From our special correspondent in Israel – The deadly fighting between Israel and Hamas has brought the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the fore, fueling international calls to revive a dormant Mideast peace process. But are pleas for peace still audible amid all the trauma? FRANCE 24 spoke to Israeli peace activists and former government officials about the prospects for a peaceful settlement in the Middle East.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people – most of them civilians – and taking more than 200 hostages to the Gaza Strip. The gruesome carnage, which triggered a fierce riposte from the Israeli military, has deeply shaken Israeli society, leading even some of the most moderate Israelis to turn a deaf ear to calls for peace. While many see the eradication of Hamas as a prerequisite for future peace, others warn that the current cycle of violence will only cause more suffering.
‘There are times when in order to reach peace, you have to fight a war’
Yariv Oppenheimer is a former secretary-general of the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now and current head of Two-State Coalition, which calls for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“We have to face reality. Since this vicious attack, even people who believe in peace are angry and suspicious of Palestinians. It’s a trauma that will take years to overcome. Today, support for a withdrawal of troops and settlers or for an agreement with the Palestinians is not realistic considering public opinion in Israel. We cannot ignore this.
On the other hand, the war offers an opportunity to change negotiating partners for peace. Nobody in Hamas was prepared to talk to the Israelis. That is why we have always supported an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, with (Palestinian Authority President) Abbas, with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation), so that this conflict is seen as a political conflict and not a religious one.
The fact that there is a chance of removing Hamas and allowing the Palestinian Authority to eventually regain control of the Gaza Strip is a positive and encouraging sign for those of us who would like to see an agreement with the Palestinian people one day.
If I were a Palestinian, I would be afraid of the Hamas people, because if they can do this to Israelis, they can also do it to Palestinians. Today, they are witnessing the destruction that results from these atrocities, which means that the Palestinians in Gaza are suffering a great deal. The message to the Palestinians is clear: if you choose this path, the outcome will be the same. The brutality of the (October 7) attack, kidnapping children, women, and doing things that are simply evil cannot be accepted. This is not a fight to resist an occupying power, but crimes against humanity.
There are times when in order to reach peace, you have to fight a war. And that’s what’s happening right now. But I’m still hopeful that, in the short run, this calamity will weaken Palestinians’ support for Hamas in Gaza, which would in turn help create better living conditions for Gazans. I believe in democracy. I believe we should have the same rights. And if I want to reach my goal, if I want to respect my values, we have to opt for the two-state solution.”
‘Another cycle of violence will not bring stability to the region’
Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed is the director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which aims to promote cross-border cooperation on environmental issues.
“I define myself as an Israeli Palestinian. Some people like that, others don’t. They prefer to say I’m an Israeli Arab. But in these terrible times, I’m just a human being who has been deeply hurt by what we’ve seen on both sides.
What happened shocked us deeply. It has to stop. This should be a very strong wake-up call for everyone. Another cycle of war, another cycle of violence will not bring stability to the region. The only lasting way to bring peace to the Middle East is to bring people together, to foster understanding, to build the peaceful and just society we all need. War is not the solution, and it will not bring results. Nobody wins in war. What is the easiest thing to do? Making peace is harder. Peace is made between enemies. Especially when it involves two communities that have been so deeply wounded, both mentally and physically. But we must, once again, bring people together to build that trust to ensure a bright future for our children.
I have met many people, in both Israel and Palestine: the vast majority want to live in peace. But we don’t talk enough, on either side, about the importance of peace. The main achievement of the extremists in both sides is to have separated Israeli and Palestinian societies. They prey on our fear and mistrust of each other, but there are many trustworthy people on both sides. I hope that after this war, both sides will speak out more loudly about the importance of peace.”
‘More than ever, we must do everything we can to achieve peace’
Gadir Hani is an Israeli Arab activist, member of Women Wage Peace and Standing Together.
“Acre wasn’t like this when I was a child. There is a lot of tension and fear on both sides. Trust has been broken since the May 2021 riots (between Arabs and Jews). You can sense the fear when you talk to people and walk down the streets.
Nobody was prepared for what happened on October 7. We have to strengthen our ties with the Palestinian Authority to find a peace agreement, otherwise the conflict will become harder and more painful. More than ever, we must do everything we can to achieve peace. I’m a Palestinian-Israeli, and although it’s painful [to admit], part of the Israeli population also sees us as enemies. Especially after Palestinian attacks on Israelis and other military operations. Many say that people voted for Hamas and that scares me. I think they are wrong. The children [that are dying] didn’t choose Hamas.
I lived for 22 years in Negev (in southern Israel) and I belonged to a group called Other Voice. I immediately contacted my friends and unfortunately two of my Jewish friends were attacked. One escaped and was hiding in a shelter, but the other was probably kidnapped. It’s very painful.
I didn’t want to look at the photos and videos but I’m trying to help find the missing people. I haven’t seen the worst ones, but I’ve had to talk about them. I wrote a message on social media to call for peaceful coexistence and another when I came to realise the horror (of the Hamas attack). I called on leaders to condemn these atrocities strongly.
I don’t know if the two-state solution is realistic. There’s also the idea of having a single country for the two peoples, with two different governments. Each would function on its own, but with freedom of movement. I don’t know what I want right now, to be honest.
That’s why we should have courageous leaders coming forward to set things straight. You have to take into consideration the perspective from both sides. It’s important to involve women in the negotiations. That’s why I wear this 1325 pin. This is the number of the UN resolution adopted in 2000, which states that countries should increase the participation of women in peace talks. Women’s contributions in peace deals in Ireland and South Africa have helped to maintain the agreements in place.
I also want to be part of the discussions because I am Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. I have an important role to play in bridging the gap between the two cultures.”
‘We cannot make peace with savages’
Oren Helman is a former head of the Government Press Office under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We have always talked about peace and security; you cannot have one without the other. We are a peaceful people. In Israel, we greet people with the word ‘shalom’, meaning peace. But we cannot make peace with savages, with barbarians who kill children and Holocaust survivors, and who kidnap women, children and the disabled.
We have to kill all members of Hamas. In fact we should have done it a long time ago. We thought we could judge them by Western standards. We thought we were dealing with human beings. Part of the world still regards them as freedom fighters, but they don’t fight for peace, nor for the freedom of Palestinians. If we want peace, and if the countries around us also want peace, then we have to destroy them just like the world destroyed al Qaeda, ISIS (the Islamic State group) and all the crazy people who try to kill those who don’t think like them. We will speak to them with our guns and canons.
I think now is the time for the civilians of Gaza to rise up against Hamas, because it is obvious that Hamas doesn’t care about them. About 17 years ago, Hamas was elected in free elections and since then the people of Gaza have never said anything against it. If we separate the terrorists from the population, then maybe something will happen.
Israel is a very moral state. We do not kill civilians. We do not kill children. [Editor’s note: Gaza health authorities say at least 5,000 people have been killed in Israel’s two-week bombing campaign, around 40% of them children]. They, however, kill their own children. They even lied about the hospital in Gaza where a rocket they launched came back to hit them. In just one hour they counted 500 dead. How can you can so many in one hour? They don’t care about people. We have nothing against Arabs. We have nothing against Muslims. But we have a lot against those who committed a second Holocaust. We have a right to seek revenge.
People in the Palestinian Authority still believe they have a right of return [Editor’s note: a longstanding Palestinian claim to the lands lost in the 1948 Palestine War and the 1967 Six-Day War]. Where do they want to return to? Here in Israel? In Ramla, Jaffa, Haifa and Tel Aviv? This means they don’t recognise Israel’s right to exist. Before talking about peace, they have to renounce the right of return. They have to understand that Jerusalem is our capital and that if they want peace with us, they have to get rid of all these terrorists.”
‘Gaza and Lebanon must be demilitarised’
Zvi Hauser is a former cabinet secretary for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ex-chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset.
“We cannot allow these terrorist groups to go on believing they can fire missiles at civilians every week or month. We must change strategy and demilitarise Gaza and Lebanon. This is a problem for the international community and the free world. What you see in Israel in 2023 will happen in France 2033.
It’s not about vengeance. It’s about understanding the problem. There comes a point in history when you have to change strategy to bring this region to greater stability, peace and security. Because what we witnessed two weeks ago was contrary to humanity, to our liberal and human values. And this cannot be part of the game. Peace in the Middle East will only be possible once our neighbours understand that Israel is part of the solution, not the problem. And for that to happen, we must win the war against Iranian Islamist extremists and their theories, because they are the ones trying to push the region into believing Israel can be eliminated. We must first defeat this terrible belief.
There are two ways of understanding the situation in the Middle East. There are those who think Israel is the problem and those who believe Israel is part of the solution. We’ve seen it with the Abraham accords: more and more countries in the region have understood that Israel is part of the solution. It can bring a huge contribution to the region, providing technology, health services, science. It’s our historical view, the roots of the Jewish people. But there are also countries that believe they must adopt the ideas of the 11th century against Jews living in the Middle East.
What happened two weeks ago is a tragedy for the families, for our nation. But it is more than that. It is not only the emotional aspect. It is in the interest of the free world that Israel wins this war.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.