Nadav Spiegelman

Enemies and Neighbors

Ian Black
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Near Nablus an American television crew filmed four Israeli soldiers systematically beating and breaking the arms of two bound Palestinians; two of the soldiers were later sentenced to short prison terms but one of them told Israel TV that the incident was a routine one.
Rabin boasted that he had killed and gaoled and expelled more Arabs than any Likud defence minister. Even the most hawkish Likud minister – Ariel Sharon – found it hard to attack Rabin on the grounds of being ‘soft’ on Arabs.
Its language, replete with Quranic references, was religious and intolerant – calling Jews monkeys and apes – and uncompromising. Throughout the intifada, Hamas took a harder line than the UNLU. ‘The blood of our martyrs shall not be forgotten’, read a leaflet in January 1988.
But a close and independent examination of the evidence found the Palestinian narrative of Camp David (and the subsequent Taba talks) to be ‘significantly more accurate than the Israeli narrative’.
The lynching was often cited by Israelis as a turning point in the second intifada, but it did not happen in a vacuum: in the preceding two weeks IDF forces had killed eight Palestinian children under the age of sixteen, and nine between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.37
‘The most visible effect of the peace process was the constant drift to the right of the Israeli electorate’, Shlomo Ben-Ami reflected. ‘Arafat was the sin. Ariel Sharon is the punishment.’4
The Netanya bombing was the trigger for the long-prepared ‘Operation Defensive Shield’, the biggest Israeli operation in the West Bank since 1967. Within hours the IDF issued emergency call-up orders for 20,000 men. Nablus and all major towns except Jericho were reoccupied in a throwback to the pre-Oslo years. Thousands of Palestinians were arrested. In Nablus bodies lay rotting in the streets and under rubble, fed on by dogs. The IDF spent three weeks ‘either destroying, gutting, or looting virtually every national Palestinian institution, public and nongovernmental, security and civilian, that had been built in the last eight years’.
If the dominant image of the first intifada was Palestinian children throwing stones, the symbol of the second was the suicide bomber. ‘Israeli Jews see the phenomenon as the ultimate proof of the cruel, zealous and primitive Palestinian nature and conclude that it is impossible to engage in reasonable negotiations with people who send their children to kill both themselves and innocent people’, wrote the left-wing Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling. This lack of understanding has blinded most of the Israeli population to the poverty, the lifelong harassment and humiliation, the hopelessness, and the perpetual violence and killing that blight so many Palestinian lives and lead so many young Palestinians to such desperate acts – acts that are not dissimilar to the kind the Bible ascribes to Samson after he was captured by the Philistines. The same lack of empathy has also blinded Palestinians to Jewish grief and anger when suicide bombers massacre innocent civilians, emotions that are intensified when many Palestinians publicly express their happiness after every successful operation.44
days earlier IDF tank shells had killed seven Palestinian children who were on their way to pick strawberries in northern Gaza, after mortars were fired into Israel.
the PA’s dependence on EU and US aid – at over $1 billion per year the highest per capita amount in the world
Leftist Israeli organizations played an important role on the ground. B’Tselem was founded during the first intifada. Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, established by women activists in 2001, monitored ‘the bureaucracy of occupation’ – the closures, searches and harassment that were an everyday feature of Palestinian life.
Gisha (Access) was set up in 2005 to deal with freedom of movement issues. Yesh Din (There is Justice) used volunteers to improve human rights in the occupied territories. Taayush (Coexistence), founded at the start of the second intifada, worked ‘to break down the walls of racism, segregation, and apartheid by constructing a true Arab–Jewish partnership’ and supported Palestinians struggling to hold on to homes and lands in the South Hebron Hills. HaMoked (Focal Point) focused on workers’ rights. Breaking the Silence (BtS) was formed by IDF soldiers to confidentially record testimonies about abuses.
The crisis peaked when the Islamists took control of the entire Gaza Strip, with at least a hundred people killed in four days of fighting, and hundreds of Fatah officials fleeing by sea to Egypt. Hamas men killed an officer of the Palestinian presidential guard by throwing him off the top of a fifteen-storey building. Fatah men did the same to a Hamas official.
In August Olmert offered Abbas a take-it-or-leave-it ‘package deal’. It included a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank, proposing that Israel retain just 6.3 per cent of the territory in order to keep control of the major settlements. The Palestinians would be compensated with a swap of Israeli land equivalent to 5.8 per cent of the West Bank, along with a link to the Gaza Strip. The Old City of Jerusalem would be placed under international control. The two leaders met for the last time on 16 September 2008.34 Olmert showed Abbas a map but refused to give it to him so it would not be used as an ‘opening position’ in future negotiations. Abbas sketched the map on a paper napkin and said he was unable to decide and needed to consult colleagues. ‘No,’ Olmert replied. ‘Take the pen and sign now. You’ll never get an offer that is more fair or more just. Don’t hesitate. This is hard for me too, but we don’t have an option of not resolving [the conflict].’ Abbas groaned and then postponed another meeting arranged for the next day. It never took place.
The operation ended on 18 January – two days before Obama entered the White House – with Israel unilaterally announcing a ceasefire and Hamas following suit a few hours later. Palestinian casualties were between 1,166 and 1,417, 431 of them children, according to figures published by the World Health Organization. In all, some 900 civilians were killed.
Over the preceding few years the Tel-Aviv-based NGO Zochrot (Remembrance) had promoted greater knowledge of the Nakba – in Hebrew – by collecting testimony from Jewish veterans of the war as well as from Palestinians, and publishing detailed information about hundreds of depopulated or destroyed villages.
In the first quarter of 2013, at the start of Netanyahu’s third term, settlement construction hit a seven-year high.44 By September that year, the twentieth anniversary of Oslo, the number of Israelis living beyond the green line had more than doubled, from 262,500 to 520,000, including 200,000 in East Jerusalem, the latter (home to more than one-third of all settlers) ignored by government bodies on the grounds that it was not up for negotiation.
Settlers continued to enjoy significant financial benefits, including cheap loans, tax exemptions and higher spending on education per pupil than what was standard inside Israel. The government provided a subsidy of up to $28,000 for each apartment built in a settlement, one reason why many residents still explained their choice of dwelling place on financial and lifestyle grounds rather than political or ideological ones.
Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, with their blue identity cards, were worse off than Jews but did have access to a larger labour market and were generally more prosperous than their kinfolk in Nablus or Hebron, where the PA’s writ ran. In 2013, 62 per cent of the city’s population of 804,000 were Jews. Palestinians represented 36 per cent of residents, but only 10–13 per cent of the municipal budget was spent in their areas.
In 2013 Eliezer Yaari, a Jewish journalist who lived in the Arnona district, crossed the wadi to the adjacent village of Sur Baher to try to get to know his Arab neighbours: he called his vivid book about it Beyond the Mountains of Darkness to try to convey just how distant and alien they seemed.
‘In the two years since the last election, voters veered right when it came to their faith in the peace process and the future of the country as part of the Middle East’, Nahum Barnea observed in Yediot Aharonot. ‘In a sense, Israelis have gone back to living in splendid isolation, as they lived until 1967.’
by 2014 there were indeed roughly equal numbers of Jews and Arabs – 6.3 million of each – living in the area of Mandatory Palestine.
‘Marketing the one-state idea requires the systematic understatement of the ferocity of the conflict between Jews and Arabs, Palestinian and others’, noted the Israeli Middle East scholar Asher Susser, making the case for what he called ‘the two-state imperative’.
GDP per capita in Israel in 2015 was $37,700, in the West Bank $3,700 and in Gaza $1,700.24 Without a massive redistribution of wealth and resources, gaps on that scale would condemn Palestinians to be a permanent underclass.
The conflict between these two peoples can only be understood by paying attention to how they see themselves and their history as well as each other.
On the ground in Palestine, far from the corridors of power in London, Zionist-Arab tensions pre-dated the epochal events of 1917. The following year the British military administration counted a population of 512,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews and 61,000 Christians.
Filastin echoed these fears a few months later, and made a clear distinction between Jews and Zionists: Ten years ago the Jews were living as Ottoman brothers loved by all the Ottoman races … living in the same quarters, their children going to the same schools. The Zionists put an end to all that and prevented any intermingling with the indigenous population. They boycotted the Arabic language and the Arab merchants, and declared their intention of taking over the country from its inhabitants.75
in Ottoman times, tenants had not been evicted when land ownership changed, but simply answered to a new landlord. Now they were evicted, and that ‘incomprehensible innovation’ naturally fuelled fears about the future.
Ronald Storrs, the British military governor of Jerusalem and author of the most elegant memoir penned about the early years of British colonial rule,
In August 1921, reviewing his first year in the post, the high commissioner referred pointedly to those Zionists ‘who sometimes forget or ignore the present inhabitants of Palestine’, and who suddenly ‘learn with surprise and often with incredulity, that there are half-a-million people in Palestine, many of whom hold, and hold strongly, very different views’.24
‘Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized’, Jabotinsky wrote. ‘That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel”.’
The Haycraft Commission noted another important change: shifting perceptions by Arabs of their Jewish neighbours. ‘During the riots all discrimination on the part of the Arabs between different categories of Jews was obliterated’, the report commented. ‘Old-established colonists and newly arrived immigrants, Chalukah [Haluka] Jews [living on charity handouts from abroad] and Bolshevik Jews, Algerian Jews and Russian Jews, became merged in a single identity, and former friendships gave way before the enmity now felt towards all.’
Large numbers settled in Tel Aviv, which was now billed as the ‘white city’ on the Mediterranean sands. As early as 1918, a new Hebrew geography book described it as ‘a European oasis within an Asian desert’ and praised its straight, paved streets planted with gardens and flowers, everything ‘new and shining’.
The ‘Arab question’ – never a high priority for the Jewish mainstream – faded from view. Jabotinsky was a lonely and candid voice protesting against what he saw as the illusion of Arab acquiescence in Zionism, denouncing ‘Kalvarisky’s bribes and Weizmann’s peace-lies’.58 In 1925 he went on to found the New Zionist Organization, better known as the ‘Revisionist movement’ because it wanted to ‘revise’ the terms of the Mandate to include Transjordan within its scope. ‘There are two banks to the Jordan’ went its famous slogan. ‘One is ours, and so is the other.’
Little was said in public at the time about the harsh methods he employed, which were described as ‘extreme and cruel’ by one official and which included abuse, whippings, torture and executions. On 2 October 1938, nineteen Jews, including eleven children, were killed in Tiberias by the mujahideen in a well-planned attack that was compared to the Hebron massacre of 1929.55 In its wake Wingate and his men rounded up ten Arabs from the nearby village of Hattin and summarily shot them.56 Under Wingate’s influence Allon and Dayan helped develop a bolder Jewish military doctrine that was referred to in Hebrew as ‘going beyond the fence’, i.e. moving from static defence to offensive operations against the enemy.
‘I am beginning to understand why one feels unhappy and apprehensive in Jerusalem. Wherever you go, for work or fun there is an unspoken mental undertow of suspicion. No-one asks, but everyone wants to know which side you are on – Arab or Jew?’
In the angry words of Meir Yaari, leader of the left-wing HaShomer Hatzair movement: ‘Ben-Gurion’s proposal completely disregards the fact that a million Arabs live here together with us – as if they did not exist at all.’
Decades later opinions still differed sharply as to whether this constituted a master plan for expulsions or ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a term borrowed from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the title of an influential work by the anti-Zionist Israeli historian Ilan Pappé.49 Israeli and pro-Zionist scholars had traditionally described Plan D as defensive and the Palestinian exodus as unexpected. Walid Khalidi, the leading Palestinian historian, took the opposite view.50 Benny Morris, the pioneering ‘new’ Israeli historian of this crucially formative period, argued that Plan D was implemented, but only in piecemeal fashion. The Palestinian refugee problem, in Morris’s much-quoted assessment, was ‘born out of war, not by design’.51 Still, a predisposition to population ‘transfer’ and tactical military considerations in fast-moving circumstances inclined Haganah commanders towards removing Arabs, given the opportunity. The language employed was certainly highly suggestive. The Hebrew word ‘tihur’ (‘purifying’) was used repeatedly in internal documents. The codenames chosen for operations – Matateh (Broom) and Biur Chametz (Passover Cleaning) seemed inspired by this mindset.
‘The conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty’, Haganah intelligence reported. ‘Whole families – women, old people, children – were killed … Some of the prisoners moved to places of detention, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors.’
We could hear loudspeakers and we rushed to the village square to see what was going on. It was the Israelis and they were saying in Arabic, ‘Leave your homes and go to Gaza where you will be safe. If you don’t leave we will kill you.’ People started to panic. Nobody knew what to do … Then we heard the gunshots – the Israelis had killed two men from our village at point blank range. They were lying dead on the ground in a pool of blood and their women and children were hysterical.
At Dawamiya in the Hebron hills, Israeli forces massacred eighty to a hundred Palestinians, including women and children, at the end of October, prompting a flurry of inconclusive internal inquiries. Israeli documents leave little doubt about the fact of the atrocity, though Arab sources claimed far higher figures. It was the worst mass killing of the final stage of the war.
The fate of the Palestinians in 1948 was a hotly disputed issue from the start, entangled in propaganda, polemics and white-hot anger. But the facts about the central event of the Nakba are less contested than ever, with figures ranging from 700,000 to 750,000 for the number of Palestinians who were expelled or fled.
By July 1949, when Israel signed armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, it controlled 78 per cent of Mandatory Palestine – a considerable improvement on the 55 per cent it had been allocated by the UN twenty months previously.
‘How can I not call it a Nakba?’ asked the historian Arif al-Arif – rhetorically – on the opening pages of his monumental work on the subject, ‘when we Arabs and the Palestinians in particular experienced a disaster of a kind we never faced down all the centuries: our homeland was stolen and we were expelled from our homes and we lost many of our sons.’
‘After floods, the waters recede’, reflected the Israeli anthropologist Efrat Ben-Zeev. ‘But after war, the conquerors do not necessarily withdraw.’
In the Palestinian ‘master narrative’ the pre-1948 village landscape had acquired the magical aura of a golden age, of innocence and abundance – often represented by the fine quality of baladi (local) fruit and vegetables – before the disaster.
On the evening of 10 June the 650 Palestinian residents of the Maghariba (Moroccan) quarter, extending right up to the Western Wall, were given two hours to evacuate their homes, which were dynamited and bulldozed into rubble, along with two twelfth-century mosques, to make room for a featureless plaza that was intended to accommodate future crowds of Jewish worshippers.
‘The education we had been given was nationalist, patriotic, and ethnocentric, with no space for the “other” and certainly not the Arab, who was frightening and distant, and who, along with the Germans, we had to hate’, the child of Holocaust survivors recalled of her upbringing in Tel Aviv in the 1960s.26
The growing numbers of Palestinians working in Israel were sharply aware of the differences between the two sides of an increasingly porous green line. Labourers from villages or refugee camps ‘left a house in the morning that had no electricity, running water, or sewage, and worked all day in an environment where these utilities were taken for granted’, commented one analyst. ‘Unlike other political contexts where such stark disparities also exist, the distinction between the haves and have nots was based on national identity rather than class. The disparity no doubt reminded the Palestinians that they were an occupied people. And that the situation was not normal.’31
Yassin’s own view was more guarded, but there was no mistaking his vision of the future. ‘It is not enough to have a state in the West Bank and Gaza,’ he declared. ‘The best solution is to let all – Christians, Jews and Muslims – live in Palestine, in an Islamic state.’
On the second anniversary of the intifada in December 1989, the state-run Israel Broadcasting Authority banned two popular Hebrew songs that protested about the treatment of Palestinians and Israeli indifference to the situation. And when B’Tselem expressed concern about the deaths of 120 Palestinian children, Yitzhak Rabin replied acerbically that the organization should have written to their parents instead.
In October 1990 tensions boiled over with the worst day of violence since the intifada began – and Jerusalem’s worst ever since 1967: 21 Palestinians were killed by the Israelis and 140 injured on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, a site as sensitive as it had been back in 1929.
In Afula on 6 April, eight Israelis were killed and forty-four injured when a car bomb exploded at a bus stop. Hamas called it a reprisal for the Hebron massacre. It was a terrifying and highly significant novelty – the first suicide-bombing attack to be carried out by Palestinians against civilians in Israel.
‘Neither Rabin nor Arafat can stop Hamas’, warned Abdel-Shafi. ‘Only the people can.
When Nabil Shaath broke the news of Rabin’s murder, Arafat responded: ‘Today the peace process has died.’
Rabin had been portrayed wearing a keffiyeh and in SS uniform, including at one anti-Oslo demonstration in Jerusalem where Binyamin Netanyahu had been the main speaker.
The occupied territories were divided into three zones: Area A consisted of Palestinian towns and urban areas and comprised 2.8 per cent of the territory; here the PA had full responsibility for law and order. Area B was made up of villages and sparsely populated areas, comprising 22.9 per cent of the West Bank: there the PA looked after public order while the Israelis retained overall security control. By far the largest part, at 74.3 per cent of the territory, was Area C, which comprised important agricultural areas and water sources and where Israel retained full responsibility for security and public order. That meant that the PA was responsible for managing all Palestinian residents but had full control of just 2.8 per cent of the land.11
Binyamin Netanyahu formed the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history. In his inaugural speech on 19 June 1996, he pledged to encourage ‘pioneering settlement’ in Eretz-Yisrael, including in the Negev, Galilee, Judaea, Samaria and the Golan Heights – conspicuously making no distinction between the two sides of the green line.
For many Palestinians the economic situation worsened in the post-Oslo years.
Sharon called on the West Bank settlers to seize more land to thwart any future Palestinian takeover. ‘Move, run and grab as many hilltops as you can to enlarge settlements because everything we take now will stay ours.’
Barak, a pianist, systems analyst and chess player with an unusual ability to pick locks, was famous for his analytical mind – and was sometimes described as arrogant.