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Occupation magazine - Activism

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Students, the occupation must be opposed! - high school principal speaks out
By Naomi Reichman
Y-net/My-net - News
January 3, 2010,7340,L-3827746,00.html
Translated from Hebrew by Adam Keller

`When you join the army, go to the checkpoints. You will see what happens there, bring a spirit of moderation, help create a different situation, and eventually you will reach the conclusion that the occupation should not go on. Military service is a duty - but service in an army which guards the borders and protects the country, not in an army concerned with occupation duties`.

Wednesday, 8:15 am, at the auditorium of Tichon Ironi-Alef (Municipal High School-A) in Tel Aviv. Principal Ram Cohen calls upon 17-year old students to join him in struggling against the occupation.

`I need water, I must have water,` says Ram Cohen, director of Ironi-Alef, upon returning on Wednesday morning to his office, after addressing the 11th grade students [17-year olds] in the school`s old auditorium. And he definitely does need water. Not only to moisten his mouth after speaking very long, but also to help put out the flame which the words he said to the students might have ignited.

Cohen is neither naive nor innocent. He knows that a school principal is bound to come under fire when talking openly against the occupation in the Territories, calling for the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for a thousand prisoners and propsing that this prisoner exchange might be used as the starting point for a deep and genuine reconciliation process with the Palestinians.

Even before taking a moment to quench his thirst, he says: `Rabbi Melamed of the Yeshiva in the Har Bracha settlement and his ilk should know that the secular public which they contempt has had enough of their refusal. We will no longer tolerate their `Jewish` casuistry and deviousness, their incomprehsion of what democracy means, and their disrespect for elementary human dignity. I call upon all sane Israeli educators, whether religious or secular, to say openly to their pupils that the occupation is a curse, to educate them to values which don`t include trampling upon others.
You can`t brutally trample upon values, as the State of Israel is doing for the past 42 years, and still claim that we are educating our children in the spirit of democracy`.

- Isn`t what you are doing illegal, or at least contrary to the Ministry of Education regulations? Do you have no apprehension?

`No, I have no apprehension because I do not introduce politics or educate in favor of a specific political position. I don`t tell the students which party to vote for. I make statements solely on moral values. If somebody thinks that you can rule over four million people in a moral manner, let them stand up and explain how to do it. You can`t talk of Human Liberty when you deny Liberty. So, I say you can`t maintain a moral army when some of its units are engaged in brutal repression.

- Are you holding regular discussions with students?

`Periodocally I meet with groups of students, because it is important to me to convey messages such as [the need for] military service. The kids don`t want to serve in the army, certainly not undergo officers` training. They leave the command positions in the hands of a very specific section of the population. I`m very concerned about that. A hundred thousand people in the Territories {i.e. the settlers] make the decisions for ten million people.

- I`ll ask again - do you have no apprehension of being fired?

`No, I`m not afraid of that. I would even like a public debate to start on whether or not it is my duty as an educator to say such things. For a long time I avoided speaking out, because of being a school principal. But I came to the conclusion that [saying such things] is not being political. It is just refering to subjects on Israel`s social agenda which it is impossible to ignore.

`Some time ago I visited the Wailing Wall Yeshiva and had a meeting with a group of their educators. We talked about the occupation. I said we can`t go on living as we are and that we must decide: either to properly annex and make the Palestinians into citizens or to separate from them. The Yeshiva teachers told me: we should annex, but without giving rights. I left that meeting with a feeling of great anxiety, with the understanding that some groups in the Israeli society just don`t understand what a democratic state is, and that the educational system has failed in properly explaining this and instilling the understanding in its graduates.`

Parents did not like my decision

On the way to the auditorium Cohen already related that he decided to cancel the school day trips to the Shiloah Tunnel [in East Jerusalem], a place which a large part of the Israeli public regards as a national symbol [because it was dug by an ancient Judean King in Biblical times].

- Why?

`Because it`s a scandal how [the settlers] are digging under the homes of Arab residents in order to locate archaeological finds, and the state does not care if houses collapse as a result. So it`s true that the Ministry of Education pays for some of these trips there, but I do not want to take part in it. Some parents did not like my decision, but I stuck to it. `

A packed auditorium. Considering that it is 8:15 and the students seem alert. It should be noted that Cohen did not block them from speaking their minds, also when their views were completely contrary to his. One girl student was outspoken about `bleeding hearts talking high-brow nonsense`.

`The Shalit Deal is shaking this country for a considerable time already` was how Cohen opened. `Today we were informed that Hamas had not yet given a final answer to the Israeli proposal. There is a possibility that this dialogue will in the end lead to acceptable solutions, solutions which can somehow be lived with. To understand how we got to this point we should go back.

`Some areas of what is now ruled by the State of Israel were occupied in 1967, and they are not under Israeli sovereignty. From the moment when they were conquered, Israel entered a new era - a very problematic one, in fact an impossible situation. At the immediate beginning of the occupation was a mood of euphoria on the Israeli side, because we were able to liberate a region to which we had a historical affinity. The entire Bible is overloaded with references to places in this region: Hebron, Nablus, Elon Moreh, etc. etc. Along with that euphoria there began to be heard the voices of intellectuals calling for settling this region with Jews. Some groups argued that these places belonged to us and that we should create a new reality on the ground.

`What does all this have to do with Gilad Shalit? Because one of the regions occupied then was Gaza. Four years ago we left Gaza, you probably saw on TV the painful process of that departure and the dilemma with which it faced Israel. So we went out, but in Gaza there is a Palestinian leadership which is determined to bring home the prisoners held in Israeli jails. Some ten thousand prisoners are held in Israel, some of them with blood on their hands - which means that they participated directly or indirectly in the murder of Jews. Gilad Shalit provides radical organizations such as Hamas with the hope of gaining the release of these prisoners. For us, they are terrorists; for the other side, they are fighters who struggled for the liberation of Palestine.

`And there is another thing. The State of Israel departed from Gaza, - but continues to maintain a tight siege around it. At present, you can
get into Gaza virtually nothing but elementary basic commodities. So, in order to make dayly life possible, smuggling tunnels were dug through which everything comes in: beef, food, women, drugs and weapons. Egypt, which sees the smuggling tunnels as dangerous also to its own interests, began to dig a deep and wide trench in an effort to prevent the further digging of tunnels.

`In the present situation, 1.5 million people are living in Gaza in very great distress. Most of them, I suppose, have had enough of such a life and they would like to see a real change. To them should be added the Palestinians who live in Judea and Samaria under a far more moderate Palestinian leadership, which understands the democratic way.

`Israel is in a complicated situation. On the one hand there is a desire to end the occupation after 42 years. On the other hand - how do we do it? Is it at all possible to end the occupation? Are there groups in the population which do not want to end the occupation? These questions are scary and far from simple. So, what do you say, are there groups in the population which do not want to end the occupation?`.

Don`t say nothing can be done

The answer is not late in coming: the settlers. Cohen: `Yes. This is about people with a religious outlook, according to which these territories are ours since Abraham. And they have another argument: `We are living here in order to protect Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba. If the Palestinians were to get to the [pre-`67] border, the center of the country would be under a permanent threat.

`With your permission, I would like to go back to Gilad Shalit. If we want to get him released, we are required to release a thousand prisoners. One of the strongest arguments deterring Bibi Netanyahu from signing this agreement is that after the release of Gilad Shalit the [suicide bombing] attacks will start again, and then Netanyahu would have blood on his hands. That is the Prime Minister`s dilemma. Can I release such prisoners to their home, when they might then plan the next terrorist attack in Tel Aviv?

`There is also the basic issue of whether or not to negotiate on the release of prisoners. The United States, for example, does not hold such negotiations at all. Would the attitude change also here, once Gilad Shalit is released? But to me the most important question is what will happen after the release of Gilad, which I hope will take place soon. Do we, Israel, want to go on with the mad cycle of bloodshed, with them hitting us and we hitting them back and so on and on and on. Or do we want to talk peace?

`I am well aware that in the prevailing public atmosphere, the word `peace` had become despised. I want to talk about reconciliation. Peace means to sign agreements, reconciliation is among people. Reconciliation can come through Gilad Shalit. Let`s extend our hand to a process of dialogue, we take a commitment to return to the 1967 borders and they give up violence. Extremists there are on both sides. We are neither the Bad Guys in this story nor the Goodies. But we should enter into the mode seeking reconcilation.

`The Palestinan Authority is going through a fantastic process. A state is in the process of arising, with institutions, police, a developing economy, medicine and what not. People there start wanting to live. Very much unlike Gaza, where the situation is very difficult and it is impossible to rebuild the destruction of Operation Cast Lead. There is a bad sanitary situation, they are under siege. The development of Gaza is a clear Israeli interest, but if implemented now it might be interpreted over there in the wrong way.

`Today there were headlines in the papers about the Supreme Court ruling that Route 443 will be open from now on also to Palestinian motorists. Until now, they were forbidden to use it. Why were they forbidden? Because there were terrorist attacks. And why were there such attacks? To understand why, think about it yourselves. What woud you have done, had you found yourselves living under occupation and denied the right to study in a school, denied even the most basic living conditions?

`I do not justify attacks and violent acts, but I can understand what causes them. They are the result of pressure that accumulated over 42 years. The people there want to have civil and national rights. This obliges us to embark on a process of reconciliation. If Gilad Shalit is returned and a momentum is launched, we will know that we have done more than just release prisoners. If we actually go back to the 1967 borders and deveop the region, it would be wonderful.

So, I am asking you to listen carefully to the news and be aware of the implications. Ask yourselves who wants to continue the occupation and why, and who does not. You can make your voice heard. Talk among yourselves, talk with your parents, go to demonstrations, contact Knesset Members on social issues to which you are sensitive, talk about it in your internet chats. Don`t succumb to despair. Do what your parents were not able to do. When you join the army, go to the checkpoints. You will see what happens there, bring a spirit of moderation, help create a different situation, and eventually you will reach the conclusion that the occupation should not go on.

Don`t leave the army and the command functions in the hands of small sectors of the population. Military service is a duty and a necessity - but service in an army which guards the borders and protects the country, not in an army concerned with occupation duties. Don`t say that there is nothing to be done or that there is nobody to talk to. Peace and reconciliation are carried out with enemies. There will be no dialogue between lovers. What would take place is a dialogue between two peoples which want to live in peace, in two neighboring countries. Express hope! Only with hope you can problems be solved.`.

I will continue to talk and speak out

The conversation ends with the applause of the students. Cohen invites pupils to open a discussion. The first three students say that the situation can not be helped. Let them stop using terrorism, then we will talk with them - that was the bottom line.

If Cohen is discouraged to hear this, you do not see it on his face. He does not seem excited or annoyed. Any such `nothing to be done` puts a question mark. Here and there, an occasional different kind of statement slips in the students` discussion, those who say that we must take responsibility because we are stronger, that we must start a process of reconciliation. Also statements of this kind do not elicit a visible change in Cohen`s attitude. At most, he nods slightly in agreement.

`Sometimes I do feel a bit discouraged when I hear the students talk in this way, that they feel there is no way out and that the situation will go on as it is indefinitely` he says at the end of the hallway conversation. `But this kind of discourgement soon goes away. I will continue to talk and speak out. I am convinced that these conversations affect them. For the better`.

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