New Cold War.org, June 24, 2017
* If Israel were smart, essay on Gaza, by Sara Roy, London Review of Books, June 15, 2017, Vol 39 #12
* Israel’s irrational rationality, book review by David Shulman, published in New York Review of Books, print issue dated June 22, 2017, Vol 64 #11
If Israel were smart
My last visit to Gaza had been in May 2014, just before Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, an assault that resulted in the deaths of more than two thousand Gazans – combatants and civilians – and the destruction of eighteen thousand homes. When I went back less than three years later the changes were evident everywhere. But two things struck me particularly: the now devastating impact of Gaza’s decade-long isolation from the rest of the world, and the sense that an increasing number of people are reaching the limit of what they can endure.
Gaza is in a state of humanitarian shock, due primarily to Israel’s blockade, supported by the US, the EU and Egypt and now entering its 11th year. Historically a place of trade and commerce, Gaza has relatively little production left, and the economy is now largely dependent on consumption. Although a recent easing of Israeli restrictions has led to a slight increase in agricultural exports to the West Bank and Israel – long Gaza’s principal markets – they are not nearly enough to boost its weakened productive sectors. Gaza’s debility, carefully planned and successfully executed, has left almost half the labour force without any means to earn a living. Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the defining feature of life. It now hovers around 42 per cent (it has been higher), but for young people (between the ages of 15 and 29) it stands at 60 per cent. Everyone is consumed by the need to find a job or some way of earning money. ‘Salaries control people’s minds,’ one resident said.
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The greatest source of political tension between the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is the continued refusal of President Abbas, who controls the purse strings, to pay the salaries of Hamas government employees. I was consistently told that if Abbas wanted to win the support of Gaza’s people all he would have to do is pay the civil servants their salaries. Because he is unwilling to do so – he claims that the money would be funnelled to Hamas’s military wing – he bears a great deal of responsibility for Gaza’s suffering. Abbas’s refusal is all the more galling because he has been paying full salaries – generally between $500 and $1000 a month, a huge sum in Gaza today – to at least 55,000 civil servants in Gaza who worked for the PA before Hamas took control of the territory. These people are being paid not to work for the Hamas government. Paying their salaries costs the PA $45 million a month, money largely supplied by Saudi Arabia, the EU and the US. Paying people not to work has institutionalised yet another distortion in Gaza’s deeply impaired economy. However, Abbas recently cut these salaries by between 30 and 70 per cent to pressure the Hamas government into relinquishing control of Gaza. ‘Either Hamas gives us Gaza back,’ Abbas threatened, ‘or they will have to take full responsibility for its people.’ According to my colleague Brian Barber, currently in Gaza, ‘Abbas’s salary cuts have come like an earthquake.’
Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.
Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’
And Gaza’s environment is by most measures abnormal. At least 1.3 million out of 1.9 million people, or 70 per cent of the population (other estimates are higher), receive international humanitarian assistance, the bulk of which is food (sugar, rice, oil, milk), without which the majority could not meet their basic needs. In the middle of last year, 11,850 families, or approximately 65,000 people, remained internally displaced (down from a high of 500,000 at the height of the 2014 hostilities), of whom 7500 families or about 41,000 people were in urgent need of temporary shelter and cash assistance. I have written elsewhere about rising suicide rates in Gaza; the means are various – hanging, immolation, jumping from heights, drug overdose, ingestion of pesticides, and firearms. Gaza’s divorce rate, once just 2 per cent, now approaches 40 per cent, according to the UN and local healthcare professionals. ‘There are 2000 domestic disputes a month in Shati camp,’ an UNRWA official reported, ‘and the police cannot cope. The courts alone receive hundreds of complaints every month. The Hamas government cannot deal with the number of problems’ – problems which include increasing drug use.
It’s important to remember that nearly three-quarters of Gaza’s inhabitants are under thirty and remain confined to Gaza, prohibited from leaving the territory; most never have. Amid such disempowerment, young people have increasingly turned to militancy as a livelihood, joining various militant or extremist organisations simply to secure a paying job. Person after person told me that growing support for extremist factions in Gaza does not emanate from political or ideological belief – as these factions may claim – but from people’s need to feed their families. Many, perhaps most of the new recruits to Islamic State-affiliated groups are choosing to join because membership guarantees an income. At the same time, Hamas is desperate to secure enough funds to keep paying the salaries of its military wing, the al-Qassem Brigades, which is also reportedly seeing a swelling of its ranks. It seems that unemployed young men in Gaza increasingly face two options: join a military faction or give up.
‘If the Israelis were smart,’ one religious Muslim told me, ‘they would open two or three industrial zones, do a security check and find the most wanted among us and employ them. Al-Qassem would evaporate very quickly and everyone would be more secure … The mosques would be empty.’ I was told that many young men left al-Qassem after getting a place in one of Gaza’s housing projects, not wanting to turn their new home into a possible Israeli target. ‘What we need is Israeli factories and Palestinian hands,’ a local businessman said. ‘One sack of cement employs 35 people in Gaza; with one worker in Israel you have seven people in Gaza praying for Israel’s security. Imagine a “Made in Gaza” brand. We could market regionally and it would sell like hotcakes. Gaza would benefit and so would Israel. All we want are open borders for export.’ Gazans are entrepreneurial and resourceful – and desperate to work and provide for their children once again. Instead they are forced into demeaning dependency on humanitarian aid, which is given by the very same countries that contribute to their incapacity. The policy is not only morally obscene: it is also outrageously stupid.
Not everyone in Gaza is poor. A small group – the number I kept hearing was 50,000 – is relatively well off, with wealth in some cases deriving from the now almost defunct tunnel trade, which once kept the economy functioning, even thriving, under the pressure of Israel’s blockade. Now that so little is produced in Gaza, the economy depends on them in a different way: the privileged fill the hotels, shopping malls and restaurants which have appeared in response to their demand – restaurants, apparently, are the one type of business still making a profit. Some people argue that this evidence of affluence shows that conditions in Gaza are much better than they are usually portrayed; others have called it a ‘welcome sign of normalcy’. But like the vast majority of Gazans, the rich are also constrained and confined, enraged and demeaned by their inability to live freely and with any sense of predictability. One of Gaza’s wealthiest and most successful businessmen spent an evening with me describing in painstaking detail the restrictions imposed on his business by Israel, which used to be an essential market. ‘The Israelis are destroying my business, my ability to work and why? They squeeze, squeeze, squeeze and towards what end?’ The monied live well but they can’t buy their freedom. This is what binds them to the rest of Gaza, though they have little other common ground with those outside their class. In Gaza the difference between wealth and poverty is very visible, but it’s also very proximate: the distance between the two can sometimes be measured in yards. One evening I went with a Swedish friend to one of Gaza’s best restaurants, packed with well-dressed families, the teenagers all playing on their iPhones. How many of them had been inside al-Shati refugee camp, a short walk from the restaurant? Many – perhaps most – never had.
The people who are really considered privileged in Gaza aren’t necessarily those with a great deal of money. They are people with a regular source of income: until recently, those salaried employees paid not to work by the PA, people working for UNRWA, international NGOs, local public and private sector institutions and those (not many) who are successfully self-employed, usually merchants. People try to help one another, but charity isn’t the simple, unencumbered act it once was. A friend from a prominent Gaza family described his dilemma: ‘After paying my taxes to Hamas, the new fees that spring up all the time, household expenses, food and helping friends, I am depleting my personal funds. Soon I will have to sell some assets to pay the bills. Yes, I am much better off than most people here and I do what I can to help others but where does it stop? The tragedy of this situation is that friends look at you as a source of money. And friendships end when you can no longer provide that money. Think of what it takes to make people behave in this way. No one seems to be considering the pressure it takes to change one’s core values. This is what we have been reduced to. This was never Gaza.’
Hamas, too, is obsessed with the question of survival. As the government’s resources have contracted over the last few years it has tried to compensate for the shortfall in public sector funds by ‘gouging people for money’, as the analyst put it, imposing a range of revenue-generating measures – new taxes, fees, penalties and price increases – that feel extorsive. The price of cigarettes has recently tripled from 8 NIS to 25 NIS; quarterly property taxes have doubled; a new ‘cleanliness tax’ is now charged for street cleaning and sanitation services, and car licences must be renewed every six months at a cost of 600 NIS – an impossible sum for most Gazans. Failure to pay can result in the confiscation of the licence followed by the car. One source explained to me that since few people have the money to pay these taxes and penalties in full, Hamas officials target those who do and have a sliding scale for those of lesser means. These measures seem to be working, at least in terms of collecting revenue. As for Hamas, ‘the pressure they are under, like all of us, is considerable,’ I was told, ‘but they will not break. Instead they have become more vicious. Hamas was not like this before. Extreme self-preservation is taking them far away from politics.’
There isn’t much more Hamas can do to strengthen its control over Gaza: in its own arena, just as with Israel, its control is already total. So its priorities, I was told, are now shifting, from the consolidation of power – itself a diminished aim, considering its earlier insistence on a robust Islamist ideology – to ‘pure survival mode’. There are rumours that tunnel construction has begun again in earnest under Gaza City’s streets. The new tunnels are said to be 150 metres deep, part of a larger, murky infrastructure that, in times of conflict, would ferry the Hamas leadership underground to relative safety. I wasn’t able to verify any of this but some of the people I know and trust in Gaza believe it to be a reality. Assuming they are correct, a conclusion naturally follows: in order to destroy the tunnels, Israel – with Hamas’s de facto consent – would have to destroy entire neighbourhoods. The Hamas leadership must hope Israel would not go to that extreme but it appears willing to take the risk. Hamas’s sense of beleaguerment may also be visible in the way its military wing appears to be an increasing presence in political decision-making and governance – a change that was made clear with the election this year of Yahya Sinwar to head Hamas’s political wing in Gaza. Sinwar, who sat in Israeli jails for more than twenty years, was a founding member of the al-Qassem Brigades. Although it is still unclear what his election will bring to Gaza and to Israel one thing is clear, an analyst said: ‘Gaza is simmering.’
But Hamas has its critics, particularly among the young. On Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp there are commentaries, followed by tens of thousands, critiquing its use of religion as a coercive tool and justification for what can otherwise be seen as misconduct. Meanwhile, volunteerism appears to be growing, and a range of initiatives have emerged that attempt to address Gaza’s predicament in their own way. Without a functioning central authority these efforts are inevitably limited but they are persistent. They include the renewal of small-scale agriculture, human rights monitoring, mental health rehabilitation, environmental repair and technological innovation. Much emphasis was always put on the last. Gaza has a talented, tech-savvy population; if ever there were peace, an American investor said, ‘Gaza’s internet sector would become another India.’ The number of internet users in Gaza is reportedly equal to that of Tel Aviv, and a small number are already subcontracting for companies in India, Bangladesh and Israel.
But the really striking feature of life in Gaza is the attenuation of ambition. Given the immense difficulties of everyday life, mundane needs – having enough food, clothing, electricity – exist for many only at the level of aspiration. People have become more inward-looking and focused, understandably, on self and family. When a friend of mine asked some of his students what they really wanted their answers included: ‘a new pair of trousers’, ‘a new shirt’ and ‘ice cream from the shop on Omar al-Mukhtar Street’. Why make plans when there is no possibility of realising them? I was also struck by how little the young but well-educated adults I met knew of the first intifada and the Oslo years, absorbed as they were by the present day. In other words, not only do they feel disconnected from a possible future, they are also cut off from their very recent past – and the many important lessons contained in it. ‘People are afraid to enter the world or they enter it defensively with weapons,’ an economist told me. ‘Our openness to the world is narrowing and more and more people are afraid of leaving Gaza because they don’t know how to cope with the world outside. People must be taught to think more broadly. Otherwise we are lost.’
‘What do the Israelis want?’ I was asked the question again and again, with each questioner looking at me searchingly, sometimes imploringly, for an answer, for some insight they clearly felt that they didn’t have. Why is Gaza being punished in so heartless a manner, and what does Israel truly hope to gain by it? One well-placed person claimed that ‘50 to 60 per cent of Hamas’ would give up any claim to Jerusalem in return for the Rafah border crossing being opened up again. Israel has exhausted all the ways it has of putting pressure on Gaza. When Gazans were allowed to work in Israel, Israel had leverage: it would seal the borders and extract whatever concessions it sought. Now even that leverage is gone, and all that remains is menace – a policy towards Gaza that emerges not from any sense or logic but from what Ehud Barak once called ‘inertia’. According to an article in Haaretz, Israel’s ‘security cabinet has not held a single meeting on Israeli policy concerning Gaza for the last four years’. At what point does menace stop working as a form of coercion? What will Israel hope to gain from its next attack on Gaza, when people there already speak about entire families being wiped out as a normal topic of conversation?
If the Israelis were thinking clearly, one person said, ‘everyone could benefit. All they must do is give us a window to live a normal life and all these extremist groups would disappear. Hamas would disappear. The community must deal with … these groups, not IDF tanks and planes. Our generation wants to make peace and it is foolish for Israel to refuse. The next generation may not be as willing as we are. Is that what Israel truly wants?’ In the first six months of 2016, the Ministry of the Interior reported that 24,138 babies were born in Gaza, averaging 132 a day. In August 2016 alone, 4961 babies were born, or 160 a day: more than six babies every hour and one baby every nine minutes. The distance between Gaza City and Tel Aviv is 44 miles. ‘What will Israel do when there are five million Palestinians living in Gaza?’
Sara Roy is based at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard U. The third edition of The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development was published last year.
More by Sara Roy on LRB:
‘A Dubai on the Mediterranean’: Sara Roy on Gaza’s future, November 2005
Israel’s irrational rationality
- The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East , by Guy Laron, Yale University Press, 368 pp
- The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, by Nathan Thrall, Metropolitan, 323 pp
- In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood, by Matti Steinberg, Tel Aviv University/Moshe Dayan Center, 503 pp
- Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, HarperPerennial, 434 pp
- A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict, by Gershon Shafir, University of California Press, 283 pp
This June, Israel is marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Some Israelis, including most members of the present government, are celebrating the country’s swift victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria as the beginning of the permanent annexation of the entire Palestinian West Bank; others, like me, mourn it as the start of a seemingly inexorable process of moral corruption and decline, the result of the continuing occupation of the West Bank, along with Israel’s now indirect but still-crippling control of Gaza. As it happens, my own life in Israel coincides exactly with the occupation. I arrived from the US in 1967, not as an ideological Zionist but as a young student who had fallen madly in love with the Hebrew language. Sometimes I think it is my passion for the language that has kept me here for five decades, although I would now want to add the strong feeling that it is my fate and my good fortune to be able to fight the good fight.
The country I came to live in fifty years ago was utterly unlike the one I live in today. It was no utopia, but its society was broadly moderate and humane, a mildly Mediterranean version of a modern European social democracy. Despite what some would say, it was not a colonial settlers’ society. There was widespread fear and even hatred of Arabs, including Arab citizens of Israel, but it was nothing like the rampant racism one now hears every day on the radio or TV. Shame, sincere or not, had not yet disappeared from public life.
In those early years, most Israelis regarded the occupied territories—which included the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—not as providing an opportunity for enlarging the boundaries of the state through colonization but as bargaining chips in an eventual and hoped-for peace settlement with the Arabs. There were as yet no Israeli settlements in the territories and hence no fanatical, messianic settlers; the Israeli army could still claim, with some justice, to be an army of defense, not a police force sent to ensure that the project of seizing Palestinian land take place without too much resistance from the local population.
Not surprisingly, a number of new books have appeared in this grim anniversary year, some of which attempt to make sense of how the Israeli state was hijacked by the settlers and how the occupation of most of the territories captured in 1967, not counting Sinai, was made permanent. Those who want to understand the conditions that led to the Six-Day War will find a good account, better than most earlier ones, in Guy Laron’s The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East.
Laron examines the shifting configurations that preceded, and in some ways determined, the outbreak of the war: these included Lyndon Johnson’s stark turn away from John F. Kennedy’s policy of dialogue with and strong economic support for Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt (Nasser had promised Kennedy to keep the Israeli–Arab situation “cool” as the quid pro quo) and Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s increasingly belligerent moves toward Syria. Rabin, according to Laron, wanted to go to war with Syria and took every opportunity to push the Israeli cabinet in this direction in the critical months of spring 1967.
By far the most cogent of the new books, however, is Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language They Understand, which surveys the last five decades and comes to a remarkable conclusion: the only way to produce some kind of movement toward resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is to apply significant coercive force to the parties involved, and in particular to Israel.
No amount of coddling and reassuring, no increased bribes in the form of more money or military aid, will have any effect on Israeli policy for the simple reason that Israel considers any sacrifice that would be necessary for peace far worse than maintaining the current situation. As Thrall writes, “no strategy can succeed if it is premised on Israel behaving irrationally.” In this reading of the worldview that has driven all Israeli governments—right, pseudo-left, or center—over these decades, “it makes no sense for Israel to strike a deal today rather than wait to see if…imagined threats,” such as an apartheid state ruling over a Palestinian demographic majority, and thus the end of Israeli democracy, “actually materialize.” The assumption that Israel genuinely wants a peace agreement is simply wrong; the costs of such an agreement are tangible, immediate, and perhaps overwhelming, involving the loss of territory, an end to colonization, and potential political collapse, whereas the costs of maintaining the status quo are for many Israelis, if at times unpleasant, eminently bearable.
I think Thrall has got this right. Endless discussions of why this or that initiative or attempt to mediate failed are shown to be superfluous. We can stop wondering why the whole process of negotiations, beginning in the late 1980s, has remained so barren. Was it because Ehud Barak was not very courteous to Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000? Or because Ehud Olmert was burdened by scandal and political crisis when he finally made an offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008? It has been clear for many years that the very notion of peace negotiations between the two parties has been little more than a device to perpetuate, not to end, the occupation. As Thrall writes:
The United States has consistently sheltered Israel from accountability for its policies in the West Bank by putting up a façade of opposition to settlements that in practice is a bulwark against more significant pressure to dismantle them.
What would make a difference? According to Thrall, only coercion by those who have the power to coerce. This was effective during the Carter administration, which pushed through the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979 partly by threatening to cut off all aid to Israel, and in a more limited way under George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, in 1991, when a very reluctant Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was forced to attend negotiations in Madrid; these eventually led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 between the Israelis and the Palestinians and a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994. Baker was the first—and until now the only—American secretary of state to say clearly that Israeli settlements in the territories are the main obstacle to peace; Bush refused to approve loan guarantees of up to $10 billion that Israel badly needed. Cornered, Shamir gave in and went to Madrid. In the case of both Carter and Baker, US officials took a strong stand despite pressure from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Their successors, Thrall notes, have rarely tried.
In Thrall’s view, “contrary to what nearly every US mediator has asserted, it is not that Israel greatly desires a peace agreement but has a pretty good fallback option. It is that Israel greatly prefers the fallback option to a peace agreement.” The fallback is a continuation of the status quo, which allows the settlement enterprise to go on; protects the government from political chaos, including insurmountable challenges from the extreme right; assumes the useful security collaboration of the Palestinian Authority, or what is left of it; and comes with enormous amounts of US aid. Only a credible threat to diminish or cut off that aid, or a move toward serious sanctions against Israel by the UN or other major powers, could produce the kind of change within Israel that would make a peace agreement possible.
Israelis, of course, love to blame the Palestinians for the impasse. And while the Palestinian side has plenty to account for, above all a long history of violence, it requires an impressive degree of willful blindness for Israelis to ignore what is happening under their noses and with their collective collusion. A major component of this obtuseness is the failure to notice or understand the changes that have taken place among Palestinians in recent decades. The Hebrew-language news media largely inhabit a mythic realm in which Palestinian hostility to Jews is seen as absolute, eternal, and entirely independent of Israel’s own actions. Most Israelis are only too happy to subscribe to this distorted view.
Deeper insight is to be found in Matti Steinberg’s In Search of Modern Palestinian Nationhood, a magisterial study by the leading Israeli scholar of Palestine. Steinberg served for many years as a senior adviser to the heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s main intelligence agency, and to several prime ministers. His book traces the history of Palestinian “conscious collective thinking” about the conflict, roughly from the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to the present. He offers a picture of striking heterogeneity and relatively rapid evolution: his readers, he says at the outset, “will find that the Palestinian attitudes went further and further from the original unanimity [that Israel should be destroyed and replaced by a Palestinian state on all the land west of the Jordan River] as far as means and aims are concerned.”
Steinberg discusses critical moments such as Arafat’s “Palestinian Declaration of Independence” speech to the Palestinian National Council in 1988, in which he made a clear distinction between the borders of the “historic homeland”—that is, all of Palestine—and those of the Palestinian state to be established on part of that land. The speech was written for Arafat by Mahmoud Darwish, who was considered the Palestinian national poet. In 1998, when another fifty-year anniversary was marked—that of the nakba, or Palestinian national disaster of defeat and exile following the 1948 war—Darwish, an early member of the PLO and probably the most articulate voice in the Palestinian mainstream, called for “eliminating all trace of the nakba by means of a permanent agreement based on the concept of two states for two peoples.” At that time, not long after the Oslo Accords, a full peace agreement seemed to be possible, even imminent. Three years later, during the second intifada, Darwish published another manifesto suffused by despair and by the fear that the Palestinian people faced annihilation. Israelis might do well to note the unhappy symmetry between this and their own enduring anxiety about being driven into the sea.
Steinberg is no less interested in Palestinian extremists than in pragmatic centrists, if such a word is appropriate in a polity so weakened and diffuse. He never underestimates the power of Hamas and the militant factions. Again and again he shows the diabolical interplay between such groups and the dominant Israeli policy of strengthening the occupation:
Neither “targeted killing” [the assassination of Hamas leaders by the Israeli army] nor Israel’s overwhelming military and technological superiority is the sworn enemy of Hamas. Its archenemy is the political settlement with Israel.
In a more general formulation: “It is a common wisdom that when pragmatism fails, then the way is paved, by default, towards radicalization.” Steinberg has nothing but scorn for the rationale put forward by Israeli prime ministers, from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon to Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel has no Palestinian partner. Such a claim is self-serving, factually wrong, and above all self-fulfilling; it will, no doubt, be loudly trumpeted in Israel (and perhaps by Trump’s White House) in the event that Hamas takes over the West Bank, as if Israel had no responsibility for such an outcome.
Particularly trenchant in this respect is Steinberg’s analysis of the effect of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, in which a pan-Arab consensus supported comprehensive peace with Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. The support of Arab governments for the API has remained remarkably consistent despite recent turmoil in the Middle East and was reaffirmed yet again at the Arab League Summit in Amman in March of this year. Steinberg argues that the very existence of a realistic peace plan served to stoke hypernationalist positions in both Israel and Palestine, as if the looming prospect of a solution were simply too awful to contemplate. The whole thrust of his book could be summed up as: Things could have been different, and maybe they still can and will be, though time is running out.
Steinberg’s view converges with a stark statement by Thrall:
When peaceful opposition to Israel’s policies is squelched and those with the power to dismantle the occupation don’t raise a finger against it, violence invariably becomes more attractive to those who have few other means of upsetting the status quo.
This conclusion, however, casts doubt on the idea that Israeli policy, however shortsighted, is nonetheless rational. Systemic cruelty inflicted over generations on innocent populations will eventually exact a price—probably a terrible price. It is an illusion to believe that large-scale eruptions of violence can be controlled, or their costs and results easily sustained.
Perhaps “rational” is not the word we want. A policy driven mostly by greed, and also to no little extent by sheer malice, such as Israel’s, may be intelligible, but that doesn’t make it rational, and it is certainly far from wise. However, there is another dimension that we miss if we stick primarily to hard-nosed calculations of self-interest and strategic advantage. A fifty-year anniversary invites us to take stock of the moral consequences of our decisions.
No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideology of the religious right, the occupation is a crime. It is, first of all, based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population. Many Israelis seem not to know this. Once I was detained by soldiers in a rocky field in the South Hebron hills (in what is known as Area C, under full Israeli control). These soldiers had just driven several Palestinian shepherds and their flocks of sheep off their traditional grazing grounds. One of the soldiers—hardly more than a boy—was curious about the Israeli activists he had encountered, and he came to talk to us. We informed him that what he had just done was clearly illegal, according to a Supreme Court ruling from 2004. “What do you mean?” he said. “I’m here to protect democracy.” “Really?” we replied. “What democracy do these Palestinians have? For example, do they have the right to vote for candidates who will represent them?” The young soldier thought hard for a moment. He had obviously never considered this problem. Finally, he said, “I don’t know, but there must be someone they can vote for!”
Even worse is the continuous theft—literally hour by hour—of Palestinian land. There should be no doubt that this is the real point of the occupation; soldiers, policemen, the military courts, the bureaucrats of the civil administration, a majority of the politicians, and most of the Israeli media serve this overriding aim. Recently, we were treated to a truly astonishing national farce, perhaps possible only in Israel: settlers from a place called Amona in the central West Bank, built on privately owned Palestinian land from the villages of Silwad, Ein Yabrud, and Taybeh, were forcibly evacuated, and their homes demolished, in compliance with a Supreme Court order from 2014. This came after a Supreme Court decision in 2006 declaring the settlement illegal and a police investigation that proved the settlers had forged documents in claiming ownership of the lands.
The settlers and their vociferous spokesmen in the government and the Knesset presented this tragedy as something on the order of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Netanyahu, as usual, pandered to the extreme right; he was also quoted as telling the Amona settlers that he could understand their plight perfectly, since he and his wife were forcibly uprooted from their home—the prime minister’s residence—and “thrown into the street” after he lost the election of 1999.
In any case, the Amona evacuees are to be handsomely compensated for this inconvenience (some half a million Israeli shekels—more than $130,000—per family) and resettled a few hundred yards away from their former homes, once again, of course, on Palestinian land. The soldiers who carried out the evacuation were unarmed and under orders to use the utmost delicacy in dealing with the settlers, who had barricaded themselves inside their houses. Such are the melodramas of Israeli politics. The Knesset has recently enacted a law that retroactively legalizes the appropriation by the state of huge chunks of private Palestinian land for Israeli settlements. It is unclear whether the Supreme Court will strike it down.
Let me offer some examples of life under the occupation of which I have personal knowledge. On March 5, 2017, the residents of the Palestinian hamlet of Twaneh in the South Hebron hills woke up to discover fifteen of their olive trees hacked and destroyed, almost certainly by the notoriously violent settlers from adjacent Chavat Maon. If we were to count the number of olive trees uprooted by settlers from the Twaneh lands over the last ten years or so, it would easily reach the low hundreds. Olive trees are the primary source of support for many impoverished Palestinian families. In addition to the decimated trees, two fields of lentils were sprayed with poison.
Two months earlier, on January 7, the same settlers from Chavat Maon violently attacked a group of Israeli peace activists who were accompanying Palestinian farmers seeking to plow a field. I was there with another party of activists, a little farther down the hill, and I witnessed the arrival of the wounded in Twaneh: one hit by a rock on the head, two others badly beaten, still more with contusions, and one with a smashed camera.
Children from the Twaneh area are at constant risk of being attacked by settlers on their way to school in the village; the daughter of a friend of mine, Ali from Tuba, nearly lost an eye in such an attack. The army has been forced to provide a military escort to take them to and from school, but even that is not always enough; there have been occasions when the soldiers stood idly by while settlers beat the Palestinian children with clubs and metal chains.
In the northern Jordan Valley, Bedouin shepherds from a tiny place called al-Hammeh are subject to continuous attacks by settlers from a new illegal settlement that sits on the al-Hammeh land; these settlers have murdered Bedouin sheep, threatened the shepherds with guns, beaten them savagely, invaded their tents, and in general done whatever they can to make their lives miserable. At nearby al-Auja, on April 21, a gang of masked Israeli settlers from Habaladim, an illegal West Bank outpost, used clubs and rocks to attack a group of Palestinian shepherds and more than a dozen Israeli activists who were there to protect them. The result: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, and several others badly bruised.
A diary that kept track of such assaults on Palestinians would run to thousands of pages, with daily, perhaps hourly, entries. And I have not yet mentioned the endless demolitions of Palestinian houses—entire villages, such as Susiya and Umm al-Khair, are in danger of extinction—or the remorseless processes of expulsion and ethnic cleansing that we see everywhere in the occupied territories. The occupation is also a surreal world of denial, where lies mask themselves as truth and truth can’t be uttered, at least not by the officers and politicians who hold power. I recommend the graphic and moving descriptions of the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, a volume of personal essays by well-known writers, including the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and published to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary.
The settlers themselves, however obnoxious, bear only a portion of the blame for the atrocities they commit. They carry out the policies of the Israeli government, in effect maintaining a useful, steady level of state terror directed against a large civilian population. None of this can be justified by rational argument. All of it stains the character of the state and has, in my experience, horrific effects on the minds and hearts of young soldiers who have to carry out the orders they are given. A few unusually aware and conscientious ones have had the courage to speak out; as always in such situations, most people just go along.
In the end, it is this ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most dangerous, and most unacceptable. This failure weighs more heavily on our humanity than any of the concerns mentioned earlier. We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsions, exile. I still find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.
Has the corruption gone so far that it can no longer be reversed? Or, to state the question in more practical terms, is the Israeli colonial project in the West Bank so deeply entrenched that any mutually acceptable form of partition is already ruled out, as Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has been arguing for years? Gershon Shafir, in his subtle history of the occupation, suggests that while the notion that the settlement project is “irreversible is best rejected…the remaining obstacles to territorial partition, though not insurmountable, are formidable.” Assuming that the so-called settlement blocs, most of them relatively close to the pre-1967 borders, would be annexed to Israel in exchange for more or less equal territory from inside Israel, he calculates that “only” some 27,000 settler households would have to be evacuated from Palestine as part of a workable peace agreement.
Shafir also convincingly cites Shaul Arieli—a former colonel in the army, a member of the prestigious Council for Peace and Security, and an expert on the earlier rounds of negotiation and the feasibility of a future breakthrough—to the effect that the settlement project has, in practice, slowed to a trickle, despite attempts by the government to persuade ever more Israelis to move into Palestinian territory. Unfortunately, this has not caused Israel to give up on the nationalist dream of colonizing as much of Palestine as possible. Reality has a way of puncturing illusions, though usually too late.
There exist other templates for some sort of resolution. The most interesting and creative is probably the Two States One Homeland proposal by Meron Rapoport, Awni al-Mashni, and the group of Palestinians and Israelis they have gathered around them. They envision two states within a single geographical space and a movement toward simultaneous sharing and separation. The blueprint speaks of two independent polities with Jerusalem as their capital; freedom of movement and even freedom to settle on both sides of the border, subject to agreement on the number of citizens of each state who will become permanent residents of the other; a Joint Court for Human Rights, a Joint Security Council, and other common institutions functioning alongside the institutional structures of each state.
I’d like to think this idea has a chance of coming true. Shafir, however, concludes that, in the absence of a viable plan for a single binational state, “the two sides are most likely to stumble ahead heedlessly.” He may be right, for now. But if I had to guess, I’d say the occupation will eventually collapse under the cumulative weight of wrongdoing, misery, and existential peril that it entails, maybe even in our lifetime—not, however, with a whimper.
One can’t help wondering about the effects of the new American administration on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In March President Trump’s special emissary to the region, Jason Greenblatt, arrived with the apparent aim of generating movement toward a regional settlement. Somewhat surprisingly, people on both sides liked him—including Palestinian refugees in the camps and Israeli settlers on the West Bank. One major exception, it seems, was Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to reports, was asked by Greenblatt to come up with concrete steps to curtail settlement activity along with some statement of what compromises he would ultimately be prepared to make.
Predictably even under Trump, the old blueprint for partition, along familiar lines, has surfaced again; it refuses to go away. One should never underestimate Netanyahu’s uncanny ability to stall, prevaricate, and eradicate even the slightest glimmer of hope. But maybe the Thrall principle will yet be put into practice. The president’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestinian Bethlehem in May, on his first foreign trip, is, I suppose, meant to suggest that he is serious about pursuing a deal. As several friends of mine, Israelis and Palestinians, have said, if Donald Trump were somehow to impose an agreement, this would prove not that God exists but that, if He does, He has a sense of humor.
– May 24, 2017
1. See my article “Palestine: The End of the Bedouins?,” NYR Daily, December 7, 2016.
2. A number of such statements from soldiers can be found in Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010, compiled by the Israeli group Breaking the Silence (Metropolitan, 2012). See my review in these pages, February 24, 2011.
4. See Nathan Thrall, ‘Trump Chases His ‘Ultimate Deal’ ‘, The New Yorker, May 22, 2017.
For ongoing news of the Palestinian fight for national rights, read The Electronic Intifada.
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