Inside story

New Arab-Jewish movement stages countrywide events demanding ceasefire

After months of silence, some Arab Israelis join with left-wing Jewish activists to call for an end to the war. Others say the ‘day after’ is already here – and they don’t like it

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Protest organized by the Peace Partnership calling for an end to the Gaza war in the Arab town of Tira, Israel, March 9, 2024. (Peace Partnership/Courtesy)
Protest organized by the Peace Partnership calling for an end to the Gaza war in the Arab town of Tira, Israel, March 9, 2024. (Peace Partnership/Courtesy)

As the Israeli offensive in Gaza nears the six-month mark, some 50 left-wing and Arab-Jewish shared society groups have coalesced to launch a campaign for a ceasefire. Lately, they have been stepping up their efforts — and out of the shadows.

While small anti-war protests — separate from the hostage release rallies — have been staged in Tel Aviv every week for months, Arab Israeli civil society has mostly refrained from public demonstrations out of fear of police crackdown on dissent. A wave of Arab Israeli citizens, including some prominent figures, were arrested for social media posts that allegedly violated laws against incitement in the months following the war. Police authorizations for protests in Arab towns have also been difficult to come by, activists say.

Named “Peace Partnership,” the anti-war coalition made its first public appearance in January in Haifa, with a rally of Arabs and Jews that drew about 500 people. The following protest was held in February in Tira, a town in the majority-Arab “triangle area” in central Israel, and drew about 250. On March 9, an International Women’s Day event in Taybeh, also in the triangle, was followed by another peace rally in nearby Tira, and showed a similar attendance figure of about 300, twice what the organizers had expected.

“It was very emotional to see Jews and Arabs standing next to each other to demand a ceasefire. It gives me hope that it will encourage more people to join the protests,” said Nisreen Morqus, one of the organizers of the Taybe gathering. Morqus is the general secretary of Tandi, the Movement of Democratic Women in Israel, a group affiliated with the majority-Arab Hadash party.

The activist expressed her sympathy for the Israeli hostages held by Hamas, but stated that a military operation is not the way to achieve their release.

“If I had a family member held hostage in Gaza, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night or to sit still. But we can’t expect the hostages to be returned without an end to the war,” Morqus said.

“And yet, very few of the hostages’ families have called for a ceasefire. People must understand that there are no winners in war, only losers. It only deepens the conflict, the hostility, the hate between our two peoples,” she added.

Protest organized by the Peace Partnership calling for an end to the Gaza war in the Arab town of Tira, Israel, March 9, 2024. (Peace Partnership/Courtesy)

The ceasefire rally on the main road of Tira on March 9 was welcomed by local Arab residents, with passing drivers honking in support of the protesters, Morqus recalled.

“There is still fear among Arab Israelis to speak up, or even to collect funds for food donations in Gaza. People here feel helpless,” said Morqus. “Every morning we wake up to the news of dozens of people killed in Gaza, they have run out of space to bury their dead. It’s become the new normal. It’s as if Gazans are not regarded as human beings.”

Given the overwhelming support among Jewish Israelis for the Gaza war, which stands at about 80 percent, according to a January poll by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), ceasefire protests would be deeply unpopular in majority-Jewish cities, Peace Partnership organizers say.

“These rallies are possible in [liberal] Tel Aviv, but not in Kfar Saba,” said Irit Levanon, referencing a middle-class residential town in central Israel. Levanon is a regional organizer in the Jewish-Arab Israeli activist group “Standing Together,” which is also a member of the Peace Partnership.

The Peace Partnership’s next gathering is planned in the mixed coastal city of Acre, near Haifa, on March 27, Morqus said, signaling an increase in the frequency of public actions by the coalition.

Protest organized by the Peace Partnership calling for an end to the Gaza war in the Arab town of Tira, Israel, March 9, 2024. (Peace Partnership/Courtesy)

‘The day after is already here’

Former Hadash MK Mohammad Barakeh was detained on November 9 together with three other prominent Arab Israeli leaders as he was driving to a planned protest in Nazareth that the police alleged could incite violence and threaten public order.

Barakeh recalled his November encounter with the police and his short detention at a conference organized by the Peace Partnership last week in Jerusalem under the title “Ask for Peace and you shall be persecuted.” The goal of the confab was to denounce the perceived silencing of opposition voices against the war.

Back in November, the police stated that the gathering had not been authorized, while organizers claimed that the number of participants would have been below the legal threshold of 50 for which a permit is required. Arab media described the planned gathering as “an invitation-only vigil.”

Addressing an audience of a few dozen members of local civil society groups last week, Barakeh argued that the limitations to freedom of speech under charges of incitement have been a manifestation of a wider phenomenon engulfing Israeli society.

“There has been a steady deterioration towards fascism in Israel in recent years. Since the state’s founding in 1948, Arab Israelis were subject to persecution and racism, but with the Nation-State Law, discrimination has been etched in the constitution,” he said, referencing the controversial Basic Law passed in 2018 that defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

“Today, it has assumed frightening proportions – and not just because of arrests due to Facebook posts, but because of the atmosphere reigning in vast parts of the Israeli public,” said Barakeh.

Panel organized by the ceasefire movement ‘Peace Partnership’ on the alleged persecution of peace activists, Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. From left: Journalist Meron Rapoport, Arab leader Mohammad Barakeh, Ir Amim director Yehudit Oppenheimer, Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman, and Shiko Behar, from the Mizrahi Civic Collective. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

The former MK denounced the virtual disappearance of a mainstream peace camp from Israeli politics, which was crucial in drumming up support for the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s.

“Politically, the center-left has been hollowed out. You have a few [politicians] in the peace camp, Meretz, Labor, and then you go straight to [Yair] Lapid,” Barakeh said, referencing the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “There is nothing in between.”

Barakeh currently serves as chair of the umbrella organization for the Arab community, the High Follow-up Committee, which has also been active in protest actions for a ceasefire, and organized a large rally in the Arab village of Kafr Kanna on March 2, attended by 1,500.

Other speakers in the panel concurred that the suppression of freedom of speech is an unprecedented phenomenon for Arab Israeli society, that had not been seen in the bloodiest periods of its past, such as the Second Intifada (2000-2005).

However, some panel participants saw an opportunity for a radical change in Israeli/Palestinian relations after the bloodbath of October 7, when hoards of Hamas-led terrorists stormed into Israel from Gaza, killing 1,200 and taking 253 hostages, and the ensuing Israeli operation to free the hostages and eradicate the terror group, which according to unverified Hamas figures has caused the death of over 31,000 Gazans, including members of the terror group.

Yehudit Oppenheimer, director of the left-wing Ir Amim advocacy group for East Jerusalem residents, also a member of the Peace Partnership coalition, argued that right-wing forces in the capital city have exploited the war in Gaza to push their agenda, citing recent home demolitions of prominent Palestinian activists such as Fakhri Abu Diab.

“The day after the war that everyone is talking about is already here, at least in Jerusalem and in mixed cities,” Oppenheimer said. “There is a potential for alternatives, and for new partnerships on the local level. Jerusalem is the city with the largest population of both Israelis and Palestinians. It is the place for hope.”

Another panel member, MK Aida Touma-Sliman from Hadash, also expressed cautious hope, saying, “There is no return to October 6, when the state of our democracy was already problematic, but maybe we can create a new reality.”

“For now, we are letting [right-wingers] design the day after. That should not be an option, after all our years of struggle,” she said.

Touma-Sliman acknowledged that a positive outcome of the war is that the issue of Palestinian statehood is back on the table.

“The question is, can we create an influential political force out of this movement?” she asked.

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