Peace With Syria? Yes.
No outbreak of religious fundamentalist violence in Jerusalem. No world-wide collapse of computers. The media extravaganza of Y2K is done. Beautifully prepared Bethlehem did get some moments in the limelight - but less attention than ever is given to the concrete issues just around the corner from the touristic sites.
Already for some time, there is a strong tendency to forget about the Palestinians. It is hardly possible to get any media attention for cases of settler harassment in obscure corners of the West Bank. With Prime Minister Barak setting out for crucial talks with the Syrians at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the Israeli press focuses upon the growing public debate "Yes or No to evacuation of the Golan for peace". The 17.000 Israeli settlers, who have made their home in the Golan Heights since the area was conquered, are at the centre of the debate - some making an emotional appeal against the approaching agreement with Syria, but a substantial dissident minority outspokenly supporting a peace which would require their own evacuation. Rarely does the heating debate touch upon the fact that Israel's conquest of the Golan in 1967 turned the 160.000 Syrians then living there into refugees...
So on the day after tomorrow - Monday, Jan. 3, at 7.15 in the evening - we will turn up at the Rabin Square in Tel-Aviv, to take part in the torchlight march sponsored by Peace Now (firstname.lastname@example.org) under the motto "Peace is Greater than the Golan" with the declared aim of supporting Barak in going through with the peace talks. We could hardly do otherwise: peace with Syria in return for the Golan is an aim we have supported for over twenty years, even when it looked like a hopeless and forlorn struggle. Moreover, the "Syrian package deal" seems to involve the prospect of Israeli soldiers at long last leaving the soil of Lebanon - another aim for whose sake we had participated in countless demonstrations since the army was first lured into that futile guerrilla war in 1982. Once signed, the agreement is to be submitted to a referendum - the first one in Israeli history - and a referendum victory can by no means be taken for granted, given the energetic right-wing campaign which is already underway; working for it seems a cause well worthy of peace activists' time and energy.
Yet long involvement in the Syria/Lebanon Campaign - building up towards the first referendum in Israeli history - is apt to cause acute schizophrenia in those who believe that the Palestinians are at the core of the Middle East conflict, and that any peace signed without them is foredoomed to failure. Unfortunately, Barak seems to be heading for just such a peace: paying the full territorial price for peace with Syria, so as to isolate the Palestinians and force them to accept extensive annexations in the West Bank; recognizing a Palestinian state in name, while in practice reducing it to an unviable collection of isolated enclaves; a policy ensuring the perpetuation of conflict, even if Barak could get Arafat to sign under such conditions a treaty - which is not sure in itself.
Some activists of Gush Shalom ( email@example.com) - we among them - spent the old millennium's last days commuting back and forth between Tel-Aviv and a Palestinian house in the outskirts of Hebron. It all started with an action alert put out by the Christian Peacemakers Team (firstname.lastname@example.org) - North-American religious pacifists based in the heart of Hebron. It turned out that the Sultan family has been the target of ceaseless pestering and harassment by the settlers of nearby "Kiryat Arba" - a place conspicuous for its extremism (compared with other settlers!). Day after day, night after night armed settlers held provocative demonstrations around the house, damaging terraces and plants and shouting abuse. Settler leader Mal'achi Levinger (son of the notorious "shooting rabbi") made no bones about their aims: the house should be demolished and a new settlement neighbourhood for a new generation of settlers erected on the land.
Last Monday night several of us came to stay the night with the Sultan family, reinforcing the CPT which had been maintaining a constant presence for over a week. For many hours into the night we all sat together with the extended family around a fire on their porch looking out into the darkness. There were some exchanges with military patrols, who accepted coffee offered by Omar Sultan. The following day, the army suddenly turned much less friendly. A major presented an eviction order to all the guests. For several hours we stalled the police which seemed not to have enough manpower to lift and carry off eight passively resisting activists, with the complicating factor that women activistst could only be dragged away by women police.
When at last the police reinforcement arrived, there just happened to arrive also a Gush Shalom reinforcement, a busload of activists headed by Uri Avnery. That was too much, and the police decided to limit itself to supervising a vigil with huge banners held out towards the settler cars passing on the nearby road: "Hands Off The Sultan Family's House - There Is No Such Thing As Legal Settlement."
After a new threatening demonstration by settlers on Wednesday, a protest march was called by a coalition of Palestinian organizations in Hebron - for Thursday morning. We took the by now familiar route only to encounter a road-block set up by the military who got wind of the plans, barring the way to the Sultan house. But six or seven soldiers were not enough to block this militant group of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans - all determined to move ahead. After some minutes of scuffle we broke through, the 76- year old Uri Avnery in the forefront, locking arms with senior Palestinian Abbas Zaki and the Deputy Mufti of Jerusalem. Not far behind were Knesset Member Abed Malik Dahamshe of the Israeli Islamic Movement and Ira Grupper, former head of New Jewish Agenda in the United States. We got quite near the house, when a much bigger police and military force arrived to block our way. There was another scuffle in which Azmi Shuyuki of the Palestinian Peace Movement in Hebron was kicked in the belly by a soldier and had to be taken to hospital by a quickly arriving Palestinian ambulance. The good thing was that apparently the army - to stay "even-handed" also didn't allow settlers to pass.
The letter writers among you are invited to send messages to Barak, who as Defence Minister has primary responsibility in the occupied territories. Make clear that you know about this case, and that you expect the army to keep settler provocateurs well away from the Sultan family.
Send your fax or your email to: Prime Minister and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Fax: 011-972-2-566-4838, email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Wishing all our friends a happy new year and a more peaceful era,
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