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 Report on the Founding Conference of the Israeli-Palestinian Action Group for Peace
 Gush Shalom, Israel
 June 28, 2003

This morning in Ramallah, a hundred Israeli peace activists eluded military roadblocks in order to meet like-minded Palestinians.

"We welcome the increasing move towards Hudna (cease-fire) and the chance to break the cycle of violence, bloodshed and killing of innocent Israelis and Palestinians—but a cease-fire can be no more than one step in the right direction. A stable and lasting peace cannot be achieved without putting a complete end to the occupation which is the root cause of the hatred and bloodshed. Leaders, politicians and diplomats cannot be relied on to do the job alone. There is needed a daily struggle for peace, a grassroots struggle, a joint struggle of commited citizens from both sides, acting together."

The above sums up the mood among two hundred Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, public figures and intellectuals who gathered this morning in Ramallah on the West Bank to attend the founding conference of the "Joint Action Group for Israeli-Palestinian Peace."

In order to get there, the Israeli participants had to find their way through the army roadblocks at the entrances to Ramallah. After several dozen Israelis mingled among Palestinian pedestrians at Kalandia Checkpoint on the south side of the city, soldiers blocked the entrance. The remaining activists, however, traveled by back roads and eventually made it to the conference hall. A few hours later, when they were exiting the city, soldiers at Kalandia wrote down meticulously names and ID numbers, threatening the Israelis on their way home with prosecution for having broken a military order—the three-year old order forbidding Israelis from entering Palestinian cities ("Area A").

"Our most important declaration is the fact that we are here, peace- seeking Israelis who came to meet peace-seeking Palestinians and establish together a joint organization. The government wants to prevent Israelis who want peace from going into Ramallah; this is a privilege only of soldiers and settlers. But we are here to say to you, our Palestinian friends, that we are not enemies; that the joint enemy of all of us is the occupation, and the joint purpose—peace between the state of Israel and the state of Palestine", said Dr Lev Grinberg of Ben-Gurion University.

"I am happy to receive and host here so many peace-seekers", said Hanan Ashrawi, one of the main Palestinian organizers. "The approach common to all of us here, to Israelis and Palestinians alike, is based on the concept of security—not military security, but human security, creating mutual trust and recognizing the humanness of the other. Even the most difficult problems outstanding between the two peoples, such as settlements, refugees and Jerusalem, must be squarely faced and equitably solved, rather than swept under the rug."

Uri Avnery, who had a central role in bringing about the conference, mapped out a plan of action for the new body:

- setting up a committee of experts to prepare within three months a detailed draft peace agreement, dealing with all difficult issues;
- a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" on the model of the South- African body chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, with the aim of looking at the history of the past century and trying to formulate a version which both peoples can recognize;
- a joint media bureau, which would actively engage the Israeli, Palestinian and international media;
- an operations committee, charged with preparing demonstrations, campaigns and struggles, for example against the Separation Wall which is systematically depriving Palestinian of their lands, or against the roadblocks which severely disrupt daily life.

"We want to confront the feeling of despair among both peoples, both of whom lost the belief that there can be a different future. We want to tell both peoples that they have a partner for peace, that there is somebody to talk to", said Yehudith Har'el, a driving force behind the initiative. "From here, from Ramallah, we want to give a message to both our peoples. There is an alternative to the policy of occupation and bloodshed. An alternative based on recognizing each other's rights; of ending the occupation through evacuation of settlers and withdrawal of the army behind the '67 border. The refugee problem must come to a solution by agreement between the two sides, cooperation with the international community and basing itself on the relevant UN resolutions."

The principles enumerated by Har'el, are in fact those set out in the new organization's manifesto. Naim el-Ashab who took part with her in drafting the text—already signed and published by more than a thousand people—remarked that this document is the result of dozens of preparatory meetings of Palestinians and Israelis over the past two years, starting from a small nucleus and gradually extending to more people on both sides. "This body must monitor the actual implementation of the roadmap, see to it that it does get to its official stated purpose—end of the occupation and creation of a viable Palestinian state which is the only way to achieve peace. The roadmap, originally created as a joint document of four international actors is more and more usurped by a single one of the four, one which has been showing itself as biased all too often. This poses the danger of the whole thing being derailed." He concluded by calling for the stationing of international forces, to ensure disengagement between two sides who have shed so much of each other's blood in the past thousand days.

Former Knesset Member Tamar Gozanski had been delayed at the army road-blocks and arrived an hour late. "Sharon and Bush are trying to sell old merchandise in a new package. They both know that the great majority even of Israelis are weary of war, occupation and bloodshed. Both of them know that it is impossible even to contemplate a solution without talking of "creating a Palestinian state." But their use of this concept is emptying it of the original content. Sharon means to create Bantustans and call them a state. We have to start using new language, and take care to be very precise about what we mean and not give up for example on the '67 borders."

Dr Gabi Baramki, former President of Bir-Zeit University, spoke of the two army roadblocks created at the Surda area, between Ramallah and the town of Bir-Zeit, which force students and lecturers to trek daily some two kilometers by foot, there and back. "This is a sadistic measure, which serves no Israeli security need whatsoever, the only purpose is to make our life difficult, to make it more difficult to maintain the normal academic life of our university." Bir-Zeit students also took up the same point: Israeli activists, some of them students or lecturers themselves, expressed interest in the suggested joint protest at the Surda roadblocks. Some Israeli and Palestinian students already exchanged phone numbers and email addresses on the spot.

Participants called for solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners held by Israel who have started a hunger strike. Specific mention was made of Marwan Barghouti. "If he would be able, he would be here with us." said Hanan Ashrawi. Also mentioned was the other imprisoned Palestinian legislator, Husam Khader.

The Israeli refusniks—with their dramatic court martial sessions in the past week—got applause. "They have been put on trial for their refusal to serve the occupation, but now they put the occupation itself on trial," exclaimed a very proud grandfather, and himself a veteran peace activist, Reuven Kaminer.

The supreme sacrifice of Rachel Corrie was commemorated. (It is just days ago that the army's legal branch officially declared that the Corrie file is closed, with nobody prosecuted.)

A delegation of conference participants met shortly with President Arafat, who was reported to welcome the joint initiative.

For background:

Uri Avnery +972-(0)50-306440
Hanan Ashrawi - +972-(0)2-585 1842
Yehudit Har'el +972-(0)56-263145
Lev Grinberg - +972-(0)52-227432

For video footage:

Natasha Dudinsky - 972-(0)53-475496
Kathy Vasana - 972-(0)67-371606
B.H. Yael - 972-(0)51-939976

A map of the separation wall:

in Hebrew
in English

See also:

Gush Shalom (Hebrew)
Gush Shalom (English)