"I am appalled by the hard-heartedness"

Israeli peace activist and former director of the Sulha Peace Project Yoav Peck
"Changing the racist paradigm will take generations. But none of this can begin while people are still dying," says Yoav Peck (image: Voices for Peace/Wordpress.com)

Peace activist and former Sulha Peace Project director Yoav Peck talks about the Gaza war, the hardening of the fronts in Israel – and his vision for the future

Interview by Marian Brehmer

Mr. Peck, what has been your experience of the past seven months? 

Yoav Peck: The beginning was total shock. I was convinced we had to respond militarily. The horror of the Hamas attack and the total failure of Israel to protect our people simply devastated me. After two weeks, it became clear that Israel was about to enter into Gaza with troops. I was very fearful that what would happen is, in fact, what has happened that Israel would sink into a terrible morass, that we would go into Gaza for a fifth major offensive, and that it would only take us further from any chance of a peace settlement. I began opposing the war very early on, when even my liberal friends were still on the fence. Now I am deeply worried that we will not find our way through this to any resolution that will work for both sides

All international warnings to the contrary, Israel has embarked on its ground offensive in Rafah. How is the atmosphere in the country right now? 

Peck: We're split. Some Israelis continue to push for "total victory over Hamas" and support the military operations in Rafah. Many others, and not only liberals and leftists, are convinced that the invasion of Rafah is just pushing us further from a negotiated agreement. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent Gazans continues. The atmosphere is grim, very grim. Many Israelis are in despair, while others are planning to leave the country. Most Israelis believe freeing the hostages should take priority over military “success” – as if that were possible. An increasing number now regard the deaths of over 600 soldiers as having been in vain.

"An increasing number of Israelis now regard the deaths of over 600 soldiers as having been in vain"

How have your friends from the "Sulha Peace Project" workshops been affected by the war? 

Peck: I still attend Sulha gatherings, despite the fact I no longer work for the organisation. All permits for West Bank Palestinians were cancelled prior to 7 October, owing to the Jewish religious holidays. Our West Bank colleagues cannot enter. Sulha has held meetings with East Jerusalem Palestinians and Israelis, and there is still hope that such events continue to inspire individuals. However, all their activities are cloaked in an atmosphere of despair – especially since many Palestinian Sulha associates have family in Gaza. 

Is it even possible to keep the spirit of Sulha alive?

Peck: Anyone whose spirit has been destroyed by recent events needs to check with himself or herself how rooted that spirit was in the first place. If you believe deep down in the possibility of peace, solidarity and reconciliation, no circumstance will shake this. But yes, there is renewed suspicion among some folks. Many Israelis were disappointed that our Palestinian friends did not condemn the Hamas attack on 7 October outright. 

In a recent post, you wrote: "We will never achieve peace as long as the injustice of occupation remains. Occupation soils our souls". How do your fellow Israelis react to such statements? 

Peck: Most decent Israelis – not just “peaceniks" – understand that prolonged occupation offers no future; that it is simply unsustainable. Other people believe Israel's security derives from its occupation of the West Bank and they get furious with me. In many ways, Israel and Palestine are already living under apartheid. We have separate roads, laws and courts. We have different standards for inside Israel and for the occupied Palestinian territories. Are we an apartheid state "officially"? No, but – de facto – we are already there. 

A large part of your work with Sulha has been around creating empathy through sharing personal stories. How do you explain the lack of empathy in Israel for the Palestinians?

Peck: I am appalled by the hard-heartedness I witness among many Israelis. People cannot look at Gaza without seeing the 1,400 Israeli victims killed on 7 October. Terrible as that was, that number is less than four percent of the number of Palestinians killed by us. People say “I have no space for their suffering… I am too consumed by our own." I cannot accept that. The trouble is that this trauma is ongoing. The media still publishes "Oct. 7 stories" on a daily basis. And every day, more soldiers are killed. So the October trauma is constantly being reactivated. Fifty-seven years as an occupying power have contributed to making us impervious to the Palestinians' suffering. 

"People cannot look at Gaza without seeing the 1,400 Israeli victims. That number is less than four percent of the number of Palestinians killed by us"

What have you experienced while protesting for peace over the past few months? 

Peck: Government repression is rampant. On three separate occasions, my anti-war placard has been torn from my hands by the police. I protest with the anti-occupation bloc, within the broader demonstrations that focus on the hostages' release. Right-wing Netanyahu supporters show up at every demonstration just to harass us and there has been some violence. The police are nearly always more violent than they need to be. Their boss Itamar Ben Gvir is clearly encouraging them to be tougher than necessary with demonstrators. The justification? Maintaining order. Families of Hamas hostages were even beaten by police at a recent demonstration in Tel Aviv. 

Is there any hopeful incident or anecdote that you witnessed in the past months? 

Peck: We have held some multi-faith demonstrations with Palestinian Christians and Muslims. That is heartening. I also consider it hopeful that three countries have recognised the State of Palestine, that Biden is restricting arms shipments, that an arrest warrant has been issued against Netanyahu. There must be more international pressure – intense pressure "with teeth" – that will force our government to recognise that the only path is negotiation. 

You moved to Israel more than fifty years ago. What kind of a country did you move to and what do you see now? 

Peck: Israel was a friendlier place in 1972. We were warmer to each other. Netanyahu and the occupation have made us harder, more selfish, more intolerant and racist. But there is still a nucleus of decent, wonderful Israelis whom I meet at demonstrations – they give me hope. 

Some observers see in this war an unmasking of the West and its hypocrisy when it comes to promoting human rights and democracy. Are we witnessing the deconstruction of a larger imperialist myth? 

Peck: I really hope this analysis is correct. It is possible that this disastrous period could lead to a major breakthrough. This would require replacing the Netanyahu government and taking strides to make life work for the Palestinians, which can only be to the benefit of Israel. Peace with the Palestinians would at least have some impact on Hezbollah's and Iran's motivation. 

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What vision would you like to build on from here – for Israelis and Palestinians – and how can this be achieved? 

Peck: The vision I hope we can build goes something like this: Israel and Hamas arrive as a negotiated agreement to stop the hostilities, return all the hostages and thousands of Palestinian prisoners to their homes and to plan a future of mutual benefit to all those living in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. This will be achieved by electing good leaders and mobilising the spirit of peace among regular Israelis and Palestinians. The region could become a stable model for the world to learn from – if we can only turn things around together. 

Ireland is a prime example: The Good Friday Agreement was signed 26 years ago in Northern Ireland. The people there understand that it takes many years' work to deal with the crimes and heal the victims. Changing the racist paradigm will take generations. But none of this can begin while people are still dying. Northern Ireland is not perfect, but because the people there are no longer killing each other, they are able to work at healing. As Fidel Castro said after the last shot was fired in Havana: "Now the revolution begins".

Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer

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