The war that never ends

Print edition : July 20, 2002

David Ben-Gurion's words of some 65 years ago were prophetic: "A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily."

I want to destroy first all the illusion among our comrades that [Arab] terror is a matter of a few gangs, financed from abroad... We are facing not terror but a war. It is a national war declared upon us by the Arabs... This is an active resistance by the Palestinians to what they regard as usurpation of their homeland by the Jews - that's why they fight. Behind the terrorists is a movement, which though primitive is not devoid of Idealism and self-sacrifice... let us not build on the hope the terrorist gangs will get tired. If some get tired, others will replace them. A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily... When we say that the Arabs are the aggressors and we defend ourselves - this is only half the truth... politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.

- David Ben-Gurion: June 7, 1938.

DAVID BEN-GURION, who proclaimed the state of Israel on May 11, 1948, well before the United Nations formally created such an entity, and who then became its first Prime Minister and Defence Minister, knew no mercy for those who thus dared to "defend themselves". The lesson he drew from his perception that he was faced not with mere "terror" but a "national war" was that the nation that fights against zionist usurpation must itself be destroyed, and his view was shared by other founders of that state: Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir and so on - not to speak of the officers of the armed forces which Ben-Gurion assembled, such as Yigal Allon, the hero of the war of 1948, Moshe Dayan, the hero of the war of 1967, and Ariel Sharon, who began acting on such policies of extermination in the 1950s, when he was still a junior officer, and who currently heads the Likud-led bipartisan government of Israel in which the Ministries of Defence and External Affairs are held by Labour leaders. That was the politico-military elite whose army carried out those calculated acts of mass terror which led to the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians - the bulk of the population of the area at that time - from what became Israel in 1948, and it is their descendants who today want to expel the bulk of the Palestinian population from what remains of their ancestral lands in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - the part of Palestine the zionist army had failed to occupy in 1948, owing to external pressure, but which it has had under its effective control since 1967.

A concrete security wall that Israel is erecting will stretch across the entire border of the West Bank, to a length of 350 km. Here, the Israeli town of Kfar Saba on the near side from the Palestinian town of Qalqiliya on the far side.-KOREN ZIV/GAMMA

Historians shall undoubtedly record many differences between Ben-Gurion of yesteryear and Ariel Sharon of today on a great many other matters pertaining to Israeli society itself; Ben-Gurion himself regarded Sharon as a congenital liar. What conjoins the two of them, however, and what creates an extraordinary consensus among Israel's power elite - across generations and across political parties - is the perception, stated so accurately by Ben-Gurion some 65 years ago, that they may go on talking of "terrorism" for external consumption but what they have to cope with is what Ben-Gurion called "national war". In fact, it is the oldest ongoing war of this kind in our time. It follows, logically, then that it is the Palestinian nation itself which is the problem, not the so-called "gangs" which rise, and fall, and then rise again, sometimes with strictly secular ideologies (for example, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the 1970s) and with Islamicist ones at other times (for example, the Hamas today). That the Palestinian nation itself is the problem is clear from the very war strategy that Sharon has been conducting with the support of what amounts to a multi-party national government. He concentrates not on the Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, which openly take responsibility for the suicide bombings and refuse to compromise on the question, but on the entire apparatus of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) which was itself created by the Oslo Accords: its military and security forces, administrative machinery, research institutes and statistical records, as well as the whole infrastructure of civic life, including hospitals, ambulance services, electrical and water supplies, telephone lines, commercial networks for the supply of food and other essential commodities, and so on, not to speak of the assassination of many of its top leaders and the constant humiliation of Yasser Arafat.

Then there is the strategy of what they politely call "collective punishment". If Israel claims that a particular 'terrorist cell' is operating from a certain town, the whole city is attacked and occupied at will. Forty per cent of Gaza is already reserved for the Israelis themselves; the rest is sliced up into two population zones and is cordoned off by barbed wire. Barbed wire was strung around the Ramallah region recently as the first step in building similar "fences" around each of the eight population regions into which the Palestinian population is being sequestered; they shall now need new freedom-of-movement permits to travel from one region to another, each having only one entry and exit point for pedestrians and vehicles alike. These barbed wire fences are said to be temporary ones, to be replaced by high concrete walls. There have been times in May and June this year when over three-fourths of the Palestinian population of the West Bank was under curfew; when the number under curfew declines to 50 or 40 per cent, CNN and the BBC begin to announce how the Israelis are withdrawing from Palestinian towns. A view is gaining ground among Israeli leaders and Generals that entire families of 'terrorists' must be killed or at least deported, so as to set an example for others. Amira Hass, a courageous writer for Haaretz, has reported that the security Cabinet has decided to start deporting such families from the West Bank to Gaza, where they have no roots or support networks, based upon a decision of the Israeli High Court which authorises such deportations. One might add that the former General Effio Eitam, who argues that all Israeli-born Arabs who have been treated as citizens should now be disenfranchised, has been recently elevated into Sharon's inner circle of this security Cabinet.

The current temperature of Israeli politics is well indicated by the fact that while Peres, the most prestigious of the Labour leaders, makes ineffectual little noises about Sharon's belligerence but continues to serve as his Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister and Sharon's main competitor in his own party, Likud, attacks him constantly for not being tough enough. Nor are these politically astute leaders acting in a vacuum, against the main currents of Israeli public opinion. When the slaughter of Palestinians began in late 1999 under Ehud Barak, poll ratings for the politically beleaguered Labour Prime Minister rose from 20 to 50 per cent. When Sharon, a Likud leader who had just risen again out of some years of obscurity, refused to join hands with Barak unless the latter abandoned the so-called "peace process" altogether, the Israelis elected Sharon with an impressive majority, and Labour leaders, including Barak, dutifully joined his government. According to a poll conducted by the Jaffa Institute of Strategic Studies in March this year, 46 per cent of the Israeli population supports the idea of expelling the whole of the Palestinian population from even the enclaves it still holds; when asked the same question in more euphemistic language in the same poll, the proportion rose to 60 per cent. In Israeli parlance, this mass expulsion of a vanquished population is politely called "final transfer", which reminds one of Nazi Germany where millions of Jews were herded into concentration camps as part of a "final solution". Sharon has of course been recommending this "final transfer" since the 1980s.

This author had predicted some time ago that the escalating military operations in the Occupied Territories were but a prelude to a full-scale attempt at expulsion of as much of the Palestinian population from there as possible ("Israel's killing fields", Frontline, November 11, 2000), and further analyses have been offered of Israel's unending war more recently ("Israel's Colonial War", March 1, 2002 and "The Nazification of Israel", April 26, 2002).

TO begin with, a clarification of two fundamental points. The first is that the whole of the Palestinian nation, rather than mere "terrorists", are treated as the real enemy because even the minimum requirements of Palestinian independence and statehood are irreconcilable with the ideological premises, ambitions and actually existing structures of Israeli society. It therefore follows that no 'peace' or 'solution' is really possible unless one or the other situation materialises: either much of the Palestinian nation just disappears (expulsion is more practicable than extermination) and the rest permanently subjugated and cordoned off into little cantons, or Israel itself becomes a society altogether different from the one it is and has been since its birth - actually, since before its re-birth as a state in 1948.

Which then leads to the second point, namely that Israeli savagery has certainly reached a high point over the last 18 months or so but, far from being a novelty, it arises logically out of some very enduring characteristics of the Israeli state. The democratisation of Palestinian society, as Bush has now taken to demanding, is certainly an issue, but no more than the democratisation of Saudi Arabia is an issue; America's premier ally in the Arab world is by any count more arcane, corrupt and autocratic. Far more fundamentally necessary is the dissolution of at least the more extreme forms of zionism itself and the subsequent de-Nazification of Israel.

The Nazification of Israel may have intensified recently, but the phenomenon is an old one - older, in fact, than the German Nazis - and it is rooted in the religious eschatology of "redeeming the land" for "the chosen people" in accordance with a particular reading of the Old Testament; in the racist dreams of a "pure" nation-state specifically for Jews; in the hunger for Palestinian land and the eviction of the Palestinian peasantry; in plans for jobs exclusively for the Jewish race. When Theodor Herzl proved willing to accept Uganda to establish the 'Jewish homeland', Menachem Ussishkin, one of his followers, led a successful campaign against the very founder of the zionist movement and insisted on colonisation of Palestine on Biblical grounds; that same Ussishkin was to describe Arab presence in a Jewish economy as "painful leprosy", as early as 1905. Zionists in Palestine picketing Jewish farmers who employed Palestinian workers were a common sight during the 1920s and 1930s. Histadruth, the legendary labour federation which dominated the Israeli economy and society into the 1970s, was established by none other than Ben-Gurion and his inner circle; it was an organisation exclusively for "Hebrew Labour", did not admit a non-Jew into its membership for more than three decades, and became the original sponsor of Haganah, the volunteer paramilitary force in pre-Partition Palestine, from which eventually arose the Israel Defence Army (IDA) whose dominance over Israeli society has lasted to this day, much longer than that of the labour federation which was its parent.

Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli dissident, has written about these two historic pillars of zionist power that (a) "the struggle for Hebrew Labour was the real beginning of the Israeli-Arab war" and (b) the state of Israel was created not so much by the United Nations as by the Israeli Army itself. The latter has never ceased to dominate Israeli politics. Typical of this original temper of the zionist movement was the remark by Golda Meir, another of the founders of Israel and a revered former Prime Minister, to the effect that she wanted a state so purely Jewish that every taxi driver and every prostitute in it would be a Jew. That was of course the dream. The reality was more recalcitrant. Even after the expulsions of 1948, Israel continued to have a sizeable Arab population which became, in the formal sense, citizens; even the histadruth eventually began admitting some of them and they gained voting rights even though they continued to be governed under emergency regulations first formulated during the Mandate years by the British. The actual presence of non-Jewish labour could no longer be treated simply as "painful leprosy"; too many of the Palestinians held too many of the menial jobs. More recently, as the Israeli government began cancelling the work permits of some 45,000 Palestinian workers coming from the Occupied Territories, it also started importing workers from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe; according to Jerusalem Post of May 27 this year, 6,000 new workers were to be brought in from Thailand alone.

A basic contradiction has nevertheless remained: Israel wants as much of the historic Palestinian territory and material resources as possible, but with as little of its Arab population as possible; a small minority it might accommodate, but only so long as it remains numerically and materially too insignificant to alter in any way the exclusivist character of Israel as a Jewish state. In this respect, Israel is and has always been what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal would like India to become.

THE occupation of the remaining part of Palestine in 1967 was thus a mixed blessing, so far as the demographics were concerned. The number of Arabs under its dominion suddenly rose from 300,000 to 1.3 million, as against the Jewish population of 2.3 million. This dilemma is what has prevented Israel from annexing the Occupied Territories which it has administered as a colony, annexing as much of its land and water resources as possible, but has not made it a part of the country itself, since taking the territory along with the population would make Israel effectively a bi-national Jewish-Arab state. Yet, territorial expansion has always been fundamental to Israel's vision of itself.

After a suicide bomb strike in a bus in Jerusalem on June 18. Nineteen passengers, mostly schoolchildren and office workers, and the Palestinian suicide bomber, a university student, were killed.-GAMMA

When Ben-Gurion first proclaimed the state of Israel he did not specify the extent of its territory. When the war of 1948 ended, it had annexed considerably more of the Palestinian territory than the U.N. Partition Plan had awarded to it, some 78 per cent of it in all. The world now treats that as its rightful territorial extent. U.N. Resolution 194 of that year affirmed the right of all Palestinians to return to their homes in Israel or, if they so wished, to get compensation; Israel rejected that as well as all such subsequent resolutions, never allowed any Palestinian to return, never gave compensation to anyone. Born in 1948 with the mass expulsion of the indigenous population and the forcible annexation of more territory than was allotted to it legally, it is the only member of the U.N. that is yet to declare its final borders; what the world treats as its borders are described in Israeli parlance merely as the "Green Line", thus indicating its provisionality; the state of Israel reserves the right to expand its territory and alter its borders at will, whenever it so chooses.

Nor are these idle facts. There are of course the maximalist dreams in which the state of Israel extends from the Nile to the Euphrates. Even the operative, realist versions are alarming enough. It annexed the Golan Heights, the portion of Syria which it occupied, in 1967. This writer remembers standing, in 1974, on the last of the Syrian ridges that overlooked the Golan and watching the brisk agricultural activity as well as the building of roads and electrical grids in that slice of occupied land; that was well before Israel actually announced the annexation but one recalls thinking that Israel shall never willingly give up all that. The annexation has not been recognised by any other country, but it is indicative of Israel's future intentions that it has turned down all Syrian offers to exchange that occupied territory for peace between the two neighbours. Now, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria's military position has become so utterly inferior that it will be no surprise if Israel were to choose a suitable moment - a U.S. military attack on Iraq, for example - to launch a regional war of its own, annex more of Syrian territory in order to improve its bargaining position and re-occupy southern Lebanon from where it was forced to withdraw not long ago.

THE Occupied Territories are of course the crux of the matter. Here, to recall some of the salient facts.

First, all propaganda aside, the so-called P.A. of Yasser Arafat did not control much more than about 12 per cent of the West Bank even before the current uprising began. Israel has already taken over most of the water resources and much of the best land. Ninety per cent of the land inside Israel is reserved by law for exclusive Jewish occupation in perpetuity. In the West Bank, 70 per cent is already reserved for Jewish settlement; most of it is still not inhabited but some 400,000 Jewish settlers - fully armed, rabid extremists who are actively protected by the Israeli Army and who comprise around 10 per cent of the Israeli population - are already living there nevertheless, controlling over 40 percent of it. In April 2001, Sharon clarified that if the Palestinians met all his conditions, he was willing to return 42 per cent of the Occupied Territories, which amounts to about 10 per cent of the historic land of Palestine, and that too split up into tiny little units spotted all across the landscape. Now, a year later, it is not at all clear what new conditions would be imposed for the return of even that 42 per cent, if at all. In a significant recent development, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the main tax-exempt zionist "charity" in the United States, has decided to fund settlements in the Occupied Territories, reversing a 35-year-old decision to restrict such funding to Israel within the 'Green Line', lest it violate restrictions imposed by U.S. tax laws. This new decision coincided with a decision by the World Zionist Organisation to undertake a major initiative to build settlements in those territories. If the rate of new settlements grew by some 40 per cent in eight years after the Oslo Accords, over and above what had been built in the previous 25 years, we can be fairly certain that the pace shall now be accelerated further.

Even all this does not resolve the Israeli dilemma, however. Ben-Gurion's words of some 65 years ago were prophetic: "A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily." There is, for one, the persistent reality of the suicide bombings. For all its legendary military and intelligence skills, Israel simply has not been able to prevent these. Some of the worst Israeli civilian casualties, in the very heart of its cities even more than the outlying villages, have occurred during the past few weeks. This has produced a virtual schizophrenia among the Israeli population. If polls in March showed that close to 60 per cent were in favour of expelling the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories so as to make Israel secure from attacks, more recent polls show that an even larger percentage is in favour of quitting the Occupied Territories altogether in lieu of a peace settlement that can ensure Israeli security. All that they want is a peaceful life for themselves, and they do not seem to care whether they get it as a consequence of full-scale ethnic cleansing and forced exodus of the Palestinians or by virtue of a peace agreement which restores to the Palestinians their dignity and what remains of their territory.

The persistence of suicide bombings is, however, not the more surprising part. The sheer daily cruelty of the Israelis is such that unless their military operations and intelligence networks actually succeed in eliminating potential suicide bombers for the present, the explosions and the casualties shall continue. The more astonishing part is the sheer tenacity of the population at large, which refuses to leave despite all the sufferings inflicted upon it. And, what suffering!

It is simply not possible to summarise even a fraction of it. Even the barest detail of economic deprivation makes one shudder. Israel had begun to tighten the noose immediately after the signing of the Oslo Accords which created Arafat's puppet regime and put an end to the first Intifada. Aside from accelerating the construction of Jewish settlements, withholding permits for Palestinian construction, tightening its hold over water and land resources and so on, it also introduced increasing restrictions on Palestinian workers, accounting for almost a sixth of the population of the Occupied Territories, who relied for work in Israel proper, on permits that allowed them entry between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m.; as the new uprising took off, Israel made denial of this entry a feature of "collective punishment". This vastly aggravated the existing crisis of unemployment and subsistence that was being caused by Israel's military operations and occupation of towns and cities across the territories. In September 2000, on the eve of the rebellion, 600,000 people out of a total of three million, constituting 20 per cent, were defined as being "poor"; this figure had risen to 50 per cent by the end of 2001 and is now said to stand above 75 per cent, with at least 60 per cent of the workforce remaining unemployed. According to the U.N. World Food Programme, half a million people, or one-sixth of the population, already needs food aid. The decisive blow has come not from the military operations but the direct economic strangulation itself. According to a report released recently by the World Bank, damage caused by the military operations was estimated at $305 million while losses accruing from a siege of the Occupied Territories and closure of the Israeli labour market stood at $2.4 billion. The Israeli calculation is that as sufferings accumulate and even bare survival is endangered, more and more of the victims shall begin to flee en masse, and this process can then be accelerated with additional terror.

The wonder of it is that the besieged Palestinians have shown no signs of leaving voluntarily even in the face of these unspeakable hardships. Israel can of course go on tightening the noose and vastly increase the level of deprivation. Bush has simply endorsed everything Israel has demanded, while making no demand on Israel itself. The European Union has made some ineffectual noises but it too has gathered a group of Palestinian intellectuals, most of them emigres, and paid for publication of their charter of demands for roughly the same political and administrative "reforms" of the P.A. that Bush has demanded. The argument by the chosen intellectuals is a very refined one: we too want the same reforms, but for reasons of our own. How these "reforms" are to be carried out under so savage an occupation, the assembled intellectuals do not say. The irony of demanding the removal of Arafat at this juncture is that for all his incompetence, megalomania, double-talk and choice of corrupt subordinates, he is also the only Arab leader who holds office by virtue of an internationally certified free election.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on a visit to the Jewish settlement of Alfei Menashe close to the Palestinian town of Qalqiliya in the West Bank.-GAMMA

Arafat has made a mess of the uprising, handed over some of the heroes of the uprising to the Israelis, grovelled at the feet of the Americans while also refusing to surrender entirely. Sharon's - and now George Bush's - implacable hostility toward him are currently the only remaining guarantee of Arafat's prestige among the Palestinians, and it is quite likely that, in the face of all the killings and the starvation, they shall be more preoccupied with survival than with "reform". If, in addition to that, they also keep refusing to leave voluntarily, Israel may have to opt for the more inconvenient option of trying to expel them through massive, virtually door-to-door terror. But can it do so outside the context of war and instability in the region as a whole? Probably not, but then that is where the U.S. may well oblige.

September 11 was a godsend for the Israelis. Bush swiftly announced a global "war against terrorism" which he felicitously described as "a task that never ends". All adversaries - whether they are individuals or organisations or states - could now be branded "terrorists". Sharon took a leaf out of the American book and branded Arafat a "terrorist" pure and simple, eluding the fact that he was the statesman who was a co-signatory of the Oslo Accords with them and with whom they had been negotiating at Camp David only a year earlier. The first major Palestinian uprising against the zionist war of occupation dates back to the 1930s; now, some 70 years later, what even Ben-Gurion had called a "national war" could again be dubbed "terrorism", and the Americans be bought into Sharon's plan. Now, if they also invade Iraq in pursuit of a "regime change", as they periodically promise, that will prove to be a great gift to Israel, which is then likely to fight a parallel war of its own in order to impose a "regime change" in Ramallah; to obtain "final transfer" of as many Palestinians as possible; to destroy what remains of stability in Syria; and to re-occupy southern Lebanon. A war on Iraq may well become not only a war for Iraqi oil but also a war over the history of Palestine.

But that is another story.

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