Growing Up in the 1990s, Peace and Its Undoing
By the time I was 10 years old, I had already witnessed the signing of the first Oslo Accord and the peace treaty with Jordan. I remember the whole family sitting excitedly in front of the television screen watching the festivities on the White House lawn and from the Eilat/Aqaba border. Pictures of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking the hands of those who just a moment before had been our enemies are engraved in my brain as a model of leadership. As a child, who bore no residue or hatred from the past, it all seemed quite natural.
I knew that we had a strong state and that our leaders would do everything so that in my generation there would be no more wars and we wouldn’t have to pay a price in blood for our very existence. It was this belief that helped me cope with the horrifying terror attacks that accompanied my childhood and youth during the second intifada, when television stations would periodically interrupt programming to report on another explosion at a place of entertainment, and kids my own age appeared in the pictures of the slain on the front pages of the newspapers, every bus ride became no less than a gamble over my life. It was clear that peace was the solution.
In school they started a program called “Peace Makers,” in which we, as the older and more responsible pupils, underwent training as mediators and we settled schoolyard conflicts in non-violent ways. And I remember meetings with pupils from a nearby Arab school — encounters that were intended to reduce the fear of the other and to prepare us for the new era of peace. I played with Arab children; we hosted them in our school for the Purim holiday and visited their school. Peace seemed to be around the corner. From the speeches of the beauty queens to the winning song in the children’s song festival, the entire culture in those years echoed peace. It was clear to me that peace was the highest value we could aspire to, as a society and as a country.
Rabin’s Assassination — A National Crisis
I remember Rabin’s assassination as a national crisis. I was 11 years old. Everyone I knew mourned him, and even the president of the United States came to Israel to bid him farewell, “Shalom Haver.” It was only as years passed that I understood the assassination to be an extremist act intended to thwart the policy initiated by a leader who had majority support. Rabin’s assassination was similar to the massacre by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the terrorist attacks that followed in its wake. Except that while the terror attacks were described as a symptom of the Oslo Accords, Rabin’s assassination was described as a symptom of the internal split within Israeli society. We were taught to cope with the assassination not by means of protest, but by attempting to “heal the split,” without having a deep conversation about the factors leading to it and demanding an accounting.
The consequences of that omission soon followed: Binyamin Netanyahu, who had led the incitement against Rabin, came to power less than a year after the assassination. It would take years before the generation of the youth who lit memorial candles and cried in Rabin Square would understand the extent of the injustice that had been done to an entire political camp, the peace camp.
Netanyahu’s rise to power marked a change in the national ethos. Netanyahu energetically resumed settlement construction, disparaged Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, and changed the image of peace from a national value to a national danger. Another blow to the peace camp came with Ehud Barak’s failed Camp David 2000 Summit, immediately followed by the second intifada, which undermined what was left of the trust Rabin had built vis-à-vis Arafat. Personally, as a teenager, I didn’t delve deeply into the matter. It was too confusing and painful. And youth movement activities became more interested in reducing the gaps within Israeli society than in the country’s relationship to the Palestinian people. A year after my mandatory army service, the second Lebanon war broke out in 2006. Ending without a clear victory, it hinted that we had passed from the era of peace making to the era of wars of choice.
Childhood in the 2000s, a Generation That Never Heard About the Green Line and Never Met a Palestinian
Young people who were born only a decade after me into the Israel which followed Rabin’s assassination, were already being educated within a discourse that elevated war and denigrated peace. Today, when I meet with teenagers and students, I hear a lack of belief in the chance for peace in the case of the older ones, and complete indifference to the subject among the younger ones.
The educational system today is different from what I experienced as a child. On the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, Israeli pupils learn that Rabin was assassinated because of divisions within the nation, and they are encouraged to conclude that divisions should be settled non-violently. They don’t learn that what motivated the extremists who chose violence was Rabin’s willingness to talk to the enemy and for territorial compromise. And today’s pupils are taught about the 2005 Gaza disengagement as an internal event concerning Jewish society in Israel, and not as a political/security decision that also had repercussions for the Palestinian side. School
principals who attempt to arrange meetings between Jewish and Arab pupils risk severe criticism. By contrast, if they initiate activities that encourage army service, they earn respect and prestige.
Israel’s historic peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are barely taught in the educational system. On the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, the Ministry of Education didn’t even bother to disseminate relevant lesson plans. At Peace Now we produced a short film describing the history of relations between Israel and Egypt and the brave act that led Begin to sign the peace agreement and withdraw from Sinai. Teachers and parents active in the movement created lesson plans in order to fill the vacuum left by the Ministry of Education. We approached hundreds of schools and suggested commemorating the peace to principals and teachers. Teachers who chose to dedicate a lesson to the subject reported that there were children who were surprised to discover that we once made peace with the Arabs.
From a country that celebrated peace and educated youth to aspire to peace, right-wing governments have returned us to an ethos that sees compromise as weakness and the "other" as an eternal enemy. This is an ethos which sanctifies war and prioritizes the connection to the land over human lives.
A Generation That Hears Monolithic Messages
Youth who serve in the army today spent all of their formative school years under governments led by Netanyahu over the last 12 years. They do not know a different leadership and are unable to imagine an alternative. They don’t perceive peace negotiations as a realistic possibility because they have never known a leadership whose hand was outstretched toward peace. The slogans used by Netanyahu and right-wing cabinet ministers such as “decisive victory” or “peace through strength” fall on fertile ground despite the fact that history shows that peace agreements achieve much more stability and security than repeated military operations.
Alongside the reinforced political ignorance, Netanyahu and his right-wing ministers have worked hard to incite against and delegitimize Arabs and those who view them as human beings with equal rights, in other words 'the Left.' Years of right wing government have also cemented these messages in the mainstream media, which have turned them into a kind of consensus. The success of the process of delegitimization has created a situation where, unfortunately, large segments of the opposition in Israel try to escape the battered image of the left, and in an attempt to regain favor with the public present themselves as right-wing hawks and adopt this terminology instead of challenging it. The result is a generation that hears monolithic messages and does not recognize peace as a political aim but, at best, an unreachable dream.
The generation that was born 10 or more years after me, finds it difficult to believe that there is an occupation at all. No Green Line appears on the maps hanging on classroom walls, or even on the maps of the weather forecasters on the evening news. Netanyahu and spokespeople for the rightwing camp describe “the Arabs” on both sides of the Green Line in exactly the same way, without being required to differentiate between citizens of the state and those who are not citizens of the state. All of them are presented as dangerous enemies or, in the best instance, as ungrateful subjects. As a result, the conflict appears to be solely a matter of identity, lacking any rationale for coping with it.
Netanyahu exchanged the striving for peace with “conflict management,” in a way that allows Israel to control territory while at the same time minimizing the cost in blood of that control. Thus, the only Israelis who actually feel the existence of another nation with whom Israel is in conflict (and is occupying) are the soldiers who maintain the occupation and a minority among the settlers. The Separation Wall helps most Israelis to forget the existence of the Palestinians, and the bypass roads, which enable access to even the most isolated settlements without encountering any Palestinians along the way, have greatly reduced the friction. The average Israeli, who neither lives nor serves in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), is liable not to notice that there is a conflict at all. And when you don’t feel a conflict, you're in no hurry to resolve it. Thus, while the younger generation has been spared the dramatic events which shaped my youth, they have also been denied the possibility of imagining a conflict-free reality.
As long as the cost of Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors remains relatively low, the urgency of peace declines and with it the public's readiness to agree to painful compromises. But there is no conflict or occupation without cost, and as the years go by Israeli society is paying a heavy price in terms of its democracy. Under cover of the relative quiet, and with the diversion of public attention to Iran and Hizbullah, the settlement enterprise in the West Bank has thrived under Netanyahu’s reign, fueled by public money and a systematic blind eye toward the settlers’ lawlessness, which is often accompanied by physical violence toward their Palestinian neighbors. The system of illegal outposts has become the main channel for the establishment of new settlements in the West Bank, in the absence of official policy and without any public discussion.
The ongoing moral support for this lawlessness has established a corrupt criminal alliance between Netanyahu and the most extremist settlers, including the Kahanists, who in the past were taboo within Likud circles. The Likud Party, whose representatives used to leave the Knesset plenum in protest when Meir Kahane rose to speak, has today formed a Knesset alliance with his followers. The blurring of the Green Line has led to the blurring of red lines concerning Israeli state institutions and democracy, and this applies not only to red lines in the relations between the occupier and the occupied. The extremist Israeli right, influenced by the American right, combines its messianic vision with other fundamentalist values such as the exclusion of women, LGBTQ hatred and the suppression of civil protest, and creates antagonism among the younger generation as well. Thus, even those who have not personally suffered from the cost of the conflict are terrified in the face of the destructive potential of fundamentalism in Israeli politics.
The Younger Generation Suffers from Disinformation, but not from Insensitivity
My experiences as a child and teenager helped to create in me a sense of urgency and mission to change reality and to complete the peace process. One of the focus areas of my work today at Peace Now is to fill the vacuum left by the educational system in the generation born after Rabin’s assassination. In conversations with high school students and participants in pre-military programs, I explain to them that the Oslo process was never completed, but that Israel has also never withdrawn from the interim agreements which accord it control over most of the OPT without taking responsibility for the inhabitants. While these young people have, of course, no idea where the Green Line is located, they are disturbed by the vision of a country which grants differential rights on an ethnic basis to the residents of the territories beyond it.
The gap between the seriousness of the political issues and their inaccessibility via the educational system or media is almost inconceivable. We live in a time when the Israeli media doesn't rush to report the establishment of a new outpost or violent attacks by settlers on their Palestinian neighbors, so we have to do it ourselves. One of the major tasks of the Israeli peace camp today is to bring the very existence of the occupation and its social and moral cost to public awareness.
Despite the Separation Wall and the bypass roads, we have to organize personal and Internet meetings between young Israelis and Palestinians. Despite the distortion of the narrative and the delegitimizing of opposition to the occupation, we have to tell the younger generation about the historical peace agreements and make the Palestinian voice accessible. In the face of governments that send students to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, we have to take groups to see the closed shops on Shuhada Street. In the face of government budgets allocated to educational tours in “The City of David,” we have to make the voices of the Palestinian families expelled from their homes in Silwan heard. The principle is not new, but the ever-changing reality creates new possibilities to apply it. If in the past we were able to take a few dozen participants on our tours of the West Bank, today we take hundreds and thousands on our virtual tours. If in the past exposing the injustices of the occupation was the almost exclusive domain of the established media, today uncensored on-site photos and testimonies are immediately disseminated on social media. In fact, a large part of
Peace Now’s activity is devoted to social media and to making information accessible to the public in alternative ways, knowing that if we insist and persevere, the media and the politicians will be forced to take note and respond. Moreover, the information revolution creates varied possibilities for informal leadership which is more accessible to the younger generation and which fashions reality for them no less than the established leadership.
The Impact of the Information Revolution
We live in the age of the information revolution and the challenge to regime narratives, which enables exposure to global movements rising up against various types of repression. Along with fake news and incitement, every teenager is today able to follow bloggers and independent journalists, Internet celebrities, and opinion leaders who defend the weak and oppressed and champion individual freedom.
While it is not always easy to move from the “town square” of the Internet to the real town square, the accessibility of information about protests all over the world helps, and it breaks through limitations of consciousness, despite efforts by the government to engineer consciousness and incite against anyone criticizing its policies. Last year the younger generation rose up and joined the struggle for Israeli democracy.
The generation which was educated to obedience and indifference got slapped in the face by a prime minister who ignored their needs and preferred, at all costs, to cling to his office and escape his trial, and at last poured into the streets. The street protests created a head-on collision with the results of Netanyahu’s incitement against anyone daring to oppose him. This loss of faith in his leadership has opened the doorway to questions not previously asked and to grave doubts about Netanyahu’s path and the corruption of legal and social norms in Israel today. The experience of the violent suppression of the protests has enabled strong populations in Israel to identify with weaker groups whose nonviolent protests are brutally suppressed. And global movements like Black Lives Matter shed a different light on the suppression of civil protests by means of legislation and police violence.
There's No Such Thing as Democracy with Occupation
In 2020, it seemed as if the entire world had stopped behaving as usual, but Peace Now’s Settlement Watch statistics show that construction in the OPT, the takeover of Palestinian land, and the creeping annexation didn’t stop for a moment. And settler organizations accelerated their takeover of East Jerusalem neighborhoods at the expense of their Palestinian inhabitants. Against a backdrop of legal discrimination and the joining of forces between settler organizations and government bodies, today hundreds of families from Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah are in danger of being expelled from their homes to make way for settler populations.
We waged the struggle over Silwan on social media, while at the same time working to build trust and sharpen our messages to the anti-corruption and pro-democracy protesters. In 2021, a year after the outbreak of the COVID crisis, we took hundreds of Israelis to Silwan to protest shoulderto-shoulder with the Palestinian inhabitants against their expulsion. Young Israelis who had never visited East Jerusalem and had never spoken to Palestinians found themselves learning protest slogans in Arabic. Young Palestinians whose protests always ended in violent clashes with the police and border patrol, found themselves marching in the middle of the road the police had cleared for us, singing and drumming to their hearts’ content. And so, we marched, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians together, excited and full of anger and hope, all the way from Silwan to the prime minister’s residence — that same prime minister over whom the residents of East Jerusalem have no influence whatsoever but in whose hands rests almost absolute power to influence the reality of their lives.
The temptation to maintain the occupation, and to ignore it at the same time, is great. The media continues to tell us about cheap real estate in the settlements and attractive nature and heritage sites beyond the Green Line; and ignores the millions of Palestinians living there. But it will not be easy to fool the younger generation. More and more young people already understand that there is no democracy with occupation, and that even if we don’t pay the cost of the conflict with our blood, we will pay it with the image of Israeli society.