Knesset Member Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint (Arab) List party, defended on Friday evening the unanimous decision of his party members not to attend the funeral of the late Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Peres was buried Friday at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. His funeral ceremony was attended by dignitaries from over 70 countries around the world, including US President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton. Regional statesmen including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Fatah officials, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry were also present but the absences of Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II were notable.
Ahead of the funeral Friday, Odeh said party members would not attend, citing a “complicated” history. The party — which has 13 MKs — had also remained mostly silent since Peres’s passing on Wednesday morning, publishing no eulogy or statement. Peres died two weeks after suffering a major stroke.
Speaking on Israeli Channel 2 on Friday, Odeh said that Peres’s funeral was part of a “national day of mourning in which I have no place; not in the narrative, not in the symbols that exclude me, not in the stories of Peres as a man who built up Israel’s defenses.”
Odeh did extend his condolences to Peres’s family and close friends and said he understood that the decision not to participate in the funeral was hurtful to those “reasonable forces in Israeli society” with whom he says he has built ties.
The head of the Arab-majority party — made up of Balad, Ta’al, Hadash and the United Arab List — was fiercely chided by the panelists on Channel 2 who countered that the decision not to attend the funeral showed a lack of leadership on his part and a missed opportunity.
Odeh retorted that he did not accept that “patronizing interpretation” of his actions, joking bitterly that he had arrived in the studio wearing a bullet-proof vest after the storm of criticism he and his party members have received.
Odeh said that since Peres’s stroke two weeks ago and especially his passing on Wednesday, it was important for him “not to hurt [feelings] and to convey messages that can be complex and misunderstood.”
“On the personal and human level, I feel the pain [of Peres’s passing], but not on the national level,” Odeh said.
“I try so hard to understand the pain of the Jews, with the Holocaust and the pogroms they suffered. The Jews need to understand our [Arab-Israelis’] pain too, otherwise it’s not real coexistence,” he argued.
Odeh said that on Saturday, the Arab-Israeli community would be marking the 16th anniversary of the October 2000 riots in which 13 members of the community were killed by police during a series of demonstrations across Arab villages. They were protesting Israel actions against Palestinians as the Second Intifada was unfolding.
“Can someone understand our pain [from those events] or does that not interest anybody?” asked Odeh who said that one of those killed was his wife’s younger brother.
“Will anyone from the government attend [the ceremonies marking the deaths]?” he went on.
Peres, he said, did “many positive things [throughout his life] but there are things we can’t forgive [Israelis for], like the events of 1948 [during the founding of the State of Israel in which thousands from the Arab community fled or were displaced], Kfar Kassem [in which 48 civilians from the village were killed by Israel Border Police in 1956 when they unknowingly violated a curfew while returning from work] and yes, the October 2000 events.”
Peres officially apologized for the Kfar Kassem killings, known as the Kfar Kassem masscre, in 2007. “A terrible event happened here in the past, and we are very sorry for it,” he said at the time.
Odeh said he and the party had chosen to remain silent on Peres’s death “out of respect.”
On his Twitter account Thursday, Odeh wrote in Hebrew that “Peres’s memory in the Arab community is different from the narrative that has been spoken about over the past few days and I understand that it is difficult to hear such complicated messages in the moments after his death.”
When asked on Army Radio Thursday whether he would attend the funeral, Odeh said, “I will not take part in this celebration of 1948, of the nuclear reactor. I think all of those events were tragedies for other people, for my nation in 1948.”
He also called Peres a “man of security, occupation and settlement construction who introduced nuclear [facilities] to the Middle East and, unfortunately, was also a president who chose to support Netanyahu and his policies.”
Odeh also went on to cite the April 1996 Qana attack, when Israel Defense Forces artillery fire on a UN compound in the southern Lebanese village killed 106 civilians.
Peres was prime minister at the time, and Odeh told Army Radio that he held him responsible for the “massacre.”
The comments echoed, albeit more softly, comments made MK Basel Ghattas, also of the Joint List, who sparked a firestorm when he criticized Peres two weeks ago after he first suffered a major stroke.
Ghattas said Peres “was one of the pillars of the Zionist colonial project, and one of the most despicable, cruel, radical and long-lived [of its leadership].”
Peres “was the most damaging and calamitous for the Palestinian nation and other Arab peoples,” Ghattas said.
Though he served as defense minister and was considered a hawk in his early years in politics, rejecting any compromise with hostile Arab states, Peres later became the face of the country’s peace movement, carrying on the legacy of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who was his partner in working on the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
Peres had said he was converted to dovishness after 1977, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, leading to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.
Peres gained international recognition for his Nobel Peace Prize, and late in life, became a virtual celebrity as he traveled around the globe preaching a message of peace and coexistence.