“If you have come here to hear a balanced opinion, you won’t get one. A balanced opinion is not possible because this is not a balanced issue.”
So began a lecture by Israeli-American activist and author Miko Peled at the University of Washington in October, sponsored by Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights. He spoke to an overflowing lecture hall, where, along with discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he shared some of his life story.
Born into a famous Israeli military family, his grandfather was a Zionist leader and signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. His father was an officer in the 1948 war and a general in the 1967 war, when Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Like most young Israelis, Peled served in the military. After his service, he traveled the world, became an accomplished karate master and teacher, and raised a family in Southern California. Then, in 1997, he answered the phone to receive horrible news: His 13-year-old niece had been killed in a suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem. Processing this tragedy, he knew that without a resolution of the conflict, violence would claim the lives of many more children, both Israeli and Palestinian.
He attended a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group in Southern California and heard similar stories of loss from Palestinians unable to return to the land they called home. He realized that to end the conflict, it was necessary to end the separation between people. He recounts his life and this discovery in “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine” (Just World Books, $20).
Some who attended the lecture knew the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; others were there simply to better understand a complex topic that permeates news headlines, even today. For the past two years, the Palestinian Authority has refused to negotiate in peace talks unless the Israeli government halts its illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Israel that continued settlement expansion would undermine peace efforts, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government still announced plans to build 1,300 new homes in East Jerusalem. This month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will try obtain U.N. statehood for Palestine. The U.S. vetoed an earlier bid last year, but this time the U.S. has no veto power. Success could give the Palestinian Authority the ability to bring Israel in front of the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes.
Many Palestinians and Israelis argue that the expanding settler population makes it impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state. More than 500,000 Israelis have moved to the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in 1967. Even as the United States has condemned Israel’s expanded settlement activity, it has also pledged unwavering support for the nation: The Obama administration will provide $3.1 billion in military aid for Israel in 2013.
In discussing these issues, Peled does not pretend to have a balanced opinion, but he does have a very interesting viewpoint. He shared it after the UW lecture, in a crowded café in the University District. There, he spoke about the contentious nature of naming historical conflicts, the racial implications of segregating communities and the process of re-learning the history of his family and his homeland.
Your book challenges many of the common myths associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What are some of these myths?
Well, the first one — the biggest one — is the myth that Israel is a democracy and somehow an enlightened state. It’s not: It’s an apartheid state. It has different laws for different types of people. If you’re an Israeli Jew, you have all the rights and privileges. If you’re an Israeli-Palestinian, you’re a third-class citizen. And if you’re a Palestinian in the West Bank or Gaza, you have no citizenship, and you’re at the mercy of the Israeli army. There is no democracy in Israel. That’s a myth.
Who was your father, and what did he represent?
My father was General Matti Peled. As a young man he was a staunch Zionist. He believed firmly in the rights of the Jewish people to have a state in the land of Israel, which is in fact Palestine. He joined the Zionist militia when he was still in high school. In 1948 he participated in the war as an officer. Once Israel was established, the militia became the Israeli army, and he served for another 25 years. He retired as a general after the 1967 war. After the war was over, he became a peace activist and advocated for a Palestinian state and equal rights for Palestinians. That was his legacy.
You have written and spoken about the history of the 1948 and 1967 wars, two important events in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What happened in those years?
In 1948, Zionist forces conquered almost 80 percent of Palestine and then conducted a mass ethnic cleansing campaign. The state of Israel then built homes and cities and towns for Israelis, excluding the Palestinians from any of the development. In 1967, Israel completed the job by conquering the West Bank and Gaza and conducting more ethnic cleansing. Once again, cities and towns for Israelis were built on Palestinian land. The master narrative is always that Israel was attacked, that there was some kind of existential threat, but that’s just not true.
After commanding the Israeli army in the 1967 war, your father became very critical of the Israeli government. He said that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “would destroy the moral fiber of Israeli society and would have disastrous and demoralizing results.”
Yes. At the end of the war, he stood up while still in uniform and said that. He said that if we didn’t give up the West Bank and Gaza and live in peace, we would be occupiers, and occupiers become corrupt. It’s inevitable, because the people you occupy will resist. So then you have to quell the resistance and then your army becomes an army of occupation, a brutal army of occupation. Unfortunately, his words fell on deaf ears.
Like many young Israelis, you served in the military. Did you witness anything that made you question the Israeli military’s role in the West Bank and Gaza?
When I was a combat soldier and they sent our patrols to Ramallah and Jerusalem, they gave us batons and handcuffs. We were an infantry unit, so I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why we needed batons. I remember one of the officers saying that if anybody so much as looks at us, to use those batons to break every bone in their body. I thought, “Why? How are they not going to look at us? We’re in the middle of a city, and we’re soldiers, fully armed soldiers. How is anybody not going to look at us?” I couldn’t understand why we were there, why we needed handcuffs. Eventually it dawned on me that there was an occupation and that we were policing for this occupation.
In 1997, your niece Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem when she was 13. After the bombing, your sister blamed the policies of the Israeli government, saying that her daughter was “sacrificed for the Israeli government’s megalomania.”
When something like that happens, you really don’t know what to think. My sister helped set me on the right path. I found a dialogue group with Palestinians while I was living in Southern California. My path became connecting with Palestinians and hearing their stories.
How old were you when you first met a Palestinian?
And you’re from [the shared city of] Jerusalem?
Yes. You know, there’s this image of Jerusalem, that it’s a united, multicultural city. It is multicultural, but it’s completely segregated. It’s a racist city, and there’s a lot of discrimination. So if you’re an Israeli boy growing up, you go to school, but you never meet Palestinians. You never see Palestinians. You know, they could be on the moon. If you do see them, they are in marketplaces or working as laborers. So the first time I really met Palestinians was in San Diego.
And you met them during dialogue groups. What did you learn from this experience?
Well, if you want dialogue to work, there’s a point you have to cross, the point where trust replaces fear. I had to replace my fear with trust. The Palestinians I spent time with in these groups were very nurturing and generous. [I learned that] the fear was not so much of the people: Really, the fear was learning the horrific truth. As I listened, I learned about what we did — not from a book or from a political statement or a speech, but from people just sitting like this and telling their story, not intending to convince anyone and not intending to accuse anyone. That’s the power of dialogue.
In your conversations with Palestinians, you learned more about the 1948 war, an event that Palestinians commonly refer to as “The Nakba” [The Catastrophe].
Israel’s master narrative tells that the Arabs attacked the Jewish community, and then the Jewish community miraculously and heroically defended itself. There was a United Nations resolution in 1947, but as soon as the resolution was accepted by [the establishment that would become the of Israel], the Zionist forces began a massive assault on the Palestinian towns and began a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing. When you talk to Palestinians from that generation, they will tell you that they had no idea this was coming. They had no intention of war, they had no preparation for war, they had no military force. So where are these Arabs they keep saying attacked Israel? Who are they? Where are they from? It’s all a big lie. That was the beginning of the end of Palestine, so that’s why [Palestinians] call it “The Catastrophe.”
What was it like for you to learn about this?
It was absolutely horrific. I don’t know how to describe it. I wasn’t only proud of being an Israeli, I was proud of being an Israeli with pedigree. My grandfather’s name is on the Declaration of Independence, you know. It was pretty hard, and it took a long time to process.
In the dialogue groups, you learned that truth is often revealed through personal stories. Does your family have any?
One story that my mother has told me: She actually refused to take the home of a Palestinian. She told me what their neighborhoods were like when she was a child in Jerusalem. She would walk around Palestinian neighborhoods, past beautiful homes with gardens, and families would sit outside. Then, in 1948, they were all thrown out, and their homes were made available to Israelis. She was offered [a chance] to live in one of these homes. She couldn’t reconcile this. Her actual words were, “How could I live in the home of another mother?” the mother being the one who cooks, who prepares and takes care of the children and who makes the house a home. She just couldn’t do it. She felt terrible shame, and still does, for the people who did take homes and who looted the furniture and the rugs and all the beautiful things that they had.
Some Palestinians still have keys to those homes?
Yes, many do. Some still have the deeds.
In recent years you have participated in nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation alongside Palestinians. What has this experience been like?
It’s been shocking. I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine, a Palestinian-Israeli who is in his sixties and teaches Arabic in Jerusalem, joined me on a trip to Bil’in [a Palestinian village near the city of Ramallah]. It was after evening prayers, and the townspeople were holding a peaceful march to protest the separation wall. We joined the march, and all of a sudden there was tear gas everywhere. No warning. My friend was in total shock. He couldn’t believe [the Israeli army] would just shoot! We’re not talking about a canister or two: It’s like gazillions, and this whole thing suddenly becomes this white smoke, and it hurts! It’s really shocking. The soldiers just shoot from the other side of the wall [that separates Israelis and Palestinians]. Sometimes they shoot tear gas; sometimes they shoot bullets.
They shoot bullets at a demonstration?
They’re rubber-coated bullets. They’re metal bullets, but they’re covered in rubber. If one of those things hits you, and you’re close enough, you’re going to die. No question. The violence is brutal and scary and in your face.
Has this reality deterred Palestinians from being dedicated to nonviolent protest?
No, it hasn’t. They will not be moved; they will never change. They’ll never give up nonviolence because it’s a principle for them. They get arrested, they go to jail, and they’re back marching the following week.
Why haven’t peace talks worked?
Sounds like the title of a semester-long seminar.
Well, peace talks haven’t worked because Israel has never wanted peace. Peace was never an objective of Israel or the Zionist movement. Israel wanted to achieve surrender. I think the prospects for peace are great, but it has to be within a different paradigm. It’s not going to be a peace with Israel. It’s going to be a peace without Israel.
What do you mean?
Israel can never be part of a peaceful solution because Israel doesn’t want a peaceful solution: They want it all. The only way for there to be peace is for there not to be an Israel.
Yes. Not through violence, but through a transformation of the state of Israel from a racist state to a democracy. That’s how you create peace: through human rights, civil rights and equal rights.
Is a shared homeland possible?
A shared homeland is what we have. The question is, “Is a shared state possible?” Of course it’s very possible. It’s going to mean getting rid of a racist regime, just like they got rid of [South African] apartheid. Until everybody gets to share the land — everybody gets to share in the decision-making process and in the governing process — there will be no peace.