On 19 September, Miko Peled, the Israeli author of the acclaimed book The General’s Son, spoke to a large audience in Berkeley at an event sponsored by the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a not-for-profit organization that has spent the last 25 years raising funds to sponsor projects that benefit children in Palestine, as well as Iraq and Lebanon.
Alice Walker, writer of The Color Purple, was in the audience along with MECA supporters and many others interested in listening to him talk about his personal journey and political views.
The late Matti Peled, Miko’s father, was a former high-ranking general in the Israeli army and one of Israel’s first internal critics of its policies toward Palestinians.
After Miko’s young niece, Smadar, was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997, he felt compelled to understand what was happening in Palestine beyond the platitudes offered by politicians and Israeli nationalists.
Today, Miko Peled asserts that his personal story is one that in every way “contradicts the national narrative of Israel.”
Before the speech, Peled sat down with The Electronic Intifada’s Charlotte Silver.
Charlotte Silver: In your book, you very seamlessly integrate historical context into your own childhood memories. How did you conduct research for the book?
Miko Peled: I did two types of research. I went back to my mother — my sister was a good resource too — but my mother was my main resource. So I would just sit with her for hours and hours, ask questions, and just talk and talk and talk.
The other aspect of my research was going back to the archives where I looked at everything my dad had ever written. Going back to 1969, which is when he started writing, right after he retired from the military, all the way until he died in 1995.
Then, on the advice of [Israeli journalist] Amira Hass, I went to the Israeli army archives, just to look at his career. I spent countless hours sifting through material that’s not interesting — notes and memos and so on. But there were things that were interesting — like the Gaza report that my father wrote when he was the military governor of Gaza in 1956. And then I looked at the minutes of the meetings leading up to the 1967 war.
CS: What views did your father express in the lead-up to the 1967 war?
MP: Well, a lot of stuff has been written about that. The first thing that struck me — and my father said it first and then the other generals said it over and over again — in their internal discussions as well as discussions with the cabinet trying to convince the cabinet to approve a preemptive strike, is that the Egyptians were not prepared for war. Now, the story is that Israel was under attack by three massive Arab armies that intended to destroy it. That was the narrative that was pretty much accepted. [But I saw that] the generals were saying the Egyptians are not prepared for war, the Egyptians would need another year and a half or two years to be prepared for war. This is a completely different thing.
So in fact, by sending troops into the Sinai Peninsula, which was the perceived threat, the Egyptians were actually weakening themselves and providing a better opportunity for the Israeli army to destroy the Egyptian army.
Well, this is huge. It not only contradicts the myth, it demonstrates that there was an intention to attack that had nothing to do with a threat!
So then, once the attack on Egypt had gone so well, the generals, along with Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, pretty much decided to take the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Because they wanted more and they had the opportunity.
CS: In your book you present two kinds of Zionists: one is the conquering, expanding and colonizing Zionist. And the other, as represented by your father, is in the minority. He believed in a Jewish state, but from the start opposed the occupation of Palestinian territories. Your father’s point of view has become more common but it no longer represents your stance, which mirrors that of many Palestinians who would like to see a single bi-national state. Why do you think it is important to distinguish yourself from the Israeli “peace camp” and advocates of the two-state solution?
MP: You’re right. There was a more moderate and a more aggressive Zionist camp and at every intersection where a decision had to be made, the more militant extremists always took over and won the day. It was true in 1955 and 1956, it was true in 1967, and it’s been true ever since.
The more moderate Zionists said, “OK, we have a state, we have 80 percent of the land of Israel, let’s make peace. We’ve done what we need to establish ourselves; the Zionist dream has been materialized. And let’s move on and see how we can be part of the Middle East.”
The other side said, “No, there’s no room for peace, we’re going to be the biggest bully, we’re going to be the strongest army; if anyone even touches us, we’re going to destroy them. We’re going to take as much land as possible — it’s a zero-sum game.”
After 1967 there was a shift. There was a shift everywhere in the Middle East. But my father took the moderate Zionists’ view one step further: he actually talked about the Palestinians.
At that moment he suddenly became marginalized. Because everybody understood that this conquest had to be made irreversible as soon as possible. And that’s why the massive settlement project began immediately after the war in Jerusalem and in the West Bank and in the Jordan Valley.
So there was no more of that more moderate aspect of Zionism. There was the mainstream Zionism, which went on with the settlement project — Labor and Shimon Peres and all those people — and then there were people like my father who were completely marginalized because they said the word “Palestinians.” And then, he said the word “PLO” [Palestine Liberation Organization] and [asserted that] we have to actually negotiate with the PLO.
Over the years there have been these flares of moderation — flares of the peace movement. But when we actually look at it, that peace movement never really pushed for anything. The settlement project continued, whether under Labor or Likud. The settler project never ended; thousands and thousands of Palestinians were incarcerated as political prisoners, and these issues were never touched. All the symptoms of the occupation were maintained regardless of who was in power.
Only in 1993 was mainstream Israel, led by Yitzhak Rabin, willing to talk about “peace.” But what happened between 1967 and 1993? The conquest was made irreversible. The West Bank disappeared. They knew for certain that there was not a chance in the world that a Palestinian state could emerge, could be established at that point. They had accomplished their goal, so now let’s talk about peace: it can’t hurt, and it behooves everybody politically to do so.
My perspective is that Israel actually created one state by erasing the green line. So the only possibility now is to transform it from a Zionist state — like South Africa was transformed from being an apartheid state — and allow equal rights for everybody.
CS: You tell a story of personal discovery and evolution. Do you think your widening understanding reflects a broader trend among Israelis and Jewish Americans?
MP: Not in the least — Israelis are becoming more and more entrenched in their righteousness and in their right to do what they do. And, in fact [to them], the Palestinian problem is not “their” problem because we gave Palestinians the chance and they blew it — they blew it in Gaza with Hamas, they blew it with the Camp David accords, and Israelis are happy to live in that myth, in that state of mind.
CS: A common trope among liberal Zionists is that the occupation is corrupting Israeli society. For example, the purported purpose of [Israeli ex-soldier group] Breaking the Silence is to expose what a military occupation does to a society. How aware do you think Israeli society already is of what goes on in the West Bank and of the army’s treatment of Palestinians?
MP: It’s certainly new to some Israelis. But knowing something and admitting something are two separate things. Airing out this sort of thing has value whether or not everyone knows. I think they do important work because I think it’s important for Israelis to hear this, because either they know and won’t admit it-they’re in denial — or they don’t know because they don’t care.
CS: You’ve been working as a solidarity activist and advocate for nearly a decade. You went from raising money for wheelchairs in Israel and Palestine — what some would call normalization — to participating in direct actions against settlement activity in Bilin, Beit Ommar and Nabi Saleh. Tell me what you see as the role of solidarity activists. Why is it important and how has the role evolved since you first began?
MP: There are two issues here. There are the Israelis that work in solidarity, that show up to the protests and so on and I see that more as a partnership. I was in Nabi Saleh for the summer and I stayed with Bassem Tamimi [a resident of Nabi Saleh and a leader of the ongoing protests against the theft of the village’s resources by Israel; protests that have been brutally suppressed by the occupying army] and I spent the night at his house and I spent a lot of time with him.
Bassem said, “the Israelis that come here and protest with us, I don’t see them as expressing solidarity, I see them as partners. Because we share this land and, eventually, we need to share the state. So we’re partners, this is not them coming to express solidarity, it’s their coming to struggle with us because we’re struggling to accomplish the same goal. Everyone’s future is at stake.”
And I’m not just talking about the occupation of 1967, I’m talking about all of Palestine or all of Israel as being occupied and every single Israeli city is a settlement. So all of that needs to change, and the new paradigm needs to be a non-Zionist paradigm where we all share the land and share the state.
I think that expressing solidarity with Palestinians is the most important thing people can do, I think it’s the moral thing to do, I think politically it’s the right thing to do. I think that if you look at all the problems in the world — famine, poverty, et cetera — this compared to that is a very easy problem to solve, it could begin tomorrow. This is something that is man-made and can be fixed by man relatively simply.
CS: But these two so-called partners are not equal. And the future is not the same for Palestinians and Israelis. For example, Palestinians face indefinite detention, land confiscation, their homes get demolished and children shot. Furthermore, not all Israeli activists see a one-state solution as the goal. With that in mind, can you comment further on how you see your and other Israelis’ role in Palestine’s struggle?
MP: I think that Israeli activists should see themselves as partners and fight for equal rights. It’s true that we are not equal and that is precisely why we must fight for justice. If we focus the struggle on justice and equality we will all benefit equally and the end result will be a better place for all of us. This is why I make a point of spending days and nights in the West Bank with Palestinian friends in defiance of Israel’s racist laws. Keeping Israelis like me privileged is part of what needs to change.
CS: Can you speak to the issue of normalization? What does this word mean to you and what harm do you see it as having on Palestine’s struggle for liberation?
MP: The BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement has defined normalization very well and I agree with their definition. [The definition refers to events that promote “reconciliation” between Israelis and Palestinians without addressing the injustices and inequalities faced by Palestinians].
CS: From your perspective, how has the resistance developed and changed over the past seven years, since you began going to protests in the West Bank?
MP: What’s changed is there are more checkpoints along the way to get to those places. The Israeli army’s violence is the same; they’re just as aggressive as they ever were. The beating-up, the tear gas and the shooting.
The amazing thing is that the Palestinians’ determination has not weakened. Over the past seven years more and more villages have joined this [popular protest]. Palestinians have been arrested, they’ve been beaten, they’ve been killed, they’ve inhaled more tear gas than anyone can possibly imagine, their villages and their land are polluted with tear gas canisters and bullets of all different kinds, and it doesn’t even occur to them to stop. Their dedication is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen.
CS: Have you heard more dissatisfaction with Palestinian Authority?
MP: Absolutely. People talk about it very openly; they use much stronger words than dissatisfaction. It’s clear to everybody that the PA is completely useless.
People say that the PA are collaborators, people see them as cronies of Israel — now I’m saying what I hear. That they don’t have the Palestinians’ best interests in mind.
They talk about the PA needing to go, there’s a big change in that. I am hearing people talk about that everywhere and very openly.
CS: Are you hopeful for the future?
MP: You know, I think that if you’re going to be an activist you have to be hopeful.
And I think the end is going to be a bi-national democracy; there’s no question in my mind that that’s the only solution that’s out there and that is where it’s going to go. And I think it’s something that could happen very quickly and I’m willing to guess that within the next ten years, it’s going to happen. I mean there are going to be over 2.5 million people [in Gaza] in the year 2020. Israel can ignore Palestinians as much as it wants, but there will be 2.5 million people living in Gaza, so is their economy going to be based on tunnels? We’re talking about 800,000 children in Gaza today.
Israel is ignoring the reality but the reality can’t be ignored forever. What I fear is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I fear that the Zionist state is going to get more violent. A year ago they had all the top brass of the Israeli army sit together at a special conference to figure out how to combat the nonviolent resistance and they came out with the conclusion that they have no answer to the nonviolent resistance. Which means their response is going to be even more violent.
Several people have already been killed, there’s shooting all the time, children are being beaten and arrested in the middle of the night. I fear that this will become worse. Because the Zionist state is not going to just roll over a die, the Israeli army is not going to give up easily. So I think it’s going to be an uphill battle, but I have no doubt that it is a battle that is going to be won.
Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in occupied Palestine and San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @CharESilver.