A Shade of Gray in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Dressed casually in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, with his beard and hair half grown, no one would imagine Elik Elhanan as a combatant. But, he is one — for peace.
We sat down at a Bulgarian Cafe in the Upper West Side near Columbia University. Despite his good English vocabulary, Elhanan employs a tone and strong pronunciation of specific letters that give away his Hebrew accent. Sipping tea, Elhanan spoke slowly, thinking carefully about every word.
Elhanan, who is from Jerusalem, is a professor at Community College of New York with a long history of political activism in the framework of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “As a Hegelian-Marxist, I think there is hope,” said Elhanan. He hopes the conflict doesn’t go on forever, taking such a high toll. “Logically, there’s always hope. Emotionally speaking, I feel a lot more discouraged. I feel like I don’t know what to do, what a solution would be. And I definitely don’t know how to fight for one,” said Elhanan.
Elhanan lost his 14-year old sister, Smadar, when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a street in Jerusalem in 1997. At the time, he was a soldier in the Israeli Army.
Soon after, Yitzhak Frankental, the founder of the Parents Circle Family Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization for bereaved families, invited Elhanan’s father to attend the forum. About a year later, Elhanan became involved as well. Today he is connected to the forum through his father, now the director, and brother, an active member.
Elhanan is thankful for the support the forum provides to all members. It is “a life-saving organization,” Elhanan said. He said the organization helped him go from a state of hurt, anger and disillusion to a place of aspiration for political struggle and group organization. “It’s better to fight than stay alone, angry,” said Elhanan about his transformation at the forum.
“It was a very good experience.” Elhanan said. “It was possible to do something and meet Palestinians and other people interested in doing something politically.”
Established in 1995, the forum consolidated after the Camp David accords in 1978 and following the “betrayal of the left.”. Israel’s left wing believes it is in Israel’s best interest to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as soon as possible, mostly through negotiations and concessions that will lead to peace. The betrayal refers to periods in which Israel’s government was left-wing, but leaders were not critical of the situation in the country and the region, and went with their nationalist sentiment, thus betraying people from the left who expected change.
“They [leaders] didn’t see that the Oslo agreement [the 1993 accord in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed to recognize each other] was a scam, was a lie,” said Elhanan.
Elhanan was also part of a group within the Israeli army referred as refusnikim. They refuse to serve in the army and are opposed to Israeli intelligence gathering information on innocent civilians and using it to continue the Israeli occupation of territories belonging to the Palestinians.
There are no specific terms for refusnikim, some might refuse to serve during their mandatory service and others as reservists. Elhanan refused to be a reservist after he had completed his mandatory service.
With his experiences from Parents Circle and as a refusnik, Elhanan became more politically active while studying as an undergrad in France. There he got involved in French anti-racist movements.
As he evolved in the field of activism, he had the opportunity to create an organization with other activists called “Combatants for Peace,” made up of Palestinians and Israelis who took part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as soldiers in the Israeli Army or Palestinian combatants fighting to free their country. They now work on the ground, opposing Israeli military rule and promoting bi-national non-violent interaction.
In spite of living in a complex political situation, most Israelis aren’t involved in activism. The ongoing conflict and politics have made it easy to accept the status quo and hard to change it. According to Elhanan, Israelis “need to pick a side:either you are against or for the occupation.” He believes that remaining silent and inactive hurts more than it helps.
“There are many things people can do to help,” said Elhanan. The first step is embrace harsh criticism, and recognize the major problems within Israeli society: “racism and Israeli colonialist mentality.”
According to Elhanan, this same mentality does not allow Israelis to hear the Palestinian point of view even within activist and opposition groups, “Twenty percent of the population are Palestinians; they are not going to disappear. We need to learn how to talk to them,” said Elhanan.
Internal issues are not exclusive to Israel, according to Elhanan. One of the major problems with the Palestinians is the question of organization, corruption, mobilization and internal division.
“To be frank, there is a lack of vision for a strategy on how to end the occupation.”
He said the same scenario happens with the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, where supporters want to boycott Israel, but there is no plan, no long-term vision for what should happen after achieving their goal. Elhanan asserts there is a lack of political vision that is holding back the Palestinian cause.
Within the conflict, there are two other major parties involved, the two Palestinian leading groups: Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. They are key players in the equation yet they are often absent from the discussion in the media about the Palestinian situation.
Elhanan believes that places like the forum are crucial in order to involve Palestinians in the debate. “They should talk about Hamas and Abu Mazen (President of the State of Palestine),” said Elhanan, who admitted to have little knowledge about the subject but a great interest. Palestinians “breathe and do politics all their lives… They can say things we don’t like to hear,” but surely we need to.
Elhanan believes that young people have the capacity to contribute to the solution. “The Facebook generation has shown itself to be more politically involved and engaged,” Elhanan said.
Despite the endless efforts of Elhanan and others to fight for social justice, the situation hasn’t improved. Those who strongly believe in change and are motivated by combatants like Elhanan, must live by the Spanish proverb: “Hope is the last thing to die.”