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Why Israel’s peace activists are re-evaluating their position on the war

When human rights activist Ziv Stahl was awakened to the booms of rocket fire on October 7, while staying at her sister’s home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, she did not for a moment anticipate the scale of the terrorist attack unfolding around her. Nor did she imagine the horror she would feel when she later called the police, who “basically told me no one is coming.”

That day saw Hamas militants murder her sister-in-law and several prominent peace activists living in the kibbutz, one of the communities that bore the brunt of the attack on Israel.

Stahl, who is the executive director of the human rights organization Yesh Din, says she is not calling for revenge over what happened that day nor is she taking a pacifist position on Israel’s ensuing war in Gaza against Hamas. “I am not saying ceasefire at any cost,” she said. “Israel has a right to defend itself and protect Israeli citizens,” she explained, but not indiscriminately or at the cost of thousands of Palestinian lives.

Her position, which she described as “complicated,” speaks to the challenge Israel’s peace movement faces when coming to terms with the worst massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust.

Jewish Israelis who have spent their lives committed to co-existence with Palestinians have found themselves balancing worries about the cycle of violence churned by Israel’s war and the security needs of Israelis amid great personal loss.

As Palestinian solidarity protests take place throughout the West, some of Israel’s small group of leftists, peace activists and human rights advocates, like Stahl, have chosen to take a step back from the public debate on a permanent ceasefire. Others say finding an end to the war and forging a two-state solution is more urgent than ever, even if it may be an unpopular opinion in the country that over the decades has drifted rightward politically.

Some activists complain that authorities are attempting to equate peace activism with support for Hamas. Anti-war protests have been near impossible to get permits for, except for one in Tel Aviv by the left-wing Arab and Jewish Hadash party. And in early November, four high-profile Palestinian political leaders in Israel were detained for taking part in an anti-war silent protest.

The radical left

At a left-wing community space in Tel Aviv, decorated with a red banner with the words “a nation that occupies another nation will never be free,” a group of young Israelis discuss their newly-formed anti-war group, which they have named “Gen Zayin,” which means Gen Z.

The group’s members have asked CNN to use pseudonyms for them, pointing to the dozens of people arrested since October 7 in Israel for allegedly inciting violence and terrorism. Many of those arrested are Palestinian and activists say their arrests and detention are carried out without proper legal justification and simply for showing support for Palestinian people.

"A nation that occupies another nation will never be free," reads a banner at a left wing community space in Tel Aviv, November 27, 2023. - Tara John/CNN
"A nation that occupies another nation will never be free," reads a banner at a left wing community space in Tel Aviv, November 27, 2023. - Tara John/CNN

While in the West, young voters are often more liberal than their grandparents,’ the opposite is true in Israel, Rafael, one of Gen Zayin’s co-founders  who is using a pseudonym, told CNN. A 2022 poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 73% of Jewish people surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 identified as right-wing compared with 46% of people polled over the age of 65.

The group’s anti-war position won’t be welcomed by most of the Jewish population at this current moment, they say, which is why Gen Zayin members stick up posters in the dead of night and surreptitiously share pamphlets that espouse their anti-war, anti-government manifesto in high schools.

Rafael, 24, passionately supports a two-state solution and accuses the country’s right-wingers, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of emboldening Hamas with their attempt at repressing a Palestinian state. “The situation is unsustainable, and the only way that we can live in a just, equal, and democratic society is through peace, the end of occupation, eviction of the settlers” from the West Bank and the right of return of an estimated 5.9 million Palestinian refugees around the world, he said.

Gen Zayin members are fearful of Israeli public opinion but also feel abandoned by parts of the Western leftist movement, who they see as advocating for the abolition of the Israeli state. Rafael raged at an anti-war slogan he saw online: “Do you support decolonization as an abstract concept or a tangible event?” it read. That “tangible event” was in reference to Hamas’ attack, which killed 1,200 people in Israel and led to the outbreak of the war, he said.

“They don’t understand that 7 million Israelis are living here, and aren’t going anywhere, and a lot of Israelis don’t know that the 7 million Palestinians [in Israel and the territories] are not going anywhere either,” he said. “The only way forward is together.”

Doxed and threatened

Expressing public sympathy for Palestinians can land you in hot water. Some Jewish Israelis have lost their jobs or have been publicly sanctioned for speaking out in favour of Gaza, say activists. Ofer Cassif, a Hadash lawmaker in the Knesset, told CNN he was suspended in October for 45 days for saying “the Israeli government wanted confrontation.”

He was also accused of comparing Israel’s plan for Gaza to the Nazi Final Solution, he said. “That’s not what I said. But they didn’t really care because that committee was interested in political persecution, in political silencing of the opposition and dissident voices who raise a voice against the war,” he said.

Maoz Inon speaks of his peace activism from the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv, November 26. - Tara John/CNN
Maoz Inon speaks of his peace activism from the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv, November 26. - Tara John/CNN

The left-wing, ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey recounts how he was doxed and chased out of his home in Jerusalem on October 15 with his wife and two children by far-right football ultras. It was over a video of him saying the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, where he prayed for those slaughtered by Hamas and for Palestinian women and children under fire in Gaza.

“Little by little, the street was filling up. They arrived at my home. I tried to look (through) the viewfinder (in the door) and they closed it. Knocking, trying to hurt me. Two months later I talk about it with some amusement, but in real time it was very scary. Hundreds of people came (and) tried to hurt me,” he told CNN from an undisclosed location, as he is currently in hiding.

Riot police officers who came to usher him out of his apartment also tormented him, he said, with one spitting on him, he said. CNN has reached out to Yasam, the Israel Police Special Patrol Unit, for comment.

Grieving families consider the future

Over a hot cup of tea, filled with herbs he picked from the roof garden of a hostel he co-owns in Tel Aviv, Maoz Inon told CNN he became a peace activist a week after his parents were killed in the October 7 attack. In that moment, he realized that “peace is the only thing that can bring security to everyone living in between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.

He has not been sanctioned in the same way as other people in the peace movement, saying that it’s down to him being among the families affected by Hamas’ attack. I’m using my privilege and 15 minutes of fame of being a victim in order to prevent others from becoming victims,” Inon said.

Elana Kaminka speaks from her home in Tzur Hadassah, November 27. - Tara John/CNN
Elana Kaminka speaks from her home in Tzur Hadassah, November 27. - Tara John/CNN

Not many Jewish peace activists are ready to vocally advocate for peace “because everyone is traumatized – but I have the words,” Inon said.

Speaking from a suburban community near Jerusalem, just meters away from the Green Line with the occupied West Bank, Israeli American Elana Kaminka told CNN she used to buy vegetables from a small Palestinian village across the border. But everything changed after October 7, when her 20-year-old son Yannai was killed as he heroically defended Zikim training base near the border with Gaza, she said.

Since then, the metaphorical and physical walls have gone up around her stretch of the Green Line. The checkpoints have hardened and many Palestinians living in the West Bank, have seen permits for work in Israel revoked, say Kaminka, who has not visited the village since her son died.

If Israelis “really understood what was happening in the territories – the actual practical meaning of the occupation – I think their opinions would be different,” she told CNN from the home she shares with her husband and three other children. “And for Palestinians, also, it’s very easy to demonize Israelis and every Israeli soldier as a horrible person. It is super easy to live in a bubble where you don’t have any interaction with the other side.”

Pictures of Yannai Kaminka, who was killed in the October 7 Hamas attack, are seen in Elana' s home. - Tara John/CNN
Pictures of Yannai Kaminka, who was killed in the October 7 Hamas attack, are seen in Elana' s home. - Tara John/CNN

The grief she feels for the loss of her son is all encompassing. She has struggled to write or continue with her volunteer work, which includes supporting victims of racist violence and transporting unwell Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals.

Kaminka does not have a clear position on the war and, like Stahl, says there are huge security concerns at play, especially when more than 100 hostages remain in Gaza. What she is certain of is that, in the long-term, Jewish-Palestinian coexistence is the only way forward.

While pointing to the Palestinian village she used to visit, she said: “We have to find a way to build a common society that feels fair and feels just to as many people as possible.”

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