- Uri AvneryIsraeli writer and peace activist. He is a former member of the Knesset and the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. He writes a weekly column published in several countries and is the author of many books, including 1948: A Soldier’s Tale—The Bloody Road to Jerusalem, Israel’s Vicious Circle and My Friend, the Enemy.
Fighting in Gaza has resumed after the expiration of a 72-hour truce expired. Israel said it launched airstrikes after Palestinians fired at least 18 rockets into southern Israel after the ceasefire ended. Palestinian officials say a 10-year-old boy was killed earlier today when an Israeli airstrike hit near a mosque in Gaza City. Six other people were wounded in the attack. A Hamas military wing spokesman earlier called on Palestinian negotiators holding indirect talks with Israeli negotiators in Cairo to refuse any ceasefire extension unless its long-term demands were met. We speak with longtime peace activist Uri Avnery, who has pushed for Israel to engage with Hamas. Avnery is a historic figure within the Israeli peace movement. He was born in Germany in 1923. His family fled the Nazis and moved to what was then Palestine. As a youth, he joined the Irgun Zionist paramilitary group, which he later quit to become a leading peace activist in Israel. In 1950, he founded the news magazine, HaOlam HaZeh. Fifteen years later, he was elected to the Knesset on a peace platform. In 1982, he made headlines when he crossed the lines during the Siege of Beirut to meet Yasser Arafat, head of the then-banned Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1993, he started the Gush Shalom peace movement. He will turn 91 next month and still writes a weekly column.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Gaza, where fighting has resumed after the expiration of a 72-hour truce expired. Israel said it launched airstrikes after Palestinians fired at least 18 rockets into southern Israel after the ceasefire ended. Palestinian officials say a 10-year-old boy was killed earlier today when an Israeli airstrike hit near a mosque in Gaza City. Six other people were wounded in the attack.
AMY GOODMAN: Hamas rejected an extension of the 72-hour ceasefire, saying Israel had failed to meet a key Palestinian demand to ease the crippling blockade on Gaza. A Hamas military wing spokesperson earlier called on Palestinian negotiators holding indirect talks with Israel negotiators in Cairo to refuse any ceasefire extension unless its long-term demands were met. This is Abu Ubaida.
ABU UBAIDA: [translated] We urge the Palestinian delegation who is negotiating not to extend the ceasefire deal unless there is an initial agreement to the demands set by our people, and foremost is the seaport.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Israel’s 29-day offensive in Gaza killed nearly 1,900 people, including at least 1,354 civilians, 415 of them children. More than 10,000 people have been injured. Half-a-million Palestinians have been displaced, with at least 187,000 still living in U.N. emergency shelters. Ten thousand homes have been completely destroyed, 30,000 partially wrecked. Meanwhile, 64 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza; three civilians died in Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the situation in Israel and Palestine, we go to Tel Aviv, where we’re joined by Uri Avnery, longtime Israeli peace activist and writer. He’s a former member of the Israeli Knesset, the Parliament, and the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. He writes a weekly column published in several countries and is the author of many books, including 1948: A Soldier’s Tale—The Bloody Road to Jerusalem, Israel’s Vicious Circle and My Friend, the Enemy.
Uri Avnery, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the end of the ceasefire and what this means?
URI AVNERY: Well, I think everybody’s very sad about it, because we all have hoped that the war has ended. But the war is going on, and if there’s no new ceasefire, the stakes will get worse on both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: Israel says that it was Hamas that broke the ceasefire by shooting rockets into Israel. Can you respond?
URI AVNERY: That’s very easy to answer. The ceasefire was in force until 8:00 this morning. No one broke it. It was just not renewed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you have been a longtime founder and leader of the peace movement in Israel. What is the state of the peace movement in your country right now?
URI AVNERY: Well, in any war, it is very difficult to talk about peace, see. Every war creates a war hysteria. People become superpatriotic. People don’t want to hear any criticism of their government or their country. So, it’s a bad situation. But there are demonstrations against the war going on every day. Tomorrow evening, on Saturday evening, there will be a very big demonstration in the center of Tel Aviv. So the peace movement is not silent.
AMY GOODMAN: You have a long history, Uri Avnery, that goes, to say the least., back to before the establishment of the state of Israel. You were born in Germany. You fled Nazi Germany with your family. You were part of the Irgun when you were, what, 15 years old. Can you talk about the Irgun and the Stern Gang in pre-state Israel, what you were doing there, and what these organizations did?
URI AVNERY: Well, we are dealing with day-to-day occurrences, but we do not deal with the root of the matter. The root is that Israel is occupying the Palestinian territories—the territory of the West Bank and the territory of the Gaza Strip. As long as the occupation lasts, there will be no peace. In order to put an end to the occupation, you must make peace, peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. In order to achieve peace with the Palestinian people, Israel must end the occupation, withdraw from the Occupied Territories and enable the Palestinians to set up their own independent nation and state, the state of Palestine. That’s what it’s all about. Everything else flows from this basic problem.
AMY GOODMAN: You have—Israel calls Hamas terrorist. So does the United States. Your group, Irgun, was a paramilitary organization. You have said you ultimately left the group—Shamir was a part of it, as well. You have said you left the group because of its terrorist tactics in—what year was it? In 1942.
URI AVNERY: Well, I was a member of a terrorist organization when I was 15 years old. I believe I understand the psychology of young people who join organizations which are called terrorists by their enemies, but which themselves think of themselves as freedom fighters. Hamas thinks it’s fighting for the freedom of Palestine. They are deeply convinced of this, and therefore they are fighting. And everybody must admit that they are fighting very well, because what you have here during the last month is a guerrilla organization of, I would say, at least—at most 10,000 fighters, fighting against one of four biggest and strongest armies in the world. So it’s not an even fight, yet they are standing there—they are still standing there after more than a month. I think even the Israeli Army recognizes and somehow respects the fighting force of this organization.
One of the basic problems at this moment is that Israelis and Hamas do not talk to each other. The ceasefire was negotiated by Egypt. Egypt, at this moment, is against Hamas more than Israel. At this moment, Egypt and Israel are very close partners. So Egypt appearing as a negotiator, as a mediator, of an honest broker, is ridiculous, the same way that the American mediation was ridiculous. America is a very, very, very close ally of Israel. President Obama repeats like a parrot the most basic Israeli propaganda, and so does John Kerry. So we don’t have somebody who can mediate and who’s being trusted by both sides. I think Hamas went to Cairo to these ceasefire negotiations full of apprehension, full of distrust towards Egypt. I, myself, would say that there’s a very simple solution to this. I think Israel and Hamas must talk to each other. When people are firing on each other and trying to kill each other—indeed, killing each other—the best solution is that they start to talk with each other. I think if the Israelis and the Palestinians would sit together opposite each other at one table and thresh out their real problems, trying to understand, be able to understand each other, the whole thing would look very differently.
The Palestinians, Hamas cannot and will not agree to a real ceasefire, long-lasting ceasefire, if there is a blockade on the Gaza Strip. This is a basic, local problem. You have 1.8 [million] of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It’s a tiny, tiny, little territory. You can translate it to American geographical facts. The whole thing is about 50 kilometers wide and about 10 kilometers long. So, translate this to New York City, I think it’s smaller than Brooklyn. So, this is this huge population in this small territory. It’s suffering from a blockade for at least eight years. A blockade means that all the borders are closed, including the sea border, and you cannot get in anything except by the permission of Israel, and you cannot get anything out at all. There is no export from the Gaza area.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Uri—
URI AVNERY: So, no one will agree—yes?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—
URI AVNERY: After such a cruel war, with so many—yes, please?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You’ve mentioned the need for the Israeli government and Hamas to talk as a first step, but you’ve also written in the past that Israel was complicit in the rise of Hamas and actually, to some extent, supported its rise. Could you talk about that and the significance of the early period of Hamas?
URI AVNERY: Well, at the time, before ’93, not Hamas was considered the main enemy of Israel, but the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was led at the time by Yasser Arafat, and which is being led now by Mahmoud Abbas. Because they considered the PLO their main enemy, they believed that any enemy of the PLO would be a friend of Israel. Under occupation, you cannot have any real political activity. Any political activity in the Occupied Territories was completely forbidden. You went to prison for any kind of political activity, except that you could not close the mosques. So Islamist people who go to the mosque to pray were the only people in the Occupied Territories who could come together and plan action. And this is how—Israel did not create Hamas, but Hamas was tolerated by Israel in order to fight against Yasser Arafat and the PLO.
When the First Intifada started, the first Palestinian uprising started in 1967 [ 1987 ], the Israeli authorities very quickly realized that Hamas is more dangerous than PLO. So they made peace with the PLO, the Oslo Agreement in 1993. And the PLO today is a kind of partner of Israel, and Hamas has become the main enemy. They are much more dangerous because they are much more fanatical. They are very strongly religiously motivated. And at this moment, we have the strange situation that Israel today would like Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority—they want Mahmoud Abbas to help Israel against Hamas. This delegation, which is now conducting negotiations in Cairo for the Palestinian people, is led by Mahmoud Abbas. So, it’s a full swing. It’s a full reversal of Israeli policy. Now—
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back to the discussion with you. And we want to also ask you about that moment in 1982 when you crossed lines and you were the first Israeli Yasser Arafat ever met, when you met with Yasser Arafat. Uri Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. He started in the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization, when he was a teenager. He left there, concerned about terrorist activity, ultimately founded one of the first peace groups in Israel. He was a member of the Knesset and met with Yasser Arafat. We’ll talk all about that when we come back.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue our conversation with Uri Avnery, longtime Israeli peace activist and writer. He was born in Germany in 1923. His family fled the Nazis and moved to what was then Palestine. As a youth, he joined the Irgun Zionist paramilitary group, which he later quit to become a leading peace activist in Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1950, he founded the news magazine HaOlam HaZeh, This World. Fifteen years later, he was elected to the Knesset on a peace platform. In 1982, Uri Avnery made headlines when he crossed the lines during the Siege of Beirut to meet with Yasser Arafat. In 1993, he started the Gush Shalom peace movement. He turns 91 next month. He still writes a weekly column. Can you go back to 1982, Uri Avnery, to talk about that moment when you met with Yasser Arafat? How significant was that?
URI AVNERY: Well, to my mind, it was very significant. The situation was, in a way, similar to the present one. The PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, was considered the main enemy of Israel. It was located in South Lebanon, and the Israeli army started an invasion of Lebanon in order to destroy the PLO. It was a very cruel war, like the present one. Civilian towns and villages were shelled and bombarded. And West Beirut was surrounded by Israeli troops, like Gaza is now. And there was a debate in our political and military leadership whether to invade and conquer West Beirut. I was very much afraid of this. I thought that it would lead to a widespread slaughter, to a lot of casualties on all sides, and many, many civilians being killed. And I thought, as I think today, that in order to put an end to a war, you must talk with your enemy, look him in the eye, try to understand him, and come up with a solution.
So, during the battle of Beirut, I crossed the lines into the Palestinian territory. I met with Yasser Arafat, who was the leader of the PLO, and we had a long conversation about how to make peace. And then I went back to Israel. And we remained friends for the rest of his life. We met very often, abroad in Tunis and later when he came to Palestine, here in Palestine. I think the result of this meeting was that it helped to de-demonize the PLO. Yasser Arafat was demonized for years. He was considered a monster. When pictures of him and me appeared on Israeli television talking to each other, sitting on the same sofa, I think it—to some extent, it helped to change the picture of Arafat the monster into Arafat the enemy with whom we can make peace. And 12 years later, Israel indeed made peace with the PLO. It was a peace that was made between the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the chief of the PLO, Yasser Arafat. Unfortunately, they did not do a complete job. Many things were left open, and very soon, after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, assassinated by a Jewish assassin, we sank back into a war.
My friends and I have demanded that our government start talks with Hamas, eight years ago. We, ourselves, met with the Hamas leaders. I met with several Hamas leaders several times. I found them people with whom I don’t necessarily agree, but people with whom I can talk. I believe, even today, that we can come to an agreement with the Palestinian people, including Hamas. You cannot ignore Hamas. People have maybe—people abroad and in Israel, too, have completely distorted people what Hamas is. Hamas is not a militia. Hamas is not a military organization. Hamas is a Palestinian political party, which in the last Palestinian elections, supervised by ex-President Carter, Hamas had a majority. Majority of the Palestinian people, including the Gaza Strip, voted for Hamas. When a Palestinian government was set up by Hamas, it was destroyed by Israel and the United States and Europe. It was brought down. It was then that Hamas took over power in the Gaza Strip by force, but it took power after it won a big majority in free elections in the Gaza Strip. So it’s much more complicated than just a fight between Israel and a military or terrorist or whatever-you-want-to-call-it organization. You cannot wish Hamas away. You can do to Hamas whatever you want. You can kill all the 10,000 fighters of Hamas. But Hamas will remain, because Hamas is an ideology, and Hamas is a political party accepted by the Palestinian people. So, in the end, whatever we do, in the end, after all the killing and after all this terrible destruction, in the end, we’ll have to talk with Hamas.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Uri Avnery, do you feel that in the leadership of the Israeli government there are those who are determined never to allow a Palestinian state? Or do you think that there is enough of a leadership cadre willing to reach a fair and just peace with the Palestinians?
URI AVNERY: This government of Israel, which represents the extreme right in Israel, with some openly fascist elements in it, but supported by a majority of the Israeli people, does not want to give up the occupied territories of the West Bank and the indirectly occupied territories of Gaza. That’s the whole point. If we are ready to give up this territory and allow the Palestinians to set up their own nation and state of Palestine, then the problem is solved. There will be some discussions about details, about this part or that part, but basically the problem will be solved, and we shall have peace. But this government does not agree to give up the West Bank. It has put up there dozens of Israeli Jewish settlements. It is supporting these settlements. It’s going to put up more settlements. And if you put up settlements in the West Bank, you cannot have a Palestinian state.
The West Bank—one must realize, the West Bank and Gaza together, the Occupied Territories, altogether constitute 22 percent of the historic land of Palestine. I was a citizen of Palestine before 1948. And Palestine—of this country of Palestine, 22 percent are the Occupied Territories in which the Palestinians desire and are ready to set up their own nation and state of Palestine. The question is: Do we agree to live side by side with an independent, sovereign state of Palestine? Yes or no? If not, then every further discussion is superfluous. We shall have war, and again and again and again and again, until the end of time.
AMY GOODMAN: Uri Avnery, I want to thank you very much for being with us—I’m sorry we’ve come to the end of our show—longtime Israeli peace activist, writer, former member of the Israeli Knesset and founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, crossed lines in 1982 in the Siege of Beirut to meet with Yasser Arafat.
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