The Last Taboo
By John Pilger
Clearing House" -- --
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, an
opponent of all kinds of attacks on civilians and a persistent
voice for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, wrote: 'We have to
understand - not justify - what gives rise to this tragedy ...
Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope -
a political solution - they'll stop killing themselves.'57 The
following are lines from his poem 'Martyr':
I love life
On earth, among the pines and the fig trees
But I can't reach it, so I took aim
With the last thing that belonged to me.
For Rami Elhanan, an Israeli graphic designer, the sacrifice by
a Palestinian of 'the last thing that belonged to me' caused the
death of his fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar. There is a home
videotape of Smadar that is difficult to watch. She is playing
the family piano, and throwing her head back and laughing. She
has long hair, which she cut two months before she died. 'It was
her way of making a statement of her independence,' Rami told me
with a smile. 'Her brothers used to tease her because she was
such a good student. But she knew what she wanted. She wanted to
be a doctor, and she loved to dance.'58
On the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar and her best
friend, Sivane, had auditions for admission to a dance school.
Smadar had argued that morning with her mother, Nurit, who was
anxious about her going to the centre of Jerusalem to buy books
she needed for school. 'I was worried about the increase in
suicide bombings,' said Nurit. 'But I didn't want to row, so I
let her go.'
Rami was in his car when he turned on the radio at three o'clock
to listen to the news and heard reports of a suicide bombing in
Ben Yehuda shopping precinct. Three Palestinians had walked into
the crowd and turned themselves into human bombs. There were
nearly two hundred injured, and several dead. Within minutes,
Rami's mobile phone rang. Nurit was crying. She had received a
call from one of their son's friends, who had seen Smadar making
her way into the Ben Yehuda mall shortly before the bombs went
off. For hours, Rami and Nurit toured hospitals, looking for
her. 'Finally,' he said, 'a policeman gently suggested we go to
the scene of the bombing, where we were referred to a morgue.'59
Their 'descent into darkness', as Rami describes it, was also
the beginning of an inspirational campaign for peace. I have not
met anyone like Rami, and the interview I conducted with him in
the sunny sitting room of his Jerusalem home moved me deeply.
Sometimes, solutions to apparently intractable political
problems seem closer at hand when there is a Rami Elhanan
engrossed in them, saying the unsayable.
'It's painful to acknowledge, but it really is quite simple,' he
said. 'There is no basic moral difference between the soldier at
the checkpoint who prevents a woman who is having a baby from
going through, causing her to lose the baby, and the man who
killed my daughter. And just as my daughter was a victim [of the
occupation], so was he.'
On the shelf behind him was a photograph of Smadar at the age of
five, holding a placard. 'Stop the occupation,' it said. Rami
calls her 'a child of peace'. Her parents were both brought up
to believe that the establishment of Israel as a Jewish national
homeland was an act of self-preservation. Rami's father had
survived Auschwitz. His grandparents and six aunts and uncles
perished in the Holocaust. Nurit's father, Matti Peled, a
general, was a hero of the 1948 war. Rami describes him as 'one
of the true pioneers of making peace with the Palestinians'. He
was among the first Israelis to visit Yasser Arafat in his exile
in Tunisia. Nurit herself has been awarded the European
Parliament's peace prize.
Rami dates his own 'awareness of the truth we dare not speak' to
his time as a young army conscript. The 1967 war had just
happened and was not, he says, the 'divine intervention' it was
portrayed as in Israel, particularly among the 'settlers' who
built their illegal fortresses on newly occupied land. He
describes it as 'the beginning of a cancer at the heart of
Israel'. Later, as a soldier in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he said
he realised 'I had blood on my hands, too.'
Rami and Nurit are among the founders of the Parents' Circle, or
Bereaved Families for Peace, which brings together Israeli and
Palestinian families who have lost loved ones. They include the
families of suicide bombers. They jointly organise educational
campaigns and lobby politicians to begin serious negotiations.
When I met Rami, they had just placed one thousand coffins
outside the United Nations building in New York, each draped in
an Israeli or Palestinian flag. 'Our aim', he said, 'is not to
forget or forgive the past, but to find some way of living
I asked him: 'How do you distinguish the feelings of anger you
must have felt as a father at losing your daughter from the
feeling of wanting to reach out?'
'Very simple. I am a human being; I am not an animal. I lost my
child, but I didn't lose my head. Thinking and acting from the
guts only increases an endless circle of blood. You have to
think: our two peoples are here to stay; neither will evaporate.
We have to compromise in some way. And you do that by the head,
not by the guts.'
'Have you made contact with the parents of the suicide bomber
who killed Smadar?'
'That was tried once; someone wanted to make a film about it,
but I wasn't interested. I am not crazy; I don't forget, I don't
forgive. Someone who murders little girls is a criminal and
should be punished, and to be in personal contact with those who
did me wrong, it's not the point. So you see, I sometimes have
to fight myself to do what I'm doing. But I'm sure what I'm
doing is right. I certainly understand that the suicide bomber
was a victim the same as my girl was. Of that, I am sure.'
'Have you made contact with the parents of other suicide
'Yes. Very warm and encouraging contacts.'
'What is the point of that?'
'The point is to make peace, and not to ask questions. I have
blood on my hands, too, as I said. I was a soldier in the
Israeli army ... if you are digging into the personal history of
each and every one of us, you won't make peace, you'll make more
arguments and more blame. Tomorrow, I am going to Hebron to meet
bereaved Palestinian families. They are living proof of the
willingness of the other side to make peace with us.'
'Isn't the public mood in Israel quite different?'
'I have a friend who says that what I am doing is like taking
water out of the ocean with a spoon. We [in the Parents' Circle]
are very few, it's true, and the world is being led by very
stupid people: that's also true. I'm talking about the American
President and my own Prime Minister. To take this word
"terrorism" and build everything around it, as they do, you only
make more misery, more war, more casualties, more suicide
bombers, more revenge, more punishment. Where does that go?
Nowhere. Our task is to point out the obvious. George Washington
was a terrorist, Jomo Kenyatta was a terrorist, Nelson Mandela
was a terrorist. Terrorism only has meaning for those who are
weak and who have no other choice, and no other means.'
'What has to be done to end this suffering?'
'We have to start by fighting ignorance. I go to schools and
give lectures. I tell the children how the conflict began by
asking them to imagine a house with ten rooms where Mohammed and
his family are living in peace. Then, one stormy night, there's
a knock at the door, and outside stands Moshe and his family.
They are sick, beaten, broken. "Excuse me," he says, "but I once
used to live in this house." This is the whole Arab-Israeli
conflict in a snap; and I tell the kids that the Palestinians
gave up seventy-eight per cent of the country which they are
sure is theirs, so the Israelis should give up the twenty-two
per cent that was left [following the 1967 war].'
He shows the schoolchildren maps of the offer Prime Minister
Ehud Barak made to Yasser Arafat at Camp David before the 'peace
process' broke down. The maps reveal that swathes of the West
Bank were held back from the Palestinians and kept for Jewish
settlers. 'This was the greatest secret of all,' he said,
'because Barak never allowed any [official] maps to be made. He
was proposing something he knew the Palestinians would not,
could not, accept.'
'What kind of reaction do you get: in schools, at public
'I watch the faces of the kids when I show them the maps and
tell them that we had seventy-eight per cent, and the
Palestinians had twenty-two per cent, and that's all the
Palestinians want now, and I see ignorance lift. You know, in
Israel, the bereaved are said to be sacred. People give them
respect because they have paid the price. I am due that respect,
but of course there are people who don't want to hear what I
Every 'Jerusalem Day' - the day the modern State of Israel
celebrates its conquest of the city - Rami has stood in the
street with a photograph of Smadar and sought to persuade people
of his mission for peace. The last Jerusalem Day, he stood in
front of crossed Israeli and Palestinian flags, and people told
him it was a pity he wasn't blown up, too. 'That is the
dimension of the problem,' he said.
'Will you do that this Jerusalem Day?'
'Yes, and I will be spat and cursed at by some, but I know
that's only one part of the human equation; it's the other part
we must solve, and I and other parents are making a start.'
'What is the price that a society pays when it runs a military
'It's an unbearable price. The list begins with moral
corruption. When we don't let pregnant women through
checkpoints, and their babies die, we have reduced ourselves to
animals and we are no different from the suicide bombers.'
'What do you say to Jewish people in other countries, like
Britain: people who support Israel because they feel they must?'
'I say they should be loyal to real Jewish values, and support
the peace movement in Israel, not the state at all costs. It's
only pressure from outside - from Jews, from governments, from
public opinion - that will end this nightmare. While there is
this silence, this looking away, this profane abuse of our
critics as anti-Jew, we are no different from those who stood
aside during the days of the Holocaust. We are not only
complicit in a crime, we ensure that we ourselves never know
peace, and our surviving children never know peace. I ask you:
does that make any sense?'
'But they might say the Jews are in danger of being pushed into
the sea by the Arabs, that Israel must stand firm?'
'Pushed into the sea by whom? We are the most powerful power in
the Middle East. We have one of the greatest armies in the
world. In this latest operation [Sharon's attack on the West
Bank in April 2002], we sent four armoured divisions against
some five hundred armed people. It's a laugh. Who will push us
into the sea? Who can push us into the sea?... The real issue is
played out every day at the checkpoints. The Palestinian boy
whose mother is humiliated in the morning will be a suicide
bomber in the evening. There is no way that Israelis can sit in
their coffee houses and eat and drink while two hundred metres
away desperate people are humiliated and Palestinian children
are beginning to starve. The suicide bomber is no more than a
mosquito. The occupation is the swamp.'
The chairman of the Parents' Circle is Yitzhak Frankenthal,
whose son Arik, a conscripted soldier, was kidnapped and killed
by Hamas. His generosity of spirit was expressed in his address
to a peace rally in Jerusalem. 'Let all the self-righteous who
speak of ruthless Palestinian murderers take a hard look in the
mirror,' he said.
[Let them ask themselves] what they would have done had they
been the ones living under occupation. I can say for myself that
I, Yitzhak Frankenthal, would have undoubtedly become a freedom
fighter and I would have killed as many on the other side as I
possibly could. It is this depraved hypocrisy that pushes the
Palestinians to fight us relentlessly - our double standard that
allows us to boast the highest military ethics, while the same
military slays innocent children ... As much as I would like to
do so, I cannot say the Palestinians are to blame for my son's
death. That would be the easy way out [for] it is we who are
unwilling to make peace with them. It is we who insist on
maintaining our control over them. It is we who feed the cycle
of violence ... I regret to say it.60
Israel's dissidents are among the bravest I have met. Apart from
the remarkable Mordechai Vanunu, who spent nineteen years in
prison, mostly in solitary confinement, and who today lives
under effective house arrest, most of those who take on the
Israeli state remain in the community, where their punishment is
often unrelenting. To many, they have betrayed not only their
country but their family and their Jewishness and the memory of
the victims of the Holocaust.
Shopkeepers refuse to serve them; lifelong friends cross the
road rather than speak to them. Without warning, they are
shouted at and spat upon - like Rami with his flags.
At the time of writing, 635 Israeli soldiers have refused to
serve in occupied Palestine. Hundreds have been sent to prison.
Others have made public declarations that have worried the
regime; they include paratroopers, tank officers and members of
the Special Forces, Sayeret-Matka. In September 2003,
twenty-seven air force pilots, including Brigadier-General
Yiftah Spector, a hero of the 1967 war, announced they had
refused to carry out 'illegal and immoral' raids 'on civilian
population centres'. The majority are young conscripts who must
serve three years with the military. Their organisation is
'Courage to Refuse'.
I spent an afternoon with one of them, former Sergeant Ishai
Rosen-Zvi, an orthodox Jew. We met in a Tel Aviv park, away from
unfriendly eyes. I asked him what had made him a 'refusenik'.61
'It took me longer than I wish to think. When I arrived in Gaza
with my unit, I could see what we were doing was horrible, but I
did my job; I felt uneasy and embarrassed, but I did my job. On
leave, at home, I never talked about it; I became a kind of
Jekyll and Hyde character. Then I began to realise I was on the
wrong side of the checkpoint, the roadblock we had to man day
after day. The real story of the occupation is there at the
roadblocks. Your job there is nothing, you stand around, and you
think that if you could phone home, you would say, "This is
boring." Then it dawns on you what this nothingness really is.
It is keeping thousands of people in frustration, in
humiliation, in hunger, in anger.
'Imagine it. You are standing there and it's five in the
morning, and you see their eyes - some of the people could be my
grandfather - and you glimpse the humiliation and the hatred.
You want to take them aside and say, "Look, I'm a good guy; I've
got nothing against you." But of course that has no point. For
them, you are the occupation. And +nobody+ gives you their
liberty for nothing.'
I said, 'The government insists the roadblocks are there to stop
the suicide bombers coming.'
'The roadblocks were there thirty-five years before suicide
bombing began. They are there to control, always control.'
'Did Palestinians waiting under your control ever want to debate
this with you?'
'You have all the power; they have no power. You can, at any
moment, take their ID, and then they have nothing, because
without ID, they can be arrested at any time. So they take no
risks; they don't debate; they may even be deferential, but
that's not how they are in their hearts.'
'How do other Israelis regard you, people you meet every day,
who know you are a refusenik?'
'Some look on me as an extreme leftist, which is funny, because
I am a religious person. For them, the whole question of
morality doesn't come into it; they think I am twisted in the
head. One of my best friends told me, "OK, it's a stupid war,
but it's a war, and we've got to fight it."'
'And your family?'
'We don't talk about it, or we try not to. My wife is speaking
all the time about other things, because it's too hard...'
'So you've done this on your own?'
'Yes. I am alone on this.'
'What is the price you've paid?'
'I am no hero, believe me. I am a hurt person; I am hurt when I
am in the market and someone I don't know says, "I read in the
newspaper what you've done. It's horrible. People like you are
ruining our country." That is like a knife attack and I am
plunged into a personal battle in my head and heart; how do I
'You mean you have to keep explaining it to yourself?'
'Yes, yes, and not just explain; I have to reassure myself. I
have to say, "Ishai, you are +not+ a traitor." It is hard saying
this to yourself, on your own.'
'What do you say to those Jewish people abroad who associate
criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism?'
'Well, this is a huge bluff. It is the worst kind of propaganda.
Jewish people in Britain, all over the world, who play this game
of bluff are perpetuating the occupation and all its horrors.
They should not contribute to such a device that desecrates the
memory of Jewish suffering, and use it to justify the oppression
of another people. It is profane.'
'What would you like to say to your compatriots?'
'I would like to say they should think hard about patriotism,
because criticising our government on this issue is the +only+
patriotic thing we have left.'
John Pilger's new book,
" (Bantam Press,
2006;) has just been published.
Containing chapters on Diego Garcia, Palestine, India, South
Africa and Afghanistan, it is a devastating indictment of brutal
state-corporate power, and a heartening account of how people
around the world are challenging that power.
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