Saturday, June 9, 2012

Living the occupation, 45 years

This week – to be precise, the fifth of June,  2012 – marks the 45th birthday of the occupation. An occupation which already lasts for more than two-thirds of Israel's entire existence. Forty-five years of military rule which the State of Israel maintains over millions of Palestinians who did not choose this government and do not want to live under it, but which the State of Israel decided to impose on them against their will, throwing in jail those who oppose the Israeli rule imposed on them.

And this decision is democratically confirmed by the citizens of Israel.  Again and again they go to the polls, again and again voting into office - in all elections held since 1967 - governments which continue  to maintain occupation rule over the Palestinians (who themselves are given no chance to participate in these elections and this democratic decision-making process). The one time that the citizens of Israel chose a Prime Minister who showed signs of an intention to end the occupation - the elections of 1992 - an assassin's bullet removed that Prime Minister from power (and from the world of the living).

Forty-five years have passed, no end to turmoil and upheavals and conflicts
 and diplomatic moves and military moves and bloodshed and suffering to Palestinians as well as to Israelis. In the West Bank the Palestinian Authority was established and the Palestinians given a chance to elect a parliament and a government, but no shred of a real power on the ground. Still, up to the present moment, a 19-year old Israeli corporal standing at the checkpoint on the highway between Ramallah and Nablus holds more power in his young hands than do Palestinian President and Prime Minister and all their ministers put together. In the Gaza Strip a disengagement had been effected and settlements dismantled, but still no Palestinian can leave or return, import or export, without permission of the State of Israel.

Basically, the contours of the political debate and political dilemmas of Israel have not changed since the moment when the tanks of the Israeli Defense Forces stopped on the banks of the Jordan River and the Suez Canal, forty-five years ago. Over forty-five years the State of Israel did not annex the Occupied Territories, did not apply to them its laws and certainly did not give their inhabitants Israeli citizenship. On the other hand the State of Israel also did not withdraw from these territories and did not allow its residents to establish their own independent state, but rather intensified and deepened its control, most particularly continually establishing and extending settlements in those territories.

In June 1967, the Commanding General of the IDF Central Command was appoint
ed to act as the temporary ruler, legislator and judge over millions of Palestinians. Such are his "temporary" position and his "temporary" power to this very day, precisely forty-five years later. As stated in a well-known Israeli proverb, nothing is more permanent than temporary things.

June 5, 1967

On this day, 45 years ago, at 8:00 in the morning, I arrived at the A.D. Gordon Elementary School in Tel Aviv. Just as I entered the school gate the air raid alarm sounded and pupils and teachers hurried to take shelter in the basement but no enemy planes appeared over Tel Aviv. And when I returned home in the afternoon I still worked with some of the neighborhood kids to prepare sandbags and place them in front of the house, though clearly this was no longer necessary.

On the news, the IDF Spokesperson stated that the Air Force and  ground forces of our country had repelled an Arab attack and went on to counterattack, which was not entirely accurate. And the following days I basked, like the vast majority of adults and children in Israel, in the euphoria of victory. I devoured the Victory Albums which filled the shelves in the stores, and was excited to no end at the country's enlarged borders and its having gained "The New Territories" (the term which everybody used at the time).

I was not among the few who protested and sounded a warning already then, in the very aftermath of the great victory - the few isolated "Matzpen" activists who went
out at night to write on the walls "Down with the Occupation!" when the occupation was not yet one month old.

It took me another three years. Until 1970, the time when General Ariel Sharon set out to break with an iron fist the first uprising of the Gaza Strip Palestinians. It was on that year that I sat with fifteen other young people in the damp basement of a house in central Tel Aviv, and we heard a soldier who had just returned from there who told of the horrific things he had seen and in some of which he had himself taken part. That was the moment I and my friends gave up using the phrase "Enlightened Occupation".

At night we left with bundles of leaflets, printed on a creaking stencil machine, and we went out and  distributed them in the mailboxes in order to expose to the citizens of Israel what the military censorship was concealing from them.

June 5, 1982

Thirty years ago I walked along with thousands of other demonstrators through the streets of Tel Aviv, in a march organized by the Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit University. We carried placards reading "Fifteen years of Occupation - Enough!", to which were added signs hastily prepared at the last minute: "No  War in Lebanon!" and "An offensive in Lebanon – the route to disaster! ".

From the continuous media reports we learned that Defense Minister Sharon was about to launch the war which he had been openly preparing over many months, to break the Palestinian presence in Lebanon so as to better consolidate control over the West Bank. I remember talking on the phone with a soldier who served in the Air Force Headquarters, and she told me about the preparations she witnessed for a massive bombing in Beirut  – risking serious personal consequences, had the army's Field Security been listening  in.

Later that evening I was among a group of reservists who gathered in a private home. We discussed whether or not it was feasible, in the State of Israel, for soldiers to organize on the eve of an unnecessary and harmful war and announce their refusal to participate in that war. The meeting ended inconclusively, because some of the participants felt that such an act would be too radical and extreme. On the next day the war started, which in the best of Orwellian tradition was dubbed "Operation Peace for Galilee".

I heard the announcement of this offensive on a creaking little radio at the  gates of Tel Aviv University, where I stood with other students to distribute leaflets against the war which was about to begin. And the next night, when the tanks were racing deeper into Lebanon and the planes dropped a rain of bombs on the cities in Lebanon (the exact number of civilians casualties will probably never be known), activists came to distribute hastily printed leaflets at the Hebrew Book Fair, held annually in this time of the year at the center of Tel Aviv. The City Inspectors were quick to expel us from this important cultural event. Distributing leaflets causes litter in the streets...

After a few weeks the group of reservists gathered again and founded an organization called "Yesh Gvul ("There is a Limit/There is a Border") and refused en masse the order to go to Lebanon (and later also the command to go to the Palestinian Territories and take part in suppressing the first Intifada). Many of them did time in the military prison, me among them (in April 1984). It turned out that in the State of Israel it is quite possible to go out and demonstrate and protest, also and especially in time of war - at least when it is a war whose wickedness and folly are so clearly manifest.

Still, it took almost twenty years until Israel's Lebanese adventure ended, and a high price was paid in the blood of Israeli soldiers (and an even higher price in the blood of Palestinians and Lebanese, though that is not so often mentioned in our Israeli media). As could have been expected, it was found that there are no shortcuts. The problems in Nablus and Hebron and Gaza, which Sharon tried to solve with a single stroke of the sword, remain as complicated as ever. Perhaps even more so.

June 5, 1997

Fifteen years ago it the was thirtieth birthday of the occupation, which was also  the end of the first year of Binyamin Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister of Israel. In the demonstration marking the anniversary of the occupation there were many placards reminding of Netanyahu's deeds since he took power, the provocative opening of a tunnel in East Jerusalem which Netanyahu called "The Rock of Our Existence" and which had cost the lives of sixteen Israelis and more than a hundred Palestinians, and the construction of the settler neighborhood in Har Homa which was condemned by the entire world with only loyal Micronesia standing with Israel at the United Nations.

During that event in Tel Aviv, there was much talking and debating as to how much confidence we could place in Ehud Barak, who had just taken up Leadership of the Opposition, and who embarked on a vigorous campaign to topple the Netanyahu Government and who promised to continue and complete the lifework of the assassinated Yitzchak Rabin. Some of the marchers mentioned dark episodes in Barak's military career, and others retorted that also Rabin had been a general and gave the order to break the bones of protesters, and they said "Give him a chance, first of all we must throw Bibi out".

That evening Professor Tanya Reinhart spoke to a packed hall at the Tzavta Club and put up an argument that at the time sounded peculiar. I.e. that it was wrong of left-wingers to support the Oslo Accords, and equally wrong for settlers to furiously denounce the same. Since, she argued, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was not a step towards ending the occupation, but rather a new, sophisticated way of perpetuating it.

Two years later, Ehud Barak came to power, and was given considerable credit as an incipient new peacemaker, which by now it is clear he in no way deserved. He went to the Camp David Summit and returned without an agreement and making accusations against the Palestinians who rejected his  “generous offers”. It was very difficult – in fact, virtually impossible – for the present writer and his fellows to propagate the idea that these proposals had not been so very generous. Immediately afterwards, Barak authorized Ariel Sharon's ascent of the Temple Mount, and the spiral of bloodshed and hatred called the Second Intifada was launched. The peace camp in Israel was struck a severe blow from which it never really recovered, and Ehud Barak eventually got to the position of the most loyal assistant and political associate of Binyamin Netanyahu.

June 5, 2012

And here we are. After so very many ups and downs and, after forty-five years, the occupation is alive and kicking and trampling of millions of people under its feet. There were in fact very few references to this anniversary in the media. If at all dealing with history, the media preferred to dwell on the round number of thirty years to the (First) Lebanon War.
Though a group of Meretz people did go out to physically mark the Green Line and remind of this anniversary.
On the 45th birthday of the occupation there was very little talk of the occupation as such, nor of the settlement enterprise as such, nor even of the robbery in broad daylight of Palestinian lands as such. What however got all the attention was a tiny fragment of all that -
 about the specific and limited case of one plot of land where a band of settlers built houses, with the active assistance of the Government of Israel  and the Israeli Defense Forces, on land which does not belong to them. The Palestinian owners of the land, with the help of Yesh Din and Peace Now and the devoted Attorney Michael Sfard, appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Israel and got an explicit order for the removal of the settlers from the land they had stolen.

Thus came about the explosive issue which shook the political system and captured the headlines during the days of this week: Would the Government of Israel implement an explicit order issued by the Supreme Court of the State of Israel? Or would the Knesset pass a bill permitting and legitimizing the takeover and theft of private Palestinian lands?

Ultimately, the bill did not pass, after the PM had been warned that its passage might cause serious problems of International Law and bring the State of Israel to the dock in the International Court at the Hague and further undermine its already precarious international position. And at the end of a big storm in a glass of tea, the PM was praised as a moderate upholder of the Rule of Law, who bravely faced down the Extreme Right. After all, he did pledge to dismantle five (5) manifestly illegal settler houses, though he did also pledge to compensate for it by building several hundred new settler houses in slightly different locations. And the occupation continues.

And on that morning, the morning of the anniversary of the occupation, some Palestinian fields were burned in the South Hebron Hills. An act of arson too small and too far away for the media to notice. 15 dunums of a not yet harvested wheat field belonging to Palestinians villagers, near the settlement of Shimah. But it was not specifically related to this symbolic date. In recent weeks, there were two other cases of Palestinian fields set alight in the same area. The military and police forces of the State of Israel were unable to track down the perpetrators in any of these cases.

And the anniversary of the occupation was th
is year also the day after Israel's Prime Minister dramatically announced a major operation to arrest and deport  tens of thousands of Africans found within the boundaries of the State of Israel, as well as the expansion of detention camps for those of them who for any reason could not be deported forthwith. And on the night after this announcement there were some impatient people who did not wait for the PM to carry out his announced policy but proceeded to burn down the home of an Eritrean family living in downtown Jerusalem and write on the house: "Get out of this neighborhood!". Professor Arnon Sofer of Haifa is an expert demographer and has often warned of the demographic threat posed to Israel  by the proliferation of the Arabs and did some impeccable academic research on this subject and he is now the right man in the right place, being appointed head of the new governmental commission to recommend ways of fighting the  demographic threat which African refugees pose to Israel. Perhaps it was also to such things that Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz referred in his warning and premonition, already at the time of victory euphoria in June 1967, when he said that the occupation would corrupt Israeli society, deprive it of conscience and moral bearings.

Also this year the anniversary of the occupation intersects with the beginning of the Hebrew Book Fair, when publishers display on the city streets stalls
offering to culture lovers books at a very discounted price, four books for a hundred shekels - just like in the vegetable market. And this year, also pianos  were placed in the streets of Tel Aviv and young pianists come to play and make music accessible to the general public. And the Gay Pride Parade was held in Tel Aviv under the auspices of the municipality and assorted commercial companies, to show that Tel Aviv is an open and liberal city and the capital of the gay community.

Barack Hussein Obama, President of the United States who might get re-elected in November, this week mused aloud that the window of opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peace might have closed already.

June 5, 2027

What would see and behold those of us who are still here – still in this world and still here in this miserable and crazy country - fifteen years from now? Will  June 5, 2027 be the 60th anniversary of a still ongoing occupation? If so, who w
ould still be found in the Israel of 2027 to cry out and protest, and what would be the point in protesting against an occupation whose beginning would only be remembered by people in their seventies?

It could well be. C
ertainly, an abomination which lasted for forty-five years can also last for sixty years and more. And if so, it is likely that long before the 60th anniversary of the occupation, the processes which are already underway would have come to their ultimate conclusion. Brutal racism would rule supreme and there would be no one able to stand up to it. The Israeli army would  have become the  Settler Defence Forces, and settlers would be the core of its officer corps (who but settlers would dream of devoting a life to a  career in an  army whose sole raison d'etre is the oppression of a civilian population?). 

Such terms as "a Left Zionist" or "a leftist Israeli patriot" or "a leftist serving in the IDF" will come to be considered an oxymoron. Israel's international isolation would be complete, and only the most sinister of racists would think of associating with such a country. Also many of the Jews worldwide, especially the young ones , would feel embarrassed by Israel and cut off any contact. Anyone who could would seek to save themselves and escape from this country and seek a more reasonable place to live. And Israel would retrench itself in military might, and will continue with stubborn self-righteousness to regard itself as moral paragon and dismiss all who criticize it as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. And it will  angrily and with contempt reject any proposal for change or compromise. No withdrawal from "Judea and Samaria" where settlements will grow and expand, certainly no granting of civil rights to Palestinians which will cause the end of "The Jewish State".

And so will this country lurch along somehow, so long as its military superiority lasts and as long as the United States is politically willing and economically able to give support? But how long will the American empire itself last?

And then, the deluge. A bitter fate to all who still remain here.

All of this could come to pass. We do not live in a Hollywood movie, and no one has guaranteed us a happy ending with living happily ever after. It could well be that we are actually living in a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean one, the kind which ends with everybody ultimately lying  dead side by side on the stage. There are quite a few of us who have already given up, who think that we have already long since passed the point of no return, and there is nothing left to expect but the inevitable slide into the abyss. And evidence to support such ideas is not lacking – one needs just to read the papers, any newspaper on any day.

And on what basis could one argue the opposite? That we have not yet passed the point of no return, that everything is still reversible, that is is still possible to halt at the edge of the abyss? That It is also possible that the occupation will not have a 60th birthday, possibly not even a 50th one? That on June 5, 2027, occupation would be no more than a distant fading memory, and already there would be a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians who had never known it personally who would grow up in a reality of peace between their two countries?

Why, despite everything and in the face of everything, should we continue to hope and keep faith and struggle and struggle and struggle? Why do devoted activists work hard this very day, June 9, 2012, on organizing the procession which is due to march this evening in the streets of Tel Aviv – knowing full well that in itself it would not put an end to the occupation, that at best it would add one small grain of sand to the balance?

- Because ending the occupation would not be only a moral deed which the  State of Israel should undertake for moral reasons, but also an existential need which alone can ensure our long-term survival in this country. It is quite logical to hope that people, millions of citizens in the State of Israel, would eventually stop the slide towards national suicide and turn to the only course which can ensure their future and that of their children and grandchildren.

- Because for the Palestinians continued occupation is intolerable, and they would not tolerate it for long. And the Palestinians have already demonstrated on several occasions their ability to remind of their presence and their pain and their unresolved problem. To remind Israelis and the entire world.

- Because this unresolved problem has already several times proven to have an effect at a distance, far beyond any proportion to the number of people and the size of the territory involved. A
problem which arouses emotions all over the world, a major producer of news for the global media. An explosive problem which can set off all kind of other explosive situations in various other places. And therefore, a problem which global powers have an interest in defusing before it blows up and blows away with it various vital interests of these powers.

Beyond all this, because even after forty-five years, the adherents of occupation and settlement have failed to convince the general public that these  territories which Israel occupied forty-five years ago are really part of Israel. Very few Israelis (except for religious-nationalists) have ever visited Hebron  (unless the army sent them there as part of their military service). Very few Israelis (except for religious-nationalists) think seriously that the centrality of  Hebron in the ancient tales recounted in the Hebrew Bible is reason enough for the State of Israel to hold on to Palestinian Hebron in the present day. It is  reasonable to assume that if and when an Israeli government decides to end its rule in the city of Hebron and give it over to the State of Palestine, very few Israelis would do a serious effort to oppose this move – except, again, for  the religious-nationalist settlers and their friends.

A lot could be said to the detriment of the Disengagement from Gaza, carried out by Ariel Sharon 2005 – the replacing of direct military rule in Gaza with a tight siege strangling its economy, and the dismantling of a small number of settlements in the Gaza Strip so as to keep and expand many more settlements on the West Bank. Still, the events of 2005 can be seen as a kind of dress rehearsal for what is likely to occur, if and when an Israeli government decides to evacuate the West Bank. In 2005 the settlers and their national religious friends cried out in protest, organized several large and impressive demonstrations and protests - but in all of them, participants were drawn exclusively from this one segment of Israeli society. The settlers called out for for help to other parts of Israeli society – to the Mizrahi Likud voters in slum neighborhoods and development towns, to the Russian immigrants, to the ultra-Orthodox. None of them came, none joined the settler protests. And so, the Gaza settlements were dismantled on schedule, at the time stipulated by the government.

To the best of my appreciation, so it will be if and when an Israeli government decides to end the occupation, and evacuate the West Bank, and facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state whose border with Israel would be based on the Green Line. Most citizens of Israel would accept that decision, even if not with a big burst of enthusiasm. The settlers and their national religious friends will wage an all-out struggle against it, tooth and nail. It would be a fierce struggle, possibly getting far more violent than in 2005. But the settlers would remain  isolated and the evacuation would be carried out.

All this, if a Government of Israel ever reaches such a decision, due to a  combination of pressures from within the country and from outside. But would there ever be such a government? Would Israel put an end to the occupation, before the occupation puts an end to Israel?