Neta Golan, a thirty-year-old Israeli peace activist and Buddhist, lives with her Palestinian husband in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Last year she cofounded the International Solidarity Movement, an organization committed to nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation of lands captured during the 1967 Arab/Israeli war. On several occasions, from mid-February through early April, Tricycle spoke to Golan by telephone.
How does your Buddhist practice inform your activism?
Without practice I doubt I’d be an effective activist. Buddhism is not what motivates me, but it’s what gives me the tools to stay sane. Living here with any kind of awareness opens you to a lot of suffering. Being active is my way of dealing. Being engaged makes it bearable.
How do you cope with the fear that goes along with living in the West Bank?
I try to embrace it, but that is an area in which I need to grow. As Israelis, we learn that Palestinians are somehow more violent than we are, that their culture is crueler. These ideas are deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche. Five years ago, when I started coming to the occupied territories, I used to take a minibus once a week to Ramallah to take part in civilian dialogues between Palestinians and Israelis, and once a week I’d have an anxiety attack. For the first fifteen minutes of the drive, I’d be sure everybody wanted to kill me. And I would know that in another ten or fifteen minutes, I’d calm down, and that I’d be able to look at people, to watch them going to work and going on with their lives. And then the fear would subside. But the next week the fear would come up again. And then, after a year and a half, it stopped coming up every time I got onto the bus. But it still comes up in a crisis situation. Again, I’ll think they’re going to kill me. But because of the teachings, and my practice of embracing my fear, being with it rather than letting it stop me, I am able to go on. I’ve begun to see that healing can take place. I am able to see the Palestinians for the human beings that they are. Without the tools of practice, I’d be too afraid to come here. Most Israelis are trapped in their fear and would never come here, let alone live here, let alone now.
Considering the suicide bombings, doesn’t fear make sense?
Definitely. The bombings have been brutal. But more than one thousand Palestinians have been killed in the last year and a half, yet we Israelis don’t view ourselves as brutal. Part of that has to do with the weapons we use. When people don’t have sophisticated weapons and they murder with their hands, we consider them cruel. But when people murder by bombing from an F-16 or shelling from a tank or firing from an M-16, we think that it requires less cruelty. Actually, that’s not the case. If we look at numbers, at how many people are murdered, the Israelis have the lead. But murder is murder. And both sides are engaged in terrorism, state-sponsored or otherwise. It’s just that when Israelis do it, it’s immediately assumed they’ve done it in self-defense. When Palestinians do it—even if the victims are armed combatants for an occupying army—it’s still seen as “This is what they’ve done because they hate us; this is what they’ve done because they’re violent.”
You continue to work for broader understanding. But given the circumstances, are there moments when you have no hope?
Certainly. Since the beginning of the Intifada, it just gets worse and worse. The violence escalates, levels off, and then escalates again. With each escalation I completely break down, I’m lost, I don’t know how this will ever change, how we will go on living. But I know that this is something I have to go through. When the wave of despair passes, I gain new perspective on what I need to be doing. It’s a process that is an essential part of coping, of breaking down and rebuilding.
How do you deal with anger in the face of grave injustice, and the death on both sides?
I don’t really have an answer. I’ve spent three weeks away from Palestine since the Intifada started. I spent one week in Plum Village [Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France]. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. Here there’s no real break, no time for process. And it’s so difficult to keep the teachings in mind. For instance, I’m very committed to nonviolence. When I see what the suicide bombers do—and what they do is gruesome—I see the suffering. And yet there is a tendency to justify violence in some way. At one point, it became a real problem. I would hear about Jewish settlers in the West Bank being killed, and I wouldn’t feel pain. That really worried me. Or Israelis being killed, and I’d feel nothing. And yet, these are my people; it could have been my family. I could see my anger, and the anger was closing my heart. I didn’t like what I was becoming. I found that the anger is a form of aversion, and underneath it is a hell of a lot of pain. At Plum Village, as soon as I took some time to work through a little bit of the pain and the despair, the anger lessened. But most Palestinians, and the settlers, cannot leave. They’re in this pressure cooker every day, and so it’s obvious that they’re all going to be a little nuts.
How does your family in Israel respond to you?
It’s most difficult for my dad. If he could stop me, he would. But my relationship with him did not begin with this Intifada, and I’d already come to accept the fact that my father doesn’t accept what I do. My mother is an Orthodox Jew and also a true humanist. Despite the fact that she believes this land was promised to the Jewish people, she doesn’t believe that gives us the right to dispossess another people. It’s very challenging for her. Somehow she manages to maintain her humanity. She’s very open, and she understands what’s motivating me.
A fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy you knew was shot and killed recently for throwing a stone in the direction of a group of soldiers from a distance of around one hundred meters. You confronted the young soldier who shot him, and he broke down and screamed at you. Do you have moments of compassion for the soldiers, too?
Oh, definitely. Especially this guy. It’s not a nice thing to say, but he was stupid. You couldn’t really expect him to be otherwise. That may sound condescending, but it’s a fact. I’m not an apologist, but it’s obvious that in the situation in which he’d been put, he couldn’t have done otherwise. It would be so much easier for me to simply take a side. Sometimes, when you’re stopped at a checkpoint, and a soldier is really trying to be nice, it makes it all the more difficult, because a part of you just wants to hate.
In one demonstration, an Israeli soldier broke your arm. Do you believe in violence in self-defense?
No, but I don’t believe I have the right to tell somebody else not to defend themselves. In Palestine it’s very clear that the occupation is a form of violence. Palestinians are subjected to violence every day. Their land, their freedom, their future, the future of their children—everything was stolen from them. To tell them not to resist the occupation without at the same time calling for an end to it is morally wrong. The International Solidarity Movement is trying to create a nonviolent alternative. When we stand with the Palestinians, it gives them a way to resist without killing or being killed.
Several weeks later, in March, Neta Golan traveled to Europe to speak about her work and made another visit to Plum Village, returning to the West Bank one day before the Israeli army invaded Ramallah. A day after the invasion began, as the siege intensified, Tricyclespoke with her again.
It hasn’t been easy reaching you.
No. There’s only a handful of people from the International Solidarity Movement here helping us. A few hundred more are arriving at the end of the month. We’re really banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out how we can be helpful. Right now a friend of mine and I are going to go to the hospital—the one that is functioning—to see if they need help. The medics can’t get to the wounded. The Israelis probably won’t let us through, but we’ll try.
What can you do to be safe?
Not much. But there is one thing. If you don’t look Arab, you’re safer because the soldiers hesitate to shoot you. There’s no guarantee, but I am safer. Anyway, if I am killed, then it’s a scandal; if a Palestinian is killed, it’s just one more added to the daily count. In spite of the invasion, I am managing.
Golan has managed to get to the hospital, two hours later.
They ended up saying that they could use me here at the hospital, and so I’m staying. I can talk right now; things are quiet at the moment. I’ll be here all night. It’s after dark, and it’s not safe to move around outside.
What’s the situation?
Not good. The problem has been reaching wounded people. People have bled to death because ambulances are denied access or are shot at. If they would let me go with an ambulance crew, I could act as a shield. It would be a little safer for them. And if I do get shot, at least it’ll raise more of a stink because I’m Israeli. But the ambulance team is being a bit protective of me; they keep leaving without me. They are being shot at; a wounded ambulance driver was just brought in. Last night there were fifty-nine injured brought in. This is a forty-six-bed clinic. Most of the other hospitals are surrounded by tanks. A maternity hospital was hit yesterday. They are shooting at medical relief workers. The head of one hospital who tried to come up and talk to soldiers about access was shot dead in Bethlehem. Today they killed an Italian journalist. He was shot several times in the stomach from a good distance. The death toll is in the double-digits every day, but when an international is shot, it’s news.
The tanks are moving around the city, and people are resisting, trying to force the tanks to stay where they are. Unless the Israelis do house-to-house searches, like they did in Balata, it’s just a show of power right now. In Ramallah they haven’t yet, but they went to one of Ramallah’s refugee camps and rounded people up. They used a loudspeaker to call out males between the ages of fourteen and sixty. They handcuffed and blindfolded them. Some were taken away. A friend of mine went into the camp today, and people were saying, “I don’t know where my husband is,” “I don’t know where my father is.”
What are you doing now at the hospital?
I’m doing whatever I can here. Cleaning up, whatever is needed. We are so few right now, there’s only so much we can do. We go out and get food for people—milk powder, cigarettes—because people are afraid to go out of their homes, and as internationals we’re a little more protected. At the end of this month, we are expecting help; a few hundred people are coming. Among them are American and Canadian citizens.
The siege is killing people. They can’t get to the hospital, the economic situation is terrible. People are getting desperate. In general, the Israelis are trying to force the Palestinian Authority to accept an agreement that would call for less than a viable state. And to give up completely the right of return. And I really think that the Israelis believe that if we press hard enough, the Palestinians will agree to this.
What do you think of the Palestinians’ right of return?
I think it’s a basic human right. And there are so many refugees. Either their houses are still standing, or their land is still there. Of course they have a right to their land. As an Israeli, I can say that Israel is not a democracy. A state that’s continually obsessed with its demographic makeup, with retaining a majority, is an ethnocracy. I’m really fascinated by the amount of fear the Israelis have of Palestinians. I think a big part of that fear comes from living in denial. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we know that we’re living on someone else’s land. And you have to justify that, so the Palestinians have to become something different from us—bloodthirsty savages. This is true in every colonial society. And it’s not healthy for us, for Israelis. For Israelis to live in a democracy, to be free, then the refugees would have to return. And we’d have to live together. And I think it could work, it could be beautiful. Other than that, the two-state solution solves the problem for everyone but the refugees, as far as Palestinians are concerned. For me, it wouldn’t solve my problem, because I’d still be living in an ethnocracy. A Jewish democracy is a contradiction in terms.
How realistic is this vision of you all living together?
How realistic is this war?
Several hours later, at the hospital.
You’ve just returned from Plum Village. How was your stay there?
It was wonderful.
It must seem far away now.
Yes and no, because I’m practicing a lot more now.
What does your practice consist of?
Well, it’s not what they teach at Plum Village. I’m practicing tonglen [the Tibetan practice of taking on the suffering of others]—I’m not sure how to say it. It works really well [laughs]. So the visit is very present with me right now.
Do you sit at all? Is that possible?
Very little, very little. When people pray, like today when I heard the Muslim prayer, I sat down. I sit down a couple of times a day. Basically, it’s not the craziness that makes it hard to sit, because you can always sit, even in a war. It’s really the lack of sangha that makes it difficult.
What helps you to keep practice in mind?
Sometimes getting phone calls, like right now, or picking up a book. One of the things Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh] says is that when you hug a loved one, breathing in, you can say, “I know my loved one is alive,” and breathing out, “I’m so happy we’re alive.” My relationship with my husband is a real support to practice. Being with him is the most nurturing time for me. Because of the intensity of our situation, I’m really aware that just being alive is really special. We’re both alive. Every moment is precious; but it’s not just precious, it’s practice.
Do you have a special connection with Thich Nhat Hanh because of his own experience with war?
Yeah, definitely, but when I met Thay, I thought of going to study with him because of the peace that he radiated. I’d never seen that in a human being before, only read about it in books. And I appreciate the fact that he’s a peace activist. Being in the world, I admire that. He’s not closing his eyes. I’m really grateful for people like him. Sister Chankhong, the sangha’s chief nun, is also someone I feel very, very connected to. It’s difficult for me with Israeli spiritual communities. There are really great people, who have great ideals and who want to implement them, but somehow it doesn’t carry over into their relationships with Palestinians. With what’s happening politically, there’s a barrier. That’s really hard for me.
What did you do in Plum Village? Did you sit a retreat?
Well, from the day I left Palestine, I began to get sick. My body had finally let its guard down. By the time I reached Plum Village, I was in bad shape. And I just rested. I might have sat twice. But just being with the nuns, in that atmosphere, was a great help. Plum Village is the only place I can really just rest. Everything there supports rest. At first I was just in bed, but then a doctor came to see me. She asked me how my practice was going, was I able to stay with my breath? I said, “Well, there’s a lot of daydreaming.” She encouraged me to really rest and practice. It’s funny; it was the practice that allowed me to rest and the rest that allowed me to practice! It was very gentle. I came to Plum Village with a question to work with. I don’t know if I really worked with it consciously, but I came home with an answer.
What was the question?
In Thay’s mindfulness training with the five precepts, the first sentence we use is, “I won’t condone any acts of killing, in my thinking or in my way of life.” And I realized that I was not speaking against Palestinians resisting military occupation violently. I can speak to them against killing civilians, and I do; it’s clear to me that terrorism and state terrorism are two sides of the same coin of apartheid. They feed off each other and cannot exist without each other. But I feel like it’s immoral to speak against attacking the soldiers who violently enforce the occupation. And in a way, I justify it. So that was my question, how to understand this in light of the teachings.
What was your answer?
I don’t have the answer I think Thay would give. I do see that if I can justify killing, it’s because my heart is closed. That’s my answer. Because of the anger, I rationalize the killing. But if I can be with the pain, and if I can be with the anger that the apathy of others brings up, I’ll be able to accept my people where they are, without freaking out, without angry denials. My take on the killing would be different. Thay would probably have a better answer, but that’s what I came back with.
Often I don’t want to feel that pain or anger, and so I don’t spend a lot of time in Israel. But I should be doing the opposite, trying to meet the pain, embrace it, trying to understand it in myself. To really look at something, to really embrace something, you have to be solid, centered; otherwise, you cannot look deep. During my stay at Plum Village, I had the opportunity to look at my aversion to violence; I couldn’t stomach the thought of violence, or images of it I’d seen on television. And then I brought it up in my meditation.
I just sat with violence, all the violence in my life, and finally what I came up were the times in my life when I was violent. And that felt like getting punched in the stomach. I realized that the reason I was trying to avoid violence wasn’t that I was afraid of other people’s violence, but because I was afraid of my own. And looking at the times I’ve been violent, I’ve tried to understand why, and to feel compassion for myself.
I know that if I give myself a chance, I’ll have to look at this pain. I’m sure I’ll find something out; I don’t know what, but I’m sure it’ll be beneficial. The weird thing is that even though I have the tools and know
I need to do it, I don’t know if I will. It’s a strange question. I’m sure you must feel the same way. I know there’s a way I can find peace, and I even know the way, but I don’t know if I’m going to walk it any time soon. I hope I do.
At the end of March, the Israeli army laid siege to Palestinian Authority headquarters. Golan and unarmed members of the ISM and another group, the Grassroots International Protection Force, marched past bewildered Israeli soldiers into Yasir Arafat’s presidential compound to bring medical supplies to the wounded and serve as human shields. What follows is Tricycle’s last telephone conversation with Golan, on April 10, from inside Arafat’s compound. Golan had just received word that a close friend of hers had been killed in Nablus. In the compound, food, water, and medical supplies were dwindling.
It’s been very emotional, but I’m much better. I spoke with my husband. He’s fine. He’s in Nablus, where he’s from. The Israelis have withdrawn from the old city there.
How long do you plan to stay in Arafat’s compound?
Until the Israelis leave. Right now, whoever leaves is arrested, questioned, deported.
As an Israeli, what special risks do you run if you leave now?
I’d probably be arrested, tried, and put in prison.
Do you know there was another suicide bombing today in Haifa?
Yes. But the Israeli government knows what to do to stop the bombings. When Ehud Barak wanted quiet before the elections, he opened the roads, he opened negotiations; all you have to do is give people some hope. If they feel they have an effective tool for change in negotiation, a suicide bombing is the last route people would want to take. As it is, they’ve got nothing to lose. I think the Israelis intentionally “Talibanize” the streets; then they can have their “war on terror” and not have to deal with a legitimate demand for a Palestinian state.
Do you feel as strongly about nonviolent resistance as you did a few weeks ago?
Of course. The success we’ve had as a group of unarmed pacifists only strengthens my resolve. Since we arrived, the Israelis did shoot one missile in here, but that’s been the extent of it. Both sides are armed, and we, as unarmed civilians, were able to intervene. We’re putting our lives on the line; we’re saying, “If you kill these people, you’ll have to kill us, too.” I just wish there were more internationals here. We knew that the Israelis would go into Jenin. We wanted to send people there, but there just weren’t enough of us. It’s amazing what a small group of pacifists can do. We can wage peace. If we’re willing to give our lives for peace the way soldiers are willing to die in war, peace would be possible. As long as the occupation continues, I call on activists to join us. Whoever can, come to Palestine; send a delegate from your community. We need people around the world to make sure international law is adhered to here.
At press time, Neta Golan remained in Yasir Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. For more information on the International Solidarity Movement, see www.palsolidarity.org.
Courage to Refuse —Combatants’ Letter
An excerpt from an open letter published in January 2002 in the Israeli press, written by officers and soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who are not willing to serve in the occupied territories:
We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice, and giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it;
We, combat officers and soldiers, have been on reserve duty all over the occupied territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people. We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this occupation exacts from both sides;
We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country;
We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the loss of the Israel Defense Force’s human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society;
We, who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end;
We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.
We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people.
We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the IDF in any mission that serves Israel’s defense.
The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose, and we shall take no part in them.
What a Real Victory Means:
I was about fifteen when I first heard about the occupied territories (at that time they used to call them Judea and Samaria). I must have been there several times, but when a young woman explained that there were people who were living under military rule without basic civil rights in my country, I was shocked. I recall an argument I had with an older boy at school when I was talking about the horrible terrorists that blow up buses. He asked me what the difference is between someone blowing up a bus and a Phantom Jet bombing a refugee camp. I answered that Israeli Phantom Jets never bombed refugee camps. When I got home I asked my father if we ever did. He said that the terrorists thought that if they hid in the refugee camps, they could attack us. To this day in Israel, Palestinian fighters are always called terrorists-even when they are attacking soldiers.
The Israeli media, like the Palestinian media, show only one side of the picture. When Jews are hurt or killed, they are always exposed in their humanness. They are named: mothers, wives, husbands, and children. If Palestinians are killed, the Israeli media usually just give the number of people or terrorists or rioters killed. Even when those killed are children, the focus is skewed.
There is a wise saying that you become what you hate. My people have gone so far to make sure that the Holocaust never happens to us again, that we are not aware that we have become racist and elitist and indifferent to our brothers’ and sisters’ suffering, just like those that made us suffer.
I believe deeply that a conflict can only really be solved when both sides in the conflict are happy and safe. That is real victory. My father shares a view with many Israelis that supporting Palestinians means betraying my people. I do not think that that is the case. I believe that for Jews to be safe and free, Palestinians need to have safety and freedom. Otherwise, we are preparing our children for a legacy of war. So I am working on our joint interestpeace and justice-which is a requirement for all of us and for all of our children. ▼
From Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century-Stories from a New Generation of Activists, © 2001 by Neva Welton and Linda Wolf, eds. Reprinted with permission of New Society Publishers.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.