Israelis protest to mark Six-Day War
This week's remembrances of the Six-Day War 40 years ago expose political divisions in Israeli society.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Civilians shuffle in line at a checkpoint, waiting nervously in the bright sun to get to the end of the fenced-in tunnel. When they do, they find themselves confronted by M16-wielding soldiers who tell them they're not allowed to pass – they don't have the proper permits.
"We need to go through," pleads a Palestinian man holding his wife's hand.
"No permit, no entry," an Israeli soldier replies.
"Haven't you had enough of this –"
Rifles are raised, tensions are ticking, voices vault.
This is not a scene one would ever witness on the average day in a Tel Aviv that is far-removed from the daily tremors ofthe West Bank. But it is one that is played out daily at checkpoints inside and on the borders of Israel's occupied territories in the West Bank and on the borders of the Gaza Strip.
So on Tuesday, the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Six-Day War, peace activists set up a mock checkpoint here in an effort to give Israelis a bitter if symbolic taste of what it means for the country to hold onto the territories it has occupied since 1967.
"We want people to know that this occupation isn't just bad for the Palestinians, it's destroying Israeli society," says Chava Lerman, a middle-aged mother who is active in Machsom (checkpoint) Watch, an organization of women who go out to West Bank checkpoints to witness and record the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers.
Such strong sentiments about the impact of Israel's presence in the territories represent a certain slice of the political spectrum. On the religious right, other Israelis view the outcome of the 1967 war, in which Israel seized control of lands that have been parts of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, as a sign of divine providence, even heralding a messianic era. The secular right saw it as a victory that added strategic depth to a country that, between 1948 and 1967, was slim and not fully defensible.
But in between these two poles is an amorphous Israeli middle that is uncertain about what was right then and what's to be done about it now. As the country grapples with where to go from here, it seems that even within Israeli society, there are deeply different narratives about how Israel got into the Six-Day War – whether it was attacked or acted as a provocateur – and whether it could have taken a different path in its aftermath.
Perhaps the most contentious policy to follow the 1967 war was the Jewish settlement of what were once Arab lands. Israel has settled over 260,000 citizens in the West Bank since 1967 – another 18,000 live on the Golan Heights while the 8,000 Jewish settlers who had been housed in Gaza were evacuated by force nearly two years ago.
"We realized that that homeland comes with a huge mortgage, and no one's willing to pay it," says Michael Oren, a historian and author of "Six Days of War." He says that most Israelis were dazzled by their territorial gains in 1967, in particular by regaining access to holy sites in the Old City as well as places on the biblical landscape of the West Bank.
"I think Israeli society is a lot less polarized than it was five years ago," says Mr. Oren, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In the middle, Oren explains, is the average Israeli, who won't show up to express outrage in a protest in Tel Aviv, but is keen to make compromises if it's a route to making peace.
"What you have is a much wider center," he says. "The feeling is that Israel should help create a Palestinian state and that would be the ideal solution. But in the absence of a tenable Palestinian partner, Israel has no choice but to draw its borders unilaterally, and that's really how Israel can defend itself. We've moved from a paradigm of coexistence to a paradigm of separation."
The war's anniversary week will be full of protests, marches, and rallies, many of them held jointly by Israeli and Palestinian activists. While the Tel Aviv demonstration continued, a big-screen live feed came in from Anata, a Palestinian village outside Jerusalem.
But several Palestinians who were able to get to Tel Aviv also made their way to the stage here, to tell their stories in person. Bassam Arramin of Combatants for Peace, an organization of Israeli and Palestinian men with military backgrounds, addressed the crowd and implored them not to go home and feel satisfied.
"We are victims of the occupation, both of us," he says. "It has made us all into fighters. But I don't want to be occupied by you, and you don't want to be a state of occupiers."
For her part, Ms. Lerman acknowledges that most of the people who went out of their way Tuesday to put themselves through the simulated checkpoint experience are other peace activists and left-wingers opposed to Israel's presence in the territories it conquered 40 years ago this week. The exercise was, in a sense, preaching to the converted.
"If this affects the mind-set of even one person, great, we did something," she says. "That's better than sitting at home and accepting this situation."