A history of atrocities

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

MAPS are charted to aid in navigating territory. Never have maps been designed to imprison communities or lock them into irrevocable steps totally divorced from the free exercise of their will.

The latest effort to restore a semblance of normality in Palestine goes under the appellation of a "Road Map" to peace. At a meeting at the Red Sea port city of Aqaba in June, the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon, sealed their acceptance of the Road Map under the watchful gaze of U.S. President George Bush. After the Mitchell Plan drafted by a former U.S. Senator, and the Tenet Plan assembled by the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the "Road Map" represents the third effort since the current Palestinian uprising began to put the so-called "peace process" back on track.

The Road Map enjoins a number of reciprocal steps on both sides to the conflict. The Palestinian side is expected to cease all violent attacks on Israel and its citizens. In return, Israel is committed to implement measures that improve the humanitarian situation in Palestinian towns and villages, notably by easing restrictions on movement. Israel would also end hostile actions against civilians and stop the demolition of homes and the seizure of Palestinian property. While freezing fresh construction activity, "outposts" to Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, which point towards an intent to confiscate larger tracts of Palestinian land in the near future, are to be dismantled.

In the month since the Road Map came into force, Israel has continued with the construction of its wall of separation across the West Bank. This 25-foot wall, from which the U.S. has chosen to avert delicately its eye, signifies the final fortification of the Jewish state. It has divided Palestinian families and cut off villages from the agricultural land that sustains them. It has involved the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes and the dispossession of numerous families in the security interests of Israel. Once completed, the wall of separation would effectively end all but the barest minimum of movement between Palestinian towns and villages. The control of the social, economic and political interactions of an occupied people - now an arduous task performed by thousands of Israeli soldiers - would be accomplished by simply shutting them into a giant, walled prison encampment.

While this symbol of apartheid comes up, Israeli raids and incursions into Palestinian habitations continue unhindered. Fresh detentions are being made even as the Palestinian Prime Minister bargains with his Israeli counterpart for the release of prisoners held in the course of the uprising and earlier. A few settler outposts were dismantled in a blaze of publicity but a larger number were constructed in that interval. The settlements themselves have been expanding continuously, recognising few restraints even in confiscating Palestinian lands.

Tanya Reinhart, a recognised expert in linguistics, was not among the many Israelis who saw the Oslo accord of 1993 as a new beginning for the people of the region. But while expressing her scepticism about the new forms of apartheid enshrined in Oslo, she was prepared to hope. As the peace process wound down in acrimony and horrific violence, she has dared to go against the tide of opinion in her country. Rather than reflexively blame the Palestinians, she has held up the Israeli record to the light and found a chronicle of illusory concessions, evaded responsibilities and betrayed promises. Underpinning all this was a growing mood of disdain for the Palestinian people and outright contempt for their rights.

Reinhart began her career in political writing with Oslo. Her book is perhaps the most accurate account available of the course of negotiations that followed. Israel, she warns, is now, more than ever, in thrall to a militarist cabal that believes in the most extreme solutions. The public mood has been unsettled all through the years of negotiations with the Palestinians, and in the absence of a forceful popular assertion of sanity, the "political generals" in the Israeli Defence Force have established themselves as the most stable pole in the polity. Where any sensible person would seek solutions to the endemic conflict in the region in redressal and atonement for the ethnic cleansing of 1948 which brought the Jewish state into being, the "political generals" today speak unabashedly about "the second half of 1948". The message is clear and unequivocal: Israel's survival now demands the completion of the unfinished agenda of 1948. Lands occupied then and since in warfare would have to be purged of their Arab populations, so as to safeguard the ethnic identity and character of the Jewish state.

"What was until a short while ago the lunatic right wing of the Rehavam Zeevi school is now becoming Israel's political centre'', writes Reinhart, referring to the Israeli Minister who was assassinated in 2001. Leader of the right wing Moledet Party, Zeevi was a former General who rather implausibly held the Tourism portfolio in the Cabinet of Ariel Sharon. Not inclined towards hospitality or verbal finesse, he was known to refer to Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza as "lice". His place in the Cabinet has since been taken by the Moledet Party's Benny Elon, whose most recent flirtation with world headlines came from an open call for the "carpet bombing" of Palestinian settlements. Reflecting the rise of the lunatic elements to political prominence, opinion polls taken among the Jewish citizens of Israel have indicated an alarming rise in the public endorsement of "population transfer" as a solution to the problem of Palestine.

Reinhart does not record the actual practice of the policy of "transfers". That has been done ably and with a wealth of documentation by other authors, notably Nur Masalha (A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-96, Faber and Faber, London, 1997). But Reinhart does provide a terrifying picture of conditions in the occupied territories, a situation deliberately engineered by the Israeli government to make life sufficiently intolerable to induce a large outward migration of the Palestinian people. A South African Minister is cited to emphasise how the Israeli occupation is worse than the unlamented system of apartheid in that country: "The South African apartheid regime never engaged in the sort of repression Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians. For all the evils and atrocities of apartheid, the government never sent tanks into black towns. It never used gunships, bombers or missiles against the black towns or Bantustans. The apartheid regime used to impose sieges on black towns, but these sieges were lifted within days".

To this quite chilling catalogue of atrocities, Reinhart adds her own account of an Israeli effort to bring the Palestinians to heel through a "systematic policy of starvation". "What we are witnessing in the occupied territories," she writes, "is the invisible and daily killing of the sick and wounded who are deprived of medical care, of the weak who cannot survive in the new poverty conditions, and of those who are approaching starvation".

Reinhart's narrative is suffused with the sentiment that the Jewish nation somehow lost its innocence with the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967. It is a basic premise with her, that if Israel had stopped with the ethnic cleansing of 1948 - known in the collective memory of the Palestinians as the Nakba or catastrophe - she could have "probably lived with it". "As an Israeli," she writes, "I grew up believing that this primal sin our state was founded on may be forgiven one day, because the founders' generation was driven by the faith that this was the only way to save the Jewish people from the danger of another holocaust".

Israel was formed, she recalls, by a "haunted, persecuted people" who "sought to find a shelter and a state for itself, and did so at a horrible price to another people". This is of course the dominant truth, though it overlooks the basic point that the "Jewish question" - as it was known in Europe - was an effort to steer between two hazards. On one side, there was the challenge of exclusion posed by European societies, the denial of basic rights to the community. On the other, there was the lure of assimilation, of community identities being diluted in the process of modernisation and Jewish communities being incorporated into newly coalescing national elites in Europe.

As Bregman points out in his account of Israel's wars, the troubles in Europe in the inter-war years of the 20th century greatly accelerated the Jewish migration into Palestine. But this was not the destination of choice for most of the victims of Nazi persecution. "Many of these Jewish immigrants," writes Bregman, "would have preferred to go elsewhere, especially to America, one of the most sought-after destinations for immigrants, but the gates to America were half-shut. Among other reasons, this was because the leaders of the Zionist movement exerted all the influence they could muster to make sure that the U.S. did not open up immigration to these Jews for the simple reason that they wanted to herd these same Jews to Palestine."

Walter Laqueur has observed in his standard history of Zionism that the Russian Minister of the Interior in the 1880s, responsible for instigating many of the worst pogroms of the day, strongly encouraged Jews to migrate to Palestine. The alternative of migration to the U.S., he told them, was not especially attractive. Palestine offered the Jewish community the option of maintaining a distinct identity, while the U.S. did not.

Zionist ideologues seeking to persuade the main imperial powers of the merits of their case, worked with the notion that Palestine was "a land without a people" lying in wait for "a people without a land". In 1914, Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first President of the state of Israel, invoked the idea of an "empty country" which was the staple of Zionist campaigners: "In its initial stage, Zionism was conceived by its pioneers as a movement wholly depending on mechanical factors: there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?"

In 1969, Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, denied that the Palestinians existed as a people. This perception exerted a powerful influence till as recently as 1984, when Joan Peters published her infamous book From Time Immemorial on the non-existent Palestinians. As the Palestinian-born social theorist and commentator Edward Said observed, the book "represented a natural analogue to the concerted, sustained Israeli attack upon Palestinian nationalism, the invasion of Lebanon, and the unstated desires of the Jewish state... that the Palestinians do not exist, or, if they do, they are to be wished away, expelled, or slaughtered''.

Jewish expansionism and Arab dispossession in Palestine ensured that circumstances turned rapidly hostile. The fiction of a "land without a people" was rapidly unravelling. Laqueur later recorded rather plaintively that the "tragedy of Zionism" was that "it appeared on the international scene when there were no longer empty spaces on the world map".

As with much else in Zionist ideology, this perception reflects a skewed morality. The true dilemma for Zionism, as the Jewish dissident and holocaust survivor Norman Finkelstein has observed astutely, was that it appeared at a time when the methods of securing "empty spaces on the world map" - extermination and expulsion as practised in the North American and Australian continents - were no longer acceptable.

Later Zionist revisionism dropped the extravagant notion of an "empty land" and spoke of establishing "friendly cooperation between two Semitic peoples which, in the Middle Ages, had together been the torchbearers of progress and science". But the author of these lines, Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, was intolerant of the Palestinians and disinclined even to grant basic rights to the Arab citizens of Israel. And as Bregman points out, Ben-Gurion presided over a policy of ruthlessly hunting down and eliminating all refugees returning to the land Israel claimed in 1948. Though a resolution of the United Nations made the return of the refugees a necessary condition for Israel's recognition, the challenge they posed to the ethnic identity of the Jewish state had to be extinguished at the very source.

Those were days of a policy of heavy-handed retaliation for real and imagined attacks on Israel, with Ariel Sharon, a young Army officer leading an infamous commando task force, being its main executor. The acts of provocation went far afield. Bregman points out, for instance, that Israeli Army operatives went so far as to plant a series of deadly bombs in various Jewish quarters of Baghdad to create an ambience of terror and induce a wave of migrations into the newly constituted Zionist state.

As he made the seamless transition from military service to politics, Sharon became an outspoken advocate of expulsion as a final solution to the Palestinian problem. He was also firm in his belief that all talk of a Palestinian state was so much misplaced clamour, since Jordan already fulfilled that function.

The Israel that was moulded by its early leaders was an expansionist state, driven to relentless hostilities against its Arab minority and its neighbouring nations. It was not directly threatened by Syria in 1967, but attacked that country after disposing of the Egyptian and Jordanian challenges, because it had to capture the Golan Heights to secure the head reaches of its water sources. In the process, it risked the antagonism of the U.S. by attacking an American surveillance ship sailing just off the Sinai coast, killing several servicemen. Bregman sheds valuable light on the USS Liberty affair, which in the audacity of the Israeli attack and the subdued U.S. response, captured the essence of the new strategic relationship that was emerging between the two countries.

Since 1993, Israel, with the active abetment of the U.S. and under the protective gaze of the world media, has kept up a pretence of negotiations with the Palestinians to partly appease global outrage at its policies. But the purpose, Reinhart argues, has merely been to negotiate endlessly without yielding anything. In explicitly recognising the existence of a people long denied, Israel was seeking little else than to make them accomplices in their own subjugation. And in tackling the popular impression that Israel made an offer of unprecedented generosity at the Camp David summit with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 2000, Reinhart does a convincing job of exposing the insincerity and disingenuousness of the posture.

Far from offering to return East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, to serve as the capital of a future state, Israel managed through a clever drafting ploy to reduce the scope of this concession to a few villages far removed from the city, which would be renamed to foster the illusion of Palestinian control over the seat of their social and cultural life. And in defiance of the common sense that Gaza represented little of value to Israel - being "one of the most densely populated and poorest areas of the world, with little water or natural resources" - Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted on retaining not only a number of settlements in the territory, but also on annexing the land surrounding and connecting them. The offer made on the West Bank was, as Reinhart convincingly demonstrates, far worse.

All this was programmed into the Oslo accord. In 1993, the principal Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Beilin concluded a memorandum of understanding with Mahmoud Abbas (alias Abu Mazen) of the PLO, laying out the scope of the territories in Gaza that would be returned to Palestinian sovereignty. PLO leader Yasser Arafat was aware of this memorandum, but hoped that better would be on offer after hard negotiations. What he got in the Gaza-Jericho accord that followed the Cairo summit later that year, was in fact, much worse.

Reinhart provides convincing evidence that quite contrary to his pretensions, Barak was essentially a soldier, sharing the perceptions of the militarist cabal that Sharon best represented. By commandeering the two main political formations in Israeli politics, the two former soldiers managed between them, to squeeze out the constituency for peace in Israel. The alarming growth of the constituency that actively advocates ethnic cleansing has been an immediate consequence.

Reinhart and Bregman offer differing prognoses on where Israel and the Palestinians are headed. The former is much more critical and sensitive, alive to the deep ethical dilemmas that confront the Jewish state. The latter discerns a greater sense of fatigue with warfare than before, and suggests that the Israeli volunteer army may not quite be the force that it was in the past. The economic crisis in the country is also dealt with by both authors as a factor that could potentially have a crucial bearing on the future of the state. Both these books have been republished for the Indian audience after fairly successful debuts abroad. With a serious reappraisal of India's relations with Israel now under way, both these books - Reinhart's in particular - would reward serious study.

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