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Armageddon in the Middle East?

Jeremy Salt The roots of the current middle-east conflict were laid long before Israel was founded. The last, best hope for a just peace is that the Israeli people will come to terms with the problematic history of Zionism.

In the form of suicide bombers striking in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Netanya, the chickens are coming home to roost with blood-drenched wings. There are echoes here of the barrel bombs the Zionists rolled into Arab markets in the 1940s, or the bombing of the King David Hotel. In blood and fire was the state born, in blood and fire has it lived, and in blood and fire is it still gripped. The state is now in the hands of extremists and there is apparently no-one willing or able to restrain them; neither the European Union nor the United Nations nor the United States. The US and the EU had the capacity to stop the onslaught on the West Bank within twenty-four hours by using their diplomatic, aid and trade leverage, but, with tanks rolling into every town on the West Bank, they did nothing. The visit to Israel by Dick Cheney just before Sharon launched Operation Protective Wall, plus American war plans for the region, point to the complicity of the United States. Sharon would not have proceeded without Washington’s tacit support, in the same way that he did not go ahead in Lebanon in 1982 until Washington had flashed the green light. It is possible, if not likely, that the US sanctioned the final dismemberment of the Palestinian Authority because it wants to attack Iraq. One move from that direction in the defence of the Palestinians and it would have the pretext which so far it has not been able to find. Alternatively, the US may be planning to use Israel as its wartime partner for an attack on Iraq. The agreements signed between the two countries since the 1970s give the US access to logistical and base support in Israel that it doesn’t have in Turkey or the rest of the Arab world. This goes against the logic of the Gulf War when it was necessary to keep Israel at arm’s length to hold together the Arab members of the coalition against Iraq. But there is no coalition now, and in Sharon the US has just the man it needs for the job at hand. Hence, perhaps, the licence he has been given to deal with the Palestinians as he sees fit.

While Dick Cheney was still in the Middle East recently, Arab heads of state and foreign ministers were meeting in Beirut to discuss the Saudi peace ‘initiative’. This contained nothing that had not been said, sought or demanded over the past three decades; but was interesting because it came from the Saudis whose last high-profile peace initiative (the Fahd plan) was put forward while the Israelis were attacking Lebanon in 1982. As was the case then, the Saudis now feel directly threatened by the tempest beginning to blow up over Palestine. The Beirut Arab summit was typically acrimonious. It was characterised by non-attendances, boycotts and walkouts, but at the end all those present endorsed the Saudi plan. It offered Israel recognition and normalisation in return for the withdrawal from all territory seized in the 1967 war and acknowledgement of the Palestinian right of return. This is not the same as demanding that all Palestinians be allowed to return to their homeland, but recognising the right would at least be a starting point for negotiations.

The very next day the Arabs had Sharon’s answer — a column of tanks and troop carriers rolling into Ramallah where they broke through the walls of Arafat’s presidential compound. Loudhailers were used to summon all males between fourteen and fifty to the nearest mosque or school for interrogation and whatever else might follow. The victims of the soldiers roaming through the streets included men, women and children and Palestinian policemen who in no way can be said to be part of Sharon’s ‘terrorist infrastructure’, but then neither were the civilians massacred at Sabra and Shatila in the name of hunting down terrorists. In Arafat’s compound the bodies of five men were seen strewn in one room. They had been executed with a single bullet to the head, according to the Palestinians. The morgues in Palestinian towns across the West Bank filled with bodies. Others could not be retrieved because of the fighting and the wounded could not be taken to hospital because the Israelis blocked the passage of ambulances. Arafat remained alive but Colin Powell had to ask Sharon not to kill him. That Sharon would prefer him dead he himself had made clear, and with fighting going on in the next room it remained possible that the Palestinian leader would be killed accidentally or while ‘resisting arrest’. Sharon’s offer of a one-way ticket into exile was contemptuously rejected. Having dealt with Ramallah first, hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers were sent into other cities. In Bethlehem hundreds of people sheltered in churches — not just suspected ‘militants’, but terrified men, women and children. The destruction of the Palestinian Authority, the suppression of the people and the reoccupation of the land, all of which Sharon had been working on since he became Prime Minister, was soon well underway. When the Security Council called on Israel to withdraw it simply broadened its operation. George Bush criticised the Israelis, but said he understood why they were doing what they had to do. In other words Israel was free to stay in the territories as long as it liked.

In all of this there is more than a whiff of the 1930s. A more ominous parallel for Israel is Algeria, liberated from the French forty years ago this year. Against French military might the Algerians fought tooth and nail. Terrible reprisals were taken against French civilians. Like the Algerians the Palestinians are now using every weapon to defend themselves and strike back at settlers and the civilian population of the country whose government is responsible for the killing of their civilians. It was the suicide bomber vs the tank, the sniper and the Apache helicopter. Sharon’s attempt to humiliate Arafat backfired immediately. Under the Israeli onslaught his people rallied behind him as never before.

In Arab eyes this was vintage Israel. The ‘Palestinian problem’ is still with us and here again was Israel trying to solve it in the time honoured fashion. It is long past time to stop calling it the ‘Palestinian problem’. There was no problem until the British came along and created it, and since 1948 the central problem in the Middle East has been Israel’s refusal to comply with international law. There is not one war between itself and the Arabs that it has not started directly or indirectly. The ‘declaration of independence’ of 1948 was the uprising of a settler minority against the indigenous land-owning majority. In 1956 it was the ‘tripartite conspiracy’ with Britain and France against Egypt. In 1967 it was the attack on Egypt and Syria. It was sold to the world as a ‘pre-emptive strike’, but in fact was a war of aggression planned by Moshe Dayan with the intention of bringing down Nasser, destroying Arab military capacity and acquiring more land. In 1973 it was Israel’s refusal to withdraw from occupied Sinai that brought on the October War. In 1978 it was the invasion of Lebanon and in 1982 an even bigger attack on Lebanon. In between these events there have been assassinations and military strikes resulting in the deaths of large numbers of civilians. No attempt has ever been to punish Israel for its violent behavior. As a result the problem has simply worsened year by year and decade by decade. Is it any wonder that Sharon thinks he can get away with murder again?

Yet since the 1970s Israel could have had peace simply by holding out its hand and agreeing to comply with a minimalist interpretation of international law. The Arabs never wanted Israel amongst them, but since the 1970s at the latest they had resigned themselves to its existence. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties and have stuck to them ever since, despite the most egregious Israeli provocations in Lebanon and elsewhere. It was the Palestinians and not Israel or the United States who began working towards a two-state solution nearly thirty years ago. In the early 1990s they and the Israelis finally entered into a formal peace process which ended up in the junkyard of lost opportunities because Israel used it to demand even more from the Palestinians than they had already conceded. Behind the rhetoric of peace every Israeli prime minister maintained the tempo of land expropriation and settlement expansion. Ehud Barak was as bad as any of them. There was no withdrawal, but redeployment, with Israeli tanks and troops surrounding the Palestinians in their autonomous scraps of territory. There were not fewer settlers after the ‘peace process’ began but more. The ‘core issues’ were all put off until Barak needed something to take to the people ahead of prime ministerial elections in 2000 that he seemed bound to lose. The argument that he and Arafat were an inch away from a settlement during talks brokered by Bill Clinton at Camp David is a complete self-serving delusion. They were nowhere near the finishing line. If the talks had not broken down over Jerusalem they would have broken down over Israel’s refusal to take legal and moral responsibility for the plight of the refugees. They were certainly going to break down. Yet the line that ‘we made a generous offer which those ingrates refused’ has been transformed into another weapon in the armory of the Israeli propagandist.

Through this period the Israeli peace movement refused to draw the logical conclusions from the facts being created on the ground before also grasping at the generous offer-ungrateful response interpretation. The peace process was being rorted because no Israeli government was prepared to concede what was necessary for peace — a halt to settlement activity and a commitment to full withdrawal from the occupied territories that would have still left Israel with 78 per cent of Palestine. Abba Eban, the Israeli Foreign Minister of the 1960s and 1970s, was fond of saying that the Palestinians never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity. It is a line that is still used against the Palestinians; but in reality it was Israel that squandered all the opportunities placed before it. Now it is the Saudi peace initiative that has been contemptuously tossed aside in favor of a crushing assault on the Palestinians which will break the people and enable Israel to remain in possession of the bulk if not all of the West Bank. To many Israelis reoccupation makes no sense. To Sharon and the settlers it does. Retention of the land is the real point of this fresh stage of the historical, territorial and ideological war waged against the Palestinians for the last century.

 

It was under the slogan of ‘a land without people for a people without land’ that Zionism first took root. It was no more true than it was true that Palestine was a desert which the Zionists made bloom. Large parts of it were very fertile. The oranges of Jaffa were famous around the world. Palestinian barley went into the making of Scotch whiskey. Wheat fields stretched along the coastal littoral as far south as Gaza. The peasant population had no intention of moving off the land and for the most part the owners had no intention of selling it. By the 1940s the Zionist colonial agencies had been able to acquire by legal purchase no more than 6 or 7 per cent. Clearly the land could only be acquired by taking it. The people were another problem. The idea of ‘transfer’ was there from the start. What would be necessary to establish a Jewish state in a land that was not Jewish was rarely talked about openly, but some did not mince words. Vladimir Jabotinsky was one of them. The founding figure of ‘revisionist’ Zionism, which still holds that the Land of Israel falls on both sides of the River Jordan, Jabotinsky wrote of the need to set up an ‘iron wall’ between the Zionist settlers and the Palestinians. He knew that they would never agree to the implantation of a Jewish state on their land. It would have to be created over their heads. Asher Ginsburg — writing under the pen name of Ahad Ha’am — was someone else who was free of delusions but reached different conclusions. Early in the twentieth century he travelled to Palestine and saw for himself that the land was already occupied. For him the road taken by the Zionists was leading not to an iron wall but a grievous injustice. Others talked of a bi-national state; but Zionism was all about a Jewish state and that was not a project for the squeamish.

With the help of the British and the Americans the state came into existence. The Palestinians fled or were expelled. There was no need for a central order. The Zionist leadership did not want them there and many commanders in the field accurately picked up the signals. Having driven out the Palestinians in a bout of what would now be called ethnic cleansing, and having acquired three quarters of Palestine by 1949, David Ben Gurion — Israel’s first prime minister — waited for the opportunity to take the rest. That came in 1967. From the moment of its creation Israel lived under the necessity of obliterating the Palestinians as a military and historical presence. Their rights could not be acknowledged or redressed. Yet they had not disappeared. They were living over the borders of neighboring countries (where Theodor Herzl wanted them to be) and because Palestine was an Arab cause, war had to follow war. The Palestinians were the living reminder of a sin that could not be admitted.

Thus the Israelis are stuck in a trap of their own making. Unable to let go and release themselves as well as the Palestinians they have continued on a path which can only raise questions about Israel’s capacity to survive in the Middle East. It has made itself intolerable by the violence of its actions over the past five decades. These have largely been smothered by the Western media, but the facts are all there for anyone who wants to take a close look at the record. The current brutal campaign against the Palestinians, borne of a wave of terrorism provoked by Ariel Sharon so that he would have the pretext to do what he is now doing, reads only like the latest instalment. Even Jewish writers acknowledge that Israel has become an engine of death and destruction in the Middle East. Not a year has passed without Israel giving free rein to its aggressive impulses. It has humiliated the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza for the past thirty-five years. It was not until the intifada of 1987 that they finally rose up against occupation. Few weapons were used. This was an uprising of young men — the shabab — throwing stones at heavily armed troops and tanks, but many of them were killed nevertheless. In the early 1990s Palestinians welcomed the onset of the ‘peace process’. Most of them accepted Arafat’s word that it would result in the end of the Israeli presence in the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. He was wrong; and with 1500 people being killed in the territories since the beginning of the Aqsa intifada two years ago the Palestinians have finally reached a point of nihilistic desperation. The suicide bombings are shocking, but they cannot be separated from more than three decades of occupation and the murderous policies pursued by the state at the direction of Ariel Sharon. He has deliberately set out to provoke violence in the territories. He has killed and assassinated even in times of quiet. He has done this knowing that suicide bombings would follow. Yet even now it is the Palestinians who are being singled out for blame. The delusion now being fed into the American media by Thomas Friedman and others is that the suicide bombers are a threat to civilisation and that they are acting not out of desperation but strategic choice. Well, perhaps it is a strategic choice borne out of desperation. The ancillary delusion is our superior morality and purity of arms versus their barbarism. Against the facts, again, this is nonsense — another delusion. To advance such arguments is to advance the notion that Palestinians are outside the pale of humanity. This is a line admirably suited to an American administration (at least the Rumsfeld/Cheney/Wolfowitz clique within it ) that seems bent on going to war.

The climate across the Arab world has plunged back four decades. Having watched the battering of Lebanon and the killing of young stone-throwers in the intifada of the 1980s the people of the Arab world are now seeing a fresh cycle of brutal images being transmitted from Palestine by Al Jazeera television station twenty-four hours a day. There is fury with Israel. There have been massive demonstrations in every capital and demands for action of some sort — a severance of relations with both Israel and the United States — and it is surely only a matter of time before their demands have to be met unless Arab governments are themselves to fall.

Israel’s long-term capacity to survive in the Middle East has never been more in doubt. Its government is in the hands of extremists. They may yet set off the war that Israel cannot win. It is now up to Israelis and Jews in the diaspora who are horrified by what is going on to take collective action. Some of them are already doing just this. They need full support. If they cannot launch a revolt that deflects Israel from the path Sharon has chosen and puts the country on a path that leads unambiguously to peace, another deadly collision between Israel and the Arabs seems inevitable. The chance is still there. The Arab states do not want war. Israel’s military might alarms them. They are not ready yet to embrace Israel. They are still ready to accept it but time is running out.

04.04.02

Jeremy Salt is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University, Ankara.

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