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Dare to Dream of Jerusalem Marching Alongside Jenin

19 August 2002

I have a dream. It starts in Jenin as 2,000 Palestinians defy the Israeli-imposed curfew and set out on the road south to Nablus. Israeli jeeps block their path and raucous voices on police loudhailers order them to stop, but the marchers divert through the olive groves and continue, undeterred and unafraid.

Stepping out proudly in the front row are a dozen young men and women with determination on their faces. Each has taken the private decision to become a martyr and, a month ago, might have strapped an explosive belt to their waists. Now they are unarmed, and carry posters emblazoned with the morally unassailable slogan: "No to the killing of Israeli and Palestinian civilians. No to the occupation."

They are still prepared to die, if need be, but with the strength of the crowd behind the marchers Israeli troops hesitate to shoot. Television cameras and scores of foreign reporters watching the scene give the marchers extra protection. So too does the presence of a hundred volunteers from Europe and the United States, many of them Jews, veterans of civil rights struggles in other countries, now marching for justice in the Middle East.

In Nablus the procession triples in size as another beleaguered Palestinian community breaks the curfew and joins the throng. By the time it reaches Ramallah on the edge of Jerusalem the human juggernaut is a hundred thousand strong. Under present rules the army prevents Israeli citizens, other than settlers, from entering the West Bank but as the swelling crowd approaches the Old City several thousand Israeli peace activists are waiting to join it.

Like a great river, with three tributaries - Palestinian, Israeli and international - the march from Jenin to Jerusalem crosses the city from east to west and converges on the Knesset. There in the gardens around the Israeli parliament, speaker after speaker demands the immediate and unconditional redeployment of the Israeli army back to the lines it held before the intifada, the resumption of the peace negotiations which were broken off at Taba in January 2001, and a deadline of six months to have them wrapped up. If the government takes no action, the Israeli activists promise to march the other way from Jerusalem to Jenin, with permanent sit-ins and peace camps outside every Israeli army base in the occupied territories until serious talks between the Israeli government and the Palestine authority bear fruit.

Pure fantasy, of course. There is no Palestinian Gandhi, no Israeli Martin Luther King, in sight or over the horizon waiting to emerge. "The feeling of revenge is still too strong, and Palestinians are at a very low point, just struggling to survive," Yusef Abu Warda, the leading Israeli-Arab film actor, told me in Haifa this weekend. "Besides, there is no basis in our culture for popular mass non-violence," he says.

"A waste of time. The numbers for that kind of thing are just not there," comments Janet Aviad, a leader of Israel's Peace Now movement.

They are right. For the moment the main energy of the peace camp in Israel and the Palestinian territories is focused within each community. The Israeli left is buzzing with the sudden appearance of a man who seems to have a remote chance of defeating Ariel Sharon in the next election. Amram Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa, last week announced his intention to run in this autumn's primaries to lead the Labour party against Sharon. Without charisma and being no great orator, and certainly no leftwinger when it comes to economic policy, he is an unlikely savior. But he is said to be clean and uncorrupt and, as an ex-general who stood up to Sharon after the massacres which followed the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, he cannot be faulted with weakness.

In the Israeli peace movement he is treated as a breath of fresh air. No prime minister came as close to a comprehensive settlement as Sharon's Labour predecessor Ehud Barak, yet it was Barak who in defeat did more than anyone to denounce Yasser Arafat and pour cold water on future negotiations with the Palestine authority. So when a man such as Mitzna goes back to the aborted Labour peace agenda, promises to start talks without preconditions, and says he will sit down with anyone the Palestinians choose as their leader, Arafat included, people are delighted by the voice of common sense.

The first polls since Mitzna's declaration put Sharon ahead of him by 50% to 33%, but the Israeli peace camp argues that, as voters begin to realize there is a real alternative to Sharon, Mitzna's standing will improve. Sharon has failed to give Israelis the extra security he promised. His reliance on force has provoked the Palestinians. Tourism and investment have collapsed, and unemployment is up.

On the Palestinian side an unprecedented debate over tactics and goals is under way. The wisdom of suicide bombing has never been discussed as openly, and those who denounce it no longer risk their lives. Hopes of a joint statement by the militant groups Hamas and Fatah offering a ceasefire suffered from unnecessary hype last week, but these are slow processes. The fact that Hamas is even discussing a cessation of attacks on civilians, along with the option of recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 borders, is a step forward.

Israeli-Palestinian dialogue across the divide is also picking up again. Leaders of the peace coalition yesterday announced a new effort to show that each side does have partners to talk to. Beyond these conversations of elites and intellectuals, the option of non-violent direct action is beginning to grow.

Scores of European and American activists from the International Solidarity Movement have arrived throughout the West Bank this summer, riding in ambulances through the checkpoints to shame Israeli soldiers into stopping their vindictive delaying of sick people and pregnant women in labour. Others plan to come in the autumn to help Palestinians harvest their olives, even if their ancestral trees are on the edge of illegal Israeli settlements and thereby declared out of bounds.

Seven hundred Palestinians set off from Bethlehem to link up with 400 Israeli protesters coming from Jerusalem one Saturday earlier this month. A few days previously a hundred Palestinians from villages outside Nablus tried to defy the curfew by walking into the city. In both cases the Israeli police came down quickly with horses, water cannon, or tear gas. But democracies find it harder than dictatorships to stamp on non-violent protest, especially when the media take notice. The seeds of change have been planted, and no one can take away your right to dream. I still have mine.

Jonathan Steele
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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