“Barak has returned fewer territories than Netanyahu, built more settlements than Netanyahu, and has not kept one single commitment that he signed with the Palestinians.” – B. Michael, Yediot Aharonot, October 13, 2000
A few weeks before the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, Israeli ex-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in typically straightforward language in an interview on the Leon Charney show, gave an American TV audience a clear view of the strategy of the Israeli government. When asked if he thought that the Israeli government should concede more territory to the Palestinians, he said, no, absolutely not. He explained that the Israelis needed all the territory that they currently held for themselves. Israel, he said, was a tiny country and couldn’t afford to give any more land away. Similarly, he saw no need for the Israelis to give up the Golan Heights. He explained furthermore that Israel’s chief policy goal should be to double its (Jewish) population to 10 million in the shortest possible time.
Shamir made no mention in the interview as to how Israel would manage to find the resources, especially the land and water, to accommodate such growth. The current pressure on resources is enormous compared to what it was, for example, only 84 years ago at the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Then there were only 60,000 Jews living in the former Palestine out of a total population of about 680,000. Today the same area holds almost 6 million Israeli citizens, as well as about 2.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. One doesn’t necessarily need to be a confirmed Malthusian to understand that with this kind of pressure on resources, the political effects will reflect the resultant scarcity. The policies that Barak has pursued, and indeed the rejectionist policies of every single Israeli government since 1948, may be seen as a reflection of the struggle over scarce resources.
Shamir’s silence on the question of resources may help to shed light on current events as the al-Aqsa intifada continues to pile up casualties, with more than 380 deaths in a ratio of 10 Palestinians to 1 Israeli. If Shamir’s views accurately reflect those of the Israeli government, this would explain the lack of meaningful concessions that the Israelis have made to the Palestinians in the post-Rabin period. Moreover, the Shamir/Israeli insistence on retaining local resources on behalf of only one of the parties to the conflict has grave implications for future policy.
HOW THE INTIFADA STARTED
On September 28, 2000, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak permitted Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon with a thousand Israeli soldiers to visit al-Aqsa (the Temple Mount), an action that many saw as a deliberate provocation. When thousands of Palestinians protested peacefully after they left Friday prayers the next day, the Israeli response was violent and disproportionate. Muslim worshippers were confronted by a huge and provocative Israeli army presence, and in the clashes which followed seven Palestinians were killed and 220 were wounded.
Why did Barak permit the confrontational Sharon visit and why did he oversee such a violent response? When he was elected prime minster in May 1999, his reputation was that of a moderate committed to following through on the Oslo accords. Although he has employed the rhetoric of peace, there has been no practical difference between his policies and those of his predecessor. When he was in power, Netanyahu did everything he could to stall and torpedo any concessions to the Palestinians. While Barak has successfully projected the opposite image, he has not retreated even from 1 percent of Palestinian territory, and he has significantly contributed to the abrogation of Israeli responsibilities under the terms of the Oslo agreement. For example, the third wave of Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory was to have been accomplished by May 1999. At that point 60 percent of the West Bank was to have been ceded to the Palestinians. Both the Netanyahu and Barak governments ignored this deadline.
An examination of the post-Rabin era of Netanyahu and Barak exposes, in effect, a wall-to-wall national-unity government, committed to holding the line against any more territorial concessions, just as Shamir had advocated. Meanwhile, on the ground, oppressive Israeli control of key aspects of Palestinian life has not abated. Palestinians continue to endure ongoing Israeli settlement building, land expropriation and confiscation; expansion of Israeli controlled corridors and by-pass roads; routine harassment and humiliation at scores of key checkpoints; severe restrictions on travel even to their cultural and economic center in East Jerusalem; continued rigid Israeli control of water resources; and the stultification of the Palestinian economy. The Palestinians expected little – and got less – from Netanyahu. But Barak has managed to crush their hopes for a transition to self-determination. Moreover, he has succeeded in inflaming the situation, making it ripe for the explosion and chaos that have ensued since the end of September.
As usual, despite the iron grip that Israel has always maintained, Palestinians have been pilloried as those responsible for the violence, not only by right-wing partisans, but also by many members of the Israeli peace movement. The confusion and demoralization of the left is an ominous development, for it means that Barak’s tactics have helped to develop a consensus for the next big expulsion of the Arabs. If massive ethnic cleansing takes place once again, almost four million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and in Israel itself will be at risk.
EXPULSIONS IN 1948
Zionist apologists often skirt the issue of the expulsion of three quarters of a million Arabs from the former Palestine in 1948-49 by pointing to the invasion of five Arab armies (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon) upon Israel’s declaration of a state on May 14. This argument strategically ignores the fighting that broke out between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine shortly after the passage of the U.N. Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947. Since the Jewish forces at that time were far stronger and more unified than the Arabs, the Israelis succeeded in winning virtually all the land ceded to them by the U.N. Partition Resolution by the time of the declaration of the Israeli state. Moreover, before the Arab invasion, the Zionists had already expelled 350,000 Palestinians. Indeed, the reason in large part for the Arab invasion was the anger in the Arab street as a result of the largescale ethnic cleansing that had already taken place. According to Simha Flapan, a Jewish “new” historian – the school devoted in part to destroying some of the Zionist inspired myths associated with the birth of Israel – the declaration of the Jewish state was a unilateral and illegal act. As the Jewish leaders well understood, the declaration of the new state would bring war. Ben-Gurion saw war as a calculated risk that, if successful, would gain more territory for the new state over and above the portions allotted to them by the United Nations General Assembly. War would also achieve the Zionist goal of ridding the country of hundreds of thousands more Palestinians. By the end of the fighting, the Israelis had achieved virtually all their war aims.
Despite the expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians in 1948-49, Israel was fully supported by the United States. Israel’s entry into the United Nations was also facilitated by the United States, based on the promise, never fulfilled, that the Jewish state would allow the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees.
THE POWER BALANCE
The Arab-Israeli struggle has always been a conflict between two peoples over a small country. Historically, in situations where there is a similar struggle for control of territory, the stronger power drives out the weaker. If the rejectionist policy that Shamir advocates is continued, then the land the Palestinians now control is the maximum that they will ever control. As Palestinian protests mount, attitudes on both sides seem likely to continue to polarize. And then the endgame – the expulsion of the Palestinians – may only be a matter of circumstance and timing. Israel’s expansionist posture is likely to create the conditions for the next regional war, already glimpsed by many observers as a likely possibility. If there is war, it might provide a screen behind which the Israelis may effect the next mass removal of the Palestinians.
At this time it seems most likely that the current round of fighting will not lead to outright war – war is the last thing that the Arab governments want. Nevertheless, since time is on their side, the Israelis can continue to be masters of patience. They can simply wait for the right moment to implement operations.
At the moment of writing, as we approach the February 6 election date and with Barak trailing Sharon by significant margins in the opinion polls, the future seems just as murky as ever. On the American side, the Middle East policy of the incoming administration of George W. Bush has perhaps not even been formulated. Ironically, the accession of hard-liner Ariel Sharon to the position of Israeli prime minister could make it more rather than less difficult to implement plans for mass expulsions, since he is such a lightening rod and a notorious hawk. For his part, Sharon is clever enough to know how far he will be able to go and that he can do much short of war to implement Israeli aims. Alternately, as the master opportunist, he may find a way to implement mass “transfer” of the Palestinians.
Palestinian ability to oppose possible Israeli schemes for their future is limited by their weakness in the face of Israeli military power backed by the full force of the United States. As far as the key questions of land confiscation, repatriation of refugees, control over travel and borders and much more, the Palestinians have been able to accomplish next to nothing. They have protested and they have inflicted some casualties on some military targets as well as on some civilians. However, these latter tend to work against Palestinian interests since Israeli victims serve the purpose of instant martyrdom and work to heighten tensions and empower the forces of division and separation. When Israeli fatalities occur, the peace camp tends to be thrown off course, confused and more and more marginalized. Indeed, precisely this mood of disillusion and lack of direction on the left may be Barak’s greatest victory thus far.
Many moderates and leftists both inside and outside Israel make the argument that since the two peoples, Arab and Jew, are inextricably tied to each other by proximity and economics and so on, it is in Israel’s best interest to find a practical, political solution to the problem of sharing the country. “Israel has no future but peace,” is a typical formulation by such voices. But it would be a serious mistake to count on Israeli good will or on the Israeli sense of self-interest to bring about a durable accommodation between the two communities. Once again, the relevant lesson from history is that the stronger side tends not to make tangible, lasting concessions of scarce resources to the weak. In the last 50 years the hard-liners, the advocates of Greater Israel, have triumphed again and again as they successfully forced the Palestinians into a smaller and smaller and more difficult physical and economic space. And as they get squeezed, the ominous question continues to loom: Where will the Palestinians be compelled to go? As things now stand, it is only the Israelis who have the military and political power to enforce their answer.
WHAT TO DO?
The Palestinians have an impossible tightrope to walk. They are expected to act reasonably and moderately while their land and water resources are daily stolen from them and their economy smothered. Moreover, the danger they face today seems more existential than it did during the first intifada, which began in December 1987. The shattering of the promises of the Oslo accords has disillusioned and frustrated all sides. Moreover, the presence of tens of thousands of Palestinians, mostly members of Arafat’s security forces, now equipped with AK-47s and other light arms, may work against the greater Palestinian interest. On the one hand, these weapons have helped to restrain the Israeli Army and the settlers from some of their rampages. Yet, the very existence of these weapons makes it possible for the Israelis to escalate the violence as they respond disproportionately with rocket and tank shells, with helicopter gunships, with assassination teams and with army sharpshooters who target stone throwers. They may also provide the excuse for worse outrages to come.
Moreover, the Palestinians are even more clearly without effective leadership than they were at the end of 1987, when the first intifada began. As a number of commentators have pointed out, the current intifada is as much a protest against Arafat and the Oslo accords and “the peace process” as it is against the Israelis. The history of the post-Oslo period has exposed Arafat as never before as a tool of the Israeli occupation. He has demonstrated that he cannot or will not bring his people any more meaningful relief than the withdrawals already accomplished during the Rabin period. Palestinians have experienced first-hand the corruption and enrichment of Arafat’s cronies and the authoritarianism of his rule. Arafat has done almost nothing to protest ongoing Israeli land confiscation and settlement expansion. Nor does Arafat complain when Israel imposes travel and closure restrictions on his people. Israeli control over Palestinian borders and barriers to Palestinian trade are taken as facts of life, nor is there any longer any hope on the Palestinian street that these conditions will be ameliorated by the current leadership.
Some of the lessons of twentieth century ethnic cleansing and genocide seem clear. It often requires the cover of war before mass deportations can be implemented. So it was with the Turkish genocide, with Hitler’s holocaust and with the ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia. Similarly, the Israelis had to wait until war broke out at the end of 1947 and again in 1967 before they could force hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. The only way the Palestinians can remain in the former Palestine in significant numbers is to find a way to rectify the power balance. This may or may not prove to be possible.
Palestinians clearly recognize the assets that they have. They have managed to survive in the occupied territories and in Israel and to grow their population to almost four million in the face of 50 years of blatant discrimination and oppression. Time will tell whether their strength will be sufficient to maintain them on their land. A key weapon for the Palestinians may well be the understanding that war is their enemy. Their strength lies in their ability to stop the Israeli hand by engaging the international community. Perhaps this will continue to be sufficient, and history will not have to retell the tragic tale of their removal.