An ardent British supporter of Israel leaves the country convinced the occupation is destroying the Jewish soulby Melanie Phillips / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the new order of war, the kind that is now raging in Israel, there are many different front lines. There are the heavily guarded El Al airline check-in desks at airports around the world. There are the Israeli cafés and buses targeted by human bombs. And at the crossing point from Israel into Gaza there is the Erez military camp, under constant attack from mortars or sniper fire. Gaza is the bunker of the middle east. Large quantities of arms are smuggled through the town of Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt, along a warren of tunnels. The tunnels are well developed, some equipped with electricity. Mortars, guns and explosives regularly come through; the Israelis say it is a matter of time before bigger armaments follow. The Israeli army is desperate to locate and destroy these tunnels. But most of them remain invisible. And because they are dug beneath Arab houses, the Israelis sometimes destroy these houses. They insist they only do so if suspected terrorists are based there. They also claim this is legal under the Geneva convention, which says that a private house used for terrorism is no longer immune from attack. But some Arabs, as the Israelis admit, have been intimidated into allowing tunnels to be dug beneath their homes. “In the past,” said an Israeli military strategist, “we fought in open spaces between military forces. In the new type of war, we have to fight in densely populated urban areas against an enemy that’s invisible, that wears civilian clothes and builds its explosives laboratories inside people’s houses.” This poses an obvious dilemma. How can one fight such an enemy, which uses civilians as cover, without hitting those civilians? “Our rules of engagement are not to hit innocent civilians,” said the strategist. “Throughout our operations we take the utmost precautions to make sure we don’t hit them. If we know we will hit them, we don’t do it. Hamas knows this and takes advantage of it. For them, the main target is civilians. They put their arms warehouses in the middle of densely populated towns.” One of the peculiar features about Israel – one I noticed again and again – is that even in the eye of the hurricane, everyone seems to fasten desperately onto any evidence of peace and reconciliation. Yossi, commander of the Erez camp, pointed to the industry park adjoining the camp where Israelis and Arabs from Gaza work side by side. “Whatever happens,” he said, “even when we close off access from Gaza, this industrial park stays open; we never stop these Palestinians from coming here to work.” This is how it could be, he was saying, co-operation between Jews and Arabs – a dream that must be kept alive, no matter what. But I kept thinking about those tunnels. After all, the arms are being smuggled from Egypt, which despite being one of the only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel still pumps out hatred of the Jews. The wells of hatred within Gaza appear inexhaustible. And far from being an “occupied territory,” it is demonstrably not occupied in any real sense. The Israelis merely defend their border and the few Jewish settlements within Gaza (whose existence many Israelis themselves find insupportable), and undertake sporadic raids. But in Gaza itself, Hamas rules because no one else – not Israel, not the Palestinian Authority (PA), not Egypt, which ran Gaza until 1967 – wants to confront it. A few hours after I left Erez, three soldiers guarding the Jewish settlement of Netzarim inside Gaza were killed by Arabs who got into the base. Earlier that afternoon, an elderly Arab spotted moving towards the settlement of Elei Sinai, near Erez, was shot dead by the Israelis. The soldiers later acknowledged he was known to them as a harmless character. Another dreadful mistake. It will have chipped yet another bit off Israel’s fracturing belief in itself, surely the single most lethal chink in its armour. And of course it will have increased still further the misery and bitterness among the Palestinians. The Israelis say they are aware that their actions may be recruiting yet more young Palestinians into terrorism. But the political and military top brass seem to believe that these actions will nevertheless force the Palestinians to bring terror to an end. “Of course we are concerned about the effects of our strategy,” said the military analyst. “It’s a complex game, with no free lunches. We have to weigh the benefits against the damage done. This will take a long time. We have to change their philosophy.” I was in Israel at the invitation of its government to talk about attitudes in Britain to the middle east crisis. This gave me the chance to talk to a number of ministers and officials in the Likud-led coalition. I was there at an extraordinary turning point. Soon after I left, Ariel Sharon said that if in a few months’ time the Palestinians still hadn’t disarmed their terror infrastructure, Israel would take unilateral steps to disengage from the disputed territories. The Palestinians would be given the land, or some of it, but without a formal agreement on a state. Some settlements would be removed; other land would be consolidated into Israel. It is not yet exactly clear what is proposed, but the idea of disengagement has already caused uproar in Sharon’s party. He appears to be saying that, for the time being, most of the unilateral action he proposes would take the form of moving Israel’s ostensible border further into Palestinian areas. If so, this amounts to little more than a new twist in the strategy that I heard repeatedly from officials: of battening down the hatches until the Palestinians halt terrorism. Indeed, I was struck by the almost complacent optimism among the officials, arising from what is surely a profound confusion of force with strength. “All that has to happen,” said a senior Likud official, “is for Israel to show it is stronger and that terror will never win. The old view was that the Palestinians would continue terrorism until they were politically satisfied. But Oslo and Camp David were political efforts, and they failed. Now we and the US have reversed this view. When the Palestinians create a political entity that is not contaminated with terrorism, Israel can negotiate a solution. First, the Palestinians have to build a civic society. The way to achieve this is to explain to them that as long as they don’t do this, nothing happens. Arafat is the symbol of the opposite approach.” Such Likudniks seem to believe that there are Palestinians who, if only Arafat were to disappear from the scene, would be willing to make peace. “We are not confident that the people after Arafat will be different,” said the official. “But we’ve had hundreds of hours of conversation with many Palestinians… There is a clear understanding that a society that uses terrorism will lose.” Or as the military analyst put it: “They don’t think the Jewish state has a right to exist, but many think it is here to stay.” This view appeared to line up the hardline Likudniks alongside Israel’s peacenik left in a kind of mirror act. The peaceniks believe there are Palestinians prepared to make peace with Israel if only Israel would negotiate with them. The Likudniks believe there are Palestinians prepared to make peace with Israel if only the Palestinians stopped the terror. But since the Likud won’t negotiate unless the terror stops, what is its strategy? “The endgame,” said the official, “is to create two independent states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.” But what would this Palestinian state look like? Would Likud, with its ideological commitment to “greater” Israel, ever give away Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank? The official spread his hands dismissively. “Likud, Labour, all these political labels are now completely irrelevant,” he said. “If peace was really on offer, mainstream Israeli opinion would force any government to make very serious concessions.” The suggestion that the Likud is really committed to a two-state solution, however, makes Israeli leftists choke. For its only strategy – at least prior to Sharon’s new unilateralism – has been holding the line, and teaching the Palestinians that terror doesn’t pay. Everything it does is based on this profound conviction that to show any bending in the face of terror only invites more terror. Was that not the lesson of the withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985? It is that iron conviction which lies behind the controversial decision to route the separation fence over the Green line and inside the West Bank. This has led critics to claim that the Israelis are using the fence to grab more Palestinian land. The Israelis reply that the fence marks no permanent boundary. They also say that the main reason why they have sited it over the Green line is to teach the Palestinians a lesson – that the fence, which has been made necessary by Palestinian terror, is not going to mark out the 1967 boundaries. Instead they are going to have to negotiate the borders of their state, and thus understand that terror does not pay. But there is no sign that this lesson is being understood at all. On the contrary, even Israel’s friends are exasperated by the apparently needless provocation of the fence’s route. Once again, the Israelis have taken a legitimate defensive position and turned it into a diplomatic defeat. Yet one cabinet minister told me the fence would solve the problem of terrorism – just like that. But wouldn’t it turn the West Bank into a seething mass of hatred similar to Gaza? “So what?” he said. “No suicide bombers have come out of Gaza because it’s already got a fence around it.” But the West Bank is more porous than Gaza, making it easier to break through such a barrier. There are also many more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, with opportunities for terrorists to get through the fence around them, provoking more running battles, more deaths on both sides and more terrible, soul-destroying mistakes by the Israelis. “The Jews are an eternal people,” said the military analyst. “In 20 years, or whatever it takes, Arafat will have gone. Waiting 20 years is no great time in our history. We are strong enough to go through this.” This is a stalemate, not a strategy; a display of Israeli force which is wholly defensive and reactive. It is not stopping the attacks. More poignantly, for the Jews – for whom Israel is supposed to be the repudiation of the ghetto – to resort to fencing others in is a symbol not of victory but of despair and exhaustion. The great question, to which no one can give an answer, is whether the majority of Palestinians really do want a two-state solution, or whether they still want to destroy the Jewish state and claim all of it for their own. Opinion pollsters often report that they want two states. Other polls, though, report majority views in favour of continuing the violence even if the Israelis withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza, and strong support for the right of all Palestinians to settle in Israel, which would destroy the Jewish state. So who are the pragmatic Palestinians with whom Likudniks could negotiate if only Arafat were gone? One such, they think, is Mohammed Dahlan, former head of security under Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister who resigned after losing power to Arafat. I spoke to Dahlan’s former aide, Elias Zanieri. He told me: “There’s been a tremendous change in the Arab and Palestinian world, which is ready to recognise Israel as a Jewish state within the 1967 borders.” Did he mean the Palestinians would recognise a specifically Jewish state? He slid away from a direct answer. “What kind of Israel is for the Israelis to decide,” he said. “No one is talking about removing Israel from the map.” But it isn’t even on the map in Palestinian schoolbooks, I said; your children are taught that it doesn’t exist. That, he said, is because the conflict is not yet over. Most Palestinians, said Zanieri, are not interested in dialogue because of the way the Israelis humiliate them and cause them great hardship at the checkpoints. But the only reason the checkpoints are there at all, I said, is because of Palestinian terrorism which the PA has done nothing to stop. That, he said, is partly because as long as there is no political settlement on the horizon, the PA fears the bulk of the population would side with the extremists and there would be a Palestinian civil war. If a political settlement were visible, it would be easier for the PA to crack down. But, I said, Camp David was a political settlement that was not just on the horizon but actually on offer – and yet that led directly to the current Palestinian terror campaign. Not so, he said; the violence has taken place because the Palestinians never got what they were promised: for example, the release of their relatives from prison. But why should they be released, I said, when they are murderers? After all, it’s Palestinian terror which produces the Israeli response. If the terror were to stop, does anyone doubt that Israel would bring its military activity to a halt and that Israeli public opinion would demand the Palestinians be allowed to have their state? And now we got down to the heart of Zanieri’s argument. For to him – and, he said, this certainly goes for the Palestinian street too – Israel is the aggressor because it exists. “Israel was the aggressor because Israel was formed in 1948,” he said. “The Palestinians think that the start of the Zionist aggression was the start of Jewish immigration in the 19th century. Israel started the war in 1967. That occupation is the source of the violence. What is violence? Two warring sides have their own terminology. For so many Palestinians, terror is occupation itself.” If a moderate is someone who believes that a political settlement agreed by the world is akin to physical violence and who thinks that Jewish immigration into a land inhabited by Jews continuously since Biblical times was an act of aggression – and that this legitimises terrorism – what hope is there? Yet the Israeli left – despite the collapse of the Camp David proposals – persists in believing that a negotiated compromise is there for the taking. Accordingly, a group of Israeli and Palestinian politicians recently unveiled the “Geneva accords,” which, they claim, outline an agreed two-state solution. These proposals created fury on both Israeli and Palestinian sides. They have also provoked as much anger from former prime minister Ehud Barak, who negotiated the Camp David accord, as from the Likudniks who regard the initiative as treasonable. One prominent peacenik said the Israelis behind these proposals have been guilty of culpable naivete which has imperilled the state. “They were not aware of the risk they took in indenturing future negotiations,” he said. “This was not just a private initiative in the eyes of the Arabs. It is thought as good as the Clinton proposals. And if the international community endorses it and establishes it as a point of reference, it will be very hard to arrive at any other position. But on each of the core issues, the Geneva proposals have lost us ground.” And despite claims to the contrary, he said that the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees has not been waived. On the contrary, he said, that although Israel would control the flow of refugees the accord is based on UN security council resolution 194, which speaks about repatriating all “refugees.” Israel appears to be caught in a deadly trap. It tried negotiations; these led to violence. It tried armed self-defence; this has not stopped the violence. It has retreated from Palestinian cities; this has increased the violence. Some Likudniks don’t accept they are trapped. The line, at least until Sharon’s recent talk of disengagement, is that they are on course for victory. “We are winning, because the Palestinians are a bunch of losers,” said an official. This was not only unpleasant, but surely wrong. The prime goal of terrorism is to demoralise its victims, while provoking such an over-reaction from them that the terrorist becomes seen as the victim and wider opinion is recruited to the cause. This is exactly what has happened in Israel. Opinion in Britain and Europe is now firmly behind the Palestinians. The Israelis are seen as racist oppressors. It is only a matter of time before this characterisation finds wide purchase in America, too, beyond the universities where it is already making steady inroads. And despite such vilification, Israel will not use its strength to crush the war being waged against it. Instead, Israel picks its way from house to house to kill or arrest terrorists while trying to avoid innocent civilians, despite thereby incurring far greater casualties. It is thus fighting with one hand tied behind its back. This, surely, is the real and terrible import of “asymmetric warfare,” the new order of war. For in a contest between people for whom life means everything and people for whom life means nothing, there is no contest. The death cult has the whip hand. Yet Israel’s trap is even more hideous than this. For at the same time, there is no doubt that it has been brutalised by the experience of occupation. There are too many stories of trigger-happy soldiers, or of the humiliations and suffering caused to Palestinians corralled behind fences or at checkpoints. Yes, of course, it is only to be expected that if soldiers have good cause to fear that even the most innocent-looking civilians might turn out to be human bombs, they may behave in a rough or even brutal manner. But whatever the justification or excuse, causing suffering to others has a powerfully corrosive effect on Jewish self-belief. So blowing up Palestinian houses, or preventing sick Arabs from passing through the roadblocks because of a security alert – these things act as an acid eating away at Israeli self-respect. A state of permanent war, in other words, can eventually do what centuries of persecution have failed to do – destroy the Jewish soul. There are those in Israel who see the trap the country is in. Last October, the Israel defence forces chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, said the roadblocks were increasing support for Hamas. In November, four former heads of the Shin Bet security service warned Israel was facing a catastrophe if a peace deal wasn’t reached. “If nothing happens and we go on living by the sword, we will destroy ourselves,” said ex-security head Ya’akov Perry. The government reacted with fury to these high-ranking critics and accused them of naivete. But it seems that these strictures, along with the despised Geneva initiative, have nevertheless helped to jolt Sharon and his senior advisers into realising that stasis is not a strategy and that they have to be seen to be taking the initiative, however cloudy this may be. Even prior to the most recent about face on disengagement, some of the government’s actions have betrayed a deep confusion. Last November, it ratified a prisoner “exchange” – 420 prisoners to be handed over to Hizbullah in exchange for the bodies of three dead soldiers and one live civilian. How could a government which makes such a fetish of never treating with terror agree to such a deal? The fact is, though, that since 1994, Israel has released thousands of prisoners in exchange for a handful of Israelis. The reason is the profound Israeli commitment to never abandoning its own. But it has thus almost certainly connived at the killing of more of its people by the men it released. Even worse, it has signalled its own weakness, thus encouraging the Arab strategy of using terror to win concessions. In other words, the Likud government has been like a punch-drunk boxer, stumbling blindly round the ring. Has sharon now realised that waiting indefinitely for an Arab miracle is destroying Israeli morale? The ambiguity of his remarks about unilateral disengagement has thrown the debate into confusion. From Sharon’s own Likudniks, there have been howls of anger that dismantling settlements would be a sign of weakness – the cardinal sin. From some on the left, there has been cynicism that this is merely a ploy that will amount to nothing. From the Palestinians, there have been simultaneous claims that this is a plot to steal yet more of their land and that Israel is losing its nerve. Yet others, on Israel’s left and right, argue that this is not just a new twist in the “battening down the hatches” strategy. They say that for Sharon to talk about dismantling any settlements and about disengaging from any part of the disputed territories represents a big shift. If indeed he has shifted, one reason is undoubtedly the demographic fact that has become central to public debate in the past few months: if Israel continues to hold the territories, within a few years there will be more Arabs than Jews between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. No matter that most of those Palestinians will be outside Israel’s borders; if Israel continues to rule Arabs who outnumber Jews, the momentum for one person, one vote will become unstoppable. If Israel granted it, it would be the end of the Jewish state. If it did not, it would not only become a true pariah in the world but would cause a devastating implosion within the collective Jewish conscience. Gilead Sher was a senior member of Barak’s negotiating team at Camp David. It is this looming demographic nightmare, along with the moral crisis caused by the occupation, which makes him argue that Israel should now unilaterally withdraw. And he revealed that in June 2000, when Barak began to anticipate that Arafat would walk away from any deal, the Israeli government set up 14 secret committees to work on the complex business of withdrawal from everything but three blocks of settlements. “Governing another people is bad for us in every way,” said Sher. “The question is, can we heal ourselves in a way that will preserve the Jewish nation for years to come? If we just withdrew, we would then be a country seeking to protect itself with the vast support of the international community. “You have to ask, what are the alternatives? To stay in the territories for ever? The Palestinians want this as it will mean a demographic wipeout of the Jews. Making a negotiated peace? But a reliable partner for peace is still entirely theoretical.” In the eyes of many in Britain and Europe, Israel’s attachment to the territories is ideological. But there is a more potent reason than ideology for its reluctance to withdraw. It is fear. It believes that to withdraw would leave it strategically exposed (particularly at Israel’s original nine-mile wide waist), and would announce weakness in the face of terror. Sher’s reply to this is that withdrawal should be accompanied by a commitment from the Americans to take responsibility for guaranteeing security in the territories. Would this not be a reasonable price for the Americans to pay to guarantee the peace? Much of Sher’s argument has been adopted by a most unlikely bedfellow. Ehud Olmert, deputy prime minister and erstwhile superhawk, has also got the demographic point. He has gone further than Sharon in saying that Israel should now withdraw from most of the territories and all but a few settlement blocs to protect the democratic, Jewish nature of Israel. This has caused consternation in the Israeli right. The other element in this shifting equation is the widespread belief in Israel that pax Americana will solve the middle east impasse. To the military analyst, Iraq is the key. “A Palestinian state won’t stop the jihad,” he said. “But if Iraq becomes a democracy, Syria will come under similar pressure. This is about self-determination for the middle east.” Israel is trapped between the most treacherous of rocks and the hardest of hard places. But Sher and Olmert are surely right. Given that every strategy has a lethal downside, the question is: what is the worst thing Israel has to fear? Is it war? It has fought and won wars. Is it terror? It is suffering terror now, and for the foreseeable future. What is surely worst of all is to lose its belief in itself and destroy its soul. It is not that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are illegal. Under international law, land seized as a consequence of self-defence in war is legitimately held while the enemy refuses to make peace. But legality is not the point. The bottom line is existential vulnerability. If Israel hangs onto the territories, the Jews will be outnumbered. It cannot and should not rule another people. It cannot wait for 20 years for negotiations to begin. It should unilaterally give up the territories. The fear that giving them up would hand a victory to terror is a very real one. But it is possible to turn this argument on its head. For withdrawal effectively forces a state on the Palestinians. It therefore does not give terrorists victory if their goal is not a Palestinian state at all but the destruction of Israel. It is rather to frustrate their goals, call their bluff and so defeat them. Victory for terror can therefore only be imposed by people who believe the destruction of Israel to be the real agenda of the Palestinians. Those who believe their goal really is a two-state solution would be giving in to terror if they brought it about at bomb-point. Ironically, therefore, it is only Likud that can unilaterally withdraw without paying this moral price. Are they capable of realising it?