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An Interview with Gila Svirsky by Elayne Clift

February 2007

Women's Feature Service

New York, February 12 (Women's Feature Service) - Gila Svirsky has been an Israeli peace activist since 1982.

Late last year she helped organise the "Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza" which culminated on December 2 with worldwide demonstrations of support. Eighteen Israeli human rights organisations supported the campaign, aimed at ensuring human rights in the Gaza Strip. In this interview, Svirsky talks about the campaign and the current atmosphere in Israel.

Q: You've been a peace activist in Israel for years.  What led you to such work?

A: I came to the peace movement gradually. The Lebanon War, launched in 1982, was when I first realised that the Israeli government was not living up to its self-image as "the most moral army in the world". That was a major catalyst. I need only mention the massacre of refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps of Lebanon, carried out by others under the watchful eye of Israel, to make that clear.

Then, in 1988, women began holding weekly vigils, dressed in black as a sign of mourning for both sides.

Their signs read 'End the Occupation'. The vigils spread in Israel, then overseas. I joined the Jerusalem group and for 19 years I've stood with these women. I've made friends with Palestinians, seen their oppression and, now realise that occupation harms not only its victims but also the occupying power.

Q: What is your position with respect to resolving the Middle East crisis and the Arab-Israeli conflict?

A: Most parameters for ending the conflict are clear:

Israel must leave the occupied territory on which a state of Palestine will be created. The city of Jerusalem will become a "shared" capital with Jewish neighbourhoods as capital of Israel, and Arab neighbourhoods as capital of Palestine. The issue of Palestinian refugees will be resolved through a declaration by Israel of the injustice committed to the refugees, and in parallel a series of actions: reparations, absorption into the host countries, those who wish to will return to Palestine, and a small number will be allowed into Israel.

All these terms have been worked out repeatedly by Palestinians and Israelis of goodwill over the years.

Once these parameters are put in place, the hard work of creating good relations between both states; economic improvement of Palestinian society; and strong bonds of business, culture, industry, and neighbourly relations on both sides begins.

Q: With tensions in the Middle East increasing, what is the atmosphere like in Israel?

A: Israel is currently moving from a state of anger and disappointment - with its leadership because of the fiasco during the Lebanon War last summer - into a state of alienation and apathy. Its leaders have not only "failed" militarily: by going to war precipitously; by not winning the battles; by not preventing missiles from being fired into Israel; by not providing adequate protection for the civilians under fire; but furthermore many of them are currently involved in corruption scandals. The list of scandals runs right through the top officials of the country, from Prime Minister and President downwards.

This double whammy - military defeat and internal corruption - has shattered the Israeli ethos that their country is small, but strong and honourable.

Israelis are now beginning to feel that the time has come to look out for themselves - the politicians are not doing it for them. They have begun to focus on the personal rather than the patriotic: how to live the good life, avoid the army, obtain a second passport (as a hedge against war in Israel), make a fast buck.

Patriotism is down; individualism is rising.

Q: Is there a strong opposition movement in Israel regarding its policies towards Arabs, particularly in Gaza?

A: The answer is complex. On one hand, the Israeli opposition movement to the occupation is small and receives little publicity. Despite our immense efforts and courageous actions - many pay a high personal price including jail, injury, or being ostracised by friends and family - we are barely visible to other Israelis, let alone the international community.

On the other hand, our core views have been adopted by the Israeli public. Over the past six years, all the serious public opinion polls conducted here reveal that the Israeli public realises the occupation must end. More than two-thirds of Israelis are willing to give up the West Bank and Gaza in the context of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. A majority even supports negotiation with a Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas.

These views, reflecting a desire to end the occupation and reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, are mirrored in Palestinian opinion polls. So why haven't we made peace? I think it's because the people driving the political decisions on both sides are extremists. In Israel and Palestine, there are moderate leaders at the helm, but they are afraid of what the extremists will do if they make concessions to the other.

Q: You helped start an international campaign against Israel's siege of Gaza, organising a month of protest last year. What was the motivation, process and outcome of that campaign? How international was it and what was the reaction in Israel?

A: Last fall, when a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza was effected by international sanctions and the relentless bombings by Israel, the Coalition of Women for Peace launched a month-long international campaign, "Gaza: End the Siege! End the War!"

We were joined by 17 other Israeli organisations, and together we held a series of actions and demonstrations - street theatre, convoys to the Gaza border, candlelight vigils - culminating in a mass march in Tel Aviv on December 2. That same weekend, actions were held in 107 cities worldwide, stimulating broad media attention.

As part of our efforts to educate the public about the dire situation in Gaza, we held public lectures and a conference, issued informational leaflets, and hung posters. A petition, "Gaza: Stop the Siege! Stop the War", garnered over 8,000 signatures internationally and was delivered to embassies in Israel and abroad.

Until this campaign, no significant voice had been raised to challenge the sanctions. Our campaign breached the wall of silence and placed on the international agenda the question of the counter-productivity and immorality of these measures.

Although the sanctions were not lifted, Israel did ease the passage of goods into Gaza, and efforts continue.

Q: What most worries you, currently?

A: I'm worried about the crazies on both sides - Israeli and Palestinian - but above all, I'm worried about the crazies in Washington and Teheran. They could embroil this region in a nuclear holocaust. In the overall context of a Middle East driven by George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the situation looks stark and menacing.

Q: What role are women playing in bringing about peace?

A: When the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is written, women will figure prominently in the story of sacrifices to reach peace -- unless the history is written by men, of course.

I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else. Winston Churchill