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Russian immigrants meet with Palestinians in Ramallah, November 2013
Russian immigrants meet with Palestinians in Ramallah, November 2013

Contacts between Israeli peace NGOs, Palestinian committee are being stifled by restrictive Defense Ministry

A group of Israelis, all activists from peace NGOs, recently decided to travel to Ramallah to meet with Mohammed al-Madani, the head of the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society.

The circumstances were not conducive to such a meeting.

During the two days prior to the trip, two terrorist attacks shook Israel to its core – the murder of a 13-year-old girl in her bed in Kiryat Arba and the killing of a father from the settlement of Otniel in front of two out of his ten children.

A heated debate preceded the decision to go and maintain the contacts despite the emotional difficulty.

The dilemma - to go or not go - was resolved by intervention from above: halfway between Tel Aviv and Ramallah the group got a phone call from the army forbidding them to enter the West Bank city.

“Some other time,” they were told.

That “some other time” is of great concern to left-wing organizations.

As soon as he settled into his new office, Israel’s new Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman, barred al-Madani, a high-ranking PLO official, from entering Israel.

“He had a dream to start a new political party in Israel,” claimed Liberman, accusing al-Madani of “subversive activity”.

The Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society was established by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) three years ago.

Al-Madani, born and raised in Israel before he left to join the PLO, was appointed as its chairperson. The official intention was, and still is, to reach out directly to Israeli society.

In fact, from their point of view, it worked very well.

Over the years, the committee came to know Israeli society - following its changes and noting the emergence of new elites, as well as reaching out to the population outside the circle of the usual leftist suspects.

They met with Russian-speaking Israelis, representatives of the Ethiopian community, residents of the southern rocket-stricken periphery, young intellectual leaders of the rising Sephardi community, local leaders of almost all parties and Arab citizens of Israel.

Every targeted group had its logic: the Russian-speaking group, for instance, is considered by them to be of high importance despite the right-wing leanings of the majority of the newcomers from the former Soviet Union.

“They were not here in 1948 and through most of the wars; they are not yet fully Israeli and therefore may be more open minded,” explained a member of the committee.

The Sephardi group gained special importance based on the assumption that previous attempts to make peace with the Ashkenazi leadership failed, and Israeli Arabs are considered to be an important link.

A Palestinian close to Abu Mazen explained the logic: “Abu Mazen believes that if the Jews of Israel come to trust Israeli Arabs, it will make it easier for them to trust Palestinians in general,” he confided.

The new approach seemed to be working.

From the new defense minister’s point of view, possibly working too well.

“Mission accomplished,” was the bitter response of Elias Zananiri, the deputy chairman of the committee, disappointed by the recent prevention of the Israelis from reaching Ramallah.

“Now al-Madani cannot get to Israel and the Israelis are barred from coming to see him.”

Speaking to i24news, he criticized what he referred to as “the Israeli Iron Curtain policy” that allows only radical voices to permeate through.

Zananiri claims that revoking al-Madani’s permit had a damaging impact on moderate Palestinian public opinion.

Mossi Raz, the Secretary-General of the left Meretz Party and former head of the Peace NGO’s Forum believes the damage is temporary.

“Revoking al-Madani’s permit is a symbolic damaging act, but it cannot really put an end to this people-to-people activity; in fact the act brought al-Madani unprecedented publicity”.

These recent developments take both societies back to the 1980s, when the law forbade meetings between Israelis and PLO members.

Those days led to the memorable event when a meeting between the two sides took place with the parties separated by exceptionally high plants; photos of those plants were later used in court by the defense of an Israeli accused of breaking the law by attending the meeting.

Israel is not there again yet, but there seems to be a renewed attempt to minimize these activities between people.

“Contrary to the official version and insinuations, the committee never tried to mobilize Israeli Arabs, organize them into a party, nor turn them into fifth column”, explains Wadea Awawdy, a prominent Arab Israeli journalist who participated in some of the meetings organized by the committee.

“Just the opposite. The attempt is to push Israeli Arabs towards integration within Israeli society. The committee was often criticized for that in Arab media. However, their activity is mostly effective, and that is exactly why they want it stopped. It is so convenient for official Israel to preserve the equation that Abbas equals Hamas. Real human contact is perceived as dangerous.”

“This man [al-Madani] stirred political activity within Israel,” said Liberman at a recent meeting with Israeli journalists, “all his permits have been revoked on the spot.”

Others cynically remarked that, contrary to the 1980s, no plants are necessary to establish or prevent contacts.

There are more accessible modern platforms.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."