One night on patrol Major Nir Avishai Cohen saw two figures approaching the other side of the fence surrounding Gaza. The order was clear: shoot anyone attempting to climb the fence on the assumption he was a terrorist. A sniper fired. Two fell. One was killed, the other wounded. In terror, the surviving seventeen year old boy explained that he and a friend were going to look for work in Israel since none was available in destitute Gaza. That turned out to be the case.
This and similar incidents started Cohen thinking about the job he was assigned to do; namely, patrol in the occupied Palestinian territories. Why were they occupied and what sense did that make? He concluded that he was there largely to protect the Israeli settlers who thought they were Biblically entitled to the land where Palestinians live. Aside from injustice, this left Israel less secure where no border in fact exists and terrorists, if they choose, can easily cross. He writes in his book, Love Israel, Support Palestine, the settlers of Messianic bent are the main barrier to a peace treaty with the Palestinians.
Understandably, Cohen has been vilified with ample curses and death threats. In the military he’s tolerated as a skilled machine gunner who expresses his views as well as he shoots. He’s particularly concerned to reach a wider public, especially the young who have experienced only a hard right government for most of their lives. He says that as a man of the left, he wants to wake up Israeli’s rather somnolent left.
It would have been hard to predict this stance when as a small-town farm boy, he delighted in picking mangos. But there was also the lure of military life, and he prepared himself with long grueling runs. The enemy? Nowhere to be seen. He never visited the Arabs a mere twenty minutes away. “Giant invisible walls were built and nurtured between the Jews and the Arab settlements.”
Today, he writes, the Israeli government is stalling on a solution. But the status quo is not sustainable as the present disastrous war clearly shows. “There are two populations – Jewish and Arab -who Ivie in the same territory but have two different legal systems. The Jewish population is subject to Israeli law while the Arab population is subject to martial law.” This isn’t democracy, he writes, but apartheid.
Cohen has tried his hand at politics with minimal success. His dream is the creation of a Jewish-Arab political party. A tentative move in that direction is a group he joined called “Breaking Silence,” which consists of former military men anxious to tell what they have learned about Palestinians in their service. The group has run up against what Cohen calls “a well-oiled incitement machine with a lot of money and media know-how that acted and continued to act against anyone who dares to go against Israel’s presence in the territories.” But they figure their service counts in their favor. Since they have risked their lives in defense of their country, they can hardly be accused of not loving it. So please listen to us.