Life & Culture

Interview: Gideon Levy

I criticise because I’m a patriot


Gideon Levy has no illusions about how he is perceived in the mainstream Jewish world. The veteran Ha'aretz journalist is one of the most outspoken critics of Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and has been for 25 years. The fact that he has promoted his new book, The Punishment of Gaza, at a series of events organised by pro-Palestinian groups, has not endeared him to Zionist groups here, and he has been called "a propagandist for Hamas" by right wingers at home in Israel.

Levy would rather describe himself as an Israeli patriot. So what is his take on Operation Cast Lead? Was Israel supposed to stand by idly as Kassam rockets rained down on the town of Sderot?

Levy, casually dressed and relaxed in the lobby of his central London hotel, ponders the question. "Hamas is to be blamed for launching the Kassams. This is unbearable. No sovereign state would have tolerated it. Israel had the right to react. But the first question you have to ask yourselves is why Hamas launched the missiles. Before criticising Hamas I would rather criticise my own government which carries a much bigger responsibility for the occupation and conditions in Gaza. Hamas is a fundamentalist organisation and for sure it is not my cup of tea, but I'm an Israeli and I care first about our behaviour in Gaza. And our behaviour was unacceptable."

Levy condemns the brutality of Operation Cast Lead and claims that it has not only been a public relations disaster for Israel but also a major problem for Jewish communities around the world. He thinks it could have been different.

"First you should try diplomacy. Using the IDF should be the final option. I believe we could have reached agreement with Hamas - not a peace agreement but a longstanding ceasefire. When Hamas wants a ceasefire there are no Kassams. You should always try to talk to your worst enemies. Why can Israel negotiate with Hamas over the fate of one soldier [Gilad Shalit] but say it is illegitimate to talk to them over the fate of two peoples?"

You should always try to talk to your worst enemies

Levy claims the operation - he refuses to characterise it as a war because he claims there was no fighting - could have been conducted in a more limited and humane manner. And he agrees with Prime Minister David Cameron that Gaza is "a prison camp".

"The siege is proof that Israel still occupies Gaza. What is wrong with allowing those people in Gaza to import and export goods? The Europeans could inspect goods at the ports. Israeli inspection would be better but the Europeans could do it. And by the way, Egypt also carries a big responsibility for the siege. If I was an Egyptian I would be criticising them too.

"The operation and the siege has done great damage. If the idea was to weaken Hamas it has failed. I would be happy if Hamas was weakened or if it fell from power, but this has not happened. Gilad Shalit has not been released and now the missiles are beginning to be fired again. So what has Israel gained?"

Of course it is one thing to criticise the operation in Gaza, but quite another in many people's minds to appear as a guest of organisations which support Israel's enemies. Levy rejects the suggestion that he should not accept invitations from Palestinian activists. "I am happy to go anywhere that people are prepared to listen to me. In fact, it's more of a challenge to appear in front of people who do not share my views."

While he shares many of views with Palestinian activists, he admits to being conflicted about the boycott of Israeli goods. On one hand he thinks a boycott is a legitimate weapon - one that Israel itself uses when it shuns Hamas and calls for sanctions against Iran.

"I understand why people might want to punish Israel. I think that as long as Israel is not paying for the occupation there will be no end to it and there will be no change in Israeli society. Without pressure nothing will move in the Middle East."

However he does not call for people to boycott Israel. "I am an Israeli who does not boycott Israel so I cannot call on others to do so. I do my best not to buy any products from the settlements. But if I went into a supermarket here and I saw Israeli tomatoes which I knew were not from the settlements I would buy them happily. More than this, I would be proud to see Israeli tomatoes in a supermarket here. I am a patriotic Israeli."

And as an Israeli he believes that Israel should be judged by higher standards than Hamas. "Would you like to be compared to Hamas? I wouldn't. Sure the world is more critical of Israel but that is the way it should be because Israel gains a lot by being a part of the democratic West. You cannot gain all the benefits and not accept criticism.

"When you drive at 100 mph and a policeman catches you, it is not a defence to tell him that everyone is driving at 100 mph. You have to pay the ticket. No doubt there is some antisemitism, but there are also many friends of Israel fighting against the occupation."

Levy, who grew up in Tel Aviv, the son of refugees from the Nazis, is also a champion of human rights within the Green Line. And not all of his campaigns are popular with his friends on the radical left. For example, he has written about what he sees as racism against the Charedi community. "We should accept them like we accept any other religious or ethnic group. This fight against the Charedim is ugly. They are one of the poorest sectors in Israeli society. The fact that they don't serve in the army is not down to them, it is enabled by the state. They are much less dangerous to the state than the settlers are."

As for the future of the country, Levy is profoundly pessimistic. He is particularly concerned that the collapse of the Israeli left means that the remaining political parties are all fundamentally of one voice. He is even more concerned that his fellow citizens do not care what is going on in their own backyard.

"The old joke was that where you had two Israelis you had three points of view. Now, if you have three Israelis you barely have one point of view. Most Israelis are much more concerned with their next vacation and their next Jeep to worry about the time-bomb which is hanging over their heads."

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