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TruthDig: Milton Viorst on Israel’s Tragic Predicament

 In opening his stunning memoir, “Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine,” David Shulman declares: “I am an Israeli. I live in Jerusalem. I have a story, not yet finished, to tell.” It is a very sad story, of a society gone astray with power, and of decent Israelis in despair over the failure of their efforts to save it from itself. The story, as Shulman says, is not yet over, but he asks whether its end is not already determined. Is tragedy inevitable?  Can Israel right its course to achieve its once glowing promise as a refuge and as a nation?

Shulman’s memoir is not unique in raising these questions. Two recent books share his foreboding: “Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007,” a careful work of scholarship by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, and “Toward an Open Tomb: The Crisis of Israeli Society,” a stinging essay by Michel Warschawski. Shulman and Zertal are college professors, Eldar is a journalist, Warschawski is a peace activist. All are Israeli Jews. Whatever the stylistic differences of their books, they are equally unforgiving of Israel for placing its future in stark jeopardy.

None of these authors, it should be emphasized, is an apologist for Arabs. They do not deny that two peoples of vastly different cultures are engaged in a conflict of nationalisms, in which both sides have killed intemperately. All agree it is a conflict with too many victims, in both cultures. But these writers, good Israelis, are convinced Israel cannot resolve it by military superiority, much less by physical abuse.

Israelis such as these do not often make the news from the Middle East. It is easier to conclude that the country is dominated by fanatic settlers supported by compliant officials and fierce warriors, a perception that is not altogether false. They argue, in contrast, that Israel owes to its survival and to Jewish moral traditions the creation of a society living not in implacable hostility but in harmony with its neighbors. That is the perspective from which they write. And though their camp in this fratricidal combat is the weaker, its members have not given up the fight.

Shulman is among the Jews of diverse organizations—it is fair to call them “human rights” organizations—who travel to the occupied territories to stand nonviolently as a barrier against the settlers’ avaricious takeover of land. Their work is difficult and sometimes dangerous. The settlers—women no less than men—shout: “You are aiding the enemies of the Jews. They want to kill us and you help them. You should be ashamed.” Sometimes they are attacked and bloodied. Occasionally, he and his fellow activists win small victories, slowing a land confiscation, for example, but the odds they face are huge. In his account of weeks of struggle to save the dwellings of Arabs who for generations have lived in caves near Hebron, he calls his adversaries “human evil.”

    “Nothing but malice drives this campaign to uproot the few thousand cave dwellers with their babies and lambs. They have hurt nobody. They were never a security threat. They led peaceful, impoverished lives until the settlers came. Since then there has been no peace. They are tormented, terrified, incredulous. As am I. What black greed, what unwilling hatred, has turned Israeli Jews into torturers of the innocent? The settlers come first, violent and cruel—but above them is a vast, ramified system, official Israel, that sustains them and protects them, that corrupts our minds and our language, God’s language, with vile rationalizations. I rage in my well-appointed kitchen; I am inflamed, crushed, mad with pain.”

Shulman tells of the uprooting by the settlers of thousands of olive trees, icons of the local culture and the chief source of income of the inhabitants. He remembers when settlers washed a dog in a village well, a deliberate insult, then destroyed the well. He writes about Nibin Jamjun, a Palestinian girl who, while standing in the doorway of her house, was shot dead, for no apparent reason, by a settler walking by with a group of his friends. Most of his stories are confirmed by Israel’s vigilant press. In the case of the Palestinian girl, no effort was made to find the killer. The authorities refused to investigate or even to open a file. Israel’s army and police, Shulman notes, far from acting to protect the victims of settler violence, are the force that makes it possible, by acting as passive observers and sometimes even joining in.

Shulman writes that he often carries a sign to demonstrations that says, “So that we may end the oppression wrought by our own hands,” a phrase taken from the Yom Kippur prayer book. The settlers—their “curses soar like arias in a high soprano”—scream that he is a treacherous Israeli and self-hating Jew. Self-hating Jew has become a universal term; American Jewish leaders use it regularly to defame Jews who think like Shulman and dare to criticize Israeli practices. Shulman’s Jewishness is never in doubt. He made aliyah to Israel to express it. He knows Jewish guilt when he sees it.

The settlers, he writes, “have stolen and desecrated not only olives, not only land, but the dignity that once belonged to Jewish books, the love I had for the ... Jewish God of my childhood, the musical Hebrew of my early poems. ... My own grandfather, a Jewish humanist of the old school, would never have believed it possible. ... I know that I am seeing ...the prelude to the vast expulsion that these Jews are planning for these people, all three million of them. Let no one say he did not know; let no one talk of vast historical forces, of wrongs piled on wrongs ... let no one speak philosophy.”

Zertal and Eldar, whose disciplined research complements Shulman’s passion, lay out the process by which these wrongs were piled on. The guns of 1967 had barely fallen silent before Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the land surrounding it, then adopted the concept of “liberation” to disguise the breach of international conventions that barred the transfer of population to territories occupied in war. Within a few months the army had substituted the Old Testament names Judea and Samaria for the internationally accepted “West Bank.” It was in those early days that the symbiotic relationship between army and the settlement movement was established.

The settlers spoke of “redeeming” the land for the Jewish people. This was a concept venerated by Zionist thinkers, but in the occupied territories it had little legal foundation. So the army came to the rescue by proclaiming that settlements were essential to military security, a notion to which international law was more sympathetic. Security became the bedrock justifying not just military policies but the web of decisions by Israeli courts that rationalized the excesses in the daily behavior of the settlers. To this day, security—whether or not the concern is valid—remains the rhetorical premise of Israel’s ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land, and for the wave on wave of restrictions that Israel imposes on Palestinians in their pursuit of everyday life.

My own experience as a journalist in the occupied territories began in the 1970s, when Palestinians were still traumatized by the disaster of the Six-Day War of 1967. Having been badly bruised by the misgovernment of the Jordanians which preceded it, they imagined that Israeli rule was unlikely to be worse. West Bank life throughout the ’70s and early ’80s was rather serene, and Gaza was far from the hellhole it later became. Men earned decent wages working in Israel, and the standard of living—refrigerators and washing machine became commonplace—was rising. Universities were absorbing young people; travel by car and bus was easy. The absence of danger drew Israelis to local restaurants to dine on Arab delicacies, tourists visited from abroad and émigrés often returned home to be with their families. Except in the refugee camps and at a few guard posts at crossroads, it was rare even to see soldiers, much less to feel their intrusions.

Settlements at that time were few, but, after the Likud Party won the election of 1977 on a pro-settlement platform, that began to change. Within a few years, settlers living in temporary trailer parks were driving through Arab villages on their way to work, stopping for groceries in street markets en route home. At the same time, Palestinian demography was changing, with the rise to maturity of a new generation that did not know 1967 and which found the settlers’ presence provocative. Though serious violence was still uncommon, occasionally a teenager threw a rock and smashed a windshield.

I recall once visiting a settler family living at the end of a narrow, rutted road in the shadow of an old British police station. Over the kitchen table, a young mother argued passionately that the army should provide settlers with more protection from the nearby Arabs. Rather naively, I asked whether she saw any possible compromise between the settlers and their neighbors, who had lived on the land for centuries. Her answer: “There is no compromise. This is our land. The Torah says so.” Slowly, it became clear that these Jews were planning to stay, and the new generation of Palestinians rising to maturity sensed that patience had serious limits, and that action was required if Israel was ever to evacuate them. Meanwhile, Israelis were growing increasingly comfortable with the spoils of their 1967 conquest. In 1987, a spontaneous, basically nonviolent uprising called the intifada broke out. Since then, with only brief respites, the confrontation between the sides has grown steadily more intense, and more brutal.

Of all Israelis, Ariel Sharon was the one most responsible after 1977 for the settlements’ relentless spread. A sound tactician as well as a strategist, he perceived Israel’s limits and, according to Zertal and Eldar, he warned his followers not to trespass boundaries set by the Americans, whose support for the country he considered crucial. Throughout the administrations of Ronald Reagan, father Bush and Bill Clinton, however, the Americans rarely protested Israel’s policies, and when Sharon became prime minister himself, the president was George W. Bush, who set no boundaries at all.

Bush, in an interview prior to his recent trip to the Middle East, reminded an Israeli journalist that Sharon, his host on his first visit to Israel, in 1998, took him on a helicopter tour of the West Bank. As Bush recalled it, Sharon, “pointing to a hill, said this is where I engaged as a young tank officer in my first battle, and see how far [near] it is to our capital and our civilization. His purpose was to make clear to me the strategic issues facing Israel.” The tour clearly made an impression. As president, Bush publicly promoted a two-state solution but sent Sharon a letter promising that Israel need not contemplate reversing the reality of the settlements. Israel’s latest figures reveal that 280,000 Jews now live in 130 settlements in the West Bank, in addition to 200,000 in East Jerusalem, roughly a tenth of the country’s population. Though Bush proclaimed Sharon “a man of peace,” Sharon’s words made clear his own agenda, belying that judgment.

Since childhood, Sharon has said, he lived “in the shadow of security problems.” Warschawski grudgingly acknowledges him as one of only two strategic visionaries in Israel’s history, the other being David Ben-Gurion. Israelis initially came to admire Sharon as a swashbuckling general, whose greatest triumph was turning the tide in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Afterward, he retired to take command of the right-wing Likud, a role which proved that, politically as well, he was irrepressible. “The best answer for security,” he once said, “is settlement,” but he might have reversed the order. In diverse political posts Sharon remained the dominant figure over the army and the territories. Long before becoming prime minister, he was a bulldozer in expanding the settlements, while at the same time keeping the army focused on protecting them.

In an interview in the newspaper Haaretz after he was elected prime minister in 2001, Sharon expressed a belief that Israel’s permanent security was an ongoing objective that might take a century to attain. The War of Independence, he said, was just the opening chapter. A peace treaty, he said, was no guarantee, and if a Palestinian state became unavoidable, he would permit it to cover no more than 42 per cent of the land that was envisioned for it by the international community and in U.N. resolutions.

“It’s not by accident,” he said, “that the settlements are located where they are. They safeguard the cradle of the Jewish people’s birth and also provide strategic depth which is vital to our existence.” It was Sharon’s idea, say Zertal and Eldar, to create chains of settlements to control the West Bank’s key aquifer and strategic hills. “I see no reason for evacuating any settlement,” he told Haaretz. Even after solemnly promising Bush to halt building in the territories, he kept pouring in funds, often selecting the construction sites himself. By conceding the principle of a Palestinian state, he hoped to keep Arabs from ever voting in Israel; he even had the army pull out of the Gaza Strip, though he ceded nothing in the West Bank. Time was working in Israel’s favor, Sharon insisted, and a hasty peace would only be a barrier to its achieving its security goals.

With help from the religious and military establishments, Sharon as prime minister saw to the transformation of the very nature of the occupied territories and of the army itself. The officers corps, once dominated by secular Jews heavily drawn from the kibbutzim, increasingly tilted toward the settlers, many of them educated in ultranationalist yeshivas. According to Zertal and Eldar, promotions became a function of service to settlement expansion. Settlers themselves were put in charge of planning, infrastructure and construction in the territories. Step by step the civilian authorities, not just the government but the courts and the police too, deferred to the army in making policy and enforcing law. Concerned Israelis warned that the army’s shift in orientation to population control in the territories would diminish its level of readiness and training, thereby actually subverting national security. When Israel went to war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the army’s poor showing vindicated the warning.

Even before Sharon became prime minister, the army was tilting toward unbridled repression of the Palestinians. Sharon’s predecessor was Ehud Barak, a general who talked peace while also cultivating his ties to the settlers. In 2000, Barak stepped up the heat on the Palestinians, says Warschawski, in response to their refusal of his offer—which Barak called “extremely generous”—of a Palestinian state made up of a mosaic of bantustans that would leave the army in control. The predictable result was the second intifada, more violent than the first, on which Sharon, as candidate for prime minister, deliberately poured fuel by invading the Temple Mount with a band of soldiers. After his election, says Warschawski, Sharon embarked on a program that was “essentially punitive ... meant to teach the Palestinians a lesson for having dared to defy the occupation.”

Six months later, the attack on New York’s World Trade Center by suicide bombers proclaiming an extremist form of Islam had its impact on Israel. Bush retaliated by launching the “war on terror,” and Sharon, seizing the opportunity to join in, received from the U.S. the legitimation of his own practices. The focus on Israeli settlements was superseded by America’s obsession with terror, and in the public mind the Palestinian yearning for liberation was transformed into a danger to the civilized world. The army, spreading fear throughout the territories, became more powerful than ever, in ways more powerful than the government itself. Claiming the right to promote security, writes Warschawski, the army has literally imprisoned a society of 4 million people.

The prison’s perimeter is the ugly, abutting slabs of concrete, some 30 feet high, that run like a scar across the biblical terrain. The army refers to it as the security fence, but almost everyone else calls it simply “the wall.” Sharon said it was needed to protect Israelis from terrorists, and conceivably it has saved some lives. But it does much more. In places, it follows the old border between Israel and the West Bank. Then, across from Jerusalem’s Old City, it loops outward to embrace the most populated settlements, which are not the clusters of trailers that I found 30 years ago but beautifully designed and landscaped communities, well-watered and air-conditioned, at the edge of superhighways that Arabs are forbidden to use. Elsewhere, the wall strays from the border deep into Arab land, slicing through villages, encircling towns, blocking inhabitants from their fields. Some 10 per cent of the West Bank is on the wall’s Israeli side. Settlers who live to its east glide through gates under the protective eyes of soldiers, but Palestinians face huge administrative obstructions to crossing it. Many are denied the right to cross at all.

“I was in a ghetto,” said a gray-haired Jewish woman demonstrating with David Shulman at the wall. “I was a young woman in Poland when they fenced us in. Then I was sent to Majdanek. I survived and came here. I know what a ghetto is. That’s why I am holding this sign.”

The wall, however, is only one part of an elaborate system of control created by the army, bringing Palestinian social life, along with the local economy, to a virtual halt. Palestinians suspected of terrorism, along with “collateral” victims, are killed almost daily in a program of “targeted assassinations.” Israeli prisons, which have locked up an estimated 700,000 Palestinians since 1967, at any given moment hold some 10,000, most of them without charges. Over local and international protests, the army performs hundreds of home demolitions a year, a form of collective punishment usually inflicted on families whose children it has arrested. Meanwhile, the network of settlers’ highways, lined with barbed wire to stop pedestrian crossings, has effectively divided the West Bank into enclaves, isolating segments of the population from one another. No family can escape the system. In making clear that the Palestinian state it envisaged would consist of these separated cantons, Israel promised to link them with roads and tunnels for the use of Arabs alone. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians said they were not interested.

Under Sharon, at the start of the second intifada, the army took a major step further: It enlarged to more than 500 its web of checkpoints throughout the interior of the West Bank. Most sit within Arab towns or between Arab villages or outside Arab schools or clinics or mosques. Getting through them requires permits issued by the security services, reminiscent of those required of blacks under the old South African regime. At times, the quid pro quo for these permits is collaboration with the authorities, sowing further social divisions. Young soldiers with little supervision man the checkpoints; if they are not actually trained to intimidate and humiliate, that is how they behave. Passing a checkpoint may take hours; mothers have lost sick children en route to clinics; fathers are berated in front of their children; complainers often wind up in detention pens after their papers are confiscated. Conceivably checkpoints protect Jewish settlements, but almost all are too far from the border to have an impact on the security of Israel itself. The only real function of the checkpoints, experts agree, is to disrupt Palestinian life.

Machsom (checkpoint in Hebrew) Watch is the best known of the monitors of the security system. It is an organization of several hundred Israeli women, many of them elderly, who in 2001 responded to press narratives of growing violations of decency. “Everything we Israelis take for granted,” says a Machsom Watch report, “— love and family, earning a living, developing a career, education, health, community life—are luxuries [for the Palestinians] ... contingent on the whims of the occupation.”

Each day, women of Machsom Watch deploy at 40 or so checkpoints, where they act as observers, and sometimes as intermediaries between Palestinians and soldiers. They try to be problem solvers, using a soft approach, the women say, and so they deny membership to men, whom they fear might be too confrontational. Sometimes, the soldiers shout “Go home, Grandma,” if not some serious vilification. The Palestinians are mystified about why these Israeli women would place themselves in jeopardy in their behalf. The women explain that their objective is not just humane treatment for a victimized people but, as Jewish women, an end to the corrosion of conscience of the young, uniformed Israelis who are being coarsened by the occupation experience.

To explain why he and fellow activists, like the women of Machsom Watch, leave their warm homes to subject themselves to vituperation and sometimes personal peril, Shulman also conveys the thought that their concern is not just the Palestinians but Israel.

    “Our true enemy is ... the one who sits, complacent, in government offices or in the army’s high command or in the passivity of the home. (Let our Palestinian friends deal with their own violent counterparts to such people, that is not our business.) We will meet our foe at every point—every house he demolishes, every olive tree he uproots, every rocky field he is intent on stealing. We will engage him over and over, without violence. We will watch and record and bear witness and, from time to time, we will stop him. He has guns: we have each other, determination, and some dogged convictions about what it means to be human. That, and a certain dark hope.”

These books reaffirm that, in Israel, hope remains alive, flickering, even dark though it may be. But they leave in doubt how widely the convictions of their writers about what it means to be a Jew, and even what it means to be human, are spread through Israeli society. The conflict continues, and it not clear which side will prevail.

Milton Viorst, the author of six books and many articles on the Middle East, has covered the region for 40 years. His most recent book is “Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West.”
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