not the violence; the basic fact is the occupation. Violence is a symptom; the occupation is the disease--a mortal disease for everybody concerned, the occupied and the occupiers. Therefore, the first responsibility is to put an end to the occupation. And in order to put an end to the occupation, you must make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. This is the real aim, this is the real task.
Q: Can you describe the impact of the wall on the peace process?
Avnery: One of the main aims of Sharon is to prevent a Palestinian state--a real, viable, sovereign, free Palestinian state. It has been the major task of his life for the last forty years. What Sharon wants to do is "shorten the lines," in military slang. He wants to give up some positions which are untenable, or which cost too much to keep, and to withdraw to where he wants Israel to be.
The route of the wall is not a straight line. It is a kind of checkerboard leaving the Palestinians 45 percent of the West Bank. It is six, eight, maybe twelve, Palestinian enclaves, big and small, each of them surrounded by Israeli territory. Israel will keep all the highways and all the settlements--except a few isolated ones. Israel will cut through the West Bank, east and west, north and south, in three or four ribbons or strips. One has to see the map to believe it.
The wall is being built for this purpose. The route looks completely surreal. It snakes through the landscape around and around and around, cutting off several Palestinian towns and villages, surrounding them completely, leaving one little gate for them to come and go.
This is all part of the picture in the mind of Sharon. His so-called two-state solution will be, let's say, twelve Palestinian enclaves, which will be called a Palestinian state. It will be connected by, perhaps, a series of bridges, tunnels, and highways, which can be cut off at any moment at the whim of the Israeli government or Israeli army.
All the other territory--55 percent--will be annexed to Israel. To an American reader, these numbers may be without meaning. In 1949, the country of Palestine was partitioned after the war in such a way that the State of Israel-proper consisted of 78 percent of this country of Palestine. What was left to the Arabs was 22 percent, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
When Sharon wants to annex 55 percent of this, it means that what will be left to the Palestinians will be about 10 percent of the small country which used to be called Palestine. This 10 percent will be cut up into five, ten, maybe, twelve enclaves and this will be called the state of Palestine. This is a joke, this is a farce. It is a continuation of the war by other means.
You will not find one single Palestinian leader who would agree to this. This is not a plan for peace, it is a plan for war. It guarantees that the war between us and the Palestinians will go on forever. If President Bush and the government of the United States give Ariel Sharon the OK for this plan, it means that President Bush is opting for war.
Palestinians want a state of their own. They want to live in freedom. They want to get rid of the terrible misery in which they are living. They are ready after fifty years to accept a state of their own in 22 percent of what used to be the country of Palestine. I think it is the height of stupidity on our part if we don't grasp this opportunity.
Q: Sharon has said that he will evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip. Can you describe how this might play out?
Avnery: Contrary to the impression that has been created in Israel and all over the world--that Sharon is zigzagging, that he doesn't know what to do, that he has no plan--he does have a very clear plan.
What he wants to do in the Gaza Strip is to evacuate most of the settlements. The Gaza Strip is not really a part of the settlement scheme of Ariel Sharon. He does not need these settlements. They are quite superfluous. They cost a lot of money. There are altogether about 7,000 settlers in all of the Gaza Strip in the middle of a million and a quarter Palestinians.
The army is investing huge resources to defend these people. There is a whole military division employed just for the Gaza Strip. To give them up is really a great benefit to the state, because these resources will now be employed in order to keep the settlements in the West Bank.
To turn the settlements over to the Palestinians would be, politically, a very difficult decision to make. It will mean that Sharon will see on his television screen the next day the Palestinians taking over Israeli settlements. In order to avoid this in the Sinai, Sharon destroyed the whole town of Yameed, which was the pride of Israel. I saw it after. It was surrealistic. The whole town was lying on the ground, roof next to roof next to roof. Sharon did this because he could not stand the idea that the Egyptians would take hold of this beautiful settlement.
It is a very complicated thing, complicated politically, militarily, economically. You can declare we should leave, but between this declaration and its implementation there is a huge gap.
Q: Perhaps you can describe some of the motivations Israelis have for living in a fortified Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.
Avnery: There are Israeli institutions whose raison d'�tre is to create settlements. There is the Jewish Agency, which gets a lot of money from the United States, from American Jews, whose sole job it is to create settlements. It enlists people all over the world--especially in Russia, and in the United States, by the way--to come and settle in the Occupied Territories as a kind of religious statement, a kind of nationalist statement: "This is a country given to us by God." A lot of Israelis who do not believe in God believe that God has given us this country.
Individually, it is a beautiful thing to be there. Because, if you are a Jewish Israeli, you go to Gaza, you get the villa of your life, the villa which you did not dream of ever getting in Israel, a beautiful two-story villa with green meadows and so on, practically for nothing. Then you put up hothouses of tomatoes or flowers; you take the very Arabs from whom you grabbed this land and employ them as laborers in your hothouses. Israeli law does not apply in Gaza: There is no minimum wage, no annual vacation, no compensation for dismissal--so you get the work very, very cheap. It is a wonderful setup economically.
Q: Do you see any signs of hope?
Avnery: There are lots of grounds for hope in Israeli society. We are seeing Israelis getting fed up with war, looking for solutions. The youngest soldiers are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Some are volunteering for army combat units but are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. We have the elite of the Israeli army, the air force pilots, some of them refusing orders which they consider illegal. We have a movement of people who support the so-called Geneva Accords, a draft peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. We have lots of people come out to Gush Shalom demonstrations against this terrible wall. There are lots of signs that average Israelis want peace. But after such a long war--this conflict has been going on now for 120 years--you have a fifth generation being born into it on both sides. Such a conflict creates hatred, fears, stereotypes, and demonizations of the other. It would be an illusion to believe you can put an end to this overnight. You have to fight for the soul of your people, you have to fight for the souls of millions of people on both sides, to overcome the legacy of this struggle and create a readiness for peace.
You must get Israelis to understand the feelings and the hopes and the traumas of the Palestinians. You have to get the Palestinians to understand why Israel is behaving the way it does: What is the legacy of the Holocaust, what are the fears of average Jewish people? It is a big job, and we are committed to this job, and we will win in the end. I am quite sure, because there is no other alternative.
What is the alternative to peace? A catastrophe for both peoples.
Q: What about the Palestinian right of return?
Avnery: The Palestinian right of return has many different aspects. There is the moral aspect, the political aspect, and the practical aspect. I believe that Israel must concede to the Palestinian right of return in principle. Israel must, first of all, assume its responsibility for what happened in 1948, as far as we are to blame--and we are to blame for a great part of it, if not for all--and we must recognize in principle the right of refugees to return.
In practice, we have to find a complex solution to a very complex problem. It is manifestly idiotic to believe that Israel, with five million Jewish citizens and one million Arab citizens, will concede to the return of four million refugees. It will not happen. We can wish it, we can think it's just, that it's moral--it will not happen. No country commits suicide.
Now the question is: How do we solve the problem by allowing a number of refugees to return to Israel, allowing a number of refugees to return to the Palestinian state, and allowing a number of refugees to settle, with general compensation, where they want to settle? It is not an abstract problem. It involves four million human beings, and more than fifty years of various sorts of misery. But it is not an insolvable problem. It involves some good will, and a readiness to give up historic myths on both sides.
Q: So what's the solution?
Avnery: The solution is perfectly clear. All parts of the conflict have been amply debated and discussed. Many plans have been put on the table--hundreds. And everybody knows by now exactly the parameters of a peace solution. We at Gush Shalom have published a draft text of a peace agreement, and I am fairly certain that when peace comes about, it will be more or less on these lines.
The solution is this: There will be a state of Palestine in all of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Green Line, the border that existed before 1967, will come into being again. Jerusalem will be the shared capital--East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, West Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. All settlements must be evacuated. The security must be arranged for both people, and there must be a moral solution and a practical solution.
On these lines, there will be peace. And if you ask me, they could make peace in one week. The trouble is that both people find it very difficult to come to this point. And when I say both people, I don't want to establish a symmetrical situation. There is no symmetry here; there are occupiers, and the occupied. And as the occupier, we have the responsibility to lead this process. This is what I, as an Israeli patriot, tell my own people.
-- Jon Elmer is a freelance photojournalist who reported from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from September to December. He is the creator and editor of the online journal FromOccupiedPalestine.org.