Arie Arnon has been a leading Israeli proponent of political negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and opponent of the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan. He is currently a member of the Progressive List for Peace, and teaches economics at Beersheva University. Zachary Lockman interviewed him in Jerusalem in February 1987.
What was your political outlook before the June 1967 war?
When the war began I was in the regular army, in an officers’ training course. I had no clear political stance. I had been in the Histadrut’s youth movement, and through that joined Nahal [a paramilitary branch linked to the kibbutz movement] until I was drafted. After my military service I decided to remain in the regular army and so I ended up in a Nahal paratroop unit.
I saw combat for the first time at Samu‘ [a West Bank village that was the target of an Israeli raid] in November 1966. I didn’t understand anything about the political meaning of the operation. For me it was just a matter of having to do something difficult and succeeding.
In 1967 I fought in Gaza and Sinai. To tell the truth, even if at the time I didn’t say it for fear of being ashamed in front of my friends, I hated it — not for political reasons but for humanitarian reasons. It was a hard war. You saw people dying, being wounded, stinking, thirsty, hungry, soldiers and civilians suffering. But it was over quickly; by June 11 or 12 we were already on our way back home.
I thought then that the war was necessary to save the Jewish people. Of course, I don’t understand it today as I did then. I finished officers’ training and became an officer in the paratroops, and went to serve in the Jordan Valley.
During that period of about a year when I was in the army as an officer, mostly during 1968, my political position slowly changed. A number of things happened at the same time; it’s hard to separate them out. I remember several points during this process. I suddenly understood that we were fighting against the Palestinians, and that they were not as they had been described to us. Palestinians were constantly trying to cross the Jordan, not just fighters but also civilians trying to return home. The civilians were killed; I didn’t see this but I heard many stories. The fighters they tried to catch and kill, and they caught and killed very many.
It wasn’t clear to me at first why they kept coming. They were going to be killed. Were they fooled into coming? Were they criminals? Were they paid money to try to cross or coerced? One day, around Passover 1968, I was on duty and suddenly a group of Palestinians came by. Fighting broke out, what Israel calls a chase but which was really more like a hunt. I could see that these people were first of all very brave, they knew what they were getting into, they fought until they were wounded and captured.
This made a big impression on me, and I slowly began to think and ask myself: What would I do if I were in their place, if I were a 19-year old Palestinian? Would I try to cross, to fight? And I felt that I would do the same, I would try to fight, if I were brave enough. And that clashed with my whole apolitical stance. I was here trying to prevent him from getting to Nablus, and yet if I were him I would be trying to get through. It bothered me a lot, and I began to read, to think. I was very influenced at that time by Uri Avneri and I slowly moved to a more dovish position.
Did you have any organizational connections at that time?
No. It happened through reading, through talking with people. The debate about what to do with the occupied territories was beginning. The Labor Party was allowing settlement in Hebron. People began to talk about settlements in the Jordan Valley so that it could never be returned. People also argued over whether there was a Palestinian people. Today no one argues about that. It was Uri Avneri, along with a few others, who said, yes, there is a Palestinian people, and it is in our mutual interest to work out an arrangement between us. I gradually became convinced that Israel had no future in the Arab world if it didn’t make peace, and that this couldn’t happen unless Israel made peace with the people who lived here. I went through a lengthy psychological process, a year or two, before I came to a more systematic understanding of the history of the conflict, of how to resolve it.
How did you get involved in political activity?
I left the army at the end of 1968 and started studying math and economics at the Hebrew University. The first year I concentrated on my studies; I was still unsure about whether to go back to the army. The second year I began to get a little involved in politics, through SIAH [acronym of the Israeli New Left]. SIAH was a very active group, a very strange mixture of older people with political experience from all sorts of places, European and South American radicals who had come to study in Israel, and young Israelis. SIAH had no organizational structure but a lot of dedication. I was slowly pulled into its demonstrations and confrontations. Your politics crystallize much more quickly in periods of confrontation than in quiet times.
There were two major confrontations that I remember. One was [then president of the World Jewish Congress] Nahum Goldman’s abortive trip to Egypt. Israel was constantly saying that it wanted peace; Goldman came and said there was a chance to talk with the Egyptians, and the government turned him down. A demonstration in favor of letting Goldman go was organized. We sat down in the street near the university, and then in the middle of the city, and the police came and dispersed the demonstration with a lot of force — beatings, horses, arrests. This was the first time that I saw this kind of brutal police action. The second incident concerned the establishment of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron. We tried to go and demonstrate near the settlement but the army stopped us. So we had a big discussion right there and decided to demonstrate in front of Golda Meir’s house. This was just the kind of thing the authorities couldn’t deal with. We got to Golda’s house before the police got there, and a few people even managed to climb over the fence. The police were hysterical, not surprisingly, and dispersed the demonstration very brutally.
This activity compelled me to rethink everything, and out of this experience I was drawn not only to a dovish position but also to the left. I had been in a supposedly leftist youth movement, but I absorbed nothing from it at all different from the rest of Israeli society.
How was your attitude toward Zionism affected by all this?
In SIAH there were two camps: the more Zionist and “patriotic” people, and others who were more leftist, some of them non-Zionists or even anti-Zionists. I came to SIAH as a Zionist. For me SIAH was good because it had army officers, kibbutzniks, all sorts of good people who wanted to change government policy. I think that I gradually moved away from them as a result of this activity; the Jerusalem group was also the more radical. I became more critical of Zionism, although this is a very complex question. I became non-Zionist, maybe anti-Zionist, but I continue to support the right of Israel to exist as the expression of the right of self-determination of the Israeli Jews, who are clearly a national group, as opposed to Israel being the state of all Jews everywhere. I was also a non-Zionist in the sense that I believed that most of what happened in the history of the conflict had to happen the way it did — as opposed to those left-Zionists who argued that it could have been different.
How were you influenced by what was going on in the West Bank and Gaza?
First of all, none of us at that time believed the occupation would last so long. After the 1973 war, we felt that a peace settlement was a matter of months; the superpowers would come and force Israel to withdraw, like in 1956. There was a lot of optimism. We felt that things were moving along, even if slowly.
You have to keep in mind that we had no direct political links with people in the territories, and we were very ignorant about what was happening there. We didn’t really try to establish such links. In 1972, SIAH carried out some activities in the territories. At the time everyone, especially RAKAH [the Israeli Communist Party], said we shouldn’t do anything in the territories, that this would mean recognizing the occupation, that it was adventurist, and so on. Nonetheless we organized some activity in the territories. I remember two major events. One was the demonstration in ‘Aqraba, what is now Gitit, where they had sprayed the villagers’ fields. We went to demonstrate there one Saturday. The army stopped our cars, and as always with SIAH, we had a democratic discussion on the spot and decided to proceed on foot. So the army arrested us and brought us to Nablus and later put six of us on trial. It was a political trial which got no coverage in the Israeli press. We got relatively heavy fines, and decided to go to jail for six months instead. Then there was a big public campaign and they reduced the fines and we didn’t go to jail.
What was important in all this was that Ramonda Tawil came to the trial, and she took us to Hamdi Kanaan’s house, I think it was, after one of the sessions. We began to talk and she told us about the New Idea group which was being organized, and we established contact with them. A few of them even joined us in a demonstration in front of the Knesset when we were supposed to go to jail. A second story: We went to Hebron a few times and gave out leaflets in Hebrew and Arabic, a very naive leaflet, against the terror of Black September and against Kahane, and calling for a two-state solution. They arrested us and put us on trial. But this was not consistent contact with Palestinians; it was a foray into the territories so that we could bring back to the Israeli public the message that there was no democracy there, that there you couldn’t hand out leaflets or organize demonstrations even if you were Jewish. Today everyone knows this. But we were very naive then; we thought that if we brought this information to Israelis, if they understood that there is no "liberal" occupation, then they would reject occupation.
What happened with SIAH?
In the end, SIAH fell apart. There are many explanations of why this happened, but certainly one factor was the conflict between the more radical group and the group closer to the national consensus, against the background of the ongoing struggle over the question of Zionism. Some of us from the left group established a new organization in 1976, SHASI [Israeli Socialist Left], of which I am no longer a member. Before the 1977 elections we joined HADASH [Democratic Front for Peace and Equality], which consisted of RAKAH and various Arab and Jewish non-party groups and individuals. Our position at that time was very close to that of RAKAH: Palestine as the home? land of two peoples, the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, each of which should have a state of its own. Ultimately this alliance did not work out, and SHASI left the Democratic Front. And I left SHASI largely over the issue of how to approach Camp David. I am now a member of the Progressive List for Peace.
Over these 20 years, how has the occupation affected you?
If I may generalize, the occupation affected me because I saw it from close up right after the 1967 war and I saw that it was inhuman and didn’t want to be part of it. I asked myself how to end the occupation, and came to the conclusion that to end it we had to make peace with the Palestinians.
In September 1970 I was doing my reserve duty in the paratroops. We were given to understand that there was a plan to enter Jordan, to intervene on behalf of King Hussein against the Palestinians and Syria. I remember that I sat up the whole night with a close political friend, and in the end I told him: I’m not going. If we enter Jordan, I’m not going. He said that he would go. Many people have been having this same discussion ever since. My friend said that he would go even though he didn’t agree with the decision, in order to remain a part of this society. I said that there’s a limit, and I’m not ready to do something that is contrary to everything I believe in. In the end, of course, Israel did not intervene.
Since 1972, when I have been called up for reserve duty, I’ve told them: I am not going to serve in the occupied territories. And they have accepted that de facto; I’ve always served in the south. Sometimes it was tough, but in the end they assigned me elsewhere. So from this standpoint, the occupation has put me into a confrontation with the army, with the society, every year. It’s a tough issue, I have to say: you do lose some influence in society if you don’t serve, and there is the danger of becoming isolated. No party in Israel calls on people not to serve in the territories. Some are sympathetic but none insist on it. But I personally am not willing to serve there.
Today there are a lot of people who recognize that there is a Palestinian people. Somewhere along the way, if you are an Israeli who believes in an Israeli-Palestinian peace, you have to prove to the Palestinians that you are serious about it, just as Palestinians who are for peace with Israel have to show that they are serious about it, that they know that there are two sides. And I think that in general the Israelis fail to prove that they are serious about it. They scream and yell, but in the end they give up. It’s hard for me to believe that Israelis who serve in the territories today will be able to negotiate with the Palestinians tomorrow. It’s possible. Refusal to serve is largely a moral stance, a matter of conscience: I’m not willing to shoot women and children, I’m not willing to blow up houses, I’m not willing to enter a refugee camp with a club in my hand. If the peace movement was strong and you had tens of thousands actively opposing the occupation, the issue of refusal would not be so important. But when the movement is weak, like now, it’s important that there are people in Israel who refuse to serve in the territories. It has educational value. And I won’t go, even though it makes life hard for me sometimes.
But we also have to ask how it was that the occupation did not affect the tens of thousands of other people my age who went through more or less the same experiences in the same way. This has to do with how a basically liberal and humane society can undergo a process of corruption, cease to be sensitive, say that there is no alternative to occupation. One factor in this, even though it is sometimes manipulated, is the deep and genuine fear of many Israelis about the future. And there are many strata in Israeli society today who believe that somebody has to be on top and somebody on the bottom, that’s the way the world is, so it’s better to be on top.