Wednesday May 23, 2007
I am as old as this war. Officially the war of 1967, the year of my birth, lasted for six days. In reality, it's still going on: it is the 14,600-day war. Witness the violence in Gaza, one chunk of the territory which the young state of Israel - then just 19 years old - conquered in that extraordinary, whirlwind victory. In Gaza, there is fighting among the Palestinians - a barely repressed civil war between the old Fatah movement of Yasser Arafat and the Islamists of Hamas - but also between them and the Israelis. Hamas has resumed firing Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel, a break in their ceasefire. On Monday, one rocket succeeded in killing a civilian, a woman in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. And Israel has resumed its targeted assassinations, including one attack on the home of a Hamas member of parliament, killing eight people. The war which marks its 40th anniversary in a fortnight may have brought Israel a breathtaking victory - but it has brought no peace.
Ever since I first travelled properly in Israel, as a young student, I came to believe that what had been won in 1967 was as much curse as blessing. Yes, Israel had done something remarkable, defeating the armies of three nations that had vowed its destruction. And yes, it salved the wounded psyche of Jews all over the world to see that, just two decades after Auschwitz, the Jews were not fated to be history's permanent victims, but could defend themselves and win. I understood the pride of 1967, the sense of recovered dignity that it brought; subliminally, as a child raised in the glow it brought, I even shared in it.
But I could see 20 years ago what Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had seen 20 years earlier. Even before the war was over, he was advocating a conditional withdrawal from the territories just won. He understood what holding on to those lands, and the Palestinian people who lived in them, would mean: a mortal, political and moral disaster for the state he had founded and loved.
The mortal threat is clear to this very day. The victory of 1967 turned Israel into a military occupier, and occupied people will always fight back eventually, as the Palestinians did in earnest with the first intifada that erupted in 1987, through the suicide bombings of the 1990s and the second intifada that began in 2000. Of course, the 40 years since 1967 have been most painful for those who have lived under occupation, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. But the inevitable consequence of that pain has been danger and perpetual conflict for the people of Israel.
The political threat is less visible, but just as obvious. Ben-Gurion understood what even Ariel Sharon would see three and a half decades later: that if Israel was to live up to its own ambition of being a Jewish, democratic state, it could not rule over a Palestinian Arab population that would one day be its numerical equal. Yet that is the statistical situation today, with equal numbers of Jews and Arabs in the historic land of Palestine. If Israel is truly democratic, and grants all those people the vote, it will no longer have a Jewish majority. If it remains Jewish, by excluding those people, then it is no longer democratic. This is the so-called demographic argument, the unavoidable choice for Israelis left by 1967: either you hold on to the West Bank and Gaza or you remain a democratic state with a Jewish majority: you can't do both.
The moral threat was doubtless furthest from the minds of those celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem, and the return of Judaism's holiest sites, 40 years ago next month. But occupation corrodes the occupier, slowly but unmistakably. Every time an 18-year-old Israeli conscript stops a man or woman at a checkpoint or presses the button for a "targeted assassination", the moral core of a country becomes a little bit smaller. Hard to believe that when Israel went to war in 1967, it enjoyed the sympathy of world opinion, who saw it as the plucky David against the Arab Goliath. In the 40 years that have passed, Israel's standing has plunged and the admiration of those days has turned into suspicion and worse.
For Israel's enemies, these changes are all causes for celebration. But not me. As someone whose family history is bound up with Israel, who wants to see that country survive and thrive, I lament what the "prize" of the West Bank and Gaza has brought. My great fear is that Israel is like a homeowner who has built two extra rooms on shaky ground: in wanting to keep hold of the extension, he risks losing the whole house.
The events of the last few days only lend that argument more force. The Palestinian Authority is in a desperate state, fighters nominally allied with the two main wings of its supposed "unity" government slaying each other on the streets of Gaza. The president's writ does not run; starved by an international embargo - maintained not just by Israel, but by the US and European Union - the society is grappling with deprivation. Those close to it warn that the PA is on the verge of collapse.
That could see Gaza fully transform into what it already resembles: a lawless, failed state, a Somalia on Israel's southern border. The kidnap of Alan Johnston and the Fatah-Hamas feud could be a harbinger of things to come, as warlords and militias slug it out ever more lethally. Some warn that into this vacuum could step those angels of death, al-Qaida, ready to mount a third intifada bloodier than anything Israelis have ever witnessed. "You're too late," says former EU mediator Alastair Crooke, "al-Qaida's already there."
Until now, Hamas has held the Islamist franchise in Gaza, fending off al-Qaida attempts to come on to its turf. But the latter is gradually acquiring a toehold, with the appearance of new groupings which give off the strong whiff of Bin Laden. The current violence in Lebanon, where a Palestinian group linked to al-Qaida is waging war from the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, is a warning of Gaza's future.
Even if al-Qaida does not supplant Hamas, by gaining momentum it could oblige Hamas to move in its direction. What is currently a grievance-based, nationalist movement with an Islamist hue - its main cause shaking off occupation - could become more rigid, more ideological, beyond the reach of reason and negotiation. This is a lesson Israel has failed to learn these last 40 years. If you refuse to deal with a group because it's too extreme, you don't get to deal with a more pliant, moderate alternative. On the contrary, you eventually confront a force that is even more extreme. It happened when Fatah was eclipsed by Hamas - and it could happen again.
What should Israel do? Right now, its leaders' sole objective is protecting civilians from rocket attacks: when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Sderot on Monday he was booed. So his ministers speak of escalation, more targeted killings, perhaps even hitting the Hamas premier, Ismail Haniyeh. It's the same old mistake. Surely Israel's friends can begin to point in another direction: to seize on the hints from Hamas of possible compromise, to capitalise on the fact that Hamas too has an interest in defeating al-Qaida - and to begin a dialogue with the enemy. The aim would be to end the war that never ended - because the alternative is always so much worse.
IMPRISONING A WHOLE NATION May 23, 2007
By John Pilger
Israel is destroying any notion of a state of Palestine and is being allowed to imprison an entire nation. That is clear from the latest attacks on Gaza, whose suffering has become a metaphor for the tragedy imposed on the peoples of the Middle East and beyond. These attacks, reported on Britain's Channel 4 News, were "targeting key militants of Hamas" and the "Hamas infrastructure". The BBC described a "clash" between the same militants and Israeli F-16 aircraft.
Consider one such clash. The militants' car was blown to pieces by a missile from a fighter-bomber. Who were these militants? In my experience, all the people of Gaza are militant in their resistance to their jailer and tormentor. As for the "Hamas infrastructure", this was the headquarters of the party that won last year's democratic elections in Palestine. To report that would give the wrong impression. It would suggest that the people in the car and all the others over the years, the babies and the elderly who have also "clashed" with fighter-bombers, were victims of a monstrous injustice. It would suggest the truth.
"Some say," said the Channel 4 reporter, that "Hamas has courted this [attack] . . ." Perhaps he was referring to the rockets fired at Israel from within the prison of Gaza which killed no one. Under international law an occupied people has the right to use arms against the occupier's forces. This right is never reported. The Channel 4 reporter referred to an "endless war", suggesting equivalents. There is no war. There is resistance among the poorest, most vulnerable people on earth to an enduring, illegal occupation imposed by the world's fourth largest military power, whose weapons of mass destruction range from cluster bombs to thermonuclear devices, bankrolled by the superpower. In the past six years alone, wrote the historian Ilan Pappé, "Israeli forces have killed more than 4,000 Palestinians, half of them children".
Consider how this power works. According to documents obtained by United Press International, the Israelis once secretly funded Hamas as "a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] by using a competing religious alternative", in the words of a former CIA official. Today, Israel and the US have reversed this ploy and openly back Hamas's rival, Fatah, with bribes of millions of dollars. Israel recently secretly allowed 500 Fatah fighters to cross into Gaza from Egypt, where they had been trained by another American client, the Cairo dictatorship. The Israelis' aim is to undermine the elected Palestinian government and ignite a civil war. They have not quite succeeded. In response, the Palestinians forged a government of national unity, of both Hamas and Fatah. The latest attacks are aimed at destroying this.
With Gaza secured in chaos and the West Bank walled in, the Israeli plan, wrote the Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi, is "a Hobbesian vision of an anarchic society: truncated, violent, powerless, destroyed, cowed, ruled by disparate militias, gangs, religious ideologues and extremists, broken up into ethnic and religious tribalism and co-opted collaborationists. Look to the Iraq of today . . ." On 19 May, the Guardian received this letter from Omar Jabary al-Sarafeh, a Ramallah resident: "Land, water and air are under constant sight of a sophisticated military surveillance system that makes Gaza like The Truman Show," he wrote. "In this film every Gazan actor has a predefined role and the [Israeli] army behaves as a director . . . The Gaza strip needs to be shown as what it is . . . an Israeli laboratory backed by the international community where human beings are used as rabbits to test the most dramatic and perverse practices of economic suffocation and starvation."
The remarkable Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has described the starvation sweeping Gaza's more than a million and a quarter inhabitants and the "thousands of wounded, disabled and shell-shocked people unable to receive any treatment . . . The shadows of human beings roam the ruins . . . They only know the [Israeli army] will return and they know what this will mean for them: more imprisonment in their homes for weeks, more death and destruction in monstrous proportions".
Whenever I have been in Gaza, I have been consumed by this melancholia, as if I were a trespasser in a secret place of mourning. Skeins of smoke from wood fires hang over the same Mediterranean Sea that free peoples know, but not here. Along beaches that tourists would regard as picturesque trudge the incarcerated of Gaza; lines of sepia figures become silhouettes, marching at the water's edge, through lapping sewage. The water and power are cut off, yet again, when the generators are bombed, yet again. Iconic murals on walls pockmarked by bullets commemorate the dead, such as the family of 18 men, women and children who "clashed" with a 500lb America
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WAS EINSTEIN RIGHT?
"My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain - especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state." Albert Einstein
Einstein is one of my favorite twentieth-century characters. He was remarkable, and I don't mean only for his profound contributions to our understanding of the physical world. He was someone who drove authoritarians like J. Edgar Hoover mad. He was one of those rare souls, like George Orwell, who despite mistakes and flaws, consciously worked to direct his actions, and redirect them after missteps, by principles of decency, humanity, and rational thought. He never subscribed to menacing slogans like "My country, right or wrong" or "You're either with us or against us." Quite the opposite, he knew any country was capable of being wrong at times and did not deserve blind allegiance when it was.
Einstein's was one of the most important names lent to the cause of Zionism. His name and visits and letters raised a great deal of money towards establishing universities and resettling European Jews suffering under violent anti-Semitism long before the founding of Israel.
But even in a cause so dear to his heart, Einstein never stopped thinking for himself. He not only opposed the establishment of a formal Israeli state - he was after all a great internationalist - but he always advocated treating the Arabic people of Palestine with generosity and understanding.
Clearly Einstein's Zionist path was not the one followed. The actual path chosen by Israel has been pretty much that of "the iron wall," a phrase put forward by Ze'ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s as the appropriate posture for Zionists to adopt towards Arabs in Palestine.
Charles de Gaulle, up until the Six Day War, demonstrated great understanding and support for Israel. This thoughtful and highly individualistic statesman felt an instinctive sympathy for the struggle of the Jews, but the Six Day War caused him to alter France's policies towards the Jewish state.
The Six Day War was a much darker and more complex affair than it is portrayed in official Israeli myths. The war was not simply an attack by a gang of Arab states against Israel - a description which suggests not just Goliath, but the entire tribe of Philistines, attacking little David with his slingshot. While this is an appealing image, naturally arousing great sympathy in American Puritans raised on the Old Testament, it is not an accurate one. A fine Jewish scholar like Avi Shlaim, a specialist in the first half century of Israeli policy, recognizing that not all important documents bearing on the matter have been released, agrees there are doubts and ambiguities here rather than light and darkness.
Before the Six Day War, David Ben Gurion made it clear to de Gaulle and other western leaders that Israel wanted more land to absorb migrants. Before the war, Israel also high-handedly diverted water from the Jordan river, a hostile act in a water-short region and the kind of thing that caused more than one "range war" in America's Southwest.
A very tense situation arose with a surge in Soviet armaments to Arab states, although any knowledgeable observer understood that Israel continued to hold the upper hand in any potential conflict. A major diplomatic mission was undertaken by Abba Eban to gather support for Israel's intended violent response to Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Just as we now have Bush's obdurate, hasty demand for war with Iraq, Eban made it clear that Israel had no stomach for diplomacy to end the blockade. The blockade meant war.
De Gaulle made a remarkably prescient observation to the Israeli government: "If Israel is attacked, we shall not let her be destroyed, but if you attack, we shall condemn your initiative. Of course, I have no doubt that you will have military successes in the event of war, but afterwards, you would find yourself committed on the terrain, and from the international point of view, in increasing difficulties, especially as war in the East cannot fail to increase a deplorable tension in the world, so that it will be you, having become the conquerors, who will gradually be blamed for the inconveniences."
De Gaulle also understood that Israel's behavior was nourishing nationalistic aspirations on the part of the Palestinians, a development Israel either greatly underestimated or chose to ignore, perhaps reflecting the arrogance of those supported by great power towards those without power. De Gaulle's advice was, of course, ignored. Israel managed easily to overwhelm the Arab states, as its leaders had known it would, and it has occupied a good portion of the territories seized ever since. It has ignored many quiet diplomatic voices on this matter. It has stood in contempt of UN resolutions for years. It has suffered innumerable guerilla attacks and launched innumerable reprisals, even starting a bloody war in Lebanon complete with atrocities. Israel finally came to toy with the notion of a Palestinian state but never made the genuine effort or concessions necessary to see this become a reality. It has, in short, fulfilled de Gaulle's warning of trouble more than thirty years ago.
The 9/11 attack on America, coming under the administration of perhaps the most aimless, blundering, and least informed president in American history, was a godsend for Israel's belligerent policy. The people Israel has occupied and mistreated for a third of a century are regarded by this American president as something akin to al Qaeda. We have even had trial balloons released by Republican figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Armey concerning Israel's right to hold the land and drive out its people, although it is possible these represent pre-assault softening-up by Washington to make Palestinians grateful for a second pathetic offer of statehood now in the works, pathetic because it is impossible to imagine anything else being blessed by both Bush and Sharon.
Perhaps most revealing of the moral state to which Israel has been reduced since the Six Day War were preparations for Mr. Bush's war on Iraq. All Israeli citizens were issued gas masks. A debate and legal moves centered around whether foreign workers, of which there are large numbers, should also receive gas masks. If they wanted gas masks, they must rent or buy them, and the masks available for rental were those considered as expired and unsuitable for Israelis. In families of mixed marriages, apparently spouses who remain unregistered under Israel's now more restrictive registration requirements, do not receive gas masks. Most Palestinians under Israeli occupation are not issued gas masks, it being considered the responsibility of the broken Palestinian Authority, almost without resources, to look after this.
There is something especially repugnant in establishing a hierarchy of people whose safety should be the responsibility of the state, and the various adjustments made to this hierarchy in the face of criticism hardly reflect humane policies.
In recent months, not a week passes in which Israel's army does not kill fifteen or twenty Palestinians. Often, this many are killed in a day or two. These killings are generally reported as the deaths of "militants," although we have no way of determining the legitimacy of that term. We do know that quite a number of people who cannot possibly be characterized as militants, including women and children and peaceful foreign observers, have been killed by Israeli soldiers. Of course, even those who might justifiably be called militants are in their view only putting up a pathetic defense of their homes against Merkava tanks and Apache helicopters.
The assassination of suspected terrorists is now an accepted, ordinary event in Palestine, and Mr. Bush has granted Israel the right to extend this violence to America territory. Mr. Sharon's secret services have conducted scores of assassinations. Perhaps assassination is the wrong word since it is generally used to describe the killing of a high-level political opponent. Mr. Sharon's bloody work is precisely that of a police force murdering, instead of arresting, criminal suspects by the score.
At this writing, as America bombs and burns its way through Iraq, Israel has again rolled out its bulldozers and tanks into Gaza - killing, wrecking, and making many improper arrests. Most horrifying is what Israel is doing to Bedouin farmers in the Negev desert. Israel has used crop dusters spraying poisonous chemicals to destroy the Bedouin crops. The charge is that they are illegal squatters - a remarkable accusation coming from those who still hold lands seized in 1967 and regularly build new settlements on them for brand-new, heavily-armed immigrants.
Defenders of Israel's excesses in the United States have been driven to advocate policies as chilling as creating a legal framework for torturing terrorist suspects in the United States and Israel's undertaking the cold-blooded reprisal killing of the families of desperate suicide bombers. These are powerful measures of the corrupting long-term effects of the Six Day War and Israel's determination to retain control over much or all of the seized land.
Regrettably, Einstein appears to have been right about what Israel had the potential for becoming. No person of principle can support Israel's present policies, and I believe there is little doubt that would include Einstein had he lived. Perhaps it is just as well he did not.