Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Other Israel

"We used the medium of animation to try to get viewers to recognize the humanity of the residents of Gaza. It is increasingly difficult to remind people that the residents of the Gaza Strip are human beings who wish to raise children, to earn a living, and realize their dreams both small and large" Sari Bashi, Executive Director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO dedicated to using the legal system to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians living under occupation.

Maybe a little known aspect of Israel is the significant debate and opposition to the policies of Occupation which emanate from within Israeli society itself. During my two years in Israel and the Occupied Territories (which includes the less mentioned Occupied Syrian territory of the Golan) I had the pleasure to work closely with several Israeli grassroot civil society organizations such as Machsom WatchBethselem, Peace Now's Settlement Watch and Gisha.

These groups, often working as volunteers and coming from all walks of life (including former IDF soldiers) advocate from a human rights perspective for better treatment of the Palestinian population, greater freedom of access to services and to halt (or at the very least seriously rethink) what one observer called "the great sin of the Occupation" - the forced accquistion of Palestinian lands (within already-Occupied areas) to build illegal settlements. 

These Israeli human rights activists often come in for serious criticism from both Israeli and Palestinian groups; on the one hand being labelled Pro-Palestinian or being accused of merely trying to salve their guilty consciences. From my experience they were always driven by genuine human rights concerns often (understandably) welded to broader considerations linked to their own experiences or notions about shaping a more inclusive and tolerant national identity for Israel. History, such as that of my own country, shows that such groups can play a crucial role in promoting tolerance, attaining real dialogue, reaching lasting political settlements and, importantly, ensuring empathy with the 'other'. 

One of the organizations I worked with regularly was Gisha, led by a dynamic and talented Israeli lawyer called Sari Bashi. The video clip in this post has been produced by Gisha with the director of the Oscar-nominated Israeli movie, Waltzing with Bashir, Yoni Goodman. It addresses the sealing off of Gaza and the dreadful pyschological and physical consequences that this strict policy of closure has had on Gaza's population over the last two years and more. 

I had the pleasure on many occassion to dine and discuss and work alongside the likes of Sari and always felt, in the warm afterglow of such experiences, that if the Arab-Israeli conflict - and particularly the unrelenting Occupation of the Palesitinian territories - had any cause for an optimisic and peaceful conclusion, it would be down to the humanity and activism of people like Sari who are not afraid to raise their heads above the parapet and speak out on behalf of those who are rarely heard.

Note: It goes without saying that there are true human rights champions on the Palestinian side of the equation as well but that is not the focus of this post. For those interested in discovering some great journalism from the Other Israel, I would recommend the book of the same name: The Other Israel - Voices of Refusal and Dissent. These voices of dissent also come in a great tradition of Israeli writers and journalists spearheaded by the likes of Ze'ev Shiff, David GrossmanGideon Levy and my personal favourite Meron Benvenisti.


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