A peace miracle in Israel
By Gila Svirsky

We knew there would be a big turnout for the peace demonstration Feb. 9 -- just from the deluge of pro-peace ads in Ha'aretz the day before. Page after page of statements and petitions, all critical of the occupation, include the following:

  • "There is a choice!" from an expanded new list of 200 combat officers and soldiers who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.
  • "There's a limit!" as support for the new soldiers, and the names of others who have consistently refused to serve, placed by Yesh Gvul.
  • "We support the soldiers who refuse to serve the occupation." -- a petition placed by civilian supporters.
  • "Peres, you are a collaborator in war crimes!" placed by Gush Shalom.
  • "Do not say 'we did not see, we did not know' the price of keeping the territories." placed by the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions.
  • "A Recipe for National Suicide" placed by a private citizen.
  • And a huge, blood-red ad, "The Occupation is Killing us All," signed by the 28 organizations that came together to hold the February rally in Tel-Aviv.

This was the largest pro-peace rally since this Intifada began in September 2000. There was an estimated 10,000 participants -- Jews and Arabs from all over Israel -- filling the large Tel Aviv Museum plaza.

The mood is clearly swinging in Israel, and the homemade signs of people who had not attended a demonstration for years reflected the new thinking: "Stop Sharon before he kills us all" and "More conscientious objectors!" and "Occupation itself is a war crime" and every permutation of "Share Jerusalem" and "Dismantle Settlements" and "Bring our soldiers home".

By the time veteran peace activist Yehudit Harel opened the ceremony, the crowd was a mass of people, amazed and buoyed by each other's presence. Then Yehudit's opening words, in fluent Hebrew and Arabic, set the tone for the entire evening: "We Israeli Jews and Arabs, together, will no longer abide the crimes that the Israeli government is carrying out."

"There is only one flag held aloft here today," Yehudit said, "and it is the black flag of pain, mourning, death, bereavement, and the immorality of war crimes that are being committed in our name. At her words, hundreds of black flags were raised high by the crowd, symbolizing the statement made years ago by an Israeli court that if a military order has "a black flag of immorality" hanging over it, the order must be refused.

"I once disagreed with refusal to serve in the army," said Uri Avnery to the crowd, "but today I salute those who will not serve. Refusal is the beginning of the end of the occupation." He was one of the young heroes of the evening who, himself, refused to serve.

Some of these brave men have been stripped of their commands, demoted, and face courts martial. But they answer to their consciences.

"How can we serve in an army that kills children?" asked Yishai Rosen-Zvi, an Orthodox tank corps sergeant in the reserves. "How can we serve an army that demolishes homes, does not allow the sick to get medical attention, seeks to humiliate an entire population, and reduces them to hunger and poverty?"

The stage was shared by Arabs and Jews, by women and men, by Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, by young and old, by religious and secular.

Shulamit Aloni, former government minister and perennial conscience of Israel, called out her message of hope: "All of you here today are the harbingers of a mass movement that already has begun. You will be the teachers of democracy to this government. You will set an example of morality. We shall clean out the crimes of this country and fill it with peace!"

Famed singer Ahinoam Nini (known in North America as "Noa") sang a Beatles song to the crowd -- a Hebrew, Arabic and English version: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one; I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one."

Then a beloved Zionist song, "Ein li eretz aheret," took on new meaning as it was recited in two languages, both Hebrew and Arabic: "I have no other country to go to. And even if the land is burning under my feet, this is my home." For the Arabs in the crowd, the song suddenly became theirs as well, and for the Jews, it meant a land we both love deeply.

I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one.

Gila Svirsky is a member of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace in Israel. The rally was sponsored by almost every peace group in Israel (with the notable exception of Peace Now). 0