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Letter on the impact of the occupation and in support of APN

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Born and raised in Jerusalem, Ori Nir is the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now.  Previously, Ori worked for Haaretz Daily, Israel's leading newspaper, where he covered Palestinian affairs and Israel's Arab minority.  He also served as Washington bureau chief for Ha'aretz and the Forward, America's largest and most influential independent national Jewish weekly newspaper.

Sept. 2009

Dear Friend,

This summer we watched events unfold that left us scratching our heads - or wringing our hands: "Protestors" of health-care reform carrying weapons to town hall meetings and shouting down Senators and members of Congress. The spread of fictions, like the so-called death panels, in order to fan the hysteria. And over at Fox TV, host Glenn Beck called Barack Obama a racist and "joked" about putting poison in Speaker Pelosi's wine.

Israel experienced the coarsening of its society this summer, too. Newspaper readers were treated to reports of sadistic hazing in the Israel Defense Forces' tank corps. The appalling behavior that the press uncovered included beatings, lashings, severe humiliation, and other forms of brutality toward new recruits. Then, of course, there was the murderous shooting at the Tel Aviv gay youth center.

And in an Israeli "Glenn Beck moment," Moshe Ya'alon - who is the minister of strategic affairs, deputy prime minister and a senior member of Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud Party - was caught on tape telling far right-wing party activists that Peace Now is a "virus" that had to be dealt with.

In order to save Israel, Ya'alon said, "we must deal with the issue of the virus that is Peace Now and, if you will, the elites. Their damage is very great. From my point of view, Jews should live in every part of the Land of Israel forever."

Dangerous language inciting against malevolent "elites," with its implied invitation to violence, echoed from America and Israel this summer. Both Israelis and Americans know all too well how short the path can be from verbal brutality to deadly violent action.

Ya'alon's outburst is an example of the vitriol that Shalom Achshav, Israel's Peace Now movement, encounters regularly from the Israeli right. It is vitriol that Shalom Achshav counters with civility, with facts, working through Israel's institutions. In the United States, Americans for Peace Now (APN) supports these efforts through education, advocacy, and by providing 60-90 percent of Peace Now's funding.

I know all this very well because I am an Israeli as well as APN's spokesperson. Before APN, I covered Palestinian affairs for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. I was in a position to watch the slow brutalization of the IDF, and to see how it seeped into daily life in Israel.

In February 1988, just north of Hebron, I witnessed a group of Israeli soldiers beating an unarmed Palestinian teenager with clubs. Moments earlier, the soldiers - in violation of IDF regulations - had hurled tear-gas canisters into a home in which frightened Palestinian women and children were huddled. This conduct - bone-breaking blows and overzealous use of tear gas - was all too commonplace in the West Bank and Gaza at that time, the early days of the first Intifada.

I had a short, tense conversation with the commander of the soldiers, who was eager to get rid of me and a fellow journalist. Before leaving, I stuck a business card in his hand. Months later, after he finished his military service, the junior officer phoned me and asked to meet.

He was visibly confused and embarrassed. He talked about his first-hand experience of how power corrupts, explaining that merely having power often drives you to exercise it in ways that you know are wrong. "You do it because you can," he plainly said. And that frightened him. He said he was afraid to tell people what he and his soldiers had done because of what it would say about him and about the IDF. He said he was alarmed by how easy it had been for violent urges take over rational, responsible thinking. "What if it happens to me in civilian life?" he wondered.

Well, it did. Maybe not to him personally, but on the national, collective level, anti-Palestinian brutality did cross into Israel. You can see it in the way law enforcement officers use force against Israeli civilians. One example, which I witnessed and documented as a reporter: In Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth, in October 2000, Israeli police snipers shot and killed stone-throwing Arab citizens of Israel, who were demonstrating in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Israeli police had never before used lethal sniper-fire to control demonstrating crowds inside the Green Line. The practice was "imported" from the IDF's playbook for controlling Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the trend certainly didn't end there. Israeli sociologists and journalists have documented over the past two decades the impact on Israeli society of the IDF's aggressive behavior in the West Bank and Gaza. It's obvious. It's even natural. Israelis are aware of it, at least at a certain level. But many Israelis, refusing to come to terms with the IDF's actions across the Green Line, have built a wall of suppression and denial to block it out.

And when the courageous, patriotic Israeli soldiers of Breaking the Silence tried to tear down that wall by talking about what they saw and did in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's government launched a campaign to dry up their funding and to intimidate them.

The occupation burdens Israel politically, economically and militarily. It is also a heavy moral liability. Exercising power as a military occupier over a civilian population leaves deep, violent scars in the minds of young Israelis. It conditions them to solve problems by force. It contributes to the brutalization of Israeli society. It's yet another reason to redouble our efforts to seek peace and pursue it.

Certainly, we pursue peace on both sides of the Green Line and we do not excuse Palestinian violence. We hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for credibly fighting against terrorism and militancy in the West Bank. And we condemn the militant ideology and violent conduct of Hamas in Gaza. A peace agreement with the Palestinians could only be sustained if Palestinians stop using violence and incitement to violence against Israel.

But that doesn't relieve Israel of its responsibilities and certainly should not serve as an excuse for Israelis to not do the right thing. Besides, as an Israeli, I have a personal interest in the wellbeing of Israeli society. Israel's society can go through a meaningful healing process only if it addresses the causes for its brutalization, including the occupation.

Peace Now (Shalom Achshav) is the largest grassroots peace movement in Israel's history. It was founded in 1978 to provide public encouragement for a peace treaty with Egypt. Today, Peace Now pushes for peace with the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon, and the rest of the Arab world.

As a supporter of Americans for Peace Now, its sister organization, you contribute to Peace Now's fact-finding activities in Israel, including Settlement Watch, the premier civilian, impartial source of information about Israel's settlements in the territories.

And you help Peace Now make the system work. Peace Now's appeals to Israel's High Court of Justice in settlements cases are bearing fruit. For example, this summer, the court lambasted the Israeli government's failure to enforce the law and demolish 18 structures built in two West Bank outposts.

In the United States, APN presses Washington to help Israel secure a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Through education and advocacy, in the corridors of Congress, in Administration offices, in the media, and on campuses and synagogues nationwide, APN's efforts help remind Americans that securing sustainable borders for a Jewish, democratic Israel is a vital U.S. national security interest too.

APN publishes comprehensive, persuasive information, in advertisements, op-eds and on our newly renovated website, peacenow.org. Here you'll find issue analyses, peace reports and updates on the settlements that will give you the facts you need for a deeper understanding of Israel and her neighbors. And our website's interactive features put you in touch with likeminded people around the world.

With your participation, we'll continue to build a constituency for peace. We'll provide a civil, rational alternative to the Glenn Becks and Moshe Ya'alons. We'll continue to broadcast the message that the growth of settlements and the continued occupation are detrimental to Israel.

Please support APN with a tax-deductible donation. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Ori Nir
APN Spokeperson

P.S. We welcome the Obama administration as an honest broker between Israel and her Arab neighbors. The administration's efforts are aimed at achieving regional peace, which will make Israel a stronger, more secure democracy.