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Israel's killing fields

Print edition : Nov 11, 2000 T+T-

The structural reasons for the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli terror are connected not only with the consequences of the Oslo Accords of 1993 but also the very nature of the Israeli state and the support it gets from the United States.

IT is very difficult to write about Israel now, in the ideological climate currently prevailing in India. For several decades, when anti-colonialism was a substantial ingredient in the secular nationalism that informed even India's foreign policy, distan ce from Israel as a settler-colonial state and close relationship with the Palestinian national movement as representing the victims of that settler-colonialism was taken for granted in the polity. So was India's solidarity with the anti-imperialist curr ents in the Arab world in general - be it the war of national liberation in Algeria, the Nasserist commitments to non-alignment, or some other current of that kind.

This aspect of Indian foreign policy was noted and admired, I might add, by Arab diplomats and intellectuals. I remember visiting a number of the Arab countries and regularly meeting a broad cross-section of the intellectuals there, in the 1960s and 1970 s. I was very young then and it was always very striking to me that Pakistan's support for Palestine was usually seen as shallow and Islamicist, whereas the Indian solidarity with the Palestinian cause was regarded as a natural and secular, non-religious response from a country that had played so seminal a role in the making of the non-aligned movement.

I was therefore very surprised when I read the statement of Jaswant Singh, during the course of his recent visit to Israel, that India's foreign policy in the past decades was held hostage by the Muslim vote bank and that the government was now going to correct that error. India's anti-colonialist past was simply being erased, and what even Arab intellectuals, from their great distance, could see as an expression of India's secular solidarity with anti-Zionist forces in Palestine was now being presented , by a suave and insufferable Foreign Minister, as an error forced by the Muslim minority in the country upon those whom the Bharatiya Janata Party is fond of calling "pseudo-secularists". Hindutva was now going to undo all that and make a strategic alli ance with its natural counterpart: Zionism.

What, then, about the current uprising in Palestine? It is said that the uprising, which the Palestinians themselves are calling "Al-Aqsa Intifada", was triggered by the visit of Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party leader, to Al-Aqsa, the holiest Muslim shrine in Palestine (known to the Jewish people as Temple Mount), with the announced purpose of demonstrating "Jewish sovereignty" over the Al-Aqsa compound. The visit was clearly authorised by the Ehud Barak government, which also provided more than 1,000 arm ed policemen to protect Sharon.

It is important to recall, though, that the Palestinian agitation did not begin with that Thursday visit. Rather, the agitation came the next day, when Israeli security forces were massed in the compound at the time of Friday prayers, in a calculated pro vocation when a large crowd was present and someone or the other could be trusted to fan the flames. That is when the Israelis started shooting. It is also worth remarking that during the first couple of days the Palestinian agitation was restricted to s logan-shouting and stone-throwing. Palestinian gunmen entered the fray only after the corpses had begun to mount, at the hands of the Israeli sharpshooters who were clearly under orders to kill. The ratio of the Palestinians and Israelis killed is still about 20 to 1.

There was, in other words, a deeper design which seems to have been prepared many months ago. Saeb Arikaat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, has said that he and Arafat went personally to Barak's house to persuade him not to grant permission to Sharon to make the visit and to warn of the possible consequences; Faisal Husseini, another senior leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), says that he too appealed personally to Barak. Barak rejected all such requests, knowing well that among Pale stinians Sharon was the most hated man. To understand the motivation, we need to understand something about Sharon and Barak, and then reflect also on the consequences of the Oslo Accords and on that monstrosity which is represented in the media as the " peace process".

ON March 23 this year, well before the latest uprising, Professor Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharanot: "Barak is the most dangerous Prime Minister in the history of Israel. Already in 1982 he prop osed to extend the Lebanon war to a total war on Syria. Then he explained (in a memorandum to Sharon) that the best way to do that is without sharing the plans with the government. Today he is consulting only with the heads of the army and the security s ervices. Never had the army as much grip on Israeli politics as in the times of Barak."

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when he wrote that notorious memorandum, Barak was merely an army general, albeit an important one, secretly suggesting that Israel create an excuse to invade Syria and destroy its army, to Ariel Sharon, th e Defence Minister at that time, who, as Noam Chomsky recently put it, "is the very symbol of Israeli state terror and aggression, with a rich record of atrocities going back to 1953." In the recent days, Barak, now the Labour Prime Minister of Israel, a nd Sharon, currently the head of the Likud Party and himself aspiring to become Prime Minister, have been negotiating the formation of a government of national unity.

To the matter of Barak we shall return in a moment, but who is Ariel Sharon? As the Israeli police and border guards train their guns at Palestinian demonstrators with orders to "shoot to kill," Uri Avnery, an authoritative veteran of the peace movement in Israel, reminds us that

the practice itself is not new. It was used first by Ariel Sharon in the first years of the occupation, when he instituted a reign of terror in the Gaza Strip. As he told me himself afterwards, he gave the order "not to take prisoners". Palestinians caug ht bearing arms were killed on the spot. Later, the practice was employed by the "Mista'arvim" ("Pretending to be Arabs") undercover units, whose slogan was "ensure death". This was discovered when the Mista'arvim killed one of their own men, mistaking h im for a "terrorist". After wounding him, they dispatched him at very close range with a shot in the head (A Lost War, October 9, 2000).

Avnery goes on to point out that - quite aside from tanks, helicopter gunships and other weapons of war of that kind - which the Israelis have deployed against largely unarmed, stone-throwing demonstrators, the deadliest introduction in this phase of que lling the Palestinian uprising is the "sharpshooter" - a particular kind of soldier with a special kind of training whose task is to zero in on specific individuals, presumably 'leaders', in the demonstration and shoot them on the spot. This, he says, is in line with the policies Sharon framed some 30 years ago; the training for the latest deployments bagan, according to both Avnery and Reinhart, in June 2000.

Sharon, in fact, was the one who, as Minister for Agriculture, first planted the "settlements" of armed Israelis in the Palestinian "territories" occupied after the 1967 war, mostly members of the Far Right. As Minister for Defence, he pressed Prime Mini ster Menachem Begin to invade Lebanon, leading to the destruction of Beirut, the most cosmopolitan city in the Arab world, and the occupation of southern Lebanon. In all his diverse ministerial assignments, he has fixed the borders of annexation for whic h the present war is being fought. And he was the one who ordered the massacres of the Sabra and Shattila camps in 1982. He fits, in other words, every conceivable definition of a war criminal. Today he is the head of Likud, the other major party in Isra eli politics which alternates with Labour as the ruling party, and he has been invited by Barak, "the most dangerous Prime Minister in the history of Israel," to form a government of national unity. How has this situation come about? For the most recent background, we can take recourse to a lengthier quotation, also from Avnery:

Just a month ago, Barak was bankrupt; a politician at the end of his career. He had lost his majority in the Knesset, his partners had left him, the days of his government were numbered and it only managed to carry on because of the Knesset recess. The p olls predicted that he would lose the imminent elections by a large margin.

Ariel Sharon was in a similar situation. His career was nearing its end. It was clear that his Likud Party would oust him and replace him with Netanyahu, who would win the elections.

And then, as if by a miracle, everything changed. Barak started to talk about the "holy places of the nation", because of which he could not agree to Palestinian sovereignty over the holy mosques. Sharon announced that he was going to visit this Muslim c ompound. Barak took the visit under his wing and sent 1,200 police officers to accompany Sharon. The visit caused the expected explosion. The next day seven Palestinians were killed by Israeli policemen near the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The timing of the Barak-Sharon provocation was thus determined by their own political compulsions. On the one hand, Barak was expected to face and lose by a very wide margin a no-confidence motion in a Knesset session that was due in the last week of Oct ober. On the other hand, the Attorney-General had on September 27 dropped charges of corruption and bribery against Netanyahu, the former Likud Prime Minister and by far the most popular politician in Israel at the time, who was now free to reclaim the L ikud leadership from Sharon. The latter appeared in the Al-Aqsa compound the next day and the killing began the day after that.

Once the methodical killing of Palestinians began, Barak's popularity ratings rose from 20 to 50 per cent and the very coalition partners who had deserted him began reassuring him that they would not press the no-confidence motion for at least a month. H aving come in the limelight again, meanwhile, Sharon declared that he would join a government of national unity only if Barak forgoes the so-called "peace process" altogether. In her latest commentary, Professor Reinhart says that "in the Sharm El-Sheikh summit..., Barak got from the U.S. his green light to slaughter... There is talk about the Palestinian Kosovo, with 2,000 to 3,000 Palestinians dead. As usual, the blame for this slaughter is put in advance on Arafat, who, the story goes, wants his peop le to be slaughtered, to gain international sympathy."

The timing was thus surely determined by the political compulsions of Barak and Sharon. However, the structural reasons for both the uprising and the terror run much deeper and are connected, in the immediate past, with the consequences of the Oslo Accor ds of 1993 and, in the larger perspective, with the very nature of the Israeli state and the unconditional material and moral support it gets from the United States. Both these aspects should bear some commentary.

THE basic flaw of the Oslo Accords was simply that, as Robert Fisk, the award-winning British correspondent, has put it (The Independent, October 13): "The Palestinians were being forced by Americans and Israelis to sign a peace that would give th em neither a state nor an end to Jewish settlements on Arab land, nor a capital in Arab east Jerusalem... Many outstanding issues have been left to the final negotiations: water, the fate of the 3.6 million Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem a nd the Israeli settlements, and the extent of Palestinian sovereignty. After the agreed Israeli withdrawals have been completed, 59 per cent of the West Bank will still remain under Israeli control. Will the resulting Palestinian state be a "mini-state" with limited sovereignty?"

In other words, Arafat had written away all the gains of the 1987-1992 intifada for not much more than municipal authority over little patches of Palestinian land, while all else was left to a long-drawn process of negotiations in which the final settlement talks were postponed until six years later. Israel used this extended time to build so many Jewish settlements and security highways, dividing the West Bank into many pieces which are isolated from one another, that the Palestinian entity whic h finally results from the peace process would not be much more than a scattering of apartheid-style Bantustans.

Seven years after the Oslo Accords, Israel has security and administrative control of most of the West Bank and 20 per cent of the small principality of Gaza. As Amira Hass wrote in the prestigious Israeli daily Ha'aretz (October 18), Israel has b een able during this period to double the number of settlers in 10 years, to enlarge the settlements, to continue its discriminatory policy of cutting back water quotas for three million Palestinians, to prevent Palestinian development in most of the are a of the West Bank, and to seal an entire nation into restricted areas, imprisoned in a network of bypass roads meant only for Jews. During these days of strict internal restriction of movement in the West Bank, one can see how carefully each road was pl anned: so that 200,000 Jews have freedom of movement, about three million Palestinians are locked into their Bantustans until they submit to Israeli demands. The bloodbath that has been going on for weeks is the natural outcome of seven years of lying an d deception, just as the first Intifada was the natural outcome of direct Israeli occupation.

In speaking of "200,000 Jews" Hass is obviously referring to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank alone; another 200,000 such settlers were introduced over the years into Jerusalem itself. We might add that the whole of the Gaza Strip is ringed by an electri fied fence and the airport, the strip's main contact with the outside world, is controlled by the Israelis. A Palestinian uprising there is basically a prison riot.

Putting an end to the so-called "peace process" at this point is important for Israel because it has gained from the Oslo Accords everything it had desired. And the next stage, aimed to bring about a final solution, would require it to make some basic ch anges in its historic positions, for which there is no consent in the broad Israeli population which, barring the small number of anti-Zionists, is very much in tune with the Baraks and the Sharons.

THIS brings us, then, to the very nature of Israeli society and state. The first thing to be said here is that Israel is the only nation-state in the world which derives the legitimacy of its existence, its claim to territory and nationhood, the sanctity of its national language, its very identity as a "Jewish state", its claimed right to evict the Muslim and Christian populations of historic Palestine and replace them with a Jewish population imported from the four corners of the globe - in short its v ery raison d'etre - to a religious text, in this case the Old Testament.

Palestinians have no right to return to homes from which they have been evicted within the last half century, either because they don't exist (as Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister, once said) or because they are said to have left by their own accord for greener pastures (which is the official position of the entire Zionist establishment and its supporters, inside Israel and the world over). By contrast, every Jewish person living anywhere in the world has a permanent "right of return" because these are , after all, "the Biblical lands"; Palestine must therefore be re-named "Israel", and what the rest of the world knew simply as "the West Bank" must be re-named "Judea and Samaria" because those are the names used for these areas in the Old Testament.

When Pakistanis call their country an Islamic Republic, Indians consider them - quite rightly - obscurantist and anti-secular. When the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) claims that India must be turned into a "Hindu Rashtra" and mobilises its goons to a ttack the minorities as well as their churches and mosques, Indians call them - quite rightly - fascist. Israel, by contrast, is free to be, in letter and spirit, a "Jewish state," with all the racial and religious meanings that the term implies, without coming in for any kind of criticism; it must always be considered modern, secular, democratic, beleagured by anti-semitism, "Islamic fundamentalism" and so on.

To dissent from this view of Israel is to lay yourself open, if you are not Jewish, to the charge of being anti-semitic. If you are Jewish but also anti-Zionist, like Noam Chomsky, you will be portrayed as a "self-hating Jew". Thanks to the Israeli milit ary capability which keeps the whole of the middle eastern and north African oil-producing world at bay, and thanks to the Zionist success in portraying the state of Israel as the state of the survivors of Nazi death camps, which then naturally evokes al l kinds of sympathy for it, Israel commands in the western world, and increasingly on the global scale, a matchless propaganda machinery.

Israel is quite possibly the most savage of the existing nation-states, and surely the one where "nation" is so very thoroughly identified with race and religion; even in Iran "nation" is not identified with "race". Yet it is very difficult to be believe d if one says - and documents - that Israel has been doing to the Palestinians for some half a century what the various ethnic militias in the former Yugoslavia have learned to do only within the last decade, after the breakdown of the socialist state th ere, and that in some respects the Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians bear a marked resemblance to the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people themselves.

But there is more.

Nelson Mandela, the man who heroically led the struggle of the South African peoples against what is commonly considered the most savage racist regime in the world, once said that the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is "worse than apartheid." Comin g from Mandela, this is as severe an indictment as one can imagine. Unfortunately, the assessment is accurate.

Unlike Algeria or South Africa where the indigenous peoples managed to fight back against eviction and extermination, regaining sovereignty after heroic wars of liberation, Israel is the only successful settler colony of the 20th century, evicting the ma jority of the indigenous population, subjugating the remaining segment, and transplanting on the Palestinian land populations which originated elsewhere. The great majority of the Jewish population of Israel is descended from families that were not resid ent there 50 years ago.

By contrast, the majority of Palestinians were evicted from their homes in two waves, mainly at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and then, on a relatively smaller scale, in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Estima tes of the Palestinian diaspora, scattered around the world, vary greatly, from six million to eight million. Over five million of them are concentrated in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the states bordering on the territories of the historic Palestine, or i n the territories Israel captured in 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza). A million or so live in Israel proper as internal refugees; Israel is by definition a "Jewish state," in which the non-Jew can only be a second-class citizen. In all, Palestinians are ac tually not very numerous. Yet, according to the United Nations, one in four of the world's refugees is a Palestinian.

Palestinian losses accruing from those evictions are estimated at $180 billion. U.N. Resolution 194 of 1948 affirms the right of all Palestinians either to return to their lost homes or elect to receive compensation. The same right has been re-affirmed i n Resolutions 242 and 338, and the U.N. General Assembly has re-affirmed this resolution over a hundred times. Israel has steadfastly rejected all these resolutions, however, and no Palestinian has ever been compensated for loss of ancestral property. In stead, some 90 per cent of the Israeli territory is reserved for Jewish settlement and some 70 per cent of the territories occupied in 1967 are - in addition to pre-1967 Israeli borders - already taken for establishing Israeli "settlements" or building r oads, military checkposts and so on. The so-called Palestinian Authority, to which Israel has assigned mainly municipal duties in civil affairs and whose police and paramilitary forces have been trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to ensure Israeli security in the face of Palestinian anger, actually controls something like 12 per cent of the area of West Bank.

This is the arrangement that is sought to be stabilised by the new plan that Ehud Barak unveiled in late October, which he proposes as the basis for a final settlement. As Noam Chomsky puts it, "This plan, extending U.S.-Israeli rejectionist proposals of earlier years, called for cantonization of the territories that Israel had conquered in 1967, with mechanisms to ensure that usable land and resources (primarily water) remain largely in Israeli hands while the population is administered by a corrupt an d brutal Palestinian Authority, playing the role traditionally assigned to indigenous collaborators under the several varieties of imperial rule: the Black leadership of South Africa's Bantustans, to mention only the most obvious analogue."

The U.S. underwrites these atrocities militarily, financially, diplomatically. Thus, on October 3, after a week of bitter fighting and killing, the defence correspondent of Ha'aretz reported "the largest purchase of military helicopters by the Isr aeli Air Force in a decade", an agreement with the U.S. to provide Israel with 35 Blackhawk military helicopters and spare parts at a cost of $525 million, along with jet fuel, following the purchase shortly earlier of patrol aircraft and Apache attack h elicopters. These are "the newest and most advanced multi-mission attack helicopters in the U.S. inventory," the Jerusalem Post adds. When asked whether these were "tools for crowd control," a Pentagon spokesman said that the U.S. weapons sales "d o not carry a stipulation that the weapons can't be used against civilians."

Meanwhile, on October 25, when Israel had settled down to its killing fields, Aluff Benn, the diplomatic correspondent of Ha'aretz, reported that Israel had asked the U.S. for an $800 million in emergency military aid, "on top of the usual militar y aid package, which will total $1.98 billion next year." This is only the tip of the iceberg, considering that Israel has been the top U.S. aid recipient for several decades.

The same applies to the arena of diplomatic and moral support, where too the U.S. defies all pressure from diverse quarters. Gush Shalom (the Israeli Peace Bloc) declared on October 9: "What is happening in Nazareth today is a pogrom, bearing all the hal lmarks which were well known to Jews in Czarist Russia." Already on October 3, Amnesty International had condemned the indiscriminate killings of civilians. "The dead civilians, among them young children, include those uninvolved in the conflict and seek ing safety," it said, adding "the loss of civilian life is devastating and this is compounded by the fact that many appear to have been killed or injured as a result of the use of excessive or indiscriminate force... We have been saying for years that Is rael is killing civilians unlawfully by firing at them during demonstrations and riots." Even Jacques Chirac, the French President, accused Sharon of "irresponsible provocation." But not the U.S., where Madeleine Albright declared that Palestinians were the ones "laying siege to Israel."

On October 7, the U.N. Security Council voted 14 to 0 for a resolution condemning Israel's "excessive use of force against Palestinians" and deploring the "provocation" of Sharon's September 28 visit to Temple Mount. The U.S. was the only Security Counci l member to abstain from the vote. The outcome was generally interpreted as assigning most of the responsibility for the violence to Israel. The conservative The Times (of London) called it on the editorial page a "stinging rebuff" (September 10, 2000). On October 19, when the U.N. Human Rights Commission passed a resolution condemning Israel for "widespread, systematic and gross violation of human rights" while describing some of the Israeli atrocities as "war crimes", the U.S. and its principal allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) voted against the resolution.

The saddest part of this mess is that Yasser Arafat, once the symbol of Palestinian resistance, has settled down to the role of a quisling, begging the U.S. for largesse and handing over his own security apparatus to the CIA; Alu Ben reported in Ha'ar etzon October 18, regarding Arafat's promise at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit to do what he could for Israeli security: its implementation will be overseen by CIA chief George Tenet and the CIA representative in Tel Aviv. This agreement will, for the fi rst time, involve CIA observers in the field in addition to CIA participation in Israeli-Palestinian meetings."

Part of the Al-Aqsa Intifada is perhaps against Arafat himself and his bunch of corrupt cronies - "the Oslo class" as the rebellious Palestinian youth calls them.