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Israeli peace activist Miko Peled, in conversation

USA PoliticsMiddle EastWar Zones

This article was orignally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that there will be peace in my lifetime.”

For Miko Peled, an Israeli peace activist, a one-state solution is inevitable. For years he has been speaking around the world, advocating for a single, democratic state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s not common to hear this coming from a man who grew up in a prominent Zionist family. Peled’s grandfather signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 and his father was a Major General in the Israel Defense Forces who fought in several wars. Peled was raised not to question the Jewish state or its discrimination against Palestinians.

After the Israeli Cabinet ignored his father’s investigation of a 1967 Israeli war crime, his father became a leading advocate for an Israeli dialogue with the PLO and for the complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. He was shunned for his activism and proposal for a two-state solution.

Peled followed in his father’s footsteps. He trained with the Israel Special Forces, but appalled by what he saw, surrendered his status soon after he earned it.

Years later in 1997, his 13-year-old niece was killed in a suicide attack in Jerusalem; his sister Nurit insisted the tragedy was a consequence of the occupation. It’s at this moment when Peled began to seriously examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dedicate his life to activism.

Last year he published his book The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, whichexplains the myths and misconceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With an expected Palestinian majority in Israel by 2020, Peled says the apartheid wall will have to come down.

I caught up with Miko Peled just before his Toronto lecture on a warm October day where he explained what it will take to form a one-state solution, what it was like to serve in the Israel Special Forces, and how despite the mainstream media’s statements, Israel has never been under threat.

You’ve been speaking at many events in the West, but not in Israel. You’ve said previously your book isn’t promoted in Israel, it’s not sold in bookshops, Israelis are ignoring it. How do you think it’s possible to create a one-state democracy when Israelis don’t even want to hear about this proposal?

Israel is one state and it governs the entire country. A lot of people think that there’s a Palestine and an Israel and they’re at war. Israel and Palestine are two names for the exact same country. Even though the communities are completely segregated, they’re very close to each other. Everybody is governed by the same government. Except, the Palestinians don’t get to participate in the process. They’re deprived of rights, water, land; they get shot, killed; they’re thrown in prison.

So it’s one state already and it’s always going to be a one state. The question is- is it going to continue to be like this? Which is what Israel wants and Israel supporters are fine to have it continue. Or if people feel that it’s wrong and there needs to be justice towards everybody who lives there, then we have to fight to transform it into a democracy.

That’s how the world got behind the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and that’s how apartheid fell. The Israelis don’t need to like it; they don’t need to know about it; they don’t need to agree. Whites in South Africa, or whites in the United States in the south, they didn’t agree to end racism. If they agreed, it wouldn’t be a problem. People never agree to give up their privileges. But the world rallied around it, people rallied around it, and apartheid fell in South Africa. That’s how it happens.

So, I don’t think it matters whether Israelis know about it or not, or agree to it or not. They’re going to wake up one morning and there’s going to be a new reality. I think the world is already rallying behind this idea that Palestinians should also have rights, that their rights should be respected.

What will it take to create a single, democratic state?

It’s not easy. You have to rally around the idea, you have to protest, you have to make sure politicians listen; there has to be a strong pressure applied on Israel. You may have heard of BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement on Israel]. More and more people have to realize that there’s a terrible tragedy being perpetuated there by Israel.

The other aspect is that we have 6.5 million Israelis, 6 million Palestinians. In the next five to seven years there’s going to be a majority Palestinian population. So how much longer is it sustainable to keep people without rights who count for half or over half of the population in a small country? It’s not sustainable.

Something is going to happen anyway so we need to help that thing to happen. I think this transformation into democracy is inevitable where it’s going to require the world to apply pressure on Israel and of course the reality on the ground is going to be contributing to it as well.

Whenever Gaza is under attack (or any region with a Muslim majority), we always hear on the mainstream media how Israel has the right to defend itself, that it’s under existential threat from surrounding countries or from groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. How much of a threat do you think these groups pose to Israel?

Zero. Israel is not under threat; it’s never been under threat. It’s got the biggest army in the region; it’s the biggest bully around.

Hamas and Hezbollah are resistance movements. Resistance movements act as a response to something, as a response to oppression, as a resistance to occupation. They’re not initiating the violence; they’re responding to the violence and fighting back.

To be fair to the Palestinians, the vast majority of Palestinian resistance has always been unarmed resistance; it’s just that the violent, armed resistance always gets all the attention.

But of course there’s going to be resistance- who wouldn’t fight back? What are they going to do, just sit there and let planes drop bombs on them and nobody’s going to do anything? Is it realistic? Almost two million people who live under such horrific conditions and there won’t be any armed resistance, there won’t be any response at all? It’s stupid to think that away.

If Israel wants the rockets to stop being fired at them from Gaza, then they need to end the oppression and give them the freedom. It’s all in the hands of Israel. If Israel doesn’t want to fight Hezbollah, then it knows what to do.

In the past 5-7 years we’ve seen news concerning Israel shift from Palestine to Iran. Yesterday Obama announced Iran is a year away from building a nuclear bomb. In September 2012 Netanyahu demonstrated with his bomb caricature at the UN that Iran will be able to build a nuclear bomb by June 2013. June came and passed- nothing happened. Many deadlines like this were made and amounted to nothing. What do u think of Iran and the ‘nuclear problem’? Do u think it’s a threat?

No, not at all; it’s not a threat. When I think about Iran, I think of 75 million Iranians that have to suffer these horrible sanctions that have been imposed on them. They occupied no one; they attacked no one. I’m thinking of the same 75 million Iranians that have to worry everyday if an Israeli fighter jet is going to come and start bombing them, once again for no reason at all. They’ve done nothing; they’ve threatened no one. I don’t think they’re capable, and I don’t think they’re interested; Iran doesn’t have a nuclear bomb and Israel does. The whole issue was brought up as a smokescreen to divert attention from what Israel does in Gaza and other parts of Palestine.

I remember last October [before Israeli elections] people were asking me, ‘Will Israel attack? Will there be an October surprise?’ I said, ‘Of course they’re not going to attack. Why would they attack?’ Israel needs the issue. It’s politics. If they have the issue, it’s like you said, from time to time, they climb up on the tree and say, Iran’s going to do this and Iran’s going to do that. And when it’s over, they come down off the tree, life goes on and nothing happens. And once again they climb up the tree and they start shouting Iran, Iran, Iran.

But there is no threat. Israel has got nothing to gain by attacking and everything to gain by keeping the issue alive, which is exactly what it’s doing.

Since October 1973 the U.S. has been providing Israel far more money than any other country in the world. The U.S. provides Israel $8.5 million in military aid everyday despite the fact that Israel is a wealthy, industrial state, a First World country, with high human development and some of the world’s best universities. Why do you think this is?

I wish I knew. I think that’s the million-dollar question. I think a lot of the fact has to do with Americans. They’re so ill informed that they don’t even know where their money is going. They think it’s going to support the Jewish state, it’s under threat, we’re saving the poor Jews and all this nonsense. Considering that Americans pay more money than any other country to Israel, it’s amazing how little they know. It’s tragic. It’s pathetic really.

On top of that you have a really strong Israeli lobby that influences American politics. It’s a very effective lobby. No American politician would dare suggest not to support Israel, would dare suggest reducing even by a penny the foreign aid, suggest to stop selling Israel weapons, even though Israel doesn’t need the money or the weapons. It’s not under threat. This is the absurd reality.

The only thing left is for grassroots movements to get up and start asking these questions. You’re going see this in Toronto too pretty soon, you can go and see it in America, it may already have happened in Vancouver, where they have billboards and posters on public transportation educating people about this issue.

People need to be informed. Canadians need to know, what it is that their government is supporting. The Canadian government is supporting Israel whole-heartedly 110% Why? It’s making Canadians look bad and I would encourage Canadians to get informed and get behind this cause of changing the regime in Israel and creating a real democracy.

One myth that you expose is about the 1967 war. You state Israel didn’t go to war because they were under existential threat, rather that it was a war of choice. What exactly happened?

The Military High Command wanted the civilian governments to approve a pre-emptive strike [against Egypt] and they were hesitating. As the military was giving out information, they kept saying that Israel is under an existential threat, we have to wait, we can’t attack now, we have to wait for politicians to decide, but the existential threat remains. This was the message coming out of the military. Israelis really thought the Arabs were going to come kill us like the Nazis did. I remember as a kid there was this fear, that the Arabs are going to come kill us, they’re going to come in our house and slaughter all of us.

Of course the war passed quickly. Then in order to justify keeping the territories that were conquered and occupied [Gaza, West Bank, Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula], they brought this back, and they said Israel can’t give back the territories, Israel has to be strong, Israel needs it because Israel is always under existential threat.

This feeling of existential threat is kept alive all the time in order to justify keeping territories, to justify the mistreatment of Palestinians, the ongoing militarization of Israel as a state and as a society, it’s always there in order to justify what Israel is doing. There’s this constant message- they’re trying to kill us, they all want to kill us. So it’s being used like that.

But both my dad and other generals later on said, there was no existential threat, it’s a joke, anybody could see there was no threat. This was a war of choice. And that’s the choice we made to go to war.

What did you observe while serving in the Israel Special Forces that made you question Israel’s policies?

Little by little I saw things that didn’t make sense to me. For example, there are lots of long marches at night. The base is in the West Bank by Palestinian villages and on Palestinian land. At night when we would march, we would trample over crops. I would think, why are we trampling over these crops? These are crops! The next morning some farmer is going to get up and his crops are going to be destroyed. I remember trying to say something and of course you’re told to shut up and keep walking.

Then, we would patrol Palestinian cities. We were given batons and handcuffs. We’re a combat unit, infantry unit- why do we need batons and handcuffs? What are we, cops? The directions we were given were: we were supposed to patrol the streets, just walk up and down the streets, not do anything in particular, but if anybody so much as looks at us, you break every bone in their body. You smash the hell out of them.

Now imagine the city- just a normal city, streets, cars, people, shops. Suddenly twenty soldiers, combat soldiers in full gear are marching up and down the street. Can you imagine there would be anyone who wouldn’t look at us? So are we supposed to beat everyone up? What a weird thing to say.

Little by little I realized this is not what I signed up for. This is not what I thought we were going to do. We are really a part of this occupation thing; we aren’t soldiers.

If you had known when you were younger what you know now, would you have still joined the Israel Special Forces?

When I was 18, if I knew what I know now, there is absolutely no way in the world that I would have set foot, that I would have worn the uniform for one day.

It’s interesting that I didn’t know; it’s almost strange to me. You get indoctrinated into a certain narrative. There was never any talk. Even though my family was progressive on this issue, the progressiveness remained within the Zionist parameters, which is typical for liberal Israelis.

Nobody discussed what happened in 1948, beyond saying that it was an act of heroism, and that the Jewish state was created. And all the other wars that took place after that, nobody questioned the actual Zionist narrative, nobody went beyond those parameters, which is something that I did. Even in my family the parameters were kept pretty clear as to where the discussion was going to go.

If Netanyahu or Zionists were listening to you right now, what would you tell them?

That’s easy. I would tell them that when we all get old or older, and our children and grandchildren will ask us where we stood on this issue, people are going to be ashamed to say they did not support the Palestinian cause. Very ashamed.

If you talk to people in Canada and ask them did they participate in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, nobody will say, ‘no, we supported the Afrikaners, we supported apartheid,’ although many people did. The struggle to end apartheid was very tough and I hear this from a lot of activists who participated. A lot of people in the West supported apartheid, didn’t want it to end. Presidents and Prime Ministers, but you’re not going to get anybody admitting it today. In Germany today, you’re not going to find a single person who was a Nazi. Nobody will say ‘yeah, my grandfather was a Nazi and I’m proud of it.’

You want to be able to tell your grandchildren that you were on the right side of justice, that you were on the right side of an issue. There’s nobody that’s involved in this issue that doesn’t know which side is the right side, which side is the side of justice. It’s absolutely clear. Yet people like Netanyahu and people who support the state of Israel choose to be on the wrong side, they choose to be on the side of the oppressors, on the side that violates human rights, that kills children, that denies people water even though they live in the desert, people who throw excrement into wells and block people from their land and from their water sources.

Are they going to be proud to say that to their grandkids one day? All of this today sounds like, ‘wow, we’ve never heard of this.’ But in twenty years everyone is going to know this; it’s going to be common knowledge.

Mersiha Gadzo is a Toronto-based multimedia journalist with interests in global politics, human rights and social justice issues. View more of Mersiha’s work HERE.

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