Israeli Peace Movement


Source: Johansen, J. (2007). Israeli Peace Movement. Encyclopedia of activism and social justice. G. L. Anderson and K. Herr. Thousand Oaks, Calif., Sage Publications762-765.

Israeli Peace Movement

The peace movement in Israel has roots back to the creation of the state in 1948. Early organizations such as Israeli Peace Committee and Movement Against Religious Coercion had links to political parties on the left but attracted independent intellectuals as well. The movements of today have a similar position.

The group Ihud (Unity), formed in the early 1940s, was working for a binational state in Palestine. With leading intellectuals and pacifists such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, they worked for self-determination for both communities and tried to prevent a confrontation. From 1948 to 1967, political parties should be included in an extended definition of the peace movement in Israel. The parties had tight relations to peace organizations and their agenda was dominated by the same questions as the peace movement. The main discussion in the movement, as in the rest of the Israel society, was about the relation to the Palestinians. Peace issues also dominated the Zionist movement and their conflicts between socialists and religious groups. Academics and other intellectuals played vital roles in the early movements. The universities were breeding grounds for new activists and the central stage for discussions. Matzpen (Israeli Socialist Organisation), SIAH (New Israeli Left), and Peace and Security were the main organizations, but none of them managed to substantially influence the agenda of the existing parties.

The Six-Day War in 1967 was by all standards a watershed in the history of Israel and for the peace movement. The occupation of the new territories reopened the old discussion about the borders of a Jewish state. Immediately the question about negotiating land for peace was at the center of the debate, and that is still a core part of the current discussion, in which the peace movement is an important actor.

After some period of confusion and discussion, the suggestion to create a Palestinian state in Gaza and on the West Bank became the main question for the peace discussion. It took some time after the 1967 war for the first truly independent peace groups to emerge. Activists needed time to formulate their views and positions in the new reality.

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 came as a shock to the Israeli people. More than 2,500 Israeli soldiers died in the surprise attack, many more were seriously wounded. The feeling of security and accomplishment after the Six-Day War collapsed and the loyalty to the government crumbled among many Israelis.

This resulted in extraparliamentary protests and formation of the modern peace movement of Israel. Outside the Prime Minister’s office, the lonely protester Motti Ashkenazi soon got support for his demand that Defence Minister Moshe Dayan should resign. Thousands of reservists, who had been called up to push back the Egyptian army, took to the streets and supported the many peace activists in a wave of nationwide protests. But the movement lacked unity on central issues like what the relation to the Palestinians should be. The majority of Israelis were not in favour of any form of coexistence. The political parties were only involved in the periphery and no one else was able to gather the movement.

The next important event for the peace movement was President Sadat’s visit to Israel to negotiate a peace agreement. On December 18, 1977, more than 100,000 people spontaneously gathered in Tel Aviv to celebrate new friendship with the people of Egypt. The euphoric feelings did not last long. The negotiations got stuck and a totally unprecedented reaction from parts of the armed forces took place. The Officers’ Letter was the first of a number of initiatives in the decades to come that had a strong influence on the development of the Israeli Peace Movement. Approximately 350 reserve officers opposed the government’s line in the negotiations, and within hours after the publication got an overwhelming reaction from all over the country.

The initiator of the letter was a small, unknown, Jerusalem-based group called the Other Zionism Group. As a reaction to all the telephone calls and letters they received after publicizing The Officers’ Letter, they wanted to hold a demonstration and were very surprised when 35,000 turned up. Among them was a small group from Tel Aviv who brought a poster with their name—Peace Now—which became the name of the new movement. A number of local groups were formed and 250,000 signed the letter from the officers. Peace Now dominated the peace movement in Israel for the next 10 years.

The policy of Peace Now was more focused on what they opposed than concrete alternatives. In the first years they had no ties to any political parties, and Peace Now grew to be the largest peace movement Israel has ever witnessed. It became a very visible actor with a number of large-scale demonstrations from 1978 onwards. It was the voice of the dove-minority in Israel.

In the early 1980s, it became clear to many Israelis that the question of self-determination for Palestine was the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Academics from Bir Zeit University in Palestine had since the late 1970s developed contacts with individuals in the Israeli peace movement. These contacts came to build the base for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit University (CSBZU) literally went to Palestine and discussed with and demonstrated for their Palestinian colleagues. With a high level of media coverage, a number of contacts were made with Palestinian leaders and institutions. CSBZU promoted a two-state solution and, combined with its militant action, it created an important force to the left of Peace Now. When CSBZU and Peace Now worked together, they formed an important political factor in Israeli politics.

In 1982 a new group entered the stage, Yesh Gvul (“There is a limit”). It was men who declared in an open letter that they would not serve in Israeli Defence Forces on Occupied Territories. That had happened occasionally earlier, but not on this scale; by August more than 250 had signed. That soldiers refused to serve was almost unheard of in the highly militarised Israeli society. This was not the last time soldiers made their voice heard in the Israeli peace movement. Refuseniks became a common term in the public debate. Groups like Soldiers Against Silence and Parents Against Silence popped up during the war in Lebanon and, together with large organizations such as Peace Now and the Committee Against the War in Lebanon they, formed a strong voice against the war.

The outbreak of the intifada in December 1987 took everyone by surprise and changed the situation for all actors, including the Israeli peace movement. It took time before a new strategy was developed. The scene was turned back to the organized left and their parties in the Knesset. The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE) with four seats in the parliament and the Progressive Peace List had difficulties in cooperating and there was no alternative. More than 30 new groups were established, and together with the veterans in Peace Now and Yesh Gvul they protested the repression of the intifada. CSBZU and the Committee Against War in Lebanon had a series of meetings when the intifada started. That resulted in the formation of a network called Dai La’kibush (DLK), with groups of academics in every city who gathered under the slogan End the Occupation. They went weekly to villages, refugee camps, and hospitals in the territories, and they called for recognition of the PLO and establishment of a Palestinian state alongside of Israel.

The many women’s groups that emerged at the beginning of the intifada added a new dimension to the movement. With weekly vigils at central places, Women in Black stood dressed in black, silently carrying an End the Occupation slogan. They were often harassed by counterdemonstrators, as well as by police, but continued their vigils.

Peace Now became involved with Knesset and the socalled dovish parties in the late 1980s. They encouraged people to vote in the 1992 elections and had a significant role in domestic politics. That ended with the second intifada in 2000. The peak for Peace Now was over.

The first Gulf War, when Arafat supported Saddam Hussein and Israel was targeted with Scud missiles, proved to be a major setback for the Israeli peace movement. In those days most Israelis regarded sympathy for Palestinians as an act of treachery. The Palestinian suicide bombers made the argument for a two-state solution even more difficult to digest within Israel.

With the Oslo Accords and the recognition of the PLO, a new wave of peace initiatives were established within Israel. In an effort to foster dialogue, cooperation, and friendship, many youths, women, and others met with their Palestinian counterparts. At the same time, more international peace groups started to work in Israel proper and the territories.

More radical groups formed in Israel as well. Feminist pacifists established New Profile; high-ranking officers refused to serve in the territories; and in 2006 a group called Combatants for Peace, which brought together Palestinian and Israeli ex-fighters to encourage dialogue and nonviolence, was established. This is the first time ever that enemy soldiers organized together against an ongoing war.

The building of the separation wall and the election of Hamas in Palestine in early 2006 weakened the peace movement in Israel to some degree. By mid-2006 the peace movement played a less important role than it had for many years.


Hall-Cathala, D. (1990). The peace movement in Israel, 1967–87. London: MacMillan.

Kaminer, R. (1996). The politics of protest: The Israeli peace movement and the Palestinian intifada. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press.

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Posted in In English, Peace Research, Social Movements

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