Law unto itself

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Palestinians walking towards the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem on their way to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Ramzan in July 2013. More than 500 checkpoints hinder Palestinian movement in occupied territory. Photo: Majdi Mohammed/AP

October 29, 2004: An ailing Arafat saying goodbye to well-wishers as he boards a Jordanian army helicopter at dawn at the Muqatta, his West Bank office in Ramallah. The helicopter took him to Amman, from where he flew to Paris for medical treatment. He died in Paris on November 11. There is a suspicion that he died from polonium poisoning. Photo: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

The U.S. President George W. Bush. As far back as March 2001, he felt it necessary to extract a pledge from Ariel Sharon not to harm the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News

A file photograph of President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres signing a joint declaration on terrorism. Clinton promised to stymie those who hindered the peace process in West Asia. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Israel has no plans for surrendering the occupied territory to the Arabs. But the Arabs are a brave people and will not submit.

IT is important to look beyond the carnage let loose by Israel in Gaza and appreciate what it implies for the peace process in Palestine. It has been executed in the wake of the destruction of the two-state formula, the only viable solution to the problem. This is not to ignore, still less underestimate, the gravity or implications of the carnage—it has exacted a toll of nearly 2,000 Palestinian lives with 8,000 wounded; 85 per cent of them were civilians; 400 were children. Israel lost 67 soldiers and three civilians.

Israel’s aim is to wipe out Hamas, seizing recent acts of violence as an opportunity to establish a false equivalence. In this, it has succeeded in quarters eager to accept its pleas; the Narendra Modi government as well as sections of the media, including, predictably, a leading TV channel. Way back in 2009, an official of the Eshkol Regional Council told the International Crisis Group: “Our forces should flatten Gaza into a parking lot, destroy them.” Ahron Bregman, a former officer in the Israeli Army, warned last month that “soon after the guns fall silent, perhaps within a few months, the parties will resume the war”. The reason for this cycle of mini-war is “the fact that the cease-fires which put an end to the repeated confrontation fail to tackle the underlying cause of the clashes which is the continuing Israeli occupation and the pain, suffering and humiliation it inflicts on the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza strip”.

As Robert Pape of the University of Chicago documented in an erudite study on terrorism, its roots lie in the people’s wrath at foreign occupation. President George W. Bush told the Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in October 2005: “Don’t have an election if you think you will lose.” Hamas won a landslide victory on January 25, 2006, and upset his plans. Abbas was in a bind. If he excluded Hamas, the polls would have had no credibility. He did not import the technology of rigged elections, perfected in Kashmir as a fine art. Bush’s letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004, accepting the “new realities on the ground, including existing major Israeli population centres”, was drafted by Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s Chief of Staff.

The implications of Sharon’s disengagement were explained 10 years ago by Weissglas in an interview to the Israeli daily Haaretz published on October 6, 2004. “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian s tate and you prevent a discussion of the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Disengagement supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Formaldehyde is the liquid in which dead bodies are preserved. He added: “Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda… with a (U . S . ) presidential blessing and the ratification of both Houses of Congress” (emphasis added, throughout). The Gaza disengagement “is actually formaldehyde so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians”.

Shrinking territory

In 1947, the United Nations partition plan gave the Arabs 47 per cent of what was their homeland for over seven centuries. The 1993 Oslo Accords gave 22 per cent (Gaza and the West Bank); in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered 80 per cent of that 22 per cent; Sharon offered a Palestinian state on 42 per cent of the 80 per cent of Oslo’s 22 per cent of the Arab’s own homeland until 1948. In March 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would keep 36.5 per cent of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. More than 500 checkpoints hinder Palestinian movement; Jewish settlers move freely. As Roger Cohen noted: “What there is of a nascent Palestine is non-viable, non-contiguous, non-sovereign and dependent.”

On the initiative of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Fatah and Hamas agreed in Mecca on February 8, 2007, to form a government of national unity. The United States and Israel decided that Hamas must be removed. A devastating embargo was imposed. The coalition broke up. Hamas found it impossible to govern. On April 23, 2014, Fatah and Hamas agreed to set up a government of “technocrats” headed by Abbas and to hold presidential and legislative elections within six months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again decided to wreck it. Abbas “must choose. Does he want reconciliation with Hamas or peace with Israel”. He himself heads a coalition with fascist parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home. His own Revisionist-Zionist Party is allied with Rightist Russian Immigrant Party, the Orthodox Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox. On May 15, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian youths. In reprisal Hamas abducted three young Israeli settlers. An “incremental genocide” by Israel followed, to use the Israeli scholar Ilan Pappe’s words.

Stunning revelations

Ilan Pappe was forced to leave Israel. He is now Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Ahron Bregman left Israel in disgust and now teaches at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.

His book, published on June 5, 2014, is the cry of an anguished conscience and a work of scholarship based on hitherto undisclosed material. The revelations are stunning. He had unprecedented access to high-level sources, top-secret memos, letters and reports which have never before been made available to a historian and are unlikely to be made public in the foreseeable future. He reveals that Israeli agents secretly recorded telephone conversations of Bill Clinton while he was the U.S. President and tapped the telephones of Syrian diplomats (negotiating with the Israelis in the U.S.) and their masters back in Damascus in 1994. Direct quotes from the transcripts of the recorded conversations appear in the book, including a top secret memo produced by the Shabak, Israel’s General Security Service, suggesting that a dead Yasser Arafat would benefit Israel; a secret document from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Netanyahu, promising that the U.S. would not surprise Israel with peace initiatives and would always consult Israel before offering any plans to the Arabs; a top secret letter from a close ally in the Israeli government to Prime Minister Barak, urging him to stop assassinations of Palestinian leaders because the European Community’s concerns that this policy violated International law. In 2002, Bregman unmasked the most senior spy who ever worked for the Israeli Mossad—Ashraf Marwan. His disclosures confirm the impression that the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat was killed by Israel deliberately.

It would, however, be a mistake to concentrate on the disclosures to the neglect of the author’s personal reaction to his country’s wrongs and to the lessons his narrative yields. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war proved to be a curse because it led to its occupation of Arab lands in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Jewish settlements followed as a matter of course. There are 350,000 of them, and increasing. This process has kept pace with the rise in Israel’s demands in the peace talks as well as elimination of any prospect of an Arab state, physically on the ground. On September 12, 2010, a few days ahead of the talks, Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinians, expelled from their own lands and living in humiliating conditions, must recognise that Israel as a Jewish state. That this would reduce the Arabs living within its borders to the status of second-class citizens is the least of the consequences of this new and outrageous demand.

A veteran of the 1982 Lebanon war, Bregman decided that if he was called for duty in the occupied territories, he would refuse. “I could not be a part of it, and as a result, like Joseph, I felt I had to find another country to live in until the insanity came to an end. In my case emigrating would also save me from the unpleasant prospect of being sent to prison for refusing to serve, an unusual act of defiance quite unheard of in those early days of the intifada. So it was that not much later I found myself in England, where I still live.

“No author, no matter how strict a historian, can detach his work from his own experiences, interest and tastes, and I am sure this book bears the mark of having been written by an insider-outsider who lived through the events covered either at first hand in Israel or at a distance in England. As the reader will see, my attitude towards the occupation is apparent and my criticism pronounced, which, I suppose, will be regarded as unpatriotic by some of my fellow Israelis.” This is a common smear on major dissent in India.

His is the story of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands—Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula (returned to Egypt by 1987). There are three main pillars supporting the Israeli occupation. The first is the use of military force to subjugate the occupied, including the use of military orders, arbitrary arrests, expulsions, torture and prolonged imprisonment. The second consists of laws and bureaucratic regulations, which maintain Israeli control over appointments to official positions, access to employment, restrictions on travel, the issuing of all sorts of licences and permits, including those needed for development and zoning. The third pillar is the establishment of physical facts on the ground; this includes land expropriation, the destruction of Arab villages and the construction of Jewish settlements and military bases, as well as the setting up of security zones, and control over water and other natural resources.

Illegitimate rule

Particularly instructive is the author’s scholarly analysis of the concept of occupation, morally and legally. It means rule by a regime which lacks legitimacy and is rejected by the people. They do not agitate for the redress of grievances. They fight for a new order based on popular acceptance. This is the problem in Palestine. The author cites the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which spell out the duties and limits of an occupying state. “The vast majority of legal experts reject the main tenet of the Israeli argument, namely that the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention are not applicable just because the previous status of the territories may have been slightly different from what those who negotiated the Conventions had in mind. In truth, behind closed doors, Israeli leaders do recognise that their view that Palestinian areas under their control since 1967 are not occupied lands is not convincing, and can hardly be sustained. In a 1967 ‘Top Secret’ letter to the Prime Minister’s office and a ‘Most Urgent’ memorandum, a Foreign Ministry legal adviser, Theodor Meron, noted that the international community rejects Israel’s argument that ‘the [West] Bank is not “normal” occupied territory’, and goes on to say that ‘certain actions taken by Israel are even inconsistent with [its own] claim that the [West] Bank is not occupied territory’.”

The Israeli government and its defenders stand alone in their denial of the nature of the occupation. The U.N. General Assembly has resolved that the situation in the lands seized by Israel in 1967 is one of occupation and has urged it to respect the principles contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention and other Conventions. The International Court of Justice is unequivocally clear, both its individual judges and as a whole, that “Few propositions can be said to command an almost universal acceptance … as the proposition that Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank including East Jerusalem and Gaza is one of military occupation governed by the applicable international regime of military occupation.”

Sordid alliance

The historical narrative is crisp and accurate. Bregman carefully describes the legal system that Israel imposed on the occupied lands. They were reduced to a colony with “a colonial-style economy”. However, it is the new light which the author throws on the diplomatic process since 1991 that seizes the reader’s attention. It confirms the view that the U.S. is no mediator but an ally of one side, Israel. The book goes further still. It establishes that the U.S. is complicit and deceitful as well. Chapters 9 to 14 contain the revelatory documentation. All the previous accords were wrecked by this sordid alliance—the Oslo Accords of 1993; the Wye River Memorandum of 1998; and the rest. Why would Israel yield if the sole superpower, far from restraining it, eggs it on?

A briefing paper for President Clinton in July 1999 was leaked by an American source to Nimrod Novik, a former Israeli spy who worked with Prime Minister Barak “as a roving spy”. Israelis knew not only the cards which their adversaries, the Palestinians, had, but also the ones which their ally, the bogus mediator, the U.S., had and was about to play.

Clinton decided to reward Barak merely for showing willingness to give peace talks a new momentum, giving him a pledge in the form of this secret letter. Clinton wrote: “As Israel prepares to renew its efforts to attain a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and recognising the risks Israel faces and undertakes as it moves ahead in this direction, I wish to reassure you: Of the unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and to the maintenance of its [weapons] qualitative edge.… Of the U.S. determination to minimise the risks and costs Israel confronts as it pursues peace and to provide Israel with long term and enduring diplomatic, economic, security and technological backing.… Of the U.S. commitment … to work closely with Israel to curtail the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles threatening Israel and … to consult closely with Israel regarding arms control matters in order to ensure that U.S. and others’ arms control initiatives and policies do not detract from Israel’s deterrence and security…” The author points out that the last paragraph hints at “not meddling with Israel’s nuclear capability, or allowing others to do so”.

To Hafez al-Assad, then President of Syria, Clinton said: “He [Israel’s Prime Minister] believes you are a man of honour ... he is much more interested in proceeding on the Syrian track and do it before he does the territorial moves with the Palestinians.… I know he is not playing games because he really believes that strategically it is important to do [Syria-first].”

To Ehud Barak Clinton said: “I think that the most important thing for you is the Sea of Galilee. If I were in your place I would be concerned that some [a reference to Syria] could try to poison the water of the Sea of Galilee.” Clinton, as the transcript shows, was condescending towards the Syrians, boasting to the Prime Minister: “See how he [Shara] came to the talks … I did not even have to [put too much pressure on Assad]…” Clinton was thus egging the Israelis not to concede. They also had informants among the Palestinians; the Palestinian Mayor of a West Bank town was one of them.

On another occasion, the author records, “Clinton thanked Barak for his letter, and told him he agreed with it. He added: ‘I’ll back you and protect you, I’m your guy … it’s very upsetting … all the Arabs are the same … [they all try to] squeeze [you]’. ”

On November 24, 1998, Madeleine Albright wrote a secret letter to Prime Minister Barak promising to “conduct a thorough consultation process with Israel in advance with respect to any ideas the U.S. may wish to offer to the parties their consideration. This would be particularly true with respect to security issues or territorial aspects related to security…”

The author rightly concludes that “the peace process had brought the Palestinians very few gains”. President George W. Bush declared that “peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership”—regime change, as in Iraq and Libya.

The author’s measured conclusion and the evidence he cites deserve quotation in extenso: “While we do not have the smoking gun to show that Israel killed Arafat, the weight of evidence is such that one should not exclude this possibility. The fact that, as far back as March 2001, President Bush felt it necessary to extract a pledge from Sharon not to harm Arafat shows that the Americans suspected that was precisely what the Israelis might indeed do.

In subsequent months, Sharon spoke openly about the need to ‘remove’ Arafat, though it would be fair to add that he never explained what he actually meant by the word ‘remove’ in this context—whether physically or merely politically.

“A clear indication that the Israelis did intend to kill Arafat can be found in the following ‘Top Secret’ document; in a report dated 15 October 2000—a few months before even Sharon came to power—the Shabak, Israel’s General Security Service, wrote: ‘Following the violent events in the territories the question arises again as to whether Arafat is a factor helping to sort out the historical conflict between Israel and the Palestinian nation, or whether we are dealing with a leader who[se] … policies and actions lead to a serious threat to Israel’s security.’

“After going through ‘why Arafat is necessary’, and then ‘why Arafat is not necessary’, the document says that ‘the damage [Arafat] causes is bigger than his benefits.…’ And the subsequent conclusion is straight-forward: ‘7. Arafat, the person, is a serious threat to the security of the state. His disappearance outweighs the benefits of his continuing existence.’ And yet, even this Shabak ‘Top Secret’ report does not provide us with enough evidence of assassination and we will probably have to wait for more information to ascertain what really killed Arafat.”

Moving conclusion

This is what the Arabs are up against. As the Jewish settlers told Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan: “The Arabs must know that there is a master here—the Jewish people. It rules over Cretz Israel … The Arabs are temporary dwellers who happened to live in this country.” Israel has no plans for surrendering the occupied territory to the Arabs. But they are a brave people and will not submit. Hence, their desperation.

The author’s conclusion is moving: “I believe that the verdict of history will regard the four decades of occupation described in this book as a black mark in Israeli and, indeed, Jewish history. This was a period in which Israel, helped by the Jewish diaspora, particularly in America, proved that even nations which have suffered unspeakable tragedies of their own can act in similarly cruel ways when in power themselves. Back in 1967, the Defence Minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, observed that if he had to choose to be occupied by any force from among the nations of the world, he doubted he would choose Israel. He was right; looking back it is clear that Israel was—and in the time of writing is still—a heavy-handed and brutal occupier. While other colonialists, like the British in India and others, learnt the value of co-opting local elites, of building schools, universities and other public amenities for the colonised, Israel, by contrast, never really thought it had any duty to help or protect the people under its control or to improve the quality of their lives, regarding them, at most, as a captive market and ready source of cheap labour. But by forcing them to live in squalor and without hope, Israel hardened those under its power, making them more determined to put an end to the occupation, by violent means if necessary, and live a life of dignity and freedom.”

They cry, “It may be in your interest to be our masters; but, how can it be in ours to be your slaves?” (Thucydides).