The Legitimacy of Solidarity

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

David Finkel and David Kohns interview Michel Warshawski

MICHEL WARSHAWSKI is on trial in an Israeli court for his activities as director of the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem. He faces a potential prison sentence of twenty-three years. The protracted legal proceedings, now more than two-years’ old, began in February 1987 when police raided the Centre and seized its equipment after inviting television to film the event.

Although the six-month ban against the Alternative Information Centre expired in summer 1987, its equipment remains confiscated as “material evidence.” Its director, Michel Warshawski, is accused of “providing typesetting services to a prohibited organization” and “possessing materials belonging to a prohibited organization.”

Warshawski was able to come to the United States for a brief speaking tour in April. A court upheld his right to travel even though the state prosecutor tried to block him from leaving Israel. While in Detroit he spoke at a public meeting and later with David Finkel of Against the Current and Daniel Kohns, a Palestine solidarity activist in Ann Arbor. This is a part of that discussion.

Against the Current: What is the significance of your trial?

Michel Warshawski: My trial by itself is not the real story. I prefer to talk about what is happening in the Occupied Territories, the spirit of combat that exists in every village, city, refugee camp of the West Bank and Gaza. But the case of the Alternative Information Centre is linked to these realities.

The reason the Centre was closed down wasn’t because of the information we presented about the occupation.(1) The real reason was exactly what my interrogator said to me during my two weeks of imprisonment after my arrest. He said Look, are you Israelis or are you Palestinians? If you are Israelis you may speak and publish freely in our democracy. If you are Palestinians you operate under rules of military occupation. But we don’t like this no-man’s land of yours.

The Israeli authorities cannot accept the way of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Precisely one of the aims of the Alternative Information Centre when it was founded in 1985 was to create a space and a place where, for the first time after eighteen years of occupation, Israelis and Palestinians could meet, speak, exchange experiences and maybe work together, within the legal limits.

To meet, speak with and listen to a Palestinian is virtually unknown even in the Israeli peace camp. If 400,000 Israelis demonstrated against the Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1982, not more than 100 of them had been to Gaza.

We also had an idea of what real information was needed to give a true picture both of Israel and the Occupied Territories. This requires information “from within” both areas, because they are interrelated, and from those who are actively engaged in the movement.

 As my Shin Bet (Special Police) interrogator said to me, “What you are doing isn’t illegal. The fact that you are doing it with the Arabs is the reason” – the reason for the closure of the Alternative Information Centre after two years of absolutely open and legal activity.

ATC: What’s the background to your own involvement?

MW: My own development in France included both an Orthodox Jewish education – a very religious outlook to which the State of Israel was basically irrelevant – and at the same time, certain progressive political ideas. For example, at home racism was absolutely forbidden. At the age of fifteen I was sent to study in a Talmudic school in Jerusalem.

A few years later came the 1967 war. Like everyone in Israel, I was part of the history before, during and after the war. I volunteered to live in an Orthodox kibbutz near the northern border, where we thought we were taking great risks.

That summer a friend of mine, from an Orthodox background like mine, came to Israel to help after the war. We traveled all over the West Bank to show him land. He said to me: But look, there are people here. This is an occupation. It’s like fascism.

I responded: Yes, long live fascism – or something like that I had two terrible months. Unable to face the fact that this time I was on the oppressor side and proud to be a fascist, I went back to France to visit my parents. When I came back I had decided to fight the occupation. I left the school and a year later I joined Matzpen.(2)

ATC: What is the relationship of the Palestinians inside the so-called Green Line and the Intifada?

MW: In the past fifteen years the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel have gone through the process of Palestinization. They identify with the Palestinian people’s struggle. Many of them recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the leadership of the Palestinian people as a whole, including themselves. They support a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza without intending to join that stale themselves – they intend to remain in Israel and fight for their civil rights.

The Intifada from the very beginning was a source of inspiration. Spontaneously. Palestinians in Israel organized active solidarity with food, money, conveys. The biggest action was the “Day of Peace,” a general strike in December 1987, in the first month of the Intifada. The authorities reacted violently, including harsh repression against youngsters. More important still was their open threat-by the slate president, among others – to deport the Palestinians.

However, in reaction to both the extraordinary mobilization and the threats of the Israeli authorities, the leadership of the Palestinians in Israel, through the Committee for the Preservation of Land, the Arab local c:ounciis and the institutions where the Israeli Communist Party is the main force, promised the government to calm things down. On Land Day(3) last year these leaders coordinated with the police to stop demonstrations.

This past Land Day 1989, there was a general strike. But just a strike – no confrontations – with well controlled tallies in three places. This time the Islamic movement was the main force, especially in the Triangle (a section of Israel having an Arab majority population). The Islamic forces were also quite successful in Palestinian towns in Israel, where they won control of the municipality of Umm al-Farun and made gains in Nazareth (a Communist stronghold).

I think this Islamic success was a response to the passivity of the national leadership, the Communist Party (CP) and Progressive List for Peace (the two main Israeli parties based on Arab votes –ed.], and to the fact that even Abna-al-Balad,(4) although it has had some local successes, has not been able to sustain a mobilization.

There is visible dissatisfaction with the CP’s role. In Jerusalem, one Palestinian leader of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the coalition led by the Israeli Communist Party, announced that he would not vote for the DFPE. When asked why, he said it was for various reasons, including its weak response to the Intifada But they asked him: Why? Didn’t the CP organize solidarity with the Intifada? He replied: Yes, they did – just like the Swedish Communist Party. That’s fine in Sweden, but not here!

Second, the Islamic forces did what the CP failed to do for many years; they mobilized the population on a day-today basis to resolve their own problems. This is very similar to what happened in the Jewish sector, where the Shas, the orthodox Sephardic religious party, had success in the recent national election. Shas also organizes clubs, courses, cultural activities; it helps the poor in the neighborhoods and to pride in their own traditions. The successes of religious forces and failures of the left are the same among the Jews and the Moslems.

ATC: In the struggle for democratic rights a realistic strategy for the Palestinians inside Israel? What about the transfer threat?

MW: One thing that fueled the tremendous mobilization in December 1967 and in 1988 was precisely that threat against Palestinians inside Israel. You cannot explain the “Day of Peace” only as an act of solidarity with the intifada; it’s also a defense of themselves.

The idea of Palestinian rights inside the Israeli state is part and parcel of a new era in which national and political questions inside Israel are putting a question mark over its entire character. There is a national movement of Palestinians in Israel; there is also an Israeli movement against religious coercion, a struggle that may reappear even though it has been submerged by the Intifada.

The fight against racism – not only against Meir Kahane [the American-born ultra-racist–ed.) but the whole set of discriminatory laws and practices of the state and the society, and the fight against the occupation – these are all part of a democratic and, in fact, revolutionary struggle.

So the question of whether the fight for the Palestinians’ rights inside Israel is realistic is like the questions involved in any other revolutionary struggle. The idea of a democratic secular slate ultimately unifies all these struggles. This is the end of Zionism.

Even before the Intifada, there was a new development in Israel – mainly among the Jewish youth -questioning the very root of Israeli society, Zionism. I have been invited many times in the past two years to kibbutzim to debate the question: is a Jewish democratic Zionist state possible?

This is the question that twenty years ago a very small minority of radical anti-­ Zionist youth raised. Now Kahane has raised and answered it – he says we are for a Jewish slate, not a democracy. But this question suddenly spread all over the Israeli society. It’s not only the rise of Kahane that raised the issue, but more important, the Palestinians inside Israel, who today are 750,000 people becoming part and parcel of the real Israeli society and who cannot be ignored.

In the 1950s and even ’60s they were somewhat isolated, and Israel was a Jewish slate. Now Haifa is already a bi-national town; Jaffa and Ako are bi-national. At Hebrew University there are Arab students – not a tiny minority, and not only in Arabic studies. This is why there is the new open racism in Israel.

But many people among the Israeli Jewish youth are asking: what are we? They are much closer to the realities than the ideologists of the left, who still see Israel as a beautiful idea, tragically maned by an occupation.

I fully support a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. It is the precondition of anything good. But I must be critical of the Palestinian leadership for evading the issue of the two nations belonging to a certain land – It is not only a matter of drawing a line between Israel and Palestine. That is important, but it is only the beginning of solving the problem.

We are saying that we’re not only fighting to end the occupation, but to find a way of coexistence. There will be two states, but ultimately it is a question of how to live together. I believe it is the duty of Israelis, as well as the duty of the Palestinian national movement, to address this problem in its totality.

The idea that the Israeli Jewish people needs to express its own identity through the state is almost obvious. But by saying “Israeli state” we don’t answer the question of the Palestinians in Israel, of the refugees, of the whole behavior of the state and its institutions for more than forty years.

ATC: Can you discuss the significance of resistance in the military to serving in the Occupied Territories?

MW: I want to mention the case of Corporal Rami Hasson, who has already been sentenced three times to twenty-eight-day-terms for refusing to do reserve duty in the Occupied Territories. Immediately after serving his first sentence, he was again ordered to report and given a suspended twenty-eight-day sentence for refusing. He was then given yet another order, imprisoned for twenty-eight days on his suspended sentence and given a further twenty-eight-day suspended sentence, and once again ordered to report … and so on!(5) A big campaign was organized against giving someone in effect a life prison sentence for refusing to serve.

Actually, refusal to serve in Lebanon or the Occupied Territories is a fact of life now. More than seventy soldiers have been sent to jail. But we estimate that only one out of every ten refuser is actually tried. In 80 percent to 90 percent of the cases, the refuser’s commander just reassigns them to serve inside Israel.

The legitimacy gained by the very act of refusal has become such a problem that an army spokesman announced that there had been discussions in the staff about how to deal with it. If the number of refusers is dramatically increasing, he said they might all be court-martialed. This would be a qualitative turn.

During the Lebanon war, the army refused to use a court-martial even when soldiers requested them.

There have been cases of whole units, from top to bottom, submitting petitions to the prime minister, saying they cannot continue to serve under the conditions in the Occupied Territories. Another statement has been circulated that begins, “We are not refusers, but” – it says they cannot continue in this way. This, in my opinion, is where the future of the Israel-Palestine war will be decided.

ATC: What about your own future – the outcome of your trial and the lsraeli-Palistinian cooperation the government wants to stamp out?

MW: I told my prison interrogator, “I think you are too late. Maybe ten years ago the closure of the Alternative Information Centre might have been sufficient to threaten the broad peace movement and all those Israelis who think in the direction of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. But now it’s too late – even if you succeed in dosing the Centre and even in trying and convicting us, we have achieved the point of no return.”
Now I must admit there was a certain amount of exaggerated self-confidence in this statement. At that time, February 1987, there was only one other initiative toward Israeli-Palestinian cooperation: the Committee Confronting the Iron Fist, to which I also belong. But today that question has been answered – they are definitely too late.

It’s true that the development of the peace movement today is much slower than during the 1982 Lebanon war. But it’s much deeper, because the struggle today involves the very essence of Israel’s existence.

I will cite only a few examples:

• Doctors organizing for health care in Gaza with their Palestinian colleagues.

• The immigrant group “Israelis by Choice” joining with Russian­Jewish immigrants, who by and large are not the most progressive sector in Israeli to rebuild the village of Beita.(6)

• The Women’s Organization for Political Prisoners, publishing information on Palestinian women in prison.

And even those who are not yet ready to act in solidarity with Palestinians at least want to see and hear. Dai la-Kibbush (End the Occupation) organized a delegation to a village near Jerusalem. We didn’t have money for advertisements, but the bus we rented was crowded. We did this every Saturday for a year except during the summer months. Each time fifteen to twenty people, mostly new people each week, went with Dai Ia-Kibbush to see and to speak with Palestinians.

The military administration reacted exactly the same way it did against the Alternative Information Centre. After four or five months, suddenly when we reached a certain spot the army would be there with a piece of paper, designating it as a “closed military area.” We knew this was a device to keep us out, since Palestinians in a village who knew we were coming would be sure to avoid “disturbances.” So a whole area would be closed just to prevent a simple meeting between Israelis and Palestinians.

As the Shin Bet interrogator told me, “This is a democracy.” But the battery of laws are incompatible with any kind of democracy – the Press Act, the British Emergency Regulations7 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The truth is that Israel acts like a democracy for Jews, but with a huge arsenal of laws used against the Palestinians. These will be more and more used against Israeli Jews too when they become a threat to the “national unity.”

My last conversation with the interrogator was threatening. He said, “I have other things against you.” I said to him: “I don’t know how this trial will come out, since it’s ultimately a political problem – but the real fight behind the trial you’ve already lost.”

So it’s possible that I will be convicted and even sentenced to some time in prison. But from my heart I say-don’t feel bad. It’s not a pleasure. But what we have done by being a kind of pathfinder for the Israeli public to a road of solidarity and dialogue with Palestinians – that fight has been won. The trial is only a rear-guard action.

Notes

  1. The Centre publishes a newsletter News From Within, which is a crucial information source.
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  2. “Compass” – the radical Israeli anti-war socialist movement of the late 1960s. One wing of it developed into Warshawski’s political organization in Israel today, the Revolutionary Communist League.
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  3. An annual commemoration of the killing of six Palestinians in the Galilee during a land confiscation in March 1976.
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  4. “Sons of the Village” – a Palestinian nationalist formation inside Israel that is harassed by the government.
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  5. Rami Hasson had received three consecutive jail terms – a total of five since his first refusal as of April 16. The U.S. Organization, Friends of Yesh Gvul, has appealed for support of his case. You can write to Rami Husson at P.O. Box 6953, Jerusalem, 91068 Israel, to express solidarity. For further information, contact Friends of Yesh Gvul, 1678 Shattuck Avenue, Box 6, Berkeley, CA 94709. His case has also been adopted by a group in Santa Cruz, CA, who can be contacted at (408) 42’7-1337.
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  6. Beita was the village whose trees and homes were bulldozed last year, following the killing of an Israeli school-girl by her own bodyguard in a settlers’ march into the village.
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July-August 1989, ATC 21

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