THE most advanced military force in the Middle East is using clubs,’ remarked Dedi Zucker, an Israeli parliamentarian, recently. For many enlightened Jewish supporters of Israel, the age of innocence is over.
The burning barricades and the warring youngsters in the Gaza sIums have clearly concentrated minds on the West Bank. For rears, moderate Israelis and Jewish leaders in the Diaspora lave warned that the status quo of being the occupying power over a million Palestinian Arabs was not a recipe for stability and harmony, despite their higher standard of living.
In 1968, the first Jewish settlers, religious idealists and imbued with messianic fervour, returned to live in Hebron from where the Jewish community had been expelled following the massacre of 1929. Unfortunately, he Israeli victory during the Six-Day War in 1967, against tremendous odds, gave way to political myopia of a high order.
Premier GoIda Meir was reputed to have asked: ‘Who are the Palestinians?’ Influenced by the intransigence of Arab states and political extremism of the PLO, her Labour government assisted in the establishment of more settlements. By 1977, the Labour establishment which had ruled Israel since its foundation was viewed by the electorate as corrupted by power, divided ‘within itself, and far from its original socialist ideals. The voters then turned to Menachem Begin’s nationalist Likud party for salvation. Likud had no wish to exchange the territories for a peace settlement and saw the West Bank as part of Biblical Israel.
Shortly after Begin’s ascent to power, 300 Israeli reservists, many from crack brigades, formed the Peace Now movement. This mobilised large sections of the population in demonstrations by Israelis on a scale never before seen in Israel. Following the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Christian Phalangist allies of General Sharon during the ill-fated Lebanese war, some 400,000 Israelis protested in the heart of Tel Aviv – the British equivalent of such a phenomenon would be five million massing in Hyde Park.
Thus, during the past ten years, Israel has effectively been divided right down the middle: between doves who wish to exchange territory for peace, and hawks who wish to hold on to it for security and messianic fulfilment.
There are 60,000 Jewish settlers, and they comprise fewer than 5 per cent of the West Bank’s population. Few can be considered pioneers in the old-fashioned sense of Marxist-Zionist kibbutzniks. They are employed mainly in agriculture and industry; most live close to the Green Line and commute to and from Israel. Figures recently released show that $2,100 was invested in every West Bank settler in 1986, compared with just $820 for every inhabitant of the Negev region. This drain on scarce resources has brought forth protests from sections of the underprivileged, including many Sephardim, members of Israel’s oriental community, who have traditionally supported the hard line of Likud.
Many liberal Israelis view the continuing occupation as a corrosive influence on both Palestinian and Jewish youth. Teenage Palestinians who have no memory of the harsh Jordanian rule before 1967 become radicalised and sometimes turn to terrorism. Ironically, it is this generation who are mobilising resistance in Gaza at present — a far cry from the jet-setting PLO leadership, who have been absent from the scene of conflict for decades. On the other hand, an opinion poll last year suggested that a majority of young Jewish Israelis favoured divesting Arabs of their civil rights.
When the development of these attitudes is linked to the demographic questions, it is clear that the situation may indeed get worse. By the year 2000, there will be as many 20-year-old Arabs as 20-year-old Jews in Israel and the West Bank. In 1985, there were 81,000 Arab births, compared with 75,000 Jewish ones.
Professor Yehoshophat Harkabi, the military strategist and former hawk, commented in his book, Fateful Decisions: ‘Israelis are reluctant to consider that the real choice before them is either that Israel will withdraw and the West Bank will become a Palestinian state. No doubt withdrawal will produce great strategic problems. It will produce a state which will have to defend its existence in difficult conditions. Annexation would create better borders — but it is doubtful that, with the resulting internal convulsions, there will be a state to defend them. To devise a strategy to defend a smaller Israel is difficult, but possible, especially with the so-called emerging technologies. To defend a country whose inner fabric crumbles is impossible.’
Although Israeli doves have called for free elections on the West Bank, a central problem for them is that in terms of a negotiating partner, the PLO speaks with many voices. It does not unambiguously recognise the right of Israel to exist or the right of Jews to self-determination. Its advocacy of terrorism, such as the recent murderous attack on a busload of Jewish passengers, proved to be a propaganda coup for the Israeli hardliners. Even if a demilitarised, economically viable Palestinian state did come into existence, many Israeli moderates ask what would happen if Arafat was assassinated and replaced by someone of the ilk of Abu Nidal.
In the Diaspora, many Jewish organisations and leaders have criticised the policies of the Israeli government while reasserting their commitment to the state. In Great Britain, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, a supporter of Netivot Shalom, the religious peace movement in Israel, has deplored conditions in the Gaza camps. The rabbinical council of Reform Jews has decried ‘the undermining of the foundations of justice and moral values upon which the State of Israel was founded’.
‘Jews for a Just Israel’ was the banner headline of a recent half-page statement in the Jewish Chronicle signed by 60 major Jewish writers, playwrights, actors and intellectuals. They included Harold Pinter, Anita Brookner, Stephen Berkoff, R.B., Kitaj, Arnold Wesker and many others.
If the accumulated wisdom of centuries is to have any meaning, then for moderate Jews in Britain and other Diaspora communities. Israel has to be a truly Jewish state based on these values, and not simply a state of the Jews like any other. A tall order, but this is the battleground on which both the soul and the future of Israel are being fought.
Geographical Magazine May 1988