'I used to be a terrorist'

'I used to be a terrorist' 


Another atrocity, another brutal retaliation.

Yesterday, Israel plunged deeper into a new spiral of

violence. Uri Avnery, war hero and peace campaigner,

tells Jonathan Freedland that the cycle cannot be

broken until Israelis and Palestinians accept they

have different versions of history; David Grossman

describes life amid the terror

Jonathan Freedland 


Tuesday December 4, 2001

He is a 78-year-old Israeli patriot, a veteran of the

1948 war of independence and the proud bearer of a

scar given to him by three Egyptian bullets. He has

served three terms in the Knesset and is a national

legend in his home country. 

Yet don't look to Uri Avnery for a typical Israeli

reaction to the latest calamities to befall his land.

Nothing about Avnery is typical. He will not endorse

yesterday's Israeli onslaught on the Gaza headquarters

of Yasser Arafat, with whom he says he shares a

special "bond". The two met as Israeli shells rained

from the sky during the siege of Beirut in 1982,

making Avnery the very first Israeli politician to

shake hands with the Palestinian leader. He has no

time for the current talk of removing Arafat and

replacing him with a more pliable leader. 

"Arafat has the same standing among Palestinians as

George Washington in America or David Ben-Gurion in

Israel: he is the father of the nation," says Avnery.

"He led them on a long march for 40 years from the

brink of oblivion to the threshold of their own

state." Israel should forget its fantasies of re

placing him; Arafat is the only man with the moral

authority to make peace. 

Nor will Avnery serve up the standard-issue

condemnation of Palestinian violence, even after a

weekend in which 25 Israelis, many of them teenagers,

were killed by a string of suicide bombs. Instead, he

says he understands the killers; he even identifies

with them a little. "After all," he says, "I used to

be a terrorist myself." To cap it all, Avnery

delivered that remark yesterday - at a London ceremony

to celebrate his receipt later this week of the

alternative Nobel peace prize, awarded by an

international jury in Stockholm. 

It all adds up to the unique mix of soldier and peace

activist, ex-terrorist and radical dove that has made

Avnery one of the most intriguing, controversial and

divisive characters in Israeli history. Since the

founding of the state, Avnery has been a self-styled

conscience for Israel - whether as a serving

politician or acid-penned editor for 40 years of

Ha'olam Hazeh, a satirical, political magazine that

served as a Hebrew Private Eye. 

A national hate-figure, regularly denounced as a

traitor, he has spent a lifetime thinking the

unthinkable. For five decades he has been the raging

voice in the wilderness, complete with the ancient

prophet's white beard, condemned by almost all who

hear him. 

But never quite dismissed. For Avnery's life story

reads like a history of the Jewish 20th century. He

was the son of refugees from Hitler's Germany, fleeing

to Palestine in 1933 (he still has the accent to prove

it). Five years later, aged just 15, he joined the

Jewish underground against "colonial British rule",

fighting in the Irgun, the rightwing group headed by

Menachem Begin. 

That CV should have made Avnery a Sharon-style Likud

hardliner. But that's not how it worked out. Even

before the Jewish state was created in 1948, he began

to see the other side - to see how things looked from

the Palestinian point of view. Asking Israelis and

Palestinians to do the same, to understand each

other's national "narratives", is now his life's work,

carried out through his organisation Gush Shalom, or

Peace Bloc. 

"You now have the fifth generation on both sides born

into the conflict, which impacts on every sphere of

their lives. They have two completely separate

narratives, which can describe the same set of events,

and yet which could have happened on two different


Take this weekend. "For the Israelis, these were

terrorist outrages committed by criminals under the

direction of the tired, corrupt Arafat. For the

Palestinians, these same events were acts of

liberation committed by heroes, led by the father of

the nation, Yasser Arafat." 

The two sides are so far apart, they cannot even

understand what the other side thinks or feels. He

constantly tries to put himself into the shoes of the

Palestinians and, he says, his background helps. When

he ponders the current wave of terrorist violence, he

remembers his own mentality as a young man in the


"My own memories from that period are a very good

guide for me today. We joined those who fought, not

those who didn't," he says, explaining why young

Palestinians are flocking to the flag of Hamas or

Islamic Jihad. If they didn't fight, those groups

would become irrelevant. If Arafat was not associated

with resistance to the Israeli occupation,

Palestinians would leave him, too, says Avnery: "He

would be a general without an army." This is not new,

he says: this is the dynamic of any people fighting


Equally, he remembers that the extremist Jewish groups

melted away the moment the United Nations promised a

Jewish state in 1947. If Israel and the United States

made clear now that the Palestinians would get a

Palestinian state on all of the West Bank and Gaza

(with any small border changes mutually agreed) then,

he believes, the likes of Hamas and Jihad would go the

way of the Irgun and Stern Gang: they would become

redundant overnight. 

The immediate priority is for an end to violence,

which he believes has to be imposed by an external,

international presence enforcing a ceasefire. Then

there should be talks, aimed at creating a Palestinian

state, compensation for refugees displaced in 1948 and

a sharing of Jerusalem - the west as Israel's capital,

the east as Palestine's. And Israel needs to make this

move dramatically, not drawn out over several years.

He quotes David Lloyd George: "You cannot leap over

the abyss in two jumps." 

Later, there needs to be a truth and reconciliation

process where both peoples can at last look at each

other. He wants the Palestinians truly to realise and

accept "the impact the Holocaust has on every Jew in

the world today" and for Israelis to understand the

naqba , the catastrophe that Palestinians believe

befell them in 1948. 

"I saw what happened," he says. "I saw more than most

people because I was in a mounted commando unit which

went around, all along the front. So I saw the naqba

as it happened: I've been in [emptied] Arab villages

where the food was standing on the table and it was

still hot... I came out of this war completely

convinced that we must make peace with the Palestinian


He started saying it right away, even in the early

years of the state when such talk was heresy - when

Golda Meir denied there was any such thing as a

Palestinian people. The result was a string of arson

attempts and bombings against his magazine offices, a

serious beating which left two arms broken and, in

1975, an assassination attempt. Later, it emerged that

Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, had

officially branded Avnery and Ha'olam Hazeh as Public

Enemy No1. 

Today, he keeps up the scathing rhetoric that earned

him his radioactive reputation. In denouncing the

loyalty of diaspora Jews to Israel, he says: "If

Israel elected the House of Caligula, I'm sure

American Jewry would follow it with total support." 

But, if they listened closely, many Jews and Israelis

would find Avnery is not quite the treacherous monster

of modern myth. For one thing, he insists he is not an

anti-Zionist: he says he is a post-Zionist, one who

recognises the movement for a Jewish state had many

"beautiful" aspects as well as darker ones. He speaks

with great passion for Israeli society and Hebrew

culture, describing himself as a patriot. He disagrees

strongly with Edward Said's previous advocacy of a

single, binational state for both peoples:

"Nationalism is still a very strong force," he says,

and both sides should not be denied a state of their


Most appealing of all, he retains his optimism even in

this hour of darkness. He says the difference between

a psychotic and a neurotic is that the former says two

and two equals five, while the latter admits two and

two is four but is angry about it: "Israel is moving

from the psychotic to the neurotic phase," finally

facing up to the reality of what happened in 1948 and


And does he, at 78, believe he will see all his dreams

and schemes realised? "Oh, yes. I've decided not to

die until all this happens." 


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