Yasser Akawi is what my mother would call "tall, dark and handsome." He is young, unlike the other peace activists we have met in Israel, who are mostly from the 1960s generation. His hair is close-cropped, his face angular, his eyes dark and intense. When he talks about Physicians for Human Rights, his speech is punctuated by pauses as he searches for English words. When he talks about Ta’ayush, he comes alive. Somehow no longer needing to stretch for words, he describes with obvious passion a group quite unlike the rest of the Israeli peace movement.
Physicians for Human Rights is like a local Doctors Without Borders.
Established in 1988 during the first Intifada, they provide direct medical services and they advocate for human rights. They work in the Palestinian Authority areas documenting human rights abuses and terrible health conditions."The hospitals are in the cities and the patients are in the villages," says Akawi. But because of the checkpoints, people cannot move easily between the villages and the cities. "So every week we see many patients who are getting worse only because they cannot get to treatment."
Physicians for Human Rights has 600 volunteers - 40 per cent Palestinians and 60 per cent Jews. As the situation deteriorates, their volunteer base grows. No one has quit the group, though some prefer to keep out of Palestine and to focus on their other project of improving prisons in Israel.
Ta’ayush is less an NGO and more a non-violent direct action movement
The group was founded at the beginning of the second Intifada, less than two years ago. Like Physicians, Ta’ayush works in the Palestinian authority as well as in Israel. It does things like organising food convoys into occupied villages and staging demonstrations at checkpoints."We are doing more than saying," stresses Akawi."We try to be active when things happen. We were in Jenin when it was invaded. If you choose to be a member of Ta’ayush, it is because you are fully committed to oppose the Occupation, oppose the siege ,oppose the starvation policy."
I get the sense that Ta’ayush represents the new generation of radicals in Israel. Akawi confirms that most of its members are young. The other group we met with today is Yesh Gvul. Yesh Gvul means "there is a limit." This is the group that supports the refuseniks. We knew quite a lot about the refuseniks already. But what we didn’t know is that more than 1,000 Israelis have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories since the beginning of the second Intifada.
Peretz Kidron is more than a generation older than Yasser Akawi - but is no less passionate. Kidron explains that there is a strong tradition in Israeli society of supporting the right to refuse an illegal order. There was a famous massacre of Arab Israelis in 1956, in a Palestinian village called Kafr Kassem. The soldiers defended their actions at trial by insisting that they were just following orders.
"A collective chill went through Israeli society," Kidron tells us. "It was just ten years after the Nuremberg trials when the Nazis defended themselves with the same phrase."
The trial judgement said Israeli soldiers had a duty not to obey illegal orders. This gives the refuseniks a strong basis in law and culture to "selectively refuse" to serve in the occupied territories. Kidron believes this movement - currently comprising hundreds - can ultimately have a profound impact in stopping the Occupation.