Those killed in Operation Protective Edge are remembered at the rally in Tel Aviv. Photo: Getty
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“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”: what it’s like to be an anti-war Israeli

Pacifism has attracted a social penalty in Israeli society for decades – many Israelis are immersed in a siege mentality, cynically whipped up at critical moments by their self-serving leadership. But a small anti-war movement clings on.

On Saturday, I attended an extremist demonstration in Tel Aviv. Some 5,000 other dangerous fanatics and I gave up a small slice of our weekend to express our intolerably radical views to a hostile or, at best, indifferent public, surrounded by a thick protective wall of visibly disgruntled border police and a 20-foot wide cordon of metal barriers.

Some waved the Palestinian national flag; many carried signs saying things like “Stop the War” and “End the Occupation”. We chanted “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and distributed bumper stickers with the subversive slogan “It won’t end until we talk”. One guy carried a clutch of olive branches. Tea candles spelled out the Hebrew word slicha – forgiveness. The message was meant for the embattled Gazan civilians but it might as well have been for our colleagues, friends and relatives, many of whom would consider us deluded at best, traitors at worst. I'm sure most of us hadn’t advertised our intention to attend the demo in advance; I certainly didn’t. Protest is one thing, but the angry recriminations of loved ones – that is something I admit is beyond the scope of my bravery. In my life, I have faced potatoes lobbed at me from upper floors by small children on demonstrations and anguished accusations of indifference to my family’s safety. I know which hurt more.

This was not the first anti-war protest in Israel this month; there had been many actions and demonstrations, poorly covered by western media, if covered at all. The rally, which was organised by activists from Hadash (socialist) and Balad (pro-binational state) parties, represents the very edge of electoral possibility in Israel. The more mainstream left and centre-left organisations such as Peace Now and Meretz, which are staunchly committed to a two-state future and support for the military, openly distanced themselves. A small counter-demonstration was being held behind a wall of police cars; at previous events anti-war activists had been physically set upon. The overwhelmingly male, right-wing cadre protesting against us waved Israeli flags and, from what I heard, shouted disjointed obscenities - “smelly leftists”, “you take it up the ass”, that sort of thing. When the rally was dispersing – called off early due to resumed shelling of the Tel Aviv area by Hamas – we were urged to leave quickly, while the police presence was still strong, for our own protection. I’ve seen an unconfirmed report of stragglers being followed home and attacked in the stairwells of their own apartment buildings. Me and my (female) co-demonstrator slipped through the occasional clutch of wannabe thugs entirely unnoticed.

Pacifism has attracted a social penalty in Israeli society for decades. In 1983, barely on the edges of my political memory, peace activist Emil Grunzweig was killed during a Peace Now rally by a hand grenade thrown into the crowd by right-wing activist Yona Avrushmi. A dozen years later, another right-wing activist, Yigal Amir, shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after the latter spoke at a rally on the square that now bears his name – a rally that was held, in part, to celebrate the success of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Increasingly worrying escalations in rhetorical and street violence preceded both events, and both were met with dismay and surprise within Israel.

For me, the enduring image of what it is to be firmly, unequivocally on the anti-violence left in Israel comes from Uri Barbash’s Oscar-nominated 1984 movie Beyond the Walls. In this uniquely Israeli and completely universal prison drama, a minor character, the dissident Assaf (imprisoned for aiding the PLO), is variously called “a knife in the people’s back” and “a cancer in the heart of the nation” by his fellow inmates. I have often jokingly turned these slurs against myself, but I know that really, it’s serious: this is how dissent from Israel’s military stance towards the Palestinians is and always has been seen by many Israelis immersed in a siege mentality, one that is cynically whipped up at critical moments by their self-serving leadership. There is no need for Israeli politicians to be craftier than foreign ones; it’s just that Gaza is so much closer than the Falklands.

So has it got worse? What, if anything, has changed? In some ways, little that hasn’t changed elsewhere, too. Israel is more economically unequal than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, daily life is harder for many of its residents – Jews and Arabs alike. Popular demands for social justice flared up but withered on the same neoliberal vine as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. The class divisions setting Israelis against each other remain: between an economic and intellectual elite largely comprised of Jews of European descent and an economic and political underclass heavily weighted towards those from Middle Eastern, Arab countries. The Israeli left retreated into academic infighting about ideological purity indistinguishable from that of its European counterparts (veterans of UK demos will have been amused to see the Anarchist flag and Socialist booth firmly entrenched in opposite corners of the square). Just as Barack Obama can, in all seeming seriousness, be called a dangerous communist by a Tea Party drunk on its own rhetoric, so can a small, peaceful demonstration of well-meaning but frankly ineffectual Israelis be read as a fanatical hate rally that seeks to undermine the state. People who weren’t there have accused me, with Farage-like confidence, of “marching under Stalinist symbols”.

Contrary to Twitter liberals’ apparent belief, Israelis, en masse, are not without a moral imagination. Scenes of the devastation in Gaza are broadcast on the national news here much more ruthlessly than in Europe. But impulses like the genuinely and widely felt abhorrence at the revenge murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir are quickly subsumed in the imperative to unite “behind our boys” by the needlessly escalated conflict.

Perhaps if – when – another political assassination of a Jewish dissident happens, the shock and outrage will dissipate quickly again. Or perhaps there will be years of recrimination, of “where did we go wrong” of “how could brother kill brother?”. It’s impossible to tell, and frankly I don’t know which would be better. We in this region “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, as Abba Eban once said. Just like talking to the PLO was completely impossible until it happened, so I believe it will be with Hamas, and eventually with what I consider the inevitability of a binational, perhaps federalised state. But these insights will come after countless more deaths on both sides.

Marina Strinkovsky is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game. Her main interests revolve around male violence against women, reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. Marina has written for the F-Word and Indy Voices among others. She lives in Swindon with her one surviving cactus and, remarkably, no cats

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.