Zehava Galon from Zulat

Zehava Galon was formerly leader of Meretz, one of Israels Social Democratic parties. She is know for her fight for equal rights of women, minorities and for fighting for ending the occupation. She is a voice for peace, all peoples equal value and for democracy. During her career she has worked in politics as well as in civil society, She co-founded and ran one of Israels most respected human right organizations B’Tselem who works for human rights in the occupied territories. Today Zehava is founder and head of the Israeli think and do tank Zulat -Institute for Equality and Human Rights.

The 30 of November 2023 Olof Palme International Center and the Robert Weil Family Foundation invited a group of representatives from the Swedish civil society to a round table discussion about the situation in Israel since October 7 and the role of Israeli civil society. Main speaker was Zehava Galon, we here publish the speech she held:


I would like to begin by welcoming the extension of the humanitarian pause in the fighting in Gaza, that resulted in the emotional release of a number of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, mainly woman and kids. This pause is also vital for millions of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, undergoing a humanitarian disaster, and for Israelis facing a barrage of rocket fire. We have been heartbroken since the horrific massacre in our southern communities on October 7th, sharing the pain of the families of hostages, whose fate remains unknown. We believe that all hostages must be released immediately and unconditionally.

I want to tell what life in Israel has been like, since October 7th, because it’s important that you understand what that day did to the Israeli psyche. I also will provide some background about the conflict and the price exacted by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desperate desire to keep his ultraright coalition together. Finally, I will share with you my hope for the future, because despite the horrors the Israeli people experienced on that dark day, and despite the ease with which one can sink into despair, my faith in humanity remains strong, and my belief in a future of peace between the Israeli and the Palestinian people is unwavering.

When we were rudely awakened by the wail of sirens on that fateful morning, we had no idea about the tragedy that was about to overtake us. Since then, we’ve spent weeks in front of our TV screens, listening to blood-curdling stories, turning away when the images become unbearable, trying not to imagine the final moments of the victims of Hamas’s butchery. Entire families tortured, some burnt alive. Partygoers hunted down and sprayed with bullets as they ran for their lives. Hundreds taken hostage – infants, toddlers, the sick, the elderly. A bloodbath, recorded by the terrorists themselves, to share their barbaric deeds with the folks back home.

I personally know many people whose worlds were shattered on that dark Saturday. Friends from the peace movement and colleagues whose relatives were murdered or kidnapped. I meet with the families of the hostages, I go to funerals to share their grief, and I draw strength from the courage of those, who sacrificed their lives to save others.

As someone who has spent her life working for peace in partnership with others, in the region and around the world, I was shocked to see many, so-called progressives, people I thought were allies, squirming in an attempt to justify the kidnapping of children and the slaughter of innocent civilians. The atrocities committed by Hamas can never be excused! How can beheading children, or raping women before parading their naked lifeless bodies through the streets of Gaza, be considered part of the Palestinian people’s legitimate struggle for liberation? How can anyone consider this war crimes as a legitimate act of resistance? It is beyond my comprehension. You cannot say: “It’s awful, but….”  There is no “but.”

The actions of Hamas cannot be justified by citing the injustices of the occupation, but neither can the occupation be justified as a defense against the atrocities committed by Hamas. Millions of Palestinians live without democratic rights and freedoms, and I fully support their struggle to end the occupation through civil, political, and diplomatic means. Hamas, however, has shown that its objective is the annihilation of the State of Israel, and it must be fought with unwavering resolve.

Since that Saturday, there are sirens that alert the Israelis to seek shelter from incoming rockets and missiles. We huddle together in our safe rooms and wait, hoping that the boom we hear will be a distant thud, rather than the sound of metal, shattering the walls around us. Israel has not only the right but the obligation to protect its citizens, and it cannot accept a situation in which, a murderous organization bent on our annihilation, continues to thrive on our borders. At the same time, I believe that we must cling to our humanity and to the values that underpin international law. As a peace-seeking Israeli, I find it hard to witness the distressing images of thousands of innocent people fleeing Gaza, and the thousands of dead and wounded. The supply of food, water, and medicine must continue, and we must insist that our government observe the rules of warfare and try to avoid civilian casualties.

The war in Gaza threatens to turn, at any moment, into a war in the north with Hezbollah, which launches missiles at northern communities. As a result, the government has evacuated its residents. Today, there are more than hundred thousand refugees in Israel, both from the communities in the Gaza Envelope and from the north, who have no idea when they will be able to return home.

My concerns for the future of my country are amplified by the fact, that Israel is currently led by an unfit, dangerous individual, who heads a coalition that doesn’t have Israel’s best interests at heart. Messianic Bezalel Smotrich, the minister of finance, is calling for reoccupying Gaza and re-establishing the settlements in the Katif Bloc. Racist Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, is handing out weapons, to the left and right, as if they were candy. Other ministers are running campaigns of incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens, and then there are those, who are clinging the fictitious ministries, that Netanyahu created for them at a cost of billions, despite the need to grapple with the unforeseen costs of the war.

When considering how we got here, it’s important to remember that the government spent most of the last year focused on its attempt to crush democracy and establish a dictatorial regime, just so that Netanyahu could avoid going to prison. This is the same prime minister, who is placing the blame for the Hamas massacre, on the heads of the security establishment and has refused to say “the buck stops here.” Instead, he and his cohorts talk about shared responsibility, about decisions made by previous governments – although Netanyahu’s been in power for most of the past 16 years – and about the sins of the Oslo architects and Sharon’s disengagement plan.

Not only were Netanyahu and his ministers responsible for the greatest intelligence and military failure in the history of the state, but they continued to betray the public’s trust by displaying incompetence in taking control of the situation. The families of the hostages didn’t know where to turn, the refugees from the south didn’t know from day to day where they would be sleeping that night, the coffers of the southern regional councils, emptied with no emergency funding arriving from the Treasury. – The state simply ceased to function.

The media is rife with tales about personal gripes influencing the prime minister’s decision-making, and in the midst of all this chaos, the government is continuing to dish out money, to the settlers and the ultra-orthodox parties, instead of aiding the survivors of the massacre.

The one bright spot in all this madness has been Israeli civil society. As the state collapsed around them, Israeli citizens banded together to fill the void. Jews and Arabs, Eritrean refugees, the young and the old, masses of volunteers from all walks of life, rallied to help. They donate money, offer housing to those who no longer have a home, drive those who no longer have a car, pack meals for the hungry, do laundry, offer baby-sitting services. So many initiatives, such solidarity. And that’s why there’s hope. Despite the hatred, the fear, and the worthless politicians, there is hope because there are good people, who believe in basic human decency as the foundation of Israeli society.  And they need you now more than ever!

They need you now because, in this time of darkness, it’s hard for the Israeli people to think of the day after. We need your help to see beyond our pain and to start planning for the future. Together, we must join hands to secure a resolution of the conflict.

For 56 years, Israel has ruled over millions of Palestinians. We established settlements and confiscated their lands. What past governments justified as security needs, Netanyahu’s ultranationalist government exposed as a messianic sense of entitlement, to all the land between the river and the sea. In the West Bank, we entrenched a system of human rights abuses that became so routine, and today, with attention focused on Gaza, the West Bank is turning into a Wild West, where violent settlers have been left to go on the rampage. This cannot go on. The continuation of this bloody conflict is the greatest threat to Israel’s future as a liberal democracy. The only way forward is through a political agreement between moderate Palestinian forces and an Israeli government that upholds universal values. Palestinian partners exist, and they would welcome an outstretched hand. On the Israeli side, more and more people are coming to see that this extremist government, with its ultranationalist agenda, its high-handed ministers, and above all, its incompetence, needs to go. It needs to go now, and we need to start thinking about the kind of reality we want to see here.

There is hope. I believe that once the dust settles and Netanyahu is gone, most of the Israeli public will draw the same conclusions as President Biden – that there is no going back to the status quo before October 7th, and that the next stage is a two-state solution. At Zulat for Equality and Human Rights, the institute I head, we are currently focused on the campaign for the release of the Israeli hostages, and on ensuring that the rights of the survivors, the bereft, the evacuees, those whose income has been affected, those whose education has been disrupted – in brief, that the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are suffering the consequences of the October 7th attacks, are not abandoned by the state.

The day after, our struggle will shift to a new agenda, based on the understanding that justice and equality and freedom and truth, are indivisible. This will be a battle for the soul of Israeli society, between those who want a democratic, modern and liberal Israel, in which all citizens are treated equally, and between those who want a racist, nationalistic Israel, that is shunned by the enlightened countries of the world.

Our challenge will be to grow a new Israeli society out of this blood-soaked soil – one that is devoted to the pursuit of full equality for all the people that share this land. That’s why we need liberal forces like you, people committed to democratic values, to voice support for our struggle for democracy at home, and for a fair and just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The knowledge that we can count on your support will give us the strength to go on.

Thank you.

Zehava Galon