AL-AHRAM 11 - 17 July 2002
Israel wants to do more than keep the suicide bombers out, writes Ilan Pappe. It wants to erase the Palestinian nation once and for all
In the middle of last month, Israel began building a fence to separate itself physically from the West Bank. Among my friends on the Israeli left, there are those who received this news with great enthusiasm. These are the same friends who were convinced that the Oslo process would inevitably lead to a lasting and comprehensive peace. Now, they are rejoicing again, because they believe that this separation is the first step that will ultimately lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In their eyes, the fence will serve as demarcation of the future border between Israel and Palestine.
If they are right, and the planned fence is indeed meant to delineate these boundaries, then Palestine -- the geopolitical entity for which the PLO had been struggling ever since its inception -- is probably lost. For in that case, the fence will virtually complete the process which was begun by the Zionist movement in 1882, and has been continued vigorously by Israel since 1948 -- the process of de-Arabising the land of Palestine.
So far, the process has been advanced by settlement, expropriation and expulsion. The putative Palestinian state was already reduced to a ridiculously small patch of land by the Oslo Accord. Through Oslo, many new and strange conceptions of statehood first emerged into international discourse. One of these was the concept of a state composed of two parts which have no geographical continuity, each of which is itself bisected and bifurcated into cantons deprived of any territorial integrity.
Alas, my friends' optimistic interpretation of the fence is utterly wrong, just as their interpretation of Oslo as a genuine peace process was wrong before it. Far from heralding the arrival of a new chapter in the history of Palestine, the erection of the fence is simply the continuation of an old policy through new means. This policy is that of erasing Palestine as a geographical, political and cultural entity from the map. In this article, I want to situate the proposed fence in its context -- not just in relation to Sharon's policies and objectives, but also as part of a wider historical process which began in the late 19th century.
The fence has been widely welcomed in Israel. The only people who oppose it are a few extremist settlers. For most Jews in Israel, what attracts them to the fence is not the idea that it defines some final border, but rather its potential to act as a security device and thus put an end to attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers. However, the politicians (mainly Labour) who first conceived the idea some six months ago see things rather differently. For them, the fence's role is strategic, not simply tactical.
The two main contenders for the chairmanship of the Labour Party, Haim Ramon and Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, have described the fence as a 'peace plan', not just a means to prevent infiltration. This should come as no surprise. The Labour Party has always sought a peace which would be based on a dividing line. Indeed, this was their main slogan in the 1992 general elections: 'We are here and they are there'. For Labour, the Zionist dream can only be fulfilled through total separation between Palestinians and Jews. The question of what exactly may happen on the other (Palestinian) side of the fence never seems to bother these peace visionaries. They are not interested in the economic viability of life on the other side, or in how it will manage its natural and water resources (most of which Labour intends to keep on the Israeli side of the divide), nor what its sovereignty will amount to (which Labour in any case does not intend should be full or complete, since Labour's 'Palestine' would incorporate many extra-territorial blocs of Jewish settlements), nor even how it will achieve security (since security is meant to remain exclusively in Israeli hands).
Not to mention the even more intricate question of what such a division might mean for the one million Palestinians inside Israel. Are they 'We', or are they 'They'?
One thing is clear though about this vision: it is quite compatible with Sharon's basic approach to 'solving' the Palestine question. Of course, Sharon originally intended to do it without a fence. But he has been reconciled to the fence, for the sake of national unity. After all, the Labour Party is proposing that he build a fence which will cut the West Bank's present 5000 square kilometres in two, leaving 2500 of them in Israel's hands. Why should Mr Sharon refuse?
The fence may be part of an age-old scheme, but the decision to promote the idea at this precise point in time is the consequence of the Israeli population's despair at their government's inability to ensure their personal security ever since the eruption of the Intifadat Al-Aqsa.
This is not the first time Sharon has exploited temporary fears, the better to implement his long-term plans. In the summer of 1982, as the PLO's war of resistance reached a new level of intensity, including the launching of Qatusha missiles into Israel, he enlisted the Israeli settlers along the northern border with Lebanon to support the invasion of their northern neighbour. Then, not only did Sharon fail to achieve his tactical objective -- the end of violence -- but he succeeded in provoking far worse forms of violence. Today, the fence will inevitably produce the same result: more violence against Israel -- and, of course, as always, more violence against the Palestinians.
As in 1982, so now, there is an alternative. On the eve of Lebanon's invasion, the PLO offered a way out, proposing a cease-fire and an armistice. But Sharon had other plans. Violating the de facto cease-fire, he sent the Israeli army to invade Lebanon, so as to install a government of his liking in Beirut and destroy the PLO's infrastructure there. This time round, the fence around the West Bank is Sharon's ploy to undermine the opportunity opened up by the Saudi peace plan, which was endorsed by both the Palestinians and the Arab League.
The peace track has the potential to offer lasting security to both Israelis and Palestinians. But in a secure world, generals like Sharon do not thrive, and indeed, may not even survive.
Sharon's approach to both Lebanon and the fence are a reflection of a global Zionist- Israeli vision of imposing a settlement on the conflict by force, thus erasing the concept of 'Palestine' from both memory and reality, and substituting for it the name of its rival, Eretz Israel. This Eretz Israel contains the regions of Judea and Samaria. These areas may be home to a considerable number of 'Arabs', but these Arabs will have no power to determine either the name of the country or its character. In due course, they may well be expelled, when the time is ripe.
Palestine the country was scratched out of the Zionist consciousness very early on; in fact, from the moment the first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived on the land in 1882. As long as the Jewish community in Palestine was a minority, living under the auspices of the British mandate, Palestine's effacement remained symbolic, for there was as yet no military power which might eliminate it physically on the ground. But it was already totally excluded from the Zionist settlers' discourse and narrative.
When the opportunity came to translate that vision into reality in 1948, Palestine was erased not only in word, but by the sword as well. The UN partition resolution gave the Zionist movement 56 per cent of Palestine; the 1948 war allowed them to occupy 88 per cent of the country. To all intents and purposes, it seemed that Palestine as a geo-political and cultural entity had been destroyed.
But Palestine would not die. It lived on in the refugee camps, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as among the Palestinian minority in Israel itself. It survived the 1967 War and the passing of 100 per cent of historical Palestine under Israeli control. During the first decade of the occupation, the Labour government hoped that Palestine would finally be expunged from regional and global consciousness when they proposed fusing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with Jordan. But all their efforts were to no avail.
And then in 1977 the Likud rose to power, bearing with it the Greater Israel ideology. Now, the concept of 'Palestine' was to be drowned beneath the massive waves of Jewish settlement that flooded into the occupied territories, blocked out by the adamant refusal to even discuss the future of the refugees, and silenced by the insistence that the Palestinians within Israel were not a national group, but rather religious communities -- Christians and Muslims -- who had no right to self- determination or collective national identity.
But this strategy too failed, and in 1987 the first Intifada broke out. The uprising forced the Israelis, for the first time since 1948, to consider Palestine as a possible political entity, which might take the form of an independent state alongside Israel, to be established in the occupied territories. Or at least, this was the principle to which they agreed in the Oslo Accord. In retrospect, it would seem that the Israeli government never had any intention of creating a Palestinian state on 22 per cent of historical Palestine. At the same time, it would seem that the PLO, which had by now evolved into the Palestinian Authority, did in fact make the most significant concession ever granted by the Palestinian side, when it consented to make do with a miniature Palestinian stateley as the geopolitical realisation of its vision of liberation.
But even that limited wish was not to be granted. Micro-Palestine was no sooner born, than it was dissected into areas A, B, and C, and the Gaza Strip was cordoned off and encircled by an electric fence, as if it were one huge prison. The result was to leave much of 'Palestine' -- 42 per cent of the West Bank and about 20 per cent of the Gaza Strip -- under direct or indirect Israeli occupation. This was the situation throughout the 'peace process'. And yet the Israelis and Americans still cannot understand why the Palestinians did not learn to put their faith in diplomacy and negotiation as the best way to fulfil their dreams of self-determination and independence! (At least the Europeans seem to be slightly more clear- sighted in these matters.)
President Arafat was presented with this fait accompli at Camp David in the summer of 2000, where he was told to simply 'take it or leave it'. Shortly afterwards, the second Intifada broke out.
This unarmed uprising was turned into an armed revolt by harsh Israeli retaliation to demonstrations and street protests. Gradually, micro-Palestine was reoccupied. Yet whether under direct or indirect rule, conditions for the occupied population were equally dismal. They found themselves unemployed, starved and strangled, unable to move or properly make a living. It is this situation which produced the suicide bombers. We should not be surprised when people such as Cherie Blair, the wife of the British prime minister, recognise this fact. To many people, the genesis of these attacks is perfectly obvious. Reprehensible as they may be when the targets are innocent civilians, they are the direct product of despair. This fact was recognised also in a recent petition signed by Palestinian intellectuals, which both condemned the attacks, and explained the context which made them possible.
The Israelis have used all possible means to try and crush what they call the 'terror infrastructure' -- as if F-16s, tanks and commando units could instil much fear into young Palestinian men and women who are willing to turn themselves into fireballs in the midst of a crowded Jerusalem street. The human loss on the Israeli side has reached catastrophic proportions, in relation to the country's history and population; tragedies that are amplified by the fact that, in some cases, entire families perish in such attacks. The almost incomprehensible cowardice of the Israeli press -- and particularly the audiovisual media -- protects Jewish society from any real knowledge of the context which has produced these personal calamities. There is no mention of the occupation, the humiliations and assassinations, the mass arrests, the destruction of houses and the starvation, which together have bred these suicide attacks. With the public mind so carefully and meticulously closed, it is little wonder that the fence has been accepted unconditionally by most Israelis, for whom it has the power of a magic formula.
Yet even an amateur can see that the fence will hardly pose any obstacle to future suicide bombers. Instead, it will serve the past and present ideological ambition of Israel to wipe out Palestine one time for all. After all, the total disappearance of one's enemy is a far more 'convenient' solution than compromise, reconciliation or accountability for the past. With the help of this fence (in actual fact, a wall), Sharon is defining what Palestine will be for future generations: half the West Bank, bisected into isolated cantons, and an island consisting of 75 per cent of the Gaza Strip. In these areas, Palestinians will be able to run their own municipal affairs, though only just; they will even be allowed to call these fragments a 'State'. To judge by President Bush's statement of 24 June 2002, America's current vision of a solution to the Palestine problem coincides exactly with that of the Israeli regime. Yet it is within this straight jacket that President Bush expects democracy, transparency and economic prosperity to flourish! This cynicism can only sour American- Palestinian relations further, and may in a more distant future substantially harm the US's status throughout the Arab world. For Bush will now be perceived as the facilitator of Israel's attempt to wipe Palestine out of existence.
The fence, or rather wall, is also likely to work against Israel's interests in a number of ways. Just as in the case of the Israeli siege of the Muqata'a, where the Israelis isolated Arafat, only to find themselves in their turn ostracised by most of the rest of the world, so here too the consequences may be the contrary of those expected. For the wall encircles Israel just as much as it cordons off Palestine. Stretching along Israel's longest border, the Eastern front, such a wall can only increase the country's already overwhelming sense of isolation, and reinforce the siege mentality from which Israelis have suffered for so many years, and which has fed support for the intransigent and aggressive policies of their governments.
But of course, whatever it may do to Israel, the fence is far more destructive for the Palestinians who are under occupation. It is hard to talk of deterioration in their conditions, when those conditions are already so grim and so inhuman; but unfortunately, however bad things are, they can always be made worse.
So. will the international community listen to the wise words of Cherie Blair, Desmond Tutu, Jose Saramago, Oliver Stone, Ted Turner, and many others, who have understood what is happening and warned against the impending calamity -- at the risk of being immediately branded anti-Semites, if not neo- Nazis? Or will they remain silent, as they have for so many years, in the face of yet another attempt to erase Palestine -- just as CNN has succumbed to Israeli pressure and abandoned its previously balanced coverage of the conflict? (The Israeli minister of communication is now trying to remove the BBC World Service from the Israeli satellite and cable networks, as punishment for its 'biased' coverage. One can only hope the BBC will not give in as CNN did).
Since President Bush's latest statement on the Palestine issue essentially gave a green light to the Israelis to do whatever they wished until the congressional elections in the autumn of 2002, it seems likely that the voices of wisdom will have to continue crying in the wilderness for some time yet. Not so long ago, Palestine stretched from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Now, its indigenous Arab population is going to be fenced into an area that represents less than 15 per cent of their country's original size.
Where are Europe and the Arab world, while all this is happening? Where are the Asian and African nations? One can understand why Germany hesitates to take a clear stand on the issue, although it is high time that it learned the moral lesson of its own past conduct -- its moral obligation for the Holocaust should place it in the vanguard of those nations which oppose crimes against humanity, occupation and abuses of human rights, even if the crimes are committed by those whose parents and grandparents were the victims of that very same Holocaust. But what about the other member states of the EU and the UN? As I have warned before, by the time they all wake up, it may be too late. Too late not only for the Palestinians, but also for the Israelis, who will certainly find it even more difficult to be accepted -- or even simply to survive -- in the Middle East, after a second Nakbah of their making.