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Grapes, Onions and Criminalizing Peace

Once I helped stop Ariel Sharon for three hours.

Joe Lockard

Thursday, April 18 2002, 9:50 PM

Once I helped stop Ariel Sharon for three hours.

In the early winter of 1979, together with two busloads of protestors against the West Bank settlements, I traveled to the settlement of Elon Moreh, near Nablus. Someone had also arranged for a dump-truck filled with gravel to arrive with us. The truck dumped its load in the middle of the settlement's long narrow approach road; the truck was disabled; and protestors chained themselves to the truck.

No one realized in advance, but Ariel Sharon by coincidence happened to be visiting Elon Moreh at that moment. He remained there, trapped inside, and sat those hours in a black limousine visible a couple hundred meters down the road. We stood in the light rain, jubilant. Eventually the army arrived with orders to leave, and we climbed back onto the buses to return to Jerusalem. It remains my closest encounter with Ariel Sharon, although not with the policies he espouses.

Few Palestinians have that option of staging civil disobedience events, surrounded by international media and treated politely by the Israeli army, and then returning to pleasant middle-class apartments. The occupier extends a measure of protective privilege to its own citizens that it cannot afford to provide to occupied non-citizens. Recognition of that small measure of expressive privilege does not, however, provide an excuse for failing to protest injustices.

On another protest, a group of about forty Israelis was proceeding from Jerusalem to Hebron, to protest against settlement activity there. The police stopped us halfway and our response was to empty out of the bus and sit on the highway, blocking traffic. The police did not have sufficient force present to remove us. It was nearly five in the afternoon and the traffic rush of Palestinian workers returning home was in full flow. In a short time the traffic jam stretched for kilometers in each direction.

What followed next was inspirational. The Palestinian workers heard the cause of the delay, emptied out of their buses, and created their own demonstration together with ours. Possibly five thousand or more Palestinians encircled us sitting on the road and took the occasion to hold a vibrant impromptu political rally against the occupation. A Palestinian truck driver, moved by the spirit, unloaded cases of large sweet Hebron grapes to pass around through the crowd. Musa Leibowitz, an Israeli peace activist and reserve army officer, translated speeches into a loudspeaker. After several hours, with Arabic and Hebrew speeches ended and the point made, the demonstration ended peacefully.

There is no cause to romanticize such occasions. This was an encounter between Jewish students and intelligentsia who returned to comfortable lives, and Palestinian workers who faced a lifetime of economic hardship. Although that group of Jewish protestors was small, it had the power of ideas, visions of co-existence, and some degree of political competence. One of them was among those wounded by a right-wing Jewish terror attack at a peace rally two years later: Avraham Burg became the current Knesset speaker.

The police and border guards usually stood by quietly as observers at these demonstrations twenty years ago; today they are far more brutal. My daughter joined an anti-occupation demonstration at Bet Hanina last week, where the border guards attacked a peaceful demonstration. In the middle of their attack, her friend Shahar's cell phone rang. "Are you alright? Are the police guarding you well?" her worried mother asked. "Do you hear those loud explosions, mother? That's the police shooting tear gas at us!" replied her daughter. Palestinian women in nearby buildings, with considerably more experience in this line of events, threw them onions to counter-act the tear gas.

Grapes twenty years ago; onions today. The change from sweetness to bitterness serves as a metaphor for the criminalization of peace activism, for the deepened embittering of a long-bitter conflict.

The Oslo process started to articulate the vision that motivated those older protestors, a vision of co-equal and mutually-respectful societies in Israel and Palestine. It was a process that was born, lived and died under attack from political forces in both nations, forces whose demands for expansion or eradication were meeting a stop. Men with holy books -- Jews and Moslems alike -- have been busy channeling God in order to deliver purported divine instructions on human agreements. Racism and theo-racism have risen to new heights as unpalatable political changes appeared possible. Rejectionism found every possible excuse, secular and religious.

Too, there were the 'peace profiteers', those who viewed the peace process largely as a meeting-place for Israeli capital and Palestinian labor, as a new opportunity for business deals. However, no peace process can hope to be viable if it does not include economic self-determination for Palestinians and a massive rise in their living standards. Using the West Bank and Gaza as dormitories for low-cost Palestinian labor under Israeli management, a local edition of the global market economy, means an unacceptable perpetuation of Palestinian economic dependence and subordination.

Friends in the United States sometimes ask me what it will take to produce peace in the Middle East. My frequent response is that a large majority of individual Israelis and Palestinians could work out a basic peace agreement over a friendly cup of coffee in five minutes, although the really difficult issues might take an extra coffee and some baklava.

But peace agreements are collective in nature, not individual. Voluntary agreements represent a coalescence of social forces from opposing sides and ceaseless work by people angered at watching the unceasing spillage of blood. Peace represents a commitment to fairness and respect, or at a minimum, embodies a commitment between neighbors to civil discourse and non-violence, not bus-stop bombings and extermination threats. If the Oslo peace process no longer lives, then it will have to be reinvented under another name.

Today in Israel, however, the nationalist right-wing speaks of "the Oslo criminals" and some are proposing to bring charges against political peace-makers. The rising criminalization of peace threatens the future intolerably. When tanks are rolling and bombs exploding, this is the hour again to sit on the road and refuse to be a criminal against peace.

Follow this link for an Arabic translation in Assafir.

Joe Lockard is a lecturer in literature at University of California-Davis and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.

Copyright © 2002 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.