Tel Aviv - You can tell a lot about a movement by the arguments on its buses. On the coach to a Prague anti-IMF demo a few years back, activist daggers were drawn over the screening of Fight Club, which some insisted was neo-Nazi.
For Israeli peaceniks travelling to a West Bank non-violent protest led by Mahatma Gandhi's grandson Arun recently, the breaking point is a pass around petition calling for the draconian punishment of drivers involved in accidents.
"This is fascist!" exclaims Ygal. "It will punish the country by taking away their cars."
A storm briefly bursts across the air-conditioned coach, but in contrast to the Prague bunfight, it dissipates suddenly as Jerusalem heaves into view.
The Israeli activist left is a small group, no more than 1,000 people at most times, and its many splinters can't afford trench warfare, however metaphorical the issue. The much larger and more mainstream Peace Now, which mobilized half a million to protest the occupation of Lebanon 20 years ago, now argues that "there is no Palestinian partner for peace." The group may monitor Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories, but it doesn't protest there.
As a result, the activists on this bus face terrible social ostracism and state repression, alone in a culture where the occupation has become normalized. So normalized, in fact, that IDF soldiers in uniform now browse the bookshelves of Tel Aviv's anarchist social centre, Salon Mazal - without so much as a raised eyebrow from the proprietors.
How to win an argument with a family member terrified of being bombed on a bus is just the start of the Israeli lefty's dilemma. How to relate to a desperate Palestinian resistance, part of which condones the bombing of those same family members, is a tougher nut to crack.
Ygal (not his real name) is one of those who support the intifada, warts and all. "The reality is that before the Palestinians turned to violence, no one listened to them," he says.
Jacqui, his girlfriend, an International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist, sees it similarly. "In a village that decided to non-violently resist the Wall, more people got shot than anywhere else. Non-violence is the right way to go, but you need internationals around for it to be successful."
The bus is split on this question. The activist left's main component parts - Gush Shalom, Ta'ayush, ISM and Anarchists Against the Wall - are all on board. Gush activists, mostly in their 40s to 60s, coalesced before the 1995 Oslo Accord as a "Peacer than Peace Now" group pushing for two states based on the 1967 Green Line, where Israel's old border with the Palestinians used to be.
Ta'ayush, by contrast, is a Jewish-Arab partnership formed during this intifada to build solidarity with Palestinians. The ISM is a wild card, universally respected for its courage and commitment to non-violent direct action. But some Israeli activists privately complain of arrogant internationals ignorant of local realities telling them what to do. ISMers, for their part, gripe about Israelis who, as one activist said, "don't want to make friends with Palestinians or drink tea with them," and tensions occasionally surface.
The enfants terribles of the Israeli left, of course, are the anarchists, who also believe in direct action - and a no-state-at-all solution. An energetic offshoot of the anti-globalization movement, the anarchists are usually in their teens and early 20s. Ya'ir, a pimply 15-year-old, is in their bloc. Sitting at the back of the bus, he unwisely gives every soldier we pass the finger. As we pass a checkpoint, he explodes into an Arabic chant of "Abu Dis! Million of shahids (martyrs) are coming to redeem you!"
His friend Zac's entire lanky body, including his face, is covered in black and white zebra stripes, which he painted in a recent bid to dodge the draft. "You tell them you're depressed," he explains lazily. "You say everyone at school beat you up and so you want to join the army to learn how to use a gun to take revenge."
Zac's friends Kerem and Ira, also 17, take umbrage at this and talk over each other.
Kerem: "See? You're really crazy. They shouldn't put you in the army."
Ira: "If you're crazy, they should take you into the army!"
Kerem: "Maybe I'll take a stand of conscience and go to jail. I never want to serve in the army."
Zac: "You must tell them you're a drug addict!"
And so it goes on. Teenage activists here don't spend much time debating the ethics of buying Puma trainers.
Abu Dis, our destination, is a foreign country, and they do things differently here. We're just 20 minutes from Jerusalem, but the buildings are developing world standard, the streets cracked and strewn with rubble.
Despite the scorching heat, women in flowing dresses and headscarves are trying to flank the marchers, holding photos of sons and brothers in Israeli jails on hunger strike demanding fair treatment under the Geneva Convention. The Israeli left has mobilized heavily for this march and maybe ferried 300 people here, but as we step out of our coaches we're overwhelmed by the exuberant Palestinian chaos flooding by. Few Israelis will make this trip.
I speak to Gush Shalom's founder, Uri Avnery, a gentle, soft-spoken man in his early 80s who towers over the Israeli left. Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the PLO three decades ago and the first to meet Yasser Arafat. "This is the radical wing of the peace movement," he tells me.
Radical, yes, but can it cope with the new stresses on the two-state solution? The traditional left's call for side-by-side Palestinian and Jewish states has been undercut by expanding Israeli settlements in the Territories and by the dreaded Wall, both of which have fragmented Palestinian land. Now, a small minority of Israeli activists and a growing number of Palestinians are calling for a right of return for all Palestinian refugees, with all the demographic implications this involves. In July, a roll call of dignitaries on the Israeli far left signed the Olga Document, advocating just this.
Avnery was not one of them. "It's a nice dream," he says, "but it's a symptom of despair. It's like saying because I cannot swim in the sea of Tiberius, I'll go and swim in the Pacific Ocean. Two states for two people has been accepted by the whole world. If you can't fight for that, how can you dream of something that both people, and the whole world, reject?"
"A one-state solution is probably the only kind that will ever work here,' counters Ronit Wolf, a Ta'ayush activist from Tel Aviv, "but not before the Palestinians achieve some sort of independence.'
Peaceniks may debate strategy, but apartheid is what Arun Gandhi, director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Tennessee, wants to talk about when he takes to the stage in front of a burned section of the 30-foot-high concrete barrier. "This wall reminds me of the Bantustans of South Africa," he proclaims to cheers, but his speech quickly mutates into something bland and politician-like. "We have to create an atmosphere where we can live together in peace and harmony," he says.
We marchers trudge back to our coaches away from the blinding sunlight, accepting bunches of grapes from farmers as we go. We may be the only Jews they have met who are not wearing uniforms. They seem ridiculously grateful.
firstname.lastname@example.org Arthur Neslen is writing a book about Israeli identity for Pluto Press