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Israel's problem isn't Palestinian nationalism — it's Palestinians themselves

Most of the circumstances that made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ripe for resolution — or at least made the peace process attractive to both parties — have all but disappeared over the past decade.

Many Israelis were likely happy to read The New Yorker article titled “The End of This Road: The Decline of the Palestinian National Movement” earlier this month. The piece is of particular interest due to where it was published — the liberal elite’s most prominent magazine, which generally champions the Zionist Left and the American-backed two-state solution.

The identity of its authors is also noteworthy: Ahmad Samih Khalidi was involved in Israeli-Palestinian talks for years; Hussein Agha is a close associate of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was charged with holding secret talks with Yitzhak Molcho — Netanyahu’s chief envoy to the negotiations — and Obama’s former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross in the run-up to John Kerry’s peace initiative in 2013.

For the same reason we should also take the authors’ main argument, according to which Abbas is the last remaining Palestinian who can sign a final-status agreement, with a grain of salt. Yet the headline is not misleading, and it joins a long list of publications that rightfully declare the end of the Oslo peace process.

Over the past decade, most of the circumstances that made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ripe for resolution — or at least made the peace process attractive to both parties — have all but disappeared. The process began with the Madrid Conference at the end of the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that subverted and upended Israel’s mechanisms of control in the occupied territories at the time, which meant that Israel was suddenly faced with managing a hostile population. Meanwhile, as the Cold War came to an end, the United States was the sole remaining superpower to which the rest of the world wanted to get closer. The peace process promised Israel a thaw in relations with the Third World, an economic leap, and an end to the Arab boycott. Meanwhile, the then-exiled PLO was facing a crisis and feared the emergence of an alternative leadership developing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Twenty-five years later, Israel has grown stronger, including with regards to its influence over internal American politics. The low-hanging fruit of the peace process have already been picked. It is convenient for the Israeli Right, which loves to criticize...

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Decades of failed peace talks: How Israel negotiates with itself

Why have Israeli-Palestinian negotiations failed? The most common answer among the Israeli right focuses on “Palestinian rejectionism” or mistakes made by American facilitators. According to the narrative espoused by the center-left, Israel also hasn’t shown up to the negotiating table with clean hands — certainly not in the past decade. And yet, the fact that talks continue to fail without any correlation to the makeup of the leadership on either side (leaders representing different governments with different politics and approaches, operating under different international and regional circumstances), leaves much to be desired.

I’d like to propose an alternative framework, focusing on the dynamics and interests in the process, rather than the personalities and ideologies.

We already live in a one-state reality

The median age of the Jewish population in Israel is 32. The median age for non-Jewish Israeli citizens is 22.5, and the median age of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is 20. In other words, half the population between the river and the sea was born — or, at least, grew up — in the post-Oslo era. Only a small minority remember what things were like before the occupation began in 1967. We talk about the status quo as a temporary state of affairs, but it is actually the opposite: in a chaotic and volatile world, the occupation is a rare constant for most people in Israel-Palestine.

What does this reality look like on the ground? The Jewish and Palestinian populations are mixed together throughout the territory. Jews and Arabs live alongside one another in the West Bank, along the coastal plain, in the north and in the south of Israel, and of course in Jerusalem. And in each one of these areas, the State of Israel is sovereign. It controls every land and sea border, all of the airspace, the primary currency and the population registry — within the Green Line, in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and for the most part, in Gaza as well. The State of Israel also exercises perhaps the most important ingredient of sovereignty — it enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in the entire territory.

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U.S. Jews can’t expect Israel to be liberal only where they want it to

Liberal American Jewry is up in arms after the Israeli government nixed a deal to allow men and women to pray together at Judaism’s holiest site. But if American Jews want their interests in Israel safeguarded, they must rid themselves of the fantasy of a nonexistent Jewish pluralism.

The Netanyahu government created an uproar across the Jewish world on Sunday by rolling back an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together. The compromise would also have brought representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements into a committee meant to manage that space.

That arrangement was vetoed by the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, parties that hold an almost king-maker role in Israeli politics. The ball will probably land in the court of Israel’s judiciary, once again, like most issues of religion and state that could not be resolved politically over the past few decades. But even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Reform and Conservative movements, the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel’s governing coalition will likely block implementation just as they did this week.

Much has already been written on the issue, including the ironic fact that until 1948 worshipers at the Kotel weren’t segregated at all, and that the current arrangement does not reflect a Jewish tradition, but rather an Israeli political tradition. But the important lesson has to do with the idea that the American Jewish community’s interests in Israel can exist in a plane that is separate from politics, and therefore shielded from the nativist and xenophobic ideological trends that have come to dominate Israel in recent years. Or put simply: the idea that the political unpopularity of liberal positions in Israel can by bypassed through back room deals made among the prime minister, his envoys, and the heads of the American Jewish community.

This is a dangerous fantasy that led the American Jewish community to a bad place – holding liberal values at home and supporting illiberal policies in Israel as long as those policies were directed at Palestinians and did not affect the interests of the community itself. This in turn led to a cross-generational crisis in the community. The bottom line is that many times controversy is better than fake unity.

Since Sunday, some commentators have argued that the defeat suffered by the Conservative and Reform movements is the result of their lack of direct political power both...

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The settlers' goal is not the settlements

It is the total transformation of Israel.

The settlements, the settlers, and the occupation are all entirely associated with one another in the Israeli consciousness. The Left and the Right agree on this, albeit with varying considerations: the Left wants to apportion blame for Israel’s continuing control over the West Bank, while the settlers want to take credit for the settlement project and for thwarting the idea of partitioning the land.

The image of the settler leadership as ideological extremists suits everyone — even the international community, which has accustomed itself to an artificial distinction between “good” and democratic Israel, which is embraced and respected, and bad “settler” Israel.

But this discourse is disconnected from reality. The occupation has persisted not because of the settlers, but because of the actions of the state — in which all of Israeli society participates. The settler leadership is highly pragmatic, enabling it to adopt whichever political position prevails vis-a-vis the settlement enterprise in the Israeli political discourse. Under certain political circumstances, this pragmatism makes possible the evacuation of settlements. Settling the land is not at all the settlers’ true goal, and I’ll explain why.

The first settlement was established in Gush Etzion immediately following the Six-Day War in 1967. There were no real political disagreements over its founding, because it was thought of as a “return” to a site that had been lost 19 years earlier during the 1948 War. The following year saw an attempt at establishing a settlement in Hebron, eventually leading to the founding of Kiryat Arba (Jews only began properly residing in the Palestinian city after Likud took power in 1977). Most of the settlements that sprung up in those early years were in the Jordan Valley, and were in fact established by the Labor Zionists of the Mapai party.

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This last point is significant: there has never been a debate in Israel over establishing settlements, and every single government since the occupation began has built beyond the Green Line. Rather, the debate has been over where to build — or, to be more exact, who will decide where settlements should be built. As such, the term “settler” has never been applied to people living in the Jordan Valley, just as the...

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The lie of Netanyahu's economic 'gestures'

Netanyahu’s goodwill ‘gestures’ to the Palestinians are nothing more than a way to appease President Trump on his visit. So why is the media playing along?

In the run-up to President Trump’s visit to the region, the Israeli government adopted a number of modest goodwill gestures vis-a-vis Palestinians in the West Bank, which the Israeli media immediately dubbed “trust-building” measures. Local newspapers reported that none of the steps taken had anything to do with security, but rather revolved around civilian issues. This included making sure the Allenby Bridge — which connects the West Bank to Jordan — stayed open for longer; easing construction in Area C; and expanding the Tarkumiya industrial zone. As expected, ministers from the right-wing Jewish Home party opposed the measures.

Why do we need a visit from an American president for these measures? After all, Netanyahu believes in “economic peace,”  and the Right keeps promising us that Palestinians under occupation are far better off than anywhere else in the Arab world, and surely better than under a Palestinian state, if and when it is established. The Left has always argued that politics and the economy are intertwined, yet the Right pledged to undo this knot. And anyway, if Israel intends to remain in some or most of the West Bank, what is more logical than developing those territories?

It is no coincidence that not a single political reporter has raised these naive questions before the prime minister. We all know that these gestures are not intended for the Palestinians, but rather for Trump. The Right has no interest in economic development in the occupied territories. “Economic peace” is a farce, and all of us — the media and the political system — take part in it.

The last thing Israel wants is a strong, sustainable Palestinian middle class, since that same middle class will immediately demand political rights. The occupation works best in the face of a poor, disintegrated society, which depends on work permits and a constant flow of money from the Palestinian Authority. And in order to get a work permit from Israel, a Palestinian needs to be uninvolved in all political activities, and is sometimes even asked to spy on his neighbors or family members. Collaborators are an essential part of the system; a viable economy, like freedom of movement, stands in contradiction to the occupation.

Those same “gestures,” similar to work permits, are cards that Israel...

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One day the settlers will be thanking the High Court

For five decades, the High Court has legitimized nearly every aspect of the occupation. It may take time, but one day the settlers will thank the court for 50 years of Israeli rule over the West Bank.

We should be enraged at the Israeli Right’s attempt to ban left-wing NGOs from filing High Court petitions on behalf of Palestinians. There is no doubt that the motivation behind the initiative is to allow the occupation to continue undisturbed. There is no doubt that there are Palestinians who benefit from these petitions, just as there are women, residents of Israel’s periphery, and other oppressed groups who have benefited from them over the years.

But one must also say a word about the role of these petitions. Israel’s High Court of Justice has never been a problem for the occupation. The opposite is true. The right to petition on behalf of Palestinians is a fundamental tenet of the occupation itself.

For the past five decades, the High Court has not handed down a single ruling that put a stop to the occupation’s fundamental practices (yes, all of them have been discussed by the High Court). It did not stop the settlements (it only established how to settle or expropriate land). It did not stop administrative detentions (it only ruled how to handle them), it did not stop targeted assassinations (it only established procedures for carrying them out). It did not stop home demolitions. It did not stop the establishment of the wall in Palestinian territory (rather than along the Green Line), but rather called for specific changes in its route. It even established how and when to torture.

In other words, the High Court legislated the legal foundations of the occupation.

It did so because the Knesset did not actually deal with the occupation for the past 50 years, but rather left it in the hands of the executive branch. Thus, someone had to legislate — and that’s precisely where the High Court came in, creating a legal infrastructure through which the executive branch could maneuver. More importantly, it also created both internal and international legitimacy for the occupation. Without these two elements — an organized infrastructure and legitimacy — the system would have a difficult time functioning.

More than anything, the Right’s initiative teaches us that the High Court’s present role has come to an end, and that the Knesset is ready to take on the...

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New entry law a reminder that Palestinians live in Israel's prison

The reality in the West Bank is one that resembles a prison, where the prisoners are held for as long as humanly possible. Their release will carry a price — and Israelis are not willing to pay it.

The Knesset passed a law Monday night denying entry visas or residency rights to foreign nationals who call for boycotts against Israel or the settlements. The law won’t have much of an affect on entry into Israel proper, but rather will mostly affect those trying to enter the West Bank — a solid reminder that the ban is yet another example of the way Israel holds Palestinians prisoners. After all, one can assume that most people who enter the Palestinian territories oppose the settlements or support some version of the boycott.

Because Israel controls every point of entry into areas under Palestinian control in the West Bank, Palestinians cannot leave (without a permit) or come back (without a permit). With the passage of the law, they are no longer allowed to have visitors. In other words: they are prisoners, and these restrictions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Like a prison commissary, Israel allows the majority of the prisoners to manage their own affairs through the Palestinian Authority. This arrangement is maintained as long as the prisoners don’t act up, and on the condition that they agree to security coordination with Israel. Even if it so desired, the Palestinian Authority could not actually grant Palestinians their rights. Security coordination is a small bonus that decreases the pressure on Palestinian society, given in exchange for Palestinians accepting their status as perpetual prisoners.

In the meanwhile, Israel exports the knowledge, skills, and technology it has acquired through the exerting of control over humans against their will to the rest of the world. These are the kind of goods every leader wants to have — especially with the direction the world is currently going.

This is the situation. There is no peace process, nor is there a real discussion over one state or two states. Even discussions on whether Israel is an apartheid state have become intellectual fodder for Jews and leftists. The reality is one that resembles a prison, and the prisoners will continue to be held by force for as long as possible. Their release, after all, will carry a price — and Israelis are not willing to pay it.

The Israeli Left has no role in this story. The proposals put forth by the majority of Israel’s leaders,...

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A prison sentence that tells the true story of the occupation

An 18-month prison sentence for Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian attacker last year, is a reminder that the occupation has no place for law and justice.

There was something about the Elor Azaria trial that felt scripted. I only spent three days in court last year, watching Azaria testify, but while there I spoke with many other journalists who had been there for the entire trial. Oddly, despite the in-depth interrogation of every detail, everyone with whom I spoke felt the same way — that the trial’s outcome felt predetermined. In an article I wrote for Haaretz at the time, I noted:

It turned out to be an accurate forecast: the judges struck a harsh tone when finding Azaria guilty last month, yet handed down a minimal 18-month jail sentence Tuesday morning. Azaria may well not end up serving the entirety of that prison term.

As it happens, it wasn’t necessary to attend the trial in order to see what was coming. The incident in Hebron, where Azaria executed a wounded and disarmed Palestinian attacker, was clear from the video footage, as was the fact that the army could not ignore the event once it had been publicly exposed. If it had not prosecuted Azaria, the message to every soldier would have been that they can behave however they see fit and get away with almost anything simply by citing “operational considerations.”

There is also a much more essential element at play here. Israel’s ability to avoid finding itself in the International Criminal Court over the actions of its security forces in the occupied territories largely depends on the military’s mechanisms for conducting internal investigations. If the army doesn’t occasionally discipline its soldiers for violating operational procedures, Israel’s politicians and generals could, eventually, face justice in The Hague.

On the other hand, the IDF has long failed to grasp its duties as an impartial sovereign entity in the occupied territories. The army’s role, aside from the obvious task of preventing terror attacks and protecting settlers, is to win a battle of consciousness — to make clear to Palestinians and Jews alike that Israel is able to maintain the occupation for as long as is required. When we take into account the general atmosphere surrounding Azaria’s trial — the massive public support for the soldier — it is clear why his punishment needed...

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The Right's new spin: Israel demolishes only Jewish homes

In their attempt to prove allegiance to the settlers, right-wing ministers are finding creative new ways of misleading the public.

The controversy over the slated evacuation of a West Bank outpost reached a fever pitch this past week, with government ministers trying to outdo each other to prove their allegiance to the 50 families living in Amona, located in the heart of the West Bank.

While the state promised it would evacuate Amona, built entirely on private Palestinian land, back in 2010, it has found every possible way to delay the inevitable. According to the latest High Court decision, the state must demolish the outpost by December of this year, a decision that has pushed the government into a crisis over Amona’s fate — and by extension the fate of the rest of the over 100 unauthorized illegal outposts spread across the hilltops of the West Bank.

Now as Amona’s evacuation nears, at least in theory, right-wing ministers are repeatedly making the misleading claim that the state destroys homes belonging to Jews, yet refrains from doing the same thing to Arabs.

Culture Minister Miri Regev wrote on her Facebook page that she did not see “similar treatment toward dozens of illegally-built homes in the Negev, Galilee, and Wadi Ara.” Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin says that he “expects the High Court justices to show diligence and decisiveness, similar to decisions made on illegal Arab building.” There are many other examples.

Of course Amona and Palestinian construction are totally unrelated, apart from the right-wing tendency to respond to every unfavorable development by yelling “But the Arabs!” or “But the leftists!” The state promised to evacuate Amona in 2010, such that talking about “diligence and decisiveness” when it comes to a process that has taken more than six years is a joke. But the big lie — or rather the truth — is that the state certainly does destroy Arab homes, and it does it diligently, decisively, and persistently.

In 2015 Israeli authorities demolished 982 homes belonging to Bedouin citizens in the Negev. A year before that authorities demolished 1,073 homes. The Bedouin have a real claim to the land that clashes with the state’s claim. In Amona, on the other hand, there is no controversy over the fact that the land on which the outpost was built belongs to Palestinians — only over the right of Jewish Israelis to...

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Trump’s victory leaves Obama with only one option on Israel-Palestine

When everyone believed Clinton was going to be the next president, Obama was rumored to be considering several last-minute options to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. All that went out the window on Tuesday.

The Obama administration is probably trying to figure out how to protect its two signature achievements – Obamacare and the Iranian nuclear deal – for the next two years, when the White House and both chambers of Congress will be under Republican control. But it will also need to revisit other issues, such as a widely discussed final move on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Specifically, the idea of laying out parameters for a final status agreement – either in the form of a major policy speech or via a UN Security Council resolution – might seem out of touch with the new political reality in Washington.

It is extremely difficult to predict what Donald Trump’s actual policies will be – common wisdom is that a weak and poorly informed president depends on the people around and below him – but it’s a pretty safe guess that Trump won’t continue efforts to broker a final agreement on a two-state solution. The GOP removed the very idea of Palestinian statehood from its platform ahead of the elections. Those around Trump have taken positions in favor of West Bank settlements and against previous efforts to push the Israeli government towards a deal with the Palestinians. Others in the president-elect’s circle – probably including Trump himself – have strong isolationist tendencies.

All that should cause the outgoing Obama administration to change its calculations. Much of its thinking on a final push on the peace process was clearly predicated on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. The idea was not that a major policy speech or a UN Security Council resolution on parameters would generate an immediately response on the ground. It might, however, have laid solid groundwork for future negotiations, all while creating options for the next administration that relieved it of the need to spend actual political capital on the issue.

This thinking was problematic to begin with. The last attempt to set parameters, by Bill Clinton during his own lame duck period, did nothing to prevent violent escalations on the ground. The Clinton Parameters had little significance when talks did eventually resume in Annapolis, and the same was true in the most recent...

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The one newspaper in which Trump is still winning

By all accounts, Donald Trump’s election campaign is careening toward disaster. But according to Israel’s most-read newspaper, everything seems to be going just fine. 

The most prominent event in the United States over the past few days has been the implosion of Donald Trump’s campaign. Not only has Trump lost the slight advantage he held following the Republican National Convention, according to polls aggregated by Real Clear Politics, he is now trailing Hillary Clinton by five percent (Fox News’ latest poll is the least favorable).

There is still time until the elections and anything is possible. Right now, however, it looks like Trump has a big problem on his hands, which even the right-wing media and his biggest supporters cannot help but talk about. Other segments of the American mainstream are already speculating over the sanity of the Republican nominee, while some are discussing the possibility of replacing him before election day.

But if you read the most popular newspaper in Israel, Israel Hayom, the story of Trump’s troubles simply does not exist. At all. On Wednesday the paper merely hinted that Trump had become embroiled in controversy following his attacks on a Muslim American family whose son died in Iraq, while on Thursday it briefly mentioned the fact that he had kicked out a baby from one of his rallies.

But instead of reflecting the current turbulence, the headline of that piece is a quote by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, about how her father will be an excellent president. The only poll cited in the piece is by the Los Angeles Times (which shows Trump up by one percent), and the piece briefly mentions an Israeli who opened up a pro-Trump Facebook page, which already has 8,000 “likes.” That page, by the way, includes Bernie Sanders photoshopped with the slogan “Vote Trump, the bitch (Hillary) is crazy.”

All this would be funny if it weren’t the reality that most Israelis consume on a regular basis. This alternative universe will one day collapse, and Israel Hayom will most likely blame the media, or the elites, or the Left, or Obama the Muslim. Israel Hayom can support Trump just as Haaretz and the New York Times can support Clinton, but to conceal information — not opinions — from the readers shows a total abandonment of the mission and principles of journalism for the sake of something else entirely. If only this problem existed solely when it came to coverage of...

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The Israeli Right still hasn't internalized that Palestinians exist

Arabs are more present than ever in the Israeli public sphere, but attempts to marginalize them are growing at an even faster pace. A new law aimed at pushing Arab representatives out of the political system could wind up changing the rules of the game — in the worst possible way.

The Knesset this week passed a law that will enable it to expel Arab MKs from their positions as elected representatives. The same day, a storm erupted over a program on Army Radio that examined a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Both events have one thing in common: they highlight Israeli right wing’s hopeless desire to make the country’s pesky Palestinian population simply disappear. That’s no easy task considering that proportionally speaking, there are more Arab citizens in Israel than African Americans or Hispanic Americans in the United States. And can anybody even imagine a U.S. without them?

Those on the right in Israel will tell you that they don’t oppose the Arabs themselves, just their ideas. That is, of course, feigned naïveté. As long as Israel is defined as a Jewish state, Arabs will always feel alienated from it. An Arab can become Israeli like he or she can become German or American, but he cannot become Jewish, which Israeli Jews wouldn’t want either. That’s the fundamental difference between the Israeli model and the Western democratic model, where even if there sometimes exist symbols of Christianity or some other nation, Western democracies are ultimately based on the idea of “a state of all its citizens.” In Israel, that idea is so terrifying to people that some want to criminalize even advocating for it.

And yet despite this unusual model, Israel has managed to maintain a mostly democratic system within its pre-1967 borders (though never a liberal one). It worked, somehow, because of the pragmatic attitude adopted by both the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority that survived 1948. For example, the unwritten compromise according to which Palestinians can vote and be elected, even if they oppose — quite naturally — the very idea of a Jewish state. Or that a Palestinian poet can be canonized even if, among other things, he wrote poems that portray Jews as the enemy, just as Israeli poets who saw Arabs as enemies enjoy an even more sacred stature.

What made it work was the separation that existed between the realm of...

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The female conscientious objector who just made Israeli history

Following her sixth trial, Tair Kaminer has become the longest-serving female conscientious objector in Israel’s history. This is her story.

IDF military “Prison 6” lies in one of the most picturesque spots in Israel, at the bottom of the Carmel Mountain, between green fields and banana plantations. The prisoners can see the mountains from the yard, but there is no view of the Mediterranean, less than a mile away.

The prison includes a separate unit for officers and, since 2011, a female unit as well. Prison life is boring and discipline is harsh. Most prisoners’ favorite days are those when they are taken to work at nearby factories. Following a mutiny in 1997, living conditions were improved a bit; among other changes, the cigarettes given to the prisoners were replaced by a better brand.

But 19-year-old Tair Kaminer doesn’t smoke. Last week, Kaminer made history: she was sentenced to her most recent stint in prison — 45 days for refusing to enlist in the IDF. This was her sixth trial, bringing her entire sentence to 170 days, more than any other female conscientious objector has received in Israeli history. Before sentencing her, Lieutenant Colonel Eran Shani complimented Kaminer for her bravery, but also told her that the consequences of her actions will be severe.

Kaminer could have avoided her long prison term. Many Israelis fake medical or psychological problems in order to avoid the draft. Religious women don’t serve either, so all it takes is a declaration that one observes in order to be released immediately. If you can convince the military that you are a pacifist — a challenging task, but not entirely impossible — you might be released as well. But Kaminer is neither religious nor a pacifist, and she is not ready to lie. She doesn’t oppose the military as a rule. Rather, she chose to refuse because of the IDF’s role in the occupation and in the systematic depravation of Palestinian civil and human rights.

In her public statement, Kaminer, who volunteered to do her year of national service with children in Sderot, writes: “The children I worked with grew up in the heart of the conflict, and went through traumatic experiences from a young age. In many of them, this has generated a terrible hatred — which is quite understandable, especially in young children. Like them, many of the children living in the Gaza Strip...

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