Uri Avnery created a world sensation when he crossed the lines during the battle of Beirut and met Yassir Arafat on July 3, 1982 -- the first time the Palestinian leader ever met with an Israeli. Several Israeli cabinet ministers called for Avnery's indictment for high treason, while peace activists hailed the meeting as a historical breakthrough. It was the culmination of an effort started by Avnery many years earlier.
Avnery was born as Helmut Ostermann on September 10, 1923, in Beckum, Westphalia. His father, member of an old-established well-to-do German Jewish family, was a private banker in Beckum, and later on a financial expert in Hannover. As a veteran Zionist, he took his family to Palestine immediately upon Hitler's rise to power (1933). In Palestine, he quickly lost the considerable capital he had brought with him, and had to do hard manual work, as did his wife.
Avnery (he changed his first and second name on reaching the age of 18, adopting a Hebrew name, as was usual at that time) attended elementary school first in Nahalal, the famous moshav (communal village), and later on in Tel-Aviv. Because of his family's extreme poverty at that time, he left school after the seventh grade, at the age of 14, and earned his living at many jobs, until he turned to journalism as his profession in 1947.
In 1938, just before turning 15, he joined the Irgun underground (Irgun Tzwai Leumi - National Military Organization), in order to take part in the fight against the British colonial regime. He served for three years, but left the Irgun in protest against its anti-Arab and reactionary social attitudes and terrorist methods. Later he explained his attitude in a booklet entitled "Terrorism, the infantile disease of the Hebrew revolution" (1945). His only brother, Werner, a commando soldier in the British army, was killed in the Ethiopia campaign.
After some years of sporadic political activity, Avnery founded in 1946 the Eretz Yisrael Hatz'ira ("Young Palestine") movement, also known as the "Bama'avak (Struggle) group" by the name of its publication, which he edited. This group created an unprecedented uproar because of its contention that the Jewish community in Palestine constitutes a "new Hebrew nation" within the Jewish people, and that this nation is a part of Asia and the natural ally of the Arab nation.
In September 1947, on the eve of the Israeli-Palestinian war, Avnery published a booklet entitled "War or Peace in the Semitic Region", which called for a radically new approach: An alliance of the Hebrew and Arab national movements in order to liberate the common "Semitic Region" (a term coined by Avnery in order to avoid the colonialist term Middle East) from imperialism and colonialism, and create a Semitic community and common market, as a part of the emerging third world. Excerpts of the booklet were sent to the media throughout the Arab world and mentioned in some Arab newspapers, just before the start of the war.
At the outbreak of the war, Avnery joined the army (Giv’ati brigade) and later volunteered for "Samson's Foxes", a commando unit on the Egyptian front which soon became legendary. He was severely wounded during the last days of the fighting, and after several months of convalescence was discharged in the summer of 1949 with the rank of squad leader.
Throughout the war, Avnery reported on his experiences as a combat soldier who took part in nearly all the major battles on the Jerusalem and southern fronts. These reports, which appeared in the Ha'aretz evening paper, were published after the war as a book, "Bisdoth Pleshet 1948" ("In the Fields of the Philistines, 1948"), which became overnight the biggest bestseller of that time, and is still generally recognized as the outstanding book of that war, in the tradition of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front". Ten editions were published in quick succession and several more later on. (A new edition was published in April 1998, on the eve of Israel’s 50th anniversary.) However, when he wrote a follow-up, "The Other Side of the Coin", which described the dark side of the war, including atrocities and the expulsion of the Palestinians, it was boycotted.
In 1949, the editor of Ha'aretz invited Avnery to join his staff as a writer of editorials. After one year Avnery quit, protesting that he was not allowed to express his opinions, especially concerning tmass expropriation of Arab lands by the Ben-Gurion government. Thereupon, in April 1950, he bought a moribund family magazine and turned it into a unique Israeli institution.
Haolam Hazeh was a combination of a mass-circulation newsmagazine, similar in style to Time Magazine and Der Spiegel, and a mouthpiece of aggressive political opposition to the establishment, with exposes of political and economic corruption and proposals for a radically different national policy. It also created a new Hebrew style, now adopted by all Israeli media, and served as a school for most of the young men and women who became outstanding Israeli journalists.
Haolam Hazeh was based on a seemingly impossible contradiction: a mass-circulation paper attacking the most sacred beliefs and myths of the masses. It overcame this problem by unorthodox journalistic methods, and had a major influence on the shaping of the minds of two generations of young Israelis.
For forty years, Haolam Hazeh attracted an unusually large dose of both admiration and hatred, because of its untiring opposition to the official "concensus" on nearly all issues. At the base of the controversy was Avnery's unflinching opposition to the nationalistic, theocratic 'Jewish state" created by Ben-Gurion, and his advocacy of a modern, liberal state, belonging to all its citizens, irrespective of ethnic, national or religious roots. Haolam Hazeh has fought for the separation between state and religion, human rights, the right of the Arab minority, equality between Jews of European and oriental descent, the adoption of a written constitution (still missing), women’s rights, civil rights and much more. It was the first to uncover the facts of the infamous Lavon Affair (concerning an Israeli sabotage action in Egypt), as well as scores of corruption affairs. Since the early 1950's, it has resolutely advocated the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and support for the Arab struggles for independence (Egypt, Algeria, Iraq etc.)
Enemies of Avnery (such as Aharon Amir, a prominent right-wing ideologue) accused Avnery of "poisoning" two generations of Israeli youth, turning them away from the national myths towards an ideology of "integration in the Semitic Region". Indeed, perhaps the most important battle won by Avnery was the gradual change in Israeli national consciousness from a total negation of the very existence of a Palestinian people (Golda Meir: "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people!") towards the general recognition which made the Oslo agreement possible. This was a weekly effort that took some 40 years.
The chief of the secret service in the 50s, Issar Har'el, later testified that the Ben-Gurion establishment considered Avnery and Haolam Hazeh as "Public Enemy Number 1". This may explain why attacks on Haolam Hazeh were often violent. Its editorial offices and printing facilities were bombed several times and some employees wounded; Avnery was ambushed and both his hands broken after he criticized the infamous Kibieh massacre (1953). In 1975, he was the victim of an assassination attempt by a person officially declared nad. Avnery escaped with severe knife wounds. Menachem Begin disclosed in 1977 that the chief of the secret service had asked in the late 50's for his support for putting Avnery in administrative detention (without trial) under emergency regulations (Begin refused). The offices of Haolam Hazeh and its invaluable archives were completely destroyed by arson in 1972. Throughout this time, all branches of the government and army maintained a total economic boycott against the paper.
The most resolute attempt to silence Avnery was made in 1965, when the government enacted a special press law, admittedly aimed mainly against "that certain magazine" (as Haolam Hazeh was always called by Ben-Gurion, who would not utter its name.) This provided the final push for starting an operation which has been in Avnery's mind for a long time: the creation of a new political party to fight for the principles advocated by Haolam Hazeh: separation of state and religion; equality for the Arab minority, oriental Jews and women; social justice; support for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (at that time not yet under Israeli occupation) and an Israeli-Arab alliance throughout the whole region.
The new party (which adopted the name of the magazine and called itself "Haolam Hazeh - New Force Movement") came into being on the eve of the 1965 elections as a citizens' volunteer movement. It astounded the establishment by winning a seat in the Knesset, at that time an unprecedented feat for a completely new party. In the 1969 elections it gained two seats.
During his first eight years in the Knesset, even his enemies described Avnery as one of Israel's foremost parliamentarians. He had a lasting impact on the Knesset, making more than a thousand speeches in the Knesset plenum. Many of the hundreds of his initiatives in all fields of law and administration are still being debated in the Knesset today. He was probably most popular as an abrasive critic of the establishment, causing Golda Meir to declare from the Knesset rostrum: "I am ready to mount the barricades in order to get Avnery out of the Knesset!" A book about his activities in the 120-member Knesset ("1 against 119") appeared in 1969.
On the fifth day of the Six-Day War, Avnery addressed an open letter to the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, calling upon him to make a dramatic gesture and offer the Palestinian people the opportunity to create an independent State of Palestine on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had just been occupied by the Israeli Army. This idea, which has been put forward by Avnery since 1948, and which he outlined in a detailed plan in 1957, became his central theme since 1967 and the subject of hundreds of his speeches and initiatives in the Knesset, where he was for years the lone voice of this solution.
To further this idea, he wrote in 1967 a book analyzing the conflict. It was published in 1968 (in English as "Israel without Zionists" and in Hebrew as "The Seventh Day War") and translated into many languages. His proposal for a "two-state solution" was, in 1970, attacked by a book published in Beirut by the PLO in Arabic and French under the title "Uri Avnery and Neo-Zionism".
However, in 1974, with the beginning of the change in the PLO line, Avnery established contact with senior PLO officials. At the beginnig these contacts were at secret, but Avnery reported on them to the then Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. For Arafat, the contacts were conducted by the PLO representative in London, Sa'id Hamami, who was murdered because of this in 1978 by Palestinian extremists. In the summer of 1975 Avnery called for the creation of an Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which was founded officially in December of that year and took over the still-secret dialogue, by this time conducted for the PLO by Issam Sartawi. The fascinating story of this dialogue, with its many ups and downs, forms the subject of Avnery's book "My Friend, the Enemy", which was also translated into several languages.
The contacts assumed a new dimension in July 1982, when Avnery crossed the lines at the height of the battle of Beirut and publicly met the leader of the "enemy", Yassir Arafat, with whom he has met since then many times.
avnery with Arafat in Beirut - July 1982
during the siege of Beirut
In 1977, Avnery's party joined with several other peace groups in forming a new party, "Shelli", which won two seats in the elections of that year. Avnery returned to the Knesset in 1979, but gave up his seat in 1981, to make place for an Arab colleague. He served as chairman of the party executive, and upon its split became chairman of the newly formed Jewish-Arab "Progressive List for Peace", which won two seats in 1984. However, he did not run for the Knesset, and in 1988 left party politics for good. Because of mounting financial difficulties he had to give up Haolam Hazeh, after being its publisher and editor-in-chief for exactly 40 years. Soon after the magazine folded.
In 1992, Avnery called for the eof Yitzhak Rabin, and later supported the Oslo agreement. Soon after, frustrated with many of the government's acts and omissions in moving towards peace, he called for the creation of a strong extra-parliamentary citizens' movement to push the government in the right direction. After the expulsion of 415 Palestinians in the end of 1992, Avnery, together with Jewish and Arab Israelis, put up a protest tent opposite the Prime Minister's office, in which they lived for 45 days and nights, during some of which Jerusalem was covered by snow. This experience led to the creation of Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc, which has become since then the leading (and often sole) voice in Israel calling for the creation of the State of Palestine in all the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the release of all Palestinian prisoners, the dismantling of all settlements and the recognition of Jerusalem as the joint capital of both states. Since its creation, the Gush has organized hundreds of demonstrations, mostly together with Palestinian activists, and numerous other political actions, including an ongoing boycott of the products of the settlements and the manifesto "Our Jerusalem", signed by 750 prominent Israelis and the Palestinian leadership. This manifesto, written by Avnery, calls for the recognition of Jerusalem as the joint capital of the two states: Israel and Palestine.
july 1 1994
Arafat's first day in Gaza
a joint press conference with Avnery.
Rachel Avnery plays a major part in organizing Gush Shalom actions. The Gush receives no money from foreign funds (except small peace groups in Europe) and has no salaried employees whatsoever. All its actions are conducted, and mostly paid for, by volunteers.
In May 1995, on the first day of his return to Gaza, Arafat publicly embraced Avnery, put him next to him on the tribune and called him "my friend". The city of Osnabrueck has awarded Avnery the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Price for 1995. At the awarding ceremony, both the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors were present. Since then, he was awarded the Aachen Peace Prize (Germany), the Kreisky Price for Human Rights (Austria) and the Lower Saxony State Prize (Germany) as outstanding publicist (awarded personally by Gerhard Schroeder.)
In February 1999, after the kidnapping of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, Avnery took part in a spontaneous demonstration in front of the Turkish Embassy in Tel-Aviv. As a result, he was asked by Kurdish circles in Europe to join a committee of international personalities for Kurdistan. He addressed a mass-meeting of 150,000 Kurds in Bonn.
On May 4, 1999, the day the Oslo interim period came to an end, a manifesto drafted by Avnery and signed by 500 Israeli personalities was published as a full-page ad in Ha’aretz. It expressed "support for the right of the Palestinian nation to proclaim the State of Palestine" in "all" territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as joint capital of both Israel and Palestine.
In April 1997, while leading a demonstration against the construction of a new settlement on Jebl Abu-Ghneim (Har Homa"), Avnery fainted. Two physicians, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who were taking part in the demonstration, attended to him on the spot, and two ambulances, a Palestinian and an Israeli, successively rushed him to hospital, where a massive intestinal bleeding was diagnosed in time to save his life. An operation was conducted near the spot where he was wounded in 1948, causing him to joke that he was both "wounded in war and wounded for peace."
In 1999 Avnery called for the election of Ehud Barak, but was soon disappointed by the inability or unwillingness of Barak to move decisively towards peace and by his continued settlement activity. Since most other peace movements support the government unconditionally, Gush Shalom has remained nearly alone in the field criticizing the Barak government and organizing joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations against settlements, house demolitions and land confiscation. During the first year of the Barak government, which includes so-called peace parties, Gush Shalom has organized a dozen demonstrations against these policies, generally together with Palestinian organizations. It has also organized a petition by 650 prominent Israelis in support of a Palestinian state in all the territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and published a statement on the refugee problem, calling for a recognition of the Right of Return and a pragmatic approach to its realization.