In a quiet, time-roughened voice, Meir Margalit asks what I mean by “a just peace.” I told him I’m writing about people who work for a just peace here in Israel and Palestine. “Do you mean Oslo,” he asks, “or beyond?”In a context where the word peace can be spun to mean almost anything, even war, it’s a fair question. “Oh, beyond,” I replied. “Far beyond.” He nods. We can talk.
We’re sitting in the living room of the compact apartment that Meir shares with his wife Sulie and their three children, in the Talbiyyeh neighbourhood of Jerusalem. Before 1948, its tree-shaded streets were lined with elegant villas and lush gardens of wealthy Palestinians. Some of the original residences were demolished, some restored with Moorish and Arabic detail intact. Meir’s plain, sturdy limestone building was constructed in the 1960s by Histadrut, the Israeli trade union federation. “They wanted to create cheap, nice housing for workers,” says Meir. Crowded with potted plants, their small balcony overlooks a courtyard of trees and shrubs that help to moderate the September heat. I’ve caught Meir on the run, between an early morning attempt to thwart the demolition of a Palestinian home in East Jerusalem, and a strategy session for his upcoming municipal election campaign. He’s running as a Meretz candidate. It is this duality of role, as activist and politician, that drew me to Meir Margalit.
As in my own country, in Israel I encountered activists who have abandoned party politics as too fatally corrupt to salvage, and now devote their energies to struggles on the ground. Since Meir continues to function in both realms, I asked him what he thinks can still be gained through the machinery of government. “I feel that the conflict with the Palestinians is a political conflict,” he says, “so the solution must be political. This is why I entered politics. On the other hand, I also agree that the conflict is more complicated than it looks, and the political arena is not enough to bring a solution. If you are just a politician, you don’t spend time on activities that won’t bring more votes to the party. You may not do humanitarian activity in the South Hebron, with the Bedouins who live there – that is not something that will help us to win votes in Israel. Also you may not use words that voters don’t like, words like apartheid and ethnic cleansing. But in the movement you can use the right words.”
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions operates on three fronts. The most urgent of these is the primary focus of Meir’s job as field coordinator. Early in the morning, when the army surrounds a village he gets a call from an ICAHD contact in the community. Local people know which houses are due to be demolished. Meir contacts Israeli activists to go immediately to the target house. Usually the bulldozers don’t arrive before eight, so they have time to enter the house, where they try to prevent the bulldozers from demolishing it. At the same time, ICAHD’s lawyers go to court and try to freeze the demolition. Travelling in Israel and Palestine, I knew always that I would return eventually to my home, a safe haven in a country well insulated from war and chaos. That is, or should be, the nature of home, a place of comfort and refuge. For Palestinians it can never be so as long as house demolitions remain normal policy for the Israeli government.
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions estimates that the number of demolition orders in the West Bank and East Jerusalem already reaches into the tens of thousands. Under one government after another, settlement construction keeps escalating.
Under these grim circumstances, I asked Meir Margalit how he and his co-workers measure success in their work.