Tragedy of Israel and Palestine

Middle East historian says Jewish and Arab civil societies must stop the violence.

Women mourn Jerusalem seminary deaths

The father of 18 days-old newborn Palestinian baby girl Amira Abu Asr, who was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers, mourns during her funeral on March 5 [GALLO/GETTY]

Americans have grown so accustomed to the disastrous dynamics operating between Israelis and Palestinians today that the failure to reach a peace deal amid the soaring death tolls assumes an aura of normalcy in their minds.


This reflects a situation we imagine ourselves to be powerless to help change and only adds to the tragedy unfolding in the Occupied Territories and Israel as well.


Today the world’s attention has turned to the aftermath of the murder of eight students of an ultra-Zionist Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, established by the founder of religious zionism, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook in 1924.


Last week the focus was the ongoing war in Gaza, which will likely be the centre of attention next week as well.


The attacks on religious students in the midst of study and prayer – coupled with the ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza on the Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon – are already being offered as the latest examples of continued Palestinian unwillingness to make peace with Israel more than two years after its unprecedented withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.


World’s largest prison


Shanbo Heinemann, a pro-Palestinian activist,
is injured in a protest against the wall [GETTY]  

But there are many problems with this argument; firstly, most of the acts of Palestinian resistance to the occupation have always been non-violent.


Equally important is the fact that while Israeli civilians no longer live in Gaza, Israel‘s military presence has never ended.

Tel Aviv withdrew civilian settlers and then threw away the key to what has now become the world’s largest prison.


Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister and the architect of the settlement movement, was willing to sacrifice Gaza in order to ensure Israel held onto the major settlement blocs of the West Bank, which today house more than 250,000 settlers (almost double that number if one includes the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem).


The settler population of the West Bank also doubled during the years of the Oslo “peace” process – which began when Abu Dahim was about 12 and ended when he was 19 – without a whimper of complaint from the United States.


By the time Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister, was assassinated in 1995, Palestinian leaders were warning that the continued settlement expansion was “killing” the peace process and would sooner or later lead to a “revolution” from the street.


Matrix of control


In Video
Six-month- old baby killed in Gaza undefined
Palestinian rockets into Israel undefined

The presence of well over 100 settlements has necessitated a matrix of control in which 80 per cent of the West Bank be declared off limits to Palestinians.


It also meant the destruction of thousands of homes and olive and fruit trees (the backbone of an otherwise closed Palestinian economy), the confiscation of 35,000 acres of Palestinian land, and the creation of a network of bypass roads, military bases.


The 400-kilometre, 8-metre-high “separation wall” also pierces deep into Palestinian territory, cutting into at least three isolated cantons.


Together, the settlement system has made the idea of creating a territorially and economically viable Palestinian state impossible to implement.


With the eruption of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000 whatever infrastructure of peace had been created during Oslo was quickly dismantled by both sides.


By mid-2002 Israel began deploying a strategy of managed chaos, in which a near total closure of the Territories, coupled with a destruction of much of their economic and political infrastructure, turned the intifada into what Palestinians term an “intifawda,” a neologism that brings the violence of the intifada together with the chaos, or “fawda” of a society living in a barely functioning state and economy.


Dividing Palestine


Israel’s separation wall cuts a broad path
through Palestinian olive groves [GALLO/GETTY]

Israeli planners gambled that by splitting the West Bank from Gaza, deepening the occupation of the former while freeing itself of the settlements in the latter, and routinely deploying disproportionate violence (including tanks, helicopter gunships, F-16s, and heavily armed troops) against all signs of resistance, Palestinian society would begin turning on itself.


Indeed, Israel hoped for this when it clandestinely supported the emergence of Hamas two decades ago, with the goal of building up a rival to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that would have them fighting each other rather than figuring out more successful strategies of fighting the occupation.


But, even as Palestinians fight each other, resistance to the occupation has continued. Most of it is comprised of various forms of non-violence (marches, sit-ins, and attempts to stop home demolitions or replant uprooted fields or groves).


These are rarely covered by the international media, and are usually met with violence by the Israeli military or settlers.


Fairly or not, however, it has been Palestinian violence, and especially suicide bombings and now rocket attacks on civilians, that have defined their resistance to the ongoing occupation.


Suicidal suicide attacks


In depth


And in this regard the actions have been nothing short of suicidal – Palestinian “resistance” to the occupation seems to have been scripted by Israel as it has suited the interests of the Israeli governments in power since 2000. As Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston recently put it:


“The Palestinians have kept their ultimate doomsday weapon under tight wraps for 40 years … Israeli senior commanders could only pray that the Palestinians would never take it out and put it to actual use … non-violence. This is one reason why, for decades, Israel did its best to head off, harass, and crack down on expressions of Palestinian non-violence.”


If Palestinians ever decided to just “get up and walk” en masse to the Erez Crossing separating Gaza from Israel and the major West Bank check points like Qalandiya and used hammers and picks to tear them down, there would be almost nothing Israel could do, short of a massacre in full view of the world’s cameras.


But Palestinians have become so stuck in the ideology of summud, (which naturally become a national imperative after a million Palestinians were uprooted in the 1948 and 1967 wars), or defiantly staying put, that they have rarely taken the strategic or moral offensive.


When they applied the moral approach during the first intifada, Israel‘s harsh crackdown coupled with PLO dominance of Palestianian politics, ensured the de-politicisation and disempowerment of the first “intifada generation”.


Two weeks ago, when a few brave Palestinians tried to organise a peaceful march to the Erez border crossing to build on the momentum gained by breaching the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, they were stopped far from the border by a line of heavily armed Hamas policemen.


Soon after, the day’s ration of rockets was fired into the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, wounding two Israeli children.


Israel responded with a new rounds of attacks by Israel, killing and wounding more Palestinians.


How to stop?


A few years ago, in a particularly violent moment of the intifada, I interviewed a senior Hamas leader at his office in Gaza. After the usual boiler plate questions and answers, I finally grew exasperated and said to him, “Look, let’s put aside the question of whether you have the right to use violence, particularly against civilians, to pursue your ends. The simple fact is that the strategy has not worked.”


His response stunned me with its honesty: “We know the violence doesn’t work, but we don’t know how to stop.”


In a mirror image of Israeli strategic thinking, Hamas has remained unable to break free of the dangerously outdated paradigm that says violence, particularly against civilians, can only be met by even more violence until the other side yields.


Aside from the moral turpitude of such thinking by both sides – not to mention blatant illegality according to international law – the reality, at least in the near term, is that the human and political cost of such a policy for Israel is far lower than for Palestinians, who have very little time left before their dreams of independence are crushed for good.


Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, has himself admitted, the day Palestinians give up on the dream of an independent state will be the day Israel will “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”


Dysfunctional dynamics


Israeli settlements

In 1987, Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, concluded his well-known “West Bank Data Base Project” report by arguing that the West Bank settlements were too integrated into Israel to separate them as part of any future peace deal

But so dysfunctional are the current dynamics that neither side seems willing to take the first step away from the abyss.


In such a situation, only a strong outside party can force the warring sides to make the hard compromises necessary to achieve a just and lasting peace.


This was the job the US signed up for in 1993, when Bill Clinton, then president, witnessed the signing of the first Oslo agreement on the White House lawn. But we have failed miserably in our self-appointed role as “honest broker.”


It’s not just that US has unapologetically taken Israel‘s side on almost every major issue since then.


During the Oslo years the US worked hand in glove with the Israeli and Palestinian security services to stifle dissent within Palestinian civil society, or the Legislative Council, to a process that was moving away from rather than towards a just and lasting peace.


And with the militarisation of US foreign policy after September 11 and the sullied occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel has had even greater carte blanche to inflict precisely the kind of damage upon Palestinian society we are witnessing now in Gaza.


Blood of children


By refusing to press Israel – as many Israeli commentators, and an increasing number of US policy-makers as well, urge – to negotiate with Hamas we have not just enabled the current violence, but are directly responsible for it.


Hamas has declared its willingness to negotiate a two-state solution, albeit under conditions to which Israel has little incentive to accept.


The blood of Israeli and Palestinian children that appears on TV is on our hands too.


It would be nice if we could imagine that the next US president will have the courage to “change” this dynamic. But there is little chance of that.


The only hope is that Israeli and Palestinian societies come together to stop the violence their leaders keep inflicting on them before the delusions of victory on both sides cross the line into psychosis.


Mark LeVine is professor of history at UCI Irvine and author or editor of half a dozen books dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and globalisation in the Middle East, including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel and Palestine, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil, and the forthcoming An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History.

Source: Al Jazeera