New Internationalist

The occupation is killing us all

Issue 348

Attitudes may have hardened and grown bitter, but Richard Swift thinks only a complete end to occupation will undermine the extremists on both sides.

All photos: Richard Swift unless stated otherwise
All photos: Richard Swift unless stated otherwise

Don’t blow up,’ says my friend Jeff Halper’s daughter as he and I headed off downtown to his son’s West Jerusalem bar. His daughter lost a friend to a suicide bomb. At night West Jerusalem is a ghost town. ‘Richard! Richard! You mustn’t stop! There are snipers!’ This from a Palestinian friend in Beit Jala as I paused, in March this year, to take a picture of one of the many posters of dead people – martyrs to the struggle, people killed by Israeli attacks – that adorn the walls of all Palestinian towns. Later, when we emerged from an interview with a terrified and angry Palestinian writer, we ran into (and away from) an armoured personnel carrier of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

It was my small taste of the terror that is haunting the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians. It got worse – a lot worse. By April, hundreds of Israelis and four times as many Palestinians had fallen, in a mad cycle of violence. Feries, a Palestinian I know in East Jerusalem, just shakes his head at the wailing of each siren that heralds a new suicide bombing and mutters: ‘Will it ever stop? It’s not going to stop.’

So who is at fault? Are Palestinians terror-mad fanatics bent on killing Jews because they are Jews? Are Israelis racist colonialists determined to drive the ‘Arabs’ into the desert and grab their land? There are certainly some (too many) of each: Islamic fundamentalists who have never reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence; religious and not-so-religious Israelis who believe they have the right to all biblical land.

The key element that underlies the conflict, that gives energy and credibility to its extremist edges, is what is called ‘the occupation’. This is pretty straightforward. Some 230,000 Israeli settlers (400,000 counting those in Greater Jerusalem) sit on land occupied by the Israeli military during the Six Day War, back in 1967. This small population controls a disproportionate share of the best land and vital water resources. In Gaza (taken from Egypt), for example, some 7,000 settlers control 20 per cent of the land, leaving a million-odd Palestinians crowded into the rest.

The capture of the West Bank of the Jordan River was effected on the orders of Moshe Dayan, the general in charge of military operations and an outspoken advocate of a ‘settlement’ policy. In 1967, when the Jordanian army retreated across the Jordan River, Dayan ordered his troops to fill the vacuum. In a meeting of staff officers the night after the unexpected capture, Yitzhak Rabin asked Dayan the obvious question: ‘How do we control a million Arabs?’1 No-one has yet come up with an answer – and there are now 2.5 million ‘Arabs’.

Who was responsible for that war remains a matter of debate among historians. But a significant portion of Israelis (the religious and orthodox Right, the influential upper echelons of the military) simply regard the captured land as part of Israel. They are not bothered by the fact that the settlements are a violation of international law. In 1977 Ariel Sharon (then Likud’s Minister of Agriculture) laid out ‘A Vision of Israel at Century’s End’, calling for the settlement of two million Jews in the occupied territories.2 Yet those Israelis who believe this land belongs to them have not figured what to do with the people who live there. They are certainly unwilling to grant the Palestinians citizenship, which they fear would endanger the ‘Jewish’ nature of Israel. The Palestinians do not want this either; they want the Israelis gone and their own state. To the Palestinians this land is Palestine. To the Israelis it is Judea and Samaria.

To protect the settlements the Israelis have built up a formidable military structure of road blocks, army bases, border controls, secret police surveillance, aerial patrols, 300 miles of US-financed, Israeli-only, by-pass roads. It splits Palestinian territory into some 22 separate ‘Bantustans’. You can’t move in any direction from any major Palestinian population centre without having to pass through at least one Israeli checkpoint. For Palestinians this is demeaning, time-consuming and often dangerous. In times not dominated by tanks and helicopter gunships the checkpoint is the very essence of occupation. The cost to the Palestinian economy is staggering. In Bethlehem you sometimes can’t get fresh vegetables for love or money, while not many miles away in Jericho they rot for a lack of a market.

A particularly busy Israeli checkpoint separates Jerusalem from Ramallah . Right outside the poverty-stricken Kalandia refugee camp, it bristles with machine-gun nests and tanks. Every day it is clogged with Palestinian vehicles and pedestrians lining up to show their papers in the hope of getting through – to work, to see family, to go to school. As they reach the head of the line, pedestrians go one-by-one to the beckoning soldiers to discover their fate. Every once in a while a shot goes off or a tear-gas canister is thrown to keep the crowd in order. Tempers are short and law is at a minimum. Fights sometimes break out. You can feel the tension in the air. There have been 12 deaths and 700 injuries in the Kalandia camp in confrontations with the Israeli military since the current intifada started.

Israelis often despair of being in the world’s spotlight and point to other injustices that don’t get nearly the same amount of ink. The question hangs in the air: ‘Is it because we are Jews?’ The answer is: ‘Partially.’ There is a huge appetite in Jewish communities around the world for media coverage of what is happening in the Holy Land. Other communities associated with the great monothesitic religions (Muslims, Christians) also thirst for this news. But I think there is another reason. Israel and Palestine are in a sense where North meets South, where the economic cleavages of the world economy are writ small. It is only about an hour’s drive from the crowded Dehaiseh refugee camp near Bethlehem to the split-level homes of Hertzilia, north of Tel Aviv. But, as the British playwright David Hare once described it, it is like travelling ‘from Bangladesh to Southern California’.

The average per-capita income in Israel is about $17,000 – that of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is $1,700 and dropping. Wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness, collide in very close proximity. The psychotic level of inequality that haunts the fractured global economy is here a matter of everyday friction. A Palestinian village with not enough water to feed its livestock lies directly below an Israeli settlement with a brimming swimming pool. So, in a sense, Israel must bear the cross of how ‘we’ treat ‘them’. And, despite the short distances, these are also two very separate solitudes. It is illegal for Palestinians to go to Israel and for Israelis to travel to the territories. The exceptions are Palestinians who live in Greater Jerusalem, which the Israeli Government considers part of Israel proper, and the Israeli settlers who are permitted to travel to their fortress-like colonies in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli journalists are not allowed to travel to the territories to cover what is going on there. Practically all the news that Israelis get of what is happening in the territories is filtered through the public-relations department of the IDF. Each suicide bombing or other attack in Israel is minutely dissected by the country’s three TV networks, with the human face of the tragedy there for all to see. But a military attack in the West Bank is a question of ‘how many terrorists killed, how many bomb factories destroyed, how many weapons confiscated’. There are no human faces. So most journalists, whether Israeli or Palestinian, are denied the chance to present the other side. Hania, a Palestinian and veteran of the first intifada who lives in Ramallah, shakes her head with sorrow: ‘The only contact we have with the Israelis now is the soldiers and the settlers; and the only contact they have with us is the suicide bombers.’

Fear of the messianic Right now haunts Israeli politics

It’s hard to judge how far this separation is by circumstance or by design. Safety is obviously an issue. But the Israeli authorities make the rules, and it is easier to manipulate public opinion when people see themselves only as outraged victims. Many in Israel would give up the settlements for peace. Those who wish to hold on to the land have to blur the distinction between the territories and Israel. They are aided in this by Palestinian attacks that also make no such distinction. Holding on to the captured land is the hidden agenda of Israeli politics. There is a six-lane settler highway running out of Jerusalem into the West Bank. This is far more road capacity than is currently needed. Planners are obviously counting on more, not fewer, settlers in the future. Anyone who proposes withdrawal for Gaza and the West Bank is painted as ‘soft on Arab terrorism’.

Those who support the greater-Israel agenda are well-placed, fierce and determined. These are the settlers, most of the ultra-orthodox Jews, and the idealogically inspired political Right that rallies around the Likud Party. It is they (led by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) who whipped up a vicious campaign of vilification against Yitzhak Rabin for reaching an agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Oslo in 1993. Rabin was variously painted as a Nazi stormtrooper or a compromiser along the lines of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who sold out Czechoslovakia to the Nazis before World War Two. The campaign culminated with Rabin’s assassination by a deranged, ultra-Zionist law student who claimed he was shooting ‘a terrorist’. Fear of the messianic Right now haunts Israeli politics.

However, the most important supporters of the greater-Israel agenda are not fanatical settlers but the ‘political’ generals. It is perhaps simplest to speak of a creeping military coup. Under real and imagined siege, Israelis have come to rely on the views of the military, which have long dominated Israeli politics. But the shift has become more marked, with many of the main political actors – Sharon, Barak, Effim – coming from the military. Most of its upper echelons were not happy with the Oslo peace process, despite the fact that it was initiated by one of their own, Yitzhak Rabin. Even while talking peace, the military high command and the political generals hatched a series of contingency plans to destroy the Palestinian Authority. This is a matter of public record.3 The plans were in place well before the wave of suicide bombers that has marked the second intifada.

The ideals of a democratic and peaceful homeland that inspired at least some of Israel’s first pioneers were caught from the earliest days in a vice of contradiction. Creating Israel in a hostile environment meant relying on military force to survive. Sharon is the last old warrior of the Jewish liberation movement, trying to pass the torch to a new generation of ultra-nationalists. Once a society has come to rely on thugs for its protection it is usually not long before the thugs start to take over.

Ola Torkelsson / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com
Ola Torkelsson / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

You can see the change in the decline of the once-proud Kibbutz, known for its openness and egalitarianism, now replaced by the fortified settlement based on exclusion and surveillance. Israeli political culture, once fiercely democratic, is being eroded by a manipulated, bureaucratic legalism that identifies dissent as disloyalty. Public figures (and there are many) who speak out against the occupation are vilified. The 77-year-old Israeli patriotic singer Yaffa Yarkoni had performances and tributes cancelled when she said the unsayable, comparing the tactics of the IDF in the territories to methods used against the Jews in the Holocaust.4 Some Israelis believe that the country has sacrificed its cherished claim to democracy by keeping millions of Palestinians in political limbo without political or civil rights for 35 years.

The tragic dance between Israelis and Palestinians can be seen in the photos and posters that crowd the walls of Nablus and Bethlehem, and in the memorials that dot the Israeli countryside. The preoccupation on both sides is with keeping faith. With the martyrs of the struggle. With the innocent victims of the Nazi killing machine. With those who resisted. With the brave soldiers who fell to gain a homeland. One person’s terrorist, another person’s freedom fighter. For the Israelis it’s the holocaust, for the Palestinians the catastrophe. For Israel it is ‘never again’, for Palestinians ‘samud’ (steadfastness).

It’s impossible to be glib about any of this. Anti-Semitism can never be seen as simply an excuse. Given the 20th century, as a Jew you would be mad not to look over your shoulder and wonder on occasion – what do they intend for me? This is passed down from Holocaust survivors to the generations that follow, and then to those that follow them.

David Grossman, a brilliant Israeli writer and a staunch opponent of the occupation, captures the obsession in his devastating novel See Under: Love. ‘Wait a minute: did she turn off the gas? And suddenly I’m talking about the Holocaust again. I don’t even know how I got back to it. I can get there from anywhere. I’m a regular Holocaust homing pigeon. And for the thousandth time in a voice that doesn’t carry much conviction, I ask “how can life go on after we have seen what a human being is capable of?”’5.

‘when you lose the value of life, it will boomerang against your society’

But it does. And the Holocaust is alive in the very bones of Israel. How could it be otherwise? And the experience can be, and is, manipulated to justify things that, while in no way the same as the Nazis policy of mass industrial killing, do have some pretty uncomfortable echoes. People catagorized. Their movement controlled. Their houses destroyed. Herded into communities where they can be kept under close surveillance. Their rights restricted. Humiliation based on race. And woe betide them if they resist. Then it’s helicopter gunships and F-16s. Prisoners rounded up and numbers stencilled on to their arms. Torture and imprisonment. The means of economic survival – shops, olive orchards, agricultural land – laid waste. Communities invaded and smashed beyond recognition.

On the other side, the Palestinians grow ever-more desperate. The hopes Oslo brought are now dashed. It is hard to believe that the young militants of the first intifada gave olive branches to Israeli soldiers after the Madrid peace conference, back in 1991. Attitudes have hardened and grown bitter. The fundamentalists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have grown stronger and the Palestinian Left has declined. Suicide bombers have widespread (though far from total) approval. And the violence inevitably rebounds on Palestinian society. The brutal execution of people accused of collaboration is just one example. Roni Ben Efrat, an Israeli peace activist I meet in Jaffa, calls the suicide bombings ‘a gesture of hopelessness by political Islam’. She believes it says to people: ‘Your life is nothing… It is all in the next world, there is nothing for you in this world.’ Efrat, who was jailed by the Israeli Government for supporting the first intifada, believes that ‘when you lose the value of life, it will boomerang against your society’.

Her concerns are echoed by at least some Palestinians. Well-known Palestinian spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi recently agonized: ‘Why and when did we allow a few from our midst to interpret Israeli military attacks on innocent Palestinian lives as licence to do the same to their civilians? Where are those voices and forces that should have stood up for the sanctity of innocent lives (ours and theirs), instead of allowing the horror of our own suffering to silence us?’6.

Such voices are, however, marginalized in the current climate. A popular discourse of hatred prevails. Even so, Palestinians make strange models for the primitive and fanatical racial ‘other’, as they are frequently painted in Israel. Palestinian civil society is quite sophisticated. There are some 900 non-governmental organizations and a plethora of media often critical of the undoubted failings of the Palestinian Authority. There is fierce debate over the best tactics to use, and a keen interest in every aspect of political life. There was hardly a Palestinian home I visited where the TV was not constantly monitored for the most recent news. Palestinian society has been much exposed to cosmopolitan influences and is by tradition not particularly religious. Though a majority is Muslim, there is a significant and influential Christian minority.

The media coverage, both regional and international, tends to flatten perceptions. The sophistication and savvy of the Palestinians get lost, as does the degree of dissent and debate in Israel. A huge Israeli peace demonstration of between 60,000 and 100,000 people this spring went virtually unnoticed by the North American media. This distortion tilts Jewish diaspora politics towards uncritical support for the Sharon agenda. In the US it works its way into George Bush’s agenda for an all-encompassing ‘War on Terror’, as well as Christian Zionist sentiment in favour of Israel. All of which adds up to effectively unqualified support for the Israeli Government. The Bush regime even seems to feel that it has the right to choose a compliant Palestinian leadership – whatever the wishes of Palestinians.

With US support solid, the Israeli Right sees little need for any kind of compromise at all. For at least some key supporters of the Sharon agenda civilian casualties are the unfortunate price to be paid for smashing the Palestinians. So the choices facing the region are stark. Continue with the present deadly stalemate. Ethnically cleanse the West Bank, which would cost tens of thousands of lives – mostly Palestinian. Or roll back the occupation and work to undermine the extremists on both sides.

  1. Shlaim, Avi, The Iron Wall, Norton, New York, 2001
  2. Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace, 2002, Washington.
  3. Reinhart, Tanya, Israel: the generals’ grand design,
  4. Curtis, Mary ‘A venerable voice muted’, Los Angeles Times, April 29th 2002.
  5. Grossman, David, See Under: Love, Picador, New York, 1989
  6. Ashrawi, Hanan; ‘Where we went wrong’, The Progressive, February 2002.

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